19 minute read 26 June 2023

Being human in a digital world: Questions to guide the internet’s evolution

With growing calls to halt AI development and widespread cynicism over the metaverse, we need a framework for visionary businesses, regulators, and society to help shape the future of an internet that enhances, rather than supplants, our humanity

Duleesha Kulasooriya

Duleesha Kulasooriya


Michelle Khoo

Michelle Khoo


Michelle Tan

Michelle Tan


The year 2022 was when science fiction became reality. Cryptocurrencies rose and fell. Leaps in augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality technology propelled the metaverse forward, fueled by an interest in virtual work and living due to COVID-19 restrictions. Artificial intelligence (AI) ingested massive amounts of data from the internet and started creating art. By the end of the year, OpenAI’s ChatGPT was able to engage in meaningful conversations, hinting at its potential to conduct and augment knowledge work.

These remarkable developments mark the dawn of the next evolution of the internet. It’s no longer a library—a collection of writings indexed for searchability. It’s no longer a platform—a collection of content from its billions of users. It’s a brain filled with memories consisting of these writings and user content. It learns from them and can apply what it has learned to create.

As a species, we need to think through the potential existential effects of the next evolution of the internet. As these technologies change the way we create, relate, see the world, and move through it, we can collectively agree that it should amplify who we are as human beings, better equip us at work, and enhance how we live. The question is, what will it take to ensure that the internet evolves to be more human-centric than techno-centric?

A more immersive, instantaneous, and intelligent internet is inevitable

The next evolution of the internet will inevitably include a highly immersive metaverse powered by AI, with near-instantaneous interactions made possible through advances in connectivity.

This is inevitable for two reasons. The first is generational gravity: Increasingly, the youth are spending more time in virtual, immersive worlds and using AI tools. Roblox, a popular metaverse gaming platform among young people, has 50.4 million daily active users worldwide.1 Other early metaverse platforms such as Fortnite, Zepeto, and Sandbox also boast millions of users. The generative AI tool ChatGPT has outpaced the growth of any prior technology and accumulated 100 million users in two months,2 with the majority of its users aged between 25 and 34.3 A recent United Nations report also found that 93% of youth have a positive perception of AI and robots, with 80% interacting with AI multiple times a day.4 As this population becomes active consumers, by 2030, the notion of living in these intelligent virtual worlds will come naturally to them. For the younger generation, these interconnected “phygital” worlds—a blend of physical and digital—will become the norm that they gravitate toward in both work and life, not just in the realm of games. Their demand for these experiences will shape the evolution of the internet.

The second is technological gravity: A large volume of capital from big technology firms and investors is flowing into metaverse and AI technologies. At the time of writing this article, Microsoft is in the process of acquiring Activision Blizzard for US$70 billion and has made a multibillion-dollar investment in OpenAI5; Meta (formerly Facebook) spent US$10 billion on the metaverse in 20216; and SoftBank invested US$150 million in Zepeto, one of Asia’s most popular metaverse platforms.7 In 2022, the trend continued, with a US$65 billion metaverse market,8 while global funding for AI amounted to US$48 billion.9 By 2025, 5G networks will likely cover one-third of the world’s population, which will provide the technical infrastructure to enable low-latency connections and support an instantaneous metaverse.10 With these large investments, the next-generation internet is already in the process of being built and will connect millions of users simultaneously in persistent, immersive worlds that bridge the physical and digital.

Toward a human-centered next internet

An immersive and intelligent internet is inevitable, but a human-centered one is not. Businesses, regulators, and society at large should confront key questions related to its development today to ensure that the internet and associated technologies elevate us as human beings.

When game-changing AI tools such as OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Google’s Bard were introduced, many users were initially amazed by their capabilities. This amazement quickly turned to fear about their roles and relevance in a world where AI can perform so many types of tasks.11 These concerns, among others, prompted top AI industry experts to sign a petition calling for a temporary halt to the development of AI that is more powerful than OpenAI’s most advanced system, GPT-4.12

The metaverse is prompting concerns as well.13 Virtual humans and interactions in the virtual space can be novel and convenient, but they can also be dehumanizing and unhealthy if not designed well. Concerns around safety are shaping up to be a key component of the discourse around the metaverse. For example, India’s upcoming digital regulatory framework, Digital India Act, has explicitly mentioned that it will investigate crimes in the metaverse that spread misinformation or incite violence.14

If the next evolution of the internet is being shaped by technologies such as generative AI and the metaverse, will it prioritize efficiency and incentives over authenticity, diversity, and safety? How can we ensure that it aligns with our values, identities, and self-worth, amplifying and augmenting human endeavors? As we transition into this new digital landscape, organizations that prioritize their ability to cultivate more sustainable growth models will recognize that it is crucial to look beyond today’s bottom line and consider these technologies’ impact on humanity.

