Analogue leadership in a digital world

Brave Conversations Sharjah 2022

Brave Conversations Sharjah 2022

In November 2021 we finally realised our Future Worlds Challenge with the assistance of the MIT App Inventor Research team and a group of wonderful young people from around the globe.

In September 2022 we had the opportunity to further develop this thanks to the invitation of the Government of Sharjah to integrate both Future Worlds Challenge and Brave Conversations in to the 2022 International Government Communications Forum.  The opportunity was created by Ibrahim El Badawi who has been supporting Leanne Fry and me with Brave Conversations since our first event in 2017 and has helped craft and present numerous Brave Conversations events for an Arabic speaking audience over the past few years.

From the outset both Leanne and I realised that Sharjah was going to be something a bit different.  The events were to be integrated into a major conference within a completely different cultural context and, to be honest, we had no idea who was going to turn up or when!  Uppermost in our minds was the need to be mindful of cultural values and English proficiency, let alone a familiarity with technology beyond just retail use.  And, we had to keep our energy up for four full days with the two events overlapping on the third day.  As a bonus we were thrilled that Professor Dame Wendy Hall agreed to join us in Sharjah to help us anchor our events within the broader context of the conference and also to link it to the very important work that she is doing around digital governance and Artificial Intelligence.

From the moment we arrived in to a very hot and humid Dubai we were greeted with superb Emiratee hospitality thanks to Ohood Al Aboodi and her team of the IGCC.  In addition we had our own private tour guide with Ibrahim driving us around in his red Mustang.  This gave us some valuable insights in to the Emirate particularly with a visit to University City and the very impressive House of Wisdom, one of the most beautiful learning centres in the world.  To give some context Sharjah is the third largest city in the UAE and capital of the Emirate of Sharjah.  It seeks to position itself as the centre for Islamic culture and knowledge within the UAE and the IGCC Forum is an event which focuses on government communication as central to this.

What became clear to us was that the IGCC Forum provided a perfect opportunity to explore some of the themes of Brave Conversations within this Arabic cultural context and specifically to engage with young people through Future Worlds Challenge.  In this we were ably supported by some delightful young Emirate interpreters and facilitatators, but most of al the MIT App Inventor team of Claire Tan, Maura Kelleher and Nghi Nguyen who quite literally worked their tails off with us reorganising the programme and having to innovate on the fly when it came to teaching the code.

We arrived to the venue on Monday 26th September for Day One not really knowing what to expect.  Gradually the room filled and over the four days we were joined by students from the local university, groups of school children aged between 15 to 17, a contingent from the UAE Military, and a number of Directors of Government Communications from the Government of Sharjah.  Apart from the fact that we were never quite sure when people would arrive or how many of them there would be, everyone was fully engaged and enthusiastically threw themselves in to both the coding tasks, the Challenge and the conversations.

Both Brave Conversations and Future Worlds Challenge are designed to get participants to use their imagination and creative thinking and one way we seek to stimulate this is to highlight the importance of Science Fiction.  When the Chinese wanted to find out why the West was so far ahead with their development of technology they discovered it was that the West has a deep history of Science Fiction.  When we posed this question to our Arabic audience it was curious that there was so little Arabic work of this genre despite some encouraging early shoots (Larissa Sanour’s work in particular).  This is one thing we encouraged our young audience to explore more particularly as it opens the mind to possibilities, the core of which is at the heart of Future Worlds Challenge.

The Challenge built on the work we had done in 2021 and asked one simple question – How do you build a Future World ten years hence (i.e. 2032) that you would actually want to live in that can sustain human life on this planet?

There are three aspects to the world that you propose based on:

  1. How do we think?  What do we need to change about our values and expectations?
  2. How do we live?  How do we live sustainably within the planetary ecosystem?
  3. What technologies can support this?  Technology needs to serve not lead.

We divided the participants into seven groups of mixed ages and genders and each one chose to focus on one aspect of designing a better Future World. Each was given time to work on their presentations and then give a five minute presentation with five minutes of questions.

How did we judge these Future Worlds?  We asked three judges – volunteers Prashathi Reddy and our facilitator Hussein plus Claire Tan, to consider the worlds based on these criteria:

  • Does your world make sense?
  • Is it realistic?
  • How would Conversational AI support your World?
  • Do you believe in it?

