The best thing we can do is build surfboards and ride the wave. (Scott Davis)
It seems that we, as humanity, are at an inflection point, a period in human history where quite literally anything could happen!
Some, like Yuval Noah Harari, believe that unless we regulate and control the evolving artificial intelligence it could well be the end of human history as we know it.
What would happen once a non-human intelligence becomes better than the average human at telling stories, composing melodies, drawing images, and writing laws and scriptures?” The answer, he believes, casts a dark cloud over the future of human civilisation.
We should regulate AI before it regulates us. (Yuval Noah Harari)
Others, like Scott David, believe that if we synthesize human and Artificial Intelligence and augment our thinking we may finally have the tools we need to cope with the other major challenges of the 21st Century.
Some, like Jaan Tallinen and those at the Future of Life Institute (FLI), believe that we need to pause the giant AI experiments in order to take time to more fully understand the risks.
Others, like Pedro Domingoes, criticise this call and want to forge ahead because, as Alan Kay said
The best way to predict the future is to invent it.
Regardless of which side one takes what this all demonstrates is that it is not the ‘it’, the AGI, that we should be worried about, it is us, the humans, and how we are going to deal with whatever emerges.
The one good thing about the FLI letter is that it has been a catalyst for debate and has finally brought the issue of AGI to the public forum. The reality is that regardless of what the technologies can or can’t do it is our social systems that will generate the real social change, for instance companies like IBM pausing its hiring to replace 7,800 jobs with AI and Microsoft’s development of Co-Pilot. Companies are not hiring graduate developers, they are caught up in the hype around the tech and this is causing major ripples in the labour market.
Whilst it may take a decade or more for AGI to emerge (in whatever form that may be) there is no doubt that in the short term the hype around it will impact peoples’ lives and this is what will create more risk than the potential of the machine.
One way of looking at the current situation is that following the disruption of the Covid19 Pandemic there are now the accompanying advances in AI, and the other technologies which are now converging, which have shaken up and unfrozen much within our social and economic systems. This can be illustrated by considering two models: Kurt Lewin’s Freeze-Unfreeze (Lewin 1947 Frontiers in group dynamics) and William Bridges Transition.
It is the unfrozen state (the Interstice) which provides the potential and opportunity for change and renewal before the new-normal is established. This is a time of excitement and energy but it is also a time of fear and potential unrest because change can be frightening as the old ways die and the new is not yet clear (see Kubler Ross).
In facing any change we humans need to feel a sense of agency in order to craft a path forward and accept the change being presented to us, and this is what we sought to explore in our recent Brave Conversations in Brussels.
We presented our participants with three case studies, each of which posed a number of questions around personal choices in response to specific situations in which Artificial Intelligence was a key determinant. The first was based on a challenge posed by a large language model released on to the Internet; the second related to AI and a health care issue, and the third related to the development of government policy. In each case we armed our participants with Mark Moore’s Strategic Triangle asking three questions to determine how they as individuals could potentially respond to each case:
- Ethos – What should we do? What do our values, ethics and morals guide us to do?
- Logos – What can we do? What resources to do we have?
- Pathos – What may we do? What authority are we acting on?
For much of the last fifty years advances in information systems have been made by scientists, such as Geoffrey Hinton and his peers, who have developed technologies because they could – they were able to do it, they could solve whatever problem they were addressing, and they charged forward. They didn’t necessarily ask if they should – the combined outcome of the Ethos and Pathos in the trilogy.
As a complement to this investors, particularly in Silicon Valley, helped thrust these technologies in to the commercial realm because they understood the value of digital information and digital disruption – Uber, Air BnB and all the companies participating in what Shoshana Zuboff has termed Surveillance Capitalism.
Funnily enough when I met Zuboff at a signing of her book in 2019 I asked her if she had seen all of this coming when she wrote The Support Economy in 2002 – she said, “Yes we did, we just hoped it wouldn’t happen.” Sadly it did.
The commodification of personal data for commercial gain has created a marketplace that trades exclusively in human futures (Zuboff), feeding the Social Machines we have today, exploiting our innate human need to connect with each other. What is worth considering here is that whilst there has been enormous focus on the issues of privacy and surveillance what has not been much discussed are the ways that these platforms view the emergence of communities as a byproduct rather than the driver of their success.