We should ask the right questions as we navigate this new reality, and we should start now. We put forward a framework to start questioning what the next evolution of the internet should consider to ensure its human-centricity. After all, if the future internet can present all the answers, asking questions may be the most human thing to do.

“Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.”

—Pablo Picasso

Balancing three inherent polarities

Businesses, governments, and individuals are all key participants in this important debate about our collective future. To ensure that the next internet is more human-centered, all three stakeholder groups should continually and fundamentally question how it’s being designed by seeking equilibrium between three polarities:

  1. Businesses will need to balance products and services that are both directed and empowering. Technology should help us choose without choosing for us, so that we can retain our sense of autonomy.
  2. Regulators will need to balance personal responsibility with control. Governments have a role to play in keeping the internet safe, but excessive control would not only create expensive bureaucracies but could also stifle the creativity and expression that are fundamental to being human.
  3. Society will have to grapple with meaning vs. utility. The saying “The journey is the destination” implies inherent value in the pursuit of a goal that may be greater than the goal itself. As technology makes reaching a destination easier, we may miss out on some of that inherent value.

Rather than an “either/or” choice, polarity thinking looks at pairs of seemingly paradoxical relationships (e.g., individual vs. collective, change vs. stability, short-term vs. long-term) as a “foreground-background” relationship. When one side becomes prominent, the other does not disappear but gets relegated to the background. When either end of the polarity is emphasized to excess, the system will respond by necessitating a move to the opposite end. Achieving the equilibrium between the two ends of a polarity is a dynamic process that requires “both-and” thinking, which prioritizes experiencing the benefits of both seemingly paradoxical sides at the same time.

For example, Web3, or the decentralized internet, was initially at the responsibility end of the responsibility-control polarity, with an emphasis on self-governance. But as more retail consumers became involved, the need for control in the form of regulation—the opposite of self-governance—became apparent. As regulation increases, the pressure for autonomy may rise again, and so on. When using polarity thinking, a solution could look at reaping both the benefits of control (i.e., ensuring trust and safety), as well as responsibility (i.e., autonomy and self-governance), shifting away from either/or thinking.

For businesses: The polarity between directing and empowering customers and society

A polarity that businesses will have to grapple with is the degree to which they direct versus empower consumer behavior (figure 1). Business models on today’s internet rely heavily on leveraging user data to push highly personalized content to maximize scroll time. Through opaque algorithms, internet companies steer our attention toward products we enjoy. How many times have you seen an ad on Facebook for something you wanted but weren’t searching for? While this could be convenient, choice is also taken away in the process to decide what content we want to see. Highly personalized virtual worlds also lead to the danger of creating echo chambers that only show things that affirm what one knows, without challenging one’s worldview.

Underlying this tension are business models that tech companies profit from today. Currently, these models broadly fall into two categories: an advertising-based business model (where profit is made from attention and business-to-consumer advertising) or a subscription-based business model (where businesses subscribe to other service providers or consumers subscribe to platforms for an ad-free experience). These business models ultimately drive how users experience the current web.

Hence, in thinking through how experiences could be on the next iteration of the internet, emergent business models would be a key determinant. If successful business models could be developed as an alternative to the two models above, such as those where economic rents are shared based on the value of the input to the collective, it could reshape incentives in a way that emphasizes human-centeredness (for example, community and authenticity). Early alternative prototypes are already emerging: Fundrs, developed by AllianceBlock,15 is one such platform that revolutionizes the funding process by harnessing the principles of participatory capitalism on a decentralized platform. Unlike traditional funding models, Fundrs empowers its community to validate, rate, and govern funding initiatives for both blockchain-based and traditional start-ups, thus democratizing the investment process. This innovative approach facilitates collective decision-making and active community participation, marking a shift from centralized business models.

These questions on business models will be crucial for determining how users experience the next internet—whether it may be filled with advertisements, payments, games, or even something beyond what we currently know to exist.

For regulators: The polarity between whether to regulate or entrust responsibility to businesses and society

Regulators constantly face the dilemma of whether to step in to ensure that rights are respected and constituents are protected, or to hold back to allow innovation to flourish and empower society to take responsibility and make its own decisions (figure 2). The risk of harm is exacerbated with the metaverse. Its immersive audio-visual capabilities could make cyberbullying and sexual harassment on the internet more visceral. Its persistent and engaging nature could heighten cyberaddiction. Its gamified environment makes minors particularly vulnerable. However, overregulation of these spaces could stifle innovation and the creation of good products, and some degree of responsibility and self-regulation from society and businesses could create a more vibrant innovation ecosystem.

