The Covid Corridor has provided me with the opportunity to take stock, slow down and focus on some key learning areas that I believe are critical to help inform what the post-Covid world might look like. I will write about this in a later post, but one of the more formal educational programmes I did in 2020 was the Tavistock Institute Dynamics @ Board Level Certificate.
What follows is the assignment I submitted to complete this course.
We are responsible because we can respond to challenges to our reasons. We act for reasons that we consciously represent to ourselves. And this is what gives us the power and the obligation to think ahead, to anticipate, to see the consequences of our action. It is because we can share our wisdom that we have a special responsibility (Daniel Dennett 2021).
We are essentially marching naked into this digital century without the Charters or Rights, the legal frameworks, the regulatory paradigms, the institutional forms and the kind of leadership that we need to make the digital future compatible with democracy. (Shoshana Zuboff 2021)
On 11th March, 2020 Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organisation, declared Covid-19 a Pandemic.
Over the past 12 months not only has this Pandemic touched every continent and nation but it has ushered in a step change in the way that humans individually and collectively have adopted, utilised and integrated digital information technologies into their everyday lives.
As we entered this interstice I determined that one of the most useful and productive things that I could do was to experience as many online Group Relations events as possible in order to learn from the breadth of experiences of how people were beginning to embrace a 21st Century digitally mediated existence.
This existence, which from the outset reminded me of E. M. Foster’s The Machine Stops (Foster 1909), began decades, if not centuries, ago.
A revolution doesn’t happen when a society adopts new tools, it happens when a society adopts new behaviours. (Shirky 2008)
The new behaviours we learn as we interact and engage with each other as groups, teams and systems mediated through digital communication technologies will both shape and inform how humanity embraces and faces the challenges of the 21st Century and the post-Covid world.
This paper seeks to consider my experience as a member of the Tavistock Institute’s 2020 Board Dynamics cohort, the first to be held fully online, and operating between continents, time-zones, cultures and mindsets during the most intense period of the Covid 19 Pandemic. As for us all this was just one group within the greater global system and, as such, the value is in extrapolating the learnings from this experience to more fully examine it and how it informed other interactions and engagements.
The Shift to Digital
When I first applied to participate in the Board Dynamics course the expectation was that it would be conducted as a hybrid with the first two modules held online, and the second two face to face. Those who more fully understand the nature of Pandemics would have realised from the outset the naïveté of such an expectation, but around the world the hope for a return to ‘some sort of normality’ by the Northern Hemisphere Summer was an important coping mechanism.
My interest in the course stemmed from both a curiosity about the direct application of Group Relations processes and academic research to the functioning of Boards as mechanisms of Governance, together with a desire to explore how this would operate in an online medium.
The Affordances of Digital Technologies
We have become digital on the last few years as well as physical beings. There is nothing in physical experience that can fully equip us with what that really means (Doc Seals).
Life online is very different to life IRL (in real life). I have spent the past thirty years exploring this difference seeking to more fully understand how we humans interact with each other, and how the technologies interact with us. The core of my work may be termed Web Science – the Theory and Practice of Social Machines (SOCIAM), which is an interdisciplinary approach to understanding how we are changing the Web, and the Web is changing us.
The World Wide Web was invented by physics researcher Tim Berners-Lee (see CERN) to try to solve the problem of information sharing between scientists, universities and institutes around the World. It was envisaged as an academic project, but, as so often happens,
we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run (Roy Amara).
All technologies and artefacts have what are called affordances, a word originally invented by psychologist J. J. Gibson to describe the actionable properties between the world and an actor (Gibson 1977). Donald J. Norman (Norman 1988, Norman 2018) expands upon this to state that affordances
- provide strong clues to the operations of things
- signal the perceived and actual properties of the thing
- are properties that determine just how the thing could possibly be used
- when affordances are taken advantage of, the user knows what to do just by looking: no picture, label, or instruction needed
I first became aware of the importance of affordances as they relate to digital media when I read the work of Shoshana Zuboff (Zuboff 1988, Zuboff and Maxmin 2001). At the time I was working in the graphic arts, the first major industries to be disrupted by digitisation and digitalisation due to the development of desktop publishing and digital printing, undertaking research into the emerging Web and its impact on the workplace.
