The best thing we can do is build surfboards and ride the wave. (Scott Davis)
It seems that we, as humanity, are at an inflection point, a period in human history where quite literally anything could happen!
Some, like Yuval Noah Harari, believe that unless we regulate and control the evolving artificial intelligence it could well be the end of human history as we know it.
What would happen once a non-human intelligence becomes better than the average human at telling stories, composing melodies, drawing images, and writing laws and scriptures?” The answer, he believes, casts a dark cloud over the future of human civilisation.
We should regulate AI before it regulates us. (Yuval Noah Harari)
Others, like Scott David, believe that if we synthesize human and Artificial Intelligence and augment our thinking we may finally have the tools we need to cope with the other major challenges of the 21st Century.
Some, like Jaan Tallinen and those at the Future of Life Institute (FLI), believe that we need to pause the giant AI experiments in order to take time to more fully understand the risks.
Others, like Pedro Domingoes, criticise this call and want to forge ahead because, as Alan Kay said
The best way to predict the future is to invent it.
Regardless of which side one takes what this all demonstrates is that it is not the ‘it’, the AGI, that we should be worried about, it is us, the humans, and how we are going to deal with whatever emerges.
The one good thing about the FLI letter is that it has been a catalyst for debate and has finally brought the issue of AGI to the public forum. The reality is that regardless of what the technologies can or can’t do it is our social systems that will generate the real social change, for instance companies like IBM pausing its hiring to replace 7,800 jobs with AI and Microsoft’s development of Co-Pilot. Companies are not hiring graduate developers, they are caught up in the hype around the tech and this is causing major ripples in the labour market.
Whilst it may take a decade or more for AGI to emerge (in whatever form that may be) there is no doubt that in the short term the hype around it will impact peoples’ lives and this is what will create more risk than the potential of the machine.
One way of looking at the current situation is that following the disruption of the Covid19 Pandemic there are now the accompanying advances in AI, and the other technologies which are now converging, which have shaken up and unfrozen much within our social and economic systems. This can be illustrated by considering two models: Kurt Lewin’s Freeze-Unfreeze (Lewin 1947 Frontiers in group dynamics) and William Bridges Transition.
It is the unfrozen state (the Interstice) which provides the potential and opportunity for change and renewal before the new-normal is established. This is a time of excitement and energy but it is also a time of fear and potential unrest because change can be frightening as the old ways die and the new is not yet clear (see Kubler Ross).
In facing any change we humans need to feel a sense of agency in order to craft a path forward and accept the change being presented to us, and this is what we sought to explore in our recent Brave Conversations in Brussels.
We presented our participants with three case studies, each of which posed a number of questions around personal choices in response to specific situations in which Artificial Intelligence was a key determinant. The first was based on a challenge posed by a large language model released on to the Internet; the second related to AI and a health care issue, and the third related to the development of government policy. In each case we armed our participants with Mark Moore’s Strategic Triangle asking three questions to determine how they as individuals could potentially respond to each case:
- Ethos – What should we do? What do our values, ethics and morals guide us to do?
- Logos – What can we do? What resources to do we have?
- Pathos – What may we do? What authority are we acting on?
For much of the last fifty years advances in information systems have been made by scientists, such as Geoffrey Hinton and his peers, who have developed technologies because they could – they were able to do it, they could solve whatever problem they were addressing, and they charged forward. They didn’t necessarily ask if they should – the combined outcome of the Ethos and Pathos in the trilogy.
As a complement to this investors, particularly in Silicon Valley, helped thrust these technologies in to the commercial realm because they understood the value of digital information and digital disruption – Uber, Air BnB and all the companies participating in what Shoshana Zuboff has termed Surveillance Capitalism.
Funnily enough when I met Zuboff at a signing of her book in 2019 I asked her if she had seen all of this coming when she wrote The Support Economy in 2002 – she said, “Yes we did, we just hoped it wouldn’t happen.” Sadly it did.
