Last month I spent five days in the delightful village of Kardamyli for the third Kardamyli Festival.
I first heard if this festival during lockdown through the HowToAcademy but sadly could not attend the first one in 2021 as I was in Australia but this year I made it.
The festival is held in the village of Kardamyli, one of the oldest settlements in the Peloponnese and once home to “Britains leading travel writer” and adventurer Patrick Lee Fermor.
The site itself is located in a large car park opposite Πέτρινοι Πύργοι στην Παραλία (Pétrinoi Pýrgoi stin Paralía), a picturesque beach populated by stone cairns with their own individual personalities added to by the daily passers by on their way to the beach.
I came to Kardamyli largely out of curiosity and the quality of the world class speakers featured on the programme many of whom I have long followed and greatly admire. The festival is undoubtedly a labour of love by all involved including a band of friends and family volunteers who cheerfully did the meet-and-greet, played bouncer and guard, and shepherded the 350 odd attendees who turned up to pretty much every session.
Nothing about Kardamyli disappointed.
We stayed in a lovely home-run studio, wandered the town, had some interesting conversations and explored many of the ideas that were raised. The Festival began with Bettany Hughes exploring Socrates’ concept of “The Good Life” which especially resonated given the foundational concepts upon which Intersticia is based, particularly the work of John O’Neil.
Building upon this was Andrea Wulf’s “Magnificent Rebels”, a work which I read when it first came out and found fascinating in terms of how fate brought together some of the most important thinkers of late 18th Century Germany in one place at one time. Many of these thinkers were instrumental in helping to define “The West” and the construct that underpins it which archaeologist Naoise Mac Sweeney extrapolated in her sweeping view of the evolution of the idea and concept of “The West” from where it began to where we are now.
Every society has a set of beliefs that go far beyond the life of the individual and have the power to define – and to divide – us. (Neil MacGregor)
Neil MacGregor took us on a whirlwind tour of humanity through the objects, places, rituals and spaces that connect with and represent the theological dimensions that cultures and societies have used to identify themselves, ranging from the challenge of observing Ramadan in Space to the creation of the Shrine of Pont d’Alma for Princess Diana in France. He concluded by asking some very poignant and crucial questions for “the West” centred around the challenge of how to define our shared beliefs as a society in the age of secularism, ‘the individual’ and the underpinnings of liberal democracies in their desire to embrace and embody multiculturalism.
These questions were further interrogated by “the best Prime Minister that the UK never had” Rory Stewart who challenged the West in its need to explore new forms of both economic and democratic models suited to the 21st Century calling for Aristotle’s rhetoric as a powerful tool with which to explore the challenges and opportunities which lie ahead.
Stewart identified the three corners of what Harvard Professor Mark Moore has transformed in to The Strategic Triangle which is one of the foundational models for the design and analysis of Public Policy and which we use as a fundamental model for both our Founders and Coders Social Machine curriculum and in our Brave Conversations.
The triangle is based on the interplay and interconnection between:
- Pathos – the need for emotional communication and resonance in exploring ideas
- Ethos – the need to discover moral character in order to talk about Truth
- Logos – the need for new ideas and vision
A key element to this is in understanding the notion of the authorising environment, where the power lies within a society, how it is wielded and where it’s limits lie. This was especially relevant when German journalist Kai Strittmatter gave his perspective on Xi Xin Ping’s China in what I found to be a very one-sided and naïve criticism of an alternative to The West as represented by the Chinese State. My main criticism is that Strittmatter was critical of the China surveillance model without acknowledging or even recognising the insideousness of our Western Surveillance Capitalism, let alone being in any way open to the potential advantages that might be presented by Chinese Data and AI Regulation. I cannot claim to have any knowledge of the Chinese system but I don’t believe that we in The West should be lauding the system we live in to be one that is superior. There could have been a lively and useful debate around this but sadly very few really interrogate our own system from the data perspective and the talk by Anjana Ahuja, whilst being aimed at the “average punter” gave some good insights, was fairly superficial and lightweight.
BBC Russia journalist Steve Rosenberg made his first visit outside of Russia since the invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and through his stories and songs gave us a glimpse of the reality distortion that is life in 2023 Russia. Both he and Kai Strittmatter provided contrasting perspectives on aspects of humanity that we in the West too often fail to appreciate because we don’t know how to interrogate their belief systems, mythologies and deeply ingrained traditions, rites and institutionalised practices. If more of us did we would be far more prepared for the events which surround us and perhaps more nuanced in our analysis of them.