Following on from this first round three ‘winners’ were chosen who then presented to the IGCC Judges Panel at the end of the day and this lead to a final ‘winning team’ announced at the Closing Ceremony Dinner of the Forum.

The teams were:

  1. Ahlam – Your Sleeping Matters
  2. Bioare – Sustainability for Life
  3. Fast Move – Accessibility for Blind People
  4. FWPW – Future Without Plastic Waste
  5. HRPI – Healthcare, Renewable, Printing and Inequality
  6. MOCAP – Project Charity Becomes Human
  7. Sooma – Zakat Calculator

To be honest there was no winning team.

Despite the nerves and hours of waiting around each and every person who was with us worked hard, contributed ideas and energy and helped make the event a success, and it is a huge complement to them that we were able to push the boundaries of Future Worlds Challenge and develop the programme into something that is now fully formed and a complement to Brave Conversations, which at Sharjah, was merely the supporting act!

The most precious thing for us was in being able to give these young people insights in to the dual analogue-digital worlds that are emerging and in this we were truly blessed to have the inimitable Dame Wendy Hall.  Wendy, as always, gave selflessly to our groups and they gained insights from her more intimate session with us that she then further expanded in the main conference.

There is so much talk at the minute about the Metaverse and Wendy explored some of the challenges of these metaverses (which is much more correct).  She very cleverly explained the issues of privacy by focusing on digital clothes shopping and what we will be exposing as we shop online. Wendy always has this gift for bringing crucial messages home – within a largely male audience it was the women who were the most wide-eyed and concerned.

This was really brought home during our final session of Brave Conversations when I looked at one of the main stands in the exhibition hall where one company was encouraging people to ‘get scanned and create your digital twin’.  How much did people think about this before they eagerly participated and what questions should they have been asking?

As is happening in so many aspects of our lives we have absolutely no protection from companies such as this who are encouraging us to give our data with no respect for privacy or accountability back to us.  This is exactly the same as companies such as Ancestry.com taking peoples’ DNA which strikes me as not just fraudulent but downright exploitative.

As Mark Zuckerberg is finding out there is a risk to rushing in to these new frontiers and gradually governments are beginning to wake up to their naivety of the past two decades and finally grapple with these issues.  Too slowly of course, but they are beginning.  This is the message that I would have like to see at Sharjah and hopefully some of the attendees listened.

As all societies keenly embrace the world of digital and see it is as the key to the future it is events such as these where we can bring savvy young people together with the not so savvy elders to really question the future world that are crucial to having some semblance of control and we are hugely grateful to the Government of Sharjah for providing one such opportunity.

Our thanks to Ibrahim El Badawi for creating this opportunity, and especially to Ohood Al Aboodi for all the hard work she did in getting us to Sharjah and making us feel so welcome.

A Nordic Brave Conversation

A Nordic Brave Conversation

The Solstrand programme contributes to the development of Norwegian businesses and the public sector by providing participants with a better understanding of organisational structure and greater insight into leadership processes.

 

Since 1953, Nordic leaders have come to The Solstrand programme to learn from and with one another supported by leaders and key actors in Norwegian society and international research who contribute their knowledge and experience.

There are two core aspects of the work that we do through Intersticia.

The first is our focus on Group Relations and the dynamics of human interactions in groups which underpin all aspects of leadership and stewardship.

The second is our focus on integrating digital literacy and digital fluency in the work that we do with our Fellows, with partner organisations and through all of our events, especially Brave Conversations.

This year saw me able to bring these together with two Brave Conversations events in September, the first of which was as a part of the 2022 Solstrand Leadership Programme.

I first learned about Solstrand when I met three Solstrand coaches at the 2018 Tavistock Institute Leicester Conference and subsequent to this two of my Leicester colleagues, Marianne Darre and Philip Hayton, have become members of the Intersticia community as Advisors.

In January 2020 I was invited to Solstrand and was privileged to observe this programme over two days through sitting in on one of the Small Groups, participating in the larger group and then witnessing the Artistic Programme held at the Oseana Art and Cultural Centre in Os.

