Peace is not unity in similarity but unity in diversity, in the comparison and conciliation of differences. (Mikhail Gorbachev)
Today the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, died.
When I lived in London in the 1980s it was Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher who were reshaping the Western World and the European continent. Today it is Gorbachev’s successor Vladimir Putin who, through waging the first European conflict since WWII between Ukraine and Russia, is seeking to return to the glory days of Empire whilst dividing Europe as a continent once more.
In the 1990s I recall my nephew asking me why all the baddies in spy movies were Russian – he couldn’t understand this East-West dynamic. The world did seem to be a safer, calmer, saner and more united place until 9/11 in 2001.
As I watched the early days of the 2022 Russia-Ukraine war unfold I kept on thinking about human history and how we seem to take two steps forward, then one step back. As Stephen Pinker argues the world (for humans) does seem to be getting better. There are more of us; fewer of us (percentage wise) live in poverty; more of us are educated; we are living longer better lives, and we have a command of technological solutions to do things that our ancestors would only dream of in the realm of magicians.
Of course the planet and other species might disagree, but perhaps we are being too quick to judge.
I watched a critique of the Russian versus US Army recruiting advertisements with the commentator ridiculing the US use of a young, female, gay graduate from (see this and this). We also know that Putin felt that the time was right to strike due to the perceived weakness of the West as it became increasingly focused on issues such as gay-rights and transgender identity.
Time has revealed several things:
- You don’t need to be a butch, buff Rambo to successful operate a high tech weapon and be a very effective fighter
- Putin underestimated the West in it’s use of smart technologies, social media and propaganda tools, and it’s determination to stand up for its values
- History does rhyme and move in cycles, but it does not repeat.
The more I have been thinking about this the more it strikes me that, just like Spiral Dynamics, humans may be evolving beyond the historical stereotypes and constraints that have so long dominated our thinking. We have always had strong men driven by greed, power and their own sense of personal destiny. We have always had armies and mercenaries prepared to fight for whomever pays the highest price. We have always had familial, tribal, and then nationalistic identities which have filtered any sense of empathetic thinking in terms of ‘others’.
If we study our history we have also had Empires and Societies which have failed through their own self-focus – think of the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. If we look through the prism of artistic expression we see societies go through stages of development from early formation (archaic) to consolidation (classical) to a period of decline (Hellenistic). Whilst this may be very simplistic perhaps it also offers something to interrogate when it comes to looking historically at why societies collapsed and then thinking about what is happening with the West now.
The stock standard reasons that historians and economists give for Societal Collapse focus on economic decline, rise of competition, resource depletion, inequality, political corruption (see Andrews and Diamond as well as this list). But, perhaps there is something else going on at the minute that is beyond the bounds of human history, something that is over the event horizon that we are just beginning to intuit.
Perhaps what we are seeing is not a sign of weakness. Perhaps, in fact it is a sign of true strength and a major evolution in our thinking.
An event horizon is a boundary beyond which an observer cannot see or comprehend.
If I go back to the rant I watched about military recruitment the thought that continually kept occurring to me is that in times of stress and conflict it our base behaviours linked to our limbic and reptilian brains flooded with testosterone which drives us to pick up a gun and shoot someone or something. This has been our default and is evident in our entertainment (think gladiators to Marvel movies) and our definition of ‘heroes’.
However, the real heroes are those who don’t hit out, do not give in to those impulses, but who stop and allow our higher brains to determine our actions. This, for me, is the real power of turning the other cheek.
Instead of lashing out at and condemning that which we don’t understand the real challenge is to comprehend what it must be like to have been born in a body that feels alien and disconnected, to live a life which feels like a lie, to be physically or intellectually misaligned with many of the demands of everyday life, and to feel either trapped or disempowered by the society within which we live.
Many people feel like this all their lives but in the 21st Century our Western societies, driven by the Christian values upon which our societies are built I believe that we in the West are slowly taking on the challenges that are inherent within the diverse nature of humanity and seeking to embrace the fringes of our selves.
Perhaps this is what has happened throughout history and previous societies may have also got to this point but were unable to advance their thinking and being precisely because the invading hordes were at the gate and they had to divert their mental attention away from this really complex thinking towards the base requirements of survival. Perhaps now, after one of the longest periods of historical peace, and unprecedented technological development, we have enough momentum to finally be able to release the shackles of our past and move towards building a world for all of the human family.