This became startlingly obvious when, on Saturday 7th October, we awoke to news of Hamas’ Operation Al-Aqsa Flood and the outbreak of the largest Israeli-Palestinian confilct since the War of Independence in 1948. My first inkling of the event was through a Telegram message from our Palestinian Fellow who comes from Gaza, but from that moment on the rest of the Festival was underpinned by what was happening in that part of the world. Tom Holland addressed this directly as he opened the second day by giving some historical perspectives to the events we were witnessing. After the Bar Kokhba revolt in 132CE it was the Emperor Hadrian who had determined to deal with the Judean uprisings once and for all by renaming the city of Jerusalem to be Aelia Capitolina and the Province of Iaedea to be named Syria Palestina, (Palestine) after the historic enemies of the Jews, the Philistines.
It goes back that far and yes this still matters.
History never repeats but it does often rhyme. (Mark Twain)
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. (George Santayana, The Life of Reason, 1905)
To have a major world event happening in the midst of this Festival demonstrated the crucial importance and value of literature and history in helping to frame any possible futures we might envisage but also to perhaps suggest alternative paths we may take in order to not repeat the mistakes of the past. It is through our myths, stories, poems, traditions and belief systems that we as humanity seek to articulate and describe our deeply embedded cultural DNA, so deeply ingrained within us that we fail to recognise their power as the scripts which run our lives.
The Kardamyli Festival provided those who attended with the opportunity to reflect on this for a few days inspired by the work of those who do this full time. Armed with these insights and the most peaceful and idyllic setting there should be no excuse not to dare to strip away some of the filters and lenses with which we view the world in order to identify and address our own blind spots and perhaps, just perhaps, begin to frame the world anew.
My only criticism of the Festival was the lack of diversity in the audience, but it is only new and it may be that with time it will grow and mature in order to attract those with more outlying ideas whose intents are nonetheless philanthropic in nature.
I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things. (Douglas Adams)
For the past month I’ve been wandering around Brussels where we held our most recent Brave Conversations with a view to more fully understanding the European Union, particularly from the perspective of my new role as President of DEF. Through the DEF network I have attended numerous EU sponsored events and met with some wonderful people within the Brussels Bubble who are working to create Europe’s digital future.
A few things in particular have struck me during this time:
- Europe is an idea which the European Union holds together through its institutions, processes and people
- The average age of a Member of the European Parliament is 52, fairly similar to the UK and other countries including Australia
- The Europeans are the absolute masters of developing Legislation, which, a number of people commented, was ‘our number one export’!
- There seems to be a palpable fear of Europe being left behind in the digital ‘race’ which is currently driving the global economy – this was most evident at the EIT’s Grow Digital and Digital Europe’s Summer Summit.
Very conveniently during this period Apple held it’s annual World Wide Developers’ Conference (WWDC) where it annually releases it’s new products and this year didn’t disappoint with the launch of Vision Pro. Many are sceptical of the move in to metaverse but personally I think this will be a defining moment as Apple continues to play the long game (this article is well worth reading on this).
Why? Because the Vision Pro gives us a glimpse of a human future in which our mediated communications are finally released from the physical realm and can blend seamlessly with the digital world.
As I watched the presentation of Apple’s Vision Pro I kept thinking about J. J. Gibson’s Theory of Affordances which I first came across when I read Shoshana Zuboff’s 2002 book The Support Economy. Zuboff had begun to explore this idea in her first book, In The Age of the Smart Machine (1988) where she saw that the digital computer enabled the process of informating which would ensure that everything that could be translated into information would be – exchanges, events, objects – and could be used for surveillance and control.
The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill. … It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment. (James J. Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, 1979)
In The Support Economy Zuboff explores how this applies to the individuation of consumption, where the convergence between Consumers’ desires, Technological capabilities and Organisational innovations means that
The new individuals seek true voice, direct participation, unmediated influence, and identity-based community because they are comfortable using their own experience as a basis for making judgements.
Zuboff uses the Theory of Affordances to describe the characteristics of digital information:
- It bestow global transparency and enable the capacity to inform in a way which is visible, sharable, knowable, mobile and manageable. This provides greater accountability and responsibility but also results in a demand for better business practices
- It enables humans to more effectively and efficiently deal with complexity
- It provides the opportunity for comprehensive understanding through collaboration and co-ordination as a result of distributed learning and customisation
- It provides immediacy – – anywhere, anyhow, anytime
- It enables infinite plasticity in the manipulation and shaping of products and information
- The result is that supply chain relationships become kaleidoscopic rather than linear processes, without reference to geographical location.
