Analogue leadership in a digital world

Human Dignity in the 21st Century

Human Dignity in the 21st Century

The House of Protection, Utøya

The island of Utøya is owned by the Workers Youth League in Norway and has held annual Summer Camps for young people there since the 1950s.

On 22nd July, 2011 a right wing Norwegian extremist killed 69 of those young people together with a further 8 in Oslo after he blew up a major government building.

Since 2011 Norway has slowly dealt with this event, the deadliest mass shooting worldwide committed by a single perpetrator, and the island of Utøya is a monument to how challenging the process of reconciliation with hate and horror is, but also how time and patience can help those left behind begin to heal.

The island continues to be used as a meeting place and learning centre for young people fighting for democracy, human rights, peace and reconciliation – locally, nationally and globally and in May 2024 was one of the key venues used by The World Freedom of Expression Forum, WEXFO 2024.

WEXFO’s aim is

to inspire progress for freedom of expression on all levels of society – internationally, nationally and locally and seeks to be a forum where the challenges to freedom of expression can be discussed and debated.

WEXFO 2024 comprised four complementary events.  As well as the main conference held in Lillehammer, Norway, there was also:

  • The WEXFO Youth Network Conference which focuses on youth freedom of expression and seeks to assess the current state of Youth Freedom of Expression through a platform of co-operation in order to facilitate the sharing of insights.
  • WEXFO Young Experts which targets 18 to 35 year old innovators, activists, and community leaders with the aim of increasing young people’s participation in their societies. This is held between Utøya and Lillehammer.
  • WEXFO Youth Voices brought around 1000 secondary school students from Lillehammer and surrounding areas to come to the Scandic Hotel to learn about freedom of expression, engage in discussions, and truly express themselves.

I knew nothing of WEXFO before our Intersticia Fellow Abeer Abu Ghaith was asked to speak at it and prior to my arrival I really had no idea what to expect.

WEXFO has largely been created and supported by a collective of literary organisations including publishers, libraries, the Norsk Literature Festival and organisations such as ICORN, the International Cities of Refuge Network. Predominantly the focus is on the inter-relationship between literacy/reading and the nexus between freedom of expression and Democracy.

Reading is democracy’s and freedom’s most important weapon. (WEXFO CEO Kristenn Einarsson)

Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.  

The challenge of course is how this works in practice balanced with the cultural norms and values of the societies in which it takes place.

Free speech and expression is the lifeblood of democracy, facilitating open debate, the proper consideration of diverse interests and perspectives, and the negotiation and compromise necessary for consensual policy decisions. Efforts to suppress nonviolent expression, far from ensuring peace and stability, can allow unseen problems to fester and erupt in far more dangerous forms. (Freedom House)

WEXFO 2024 opened with a focus on the state of Democracy and the rebuilding of trust in institutions, particularly in the age of rapidly evolving forms of information technology and innovation.

According to the 2024 Edelman Trust Barometer the loss of trust in governments and institutions within countries with more democratic forms of government is striking, and most particularly in the abilities of governments to regulate innovation and technologies.

Historically the probability of a Western politician getting re-elected is around 35%, historically it was 70%. (Ruchir Sharma, How To Academy, June 2024).

To put this in context we need to define and understand what “The West” is in the 2020s.

I’m going to begin by using Joseph Henrich’s definition of WEIRD),

Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic—aims to raise people’s consciousness about psychological differences and to emphasize that WEIRD people are but one unusual slice of humanity’s cultural diversity. WEIRD highlights the sampling bias present in studies conducted in cognitive science, behavioral economics, and psychology.

The reason I feel this is important rather than just listing countries deemed to be ‘democratic’ is that being Western is as much a mindset as it is a geography, and it is peculiar to The West to consider this so.  This democratic mindset may be defined as

Democracy is the sharing of cultural, economic and political rights.  Democracy a constructive space for deliberation. (Alpa Shah speaking at Institute of Art and Ideas, The Indian Century)

In his talk about the status of freedom of expression in 2024 political scientist Staffan Lindberg gave a stark overview of how things are changing in the world.