The Web was created by Tim Berners-Lee as a tool to facilitate communication and information sharing between people within a community and it was the trust within that communities that enabled the sharing to occur. Companies then sought to commercialise the Web, which had been given to humanity for free by Tim, and as a result sought to create monopolies by closing elements of it down – the walled gardens of social media.
Just over a decade ago the Open Data Movement gained traction, particularly due to the election of the tech-savvy Barrack Obama as US President in 2008 and the Parliamentary Expenses Scandal in the UK in 2009. There was huge hope for this movement which changed the paradigm around public sector information from being closed and hidden to that of being a public asset to be harnessed and exploited for public good – this resulted in the ‘open by default‘ principle. Sadly, despite the excitement and early wins achieved by Government Digital Services around the world the truth is that they managed to pick the low hanging fruit but the challenges of true digital transformation have proved to be painstakingly difficult – governments are still talking about it in the same way that they were over a decade ago.
It seems to me, having lived through and closely observed these events, that each phase of opening up emerges from within communities that are seeking to solve real problems that affect them. Someone then has the bright idea of commercialising which then encourages the sharks to start circling with their growth and profit mindset and next thing whatever was shared and open became monetised and closed, no longer focused on the needs of the community but geared to exploiting ‘consumer’ behaviour to generate advertising and retail sales revenue.
We are now witnessing this once again in the AI space as the hype is driving the investors to scramble. Someone like Cathy Wood, CEO of Ark Invest sees a massive industry emerging where currently there is virtually none, and this is what happened with the Web and with Open Data. The digital disruptors understood the affordances of digital information and companies like Facebook and Google hoovered up whatever they could to both ingest new technologies and also to close down competition. Because Governments had absolutely no idea of how digital information works they didn’t see what was obvious and right in front of them – because there is no market now doesn’t mean that there won’t be soon! This marketing myopia is responsible for the mega corporations we have today which dominate the online world existing as the most valuable companies of all of recorded human history.
There is hope that perhaps the release of ChatGPT and the ability of the general public to use the systems may wake people up to its potential, and build some sort of momentum towards either regulation and/or Anti-Trust action, something that people like Zephyr Teachout are fighting for (see Break ‘Em Up!).
There is also hope that there may be global communities who can use the very technologies themselves to craft some new phase of openness in partnership with governments and the Third Sector with the objective of serving humanity rather than big corporations (I won’t hold my breath for this one as they will most likely be too slow).
Finally, starting with the European Union’s AI Act, governments may not repeat the mistakes in the first two digital waves of leaving regulation too late and may listen to the chorus of voices calling for it (Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI for one). I say may because thus far their track record is not good.
I think that the real kicker will be when the smart devices we wear on our bodies are embedded within our bodies – smart contact lenses as an obvious example – because then they will be required to meet the standards of Medical Device regulation, although by that time it will most likely be too late.
What there is no doubt about though is that there is a shift happening on all fronts, and I believe it is the younger generation, the Millennials and younger, who need to take the lead now in determining how humanity proceeds. They have grown up in the digital soup and as I have written before I believe this is their time. They are the ones who are now crafting careers, bringing up families and they are the ones who will be supporting us Elders as we age. They are much more connected with their peers globally than we ever were and they don’t seem to be as binary in how they see the world.
As I reflect on this I am brought to consider The Strauss-Howe Generational Theory, and the idea of the Fourth Turning. My late 20’s aged son made an interesting comment to me a few months ago – he said “I can feel a change coming Mum, I’m not sure what it is, but it’s big“.
One thing is for sure is that when, not if, some form of artificial sentience emerges it will shake humanity to the core – we will need to reconsider everything we think is ‘normal’ in our daily lives from how we learn, how we work and even to our concepts of God. History tells us that when humans go through major change it is often with violence and aggression as we lash out to apportion blame or seek redress. This is not going to do any good as the machines won’t care, and this is why, above all
The lesson of AI and of formidable breakthroughs to come, such as quantum computing is that we may now be reaching the point where something most unnatural to humans is the only thing that can save us: humility. (Howard French)
One thing that surfing teaches you is to be humble and to respect the ocean and realise that it and its’ waves can swamp you at any moment. It teaches you to read the tides and the wind and work with the environment, not try to fight against it. Much of this comes from experience but also from being open and having the basic skills (such as knowing how to swim).
I believe that this is where we are now and that what we have to do is to nurture, educate and empower people to harness the good in the digital realm, to learn to craft our surfboards, to learn to ride the waves well and use that knowledge to help future generations always focus and remember their humanity and their part of the greater whole on this Pale Blue Dot of a planet we all inhabit.
