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.
“Knowledge is power. To scrutinize others while avoiding scrutiny oneself is one of the most important forms of power.” (Frank Pasquale, The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information)
Recently I joined Tris Lumley and Baillie Aaron at New Philanthropy Capital’s Ignites Conference to talk about data. What was pleasing was that we had a room full of people genuinely interested in having a mature and robust conversation about data and it’s context, and that throughout the conference digital and technology pervaded. As Fran Perrin commented these issues which digital technologies raise are now becoming mainstream, and finally people are beginning to focus less on the technology and more on the skills, knowledge and resources that people need in order to work within the digital space.
I believe that we have now moved past the ‘digital’ age and we are entering the Age of Cognition, the age where everyone and everything, is rapidly being connected in to a Global Societal Mind, the ultimate Social Machine, where data is coming from all sources, not just digital. In December of this year a group of luminaries within the Internet/Web Worlds is coming together to celebrate the point in time where 50% of humanity is now online. As with all technologies there is a Faustian Bargain – whilst connectivity brings access to information, resources, communities and networks, underpinned by a disconnection to geography and place, it also brings forth challenges to individual privacy and liberty as the price to pay for security. The original vision of those who built the internet and the Web was to bring global connectivity to all humanity, but the consequences are only just beginning to be understood.
Amidst all of this progress the focus on the Machine is paramount, but what of the humans in this machine, and particularly those who lack the personal power and resources to push back and create some personal boundaries? To me this is this is why the Charity Sector and the practice of Philanthropy is so very important.
In May of this year I spoke at the Quilter Cheviot Charity Seminar (see my interview https://vimeo.com/276237074) and there were four key points that I made concerning our Sector:
- we need to recognise and appreciate how important we are, and the power that we have to represent the human in the digital age
- we need to be beneficiary, not funder, driven – we need to focus on the human needs of those we seek to help
- we need to lead the regulation rather than let the regulation lead us, precisely because we are beneficiary driven, and
- we need to embrace the emerging world of data as a positive challenge, not something to be afraid of, but rather something to harness but also to understand.
Phil-anthropy quite literally means “love” of “Man” and is traditionally interpreted as meaning the desire to promote the well-being of others through the giving of alms, or money to good causes.
As I see it the cause of humanity is the most important we currently have, in both the short and long term, and the three key challenges facing our very existence – which include Climate Change, Nuclear War and the rise of Artificial Intelligence – are those which should be just as important as the more immediate ones relating to everyday life.
Throughout history technology has been harnessed to address societal challenges, and in the 2000’s it was digital media that began to determine societal systems and processes. It changed business models, it changed expectations and provided hope for a better way to govern our societies. Many felt that by making information more open and accessible the power imbalance between the government and the governed would be redressed (see the Power of Information Report) and many governments professed to embrace the principles of the Open Data movement which sought to provide Transparency, Participation and Collaboration as a path to more open and accountable government. (For more on this see https://www.finance.gov.au/blog/2010/07/16/declaration-open-government/, https://opengovdata.org/ 8 Principles and https://www.opengovpartnership.org/open-government-declaration).
The promise of open data resulted in whole bureaucratic processes changing in the rush to publish public data, but sadly much of it was published in a way that was relatively useless (see the 2016 Open Data Report) where there developed a focus on the collection of data for its own sake, “just in case”, because one day, as our technologies become smarter and more powerful, the data collected would potentially be useful.
Underpinning all of this was the thinking that
What gets measured gets managed. (Peter Drucker)
If we could only gather all the data, measure everything that we can, and then apply smart algorithms and increasing processing and storage power, we could more effectively understand the world around us and solve the problems we face.
But do we all want to be managed? Where do we draw the line between privacy and security, between freedom and control, between dignity and insignificance, or perhaps irrelevance?
If Philanthropy has any role to play in the Age of Cognition it is, in my opinion, to fight to maintain the rights of human beings to retain their dignity, to recognise their value, and to maintain their sovereignty.