The commodification of personal data for commercial gain has created a marketplace that trades exclusively in human futures (Zuboff), feeding the Social Machines we have today, exploiting our innate human need to connect with each other. What is worth considering here is that whilst there has been enormous focus on the issues of privacy and surveillance what has not been much discussed are the ways that these platforms view the emergence of communities as a byproduct rather than the driver of their success.
The Web was created by Tim Berners-Lee as a tool to facilitate communication and information sharing between people within a community and it was the trust within that communities that enabled the sharing to occur. Companies then sought to commercialise the Web, which had been given to humanity for free by Tim, and as a result sought to create monopolies by closing elements of it down – the walled gardens of social media.
Just over a decade ago the Open Data Movement gained traction, particularly due to the election of the tech-savvy Barrack Obama as US President in 2008 and the Parliamentary Expenses Scandal in the UK in 2009. There was huge hope for this movement which changed the paradigm around public sector information from being closed and hidden to that of being a public asset to be harnessed and exploited for public good – this resulted in the ‘open by default‘ principle. Sadly, despite the excitement and early wins achieved by Government Digital Services around the world the truth is that they managed to pick the low hanging fruit but the challenges of true digital transformation have proved to be painstakingly difficult – governments are still talking about it in the same way that they were over a decade ago.
It seems to me, having lived through and closely observed these events, that each phase of opening up emerges from within communities that are seeking to solve real problems that affect them. Someone then has the bright idea of commercialising which then encourages the sharks to start circling with their growth and profit mindset and next thing whatever was shared and open became monetised and closed, no longer focused on the needs of the community but geared to exploiting ‘consumer’ behaviour to generate advertising and retail sales revenue.
We are now witnessing this once again in the AI space as the hype is driving the investors to scramble. Someone like Cathy Wood, CEO of Ark Invest sees a massive industry emerging where currently there is virtually none, and this is what happened with the Web and with Open Data. The digital disruptors understood the affordances of digital information and companies like Facebook and Google hoovered up whatever they could to both ingest new technologies and also to close down competition. Because Governments had absolutely no idea of how digital information works they didn’t see what was obvious and right in front of them – because there is no market now doesn’t mean that there won’t be soon! This marketing myopia is responsible for the mega corporations we have today which dominate the online world existing as the most valuable companies of all of recorded human history.
There is hope that perhaps the release of ChatGPT and the ability of the general public to use the systems may wake people up to its potential, and build some sort of momentum towards either regulation and/or Anti-Trust action, something that people like Zephyr Teachout are fighting for (see Break ‘Em Up!).
There is also hope that there may be global communities who can use the very technologies themselves to craft some new phase of openness in partnership with governments and the Third Sector with the objective of serving humanity rather than big corporations (I won’t hold my breath for this one as they will most likely be too slow).
Finally, starting with the European Union’s AI Act, governments may not repeat the mistakes in the first two digital waves of leaving regulation too late and may listen to the chorus of voices calling for it (Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI for one). I say may because thus far their track record is not good.
I think that the real kicker will be when the smart devices we wear on our bodies are embedded within our bodies – smart contact lenses as an obvious example – because then they will be required to meet the standards of Medical Device regulation, although by that time it will most likely be too late.
What there is no doubt about though is that there is a shift happening on all fronts, and I believe it is the younger generation, the Millennials and younger, who need to take the lead now in determining how humanity proceeds. They have grown up in the digital soup and as I have written before I believe this is their time. They are the ones who are now crafting careers, bringing up families and they are the ones who will be supporting us Elders as we age. They are much more connected with their peers globally than we ever were and they don’t seem to be as binary in how they see the world.
As I reflect on this I am brought to consider The Strauss-Howe Generational Theory, and the idea of the Fourth Turning. My late 20’s aged son made an interesting comment to me a few months ago – he said “I can feel a change coming Mum, I’m not sure what it is, but it’s big“.