Last week we held our 21st Brave Conversations event at Atelier 29 in Brussels and the first in partnership with the Digital Enlightenment Forum (DEF).
We began on a wet, cold Brussels morning but garnered a group of intelligent, engaged and curious individuals keen to converse with other humans in the room about our digital lives in 21st Century.
Since our last events in 2022 much seems to have shifted within the digital landscape, particularly with the release “in the wild” of ChatGPT and other generative AI and large language models. It took ChatGPT just five days to gain 1 million users following its release in November 2022 and before long thousands of very noted people had signed the Future of Life Institute Open Letter to Pause Giant AI Experiments.
By the time we got to Brussels even the Smart Humans who had invented the tools themselves (such as people like scientist Geoffrey Hinton) were worried and struggling to keep up and the major tech companies were scrambling to maintain some sort of competitive edge by rushing to integrate the tools in to their mainstream offerings (for example Microsoft’s launch of Co-Pilot).
So what is this all about? For anyone who has been watching the tech space the events of the past few months were entirely predictable, as was the human excitement / panic / reaction / confusion that followed. We’ve been here before, although not necessarily with a suite of technologies with the impact to profoundly change human society as these ones. Ever since the invention of writing people have warned about it’s dire consequences – Socrates of writing; Gessner of the printing press; Carr of Social Media.
In all the hype swirling around at the minute, and particularly that driven by the major tech companies, we need to remember that the success of humanity as a dominant species comes from our ability to to co-operate with each other, to transmit and build on the knowledge of our forebears, and to develop and utilise tools that have become increasingly sophisticated.
Human beings have a unique ability to cooperate in large, well-organized groups and employ a complex morality that relies on reputation and punishment. (Fraans de Waal
The tools we are currently developing are merely the latest in a very long line which have helped us survive and thrive, and these tools too will become necessary in order to help us meet the challenges we currently face.
But as Roy Amara states
Technology is neither good nor bad, but nor is it neutral.
So what did all these mean for the conversations we had in Brussels on 12th May?
After the years of Covid one of the things we feel is most important with Brave Conversations is to get the humans in the room, and a number of people made a big effort to get to Brussels to be with us in person. This meant that there were human-to-human interactions, unmediated by any technology, and the ability for each person to explore their ideas within the physical confines of a human space.
We had a blend of participants which included the Board of the Digital Enlightenment Forum, academics, some people working in policy with the European Union, Students, and a couple of creatives. A fabulous blend of minds and perspectives to craft interesting insights and a nuanced approach to how everyone was feeling about the current technology onslaught. Some of the comments below give a flavour of the conversation but perhaps the most important was when one participant told me that she came along because she can’t find anywhere else to have these conversations in a safe space without judgement or a predetermined agenda.
This is what we seek to create in Brave Conversations and which our partnership with the Digital Enlightenment Forum promised to bring.
I would like to thank as always Leanne Fry for her continuing partnership, it was wonderful to work with Thanassis Tiropanis yet again and thanks to him for helping facilitate. To the Board of DEF thank you for your support of the event and to the inimitable Myriam de Greef an enormous thanks because without Myriam no conversations would have been had!
Title adapted from Shoshana Zuboff’s ground-breaking 1988 book
Last week I attended a Group Relations Conference in India. These events are always intense (this one even more so!) but they provide a unique opportunity to consider oneself with a human social system.
One of the things that occurred to me as we were exploring the role of the unconscious as it was playing out in the here and now (all psychobabble terms but in fact hugely important) was that there are multiple unconsciouses which operate as we live our dual analogue-digital lives. Carl Jung described what he called the collective unconscious which complements and influences all of our conscious thinking and actions as we participate within the human system. I believe that there is now in addition a digital unconscious which is emerging in the digital realm as the result of our digital interactions within the Social Machine and an even more powerful machine unconscious which is evolving in the artificial intelligences we are building. I drew the image below to try to illustrate my conjecture to the group – needless to say most didn’t understand.