So let’s begin to think about what Vision Pro could potentially offer as compared with three other vision-products.
The flawed but extraordinary Vision shows that the technological struggle to make spatial computing a reality is being won. The next race is to discover what it is for. Apple has just fired the starting gun. (The Economist).
The beauty of thinking in Affordances is that it is we humans who will figure out new ways to use anything … be it Vision Pros or walking paths.
Which brings me to some of the conversations I heard in Brussels.
A couple of years ago the World Economic Forum started talking about Industry 4.0 which they defined as the merging the physical, digital and biological worlds in ways that create both huge promise and potential peril.
Personally I never bought in to this … I felt that even the use of the word industry was completely missing the point of the digital revolution and told me more about the mindset of the people coming up with the idea than what was going on.
The word industry has a number of definitions:
- a group of productive enterprises or organizations that produce or supply goods, services, or sources of income (Britannica)
- manufacturing activity as a whole; a distinct group of productive or profit-making enterprises; a department or branch of a craft, art, business, or manufacture; systematic labour especially for some useful purpose or the creation of something of value (Miriam Webster)
At Grow Digital the Panel of speakers talked about Industry 5.0 which they see as being complementary to Industry 4.0 and providing a shift from a focus on economic value to a focus on societal value, and a shift in focus from welfare to wellbeing.
According to the International Society of Automation
While the theme of Industry 4.0 revolves around connectivity through cyber-physical systems, Industry 5.0—while also aligned with platforms made possible by Industry 4.0—also addresses the relationship between “man and machine,”
Which means that people are beginning to see the word industry as linking to social and societal change – which is what Web Science has been talking about for two decades. There is a teleological elements to Affordances here because as we perceived the uses of things this changes how we integrate them in to our lives, which then has social and even political consequences.
In his book The Goddess versus the Alphabet polymath Leonard Shlain postulated that the invention of writing led to an increased linearisation of human thought which became more logical and process driven which then impacted how we structured our societies and systems of governance. Shlain believed that two inventions in the 20th Century would radically change this: the typewriter (where we use both hands for input) and the television (where we receive information spatially and through moving images).
Another perspective is that of psychologist Iain McGilcrist who argued that Western thinking has oscillated between being left-brain and right-brain dominated (The Matter of Things):
[Y]ou could say, to sum up a vastly complex matter in a phrase, that the brain’s left hemisphere is designed to help us ap-prehend – and thus manipulate – the world; the right hemisphere to com-prehend it – see it all for what it is.
If even some of what Shlain and McGilcrist say is correct then Spatial computing is going to have as significant an impact on our societies as the invention of writing did 5,000 years ago and we are already seeing evidence of this in the generations now who rarely hand-write (and certainly can’t read hand writing) and who predominantly communicate through visual or aural social media – personally I find that I would often prefer to listen to a podcast or watch a video than read reams of text.
Much of this comes down to personal learning styles and different types of intelligence, as well as age and demographics. Which brings me back to Douglas Adams’ quote where we started. I think the use of the term Industry 5.0 reflects much of the above – linear thinking and demographics – most senior managers globally are in the age bracket of Adams over thirty-fives and thus have a natural inclination to see things as they have been, not as they could become.
We are still largely seeing the world through the prism of the industrial age.
So is this Industry 5.0? Not even remotely. This is the Age of Information plus Humanity+ plus Psychohistory plus every science fiction story you’ve ever read.
This is where I think we are now approaching an event horizon in terms of how we see the world, which I began to write about last year. I think that this means we are now extremely limited in our ability to imagine the future that is emerging as the result of the technologies we have already created – Artificial Intelligence, Spatial Computing, BioEngineering, Limitless Energy – and the speed with which it is coming is something totally unprecedented in recorded human history. Even creating new Science Fiction is a challenge (which Charlie Brooker found when he tried to get ChatGPT to write a Black Mirror episode) because it is all based on our experience of life living in a human physical analogue world and the affordances this provides us.
So where can we look for clues as to what might be evolving?
- With young people, the so-called digital natives, who have grown up post internet, who don’t necessarily thinking linearly and are not as shackled with the industrial mindset. Some of these people are finding everything cool and exciting, others are downright terrified, but as with each younger generation they are the ones challenging the status quo whilst simultaneously being caught up in the distraction of media consumption.
- With older people, those who are aging and are the ones needing to use technologies to help them live and enhance their lives. These people are among the last to remember life before the internet and to fully appreciate that changes to our human system that have been wrought and often they are highly tech-savvy – we used to call them Silver Surfers!