Drawing from the most recent research of the V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg Lindberg spoke to these major trends:

  • The level of democracy enjoyed by the average person in the world in 2023 is down to 1985-levels; by country-based averages, it is back to 1998.
  • Since 2009 – almost 15 years in a row – the share of the world’s population living in autocratising countries has overshadowed the share living in democratizing countries.
  • The decline is stark in Eastern Europe and South and Central Asia.
  • Latin America and the Caribbean goes against the global trend: Democracy levels increase, and large countries are more democratic than smaller ones.
  • The world is almost evenly divided between 91 democracies and 88 autocracies.
  • 71% of the world’s population – 5.7 billion people – live in autocracies – an increase from 48% ten years ago.
  • Electoral autocracies have by far the most people – 44% of the world’s population, or 3.5 billion people.
  • 29% of the world’s population – 2.3 billion people – live in liberal and electoral democracies.
  • Israel falls out of the liberal democracy category for the first time in over 50 years.

As a complement to this Felicia Anthonio from AccessNow described the current state of internet shutdowns linked to elections and violence, and it wasn’t a pretty picture.  Their 2023 Report is disturbing reading, particularly in a year billed to be the biggest election year in recorded human history.

One of the most troubling aspects, particularly given the lack of trust in government and institutions, is the growing influence of smart information technologies and it was sobering to hear Sam Gregory of WITNESS describe the what he sees as the major challenges but also that alluded to some glimmers of hope

Sam Gregory with a message of hope

First and foremost in this is that we are not passive witnesses to what is happening around us, we are active participants.  We do this individually and in groups but we are co-creating the world and therefore we have a responsibility to take some ownership of the outcomes.  This is the message we have been trying to give through our Brave Conversations and Web Science because those glimmers of hope come from forums such as WEXFO but also the work that so many institutions around the world are doing to develop we humans within this digital age.

Democracies need not merely freedom to think and talk, but universal information and vigorous mental training, (H. G. Wells).

Part of this mental training comes from, firstly, realising that for those of us who live in functioning democracies that Democracy, as children’s author Laurie Halse Anderson stated, is a VERB not a NOUN.  It is an ACTION state.

Freedom of Expression is like a muscle which needs to be constantly exercised, it is an active choice.

Irene Khan reinforced the ACTIVE nature of freedom of expression

There are numerous ways in which this muscle can be exercised and strengthened.

One of them is Deep Reading, a term coined by Sven Birkets (The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age) where

every book a portal to a different universe where we allow ourselves to enter through our imagination and a state of mindfulness that helps us experience the book on a much deeper level.

Another is to teach and promote active Critical Thinking for all generations.  This is what organisations such as Sitra and people such as Anil Dash are doing and is a major focus in education for the government of Finland.

It is what underpins the The Ljubljana Reading Manifesto which states that:

Higher-level reading is our most powerful tool for analytic and critical thinking. It exercises metacognition and cognitive patience, expands our conceptual capacities, trains cognitive empathy and perspective-taking – social skills which are indispensable for informed citizens in a democratic society. Signatories of this manifesto call to acknowledge the permanent significance of higher-level reading in the digital era.

As I sat and listened to all of these speakers, spoke with young people during the breaks and pondered the fragility of our Western inheritance I began to think more and more that it is not Democracy that we should be focusing on but human dignity.

This dignity comes not from the particular political system within which we live but is as much about how we view ourselves and others within that system.

Whilst in 2024 we have a Universal Declaration of Human Rights they are something to be viewed as incredibly precious but only of value if we stick by them and implement them. This requires all of us to take a good long look at our own systems and to be prepared to stand up for what we see as insufficient rigour in this self-examination, something that is proving to be beyond our currently governance systems to do.

Our humans systems are designed to serve our societies and they must adapt and evolve as our needs change.  As a part of this we need to provide evidence to the populace that their vote does count, that their voice can be heard, and the brightest light in 2024 thus far as been that in the largest democratic elections of 2024 the people did speak (see Indian elections 2024).

All of these are difficult and challenging issues to deal with and challenging conversations to have, but have them we must if we are to be able to deal with the ever increasing complexity of the years ahead presented by climate change, increasing migration and the growing capability of artificial intelligence.

WEXFO was an opportunity to sit back, to listen to challenging and sometimes controversial viewpoints, and to quietly reflect.

We in the West can be hugely judgemental and arrogant when it comes to other forms of government, and our history is littered with our determination to proselytise and impose it on others.  We consider it right for us, but it is not the only way to be governed and since only 8% of us live in a “full democracy” perhaps we should be more sensitive to and aware of the threats to our own systems rather than focusing on converting everyone else.

We have a lot of work to do in ‘The West’ to get our younger people to participate and engage in the democractic process, to step up and proactively create the societies that reflect their values, and to take responsibility for the rights that they have, not merely take them for granted.

