Analogue leadership in a digital world

Industry 5.0? That is soooo last Century!

Industry 5.0? That is soooo last Century!

I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:

 

Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.

 

Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.

 

Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.  (Douglas Adams)

For the past month I’ve been wandering around Brussels where we held our most recent Brave Conversations with a view to more fully understanding the European Union, particularly from the perspective of my new role as President of DEF.  Through the DEF network I have attended numerous EU sponsored events and met with some wonderful people within the Brussels Bubble who are working to create Europe’s digital future.

A few things in particular have struck me during this time:

  1. Europe is an idea which the European Union holds together through its institutions, processes and people
  2. The average age of a Member of the European Parliament is 52, fairly similar to the UK and other countries including Australia
  3. The Europeans are the absolute masters of developing Legislation, which, a number of people commented, was ‘our number one export’!
  4. There seems to be a palpable fear of Europe being left behind in the digital ‘race’ which is currently driving the global economy – this was most evident at the EIT’s Grow Digital and Digital Europe’s Summer Summit.

Very conveniently during this period Apple held it’s annual World Wide Developers’ Conference (WWDC) where it annually releases it’s new products and this year didn’t disappoint with the launch of Vision Pro.  Many are sceptical of the move in to metaverse but personally I think this will be a defining moment as Apple continues to play the long game (this article is well worth reading on this).

Why?  Because the Vision Pro gives us a glimpse of a human future in which our mediated communications are finally released from the physical realm and can blend seamlessly with the digital world.

As I watched the presentation of Apple’s Vision Pro I kept thinking about J. J. Gibson’s Theory of Affordances which I first came across when I read Shoshana Zuboff’s 2002 book The Support Economy.  Zuboff had begun to explore this idea in her first book, In The Age of the Smart Machine (1988) where she saw that the digital computer enabled the process of informating which would ensure that everything that could be translated into information would be – exchanges, events, objects – and could be used for surveillance and control.

The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill. … It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment.  (James J. Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, 1979)

In The Support Economy Zuboff explores how this applies to the individuation of consumption, where the convergence between Consumers’ desires, Technological capabilities and Organisational innovations means that

The new individuals seek true voice, direct participation, unmediated influence, and identity-based community because they are comfortable using their own experience as a basis for making judgements.

Zuboff uses the Theory of Affordances to describe the characteristics of digital information:

  1. It bestow global transparency and enable the capacity to inform in a way which is visible, sharable, knowable, mobile and manageable.  This provides greater accountability and responsibility but also results in a demand for better business practices
  2. It enables humans to more effectively and efficiently deal with complexity
  3. It provides the opportunity for comprehensive understanding through collaboration and co-ordination as a result of distributed learning and customisation
  4. It provides immediacy – – anywhere, anyhow, anytime
  5. It enables infinite plasticity in the manipulation and shaping of products and information
  6. The result is that supply chain relationships become kaleidoscopic rather than linear processes, without reference to geographical location.

So let’s begin to think about what Vision Pro could potentially offer as compared with three other vision-products.

The flawed but extraordinary Vision shows that the technological struggle to make spatial computing a reality is being won. The next race is to discover what it is for. Apple has just fired the starting gun. (The Economist).

The beauty of thinking in Affordances is that it is we humans who will figure out new ways to use anything … be it Vision Pros or walking paths.

Which brings me to some of the conversations I heard in Brussels.

A couple of years ago the World Economic Forum started talking about Industry 4.0 which they defined as the merging the physical, digital and biological worlds in ways that create both huge promise and potential peril.

Personally I never bought in to this … I felt that even the use of the word industry was completely missing the point of the digital revolution and told me more about the mindset of the people coming up with the idea than what was going on.

The word industry has a number of definitions:

  • a group of productive enterprises or organizations that produce or supply goods, services, or sources of income (Britannica)
  • manufacturing activity as a whole; a distinct group of productive or profit-making enterprises; a department or branch of a craft, art, business, or manufacture; systematic labour especially for some useful purpose or the creation of something of value (Miriam Webster)

At Grow Digital the Panel of speakers talked about Industry 5.0 which they see as being complementary to Industry 4.0 and providing a shift from a focus on economic value to a focus on societal value, and a shift in focus from welfare to wellbeing.

According to the International Society of Automation

While the theme of Industry 4.0 revolves around connectivity through cyber-physical systems, Industry 5.0—while also aligned with platforms made possible by Industry 4.0—also addresses  the relationship between “man and machine,”

Which means that people are beginning to see the word industry as linking to social and societal change – which is what Web Science has been talking about for two decades.  There is a teleological elements to Affordances here because as we perceived the uses of things this changes how we integrate them in to our lives, which then has social and even political consequences.