The more I have thought about this over the past couple of months the more the word Sovereignty keeps resonating in my mind.
Sovereignty is the full right and power of a governing body over itself, without any interference from outside sources or bodies.
Historically we have thought of the word in terms of nation states or kingdoms, but as the individual becomes both more empowered and more measured it is the dynamic between the individual (in the libertarian sense) and the individual as a cog in the wheel of the Social Machine that for me is the central issue which will determine the lives of each and every one of us.
So, as we increasingly become more and more an integral part of the Social Machine how do we slow things down and take the time to think about how we design our systems – of government, society and community – to ensure both human dignity, but also human sovereignty?
In a very early Web 2.0 Conference Professor Genevieve Bell asked
What if we designed for data the way we design for people?
This question is the most important of our age, and as Bailley talked about her work in prisons, and the rising awareness of the value of personal data, the need for everyone – but particularly those working in the Charity Sector – to understand that link between data and these fundamental human values is crucial.
At a Royal Institution event I heard Professor Gina Neff make no bones about the fact that Artificial Intelligence is becoming social infrastructure. The values baked in to the algorithms and operating systems that underpin our societies will determine how authority is given, taken and utilised in the digitally mediated world.
It will determine who we are, how we live and how we treat each other.
We cannot sit idly by and allow corporations and governments to determine these values, it is our sector, with our focus on our fellow human beings, that must take the lead and put true phil-anthropy first.
In my next post I will explore in more detail some ideas for precisely how the Philanthropic sector can take on this leadership.
A version of this was written for NPC’s “State of the Sector” report.
What do we mean by “digital”?
In his book The Code Economy  Philip E. Auerswald talks about the long history of humans developing code as a mechanism by which to create and regulate activities and markets. We have Codes of Practice, Ethical Codes, Building Codes, and Legal Codes, just to name a few. Each and every one of these is based on the data of human behaviour, and that data can now be collected, analysed, harvested and repurposed as never before through the application of intelligent machines which operate and are instructed by algorithms . Anything that can be articulated as an algorithm – a self-contained sequence of actions to be performed – is now fertile ground for machine analysis, and increasingly machine activity.
So, what does this mean for us humans, who, are ourselves a conglomeration of DNA code ?
I have spent many years thinking about this. Not that long ago my friends and family tolerated my speculations with good humour, but a fair degree of skepticism. Now I run workshops for Boards and even my children are listening far more intently as people sense that the invasion of the Social Machine  is changing our relationship with such things as privacy  as well as with both ourselves and each other .
The Social Machine is the name given to the systems we have created which blur the lines between computational processes and human input, of which the World Wide Web is the largest and best known example. These smart machines  are increasingly pervading almost every aspect of human existence  and, in many ways, gettting to know us better than we know ourselves . So who stands up for us humans and determines how society will harness and utilise the power of information technologies whilst ensuring that the human remains both relevant and important?
Thus far this has mainly been either those in academia, such as the Web Science  community who observe and seek to understand what is going on, or those in the commercial sector, who are driving the technological development . Those who are charged with setting policy boundaries and enforcing regulation (our governments) are like rabbits in the headlights struggling to keep up .
I believe that there is a space in between which presents both the greatest need to promote the cause of humanity, and the greatest opportunity to challenge and call to account the current onslaught of technological progress and demand that it serves humanity rather than undermine it.
Philanthropy’s time has come!
Philanthropy can be defined as love of humanity (philanthropos tropos) expressed as the caring, nourishing, developing and enhancing of what it is to be human.
I have written  about Socrates’ concept of philanthropy and his desire to promote the welfare of others by wandering around talking to people, examining them as he examined himself. His goal was to help individual men and women understand themselves in order to live better lives and better serve their communities . The more I have reflected on this the more I realise that the concept of philanthropy needs to be at the centre of everything if humanity is to both survive and thrive in the digitally driven world. Other players are seeking to speed things up, to rush towards a future that no one can predict , let alone understand , particularly as they are now creating machines that are capable of building themselves . These technologies will be of enormous benefit to humanity if they are harnessed and utilised for good but someone has to stand up and demand that this is at the forefront of all technological design and creation, not an inconvenient afterthought.