So on top of reading and literacy we need to educate and empower our young people about government and governance, policy and politics, civics and civilisation and ther role in creating it.  We need to not just listen to their voices, but to integrate those voices in to our systems and processes at all levels.

This is what I felt was the value of WEXFO 2024, taking the time to think about what we value in what we have, and determine to work towards keeping it.

 

Brave Conversations Stuttgart 2024

Brave Conversations Stuttgart 2024

Students from The School for Talents, University of Stuttgart.

We are the Web, and the Web is Us/ing Us.  (Professor Michael Wesch, 2007).

When I first saw this video in 2007 I found it totally captivating.

Michael Wesch presents the transition from Web 1.0 (the read only Web, once referred to as printing on the screen) to Web 2.0 (the Read/Write Web) where we have witnessed the emergence of Toffler’s Prosumer where humanity purposefully creates the online world rather than just passively consuming it.

This was turbo charged by the iPhone in 2007 and, as they say, the rest is history.

When Hannah Stewart and I were musing on what and how to present at our 2024 Brave Conversations for both attendees of the 16th ACM Web Science Conference and the students of the Stuttgart University School for Talents we felt that in order to cut through the noise about AI and Large Language Models it would be useful to go back to basics.

Where did all of this come from?

Whilst we always do some of this at Brave Conversations the more embedded digital interaction technologies become to our everyday lives the more important I believe it is to teach and explain the history of their development, particularly in order to remember how things have changed and challenge what we may see as the status quo.

In his video Michael Wesch begins with the WayBackMachine which has been archiving the Web since 1996. It is fascinating to look back on our own www.braveconversations.org website and our first events in Metadata and see that what we were saying in 2017 we are still saying now.  A decade or more ago it was all too easy to ignore the hard questions and just let the technology take its path; with the emergence of much smarter machines we can no longer afford to remain ignorant and naïve.

www.braveconversations.org in January 2017

All of this is built on the concept of Hypertext, itself inspired by the marginal gloss – the simple act of annotation or commentary that is written on a page which, which collated, becomes the Glossary.  Humans have been annotating documents (information within specific boundaries) for millennia – the difference now is that much of our information is in digital form and thus has digital affordances.

XML + You + Me create a database backed Web – tagging and adding metadata – we are teaching the machine.  Linking data, linking people.

We need to rethink a few things … copyright, authorship, identity, governance, privacy, commerce, love, family, ourselves.

Nothing could be more important at the minute as we rely more and more on these systems, and begin to forget the older ways of doing things.

This is what we focus on at Brave Conversations and it was wonderful to have people fully engaged but most of all curious and ready to challenge and learn.  In particular the students at the School for Talents challenged us through their own explorations and the pedagogy of group projects based on the principles of the “Stuttgarter Weg“ which focuses on a systematic cooperation between complementary disciplines to creates unique opportunities to ask new questions and find answers.

These young people are those who will go on to work in many of the technical companies in Germany, be they automotive, sustainable energy, manufacturing or computer technologies.  Most came from a technical background, something that is to be expected in Stuttgart, a city known as the cradle of the automobile and high tech industry.  But, as the latest edition of The Economist investigates this is an industry that is in need of radical reinvention.

As we increasingly bring the digital and physical worlds together the need for those with technical expertise to be educated and schooled in the softer skills of critical thinking and emotional intelligence is paramount, and those with social expertise need to rapidly develop both a digital as well as critical literacy.

As we see more and more that the companies developing AI and smart machines compete for market share, for technical dominance often at the expense of safety and ethical concerns this combination and need to reflect and question is crucial.

A decade ago with social media, the world took a wait-and-see approach to how that technology would change society.  The results have been devastating.  With AI, we cannot afford to nod along with taglines and marketing campaigns.  What’s driving AI research, development and deployment is already clear:  a dangerous incentive to race ahead.  If we want a better outcome this time, we cannot wait another decade—or even another year—to act.  (Tristan Harris, The Economist)

In his essay In Search of a Better World: Lectures and Essays from Thirty Years Karl Popper stated that our future is not deterministic, we have to make it and to approach it with care and optimism.

All things living are in search of a better world. Men, animals, plants, even unicellular organisms are constantly active. They are trying to improve their situation, or at least to avoid its deterioration… Every organism is constantly preoccupied with the task of solving problems. These problems arise from its own assessments of its condition and of its environment; conditions which the organism seeks to improve… We can see that life — even at the level of the unicellular organism — brings something completely new into the world, something that did not previously exist: problems and active attempts to solve them; assessments, values; trial and error.