The Solstrand Hotel began it’s life in 1896 built by Norway’s first Prime Minister Christian Michelsen. Michelsen wanted it to be a place where the tradesmen of Bergen (Norway’s second largest city) could gather strength for their big mission in the city.

Since then leaders from all walks of life have visited Solstrand and in post-WWII Europe it became a beacon of hope for the ravaged Norway with the first Solstrand Programme held at the hotel in 1952 as a partnership between the NFF (Norwegian School of Economics) and the AFF (Norway’s largest Leadership and Organisational Development Consultancy).  From the outset the founders of Solstrand wanted to draw on the very latest and most innovative thinking in leadership development and the foundations of the programme are built on this philosophy and the crucial aspects of group relations which manifest in the Tavistock institute’s Leicester Conference.

Every year since 1953 some 48 participants from virtually all sectors of the Norwegian economy, of varying ages and stages in their careers come to Solstrand to participate in a 7 week programme split across two and one week blocks over a year and a half to learn about themselves, the groups they participate in and the organisational system as a whole.  They are supported by highly trained coaches and a wide range of guest lectures and talks from speakers and thought leaders around the world.

When I first learned about Solstrand my immediate reaction was “no wonder Norway is doing so well!”.  It is, in my opinion, the most effective and successful leadership development programme in the world and has provided an inspiration for how we are developing Intersticia, albeit on a much smaller scale.  When I think of how it works it resonates deeply with the values that we at Intersticia espouse and integrate in what we do – those of authenticity, integrity, persistence, courage and grace.  What I realised when I discovered Solstrand was that, quite simply,

our vision is for Intersticia to become a mini-global Solstrand, one person at a time.

This year I was hugely privileged to be invited to present a Brave Conversations to the incoming 2022 Solstrand cohort, the first fully face to face one since the start of the Covid pandemic and the first to be held totally within the context of the onging Russia-Ukraine War – the first major conflict in Europe since WWII.  The week I attended was also the first week of mourning for the death of Queen Elizabeth II.

I always find going to Solstrand a transformative experience, not only because of the sheer beauty of the hotel sitting quietly on the Hardangerfjord, but in the energy of the work being done within the Solstrand programme itself.  This time my experience was that of feeling the deep historical and cultural connections between Britain and Norway not just due to the Viking heritage (Lindesfarne and all that) but as two nations which both have Constitutional Monarchies, are both crucial to the defence of the values of Western Europe, are both blessed with energy independence (Norway now Europe’s main energy provider) but both are prepared to be brave in how they approach things and push the boundaries. There is something wonderfully familar about Norway that I have felt since I first visited (perhaps my own Viking roots) but there is also the courage that is displayed within the Solstrand Programme and it’s own ambitions to facilitate brave conversations.

From the outset of this event the group was responsive, curious and willing to embrace the challenge of asking difficult questions and seeking non-conventional answers.  In their groups it was fascinating to observe how they responded to the Case Study based on The Nexus Trilogy which sought to highlight issues such as transhumanism, the ethics of AI and the emerging hive mind of connected humanity.  As always it was the context of both the programme and the times which resulted in the most interesting conversations and, hopefully, the most effective learning.

I learned a huge amount about myself and the work we do from the experience and hope that the conversations started at Solstrand will continue to resonate for the participants in both their personal and professional lives and empower them to use their Solstrand learnings as much online as in their real-world interactions.  As the metaverses evolve we are going to desperately need people who can be brave and not just follow others – we need those who will see beyond what is immediately apparent and have the courage to seek new paths.  This is what Solstrand seeks to achieve.

I would like to thank Hans Morten Skivik, Marianne Darre and Gisken Holst for their very kind invitation and their always open and welcoming hospitality at Soltrand.  I would also like to thank the Solstrand programme for the opportunity to introduce ideas around the Social Machine and Digital Enlightenment and to challenge them to leverage these brave conversations beyond Norway.

 

What does it mean to be human?

What does it mean to be human?

Brave Conversations Barcelona 2022

A few weeks ago we held our 17th Brave Conversations event, which was our fourth as a part of an ACM Web Science Conference, this time in Barcelona.

We had nine flesh and blood live ‘human beings’ who bravely joined us (Covid free!) on a hot Barcelona afternoon at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra together with some thirty-five who logged on via Mr Zoom from all around the World.

