The (Data) Renaissance of Our Time

The birth of the world’s first printing press

Each year millions of tourists crane their necks upward to stare at Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or stand on tiptoe to seek out the all-seeing gaze of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa at the Louvre. From now till February 2021, Hong Kong art lovers can see a selection of Renaissance masterpieces from The Uffizi Galleries at the Hong Kong Museum of Art. Among the most seminal work is Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli, one of the most prolific of the Renaissance artists.

For centuries, the world has hailed the Renaissance as Europe’s cultural and artistic pinnacle that foreshadowed the Age of Enlightenment. Columbus’, Magellan’s, Drake’s and Vasco da Gama’s discoveries raised the curtain on global imperialism. Rituals were upstaged by a fervent acquisition of new knowledge. Copernicus’s heliocentrism broke new ground in understanding the sun-centered cosmos, accompanied by advances in human anatomy, engineering and architecture. The invention of the world’s first printing press led to the birth of modern literature. Mass production of books spread new ideas like wildfire. So did the dissemination of divisive ideologies, however. Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses leveraged the new printing power to incite a violent religious movement against the once-authoritative Catholic Church.

Renaissance culture was permeated by an equal measure of creation and destruction. By juxtaposition, isn’t the year 2020 also marked by flourishing potential and risks?

There is a widespread feeling that we are living in an era of interminable shocks. Extraordinary measures have been taken to contain the impact of the novel coronavirus and the economic recession that has come with it. Public activities have been shuttered, quarantines enforced, and historic stimulus plans implemented. The latest American presidential election not only tugged the heartstrings of a record number of American voters, but it also garnered attention on a global scale. These outcomes reveal how our ‘norm’ buckled under the strain of new pressures. While the old order decays, the frame of a new order has yet to be concretized. We are all learning how to reorient and revitalize faith and hope.

The confluence of data and technology is igniting a modern-day Renaissance through relentless creations of new standards matched only in impact by the destruction of old rituals.

If history is our guide, our society might also be headed for another explosive changes like the Renaissance. In the past year, our physical world screeched to a halt and abruptly morphed into a virtual one. The Internet, much like the invention of the printing press during the early years of the Renaissance, allows humanity to stay connected during these turbulent times. The phenomenon fuels the expansion of incipient data-driven trends.

Today, our society is awash in data. A soaring data flow transmits valuable ideas and knowledge around the world every day. For much of this year, our hope for normalcy has been pinned on its use. For example, to keep tabs on the pandemic, authorities have wide latitude to collect and analyze sensitive data to facilitate contact tracing. If applied in the right way, data can play a critical role in ensuring discharge of uninterrupted public functions.

In the private sector, the world has substituted the tactile realness of human contact with a tech-enabled, contactless life. Pre-programmed, algorithm-driven facilities supplant or even usurp mundane human functions in a wide range of industries, such as food and retail services. Industry players race to automate anything that can be automated. The confluence of data and technology is igniting a modern-day Renaissance through relentless creations of new standards matched only in impact by the destruction of old rituals. For example, the elbow bump might forever replace a handshake as the preferred social etiquette. Future generations might have less contact with physical objects. A rollout of self-cleaning anti-viral handrails and doorknobs using nanotechnology might just be around the corner — an idea that would have seemed unimaginably futuristic a little less than a year ago.

Future employers will put a premium on pragmatism and a can-do attitude over abstract theories. Anyone from anywhere could, after all, learn everything online beyond any curriculum to one’s heart’s content.

We are living in a watershed moment. The ease of information transmission fashions a trend of remoteness, especially in the field of education. The notion of a “college experience,” once heralded as a rite of passage, might lose its luster in a hi-tech, contactless ecosystem. Indeed, institutions of higher learning are often marked by deified exclusivity. For example, medicine and global business are commonly coined as the “divine” academic programs by local students. The acceptance to these programs is made consequential by the number of students who cannot get in. As the world demands shifts so does the perception of underlying values. In fact, often maligned as an inferior substitute for in-person learning, teleconferencing technologies are now the most dependable window into the outer world, beyond the cloister of home. Such unprecedented connectivity means that anyone with a stable internet connection can work with anyone else who is connected.

Online learning begs the question, could students still afford to spend their most formative years on the sidelines watching the world move at warp speed? The exorbitant price tag of a four-year degree might put off even those who can begrudgingly pay for it.

As learning becomes increasingly localized, it will reduce the value differential between elite colleges/programs and their lesser-known peers. Knowledge is knowledge, no matter where or how one acquires it. Future employers will put a premium on pragmatism and a can-do attitude over abstract theories. For example, Google will begin to develop its own certification program in place of college degrees, offering short courses for in-demand jobs in a fraction of the time. Anyone from anywhere could, after all, learn everything online beyond any curriculum to one’s heart’s content.

Online learning begs the question, could students still afford to spend their most formative years on the sidelines watching the world move at warp speed? The exorbitant price tag of a four-year degree might put off even those who can begrudgingly pay for it. Passive learning will one day give way to customized on-the-job training, in-demand certification, and self-paced online platforms.

The strides in information transmission are also met with untamed ethical challenges. Data is the new oil. However, to date, only few market participants have the technical wherewithal to safeguard these resources. Most people have a tenuous grasp of the reality that their digital footprint is vulnerable to unethical exploitation and digital piracy. The inexorable march of digital transformation outpaces any legal framework that could govern it. It creates a legislative vacuum. Pathological misinformation, ideological intolerance, and extremist views are spread with only a modicum of accountability. “You’re either with us, or against us,” defines the acceptable ideology of the polarized digital universe.

Technology and data are nothing but the means to an end. Our abilities to assess new ideas and skills based on data are bound to usher in profound changes.

How do we and the future generation even keep up? For starters, we should leave behind our obsessive conformity to any established playbooks. The ability to securely turn data into intelligible insights will set a new standard for future employability. For this new Renaissance to take hold, we need to further enable and empower new human skills such as creativity, intuition, empathy, and cooperation. Today, critical thinking and emotional intelligence, once considered uniquely human, are gradually being understood by artificial intelligence. Technology and data are nothing but the means to an end. Our abilities to assess new ideas and skills based on data are bound to usher in profound changes. These attributes are the true connective tissue of this generation, and they can never be constructed in a laboratory or consumed by cyborgs.

It seems every day the world wakes up to new shocks. And shocks are perhaps the most compelling indication that this era is indeed different. It both unsettles and enlivens us. Despite a reduction of conventional opportunities, we can now reconstruct different social paradigms, redefining our lives to fit a shifting landscape with new priorities.

Lest we forget, none of the Renaissance pioneers inhabited an age of creative uniformity, but rather they lived in a period punctuated by individual discovery and wrenching turmoil. Indeed, the Renaissance was preceded by the Black Death that wiped out half of Europe’s population. Remarkably, even as the ravages of the disease continued to influence events during the Renaissance, discoveries and inventions flourished. While the present is always not a repetition of the past, historical comparison recognizes the potential of this era. We all have the perilous fortune to have been born in a similarly historic moment, in which the choices we make today will dictate the fate of our civilization. It might be the conceit of each generation to think this way, but this time this mindset might very well prove true.

Head of legal with an MBA@MIT. Exploring topics on education, data privacy, tech, entrepreneurship and PE/VC landscape.

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