- Aligned with this are those with physical and learning difficulties who don’t fit in to the stereotypes that society has imposed on our physical and learning systems – those with dyslexia, visual and hearing impairment, and those who have problems interacting with the world of text and linearity we have currently constructed. (Azimov’s Stranger in Paradise is a beautiful short story that is well worth reading on this).
- Then there is the non-Western world where millions of people are using the technologies in ways that we WEIRD people don’t necessarily think of or understand.
In other words we need to first recognise and then seek to move beyond own human filter-bubbles and be open to diversity in the greatest possible sense. We need to recalibrate as human beings, be open to and harness our human emotions – be they fear, anger, excitement, frustration – in order to prepare for what is coming and then do what we humans do best – work together to proactively use these incredible tools we’ve invented to help us solve the problems around us rather than mindlessly be distracted with our online shopping and obsession with immediate satisfaction in the vain hope that they just go away.
This is the work now. It is not easy, but nothing about our survival as a species has been up until now, nor should it be.
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!
Only an enlightened society can be aware. (Aristotle)
In July of last year I had a call with Professor George Metakides, with whom I serve on the Web Science Trust Board.
I first discovered Web Science when Armin Haller, who was a founding member of our Meta-Brave Conversations community, suggested I check them out which I did by attending the 2012 Summer School in Leiden. There I met the inimitable Professor Dame Wendy Hall and, thanks to Wendy, I have been involved with the Web Science community ever since.
I started exploring the Web as a socio-technical system in the early 2000s through the development of the Printing Industries’ Action Agenda, Print21, which sought to understand the impact of digital information on the skillbase and supply chain of what was then the world’s third largest manufacturing industry. This led to my work with Fuji Xerox Australia and the Australian and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) which included:
Throughout all of this my colleagues and I constantly struggled to explain to people what digital technologies really were; how they, and the broader digital ecosystem, were evolving, and what sort of world might emerge as ‘smart machines’ become a reality. It was frustrating that time and time again people told us how important the work we were doing was, but no one was prepared to support its further development or champion it beyond narrow academic circles. This was what inspired us to create Brave Conversations but it also led others to create similar organisations, one of which is the Digital Enlightenment Forum (DEF).
DEF was co-founded by George Metakides and others of like mind in 2012 working within the European Union who sought to understand
“how current and future digital technology can best be used to express our identities in the digital world, taking into account the core values we cherish, we can support the rights of the individual in society” (see DEF Mission).
I attended my first DEF event in 2015 where I was most impressed by the calibre of the people, the core premise and DEF’s aspirations with its broad reach in to education, research, policy, and the commercial sector.
The conversations and debates around digital interaction technologies have come a long way since 2015, and there is now a rising public awareness and interest, which means that people may be ready to listen (maybe!)
During our conversation George and I discussed the synergies between DEF and Brave Conversations which, of course, sent me down a few rabbit holes.
The first was to consider the two words digital and enlightenment.
The word digital seems fairly straightforward coming from:
- having digits (fingers and thumbs of which humans usually have 10) and using these to express discrete numbers (0 to 9) as values of a physical quantity;
- something being binary – either on or off (1 or 0).
The word digital is, however, becoming more complicated as we digitise information and digitalise societies. Something that is complicated is where components can be separated out and dealt with in a systematic and logical way based on a set of static rules or algorithms, which largely describes expert systems which make predictions or classifications based on input data (IBM 2020), i.e ‘artificial intelligence’.
The word enlightenment is far more nuanced and complex because it is culturally contextual and there are no rules, algorithms, or natural laws to define it.
One definition is of the
European intellectual movement of the late 17th and 18th centuries emphasizing reason and individualism rather than tradition. It was heavily influenced by 17th-century philosophers such as Descartes, Locke, and Newton, and its prominent figures included Kant, Goethe, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Adam Smith. (Wikipedia)
Enlightenment thinking included a range of ideas centred on the value of human happiness, the pursuit of knowledge obtained by means of reason and the evidence of the senses, and ideals such as natural law, liberty, progress, toleration, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state.
At the time such ideas were dangerously radical because European thinkers were just beginning to throw off the yoke of Church authority and create the mindset of the Scientific Revolution which stressed the reliance on common sense and the power of direct observation over the unquestioning acceptance of traditional (often religious) explanations and ways of understanding the natural world. As a corollary to this European colonisation revealed the richness of other cultures and how they thought about things – consider the Islamic Golden Age and the value of the Meso-American and Indigenous cultures, something it appears we are only just beginning to rediscover (see The Dawn of Everything).