Zuboff’s work in this space is seminal and the table below clearly articulates some of the different characteristics of information in physical (analogue) and virtual (digital) form.
Table 1 – The Characteristics of Digital Technologies (adapted from Zuboff and Maxmin, 2002)
The more people started using the Web the more it developed an ecosystem of its own driven by the twin aspects of (1) negligible transaction costs (Coase 1937, Malone et al 1987) which enabled the freemium model of electronic commerce (see Zuboff 2019) and (2) the network effect (Castells 2000). By December 2019 just on 50% of the global population were connected to the Internet; by December 2020, largely due to the Covid Pandemic, this had increased to 62.4%.
I have heard it said that giving people an internet connection is like giving them a car to drive, without any instructions on the road rules or basic mechanics. That is pretty much the situation we currently face in terms of people’s understanding of the digital landscape largely due to the rapid digitisation of information and digitalisation of business processes and organisational systems and the paucity of digital literacy and digital fluency.
Digital literacy describes being how to use digital tools; Digital Fluency describes being able to understand why they should be used (Hopkins 2019).
We have evolved to operate in the physical / analogue environment and our senses enable us to interpret and function there and we have developed these through trusting these senses and the data we receive through them.
When it comes to the virtual / digital worlds we are only just beginning but as we increasingly interact online we are venturing into new environments where we cannot necessarily predict or trust the outcomes.
Figure 1: Rowland-Campbell – Literacy Model of Information Technologies
Technology, Transparency and Trust
When trust was not in the room, good things did not happen. Everything else is details. (US Secretary of State George Shultz quoted in Bhalla et al, 2021)
Trust is essential to human relationships and at the core these are usually messy, inefficient and take time and brain power to develop and maintain (Machin 2019). Maintaining key relationships is at the core of our learning (Fonagy 2015) and a key element of this is what Rachel Botsman calls trust friction.
Here emerges one of the most important digital affordances. The designs built into most of our digital technologies, driven by the values and imperatives of the designers, are to remove friction, to make our lives easier and to more seamlessly integrate these technologies calmly into our lives (Weiser 1986 – 1989). One of the reasons why digital devices have become so ubiquitous is precisely due to this affordance built into the user-interface design.
Many young people don’t realise that everything you see on the computer screen is a construct that was invented by someone. (Ted Nelson)
This is a perfect example of Schein’s model of organisational culture (Schein 1994) where the values and assumptions of the technologists manifest in the artifacts.
Figure 2: Schein’s model of Organisational Culture, (Schein 1992)
Through the Looking Glass
“Well, now that we have seen each other,” said the unicorn, “if you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you.”
The Knight looked surprised at the question. ‘What does it matter where my body happens to be?” he said. “My mind goes on working all the same.’ (Lewis Carroll, Alice Through the Looking Glass, 1871)
When it comes to how we experience these new digitally mediated screen interactions we need to continuously remind ourselves that we are engaging in a space between presence and absence, being somewhere that is both on and off where our bodies and minds can often be disconnected.
Interacting online and interacting IRL differ in a number of important ways:
- Notions of Time – the online world synchronises time, we are all in the same temporal space even though we may be living in different geographies with different time zones, and therefore different body clocks. Our notions of time seem to have changed during this period of the pandemic – in some ways speeding up, in others slowing down – and different for each and every person.
- Notions of Space – in group settings we are no longer in the same physical environment, but inhabiting different physical spaces (for us) which present to others through the same sized screen window. One result of this is what we are now calling Zoom Fatigue (Bailensen 2020). The information we currently receive through online channels is heavily dependent on aural and visual information but the somatic, which connects us to our physical presence, can feel disconnected until we experience the aches and pains of too little movement and the tiredness in our eyes (Microsoft is working on an interesting solution to this).
Figure 3: Rowland-Campbell – Information Channels as we interact online
- Management of Boundaries – in the physical world we have the opportunity and time to change our mental states as we transition through physical space and time, to clear our thoughts from previous encounters and prepare and focus on what it is to come. In the virtual world unless we consciously create this interstice between one meeting and another the transition is through a few clicks of a button taking a matter of seconds. In the digital space we are either on or off, it is very difficult to be anywhere in between which means that how we show up, how we are present (or absent), how we view ourselves, and how we leave can be very abrupt. In addition the boundaries are porous and it is difficult to seal out the outside world which continually intrudes.