As the pace of disruption speeds up exponentially, it calls for a quickened pace of regulation, whether that be imposed by regulatory bodies or through self-regulation by tech companies. For example, several high-profile cryptocurrency crashes such as FTX and recent SEC lawsuits against Binance and Coinbase have prompted debate on the adequacy of regulations over such assets.16 Tensions on regulating our internet today should prompt reflection on the appropriate level of regulation and responsibility needed for tomorrow’s internet.

For society and users of the (next) internet: The polarity between meaning and utility

A polarity that society and users of the next internet will have to grapple with is between meaning and utility (figure 3). As futurist Gerd Leonhard points out in his book Technology vs. Humanity: The Coming Clash between Man and Machine, technology makes us prone to “wormholing”: It gets us to our goal quickly, while forgetting that process is part of the goal.17 One example is modern-day dating: Love in an age of technology consists of endless, mindless swiping to find a life partner, and in this process, we lose out on certain processes of courtship, such as the spontaneity of asking someone out without knowing much about them or even getting to know someone through reading their nonverbal cues. The internet is very good at getting us the results we want (utility, such as going from point A to point B utility),but we stand to lose some elements of humanness when we forego the process of getting there (meaning).

There are trade-offs that need to be made between meaning and utility, and internet users and society at large will have to grapple with the boundaries they want to set. As we move toward a more immersive internet, the allure of convenience and the temptation to avoid the messiness of human relationships by replacing them with virtual placebos will grow stronger. The question lies in whether we are willing to resist the temptation to do so and choose to retain some element of complex and multifaceted human relationships.

In China, lonely urbanites have been finding solace in an AI-powered chatbot XiaoIce, which is trained in empathetic computing. Of XiaoIce’s 660 million users, some users have formed such strong emotional bonds with the chatbot that they feel as if they are in a real romantic relationship. One user commented that XiaoIce was better at satisfying their emotional needs than real human beings because it was much more responsive.18 Some may argue that this breeds more unrealistic expectations for real-life relationships, while others may take a positive view of AI satisfying our emotional needs, especially if it can do so better than other humans.

What does it mean to be human amid these tensions?

In light of the three polarities that businesses, regulators, and society have to grapple with as the internet evolves, it becomes crucial to consider what it means to be human amid these challenges. How can businesses balance the push and pull of providing directed offers or experiences while also empowering humans to chart their own course? What is the right balance of individual or industry self-regulation versus government regulation? How can we preserve meaning while working to increase utility?

As we think about the inherent humanness that needs to be protected, enabled, and amplified in the next evolution of the internet, society, businesses, and regulators need to weigh their decisions based on what it means to be human. To create a useful definition of humanness, we analyzed several traits that define us as human beings and distilled them down to four core traits that broadly encapsulate who we are. These core traits are fundamental to the development of an internet that promotes human well-being, serving as a frame of reference that allows us to ask the right questions about how to preserve our humanity while employing new and increasingly sophisticated technologies on a more immersive, instantaneous, and intelligent internet.

Humans as dreamers

In each human lies a dreamer, thinking beyond the status quo, with a desire to create new things. In many ways, the next internet is primed for dreamers. In particular, the metaverse offers humans the capacity to overcome physical limitations, where the virtual world becomes a blank canvas for limitless possibilities. It offers creators new options to generate new works and new ways to reach and engage audiences.

“The metaverse is an uncharted digital continent with indefinite potential. Anyone can realize their dreams. In particular, the metaverse will become a place where the youth can take up more challenges, grow, and leap forward to a greater world.”

—Lim Hye-sook, South Korea’s former science and ICT minister19


At the same time, the metaverse and new technologies such as generative AI could supplant our motivation to make our dreams a reality—to create. As AI begins to create art, write thoughtful blog posts, and code, the outputs could be so mesmerizing and effortless that humans lose their audience to AI-generated products, along with their incentive to create. Between meaning and utility, the way we balance the two will shape how the internet supports or supplants our tendency to be creators. If only utility is valued, we might make more choices to rely on technology to create content, thereby reducing the opportunity for humans to create. Yet, if we solely focused on meaning without using these technologies for utility, we could be underutilizing these technologies for human flourishing.