Perhaps the biggest challenge for us as WEIRD (Western Educated Industrialised Rich and Democratic) thinkers now is to realise that whilst we have been largely responsible for inventing and building the technologies which have become embedded in the lives of humans around the globe, the majority of those who interacting online are neither Western nor European (see this video and Our World in Data statistics).
Thus the combination of the words digital and enlightenment becomes even more complex!
If we take just two additional perspectives of the word enlightenment:
- for Buddhists and Hindus enlightenment may be translated as either the Japanese word satori (derived from the verb satoru, “to know”) usually referring to an experience of insight into the true nature of reality; or the Sanskrit and Pali word Bodhi meaning “awakening”, but there is also reference to the middle way of living a balanced life.
- For the Aboriginal Australians (and probably for many indigenous cultures) there may be no word as the concept would be embedded in the land and landscape as crafted in the Songlines (see this article and consider The Memory Code).
The theme which consistently emerges is that of knowledge, understanding and illumination, the concept of and the challenge of illuminating the path created by those who have insights from the path combined with some foresight as to what is to come.
I think it’s fair to say that this is what the European Enlightenment thinkers were doing as they sought to understand changing mindsets and revolutionary technology. It is also at the core of what humanity needs now as we move on from the Industrial Age and fully embrace the Age of Information ( Nouriel Roubini).
Scientific method, hell! No wonder the Galaxy was going to pot! (The Foundation Series)
Whenever we run a Brave Conversations we always stress the need for participants to engage with Science Fiction, and especially Isaac Azimov’s Foundation Series telling the story of Hari Seldon and his hopes that Psychohistory would prevent the horrors of a predictable future. He fails not because of the complications of the data and information, but because of the complex unpredictability of life and living systems.
Humanity’s desire to divine the future is as old as humanity itself – we have consulted the Delphic Oracle, Runes, Fortune Tellers and Time Machines, and now we are worshipping our nascent artificial machines as we see them as portents of the future or ways to increase productivity and maximise profits. These machines and systems are merely reflections of ourselves and are limited by our own frames of reference, our language, our value systems and our perspectives of the world.
This is the true challenge of 21st Century Digital Enlightenment – to bring to light our own biases and blind spots, to become more inclusive in our conversations and to embrace the diversity of humanity as we build tools to serve all of humanity and the broader planet.
The purpose of my conversation with George was that he asked if I would be prepared to join the Board of the Digital Enlightenment Forum and help it navigate this next phase of its mission, which is something I wholeheartedly and enthusiastically accepted.
Thank you George and all the DEF Board for this opportunity to serve.
Last week I held the first of our second series of Digital Gymnasia with Alumni and Members of Goodenough College.
In 2017 Experion created it’s Your Data Self ads which, as the ad says, is what companies see when they’re deciding how to interact with individuals. One of my goals in these Gymnasia is to introduce particpants to their data selves and to demystify the digital realm so that they can more confidently navigate and negotiate their online lives.
In our first Digital Gymnasia series we made the most of the World going in to lockdown as we all experimented with living online. The more workshops I did the more I realised that there is a deep seated need for events such as these which both allow people to talk (and later think) whilst simultaneously giving them some practical tools to take away.
The feedback from those who have attended has been largely positive with many telling me they are using what they have learned in their private as well as their professional lives. But, as with all these things, there are some who have felt that I may be rather negative or cynical in how I frame my view of technologies and the world of tech generally.
This has given me pause for thought and so I am taking this opportunity to articulate my own ideas a bit further in order to provide additional context for future events and, perhaps, encourage some braver conversations.
I have always been interested in the interstice between technology, culture and society and aware that we, as a species, are at the beginning of a major technological revolution, something way beyond “industrial” and something we don’t even have the words to adequately describe as yet.
I bought my first Apple Macintosh when I was a student living in Goodenough College in 1985; I logged on to the early World Wide Web through the first version of the Netscape browser via Australia’s first public Internet Service Provider Pegasus Networks in 1993; I co-created my first Web Consulting company “New Media Connections” in 1995, and I helped to lead a major initiative in Australia called Print21 which sought to understand the impact of digital media on what was then the world’s largest manufacturing industry and the first to be digitised thanks to desktop publishing.
As a result of this I was recruited by Fuji Xerox Australia to help them envisage the future and there I spent almost a decade immersed in the work of the global Xerox Innovation Network researching and exploring the impact of the evolving World Wide Web on how we as social human animals interact and communicate online. This led to a focus on what was then called the Semantic Web, a set of standards which has helped lay many of the foundations for what we now call ‘Artificial Intelligence’. It also let me personally to begin working with many of the people who actually built the Internet and Web over the last six decades and who formed Web Science to ensure that it both survives but most of all continues to benefit humanity.