In his book The Goddess versus the Alphabet polymath Leonard Shlain postulated that the invention of writing led to an increased linearisation of human thought which became more logical and process driven which then impacted how we structured our societies and systems of governance.  Shlain believed that two inventions in the 20th Century would radically change this:  the typewriter (where we use both hands for input) and the television (where we receive information spatially and through moving images).

Another perspective is that of psychologist Iain McGilcrist who argued that Western thinking has oscillated between being left-brain and right-brain dominated (The Matter of Things):

[Y]ou could say, to sum up a vastly complex matter in a phrase, that the brain’s left hemisphere is designed to help us ap-prehend – and thus manipulate – the world; the right hemisphere to com-prehend it – see it all for what it is.

If even some of what Shlain and McGilcrist say is correct then Spatial computing is going to have as significant an impact on our societies as the invention of writing did 5,000 years ago and we are already seeing evidence of this in the generations now who rarely hand-write (and certainly can’t read hand writing) and who predominantly communicate through visual or aural social media – personally I find that I would often prefer to listen to a podcast or watch a video than read reams of text.

Much of this comes down to personal learning styles and different types of intelligence, as well as age and demographics.  Which brings me back to Douglas Adams’ quote where we started.  I think the use of the term Industry 5.0 reflects much of the above – linear thinking and demographics – most senior managers globally are in the age bracket of Adams over thirty-fives and thus have a natural inclination to see things as they have been, not as they could become.

We are still largely seeing the world through the prism of the industrial age.

So is this Industry 5.0?  Not even remotely.  This is the Age of Information plus Humanity+  plus Psychohistory plus every science fiction story you’ve ever read.

This is where I think we are now approaching an event horizon in terms of how we see the world, which I began to write about last year.  I think that this means we are now extremely limited in our ability to imagine the future that is emerging as the result of the technologies we have already created – Artificial Intelligence, Spatial Computing, BioEngineering, Limitless Energy – and the speed with which it is coming is something totally unprecedented in recorded human history.  Even creating new Science Fiction is a challenge (which Charlie Brooker found when he tried to get ChatGPT to write a Black Mirror episode) because it is all based on our experience of life living in a human physical analogue world and the affordances this provides us.

So where can we look for clues as to what might be evolving?

  1. With young people, the so-called digital natives, who have grown up post internet, who don’t necessarily thinking linearly and are not as shackled with the industrial mindset.  Some of these people are finding everything cool and exciting, others are downright terrified, but as with each younger generation they are the ones challenging the status quo whilst simultaneously being caught up in the distraction of media consumption.
  2. With older people, those who are aging and are the ones needing to use technologies to help them live and enhance their lives.  These people are among the last to remember life before the internet and to fully appreciate that changes to our human system that have been wrought and often they are highly tech-savvy – we used to call them Silver Surfers!
  3. Aligned with this are those with physical and learning difficulties who don’t fit in to the stereotypes that society has imposed on our physical and learning systems – those with dyslexia, visual and hearing impairment, and those who have problems interacting with the world of text and linearity we have currently constructed.  (Azimov’s Stranger in Paradise is a beautiful short story that is well worth reading on this).
  4. Then there is the non-Western world where millions of people are using the technologies in ways that we WEIRD people don’t necessarily think of or understand.

In other words we need to first recognise and then seek to move beyond own human filter-bubbles and be open to diversity in the greatest possible sense.  We need to recalibrate as human beings, be open to and harness our human emotions – be they fear, anger, excitement, frustration – in order to prepare for what is coming and then do what we humans do best – work together to proactively use these incredible tools we’ve invented to help us solve the problems around us rather than mindlessly be distracted with our online shopping and obsession with immediate satisfaction in the vain hope that they just go away.

This is the work now.  It is not easy, but nothing about our survival as a species has been up until now, nor should it be.

Digitally Savvy

Digitally Savvy

A few weeks ago I had the distinct pleasure to do an interview with Simon Western on his Edgy Ideas podcast.

As always in a real human-to-human conversation it enabled me to think through some ideas which have been percolating for quite a while.

Thank you Simon and for Aodhan Moran for introducing us.

Listen to the “Edgy Ideas” Podcast with Simon Western.

The Age of the Smart Social Machine

The Age of the Smart Social Machine

Title adapted from Shoshana Zuboff’s ground-breaking 1988 book

Last week I attended a Group Relations Conference in India.  These events are always intense (this one even more so!) but they provide a unique opportunity to consider oneself with a human social system.