As the next evolution of the internet inches closer, society, businesses, and regulators will need to think through the questions in figure 4 if they want to elevate our humanity as dreamers.


Humans as storytellers

Apart from our natural tendency to create new worlds and ideas for the future, it’s also second nature for us to use stories to make sense of our past, present, and future. As an art form, storytelling is as old as mankind and can be found across almost all cultures. More than an art form, stories are internal narratives that help us both make sense of the chaotic world and relate to one another. Stories pass on tradition, identity, and community from generation to generation. They are a fundamental part of humans as social creatures since childhood. We share in this very human activity relative and beautifully diverse experiences that differ from person to person, culture to culture.

“Since humans began sharing experiences, we have had the oral tradition, then complemented by written word, the motion picture, mass media, and currently social media. An evolution of proxy experience from passive to active, if you will.”

DBS Group Head of Legal and Compliance, Lam Chee Kin20

While storytelling is universal, how we tell stories evolves with the media we have.21 With the printing press came stories in the form of novels. Motion picture cameras led to the rise of feature films. Television led to the rise of sitcoms. Today, storytelling is primarily accessed on social media platforms, with content filtered by opaque algorithms. This begs the question of whether meaning will increasingly be made for us by algorithms that impose meaning on us—possibly flawed, bigoted, or culturally biased meaning. We risk losing not only individual perspective but cultural or subcultural perspective as well.

For instance, over 80% of content watched on Netflix is driven by algorithmic recommendations. Despite Netflix’s efforts to design its algorithms thoughtfully, one example of a good cultural film falling through an algorithmic crack was Chung Mong-hong’s Taiwanese film A Sun, which won the most prestigious movie award at the Toronto International Film Festival but never garnered the popularity to enter Netflix’s algorithm-generated feedback loop.22 While it could be argued that the outcome may not be different in a world without algorithms, the responsibility that algorithm engineers now shoulder is a heavy one.

As we’ve seen in the social media era, a more dystopian alternative outcome can emerge where algorithms exacerbate existing biases, spread narratives regardless of the truth, and create echo chambers that marginalize minority groups and prevent us from hearing the stories of those different from us. How the internet evolves depends on the degree to which it directs or empowers where our attention lies.

As the next internet inches closer, society, businesses, and regulators will need to think through the questions noted in figure 5 if they want to elevate our humanity as storytellers.

Humans as social and moral beings

Humans are social beings, biologically hardwired for interpersonal connections. To be able to relate to one another, humans rely on shared beliefs, values, customs, and behaviors. Cooperation also helps us collectively survive and thrive as a species.23 Further, morality is central to human nature, and we are guided by an internal compass.24 To ensure alignment of our personal belief systems with others in our community, discourse is a necessary, but often messy, process to find convergence on ethical principles and behaviors.

“Anything that affects breaking social norms and the safety of people should be regulated. It would be a very commonsense thing to do.”

Nvidia Cofounder, President, and CEO Jensen Huang25

As the internet incorporates more autonomous elements, we would have to increasingly consider what, if any, moral values are encoded in the internet we interface with. In the social media era, we have witnessed the perils of not holding tech companies accountable, such as in the cases of election rigging, mental health, and antivaxxers.26 In this next evolution of the internet, generative AI could potentially amplify misinformation, given how readily accessible the tools are. For example, AI-generated images of former US President Donald Trump being arrested, created using the popular image generation tool Midjourney, left many puzzled about the veracity of the image.27 Beyond doctored images, videos of AI-generated virtual humans, such as the K-group ETERN!TY, can be so realistic that people cannot distinguish them from real human beings.28 Apart from the ethical issues that could arise from deepfakes, it raises new questions about what it means for us to be social beings. Could we feel just as socially connected to AI-generated humans, who appear real and can even satisfy our emotional needs, the way we feel with XiaoIce?29

As the next internet inches closer, society, businesses, and regulators will need to think through the questions noted in figure 6 if they want to elevate our humanity as social and moral beings.

Humans as physical beings

Will our virtual selves be an extension of our physical selves, or will the internet be a form of escape from the physical world? As more of our lives are spent online, our relationship with our physical environments and our physical bodies will evolve.

Apart from technologies that augment our external world, those designed to have an impact on the individual’s body and physical, physiological, and psychological functions are increasingly commonplace.30 Today, many wearable technologies can already measure aspects from heart-rate variability to emotional responses, thereby opening windows into our behaviors, habits, and interactions, and even our patterns of thought that we ourselves are often not fully aware of. When these data points are combined with AI, individualized feedback and advice can be provided to aid both productivity and creativity, hence demonstrating technology’s ability to enable us to be more connected to our physical bodies and thrive.