We have made great mistakes — all living creatures make mistakes. It is indeed impossible to foresee all the unintended consequences of our actions. Here science is our greatest hope: its method is the correction of error.

Our great mistake now would be to forgot this through our human arrogance and hubris and to dismiss the lessons of our history.

This is why Brave Conversations are so necessary and why we continue to bring them to whichever audience of people will give us their time, focus and attention.

We owe it to ourselves, to each other, and to future generations to at least pause and ask the three fundamental questions posed by Aristotle and of crucial importance to us now:

Ethos – What may we do?

Logos – What can we do?

Pathos – What ought we do?

 

WebSci24 and the emerging Agent Society

WebSci24 and the emerging Agent Society

Jie Tang presenting his Keynote: The ChatGLM’s Road to AGI

Last week Intersticia Fellow Hannah Stewart and I attended the 2024 ACM Web Science Conference hosted by the University of Stuttgart and IRIS (Interchange Forum for Reflecting on Intelligent Systems).

The conference programme included an interesting mix of research presentation sessions ranging from Digital Art to Hate Speech, and a diverse number of Keynotes addressing topics such as China in the Global Information Ecosystem, Digital Humanism, Older Adults being Tech Savvy and Chat GLM’s Road to AGI.

The conference attracted over 100 people from all parts of the world to come together and discuss the questions posed by Web Science – those which don’t necessarily fit neatly in to one discipline or another but require a cross-disciplinary research focus, attitude and skills.

There were a couple of key moments in the conference that stood out to me amidst all the talk about LLMs and access to data (something that the researches were particularly preoccupied with).

These key moments were:

Hannes Werther’s reiteration that We Create the Web, the Web Creates Us – the key focus that has always been Web Science.  Linked to this he raised the issue of Business Models – how did human driven initiatives and policies help technical innovations scale and reach the human market?

This point is all too often forgotten, particularly in the research community, and I feel that this neglect often leads to somewhat irresponsible and naïve technology developments and deployments which have unforeseen and significant human social consequences.  (OpenAI’s recent comment that it’s technologies have been used to deceptively manipulate public opinion around the world and influence geopolitics is an astounding case of both. Once released in to the ‘wild’ what did they think was going to happen!!!)

The Internet, which began its life on 29th October 1969 as Arpanet, and has evolved to become the TCP/IP driven network we know today with the World Wide Web sitting atop it, began as  a government sponsored academic initiative.  In 1994 the commericial race was launched when Netscape Communications and Microsoft began the Browser Wars which led to the creation of the first Search Engines, publicly available online communities such as America On Line, online dating and the Dot.Com Bubble.

All of this had massive consequences in terms of the ways that human beings interacted with information and each other, not the least of which has been the creation of a digital divide and the need to fight for digital human rights and freedom of expression.

Enabled by the Internet, developments from the Read-Only to the Read-Write Web and the iPhone, there emerged digital Social Media platforms which took human online interaction to a whole new level.

We are only now starting to acknowledge and more fully understand that, whilst this has been the greatest communications and information revolution since the printing press, the social consequences (as with the printing press and its role in the Protestant Reformation) are profound.  There is a growing awareness of some of the harmful effects such as digital addiction, a negative impact on critical thinking skills (particularly through short form content and declining attention spans) and an increase in (cyber) bullying particularly amongst young people.

Jonathan Haidt believes that there is a Youth Mental Health Crisis largely attributable to Social Media and the business models that underpin them.

Another angle from which to consider this is with regard to many in the older population whose reliance on online platforms has become their primary sources of news and truth.  Americans, who are now in the midst of one of the most important election campaigns in modern history, largely turn to online news sources, with many Gen Z relying on Chinese owned Tik Tok for their information.

All of this is driven by the business models that support the companies providing the services, and all sit within the socio-technical environment of their corporate headquarters governed by the values of their founders and Board.

With the rapid move towards Artificial Intelligence as technology companies scramble to integrate machine learning and language models into their products we are at a key inflection point.

Most of what I hear and read by the key technology players is, in my opinion, a race to the bottom – an AI Arms Race that has been kicked off by OpenAI in a quite irresponsible manner purely to pursue dominant market share and human attention.  Since then the tech firms have put ethics on the backburner in order to capture predominantly business customers through promises of greater human productivity and a reduction in costs.  We’ve heard this all before, but as with last time

Everyone is asking how and why.  No-one seems to be asking should.