There is one other element which sits between presence and absence (Scharmer 2007), that of transparency.
- The digital world gives us the ability to easily record, edit, broadcast and replay our online interactions. This leads to far greater levels of potential transparency but can also create a persistent unease in the knowledge that we are continuously on show, on the camera and the stage. Goffman’s Front Stage and Back Stage can merge giving little respite in between (Goffman 1959, Sternheimer 2020).
Imagined affordances emerge between users’ perceptions, attitudes and expectations; between materiality and functionality of technologies; between the intentions and perceptions of designers (Nagy & Neff 2015).
All of these affordances have been designed into the systems we use which become a part of our experience and how we experience others.
Group Dynamics Online
Our societies are increasingly structured around the bipolar opposition of the Net and the Self (Castells 2000).
Eric Miller states that Freud’s great insight was to shift the focus from the individual to the interaction between patient and analyst, the notions of Transference and Countertransference which Bion then shifted to that of the group and the processes of socialisation. (Miller 1998).
What we think of ourselves is born in what we were thought about, we scrutinise the minds of others and we try to find ourselves within, to guess at our own feelings and thoughts (Fonagy 2015).
So how do we see each other as we show up on the screen? How do we feel in these spaces and how does this impact our emotional responses?
The work of Solms (Solms 2021), Damasio and others suggests that our emotions stem from our feelings.
Our choices are grounded in a value system. Feelings provide the value system which enables choice in unpredicted, novel situations (Solms 2021).
Given the lack of somatic information, which is often the primary source for our feelings, how is this impacting our engagements in the virtual space? One way to consider this is how we react to the physical presence of others versus how we sense them online through their windows; another is how the back-channels (i.e., the chat function) can be used for side conversations, which is similar to passing notes in the back row. Both of these elicit feelings and therefore emotions. Finally, when there may be uncomfortable feelings in the virtual space instead of having to sit with them in a physical space where the ability to leave takes some time, in the virtual space once every participant has the option to turn off their camera and sit behind it, or completely leave the room.
There are entities where the behaviour of the whole cannot be derived from its individual elements nor from the way these elements fit together; rather the opposite is true: the properties of any of the parts are determined by the intrinsic structural laws of the whole. (Wertheimer 1924)
Every element of this impacts the virtuous cycle of respect, trust and candour (Sonnenfeld 2002) which is at the heart of how governance and corporate responsibility needs to operate.
The Modern Board
The concept of a corporate board
is a reflection of widespread political practices and ideas in Western Europe in the late Middle Ages which reflect both social norms and cultural values as they pertained to business governance, political and cultural ideas, together with assumptions about wealth-maximizing efficiencies (Gevurtz 2004).
For those of us who live in Western cultures these ideas constitute what is normal, but it is necessary to put these ideas in context.
The work of Henrich (Henrich 2010, Henrich 2020) shows that the Western mindset has emerged from the geo-political history of Western Europe (see also Marshall 2016 and Goldin 2020).
Henrich classifies Western people as being
hyper-individualistic and hyper-mobile, whereas just about everyone else in the world was, and still is, enmeshed in family and more likely to stay put (Henrich 2020).
We Westerners are WEIRD – Western, Educated, Individualistic, Rich and Democratic (see also Stasavage 2020). Henrich argues that this is one of the reasons that Capitalism emerged in the West driven by the rise of the individual (see Morris 1972, Nashef 2018, Curtis 2002 BBC).
The Discovery of the Individual is an eccentricity among cultures (Morris 1972).
This WEIRD mindset has created a positive environment for humans to flourish (Harari 2015, Pinker 2018, Roser 2021) but is also based on the assumption that humans need to be controlled, for our own good (Bregman 2020).