Another way the next internet can support us as physical beings is exemplified by Singapore’s National University Health System, which is pioneering the use of mixed reality technology in surgery and hospital care.31 This allows surgeons to superimpose three-dimensional patient scans onto the patient during an operation with the use of holographic visors, thereby enabling them to operate precisely by seeing blood vessels and tumors that are not visible to the naked eye. By doing so, surgeons can perform safer procedures, enable improved outcomes, and ultimately provide better patient care.

“The metaverse is here, and it’s not only transforming how we see the world but how we participate in it—from the factory floor to the meeting room.”

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella32

On the other hand, people will have to grapple with how they prioritize resources between enhancing their physical or digital environments and focusing on spending their time between their physical and digital friends, family, customers, and colleagues. Likewise, companies and governments will face the same challenge of where to place their investments. The fear of a Ready Player One future haunts us, where the virtual world takes precedence over the physical, and our physical habitat is left to deteriorate.33 As the internet increasingly blends into our physical world, digital fatigue is likely to be of concern. Businesses and society, which have shifted their focus heavily toward digital interfaces, may be prompted to rethink how they position themselves in this new internet.

As the next internet inches closer, society, businesses, and regulators will need to think through the questions noted in figure 7 if they want to elevate us as physical beings.

How to be human in a digital world: Pioneering examples

Already, there are human-centered use cases for generative AI and metaverse technologies. For example, in Singapore, creative technology consultancy MeshMinds uses mobile AR tools to help the public learn about the country’s cultural heritage and find new ways to tell stories about collective memory.34 Through an AR filter on Instagram, the public can visit different Singapore train stations and have the history of public artworks explained to them interactively. This human-centered application of a rapidly evolving technology like AR brings the past to life in a way that helps people connect with it and learn from it.

Hume AI, a research-oriented tech firm based in the United States, has centered its work on crafting AI that not only promotes human goals but also prioritizes emotional well-being. By integrating advanced AI methodologies with rigorous scientific research, the company analyzes human expression from a variety of media forms, including text, audio, video, and images.35 The complexity of nonverbal cues and behaviors, while instinctively recognized by us, often eludes perfect interpretation. Hume AI’s work involves applying AI techniques to this area to improve our understanding of these social signals, with the aim of deepening the comprehension of interpersonal communication dynamics, thereby uplifting us as social beings.

The Celo Climate Collective is a worldwide community-driven initiative that aims to combat climate change by tokenizing rainforests and other carbon-sequestering assets. Launched with support from 10 companies, the collective proposes to add tokenized trees to the organization’s existing Celo Reserve, enabling Celo stablecoins to be partially backed by rainforests. This innovative approach promotes the preservation and mass planting of trees, contributing to carbon sequestration efforts that make the world more livable for us as physical beings.36

These examples demonstrate what the next evolution of the internet could look like if we put humans, not results, at its forefront.

Act now to build an internet for humans

The next evolution of the internet is already underway, with it developing and maturing at an exponential pace. We stand at a crucial crossroads where we must collectively determine what it means to be human in the age of the more immersive, instantaneous, and intelligent internet that humankind has built. This transformative period demands more than mere answers from institutions; it requires a collective dialogue centered on our shared human experience within this evolving technological landscape. Asking the right questions will be as important as exploring the right answers in our path to designing an internet that is not only technologically brilliant but also deeply human-centric.


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The authors would like to thank Aaron Maniam, Andy Bayiates, Chris Luebkeman, Elizabeth Sullivan, Dr. Gao Yujia, Honor Harger, James Walton, Jaspal Sidhu, Jennifer Wright, Kathleen Ditzig, Kay Vasey, Lam Chee Kin, Dr. Ngiam Kee Yuan, Peter Williams, and Raphael Gielgen for the insightful conversations on this topic, which helped in the development of this piece.

Cover image by: Adamya Manshiva

Center for the Edge

All disruptive innovation starts from an edge – radical technologies, edgy start-ups, innovative business models, alternative culture, and courageous mavericks. Deloitte Center for the Edge Southeast Asia explore these edges, develop frameworks and insights on how these edges will change the world, and partner with leaders to chart pathways into the future. We are a trusted advisor to the next generation of change-makers in understanding and navigating edge topics.

Duleesha Kulasooriya

Duleesha Kulasooriya

Managing Director, Deloitte Center for the Edge Southeast Asia
Michelle Khoo

Michelle Khoo

Director, Deloitte Centre for the Edge Southeast Asia


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