Understanding the collapse of societies and Empires is a complex issue and no one really has the definitive answer. But perhaps instead of collapse there is a human drive towards something beyond anything we can truly comprehend and understand. Smart technologies are undermining the advantages of physical strength within human competition. We are working to defeat ageing and decay; we are working to unravel the mystery of the creation of life and begin to think about a human existence beyond sex and gender. So perhaps also we are beginning to be able to imagine a world beyond that which human history has bequeathed us. If we don’t then the emerging intelligences we are creating certainly will, although underpinned by the values we build in to them.
I believe, unlike Putin, that the West is not descending in to decadence, decay and depravity but is, in fact, slowly evolving to become both more empathetic towards those who don’t fit within the “norm” (whatever that is) and to appreciate that all humans have something to contribute towards the world we are all building. This is the real work of building human societies and takes both bravery and courage.
It is a slow and fragile process which may be derailed at any minute. Whilst things are improving we can often feel distressed that the speed is too slow, that there are too many forces working against us, and that we are powerless to effect any change.
The Ukraine War is just one example of this. Putin expected the war to be over quickly due to his underestimation of the 21st human values inherent in Ukraine and the West but collectively people have risen up to defend their rights to live freely and at peace. Putin may succeed in his goals and he is playing the long game but so is everyone else.
My instinct is telling me that we as 21st Century humans are in a place that humanity has never been before. For better or worse we are more globally connected; we have split second information and news cycles; we have an unprecedented insight and understanding of the physical, chemical and biological worlds; and, ever since we sent humans in to space, we have a view of ourselves living on one planet which we can now actually see. We are also beginning to think beyond the binary nature of male/female; us/them and see things holistically … but only just beginning.
As Carl Sagan demonstrates in Pale Blue Dot
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known. (Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space)
For Intersticia and the work we do to help develop 21st Century Stewards I can think of no better guideline nor philosophy.
Regardless of how we approach this horizon or what we find when get there the preciousness of humanity is what phil-anthropos is all about and drives how we serve those within our community and from there the human family itself.
Of course we may not get there this time. We may self-destruct and go backwards as many previous societies have done due to our own fears and self-destructive instincts. But eventually I believe that we will.
Brave Conversations Barcelona 2022
A few weeks ago we held our 17th Brave Conversations event, which was our fourth as a part of an ACM Web Science Conference, this time in Barcelona.
We had nine flesh and blood live ‘human beings’ who bravely joined us (Covid free!) on a hot Barcelona afternoon at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra together with some thirty-five who logged on via Mr Zoom from all around the World.
We were thrilled with the balance and at being able to have a real-life conversation with those in the room, whilst doing our best to accommodate those in the virtual space, despite numerous challenges with the technology which somewhat undermined the event, at least for me as a facilitator.
Note to self – if there isn’t a ‘tech guru’ in the venue don’t do hybrid!
The concept of having “Brave Conversations” began in 2008 with our first ‘meta’ events which brought together people from all walks of life to spend time considering the brave new worlds we are co-creating as we collaboratively build the Global Social Machine – humans and smart technology systems symbiotically working together.
Yes! We were doing “meta” way before anyone else was!! Except the metadata people of course.
Since that time the conversations have changed – from being about the Semantic Web (which very few could really understand), to issues of identity and privacy, digital governance and the need for we humans to become ‘smarter’ as the machines continue to evolve.
We have worked in partnership with numerous organisations which have included the Web Science Trust and it’s network of Labs, Newspeak House, Founders and Coders, Gaza Sky Geeks, the Jamaican Broadcasting Commission, Philanthropy Australia and – quite frankly – anyone who could see the importance of having these conversations and would help provide us with a forum to do so.
The last two years has seen us predominantly operate online but 2022 brings the opportunity to re-engage in a new way, and to take the time to notice what has changed since we all buried ourselves inside to wait out the Pandemic.
There are a number of things that have stood out for me.
Firstly, it seems that the concept of personal privacy is no longer being taken quite so for granted and that it is no longer cool to be all over Instagram – for some (those with the skills and money to afford it) anonymity and privacy are making a comeback!
Secondly, companies such as Uber which have been arrogantly stamping all over governments and the public, are beginning to be revealed for the aggressive and unethical organisations they are. Whilst they took the lead in disrupting complacent and tired transport systems they have themselves become the pariahs, and there are numerous very good alternatives if people will take the time to seek them out.
Thirdly, last month I was walking down Long Acre in Covent Garden and spotted these ads in the Ray Ban store (Ray Ban Stories). We know that these technologies exist ever since Google Glass but the step change is that now Mr Ray Ban and Mr Facebook (I refused to call them Meta!) have come up with some very fashionable glasses which don’t look quite so clunky and which link to Mr Facebook’s technical back end. The fact that these devices are allowed to be sold astonishes me given the lack of facial-recognition legislation and the growing awareness of the need to regulate it.