We were thrilled with the balance and at being able to have a real-life conversation with those in the room, whilst doing our best to accommodate those in the virtual space, despite numerous challenges with the technology which somewhat undermined the event, at least for me as a facilitator.

Note to self – if there isn’t a ‘tech guru’ in the venue don’t do hybrid!

The concept of having “Brave Conversations” began in 2008 with our first ‘meta’ events which brought together people from all walks of life to spend time considering the brave new worlds we are co-creating as we collaboratively build the Global Social Machine – humans and smart technology systems symbiotically working together.

Yes! We were doing “meta” way before anyone else was!!  Except the metadata people of course.

Since that time the conversations have changed – from being about the Semantic Web (which very few could really understand), to issues of identity and privacy, digital governance and the need for we humans to become ‘smarter’ as the machines continue to evolve.

We have worked in partnership with numerous organisations which have included the Web Science Trust and it’s network of Labs, Newspeak House, Founders and Coders, Gaza Sky Geeks, the Jamaican Broadcasting Commission, Philanthropy Australia and – quite frankly – anyone who could see the importance of having these conversations and would help provide us with a forum to do so.

The last two years has seen us predominantly operate online but 2022 brings the opportunity to re-engage in a new way, and to take the time to notice what has changed since we all buried ourselves inside to wait out the Pandemic.

There are a number of things that have stood out for me.

Firstly, it seems that the concept of personal privacy is no longer being taken quite so for granted and that it is no longer cool to be all over Instagram – for some (those with the skills and money to afford it) anonymity and privacy are making a comeback!

Secondly, companies such as Uber which have been arrogantly stamping all over governments and the public, are beginning to be revealed for the aggressive and unethical organisations they are.  Whilst they took the lead in disrupting complacent and tired transport systems they have themselves become the pariahs, and there are numerous very good alternatives if people will take the time to seek them out.

Thirdly, last month I was walking down Long Acre in Covent Garden and spotted these ads in the Ray Ban store (Ray Ban Stories).  We know that these technologies exist ever since Google Glass but the step change is that now Mr Ray Ban and Mr Facebook (I refused to call them Meta!) have come up with some very fashionable glasses which don’t look quite so clunky and which link to Mr Facebook’s technical back end.  The fact that these devices are allowed to be sold astonishes me given the lack of facial-recognition legislation and the growing awareness of the need to regulate it.

But this is only just the beginning.

If you listen to what is percolating in both the mainstream media and Popular Science stories you will notice an increasing number of articles about human longevity and Ageing as a Disease  In addition, people like Elon Musk are seeking to connect our brains to the virtual world, all of which is going to present far greater challenges than Mr Facebook’s Story Glasses.

With this in mind for this Brave Conversations we decided to take a step forward into the realm of biology and craft a Case Study inspired by Ramez Naam’s Nexus Trilogy (I invited Mr Naam to join us but he didn’t favour me with a reply sadly).

Let’s start from the premise that

We are the last generation of Homo Sapiens as we know ourselves.  In the coming century we will learn to engineer bodies, brains and minds.  (Yuval Noah Harari)

So what does that actually mean? Here are some questions just to get you thinking:

  • What does it actually mean to be the last generation of Homo Sapiens?
  • What sorts of changes are on the horizon and what options are actually real?
  • What sort of humans do we actually want to become?  Who is to make those decisions?
  • What sorts of rules and regulations should be guiding these decisions?  What ethical frameworks should inform them?  Who should decide?
  • What sorts of conversations should we be having before we let this go any further?
  • Do we have any choice? Or it is too late already?

Life (itself) will become the clay of human creativity.  (Baroness Susan Greenfield)

Once you start thinking in these terms it becomes obvious that the conversations we’ve been having about smart systems, computer technologies and Artificial Intelligence are already outdated and framed by the old mindset of industrial age thinking.  The machines we are talking about now are biological systems and therefore we are now in the realm of the life sciences, human bio-engineering, health and medicine. Things need to take a different turn.

These are the conversations that we have now begun with our 2022 Brave Conversations and we will be exploring them further with every subsequent event.

As Alice says in Wonderland

I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then. (Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland)

We are all different people and we are all now down the proverbial rabbit hole!