Every technological device we invent (including our laws and language) has our values and human biases built in to it, and manifests how we as human animals see the world. The affordances of all technologies are a manifestation of how we have crafted the world around us to meet a need and afford us a mechanism to do things – doors are for opening; cups are for holding liquids; chairs are for sitting on. This is one reason why I teach the history of digital information technologies – they have not suddenly leapt out of the ether, they have emerged as the result of centuries of thought and use to solve particular problems: Babbage invented his Difference Engine to automate long, tedious astronomical calculations; the Internet was invented to help fortify the US Defence Department during the Cold War; Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web to help researchers share documents; the PageRank algorithm was developed as a new type of search engine.
Each of these has changed the way we operate and go about our daily lives, and each exemplifies the fact that all human inventions have longer term unforeseen consequences.
The Internet and the Web were given to Humanity by their inventors with few, if any, restrictions on how they were used. As with all things that are perceived as free if there is a situation where individual users have open access to a resource unhampered by shared social structures or formal rules that govern access and use, they will act independently according to their own self-interest and, contrary to the common good of all users, cause depletion of the resource through their uncoordinated action (the Tragedy of the Commons). With the Internet and the Web both have created vast wealth for a small group, whilst also enabling access to knowledge and information on an unprecedented scale for anyone connected, but the social and psychological costs of this is something we are only just beginning to understand.
In a recent speech at International Privacy Day Apple CEO Tim Cook states that
Too many are still asking the question “How much can we get away with?” when they need to be asking “What are the consequences?” … A social dilemma cannot be allowed to become a social catastrophe.
It is these consequences that Shoshana Zuboff focuses on in her most recent work. At an event in 2019 I asked her if she had seen this surveillance internet coming when she wrote The Support Economy in 2000. She answered that yes she had, but she hoped it wouldn’t happen. This is similar to Tim Berners-Lee’s response to hearing that there was pornography on the Web – “Just don’t look at it!”
Three things have combined to create the online environment within which we now live.
- The first is the generosity and näivety of the early digital inventors who were enamoured by the technology largely ignoring the science of human behaviour
- the second is the pure greed which was allowed to run amok and untethered in the wild digital frontiers largely due to the fact that the early technologies emerged within the West Coast of the United States with it’s free market approach to regulation and dare-devil attitude to innovation and novelty
- the third is the almost complete lack of understanding of the affordances of digital information by government regulators, policy makers and politicians which meant that they missed the early opportunities to reign in monopolistic and anti-competitive behaviour.
These have now played themselves out but the public and our governments are beginning to step up and demand that there is a new phase in how these systems operate – the Australian and now Canadian governments are beginning to challenge the current ad-based publishing dominance of the large tech platforms, and hopefully new business models for online commerce will emerge.
The key question is
“Which philosophy do you want to pursue? Do you want a business that serves your customers? Or one that takes advantage of customers to serve your business? (Justin Bariso)
As my dear friend Professor Dame Wendy Hall states if it wasn’t for the Internet and the Web we would not have been able to remain connected during the Pandemic and it remains the most powerful innovation of all time. Precisely because of this
we … need to be prepared for the internet that we know to evolve unpredictably, and work to ensure that it remains beneficial for humankind.
For me, as a full time philanthropist, Wendy’s words resonate deeply. When we created our family Charity Intersticia we chose to focus on working to support individuals as 21st Century leaders with a focus on helping to build digital fluency. To complement this we hold our Brave Conversations which are open to all, we partner with Goodenough College to hold our Digital Gymnasia, and we partner with Tech for Better organisations (such as Founders and Coders and Gaza Sky Geeks) who teach coding skills to those who seek to harness them for social good.
I am often asked why I do what I do and what I hope to achieve.
My main objective is to get people to think, to wake them up from the somnambulist state they are in as they go about their daily lives largely unaware of the systems which underpin each and every interaction. As Melvin Kranzberg states
Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral
We are our technologies and they are us.
There is much to be hopeful for in this new era, and the Covid corridor is speeding up technological progress by forcing us all to become more digitally fluent and savvy. It is empowering governments to be less passive and reactive in how they approach technology (which has both a positive and negative side of course) which means that the balance of power between governments and the tech companies is changing.
It is purely speculative to try to predict what will happen in the next month, let alone the next decade! but it is prudent to give people some tools to at least begin to imagine some of the possibilities. If the early tech inventors had studied more psychology, philosophy and history perhaps they might have had a clearer picture of what might happen themselves. This is why Web Science is so important – precisely because it does seek to bring together as many perspectives as possible.