In What Technology Wants co-founder of Wired Magazine and co-Chair of the Long Now Foundation Kevin Kelly talks about The Technium: A Living System of Technology which encompasses the entire system around technology – culture, art, social institutions, through to “the extended human”. In his latest blog post Kelly states that
For a while I’ve been intensely exploring generative AI systems, creating both text and visual images almost daily, and I am increasingly struck by their similarity to dreams. The AIs seem to produce dream images and dream stories and dream answers. The technical term is “hallucinations” but I think they are close to dreams. I’ve come to suspect that this similarity between dreams and generative AI is not superficial, poetic, or coincidental. My unexpected hunch is that we’ll discover that the mechanism that generates dreams in our own heads will be the same (or very similar) to the ones that current neural net AI’s use to generate text and images.
The foundational mode of the intelligence is therefore dreaming.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not necessarily agreeing with Kevin Kelly here nor am I buying in to the hype about machines hallucinating. What I am pointing out is that the machines are analyzing human data using human crafted algorithms and therefore there is something of our unconscious that is embedded in their emanations which is now being made explicit and visible. We can only refer to concepts and ideas in human terms (hence we anthroporphosize) and to describe what the machines are doing is almost like taking us in to our own unconscious (this is where the concept of Azimov’s Psychohistory comes in to play).
One way of accessing the collective human unconscious is through Social Dreaming, the practice of sharing, associating to and working with dreams in a matrix in order to identify social trends and social dynamics. As our machines are coming together and bringing our data with them it may well be that what we are seeing is a manifestation of the collective human unconscious expressed through the output of the machines – which may seem like hallucinations – but how can we know given the opaque nature of how they operate? And, if they have begun to go down that path then they are already moving beyond our realm of understanding.
The real challenge will come when they become able to acknowledge and recognise this unconscious as something different from a probabalistic algorithm, or are embodied, as the work of people like Rodney Brooks and so much of our Science Fiction (Humans, Blade Runner, Ex Machina) has shown us,
So what does this mean for us as humans?
Up until the recent advances brought about by the large language models such as ChatGPT talking with the average person about the advancing machine intelligence was like describing an elephant. Every person sees things that directly relate only to them just like the story of the Blind Man and the Elephant.
This relates as much to technologists as to everyone else as I’ve witnessed countless times. The most obvious to me was when
I heard a very notable “father” of the digital world speak at a conference and when asked what he would recommend about how to address the rise of pornography on the Web he responded “well just don’t look at it!”
Many of the people I’ve met who have built the machinery of the digital world are extremely naïve, building the tools because they can, not asking whether they should. When Geoffrey Hinton resigned from Google last week he commented
I console myself with the normal excuse: If I hadn’t done it, somebody else would have,
As with all kids in the candy shop scenarios if you give a scientist a problem and lots of funding they will develop new tools and techniques regardless of the potential consequences. Hinton and others like him saw only part of the Elephant without considering it as a whole animal let alone part of a herd.
Which brings in the question of ethics. Whilst some of the big companies have created Ethics Advisory Boards the reality is that much of the development work in the field of AI is now happening in the open source space where there is no supervision or oversight. These people still want to move fast and break things and the very nature of Ethics is designed to slow things down by asking difficult and challenging questions.
Governments and regulation are also designed to slow things down because politics and policy operates on human time which is analogue, messy and the very opposite of an efficient machine. Humans need time to process, and our relationships are based on what people like Anna Machin and Rachel Botsman call Trust Friction – the stickiness and the glue that underpins how human systems operate.
The whole point of human relationships is that they are not efficient, because they take time and brain power to develop and maintain. Trust needs friction. (Anna Machin)
Human systems are analogue and analogue takes time. In the analogue world:
- You can’t fire off a letter you need to write and post it
- you can do an online transfer you need to go to the bank
- you can’t immediately alter a design you need to redraw it
- you can’t just be friends with everyone you need to build trust through shared experiences which takes time.
Machines don’t want friction – it slows them down, makes things break and ruins their power to work ratio – i.e. “productivity”. The ultimate idea of this is the Paperclip Problem where smart machines instructed to make paper clips will consume all the resources in the universe (including us) to just make paper-clips.
With the advent of ChatGPT and it’s brethren the removal of friction within our human-machine interactions has now gone to the next level and smart AI is now being embedded in to pretty much all of our digital processes – just think of how many conversations your have and hear which involved technology of some sort.
So now I’d like to bring in a new analogy, the frog in the pot of soup as the temperature is gradually turned up.
Our human need to process and understand means that we as humanity have been sitting in the digital soup for at least half a century but in the first half of 2023 suddenly it is feeling a little uncomfortably warm.