But this is only just the beginning.
If you listen to what is percolating in both the mainstream media and Popular Science stories you will notice an increasing number of articles about human longevity and Ageing as a Disease In addition, people like Elon Musk are seeking to connect our brains to the virtual world, all of which is going to present far greater challenges than Mr Facebook’s Story Glasses.
With this in mind for this Brave Conversations we decided to take a step forward into the realm of biology and craft a Case Study inspired by Ramez Naam’s Nexus Trilogy (I invited Mr Naam to join us but he didn’t favour me with a reply sadly).
Let’s start from the premise that
We are the last generation of Homo Sapiens as we know ourselves. In the coming century we will learn to engineer bodies, brains and minds. (Yuval Noah Harari)
So what does that actually mean? Here are some questions just to get you thinking:
- What does it actually mean to be the last generation of Homo Sapiens?
- What sorts of changes are on the horizon and what options are actually real?
- What sort of humans do we actually want to become? Who is to make those decisions?
- What sorts of rules and regulations should be guiding these decisions? What ethical frameworks should inform them? Who should decide?
- What sorts of conversations should we be having before we let this go any further?
- Do we have any choice? Or it is too late already?
Life (itself) will become the clay of human creativity. (Baroness Susan Greenfield)
Once you start thinking in these terms it becomes obvious that the conversations we’ve been having about smart systems, computer technologies and Artificial Intelligence are already outdated and framed by the old mindset of industrial age thinking. The machines we are talking about now are biological systems and therefore we are now in the realm of the life sciences, human bio-engineering, health and medicine. Things need to take a different turn.
These are the conversations that we have now begun with our 2022 Brave Conversations and we will be exploring them further with every subsequent event.
As Alice says in Wonderland
I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then. (Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland)
We are all different people and we are all now down the proverbial rabbit hole!
As always a huge thanks to Leanne Fry, Ibrahim El Badawi and Abeer Abu Ghaith for their wonderful collaboration on yet another successful event and here’s to seeing where our next ones go!
Our last Brave Conversations event was a little different. We did a challenge for young people which sought to explore the pressing issues of the 21st Century from the perspective of those between 14 to 17 years of age from around the world. Called Future Worlds Challenge it presented a space within which participants first learned to code an Amazon Alexa, and then worked in teams (from across the globe) using their Alexa and the internet to come up with three solutions to the challenges of how we think, how we live within our ecosystems and how we harness the smartness of our technologies to ensure the sustainability of human life on Earth.
One of our winners Lara commented that
It was one of the most amazing workshops that I have attended ever and I would 100% recommend it to anyone else looking to improve their coding and have thought provoking sessions about the Future!
So … the challenge for us is what to do next?
The Web Science community provides us with the opportunity to hold Brave Conversations as a part of their Annual Conference and so this year in June 2022 we are heading down to Barcelona – see Brave Conversations at the 2022 Web Science Conference.
As we all gradually crawl out of our Covid Caves the world around us has profoundly changed in a number of ways, and as we have discussed what we would like to address and how it struck us that we need to paint a vivid picture of what the human environment is becoming. Whilst we adapted during the past two years we have also changed some things permanently, and others will return but to a new normal.
Some things that I’ve observed:
- Covid has changed the nature and relationship of travel, work, entertainment, education, socialising, medicine
- Covid has impacted the mental health of people across the board with two years of people being told to isolate, stay 2m apart or avoid others
- Young people, in particular, have had massive disruption, particularly in poorer places
- Older people are retiring early
- There seems to be a workforce crisis almost everywhere
- New opportunities are popping up in places you’d least expect them
- Governments have had an unprecedented mandate to survey, restrict and control their populations
- With the rising use of platforms like Zoom the next step in to virtual worlds is relatively easy, once the technology is ready …
This is just the beginning … which is scary enough in itself!
We created Brave Conversations to be precisely that … an opportunity for people to be brave in a respectful and open space where nothing is right or wrong, everything needs to be considered and all ideas and opinions have the right to be heard.
We hope that this next event pushes all of us to rise to the challenge of how to co-create the world that is emerging and ensure that it is beneficial for us, our children and future generations.
Come and join us! The event will be held both in person (if you feel like a trip to Barcelona!) and online.