One thing is for sure is that when, not if, some form of artificial sentience emerges it will shake humanity to the core – we will need to reconsider everything we think is ‘normal’ in our daily lives from how we learn, how we work and even to our concepts of God. History tells us that when humans go through major change it is often with violence and aggression as we lash out to apportion blame or seek redress. This is not going to do any good as the machines won’t care, and this is why, above all
The lesson of AI and of formidable breakthroughs to come, such as quantum computing is that we may now be reaching the point where something most unnatural to humans is the only thing that can save us: humility. (Howard French)
One thing that surfing teaches you is to be humble and to respect the ocean and realise that it and its’ waves can swamp you at any moment. It teaches you to read the tides and the wind and work with the environment, not try to fight against it. Much of this comes from experience but also from being open and having the basic skills (such as knowing how to swim).
I believe that this is where we are now and that what we have to do is to nurture, educate and empower people to harness the good in the digital realm, to learn to craft our surfboards, to learn to ride the waves well and use that knowledge to help future generations always focus and remember their humanity and their part of the greater whole on this Pale Blue Dot of a planet we all inhabit.
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).
Yesterday our UK Trustee Louise Sibley and I attended the World Premier of “Lost Histories“, a show based on the family history of Biripi and Gamillaroi musician Troy Russell, created for Musica Viva Australia’s In-Schools Program. Troy, together with Leila Hamilton and Susie Bishop entertained a small group of families from all walks of Australian life as they visited the Art Gallery of New South Wales to celebrate the opening of it’s new Library and Archive as part of the Gallery’s opening of its’ major new development.
This project came about due to Zoë Cobden-Jewitt, now one of our Intersticia Advisors, with whom we started working on our very first Australian project with the Bell Shakespeare Company when they created their Writers’ Fellowship in 2015.
As I sat and listened to Troy, Leila and Susie explore the memory-box holding these Lost History stories I began to think about the stories within Intersticia that we have all created over the past decade. It was at the end of 2012 after Sam, Lock and I had been to the UK in the Summer with my Aunt Joan Doughton (whom our Doughton Scholarship is in memory of) that I first began seriously exploring the concept of creating a family Foundation through which to undertake our philanthropic activities, and the Intersticia Foundation Australia became a reality on 23rd July 2023. Intersticia UK became a Registered Charity on 7th January 2019.
The idea of being able to support younger people as they journey through life began when I was a student at Goodenough College in 1985, but this was further stimulated by a conversation I had with John O’Neil, founder of The Good Life, in 2016. The Good Life evolved from the Aspen Institute, which was created to enable business leaders to take time out to discuss philosophy, ethics and literature as a key part of their own leadership journey. In 2006 two Aspen teachers – John O’Neil (ex AT&T) and Pete Thigpen (ex Levi Strauss) realised that the lessons of Aspen needed to be brought to the tech-leaders and community of Silicon Valley, and so they created Good Life.
When I visited John in Sausalito in 2016 we talked about how important it was for elders with resources to enable and empower emerging stewards and he challenged me to create a Fellowship – a group of people of like mind that I could support in the work that they do to make the world a better place. This is what has guided our thinking throughout the past decade and has informed the people we have chosen and the organisations we work with.
Here is an overview of our major activities in that time.
- We began working with the Web Science Trust and in partnership with them developed Brave Conversations in March 2017.
- We supported our second Rowland Scholar, Hamish Laing.
- We created our first Leadership Scholarship with Negar Tayyar as the first recipient.
- We created Brave Conversations held at the Australian National University in Canberra. From this has evolved into Future Worlds Challenge.
- We continued our partnership with Bell Shakespeare supporting Teresa Jakovich in their Education Programme.
- We supported our fifth Rowland Scholar, Osheen Arora.
- Bel Campbell worked as Intersticia’s Creative Director co-creating Brave Conversations and the development of Future Worlds Challenge and became our third Leadership Fellow.
- We held our first Intersticia Fellowship Retreat at Goodenough College which ten Fellows, both Australian and UK Boards, which was facilitated by Sam Crock and John Urbano.