As with so many inventions Web Science was inspired by Science Fiction, in particular Isaac Azimov’s Foundation series and the dream of Hari Seldon to build Psychohistory. This is why I stress to all who come to our workshops that reading Science Fiction is probably the most important way to begin to imagine the future.
This second series of Digital Gymnasia seeks to instill a confidence in the imagination and an ability to more robustly address and explore some of the thornier issues which are emerging.
I have crafted this second series to build on the first (which we are in the process of recording) and to work from the individual to the group and community. At present we have four to be delivered over the next couple of month:
- Your Digital Brand – Who are you online?
- Demystifying AI – What are we collectively building in the online world?
- Facilitating Meetings Online – How are we taking our work online?
- Digital Governance – How are we holding each other to account Online?
Some events will be more content heavy (such as Demystifying AI and Digital Governance) but I hope to bring practical exercises in to them all. As with every event I work with who is in the room at the time, the questions that arise, and largely let the group determine both the pace and how much we cover in the time allotted. This is a tricky balance and is a collaborative effort where we all learn from each other.
The most important measure of success is not that everyone agrees with or likes what is presented … it is that they are stimulated to think about their data self slightly differently and with a bit more agency and confidence.
For more information on these events please either contact me or Melissa Morley at Goodenough College.
There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen. (Vladimir Ilyich Lenin)
“May you live in interesting times” is an English expression that is claimed to be a translation of a traditional Chinese curse
2020 has certainly been interesting.
As we have all been hunkered down in our respective homes around the world locked up in various level of Covid tier we have connected as never before, created new ways of supporting our Fellows and others with whom we work, and truly begun to embrace the world of digital media that has been at the core of our beliefs about what is needed for 21st Century Leadership.
Intersticia exists to develop and promote digital fluency and develop smarter humans in terms of how we proactively create, manage, harness and utilise digital technologies.
We do this primarily through the following activities:
- We identify, support, nurture and encourage individuals through our Scholarships and Fellowships
- We work with like-minded partner organisations to support entrepreneurship and innovation
- We hold public events with a specific aim of promoting conversations and building skills in digital literacy and leadership
In the 2019 – 2020 year we built on the foundations that were laid in our first couple of years of existence and, powered by the opportunities afforded by the Pandemic, we have been busier than ever. At the end of 2019 I felt that we were completing the work of our first Horizon, developing our Fellowship; clarifying who we are, what we do and how we do it, and creating our partnerships.
As we embark upon 2021 our second Horizon is becoming clearer.
Identify, support, nurture and encourage individuals through our Scholarships and Fellowships
From the outset Intersticia has sought to identify and support emerging leaders who are a little different, are prepared to take risks, are generous of spirit and have a deeply ingrained need to make the world a better place. I am often asked how we find our Fellows and those we choose to support.
The first filter is through our values which are those of authenticity, integrity, persistence, courage and grace. We look for these in how people approach us, how they present themselves, how they interact with the world and the sorts of things they value in life. These are what drive those of our current Fellowship and manifest in how they demonstrate their individual leadership.
The second is our belief that Intersticia is a community. We are not a leadership development or training organisation, nor are we a Charity that ‘sets and forgets’. Our intention is to recruit and embrace individuals who will contribute to and expand the work that we do both individually and collectively, and as a group collaborate to bring about positive change.
The third is the filter of need. There are many who apply for our support who come with worthy ideas that many other organisations will see merit in, and we often encourage them to find those organisations. As a small organisation our interest is in those people who often fall through the cracks, who often straddle multiple disciplines and who don’t fit neatly in to one category or another. These people provide the hidden connections which we see of great value.
We now have 21 people we have supported through Scholarships and Bursaries and of these 19 have been made Fellows (see https://intersticia.org/fellows/).
However, bringing people in to our Fellowship is just the beginning, and one thing that our work thus far has demonstrated is that it is not broadening our reach which is important, but deepening our connection and strengthening our impact. Of those we support some choose to continue being a part of, and contributing to, our community, others choose not to, which is their choice.
For those who stay with us there are four main areas that we have begun to focus on:
- helping our Fellows develop their own Authenticity as emerging 21st Century Leaders
- creating our Fellowship as a Community that shares experiences and learning
- supporting our Fellows to find their Voice in the stories they tell and work that they do
- harvesting these factors to build a collective Resilience in their work and individual lives
This year we have not been able to come together as a group physically but we held our 2020 Retreat online and appended this with Small Group sessions which continue in to 2021.