As always a huge thanks to Leanne Fry, Ibrahim El Badawi and Abeer Abu Ghaith for their wonderful collaboration on yet another successful event and here’s to seeing where our next ones go!

Our first Future Worlds Challenge

Our first Future Worlds Challenge

We created the first Brave Conversations in 2017 but it had a long genesis and followed on from a series of events which we called Meta held between 2008 – 2011.  (Funny as I think of how Facebook has now rebranded itself to exactly the same name but for entirely different reasons!)

Our “Meta” events were so named because they focused on metadata, which is essentially, data about data.  The objective was to bring people from different perspectives and backgrounds (academia, business and government) together to explore the symbiotic relationship between humanity and technology as digital technologies become increasingly pervasive in everyday life.  At these early events we were joined by the early thinkers and practitioners in what we now recognise as the Web Science space, but the conversations were far from mainstream.  That has taken time and there’s nothing like a global pandemic, countries in lockdown, and everyday living moving online to kickstart the adoption of new technologies!

So, here we are a decade after our last Meta event and having developed and taken Brave Conversations around the world and online and it’s time for us to create something a little different, something targeted at the emerging leaders in our society and those for whom being online is just taken as given – those born in the 21st Century.

Our early Brave Conversations events attracted a number of young people, sometimes with parents and even grandparents, and Brave Conversations Kingston Jamaica was especially targeted to this demographic.  Since that time we have been developing an idea to gamify the process of learning about Web Science and the ‘theory and practice of the Social Machine‘ but it wasn’t until we met MIT researcher Jessica Van Brummelen that it all came together with the result being Future Worlds Challenge.

Jessica is an Electrical Engineering and Computer Science PhD student at MIT researching how conversational agents can empower and teach young learners about AI.

What are conversational agents?

According to IBM:

Conversational AI refers to technologies (chat-bots, virtual agents) which interact with users via speech and uses large volumes of data, machine learning, and natural language processing to help imitate human interactions, recognizing speech and text inputs and translating their meanings across various languages.

Jessica’s research focuses on empowering young learners through helping them develop conversational AI development skills and engaging them in discussions about the ethics of AI.  (You can find out more about this work here).  Once we met Jessica we knew we had the perfect partner to hold our first Future Worlds Challenge and so we now have two events planned for the end of November, each targeting a different time zone and audience.

Each Future Worlds will comprise the first day of learning to programme an Amazon Alexa using MIT App Inventor and then the second working in teams, each with their own Amazon Alexa, to undertake the Challenge itself.

What is Future Worlds Challenge?

There are so many challenges facing humanity at the moment – climate change, the future of education, health care, governance, work-life balance.  The idea of Future Worlds Challenge is to help participants working in teams to think through some of these issues from a systems perspective considering each of the following and how they interact with each other and with the global system as a whole.

  • Intrapersonal – What are the systems within ourselves: physical, intellectual, emotional, spiritual?
  • Interpersonal – What are the systems between ourselves and others in our family, community?
  • Societal – What are the systems at work within a society?
  • Global – What are the systems at work in our relationship with the natural world?

 

 

We will combine this thinking with each of the following domains in order to explore the options and choices which are presenting themselves, and then each team, armed with the power of their Conversational AI Alexa, will work towards creating and presenting a Future World which they believe would be the most sustainable and beneficial for humanity.

The winning teams will then be invited to join us (virtually) for our Brave Conversations Barcelona event at the forthcoming ACM Web Science 2022 Conference hosted by Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, Spain.

At this stage we have over 100 people from all around the world who have expressed their interest in participating but there are still places left so if you or someone you know would like to come along please register your interest here.

 

 

 

 

Dynamics @ Board Level 2020

Dynamics @ Board Level 2020

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.

Introduction

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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;
  2. The most significant impact will be in Asia which has over 50% of the world’s population;
  3. 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.

Conclusion

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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Podcast, Video Interviews and Television Media

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Digital Gymnasia Series 2 – 2021

Digital Gymnasia Series 2 – 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.

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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:

  1. Your Digital Brand – Who are you online?
  2. Demystifying AI – What are we collectively building in the online world?
  3. Facilitating Meetings Online – How are we taking our work online?
  4. 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.

December 2022
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