Here are a few thought starters around the conversation we will be having:
Layers of Time, Stewart Brand, Pace Layering, 1999
It is a rare thing to live through a moment of huge historical consequence and understand in real time that is what it is. (Alan Little)
For the past two years I, like almost everyone else on the planet, have been locked down (or up, depending on perspective!), separated from family and friends and corralled into the virtual world. Zooming or Teaming or just talking on the phone became my primary means of communication which meant that if I wanted to connect I had little option but to go online.
I keep on being reminded of E. M. Forster’s novel “The Machine Stops” where humans had exchanged the meatspace for the virtual-space.
The clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned; neither Vashti nor her audience stirred from their rooms. Seated in her armchair she spoke, while they in their armchairs heard her, fairly well, and saw her, fairly well. ( The Machine Stops)
We have now had the opportunity to play in this space, and for many this has meant learning new technical skills and embracing new communication styles that are often at odds with our natural inclination. Whilst I’ve always been an early adopter of useful technologies the reality is that communicating via screens is not how I like to do things but this forced me to more fully explore myself as a digital being, both alone and in how I interact with others.
Men seldom moved their bodies; all unrest was concentrated in the soul. (E. M. Forster, The Machine Stops)
As I now reconnect with my global life back in London what has struck me the most is how much I have missed during the last two years being reliant on screen based communications. All organisations I work with are navigating the new world of hybrid work and I know that for many senior managers this is causing enormous stress. Whilst they are happy avoiding the time-waste of the daily commute, their personal sense of control and authority has been challenged, and they realise that they don’t actually trust people to work independently out of the office. Last year in the rush to resume ‘normality’ many organisations began to mandate a return to the office before the main Covid waves had even manifested. Since that time they seem to have realised that their timelines of command and control, and those of the ‘natural world’ are deeply out of sync.
This is where Stewart Brand’s concept of Pace Layering is so very useful, particularly as we begin to transition to whatever the ‘new normal’ is going to be.
I have felt a pressing need to re-engage and resume my London life as it was in early 2020, meeting lots of people, going to events and filling my calendar. But I have largely resisted this spending much more time in my flat, reducing the number of interactions and ensuring that those I have are given the right amount of focus and attention they deserve. I am hugely conscious that my new life can be, and perhaps should be, very different from my old. Being forced to stay put, to disconnect and to reassess has been life changing and powerful, whilst also confronting and exhausting as we spent so much time with ourselves. For some, like those in China, the pain of lockdowns continues and the mental health cost will take years to process. Having had two years being told to maintain social distance and that other humans are dangerous there is heightened sense of distrust of pretty much everything.
So, as we transition in to the new normal it is imperative to understand that people, processes and systems all change at different paces, and that these paces are much more nuanced and complex than we realise. Transitions, as people such as William Bridges, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ Change Curve and Kurt Lewin’s Freeze-Unfreeze describe, all involve loss, fear, uncertainty and discomfort, but they also provide opportunity.
When one door closes another opens but the corridors can be a real bitch!
We are currently in the corridor – the interstice between the old and the new – which Bridges’ model describes as the Neutral Zone:
- Endings – the first stage is that of ‘letting go’, of identifying what is being lost, grieving for that loss, and appreciating that things will never be the same.
- Neutral Zone (in reality, the interstice) – the most crucial part of transition where “critical psychological realignments and re-patternings take place”, new processes and learnings emerge, and the foundation is laid for the future.
- New Beginnings – new understandings, values and attitudes. An emerging fresh identity together with reorientation and renewal.
I have been reflecting on the last ten years of Intersticia and all that we have achieved (more on that to come) and whilst I firmly agree that even before the Pandemic we were in the process of embarking on a new horizon the difference now is that everything around us has changed and we do ourselves a disservice if we rush the process of moving out of the interstice whilst it is still useful and productive.
We need to create our own space to imagine.
Our little community scattered all around the globe is much like a global radar giving us snippets of insights in to how humanity ids dealing with all of this, and the value of our work now is to really listen to the ebb and flow of what they are telling us, their different paces of change and their plans and dreams for the next phase.
The emerging generation is one of hope, awakened and will reboot the way we live – regenerate society as you gain voice, implicitly awakened choices – Professor Lisa Miller
This is why we do what we do, as servants of the emerging generation of 21st Century Stewards. They deserve that we do this with courage, persistence, grace, integrity and authenticity to give them the best chance they have, for all our sakes.
An individual human existence should be like a river: small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being. (Bertrand Russell).
I was thrilled to be able to participate in the Future Worlds Challenge. On the very first day, I was nervous and excited because I did not know what to expect, but the cheerful and helpful Teachers put me at ease immediately and I was able to follow the class easily and learn the code.