- We began working with Founders and Coders and Gaza Sky Geeks to create the Founders Programme which supported eight FAC Graduates and fifteen GSG Graduates to work on Tech for Better projects. Our first Founder Fellows being Joe Friel.
- We supported our sixth Rowland Scholar, Timothy Wong.
- We welcomed Nick Byrne as our second Leadership Fellow.
- The Covid 19 Pandemic hit the world severely curtailing travel and all social activities.
- As part of our adaptation forced by the Covid19 Pandemic we created our Digital Gymnasia Series of workshops, initially run through Goodenough College aimed at their Alumni and Student communities, but run out more broadly in 2021.
- The Digital Gymnasia material was integrated in to the Founders and Coders Social Machine curriculum with the help of FAC Graduate Hannah Stewart.
- We held our second Intersticia Fellowship Retreat online with 17 (seventeen) Fellows and 4 (four) advisors (Sam Crock, Marianne Darre, John Urbano, Louise Sibley and Dan Sofer).
- We supported our eighth Rowland Scholar, Sean McDiarmid.
- We supported our third Doughton Scholar, Marco Valerio.
- Louise Sibley replaced Alison Irvine as a Trustee of Intersticia UK.
- We welcomed Marianne Darre and Philip Hayton as Intersticia Advisors.
- Jacquie Crock began working with Intersticia as our first Intern.
- Doughton Fellow Berivan Esen became a Trustee of Intersticia UK.
- For the first time we funded two concurrent Goodenough Scholars, Farahana Cajuste and Sergio Mutis.
- We continued our work with Yalla through creating the Yalla Apprenticeship Programme which supported two GSG Graduates to work full time with Yalla for six months. One is now a full time employee of Yalla.
- We held our first hybrid Intersticia Fellowship Retreat with 8 (eight) UK Fellows and Advisors attending in person at Schumacher College, Devon, and 15 (fifteen) Fellows and Advisors attending via Zoom.
- We began working with Abeer Abu Ghaith, Founder of MENA Alliances.
- Leadership Fellow Nick Byrne joined the Intersticia Foundation Board.
- We supported Gaza’s first Rock Band Osprey V with some funding towards sound and recording equipment.
- We delivered our first Brave Conversations to the Solstrand Leadership Programme, Norway.
- We supported our second Newspeak Scholar, Ardavan Afshar.
- We began supporting the development of a First Nations’ Ensemble through the Musica Viva Australia “In Schools Programme” resulting in “Lost Histories”created by Troy Russell.
- We supported the development of a new theatrical performance “Darkness” with Five Eliza Street, Newtown, Sydney to be premiered in January 2023.
- We supported our eleventh Rowland Scholar, Yujui Li.
- Abeer Abu Ghaith became a Leadership Fellow.
- We welcomed Hannah Stewart as Founder Fellow.
- We welcomed Zöe Cobden-Jewitt as an Intersticia Advisor.
Reflecting on the last ten years it seems fitting that we close the decade by once again working with Zöe on a project in Australia whilst also exploring new initiatives globally as we have always done.
From the beginning our aspirations for Intersticia were always global. Ten years on we have now achieved this working with a range of organisations and supporting a Fellowship of individuals from all walks of life who are all contributing to the crafting of the story of Intersticia.
I would like to thank each and every person who has been a part of this.
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).
The Solstrand programme contributes to the development of Norwegian businesses and the public sector by providing participants with a better understanding of organisational structure and greater insight into leadership processes.
Since 1953, Nordic leaders have come to The Solstrand programme to learn from and with one another supported by leaders and key actors in Norwegian society and international research who contribute their knowledge and experience.
There are two core aspects of the work that we do through Intersticia.
The first is our focus on Group Relations and the dynamics of human interactions in groups which underpin all aspects of leadership and stewardship.
The second is our focus on integrating digital literacy and digital fluency in the work that we do with our Fellows, with partner organisations and through all of our events, especially Brave Conversations.