Rarely do I hear statements about the benefits to humanity or the protection of vulnerable people, access and equity or how we can use these quite incredible machines to help us cope with the myriad of existential threats presenting themselves in the 21st Century.

Some, such as Elon Musk with Neuralink, talk about benefits to patients with neurological conditions, but my suspicious mind immediately links this to the race to control and dominate human thoughts for commercial gain as Nita Farahany warns and the Council of Europe and European Union is beginning to recognise with its investigations in to Neuro Technologies and Human Rights.

This brings me to the second key moment of the Conference, Jie Tang’s presentation and his key slide of The Web as a Linked-Agent which is the feature image of this post.

Jie Tang described research which provides a comprehensive and systematic overview of LLM-based agents and postulates a Simulated Agent Society where

agents exchange their thoughts and beliefs with others, influencing the information flow within the environment. (Ref Zhiheng Xi et al, 2023)

The mere thought of this sends chills down my spine.

Again – here is the focus on the how and the what, but where is the should?

What does an Agent Society look like for us meat-based humans?  What Agency do we retain in such a world?

Whilst we may feel that the current technologies are still in their infancy and are prone to hallucinations and making stuff up, we need to continually remember Roy Amara’s Law that

Humans tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run. (Roy Amara)

When it comes to our Tech Overlords we should finally wake up and realise that they are commercial entities, Corporate Psychopaths which were created to maximise profits and shareholder value – nothing wrong with this, this is their purpose.  Our mistake is to be naive if we think that in their remit is the good of humanity nor fair and equitable societies which focus on human dignity.  Given this it seems plainly obvious to me that they should not be allowed to determine the future direction and development of artificial intelligence technologies and systems, nor should they be treated like other companies and left to govern themselves.

This is where the story of OpenAI, a firm ostensibly set up as a non-profit organisation with a public interest mission is salutary.

OpenAI was created

“to ensure that AGI, or artificial general intelligence—AI systems that are generally smarter than humans—would benefit “all of humanity”

In a recent article two of OpenAI’s former Board Members, who were charged with that mission, and have now been ousted by the commercial forces that dominate the company, write that

Our experience is that even with every advantage, self-governance mechanisms like those employed by OpenAI will not suffice. It is, therefore, essential that the public sector be closely involved in the development of the technology. Now is the time for governmental bodies around the world to assert themselves. Only through a healthy balance of market forces and prudent regulation can we reliably ensure that AI’s evolution truly benefits all of humanity.  (Helen Toner and Tasha McCauley were on OpenAI’s board from 2021 to 2023 and from 2018 to 2023, respectively.)

This is why forums such as Web Science should be much bolder in including business and government driven research, which in the earlier days from memory was far greater. The message of Web Science as a platform and community would be greatly enhanced by broadening beyond purely academic research and working to encourage greater dialogue between corporate research and government initiatives.

In addition I would like to see something like a Brave Conversations be more fully integrated in to the Web Science Conference programme so that all attendees, not just those who notice the event or show and interest, together with random people who turn up, are forced to focus on the thorny societal, ethical and moral questions which arise about the common technology driven future we are all co-creating.

As Anthropology Professor Michael Wesch so rightly said in 2007:

The Web is Us/ing Us.

We need to make sure that we humans continue to remember this.

 

Simulated Agent Society, From “The Rise and Potential of Large Language Model Based Agents: A Survey”, https://arxiv.org/pdf/2309.07864

Socio Technical, Socio Digital, Techno Social …

Socio Technical, Socio Digital, Techno Social …

We believe that unregulated generative AI is a clear and present danger to democratic
sustainability. The imminent problem is not super intelligent robots taking over the world, but the
threats to human individual and political freedoms posed by the deployment of simultaneously
exciting and yet potentially dangerous new technologies. We need to address the full range of AI
challenges, and in so doing, the public’s voice must be at the table, not only those of the already
powerful.  (Statement of the Digital Humanism Initiative 2023)

The last few months have been a bit of a whirlwind in terms of travel, meeting interesting people, exploring ideas and discovering insights.