One of the things that occurred to me as we were exploring the role of the unconscious as it was playing out in the here and now (all psychobabble terms but in fact hugely important) was that there are multiple unconsciouses which operate as we live our dual analogue-digital lives. Carl Jung described what he called the collective unconscious which complements and influences all of our conscious thinking and actions as we participate within the human system.  I believe that there is now in addition a digital unconscious which is emerging in the digital realm as the result of our digital interactions within the Social Machine and an even more powerful machine unconscious which is evolving in the artificial intelligences we are building.  I drew the image below to try to illustrate my conjecture to the group – needless to say most didn’t understand.

In What Technology Wants co-founder of Wired Magazine and co-Chair of the Long Now Foundation Kevin Kelly talks about The Technium:  A Living System of Technology which encompasses the entire system around technology – culture, art, social institutions, through to “the extended human”.  In his latest blog post Kelly states that

For a while I’ve been intensely exploring generative AI systems, creating both text and visual images almost daily, and I am increasingly struck by their similarity to dreams. The AIs seem to produce dream images and dream stories and dream answers. The technical term is “hallucinations” but I think they are close to dreams. I’ve come to suspect that this similarity between dreams and generative AI is not superficial, poetic, or coincidental. My unexpected hunch is that we’ll discover that the mechanism that generates dreams in our own heads will be the same (or very similar) to the ones that current neural net AI’s use to generate text and images.

 

The foundational mode of the intelligence is therefore dreaming.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not necessarily agreeing with Kevin Kelly here nor am I buying in to the hype about machines hallucinating.  What I am pointing out is that the machines are analyzing human data using human crafted algorithms and therefore there is something of our unconscious that is embedded in their emanations which is now being made explicit and visible.  We can only refer to concepts and ideas in human terms (hence we anthroporphosize) and to describe what the machines are doing is almost like taking us in to our own unconscious (this is where the concept of Azimov’s Psychohistory comes in to play).

One way of accessing the collective human unconscious is through Social Dreaming, the practice of sharing, associating to and working with dreams in a matrix in order to identify social trends and social dynamics. As our machines are coming together and bringing our data with them it may well be that what we are seeing is a manifestation of the collective human unconscious expressed through the output of the machines – which may seem like hallucinations – but how can we know given the opaque nature of how they operate?  And, if they have begun to go down that path then they are already moving beyond our realm of understanding.

The real challenge will come when they become able to acknowledge and recognise this unconscious as something different from a probabalistic algorithm, or are embodied, as the work of people like Rodney Brooks and so much of our Science Fiction (Humans, Blade Runner, Ex Machina) has shown us,

So what does this mean for us as humans?

Up until the recent advances brought about by the large language models such as ChatGPT talking with the average person about the advancing machine intelligence was like describing an elephant.  Every person sees things that directly relate only to them just like the story of the Blind Man and the Elephant.

This relates as much to technologists as to everyone else as I’ve witnessed countless times. The most obvious to me was when

I heard a very notable “father” of the digital world speak at a conference and when asked what he would recommend about how to address the rise of pornography on the Web he responded  “well just don’t look at it!” 

Many of the people I’ve met who have built the machinery of the digital world are extremely naïve, building the tools because they can, not asking whether they should. When Geoffrey Hinton resigned from Google last week he commented

I console myself with the normal excuse: If I hadn’t done it, somebody else would have,

As with all kids in the candy shop scenarios if you give a scientist a problem and lots of funding they will develop new tools and techniques regardless of the potential consequences. Hinton and others like him saw only part of the Elephant without considering it as a whole animal let alone part of a herd.

Which brings in the question of ethics.  Whilst some of the big companies have created Ethics Advisory Boards the reality is that much of the development work in the field of AI is now happening in the open source space where there is no supervision or oversight.  These people still want to move fast and break things and the very nature of Ethics is designed to slow things down by asking difficult and challenging questions.

Governments and regulation are also designed to slow things down because politics and policy operates on human time which is analogue, messy and the very opposite of an efficient machine.  Humans need time to process, and our relationships are based on what people like Anna Machin and Rachel Botsman call Trust Friction – the stickiness and the glue that underpins how human systems operate.

The whole point of human relationships is that they are not efficient, because they take time and brain power to develop and maintain. Trust needs friction.  (Anna Machin)

Human systems are analogue and analogue takes time.  In the analogue world:

  • You can’t fire off a letter you need to write and post it
  • you can do an online transfer you need to go to the bank
  • you can’t immediately alter a design you need to redraw it
  • you can’t just be friends with everyone you need to build trust through shared experiences which takes time.

