Analogue leadership in a digital world

Brave Conversations Sharjah 2022

Brave Conversations Sharjah 2022

In November 2021 we finally realised our Future Worlds Challenge with the assistance of the MIT App Inventor Research team and a group of wonderful young people from around the globe.

In September 2022 we had the opportunity to further develop this thanks to the invitation of the Government of Sharjah to integrate both Future Worlds Challenge and Brave Conversations in to the 2022 International Government Communications Forum.  The opportunity was created by Ibrahim El Badawi who has been supporting Leanne Fry and me with Brave Conversations since our first event in 2017 and has helped craft and present numerous Brave Conversations events for an Arabic speaking audience over the past few years.

From the outset both Leanne and I realised that Sharjah was going to be something a bit different.  The events were to be integrated into a major conference within a completely different cultural context and, to be honest, we had no idea who was going to turn up or when!  Uppermost in our minds was the need to be mindful of cultural values and English proficiency, let alone a familiarity with technology beyond just retail use.  And, we had to keep our energy up for four full days with the two events overlapping on the third day.  As a bonus we were thrilled that Professor Dame Wendy Hall agreed to join us in Sharjah to help us anchor our events within the broader context of the conference and also to link it to the very important work that she is doing around digital governance and Artificial Intelligence.

From the moment we arrived in to a very hot and humid Dubai we were greeted with superb Emiratee hospitality thanks to Ohood Al Aboodi and her team of the IGCC.  In addition we had our own private tour guide with Ibrahim driving us around in his red Mustang.  This gave us some valuable insights in to the Emirate particularly with a visit to University City and the very impressive House of Wisdom, one of the most beautiful learning centres in the world.  To give some context Sharjah is the third largest city in the UAE and capital of the Emirate of Sharjah.  It seeks to position itself as the centre for Islamic culture and knowledge within the UAE and the IGCC Forum is an event which focuses on government communication as central to this.

What became clear to us was that the IGCC Forum provided a perfect opportunity to explore some of the themes of Brave Conversations within this Arabic cultural context and specifically to engage with young people through Future Worlds Challenge.  In this we were ably supported by some delightful young Emirate interpreters and facilitatators, but most of al the MIT App Inventor team of Claire Tan, Maura Kelleher and Nghi Nguyen who quite literally worked their tails off with us reorganising the programme and having to innovate on the fly when it came to teaching the code.

We arrived to the venue on Monday 26th September for Day One not really knowing what to expect.  Gradually the room filled and over the four days we were joined by students from the local university, groups of school children aged between 15 to 17, a contingent from the UAE Military, and a number of Directors of Government Communications from the Government of Sharjah.  Apart from the fact that we were never quite sure when people would arrive or how many of them there would be, everyone was fully engaged and enthusiastically threw themselves in to both the coding tasks, the Challenge and the conversations.

Both Brave Conversations and Future Worlds Challenge are designed to get participants to use their imagination and creative thinking and one way we seek to stimulate this is to highlight the importance of Science Fiction.  When the Chinese wanted to find out why the West was so far ahead with their development of technology they discovered it was that the West has a deep history of Science Fiction.  When we posed this question to our Arabic audience it was curious that there was so little Arabic work of this genre despite some encouraging early shoots (Larissa Sanour’s work in particular).  This is one thing we encouraged our young audience to explore more particularly as it opens the mind to possibilities, the core of which is at the heart of Future Worlds Challenge.

The Challenge built on the work we had done in 2021 and asked one simple question – How do you build a Future World ten years hence (i.e. 2032) that you would actually want to live in that can sustain human life on this planet?

There are three aspects to the world that you propose based on:

  1. How do we think?  What do we need to change about our values and expectations?
  2. How do we live?  How do we live sustainably within the planetary ecosystem?
  3. What technologies can support this?  Technology needs to serve not lead.

We divided the participants into seven groups of mixed ages and genders and each one chose to focus on one aspect of designing a better Future World. Each was given time to work on their presentations and then give a five minute presentation with five minutes of questions.

How did we judge these Future Worlds?  We asked three judges – volunteers Prashathi Reddy and our facilitator Hussein plus Claire Tan, to consider the worlds based on these criteria:

  • Does your world make sense?
  • Is it realistic?
  • How would Conversational AI support your World?
  • Do you believe in it?

Following on from this first round three ‘winners’ were chosen who then presented to the IGCC Judges Panel at the end of the day and this lead to a final ‘winning team’ announced at the Closing Ceremony Dinner of the Forum.

The teams were:

  1. Ahlam – Your Sleeping Matters
  2. Bioare – Sustainability for Life
  3. Fast Move – Accessibility for Blind People
  4. FWPW – Future Without Plastic Waste
  5. HRPI – Healthcare, Renewable, Printing and Inequality
  6. MOCAP – Project Charity Becomes Human
  7. Sooma – Zakat Calculator

To be honest there was no winning team.

Despite the nerves and hours of waiting around each and every person who was with us worked hard, contributed ideas and energy and helped make the event a success, and it is a huge complement to them that we were able to push the boundaries of Future Worlds Challenge and develop the programme into something that is now fully formed and a complement to Brave Conversations, which at Sharjah, was merely the supporting act!

The most precious thing for us was in being able to give these young people insights in to the dual analogue-digital worlds that are emerging and in this we were truly blessed to have the inimitable Dame Wendy Hall.  Wendy, as always, gave selflessly to our groups and they gained insights from her more intimate session with us that she then further expanded in the main conference.