As the soup heats up there are some who are going to want to jump out of the soup – there are some who going to boil and there are those who will adapt.
The questions now seem to me to be who each of these will be and what will happen in each case.
Let’s consider some options:
Firstly, those who want to leave. It may be too late but, as with the Luddites in the Industrial Revolution, there is much wisdom in what they have to say and perhaps an alternate reality has much to offer as it always has throughout the ages. There is something of this in Hari Seldon’s concept of building a Foundation on the furthest planet in order to separate itself from the chaos of the main system – an opportunity to isolate, slow down, reboot and recreate.
Secondly, those who are trapped. Sadly there is always a high cost to any radical change and many will find the “new world” frightening and overwhelming. Just one example is the rate of teenage girl suicide already. Along with many others I have spent the past three decades of my life working to understand the transition that is upon us and help people prepare for the change with minimal effect. Some have heeded the lessons, most have sat and enjoyed the warmer water oblivious to the dangers. I’m not sure anything can help these people any more as I think the rate of change is going to be too fast.
I think both of these groups will struggle and push back through both fear and anger and the manifestation of this could be dangerous.
Finally, there will be those who adapt, survive and thrive.
With all the noise about the technology and how fast it’s progressing or whether it should be paused or stopped the real point is what are the humans going to do about it? Therefore it is the third group I am most interested in and I believe that it is being led by the younger generation but needs to be supported and mentored by the 21st Elders who have memories of the analogue world and the value of its friction and temporal nature.
Some fear the AI Apocalypse and that non-Western (WEIRD) cultures may gain a technological advantage. This is problematic on so many levels particularly given that it is the minority-population WEIRD West that has created the culture of growth and the technologies themselves. Some alternative thinking might be precisely what is needed now and some less privileged cultures may, in fact, be better prepared for what is to come.
The history of automation is that we humans have invented machines to take away the dirty, dangerous and dull jobs … now we are taking away a whole host of others. These technologies can be used to solve the very challenging problems which confront us in the 21st Century and the sooner we learn to work constructively and creatively with the machines the sooner we will harness the power that is before us for good.
The more I feel people heading in one direction as a herd the more I want to go the other way and explore what is happening there – this is where the adaptive survivors will be.
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.
Peace is not unity in similarity but unity in diversity, in the comparison and conciliation of differences. (Mikhail Gorbachev)
Today the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, died.
When I lived in London in the 1980s it was Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher who were reshaping the Western World and the European continent. Today it is Gorbachev’s successor Vladimir Putin who, through waging the first European conflict since WWII between Ukraine and Russia, is seeking to return to the glory days of Empire whilst dividing Europe as a continent once more.
In the 1990s I recall my nephew asking me why all the baddies in spy movies were Russian – he couldn’t understand this East-West dynamic. The world did seem to be a safer, calmer, saner and more united place until 9/11 in 2001.
As I watched the early days of the 2022 Russia-Ukraine war unfold I kept on thinking about human history and how we seem to take two steps forward, then one step back. As Stephen Pinker argues the world (for humans) does seem to be getting better. There are more of us; fewer of us (percentage wise) live in poverty; more of us are educated; we are living longer better lives, and we have a command of technological solutions to do things that our ancestors would only dream of in the realm of magicians.
Of course the planet and other species might disagree, but perhaps we are being too quick to judge.
I watched a critique of the Russian versus US Army recruiting advertisements with the commentator ridiculing the US use of a young, female, gay graduate from (see this and this). We also know that Putin felt that the time was right to strike due to the perceived weakness of the West as it became increasingly focused on issues such as gay-rights and transgender identity.
Time has revealed several things:
- You don’t need to be a butch, buff Rambo to successful operate a high tech weapon and be a very effective fighter
- Putin underestimated the West in it’s use of smart technologies, social media and propaganda tools, and it’s determination to stand up for its values
- History does rhyme and move in cycles, but it does not repeat.
The more I have been thinking about this the more it strikes me that, just like Spiral Dynamics, humans may be evolving beyond the historical stereotypes and constraints that have so long dominated our thinking. We have always had strong men driven by greed, power and their own sense of personal destiny. We have always had armies and mercenaries prepared to fight for whomever pays the highest price. We have always had familial, tribal, and then nationalistic identities which have filtered any sense of empathetic thinking in terms of ‘others’.