The limits and boundaries of Agency Theory (Simon 1957) are determined by its model of man. (Davis et al 1997, Keay 2017)
If we consider governance, particularly as it is beginning to manifest online, from a more naturalistic and biological perspective (Bandura 2017) then the concept of the Social Machine as a symbiotic human-machine ecosystem becomes much more useful (Neff 2021). This leads to a broader perspective where it is assumed that humans are driven by larger collectivist, pro-organisational goals (Argyris 1973, McGregor 1980, Maslow 1970) which is precisely what the online environment was designed to achieve from the outset (Levine et al 1999, Kelly 2010).
Changing Global Mindsets
The link between communication and character is complex, but unbreakable. We cannot transform all our media of communication and expect to remain unchanged as people. A revolution in the media must mean a revolution in the psyche (Toffler 1980).
Former InfoSys Founder, CEO and Chairman Kris Gopalakrishnan (Gopalakrishnan 2021) believes that the 21st Century will change as a result of the impact of information technologies.
- Information technologies have given individuals an unprecedented power and new kinds of freedom for their voices to be heard and to think differently about their lives;
- The most significant impact will be in Asia which has over 50% of the world’s population;
- There will be a global shift to more Eastern values based on harmony, peace, and a more multi-cultural heterogenous perspective.
As we continue to reach out globally we are creating societies online and
each society chooses which thoughts and feelings shall be permitted to arrive and which must be kept hidden (Eric Fromm as quoted by Susan Long, March 2021).
An Antipodean Perspective
Our people have been entrusted by the Creator Spirit with the care of the land and the associated ceremonies. In most parts of Australia, they are unable to care for their land and ensure its continued fruitfulness because it has been taken over by the immigrants. The spiritual line of succession, from the time of creation through countless generations, has now been broken. And deep inside, our people live with guilt and hopelessness (Archie et al 2007).
Technology challenges us to assert our human values which means that first of all we have to know what they are (Turkle 2011).
I was born and grew up in a sunburnt country riven by guilt and sadness. This duality underpins everything about Australia (and many other colonialised cultures) and as we move in to the 21st Century our greatest global challenge is to move away from the dominance of the WEIRD, and largely industrialised, thinking and embrace the power of more organic Dreamtime mindsets (such as those which harness Social Dreaming, Lawrence 2000) in order to better govern our social systems.
This is especially important as we become more embedded in the Technosphere which has become all too obvious as we all move our lives online. As I have reflected on my own online experiences in groups there is one word that repeatedly comes to mind, and that is the word stewardship.
Stewardship refers to a human behaviour which is ordered such that pro-organizational, collectivist behaviours have a higher utility than individualistic, self-serving behaviours (Davis 1997).
Stewardship addresses the illusion of being able to manage and control up front (Long 2021) by being more inclusive, taking a longer-term view and understanding the symbiosis of humans and the systems, both natural and technological, that we inhabit.
My own work is based on the philosophy of Servant Leadership (Greenleaf 2002, Spears 1998) combined with a practical application through the principles of Sustainability where we seek to create an integrated value creation space, where growth and performance for the current generation pays equal and simultaneous consideration to all the elements of sustainability and to future generations. (Avery 2006, Avery & Bergsteiner 2010, Rowland-Campbell 2021)
As I sat in the various modules and groups of the Tavistock Board Dynamics course I felt very keenly the Tyranny of Distance (Blainey 1966) and the mythic structure of Bion’s Groups (Bion 1961, Shambaugh 1985) as they ebbed and flowed through each module.
I felt alienated by the dominance of WEIRD values, not only in the predominantly European makeup of the Group, but in the very design and interface of the technologies themselves.
We each played our part in this, but the success of these events was largely due to the stewardship of our consultants, who did not lead but sought to serve each of us by providing the space to reflect and learn.
Corporations and Industrial Capitalism have driven the development of humanity over the past few hundred years and the associated governance and management systems which have underpinned them must be seen as a part its success. But we are now questioning what success looks like? As our environmental systems react to what is now being talked of as the crime of Ecocide it is imperative that we evolve how we manage and govern ourselves harnessing the smart machines we have invented but more importantly drawing on all of the smart people.
We are now on the threshold of a global opportunity, one that can take advantage of being in the unfrozen state between the old world and the new (Lewin 1947) that is to come. As such
We have the opportunity now to not just do what we did yesterday. We have permission to change things. Everything is now up for grabs. (Former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns 2021)
A part of that change is to adopt a more natural and Eastern philosophy towards our corporate systems as part of a global ecosystem embedded in the natural world and inclusive of all humanity because the challenges we face affect us all.