This year saw me able to bring these together with two Brave Conversations events in September, the first of which was as a part of the 2022 Solstrand Leadership Programme.
I first learned about Solstrand when I met three Solstrand coaches at the 2018 Tavistock Institute Leicester Conference and subsequent to this two of my Leicester colleagues, Marianne Darre and Philip Hayton, have become members of the Intersticia community as Advisors.
In January 2020 I was invited to Solstrand and was privileged to observe this programme over two days through sitting in on one of the Small Groups, participating in the larger group and then witnessing the Artistic Programme held at the Oseana Art and Cultural Centre in Os.
The Solstrand Hotel began it’s life in 1896 built by Norway’s first Prime Minister Christian Michelsen. Michelsen wanted it to be a place where the tradesmen of Bergen (Norway’s second largest city) could gather strength for their big mission in the city.
Since then leaders from all walks of life have visited Solstrand and in post-WWII Europe it became a beacon of hope for the ravaged Norway with the first Solstrand Programme held at the hotel in 1952 as a partnership between the NFF (Norwegian School of Economics) and the AFF (Norway’s largest Leadership and Organisational Development Consultancy). From the outset the founders of Solstrand wanted to draw on the very latest and most innovative thinking in leadership development and the foundations of the programme are built on this philosophy and the crucial aspects of group relations which manifest in the Tavistock institute’s Leicester Conference.
Every year since 1953 some 48 participants from virtually all sectors of the Norwegian economy, of varying ages and stages in their careers come to Solstrand to participate in a 7 week programme split across two and one week blocks over a year and a half to learn about themselves, the groups they participate in and the organisational system as a whole. They are supported by highly trained coaches and a wide range of guest lectures and talks from speakers and thought leaders around the world.
When I first learned about Solstrand my immediate reaction was “no wonder Norway is doing so well!”. It is, in my opinion, the most effective and successful leadership development programme in the world and has provided an inspiration for how we are developing Intersticia, albeit on a much smaller scale. When I think of how it works it resonates deeply with the values that we at Intersticia espouse and integrate in what we do – those of authenticity, integrity, persistence, courage and grace. What I realised when I discovered Solstrand was that, quite simply,
our vision is for Intersticia to become a mini-global Solstrand, one person at a time.
This year I was hugely privileged to be invited to present a Brave Conversations to the incoming 2022 Solstrand cohort, the first fully face to face one since the start of the Covid pandemic and the first to be held totally within the context of the onging Russia-Ukraine War – the first major conflict in Europe since WWII. The week I attended was also the first week of mourning for the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
I always find going to Solstrand a transformative experience, not only because of the sheer beauty of the hotel sitting quietly on the Hardangerfjord, but in the energy of the work being done within the Solstrand programme itself. This time my experience was that of feeling the deep historical and cultural connections between Britain and Norway not just due to the Viking heritage (Lindesfarne and all that) but as two nations which both have Constitutional Monarchies, are both crucial to the defence of the values of Western Europe, are both blessed with energy independence (Norway now Europe’s main energy provider) but both are prepared to be brave in how they approach things and push the boundaries. There is something wonderfully familar about Norway that I have felt since I first visited (perhaps my own Viking roots) but there is also the courage that is displayed within the Solstrand Programme and it’s own ambitions to facilitate brave conversations.
From the outset of this event the group was responsive, curious and willing to embrace the challenge of asking difficult questions and seeking non-conventional answers. In their groups it was fascinating to observe how they responded to the Case Study based on The Nexus Trilogy which sought to highlight issues such as transhumanism, the ethics of AI and the emerging hive mind of connected humanity. As always it was the context of both the programme and the times which resulted in the most interesting conversations and, hopefully, the most effective learning.
I learned a huge amount about myself and the work we do from the experience and hope that the conversations started at Solstrand will continue to resonate for the participants in both their personal and professional lives and empower them to use their Solstrand learnings as much online as in their real-world interactions. As the metaverses evolve we are going to desperately need people who can be brave and not just follow others – we need those who will see beyond what is immediately apparent and have the courage to seek new paths. This is what Solstrand seeks to achieve.