Machines don’t want friction – it slows them down, makes things break and ruins their power to work ratio – i.e. “productivity”.  The ultimate idea of this is the Paperclip Problem where smart machines instructed to make paper clips will consume all the resources in the universe (including us) to just make paper-clips.

With the advent of ChatGPT and it’s brethren the removal of friction within our human-machine interactions has now gone to the next level and smart AI is now being embedded in to pretty much all of our digital processes – just think of how many conversations your have and hear which involved technology of some sort.

So now I’d like to bring in a new analogy, the frog in the pot of soup as the temperature is gradually turned up.

Our human need to process and understand means that we as humanity have been sitting in the digital soup for at least half a century but in the first half of 2023 suddenly it is feeling a little uncomfortably warm.

As the soup heats up there are some who are going to want to jump out of the soup – there are some who going to boil and there are those who will adapt.

The questions now seem to me to be who each of these will be and what will happen in each case.

Let’s consider some options:

Firstly, those who want to leave.  It may be too late but, as with the Luddites in the Industrial Revolution, there is much wisdom in what they have to say and perhaps an alternate reality has much to offer as it always has throughout the ages.  There is something of this in Hari Seldon’s concept of building a Foundation on the furthest planet in order to separate itself from the chaos of the main system – an opportunity to isolate, slow down, reboot and recreate.

Secondly, those who are trapped. Sadly there is always a high cost to any radical change and many will find the “new world” frightening and overwhelming. Just one example is the rate of teenage girl suicide already.  Along with many others I have spent the past three decades of my life working to understand the transition that is upon us and help people prepare for the change with minimal effect.  Some have heeded the lessons, most have sat and enjoyed the warmer water oblivious to the dangers. I’m not sure anything can help these people any more as I think the rate of change is going to be too fast.

I think both of these groups will struggle and push back through both fear and anger and the manifestation of this could be dangerous.

Finally, there will be those who adapt, survive and thrive.

With all the noise about the technology and how fast it’s progressing or whether it should be paused or stopped the real point is what are the humans going to do about it?  Therefore it is the third group I am most interested in and I believe that it is being led by the younger generation but needs to be supported and mentored by the 21st Elders who have memories of the analogue world and the value of its friction and temporal nature.

Some fear the AI Apocalypse and that non-Western (WEIRD) cultures may gain a technological advantage.  This is problematic on so many levels particularly given that it is the minority-population WEIRD West that has created the culture of growth and the technologies themselves.  Some alternative thinking might be precisely what is needed now and some less privileged cultures may, in fact, be better prepared for what is to come.

The history of automation is that we humans have invented machines to take away the dirty, dangerous and dull jobs … now we are taking away a whole host of others.  These technologies can be used to solve the very challenging problems which confront us in the 21st Century and the sooner we learn to work constructively and creatively with the machines the sooner we will harness the power that is before us for good.

The more I feel people heading in one direction as a herd the more I want to go the other way and explore what is happening there – this is where the adaptive survivors will be.

 

Keep the Humans on the Track!

Keep the Humans on the Track!

I took this photo in Tanzania in 2019 as the vehicles descended on a group of lions.

This morning I read this article which described the aggressive tourism that is increasingly occurring around the world and its impact on wildlife and the environment.

What really resonated was the feeling I’ve had over the last week as I’ve wandered around the walking tracks of the Three Capes in South Eastern Tasmania, expensively curated with kilometers of duck-boarding, hand rails, safety signs and idyllic viewpoints of the need to keep the humans out of the wild and on the tracks.

I last bushwalked in Tasmania forty years ago, in the days where tracks were tracks, huts were huts and the Franklin Dam Blockade was in full swing around Australia as a whole.  I trekked around Tassie with friends, one of whom knew most of the Greenies manning the blockade and who hailed her as we approached on our tourist boat on the river.  As a contrast our other friends were those who were working as engineers in the mines and sternly warned us to be very careful about everything we said, particularly when drinking in the Queenstown pub!  And we had to take the No Dams stickers off our backpacks.

Memories of those days of the freedom to travel and the freedom to protest were brought back when I watched Franklin the movie which I thought gave an excellent overview of the key political issues of the time which saw the birth of the Green movement in Australia and clearly portrayed both the history and how the various players in the game behaved.  The Franklin River was saved, a national consciousness about environmentalism was awoken and Tasmania’s place as a wilderness destination was cemented in our consciousness.