If we study our history we have also had Empires and Societies which have failed through their own self-focus – think of the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. If we look through the prism of artistic expression we see societies go through stages of development from early formation (archaic) to consolidation (classical) to a period of decline (Hellenistic). Whilst this may be very simplistic perhaps it also offers something to interrogate when it comes to looking historically at why societies collapsed and then thinking about what is happening with the West now.
The stock standard reasons that historians and economists give for Societal Collapse focus on economic decline, rise of competition, resource depletion, inequality, political corruption (see Andrews and Diamond as well as this list). But, perhaps there is something else going on at the minute that is beyond the bounds of human history, something that is over the event horizon that we are just beginning to intuit.
Perhaps what we are seeing is not a sign of weakness. Perhaps, in fact it is a sign of true strength and a major evolution in our thinking.
An event horizon is a boundary beyond which an observer cannot see or comprehend.
If I go back to the rant I watched about military recruitment the thought that continually kept occurring to me is that in times of stress and conflict it our base behaviours linked to our limbic and reptilian brains flooded with testosterone which drives us to pick up a gun and shoot someone or something. This has been our default and is evident in our entertainment (think gladiators to Marvel movies) and our definition of ‘heroes’.
However, the real heroes are those who don’t hit out, do not give in to those impulses, but who stop and allow our higher brains to determine our actions. This, for me, is the real power of turning the other cheek.
Instead of lashing out at and condemning that which we don’t understand the real challenge is to comprehend what it must be like to have been born in a body that feels alien and disconnected, to live a life which feels like a lie, to be physically or intellectually misaligned with many of the demands of everyday life, and to feel either trapped or disempowered by the society within which we live.
Many people feel like this all their lives but in the 21st Century our Western societies, driven by the Christian values upon which our societies are built I believe that we in the West are slowly taking on the challenges that are inherent within the diverse nature of humanity and seeking to embrace the fringes of our selves.
Perhaps this is what has happened throughout history and previous societies may have also got to this point but were unable to advance their thinking and being precisely because the invading hordes were at the gate and they had to divert their mental attention away from this really complex thinking towards the base requirements of survival. Perhaps now, after one of the longest periods of historical peace, and unprecedented technological development, we have enough momentum to finally be able to release the shackles of our past and move towards building a world for all of the human family.
Understanding the collapse of societies and Empires is a complex issue and no one really has the definitive answer. But perhaps instead of collapse there is a human drive towards something beyond anything we can truly comprehend and understand. Smart technologies are undermining the advantages of physical strength within human competition. We are working to defeat ageing and decay; we are working to unravel the mystery of the creation of life and begin to think about a human existence beyond sex and gender. So perhaps also we are beginning to be able to imagine a world beyond that which human history has bequeathed us. If we don’t then the emerging intelligences we are creating certainly will, although underpinned by the values we build in to them.
I believe, unlike Putin, that the West is not descending in to decadence, decay and depravity but is, in fact, slowly evolving to become both more empathetic towards those who don’t fit within the “norm” (whatever that is) and to appreciate that all humans have something to contribute towards the world we are all building. This is the real work of building human societies and takes both bravery and courage.
It is a slow and fragile process which may be derailed at any minute. Whilst things are improving we can often feel distressed that the speed is too slow, that there are too many forces working against us, and that we are powerless to effect any change.
The Ukraine War is just one example of this. Putin expected the war to be over quickly due to his underestimation of the 21st human values inherent in Ukraine and the West but collectively people have risen up to defend their rights to live freely and at peace. Putin may succeed in his goals and he is playing the long game but so is everyone else.
My instinct is telling me that we as 21st Century humans are in a place that humanity has never been before. For better or worse we are more globally connected; we have split second information and news cycles; we have an unprecedented insight and understanding of the physical, chemical and biological worlds; and, ever since we sent humans in to space, we have a view of ourselves living on one planet which we can now actually see. We are also beginning to think beyond the binary nature of male/female; us/them and see things holistically … but only just beginning.
As Carl Sagan demonstrates in Pale Blue Dot
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known. (Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space)
For Intersticia and the work we do to help develop 21st Century Stewards I can think of no better guideline nor philosophy.
Regardless of how we approach this horizon or what we find when get there the preciousness of humanity is what phil-anthropos is all about and drives how we serve those within our community and from there the human family itself.
Of course we may not get there this time. We may self-destruct and go backwards as many previous societies have done due to our own fears and self-destructive instincts. But eventually I believe that we will.