This is the Stewardship Challenge for the 21st Century which should be the main guiding premise.
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Curtis, Adam, BBC Television, (2002). The Century of the Self, originally broadcast on 29th April 2002. Full documentary https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eJ3RzGoQC4s. See also https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adam_Curtis viewed 20th March, 2020
Dennett, D. (2021). The Great Free Will Debate. https://bigthink.com/videos/the-great-free-will-debate, viewed 20th March, 2021
Fonagy, P. (2015). What is Mentalisation? Interview. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OHw2QumRPrQ, viewed 10th March, 2021.
Gopalakrishnan, K. (2021). Interview with the Author. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TGENc3VYWro, held via Zoom as part of Brave Conversations Bangalore 2021, February 2021.
Long, Susan (2021), Unconscious – The Evolution of an Idea, https://www.nioda.org.au/the-unconscious-the-evolution-of-an-idea/, Zoom event held live 24th March, 2021
Pinker, Steven (2018). How the world is getting better, not worse. Interview with Paul Solman https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tvEiiYfVXnk, PBS NewsHour
Solms, Mark (2021). The Source of Consciousness. The Royal Institution. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CmuYrnOVmfk viewed 7th March, 2021.
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.
The Allegory of Plato’s Cave – a powerful lens with which to view our 21st Century Leaders
2020 has shown us that the challenges of the 21st Century are global ones which we all share. We must learn now how to balance the needs of the ‘me’ with the ‘we’ to collectively change things for the better.
It was just two weeks ago that I was swimming in my favourite pool in North Sydney looking up at the Restaurant above and thinking how incredibly lucky we in Australia have been in 2020, but also having niggling feeling that we are so out of sync with the rest of the world that that luck may well run out. We have had numerous outbreaks of the Covid 19 virus which have been fairly rapidly squashed and the state of Victoria, and Melbourne in particular, has had a pretty torrid time with the harshest lockdown in the world. But our lifestyle had begun to bounce back.
Until last week when we had a reality check with the discovery of two mystery Covid cases found in Avalon, a mere 5 km from where I live, which has now spread sending Governments around the country in to panic mode accompanied by a plethora of conspiracy theories. For those of us living in what is affectionately called the ‘insular Peninsula’ we joined the majority of people on the planet in a locked down Christmas and now New Year.
I don’t envy any of our leaders as they struggle to cope with the rapidly changing situation that the Pandemic presents, not wanting to over-react as the “Festive” season approaches, but as a result creating additional anxiety and frustration with a lack of clear messaging similar to the first few months of 2o2o when the old world disappeared and the new “Covid” normal began to appear.
For Australia and New Zealand much of the strategy has been to aim for “0” as the optimum Covid number, with the only weak links being returning overseas travellers, diplomats and cabin crew. We have been largely successful and our particular response reflects a blend of our Convict Colony roots combined with the Tyranny of Distance. We are good at locking people up down here. But “0” is the most dangerous number and is totally unsustainable.
Governments around the world are now firmly driving the agenda when it comes to responding to the Pandemic, with varying degrees of success. One way of viewing this is to consider our Governments as Social Machines, huge socio-technical systems that bring together the cultural, political and technical characteristics of polities as expressed through policies, rules and regulations.
Years ago we undertook a research project with the Australian and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) and the Web Science Institute on this very concept (see Government as a Social Machine) exploring the co-evolution of the policy and online communications spaces as Governments embraced digital media. Professor Dame Wendy Hall and Dr Kieron O’Hara have further developed this idea with their Four Internets describing how geopolitics is splintering the once integrated global online infrastructure determined by “Four ideologies … because they have been adopted by state-level actors with the resources to push their visions, fund the science behind them and, crucially, “sell” them to allies.” (Wendy Hall)
To me this is the contemporary demonstration of Francis Fukuyama’s Origins of Political Order connecting all political action as a manifestation of long cultural histories and value systems. Now, catapulted by the Pandemic, global Governments are beginning to embrace the next phase of how we govern ourselves with the combination of culture, the polity and technology – the ultimate Social Machine.
