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.
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.
From our Intern Jacquie Crock
For as long I can remember I have never truly understood what Intersticia is. I knew that Mum had a friend called Anni, and they would travel around the world and do interesting things. But I never knew they had a purpose, a common goal and motive that lead them to what Intersticia is today. As one of the newest members of the Intersticia community, joining in the historic year of 2020, my questions were finally answered.
The first thing I realised was that Intersticia is not a workplace, rather a community of like-minded individuals working together for the future.
Some of my first work was with the new “Brave Conversation” podcasts, a brilliant idea to better know each member of the Intersticia community. As a kid, still in school, hearing about people literally studying Martian matter, and working in innovative fields from sustainable energy to aid in humanitarian crises to tech and the arts, I found it quite overwhelming to be part of such an incredible group. However, it only took me a short while to understand that there is not a single member of this community that would ever put themselves on a pedestal. Of the people I have met this year, each have been incredibly articulate and genuinely kind people, and overwhelmingly intelligent all the same!
Another aspect of Intersticia that, rather excited me, was the mechanisms deployed to ensure sustainable work practices.
As soon as I joined my first Zoom meeting I was refreshed to experience people working through future based concepts, ideas that will benefit the international community, not only for themselves but for generations to come. Relating to this idea, I immediately noticed how generous the Intersticia community is. This year has forced us to live online, and although it has had its disadvantages, meeting via zoom and communicating online has lead me to meet so many incredible people.
I am completing my final years in high school and was asked to present a twenty minute presentation on the Gaza Strip, in a brief conversation I mentioned this to Anni, and within hours I was put in touch with an incredibly generous woman who not only took the time to email me and send me articles, but who gave me an hour out of her day to meet with me. This was one of my first experiences with the generosity this community contains and certainly won’t be my last.
After meeting with a collection of people in 2020, I was grateful to learn that even in times of crisis people can still practice things that they value. This image above depicts Palestinians in Gaza practicing music (Pre-Covid). Those in Gaza are resilient and spirited, and that even though they face some of the most prominent challenges of this century, that they are still able to celebrate life.
Unlike friends of mine, who spend hours stacking shelves or working in shops, the time I spend working is educational and truly beneficial for my future. I have had the opportunity to listen in on workshops and meetings and have learnt so much. The social depth that humanity is facing with the rise of technology and globalisation is unlike any other time. Hearing about what these new advancements mean and how to face them has been inspirational and hopeful, knowing about these concepts now has prepared me for the future, however difficult and inconspicuous it will be.
I am so grateful for the opportunity to be Intersticia’s newest Intern and look forward to meeting more of you in the future!
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 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:
- 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.
- Ethics are guidelines or rules that are set for a society or an organization rather than for an individual.
- 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.
- 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.
“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?