(Image from Layers of Time, Stewart Brand, Pace Layering, 1999)
It is a rare thing to live through a moment of huge historical consequence and understand in real time that is what it is. (Alan Little)
For the past two years I, like almost everyone else on the planet, have been locked down (or up, depending on perspective!), separated from family and friends and corralled into the virtual world. Zooming or Teaming or just talking on the phone became my primary means of communication which meant that if I wanted to connect I had little option but to go online.
I keep on being reminded of E. M. Forster’s novel “The Machine Stops” where humans had exchanged the meatspace for the virtual-space.
The clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned; neither Vashti nor her audience stirred from their rooms. Seated in her armchair she spoke, while they in their armchairs heard her, fairly well, and saw her, fairly well. ( The Machine Stops)
We have now had the opportunity to play in this space, and for many this has meant learning new technical skills and embracing new communication styles that are often at odds with our natural inclination. Whilst I’ve always been an early adopter of useful technologies the reality is that communicating via screens is not how I like to do things but this forced me to more fully explore myself as a digital being, both alone and in how I interact with others.
Men seldom moved their bodies; all unrest was concentrated in the soul. (E. M. Forster, The Machine Stops)
As I now reconnect with my global life back in London what has struck me the most is how much I have missed during the last two years being reliant on screen based communications. All organisations I work with are navigating the new world of hybrid work and I know that for many senior managers this is causing enormous stress. Whilst they are happy avoiding the time-waste of the daily commute, their personal sense of control and authority has been challenged, and they realise that they don’t actually trust people to work independently out of the office. Last year in the rush to resume ‘normality’ many organisations began to mandate a return to the office before the main Covid waves had even manifested. Since that time they seem to have realised that their timelines of command and control, and those of the ‘natural world’ are deeply out of sync.
This is where Stewart Brand’s concept of Pace Layering is so very useful, particularly as we begin to transition to whatever the ‘new normal’ is going to be.
I have felt a pressing need to re-engage and resume my London life as it was in early 2020, meeting lots of people, going to events and filling my calendar. But I have largely resisted this spending much more time in my flat, reducing the number of interactions and ensuring that those I have are given the right amount of focus and attention they deserve. I am hugely conscious that my new life can be, and perhaps should be, very different from my old. Being forced to stay put, to disconnect and to reassess has been life changing and powerful, whilst also confronting and exhausting as we spent so much time with ourselves. For some, like those in China, the pain of lockdowns continues and the mental health cost will take years to process. Having had two years being told to maintain social distance and that other humans are dangerous there is heightened sense of distrust of pretty much everything.
So, as we transition in to the new normal it is imperative to understand that people, processes and systems all change at different paces, and that these paces are much more nuanced and complex than we realise. Transitions, as people such as William Bridges, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ Change Curve and Kurt Lewin’s Freeze-Unfreeze describe, all involve loss, fear, uncertainty and discomfort, but they also provide opportunity.
When one door closes another opens but the corridors can be a real bitch!
We are currently in the corridor – the interstice between the old and the new – which Bridges’ model describes as the Neutral Zone:
- Endings – the first stage is that of ‘letting go’, of identifying what is being lost, grieving for that loss, and appreciating that things will never be the same.
- Neutral Zone (in reality, the interstice) – the most crucial part of transition where “critical psychological realignments and re-patternings take place”, new processes and learnings emerge, and the foundation is laid for the future.
- New Beginnings – new understandings, values and attitudes. An emerging fresh identity together with reorientation and renewal.
I have been reflecting on the last ten years of Intersticia and all that we have achieved (more on that to come) and whilst I firmly agree that even before the Pandemic we were in the process of embarking on a new horizon the difference now is that everything around us has changed and we do ourselves a disservice if we rush the process of moving out of the interstice whilst it is still useful and productive.
We need to create our own space to imagine.
Our little community scattered all around the globe is much like a global radar giving us snippets of insights in to how humanity ids dealing with all of this, and the value of our work now is to really listen to the ebb and flow of what they are telling us, their different paces of change and their plans and dreams for the next phase.
The emerging generation is one of hope, awakened and will reboot the way we live – regenerate society as you gain voice, implicitly awakened choices – Professor Lisa Miller
This is why we do what we do, as servants of the emerging generation of 21st Century Stewards. They deserve that we do this with courage, persistence, grace, integrity and authenticity to give them the best chance they have, for all our sakes.
An individual human existence should be like a river: small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being. (Bertrand Russell).