Not long ago the mantra in the public sphere was to ‘wind back’ our bloated, bureaucratic and big governments in order to embrace market forces and be more ‘customer focused’. I have always felt that calling citizens ‘customers’ was an insult, together with adopting many of the ideas of managerialism where the bottom line trumped actually serving the public. The pendulum has now swung back to where people are relying on and giving greater trust to their governments to guide us through the Covid-era, and these governments are working feverishly to learn how to utilise the tools of digital information systems to more effectively collect, harvest and analyse data in their fight against the disease. These twin propellers are, as Yuval Noah Harari states
fast-forwarding historical processes (and)… Entire countries serve as guinea-pigs in large-scale social experiments.
As Professor Dame Wendy Hall says we now desperately need to create a new social contract between citizens and our Government Social Machines, but, more than that, we need to reframe how we see our leaders and what leadership in the 21st Century needs to look like as we embrace these global problems.
Up until now the dominant thinking throughout Western societies has been based on “it’s all about Me”, beautifully articulated in the documentary the Century of the Self. This is a mindset that has caused us to exploit each other and our environment for short term gain. As we learn how intimately connected we are and how much we depend on that global connection we desperately need a new type of thinking based on our interdependence and this needs to be reflected in the stories we tell.
The power of truth in storytelling
What is most important is to understand that politics and leadership is all about storytelling and how those we choose to serve in positions of power see the world.
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (see also) tells the story of people imprisoned in a cave watching shadows on a wall which they take to be their reality. One of their number manages to escape and ventures outside in to the sunshine of the outside and realises that there are different truths to true what is being presented in the Cave. The escapee returns to the cave but no one of those still trapped inside believes these weird stories about light and sunshine and the natural world. Plato talks about the role of philosophers and politicians as being those to manage to escape to consider alternative realities and dream of different futures, but all too often the philosophers are ridiculed whilst the politicians use the situation to their own advantage. The glaring example of this is the use of political spin and manipulation in how election campaigns are run, the Social Media Caves which now provide most people with their news and daily updates, all of which are being filtered by the algorithmic shadows driven by unfettered and unchecked capitalist objectives.
We humans are story telling animals and our very sense of self comes from the stories we are told and what others tell us. It may well be that the modern day equivalent of huddling around the camp fire is that we now huddle around our computer screens, especially now so many of our interactions are limited to being online.
It is the politicians and philosophers who tell the best stories who have the greatest impact, and now more than ever we need these stories to be about hope for the future.
In this interview with Bill Gates and Rashida Jones Yuval Noah Harari talks about the power of stories and the need for leaders to believe in the stories they tell. Throughout history these stories have been driven by religious beliefs, playing on deeply held concepts of good and evil which have ensured that those in power keep control of the unruly masses, a theory beautifully expanded upon by Rutger Bregman in his book Human Kind and Rebecca Solnit’s Paradise Built in Hell and further developed by Joseph Henrich in his description of the West and our WEIRD way of thinking.
The Covid Pandemic is not a story, it is all too real, but how each and every one of us responds to it is determined by the stories we hear, how we retell those stories, and how each one of us uses our ability to filter fact from the fiction, recognise our inbuilt biases towards the negative and forge a path towards something more positive and hopeful.
As never before our leaders from all walks of life don’t want to deliver bad news, but they need to deliver real news and deliver it responsibly in a way that validates the trust that has been given to them, not just by their own citizens, but by the global collective. Just like Climate Change the Virus doesn’t recognise state borders or festive holidays, and it will seep through even the best quarantine systems.
The rollercoaster of the Covid year has left us all with increased levels of anxiety and frustration as we continue on in to the unknown. For me whilst I am not religious I have found that recognising the difference between what I can and cannot control or change has been what has kept me going. and what I cannot has been a powerful lens with which to cope, articulated in the Serenity Prayer.
‘God’ grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.
(The Serenity Prayer)
One of the things we can all control is which stories we listen to and which we don’t, and how we choose to interpret them. A true 21st Century Leader will recognise this and become a master at storytelling, not for personal gain or political expediency, but for engendering hope.
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?