The uniqueness of Tasmania is not just in its natural environment but also in it’s creative scene, the most obvious of which is the Museum of Old and New Art, MONA, where, since 2011, gambling millionaire David Walsh has created his dream museum of quite literally whatever he wants.  I first visited MONA shortly after it opened and this time, a decade on, as I wandered around I had a very strong feeling that I was in something akin to West World, and that every step I took, every swipe i made on the MONA App I made, and every cursive glance I took at a piece of ‘art’ would be captured and analysed by Walsh and his curators to tweak my behaviour and that of others as co-exhibits in the museum. It was a delicious – if slightly unsettling – paradox of who / what was observing who / what for whose enjoyment?

This feeling mirrored the one I had walking along the duck-boarding of the Three Capes despite the fact that at MONA I was in a man-made museum.

I spoke to some friends in Tassie about these experiences realising that this is happening everywhere around the world.  The reality is that in the age of the Anthropocene it is we homo sapiens that have become parasitic in our behaviours greedily consuming not only things but experiences as we seek to entertain ourselves and reconnect somehow with the natural environment.  Therefor, in order to protect that natural environment, which often includes the lands of first nations’ peoples who lived in balance with it for millennia, it is imperative that modern humans be herded, guided and quarantined, allowed to ‘look but don’t touch, but always at a safe distance.  I felt this very keenly as I wandered along the duck-boarding, read all the warning signs and was gently chastened by our guides as I stepped too close to the edge of the cliff.  I felt a long way from Rousseau’s State of Nature regardless of how free I think I am.

Saving me from myself and saving nature from me.

As a corollary to this is the state we’re all in at the moment, certainly in Western societies, where the serendipity seems to be disappearing in our lives.  No longer is it as easy to just rock up to a restaurant and have a meal, or decide to visit a museum or go on an adventure.  Just like the curated wilderness we now need to download the app, pre-book our tables and guarantee with a credit card, and pre-state our food allergies or preferences.  Again we are being herded and shepherded in to a predetermined experience where some of the surprise and adventure is actually removed in order to give us something that we can trust, that we can know we’re being taken care of and can participate safely from a distance.

My 21 year old self would not quite know what to think about all of this (let alone my parents and grandparents!), but it is all predictable and people have been describing this emerging world for a long time … the Club of Rome, The Matrix and E. M. Foster’s The Machine Stops.  We humans are very good at denying the need to change, but also incredibly successful at adapting to it and the next few decades are going to present our species with a greater rate of change than anything in our recorded history.  We will see more pandemics, more extreme weather events, more forced migration, more inequality, more autocrats, different conflicts, and more technological change than our intellectual systems will able to cope with.  We will see more stress, more anxiety and more apathy, combined with many feeling a sense of loss and enormous amounts of grieving.

But we will also seen unprecedented opportunities to truly change the way humanity lives on the planet (hopefully to benefit not just us but other species we share it with) and a profound redefinition of what humanity actually is.

As we at Intersticia begin our second decade there is much to ponder about who we are, what we do, and how we can constructively contribute to the skills and capabilities of 21st Century Stewardship for the sake of those we serve not for ourselves.  We need to ensure that we can stay above the maelstrom and not fall in to the trap of the Red Queen Effect but work to more fully understand the systemic changes from the perspective of the interstice where everything is possible and there is no benefit of falling in to the default of good / bad; right / wrong but realise the advantage of seeing things holistically and systemically and understanding humans as part of the broader Gaia system rather than a parasitic virus that needs to be taken out of it.

2023 is going to be a very interesting year.

(Illustration by Sir John Tenniel from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, 1871)

Digital Gymnasia Series 2020

Digital Gymnasia Series 2020

Emergencies fast-forward historical processes.  Entire countries serve as guinea-pigs in large-scale social experiments. (Yuval Noah Harari)

For the past few years I have been delivering Digital Skills workshops to interested students at Goodenough College, but the travel restrictions of Covid 2020 means that I’m stuck in Australia and so, like everyone, we’ve had to come up with new solutions and ways to engage.

The flip side is that Covid has brought about ‘the digital moment’ and we are all now participating in probably the largest global experiment as we harness digital media to remain connected, to craft new ways of staying in business, and to keep the wheels of industry turning.

With this in mind Goodenough College Dean Alan McCormack, Alumni Director Hannah du Gray and I decided that it was the perfect time to reach out beyond the  current student body to all of our Goodenough community around the world and offer them the opportunity to more consciously think about the digital tools that they work with, and begin to develop some real digital muscle in order to more safely and securely navigate and negotiate our lives online.