It was super interesting and I was so excited for the next class that I was not able to sleep that night! The next day, we were able to do group work! I was put together with 2 other students from the US (while I live in Singapore) with whom I was able to get along very easily. They were very co-operative and we were able to share ideas about the future with each other with ease.
Thinking about the future has also been really interesting, to be honest here, we should be thinking about the future much more that we do.
The Teachers would always be there for any questions that we would have that helped us a lot.
We collaboratively worked hard on the presentation and did well with it.
Key learnings that I can takeaway from this workshop are:
- teamwork helps greatly brainstorming of diverse ideas and facilitates finding solutions
- some solutions will not require technology but others will and coding using Alexa will be very helpful for those.
This workshop is a great beginning and I am looking forward to more interesting and amazing workshops and classes focusing on problem solving and finding solutions to make the world a better place for us and generations to come in the near future.
It was one of the most amazing workshops that I have attended ever and I would 100% recommend it to anyone else looking to improve their coding and have thought provoking sessions about the Future!
These are the words of Lara, one of the winners of our first Future Worlds Challenge held over the last two weekends of November, 2021.
After years of development and planning we finally launched this event which was conceived as a result of the first Brave Conversations and our commitment to work with young people to help them better develop a Web Science way of thinking about the technologies they use every day.
This first iteration of Future Worlds Challenge was framed around partnering with the Web Science Lab at MIT, specifically the MIT App Inventor team led by PhD Researcher Jessica Van Brummelen. From the outset we determined to work with young people from around the globe aged between 11 – 17 (together with their parents) and craft an experience which aimed at the maximum possible learning for the kids whilst also actively informing and contributing to the MIT Research.
One research paradigm which informed how we approached these events was based on the work of Dr Joseph Henrich and his categorisations of WEIRD (Western Educated Industrialised, Rich and Democratic) verses Non-WEIRD cultural mindsets. Whilst this is a fairly fluid definition as the world becomes increasingly globalised (for instance is Singapore WEIRD or Non-WEIRD?) it was useful for determining the best groupings for our events and also helped determine the time zone categories we used.
Through out networks and promoting through the MIT Research community we had 107 expressions of interest to participate from which we ended up having 45 child-parents ‘teams’ who actually attended. On average the kids were 16 years old with 20 girls and 25 boys coming from Indonesia, the USA, Singapore, Canada, New Zealand, India, Iran and Japan.
The event itself comprised two days:
Day One involved a fairly demanding session learning how to programme an Amazon Alexa as one example of a conversational agent.
Day Two was the Challenge itself where we grouped participants in child-parents in to teams of three to four. One of their tasks was to use their newly-minted Alexa programming skills to find out information as well as to work together as a group who had not previously met. This diversity was perfect for getting them all to reflect on the key questions underlying technology and it’s use, particularly those posed by MIT Professor Sherry Turkle.
Technology challenges us to assert our human values which means that first of all we have to know what they are.
The Challenge itself rested on the above model based around three key questions which we held in 30 minute rounds. We asked each team the following and then they had to work to gradually build a concept of their Future World to be presented in the final round.
Round One: How We Think
What are three important mindset changes we could make to ensure the Sustainability of Human Life on Earth? For example: Wealth and Inequality? Population? Lifespan?
Round Two: Our Ecosystem
What are three important environmental changes we could make to ensure the Sustainability of Human Life on Earth? For example: How we use energy? How we feed ourselves? Where we live?
Round Three: The Technologies
What are three important technological changes we could make to ensure the Sustainability of Human Life on Earth? For example: How we build our cities? How we manage information?
Final Round: Future Worlds
Each team had 5 minutes to present their World and we judged each of the presentations on the following:
- Does your world make sense?
- Is it realistic?
- How would Conversational AI support your World?
- Do you believe in it?
We were blown away by what these young people came up with in a very short space of time and some focused thinking. They worked together beautifully, shared ideas and the ability to contribute, and were considered, thoughtful and clear thinking in their approach.
If Lara’s words reflect the experience of other participants then we are thrilled with how this first Challenge inspired them to think and hopefully have ongoing conversations with family and friends.
Our huge thanks to all of our participants, and particularly to Jess Van Brummelen and all of her team at MIT App Inventor. One key researcher, Claire Tian was a real trooper joining Jess at 5 am in the morning and generously gave her time and support to everyone with their coding adventures.
Thanks also to Katrina Meggitt who stepped in as our Event Manager and juggled childcare, new jobs and torrential rain to help us get everyone organised!
We are now planning more Future Worlds Challenge events for 2022. Please spread the word and check out the Brave Conversations website for our next steps.