We have embarked upon a series of Intersticia Brave Conversations interviews with each of our Fellows produced online and available throughout the community. As a complement to this we have begun working with our Fellow Jess Chambers in her professional capacity as a Voice Coach to give all within our community additional skills in how they present themselves publicly.
Finally we have expanded our group of Advisors with the contribution of key individuals who are willing to help and support our Fellowship group. These people have been incredibly generous with their time, energy and enthusiasm – without them we couldn’t do all that we do.
Work with like-minded partner organisations to support entrepreneurship and innovation
We also could not do the work that we do without leveraging the partnerships that we have, in particular Goodenough College, the Web Science Trust, Founders and Coders (FAC) and Gaza Sky Geeks (GSG). It is through these organisations that we have been able to find new opportunities and innovative projects.
Our support of the Founders Programme began our formal partnership with both FAC and GSG and has resulted in three cohorts of Founders from both London and Palestine, and our first cohort of Founders (Joe Friel, Simon Dupree and Ramy Shufara) has created the first spin out in Yalla, “a Web Design and Development agency which helps non-profits and impact-driven businesses drive positive social change in the tech sphere”.
In 2021 we aim to take this to the next level through the development of a pilot Apprenticeship Programme with Yalla employing two Gaza Code Academy Graduates.
Hold public events with a specific aim of promoting conversations and building skills in digital literacy and leadership
From the outset Intersticia has sought to operate within the interstice between society, culture and technology, the space of the Social Machine.
Our flagship activity is our Brave Conversations events which seek to educate the general public about the Social Machine and act as an Outreach activity for academic research of Web Science. We have now held events around the world, and, with the opportunity afforded by Covid in 2020, online.
Our plan for 2021 is to build on these foundations to further expand the footprint encouraging a greater partnership with the Web Science Trust and its network of Web Science Labs, beginning with our second event hosted by IIIT Bangalore in February 2021. We will also be an integral part of the 2021 Web Science Conference to be held online in June 2021 and intend to integrate content from the Web Science Untangling the Web podcasts in to our activities.
All of our events are listed below and on the Brave Conversations website.
2020 Brave Conversations Kav Mashve
2020 Brave Conversations Arabic/English
2020 Brave Conversations Southampton Online
2020 Brave Conversations Gaza
2020 Brave Conversations Bangalore
2019 Brave Conversations London
2019 Brave Conversations Boston
2019 Brave Conversations Melbourne
2018 Brave Conversations Kingston
2018 Brave Conversations London
2018 Brave Conversations at the World Government Summit Dubai
2017 Brave Conversations Canberra
Digital Gymnasia Series
In a ‘normal’ year we would usually hold a series of workshops at Goodenough College to promote digital literacy and digital skills to current students of the College. Given the restrictions on travel we have instead now developed our Digital Gymnasia Series which has been delivered throughout 2020 to students and Alumni of the College around the world. In 2020 we developed and delivered eight workshops which attracted between 20 – 30 attendees each time. In 2021 we will be delivering an additional four Gymnasia to the Goodenough community in 2021 on the topics of Building Digital Brands, Demystifying AI, Facilitating Online and Digital Governance. All of these are now being recorded to be made available online to the general public, especially the Boards of Charities and Not-for Profit organisations.
2020 has taught us the value of our networks and connections, whether they be IRL (in real life) or via the virtual medium. What I have found is that whilst I have been ‘grounded’ in my physical space here up on Pittwater and have connected more frequently with my local neighbours and community, I have been much more active with a broader range of people around the World and my Global community. I have spoken to my family and friends more often, I have held more meetings and I have been more productive than I have ever been. Through this I believe we have been given the opportunity to deepen our relationships this year, particularly with our Fellows and Advisors, who have all brought their personal experiences and challenges of negotiating and navigating through 2020 and shared without hesitation.
We have been given the opportunity to slow down and consolidate rather than madly race around looking for new adventures and shiny new distractions, and for that I am extremely grateful.
So what comes next? We have talked about our planned 2021 Retreat in Devon and following that we plan to take our Fellows to walk through the Sinai Desert led by our Advisor Louise Sibley. These face to face activities where we don’t have to rely on words but can commune as a group of humans physically together are now more important than ever. As are our ongoing Brave Conversations events where we ask our Fellows to share their thoughts about the work they are doing and perhaps the theme for 2021 may be “Brave Conversations Unplugging” as the World gradually unfreezes from it’s Pandemic state (thanks to Sam Crock for that idea).
More on that to come!