In my previous post I talked about our Brussels Brave Conversations and some of the thoughts that came to me as I wandered around Brussels and began to explore the world that is the European Parliament.  As a complement to this I went to the Digital Humanism Summit 2023 in Vienna at the invitation of George Metakides and Hannes Werther where many of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence luminaries from Europe and the United States came together to talk about Generative Artificial Intelligence and the sustainability of democratic societies.

The explosion of Large Language Models on to humanity in 2022 – 2023 has suddenly propelled the conversations around these technologies into the public domain and with this has come a sort of mild panic about existential risk, the decimation of communiites and the irrelevance of human beings (Harari 2023).

The question is that we now have within our grasp the most powerful technologies that human kind has ever developed so how can we ensure that they are used for good (the benefit of humankind and the planet) rather than evil, and how can people feel secure about the developments of such technologies which are way beyond the abilities of most people to understand?

It is paramount that AI developers and regulators are asking themselves the right questions about the potential impact of AI. She suggests a greater focus on ensuring people feel secure in a world with AI, rather than trying to convince them to trust it. (Joanna Bryson at ANMC23).

As these conversations around AI unfold I am often bemused that it has taken so long for the proverbial penny to drop.  These technologies have been around for a very long time but as always it is the human condition not to really focus on things until they are right in front of us – we often seem to have little imagination about things that aren’t already around us, which is also why Science Fiction is so important a genre for people to engage with.  It is also why we seem to get distracted with the next bright shiny thing that emerges and then become somewhat derailed in our common sense and perspective.  As the Gartner® Hype Cycle™ so brilliantly illustrates we get excited, then we get disillusioned, then things start to calm down and we start to look at things from a more realistic perspective.  See the Gartner AI Hype Cycle 2023.

So by the time we had our 2023 London Brave Conversations at Newspeak House people were beginning to become a bit more balanced in their approach, many had actually used many of the tools and there were many thoughtful and insightful conversations around the benefits of AI whilst appreciating the need to take responsibility for how and when they are used and for the benefit of whom.

As these conversations mature it will be wonderful to see people embrace the tools to help them and help others, and I hope people will be brave whilst also being wise.

As a species we are called homo sapiens – the wise humans.  Now more than ever we need that to be the case.

Gartner, What’s New in Artificial Intelligence from the 2023 Gartner Hype Cycle, 17 August 2023, https://www.gartner.com/en/articles/what-s-new-in-artificial-intelligence-from-the-2023-gartner-hype-cycle. GARTNER and HYPE CYCLE are registered trademarks of Gartner, Inc. and/or its affiliates and are used herein with permission. All rights reserved.’

Digitally Savvy

Digitally Savvy

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

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

Thank you Simon and for Aodhan Moran for introducing us.

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

21st Century Digital Enlightenment

21st Century Digital Enlightenment

Only an enlightened society can be aware.  (Aristotle)

In July of last year I had a call with Professor George Metakides, with whom I serve on the Web Science Trust Board.

I first discovered Web Science when Armin Haller, who was a founding member of our Meta-Brave Conversations community, suggested I check them out which I did by attending the 2012 Summer School in Leiden.  There I met the inimitable Professor Dame Wendy Hall and, thanks to Wendy, I have been involved with the Web Science community ever since.

I started exploring the Web as a socio-technical system in the early 2000s through the development of the Printing Industries’ Action Agenda, Print21, which sought to understand the impact of digital information on the skillbase and supply chain of what was then the world’s third largest manufacturing industry.  This led to my work with Fuji Xerox Australia and the Australian and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) which included:

Throughout all of this my colleagues and I constantly struggled to explain to people what digital technologies really were; how they, and the broader digital ecosystem, were evolving, and what sort of world might emerge as ‘smart machines’ become a reality.  It was frustrating that time and time again people told us how important the work we were doing was, but no one was prepared to support its further development or champion it beyond narrow academic circles.  This was what inspired us to create Brave Conversations but it also led others to create similar organisations, one of which is the Digital Enlightenment Forum (DEF).

DEF was co-founded by George Metakides and others of like mind in 2012 working within the European Union who sought to understand

how current and future digital technology can best be used to express our identities in the digital world, taking into account the core values we cherish, we can support the rights of the individual in society” (see DEF Mission).

I attended my first DEF event in 2015 where I was most impressed by the calibre of the people, the core premise and DEF’s aspirations with its broad reach in to education, research, policy, and the commercial sector.

The conversations and debates around digital interaction technologies have come a long way since 2015, and there is now a rising public awareness and interest, which means that people may be ready to listen (maybe!)