Thus was born our Digital Gymnasia, a series of workshops where the emphasis is on education, play, and skill building through conversation and coaching and where we can explore some of the questions and issues which arise in a safe and non-judgemental space.

The Ancient Greek Gymnasia were places for physical activity but also places for intellectual pursuits and philosophical discussion.  The word gymnos comes from the Greek unclothed which implies not just nudity but also a vulnerability and a need to exercise in order to attain skills to better prepare for the world around.  The Romans continued the idea of the gymnasia with their Baths and we still use the term for both exercise facilities but also schools.

As I thought of what to name the series of digital literacy workshops that have emerged over the past few months the idea of the gymnasia seemed most appropriate.  What we need at this time is not something to cure an illness or seek treatment but a space within which to play and test the equipment around us in order to build our confidence, capacity and capability in using it to live better and more fulfilling lives.  In short we need to exercise our digital muscles in order to both safely use the equipment and, even better, successfully compete in the digital games that now surround us.

We have become digital in the last few years (especially with our phones) as well as physical beings. There is nothing in physical experience that can fully equip us with what that really means. (Doc Searls)

The tools of the Digital era have been gradually evolving but pre-Covid the legacy and stickyness of Industrial Age thinking has persisted – just consider the World Economic Forum’s idea of a Fourth Industrial Revolution.  I would contend that whilst we still live in an ‘industrialised economy’ ever since the birth of the Internet and the Web we have been moving towards a Network Economy.

The Pandemic has provided both the need and the curiosity for many to explore the digital realm in new and unexpected ways. Up until now we have largely been retro-fitting the way we do things in the physical space in to the online environment – insisting on having conferences and events from 9 am t0 6 pm and not taking account of the affordances of the digital medium and how that impacts our emotional and mental needs or reactions.  This is still happening but gradually we are becoming more confident and creative and what has surprised and delighted me is how creative people are becoming at working with the online tools – the democratisation of the digital space is enabling and embodying new creative solutions and expressions.

One example of this is Ruby Wax’s Frazzled Café which provides peer support meetings online.  Ruby started her in person meetings at Marks and Spencer cafes but Covid has forced them to go online.  When I asked her what she will do then some sort of ‘normality’ returns Ruby told me in no uncertain terms that the online Frazzleds will continue because they are so powerful and can reach so many people.

Ruby, and many like her have found the confidence to go online, to a space that they may not have felt comfortable operating in, but bit by bit they are experimenting and developing their digital muscle.

But as with all new exercises and fancy gym equipment it is often best to start off with an instructor, and that is what we are seeking to do with our Digital Gymnasia.

The format of Digital Gymnasia

Our first Digital Gymnasium focuses on the topic Digital 101, a session designed to explore how the socio-technical systems around us have evolved in order to understand where they are now in 2020 and imagine where they might be going.  We focus on a brief history of information technologies coupled with some hands on exercises to determine peoples’ levels of digital literacy and awareness.

The second Digital Gymnasium focuses on The Digital Agora where we explore the world of online community spaces and how they are enabling us to remain connected despite the global lockdowns and quarantines.  We begin by considering the affordances of digital interaction technologies and what benefits they provide as well as their limitations and consequences.

The third Digital Gymnasium focuses on Your Digital Brand and how we each craft our presence online.  This session is built upon the work I have done over the past 2o years (and resulted in my PhD research, see here and here) which at the core considers how our lives online produce our ‘brand’.  Our aim here is to really think about how we are perceived by others online.

The fourth and fifth Digital Gymnasia focus on Protecting Yourself Online and provides  an overview of tools and techniques to better deal with online safely and security.  Our aim is to get people actively engaged with their online security and more fully begin to understand the idea of digital identity.

The sixth Digital Gymnasium focuses on The Politics of Digital Technologies with an overview of how governments around the world are utilising digital surveillance technologies and systems in the name of Public Health. At the core of this is the concept of Trust which is multi-layered and an expression of our cultural norms and expectations.  It is also a clear example of the lack of digital literacy and awareness in the Pubic Sphere.

The seventh Digital Gymnasium focuses on Seeing the World through Data – how data drives everything around us and why this is important.  Data has been described as the new oil of the digital economy, but there is a lot more to it than that.  In order to build digital muscle we need to understand what digital is made up of (think of how we monitor our diet through exercise) and data is the source.  This workshop seeks to demystify the idea of data, information and knowledge to more effectively work with it as our digital systems evolve.