There is so much talk at the minute about the Metaverse and Wendy explored some of the challenges of these metaverses (which is much more correct).  She very cleverly explained the issues of privacy by focusing on digital clothes shopping and what we will be exposing as we shop online. Wendy always has this gift for bringing crucial messages home – within a largely male audience it was the women who were the most wide-eyed and concerned.

This was really brought home during our final session of Brave Conversations when I looked at one of the main stands in the exhibition hall where one company was encouraging people to ‘get scanned and create your digital twin’.  How much did people think about this before they eagerly participated and what questions should they have been asking?

As is happening in so many aspects of our lives we have absolutely no protection from companies such as this who are encouraging us to give our data with no respect for privacy or accountability back to us.  This is exactly the same as companies such as Ancestry.com taking peoples’ DNA which strikes me as not just fraudulent but downright exploitative.

As Mark Zuckerberg is finding out there is a risk to rushing in to these new frontiers and gradually governments are beginning to wake up to their naivety of the past two decades and finally grapple with these issues.  Too slowly of course, but they are beginning.  This is the message that I would have like to see at Sharjah and hopefully some of the attendees listened.

As all societies keenly embrace the world of digital and see it is as the key to the future it is events such as these where we can bring savvy young people together with the not so savvy elders to really question the future world that are crucial to having some semblance of control and we are hugely grateful to the Government of Sharjah for providing one such opportunity.

Our thanks to Ibrahim El Badawi for creating this opportunity, and especially to Ohood Al Aboodi for all the hard work she did in getting us to Sharjah and making us feel so welcome.

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Digital Humanism Vienna

Digital Humanism Vienna

Rathauspark, Wien. The path guiding people through the park framed with wooden benches.

In 2019 Hannes Werthner and a raft of his academic colleagues crafted their Digital Humanism Manifesto.

This Manifesto has helped shape the week-long Summer School held in Vienna organised by the Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning Technical University Wien, the Digital Enlightenment Forum and the Digital Humanism Initiative.

Two key statements in the Manifesto stand out:

  • Today, we experience the co-evolution of technology and humankind
  • We must shape technologies in accordance with human values and needs, instead of allowing technologies to shape humans

Digital Humanism has an academic focus and quite specifically states that:

  • Universities have a special responsibility and have to be aware of that.
  • Academic and industrial researchers must engage openly with wider society and reflect upon their approaches.
  • Practitioners everywhere ought to acknowledge their shared responsibility for the impact of technologies.

As with Web Science and so much of the enquiry in to the digital realm Digital Humanism places the responsibility for shaping the future of the digital realm largely on the world of research.  However, this is only a part, and it is these aspirations which drive the broader work that we do through Web Science, Intersticia and Brave Conversations.

The first Digital Humanism Summer School was held in September 2022 at the TUWien and, through the very kind invitation of my fellow Web Science Trustee George Metakides, I was invited to join the group of some 65 participants from 22 countries who were mainly young researchers from computer science and anciliary disciplines.  There were 24 lectures covering everything from Participation and Democracy, Digital Colonialism, the future of Work and Finance, to Ethics, AI and Robotics – see the programme here.

These embody the essence of what has driven much of the work I have done since the 1990s when through GAMAA (the Graphic Arts Merchants’ Association of Australia) and Print21 (the Australian Printing Industries Action Agenda) we began to explore the impact of digital technologies on how work is done, how people learn and how societies function as influenced through the world of printing and publishing.

In his opening talk on Digital Democracy George Metakides highlighted the fragility of the democratic systems in the world around us, and explored the nexus between power and politics particular as it is now manifesting online and resulting in an unprecedented concentration of influence and surveillance with attendant socio-political results.

Apart from the sheer breadth of topics covered in the programme and the excellent quality of speaker the Summer School was thought provoking in precisely the same way that we hope Brave Conversations is posing questions which force participants to identify and understand their values and how these are both influencing their use of technology but also shaping it.  One thing that is abundantly clear is that words such as ‘freedom’ and ‘autonomy’ are totally value-laden and therefore how do different people think about what sort of world they want to shape (East and West think differently https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20170118-how-east-and-west-think-in-profoundly-different-ways).  This is precisely the conversation that Wendy Hall raises whenever she talks about her Four Internets.

As I sat in the room listening and considering my own journey over the past thirty years I realised just how important it is that the voices of people who have shaped and lived through the profound changes we have gone through as our information has become digitised and our societies digitalised be heard, and heard clearly.  This is one of the foci I use in all of my talks when I walk people through the history of information technologies and the symbiotic nature of us and the machines we build.

We shape our technologies and our technologies shape us. (Marshall McLuhan)

Given the success of this first Summer School there will definitely be a second one in 2023 and it will be interesting to see how Hannes and his team build on these very strong foundations.

For me personally I am looking forward to becoming much more involved through the Digital Enlightenment Forum (https://www.digitalenlightenment.org/) of which I was a member when it first started and have been invited to work with much more closely.

“Enlightenment” is a loaded word and one I will be exploring more in a later post but needless to say that shining the light on our current state and more fully understanding exactly what it is and how it manifests is probably the most important work of humanity in the 21st Century as we co-create the future with our smart machines.

October 2022
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