During our conversation George and I discussed the synergies between DEF and Brave Conversations which, of course, sent me down a few rabbit holes.

The first was to consider the two words digital and enlightenment.

The word digital seems fairly straightforward coming from:

  • having digits (fingers and thumbs of which humans usually have 10) and using these to express discrete numbers (0 to 9) as values of a physical quantity;
  • something being binary – either on or off (1 or 0).

The word digital is, however, becoming more complicated as we digitise information and digitalise societies.  Something that is complicated is where components can be separated out and dealt with in a systematic and logical way based on a set of static rules or algorithms, which largely describes expert systems which make predictions or classifications based on input data (IBM 2020), i.e ‘artificial intelligence’.

The word enlightenment is far more nuanced and complex because it is culturally contextual and there are no rules, algorithms, or natural laws to define it.

One definition is of the

European intellectual movement of the late 17th and 18th centuries emphasizing reason and individualism rather than tradition.  It was heavily influenced by 17th-century philosophers such as Descartes, Locke, and Newton, and its prominent figures included Kant, Goethe, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Adam Smith.  (Wikipedia)

Enlightenment thinking included a range of ideas centred on the value of human happiness, the pursuit of knowledge obtained by means of reason and the evidence of the senses, and ideals such as natural law, liberty, progress, toleration, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state.

At the time such ideas were dangerously radical because European thinkers were just beginning to throw off the yoke of Church authority and create the mindset of the Scientific Revolution which stressed the reliance on common sense and the power of direct observation over the unquestioning acceptance of traditional (often religious) explanations and ways of understanding the natural world.  As a corollary to this European colonisation revealed the richness of other cultures and how they thought about things – consider the Islamic Golden Age and the value of the Meso-American and Indigenous cultures, something it appears we are only just beginning to rediscover (see The Dawn of Everything).

Perhaps the biggest challenge for us as WEIRD (Western Educated Industrialised Rich and Democratic) thinkers now is to realise that whilst we have been largely responsible for inventing and building the technologies which have become embedded in the lives of humans around the globe, the majority of those who interacting online are neither Western nor European (see this video and Our World in Data statistics).

Thus the combination of the words digital and enlightenment becomes even more complex!

If we take just two additional perspectives of the word enlightenment:

  • for Buddhists and Hindus enlightenment may be translated as either the Japanese word satori (derived from the verb satoru, “to know”) usually referring to an experience of insight into the true nature of reality; or the Sanskrit and Pali word Bodhi meaning “awakening”, but there is also reference to the middle way of living a balanced life.
  • For the Aboriginal Australians (and probably for many indigenous cultures) there may be no word as the concept would be embedded in the land and landscape as crafted in the Songlines (see this article and consider The Memory Code).

The theme which consistently emerges is that of knowledge, understanding and illumination, the concept of and the challenge of illuminating the path created by those who have insights from the path combined with some foresight as to what is to come.

I think it’s fair to say that this is what the European Enlightenment thinkers were doing as they sought to understand changing mindsets and revolutionary technology.  It is also at the core of what humanity needs now as we move on from the Industrial Age and fully embrace the Age of Information ( Nouriel Roubini).

Scientific method, hell! No wonder the Galaxy was going to pot! (The Foundation Series)

Whenever we run a Brave Conversations we always stress the need for participants to engage with Science Fiction, and especially Isaac Azimov’s Foundation Series  telling the story of Hari Seldon and his hopes that Psychohistory would prevent the horrors of a predictable future.  He fails not because of the complications of the data and information, but because of the complex unpredictability of life and living systems.

Humanity’s desire to divine the future is as old as humanity itself – we have consulted the Delphic Oracle, Runes, Fortune Tellers and Time Machines, and now we are worshipping our nascent artificial machines as we see them as portents of the future or ways to increase productivity and maximise profits.  These machines and systems are merely reflections of ourselves and are limited by our own frames of reference, our language, our value systems and our perspectives of the world.

This is the true challenge of 21st Century Digital Enlightenment – to bring to light our own biases and blind spots, to become more inclusive in our conversations and to embrace the diversity of humanity as we build tools to serve all of humanity and the broader planet.

The purpose of my conversation with George was that he asked if I would be prepared to join the Board of the Digital Enlightenment Forum and help it navigate this next phase of its mission, which is something I wholeheartedly and enthusiastically accepted.

Thank you George and all the DEF Board for this opportunity to serve.

June 2024
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