Our final Digital Gymnasium focuses on what being Born Digital means – how digital businesses differ from traditional bricks and mortar ones, but also how they are changing and what this means for the future of work, education, health care and many other aspects of our everyday lives.

These workshops are an opportunity for me and my colleague Leanne Fry (with whom much of this material has been developed and who has lived through the digital transformation of the past two decades with me) to reflect on the work we’ve done and to offer what we’ve learned to others in a way that we hope is useful, empowering and entertaining.

We would love you to join us.

If you are interested please just contact me.

Brave Conversations goes Global even more in 2019

Brave Conversations goes Global even more in 2019

In July last year, before we had Intersticia UK properly set up, I wrote this post.

We are about to take Brave Conversations to the next level with events in Melbourne, Boston and London.

If we know that alternative futures are possible then we can start thinking about better ones.  (Cory Doctorow, What should we do about democracy?)

In my last post I referred to Psychohistory, Isaac Azimov’s fictional science which combines history, sociology and the mathematical statistics to make general predictions about the future behaviour of very large groups of people – in other words to explore alternative future.

It has been said that the World Wide Web is a portent of precisely such a thing which is why those who invented it created the interdisciplinary field of Web Science.

“Research tries to anticipate time. If you’re reading the Economist it’s interesting facts.”  (Luciano Floridi)

Since its public release in to human society the Web has evolved from being a small academically orientated Read Only (push information out) information community to a global publishing Read-Write infrastructure upon which almost 50% of humans interact with each other facilitated by the largest companies of the modern era.

The Web is changing the World, and the World is changing the Web 

(see 10th anniversary video).

Not only do we communicate via the Web but increasingly it is becoming an environment where we actually live (Luciano Floridi) and as with all social ecosystems our ability to co-habit as a bunch of evolved apes is dependent on the rules and norms which govern how we act and treat each other.

“Civilization is but a thin veneer stretched across the passions of the human heart. And civilization doesn’t just happen; we have to make it happen.” (Bill Moyers)

In previous eras the relative rates of technical and societal change have been roughly equivalent.  In the digital age this is not the case, which is why we created Brave Conversations in 2017.

Brave Conversations

Brave Conversations is the first non-academic but publicly focused Web Science event to provide people from all walks of life – industry, government, academia, and the community sectors – with the opportunity to sit back, reflect and respectfully explore the socio-technical issues beginning to arise as a result of digital information technologies.  It carries on from MetaLounge, our first attempts from 2008 – 2011 to create these types of event, and has now had four iterations around the world;  2017 in Canberra; Dubai as part of the 2018 World Government Summit; London 2018 in partnership with SoapBox Islington, and Kingston, Jamaica in July 2018 hosted by the Jamaican Broadcasting Commission.

At each event I have been humbled and privileged to help facilitate and encourage people to be truly brave in addressing issues which have been both confronting and uncomfortable, but most importantly to feel that at the end of each session they have left slightly more educate and enabled, but most of all empowered, to more proactively navigate and negotiate their digital lives.

Throughout we have continually been asked “what is a ‘brave’ conversation“?

As we were designing the programme it struck us that the most valuable thing we could contribute to the global dialogue would be to intentionally confront people with ideas, concepts and suggestions that they may intuitively be aware of but were unable to explore, understand or articulate in a public space.

Our Canberra event taught us the importance of actively listening to, and integrating the voice of young people.  It also demonstrated the benefit of having a diversity of voices in the room, sometimes creating discomfort and tension when language was a barrier, by which I mean those comfortable with technical language and those not.  This is why we chose to partner with SoapBox Islington and a huge thanks to James Dellow, Nick Crivello and all the team there for their wonderful hospitality and terrific group of young people who joined us.  Thank you also to Tris Lumley, Lydia Hascott and Jo Wolfe for their incredible support and amazing organisational skills in supporting Leanne Fry, Bel Campbell and me throughout.

Brave Conversations London in partnership with SoapBox Islington

“Technology challenges us to assert our human values which means that first of all we have to know what they are.”  (Sherry Turkle)

As we were framing Brave Conversations London we reflected on the 2018 Data breach scandals and the calls for ethics to be more proactively integrated in to the development of digital technologies.  But which ‘ethics’?  Ethics, from my understanding, is relative and is based on how you see the world, what matters and how things fit together.  As we explored this we determined that what was more important was to help people focus on and articulate their values as a foundation piece in order to have brave conversations, particularly as the group was quite diverse having a good mix of sexes, around a third under the age of 35, together with a number in their 70s, and one family of three generations.

