21st Century Digital Enlightenment
Only an enlightened society can be aware. (Aristotle)
In July of last year I had a call with Professor George Metakides, with whom I serve on the Web Science Trust Board.
I first discovered Web Science when Armin Haller, who was a founding member of our Meta-Brave Conversations community, suggested I check them out which I did by attending the 2012 Summer School in Leiden. There I met the inimitable Professor Dame Wendy Hall and, thanks to Wendy, I have been involved with the Web Science community ever since.
I started exploring the Web as a socio-technical system in the early 2000s through the development of the Printing Industries’ Action Agenda, Print21, which sought to understand the impact of digital information on the skillbase and supply chain of what was then the world’s third largest manufacturing industry. This led to my work with Fuji Xerox Australia and the Australian and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) which included:
- the development of proposals for a personal electronic mailbox (which neither Australia Post, Royal Mail nor Xerox global could get their heads around) in 2004
- two Australian Research Council projects with RMIT (the first focusing on the Semantic Web and Publishing, the second on Sustainability Reporting for Cities)
- the development of Digital Literacy workshops for the Australian and New Zealand Governments (ANZSOG)
- two research projects (funded by ANZSOG and supported by the Web Science Institute) exploring the concept of Government as a Social Machine.
Throughout all of this my colleagues and I constantly struggled to explain to people what digital technologies really were; how they, and the broader digital ecosystem, were evolving, and what sort of world might emerge as ‘smart machines’ become a reality. It was frustrating that time and time again people told us how important the work we were doing was, but no one was prepared to support its further development or champion it beyond narrow academic circles. This was what inspired us to create Brave Conversations but it also led others to create similar organisations, one of which is the Digital Enlightenment Forum (DEF).
DEF was co-founded by George Metakides and others of like mind in 2012 working within the European Union who sought to understand
“how current and future digital technology can best be used to express our identities in the digital world, taking into account the core values we cherish, we can support the rights of the individual in society” (see DEF Mission).
I attended my first DEF event in 2015 where I was most impressed by the calibre of the people, the core premise and DEF’s aspirations with its broad reach in to education, research, policy, and the commercial sector.
The conversations and debates around digital interaction technologies have come a long way since 2015, and there is now a rising public awareness and interest, which means that people may be ready to listen (maybe!)
During our conversation George and I discussed the synergies between DEF and Brave Conversations which, of course, sent me down a few rabbit holes.
The first was to consider the two words digital and enlightenment.
The word digital seems fairly straightforward coming from:
- having digits (fingers and thumbs of which humans usually have 10) and using these to express discrete numbers (0 to 9) as values of a physical quantity;
- something being binary – either on or off (1 or 0).
The word digital is, however, becoming more complicated as we digitise information and digitalise societies. Something that is complicated is where components can be separated out and dealt with in a systematic and logical way based on a set of static rules or algorithms, which largely describes expert systems which make predictions or classifications based on input data (IBM 2020), i.e ‘artificial intelligence’.
The word enlightenment is far more nuanced and complex because it is culturally contextual and there are no rules, algorithms, or natural laws to define it.
One definition is of the
European intellectual movement of the late 17th and 18th centuries emphasizing reason and individualism rather than tradition. It was heavily influenced by 17th-century philosophers such as Descartes, Locke, and Newton, and its prominent figures included Kant, Goethe, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Adam Smith. (Wikipedia)
Enlightenment thinking included a range of ideas centred on the value of human happiness, the pursuit of knowledge obtained by means of reason and the evidence of the senses, and ideals such as natural law, liberty, progress, toleration, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state.
At the time such ideas were dangerously radical because European thinkers were just beginning to throw off the yoke of Church authority and create the mindset of the Scientific Revolution which stressed the reliance on common sense and the power of direct observation over the unquestioning acceptance of traditional (often religious) explanations and ways of understanding the natural world. As a corollary to this European colonisation revealed the richness of other cultures and how they thought about things – consider the Islamic Golden Age and the value of the Meso-American and Indigenous cultures, something it appears we are only just beginning to rediscover (see The Dawn of Everything).
Perhaps the biggest challenge for us as WEIRD (Western Educated Industrialised Rich and Democratic) thinkers now is to realise that whilst we have been largely responsible for inventing and building the technologies which have become embedded in the lives of humans around the globe, the majority of those who interacting online are neither Western nor European (see this video and Our World in Data statistics).
Thus the combination of the words digital and enlightenment becomes even more complex!
If we take just two additional perspectives of the word enlightenment:
- for Buddhists and Hindus enlightenment may be translated as either the Japanese word satori (derived from the verb satoru, “to know”) usually referring to an experience of insight into the true nature of reality; or the Sanskrit and Pali word Bodhi meaning “awakening”, but there is also reference to the middle way of living a balanced life.
- For the Aboriginal Australians (and probably for many indigenous cultures) there may be no word as the concept would be embedded in the land and landscape as crafted in the Songlines (see this article and consider The Memory Code).
The theme which consistently emerges is that of knowledge, understanding and illumination, the concept of and the challenge of illuminating the path created by those who have insights from the path combined with some foresight as to what is to come.
I think it’s fair to say that this is what the European Enlightenment thinkers were doing as they sought to understand changing mindsets and revolutionary technology. It is also at the core of what humanity needs now as we move on from the Industrial Age and fully embrace the Age of Information ( Nouriel Roubini).
Scientific method, hell! No wonder the Galaxy was going to pot! (The Foundation Series)
Whenever we run a Brave Conversations we always stress the need for participants to engage with Science Fiction, and especially Isaac Azimov’s Foundation Series telling the story of Hari Seldon and his hopes that Psychohistory would prevent the horrors of a predictable future. He fails not because of the complications of the data and information, but because of the complex unpredictability of life and living systems.
Humanity’s desire to divine the future is as old as humanity itself – we have consulted the Delphic Oracle, Runes, Fortune Tellers and Time Machines, and now we are worshipping our nascent artificial machines as we see them as portents of the future or ways to increase productivity and maximise profits. These machines and systems are merely reflections of ourselves and are limited by our own frames of reference, our language, our value systems and our perspectives of the world.
This is the true challenge of 21st Century Digital Enlightenment – to bring to light our own biases and blind spots, to become more inclusive in our conversations and to embrace the diversity of humanity as we build tools to serve all of humanity and the broader planet.
The purpose of my conversation with George was that he asked if I would be prepared to join the Board of the Digital Enlightenment Forum and help it navigate this next phase of its mission, which is something I wholeheartedly and enthusiastically accepted.
Thank you George and all the DEF Board for this opportunity to serve.