I would like to thank Hans Morten Skivik, Marianne Darre and Gisken Holst for their very kind invitation and their always open and welcoming hospitality at Soltrand. I would also like to thank the Solstrand programme for the opportunity to introduce ideas around the Social Machine and Digital Enlightenment and to challenge them to leverage these brave conversations beyond Norway.
We created the first Brave Conversations in 2017 but it had a long genesis and followed on from a series of events which we called Meta held between 2008 – 2011. (Funny as I think of how Facebook has now rebranded itself to exactly the same name but for entirely different reasons!)
Our “Meta” events were so named because they focused on metadata, which is essentially, data about data. The objective was to bring people from different perspectives and backgrounds (academia, business and government) together to explore the symbiotic relationship between humanity and technology as digital technologies become increasingly pervasive in everyday life. At these early events we were joined by the early thinkers and practitioners in what we now recognise as the Web Science space, but the conversations were far from mainstream. That has taken time and there’s nothing like a global pandemic, countries in lockdown, and everyday living moving online to kickstart the adoption of new technologies!
So, here we are a decade after our last Meta event and having developed and taken Brave Conversations around the world and online and it’s time for us to create something a little different, something targeted at the emerging leaders in our society and those for whom being online is just taken as given – those born in the 21st Century.
Our early Brave Conversations events attracted a number of young people, sometimes with parents and even grandparents, and Brave Conversations Kingston Jamaica was especially targeted to this demographic. Since that time we have been developing an idea to gamify the process of learning about Web Science and the ‘theory and practice of the Social Machine‘ but it wasn’t until we met MIT researcher Jessica Van Brummelen that it all came together with the result being Future Worlds Challenge.
Jessica is an Electrical Engineering and Computer Science PhD student at MIT researching how conversational agents can empower and teach young learners about AI.
What are conversational agents?
According to IBM:
Conversational AI refers to technologies (chat-bots, virtual agents) which interact with users via speech and uses large volumes of data, machine learning, and natural language processing to help imitate human interactions, recognizing speech and text inputs and translating their meanings across various languages.
Jessica’s research focuses on empowering young learners through helping them develop conversational AI development skills and engaging them in discussions about the ethics of AI. (You can find out more about this work here). Once we met Jessica we knew we had the perfect partner to hold our first Future Worlds Challenge and so we now have two events planned for the end of November, each targeting a different time zone and audience.
Each Future Worlds will comprise the first day of learning to programme an Amazon Alexa using MIT App Inventor and then the second working in teams, each with their own Amazon Alexa, to undertake the Challenge itself.
What is Future Worlds Challenge?
There are so many challenges facing humanity at the moment – climate change, the future of education, health care, governance, work-life balance. The idea of Future Worlds Challenge is to help participants working in teams to think through some of these issues from a systems perspective considering each of the following and how they interact with each other and with the global system as a whole.
- Intrapersonal – What are the systems within ourselves: physical, intellectual, emotional, spiritual?
- Interpersonal – What are the systems between ourselves and others in our family, community?
- Societal – What are the systems at work within a society?
- Global – What are the systems at work in our relationship with the natural world?
We will combine this thinking with each of the following domains in order to explore the options and choices which are presenting themselves, and then each team, armed with the power of their Conversational AI Alexa, will work towards creating and presenting a Future World which they believe would be the most sustainable and beneficial for humanity.
The winning teams will then be invited to join us (virtually) for our Brave Conversations Barcelona event at the forthcoming ACM Web Science 2022 Conference hosted by Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, Spain.
At this stage we have over 100 people from all around the world who have expressed their interest in participating but there are still places left so if you or someone you know would like to come along please register your interest here.
Last week I held the first of our second series of Digital Gymnasia with Alumni and Members of Goodenough College.