In understanding the difference I found this to be a very useful overview:

  1. Values are the basic beliefs that an individual thinks to be true. Every individual has a set of values through which he looks at all things and also at the world.
  2. Ethics are guidelines or rules that are set for a society or an organization rather than for an individual.
  3. Values can be said to be the guiding principles in one’s life. ‘Value’ can be defined as a bridge by which an individual makes a decision regarding good and bad, right or wrong, and most important or less important.
  4. Ethics can be defined as set of rules formulated by a country or a company or some institutions. Ethics is mainly based on the moral values.

We crafted our values framework based on both an interpretation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs combined with Moore and Khagran’s Strategic Triangle for Creating Public Value.  Not only did we frame our questions around the questions of ‘what Can we do‘ (logos, the technology) and ‘what Should we do‘ (ethos, culture) but we also highlighted the need to ask ‘what May we do‘ (pathos, authority).

In addition we created a very simple, but quite informative, algorithm to poll the group about their feelings towards technology asking four questions to elicit their confidence that five potential technology innovations would improve their lives.

This graphic shows the results - a score of -0.18, in other words they were not confident at all.

Whilst the exercise was both crude and we did not have a lot of time to explain it in detail, it was indicative in terms of the general feeling in the room over the two days and the flavour of the discussions that were held.

What we learned in London then informed how we framed the conversations for Jamaica.

Brave Conversations Kingston in partnership with the Jamaican Broadcasting Commission

“We need to ensure that future citizens have the human capacity to operate in the digital world.” (Dr Andrew Wheatley, MP, Jamaica)

I met Cordel Green at the Harvard Kennedy School and our mutual interest in digital literacy and the need to empower people in the digital world resulted in his very kind invitation to travel to Kingston to hold Brave Conversations.

Not only was I welcomed with open arms but I was almost overwhelmed by the hospitality I was given and a huge thanks to Cordel, Karlene Salmon, Don Dobson and all at Broadcom for giving me such a privileged insight in to Jamaica.  Thank you also to Kemal Brown and his wonderful team who recorded it all.

Broadcom is the communications regulator in Jamaica, but not only is it doing that it is taking the lead in educating the Jamaican community about the world of information and both their rights and responsibilities in it.  We kicked off with an interview on Smile Jamaica, the opening of the Jamaican Teachers’ Federation Conference, and a radio interview, all of which gave me some initial insights in to this wonderful country.

Many of the conversations I heard in Jamaica were similar to those I hear elsewhere, but with their own unique twist.  Jamaica’s history, geography, climate and demographics have created an island paradise from which individuals have always shone on the world stage and of course writers such as Ian Fleming have been at their creative best.

Jamaica’s most pressing challenge is its crime rate.  According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2017-2018 the most problematic factors for doing business in the country are Crime and Theft, Taxes and Corruption.  But this links to so many other factors, and what resonated deeply for me was the determination to help young people develop the resources and resilience through both education and opportunity to help change this and determine a different future.  This was coupled by the high level of religious affiliation which was proudly displayed and acknowledged.

When I was crafting Brave Conversations Jamaica I wondered what impact this would have particularly as one of the key thinkers we reference is Yuval Noah Harari, whose Homo Deus and interviews directly challenge traditional religions comparing them to the “playing of virtual reality games in order to give humans meaning and purpose”.

It proved to be a core part of the conversations, and an opportunity to push both boundaries and ideas.

Fear and love

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” (Nelson Mandela)

We chose the word brave because any discussion around technology forces us as human beings to confront our deepest beliefs, aspirations and above all fears – how we see and make sense of the world and above all the things we are afraid of losing – from the basics of safety and security, to the intimacy of love.

At each of our Brave Conversations a mini-community evolved within which there was a degree of discomfort, people did have to explore and listen to different, and often challenging, viewpoints, but there began to emanate both a sense of trust and the preparedness to be brave.

“The real existential risk is a loss of the ability to make sense of the world around us:  what is worth doing, and what the likely effects of things will be.” (Daniel Schmachtenberger)

Having now run Brave Conversations in numerous countries, and with other invitations in the pipeline, we are keen to do whatever we can to help people better understand and appreciate the new digital space within which they are living.

What I have learned is that if we can provide the framework, the information and safe space for people to take a risk, present themselves as truly curious and smart humans, they will be brave and they willingly embrace the opportunity.

The real question of course is that armed with the insights of research, coupled with the power and communication afforded by our technologies, and with Humanity’s future at stake, can we afford not to be brave?

April 2024
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