In 2017 Experion created it’s Your Data Self ads which, as the ad says, is what companies see when they’re deciding how to interact with individuals. One of my goals in these Gymnasia is to introduce particpants to their data selves and to demystify the digital realm so that they can more confidently navigate and negotiate their online lives.
In our first Digital Gymnasia series we made the most of the World going in to lockdown as we all experimented with living online. The more workshops I did the more I realised that there is a deep seated need for events such as these which both allow people to talk (and later think) whilst simultaneously giving them some practical tools to take away.
The feedback from those who have attended has been largely positive with many telling me they are using what they have learned in their private as well as their professional lives. But, as with all these things, there are some who have felt that I may be rather negative or cynical in how I frame my view of technologies and the world of tech generally.
This has given me pause for thought and so I am taking this opportunity to articulate my own ideas a bit further in order to provide additional context for future events and, perhaps, encourage some braver conversations.
I have always been interested in the interstice between technology, culture and society and aware that we, as a species, are at the beginning of a major technological revolution, something way beyond “industrial” and something we don’t even have the words to adequately describe as yet.
I bought my first Apple Macintosh when I was a student living in Goodenough College in 1985; I logged on to the early World Wide Web through the first version of the Netscape browser via Australia’s first public Internet Service Provider Pegasus Networks in 1993; I co-created my first Web Consulting company “New Media Connections” in 1995, and I helped to lead a major initiative in Australia called Print21 which sought to understand the impact of digital media on what was then the world’s largest manufacturing industry and the first to be digitised thanks to desktop publishing.
As a result of this I was recruited by Fuji Xerox Australia to help them envisage the future and there I spent almost a decade immersed in the work of the global Xerox Innovation Network researching and exploring the impact of the evolving World Wide Web on how we as social human animals interact and communicate online. This led to a focus on what was then called the Semantic Web, a set of standards which has helped lay many of the foundations for what we now call ‘Artificial Intelligence’. It also let me personally to begin working with many of the people who actually built the Internet and Web over the last six decades and who formed Web Science to ensure that it both survives but most of all continues to benefit humanity.
Every technological device we invent (including our laws and language) has our values and human biases built in to it, and manifests how we as human animals see the world. The affordances of all technologies are a manifestation of how we have crafted the world around us to meet a need and afford us a mechanism to do things – doors are for opening; cups are for holding liquids; chairs are for sitting on. This is one reason why I teach the history of digital information technologies – they have not suddenly leapt out of the ether, they have emerged as the result of centuries of thought and use to solve particular problems: Babbage invented his Difference Engine to automate long, tedious astronomical calculations; the Internet was invented to help fortify the US Defence Department during the Cold War; Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web to help researchers share documents; the PageRank algorithm was developed as a new type of search engine.
Each of these has changed the way we operate and go about our daily lives, and each exemplifies the fact that all human inventions have longer term unforeseen consequences.
The Internet and the Web were given to Humanity by their inventors with few, if any, restrictions on how they were used. As with all things that are perceived as free if there is a situation where individual users have open access to a resource unhampered by shared social structures or formal rules that govern access and use, they will act independently according to their own self-interest and, contrary to the common good of all users, cause depletion of the resource through their uncoordinated action (the Tragedy of the Commons). With the Internet and the Web both have created vast wealth for a small group, whilst also enabling access to knowledge and information on an unprecedented scale for anyone connected, but the social and psychological costs of this is something we are only just beginning to understand.
In a recent speech at International Privacy Day Apple CEO Tim Cook states that
Too many are still asking the question “How much can we get away with?” when they need to be asking “What are the consequences?” … A social dilemma cannot be allowed to become a social catastrophe.
It is these consequences that Shoshana Zuboff focuses on in her most recent work. At an event in 2019 I asked her if she had seen this surveillance internet coming when she wrote The Support Economy in 2000. She answered that yes she had, but she hoped it wouldn’t happen. This is similar to Tim Berners-Lee’s response to hearing that there was pornography on the Web – “Just don’t look at it!”
Three things have combined to create the online environment within which we now live.
- The first is the generosity and näivety of the early digital inventors who were enamoured by the technology largely ignoring the science of human behaviour
- the second is the pure greed which was allowed to run amok and untethered in the wild digital frontiers largely due to the fact that the early technologies emerged within the West Coast of the United States with it’s free market approach to regulation and dare-devil attitude to innovation and novelty
- the third is the almost complete lack of understanding of the affordances of digital information by government regulators, policy makers and politicians which meant that they missed the early opportunities to reign in monopolistic and anti-competitive behaviour.
These have now played themselves out but the public and our governments are beginning to step up and demand that there is a new phase in how these systems operate – the Australian and now Canadian governments are beginning to challenge the current ad-based publishing dominance of the large tech platforms, and hopefully new business models for online commerce will emerge.
The key question is
“Which philosophy do you want to pursue? Do you want a business that serves your customers? Or one that takes advantage of customers to serve your business? (Justin Bariso)
As my dear friend Professor Dame Wendy Hall states if it wasn’t for the Internet and the Web we would not have been able to remain connected during the Pandemic and it remains the most powerful innovation of all time. Precisely because of this
we … need to be prepared for the internet that we know to evolve unpredictably, and work to ensure that it remains beneficial for humankind.
For me, as a full time philanthropist, Wendy’s words resonate deeply. When we created our family Charity Intersticia we chose to focus on working to support individuals as 21st Century leaders with a focus on helping to build digital fluency. To complement this we hold our Brave Conversations which are open to all, we partner with Goodenough College to hold our Digital Gymnasia, and we partner with Tech for Better organisations (such as Founders and Coders and Gaza Sky Geeks) who teach coding skills to those who seek to harness them for social good.
I am often asked why I do what I do and what I hope to achieve.
My main objective is to get people to think, to wake them up from the somnambulist state they are in as they go about their daily lives largely unaware of the systems which underpin each and every interaction. As Melvin Kranzberg states
Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral
We are our technologies and they are us.
There is much to be hopeful for in this new era, and the Covid corridor is speeding up technological progress by forcing us all to become more digitally fluent and savvy. It is empowering governments to be less passive and reactive in how they approach technology (which has both a positive and negative side of course) which means that the balance of power between governments and the tech companies is changing.
It is purely speculative to try to predict what will happen in the next month, let alone the next decade! but it is prudent to give people some tools to at least begin to imagine some of the possibilities. If the early tech inventors had studied more psychology, philosophy and history perhaps they might have had a clearer picture of what might happen themselves. This is why Web Science is so important – precisely because it does seek to bring together as many perspectives as possible.
As with so many inventions Web Science was inspired by Science Fiction, in particular Isaac Azimov’s Foundation series and the dream of Hari Seldon to build Psychohistory. This is why I stress to all who come to our workshops that reading Science Fiction is probably the most important way to begin to imagine the future.
This second series of Digital Gymnasia seeks to instill a confidence in the imagination and an ability to more robustly address and explore some of the thornier issues which are emerging.
I have crafted this second series to build on the first (which we are in the process of recording) and to work from the individual to the group and community. At present we have four to be delivered over the next couple of month:
- Your Digital Brand – Who are you online?
- Demystifying AI – What are we collectively building in the online world?
- Facilitating Meetings Online – How are we taking our work online?
- Digital Governance – How are we holding each other to account Online?
Some events will be more content heavy (such as Demystifying AI and Digital Governance) but I hope to bring practical exercises in to them all. As with every event I work with who is in the room at the time, the questions that arise, and largely let the group determine both the pace and how much we cover in the time allotted. This is a tricky balance and is a collaborative effort where we all learn from each other.
The most important measure of success is not that everyone agrees with or likes what is presented … it is that they are stimulated to think about their data self slightly differently and with a bit more agency and confidence.
For more information on these events please either contact me or Melissa Morley at Goodenough College.