In April of this year a group of people from all walks of life came together in Canberra, Australia, to have some Brave Conversations  around precisely these topics. Australian economist Nicholas Gruen presented his thoughts about what he sees as the disconnect between the arteries and capillaries  of government as a reflection of the more pervasive inequality within society. In essence what he highlighted was the inability of many of our existing systems to address the differing needs of human culture at different scales because the arteries (those dealing with policy) neither leverage nor understand what happens in the capillaries (service delivery at the coal face). As I listened to Nicholas I realised that this is precisely the space which those who have championed social change outside of the established systems of both business and government resulting in many of the great social reforms, have occupied. It is what philanthropy is all about.
Following last year’s Philanthropy Australia conference  I challenged the sector  to take the lead in occupying this middle ground. Instead of reacting to the social problems created by ecological strain and economic stratification (the two factors which have throughout history led to the collapse of all civilisations ) to stand up for the humans and proactively start to shape the value system which will determine how both government and business operates both now, and as the digital world evolves.
There are two ways that the sector can do this.
Firstly, by focusing on educating ourselves, and those with whom we work, about science and technology and the social impacts which are already emerging.
Secondly, by being ingenious about how we leverage our space in the interstice between the arteries and capillaries in order to create a legitimate, important and powerful role in championing the humans we serve.
Education as the hidden connections (Vaclav Havel)
The best place to start understanding the digital world is to begin to see the world, and all that it comprises, through the lens of data and information, now being rendered as a form of digital currency . This links back to the earlier idea of Codes. Our activities, up until recently, were tacit and experiential, but now they are becoming increasingly explicit and quantified . Where we go, whom we meet, what we say, what we do is all being registered, monitored and measured as long as we are connected to the digital infrastructure . A new currency is emerging which is based on the world’s most valuable resource, data , and it is this currency that connects the arteries and capillaries, and reaches across all disciplines and fields of expertise. The kind of education that is required now is to be able to make connections  and to see the opportunities in the interstice.
The dominant players in this space thus far have been the large corporations and governments who have harnessed and exploited digital currencies for their own benefit, which Shoshana Zuboff describes as the Surveillance Economy . But this data actually belongs to each and every human who generates it. As people begin to wake up to this we are gradually realising that this is what fuels the social currency  of entrepreneurship, leadership and innovation, and provides the legitimacy upon which trust is based . Trust is an outcome of experiences and interactions, but governments and corporations have transactionalised their interactions with citizens and consumer through exploiting data and as a consequence have eroded the esteem with which they are held . The more they try to garner greater insights through data and surveillance, the more they alienate the people they seek to reach .
If we are smart, as philanthropists, what we need to do is to understand the fundamentals of data as a currency and integrate this in to each and every interaction we have in order to create relationships with people which are based on the authenticity of purpose, supported by the data of proof. Yes, there have been some instances where the sector has not done as well as it could and betrayed that trust  but this only serves as a lesson as to how fragile the world of trust and legitimacy are, and how crucial it is that we define all that we do in terms of social outcomes and impact, however that is defined .
In his books Sapiens  and Homo Deus  Yuval Noah Harari describes the symbiotic relationship between humans and technology framed around the economic value of humans to society throughout history. His argument is that this has evolved from humans as hunter-gatherers, to farmers, soldiers, and, from the mid Twentieth Century, as consumers. Our role is currently to gobble up the fruits of industrialisation, pay our taxes and go from cradle to grave as cogs in the wheels of industry.
This is what the Luddites saw coming when they smashed the looms in the early 1800s . Without necessarily seeing the world which would evolve they sensed the degradation of human-kind and they fought for social equality and fairness in the distribution of the benefits of science and technology to all. Their struggle is instructive  because they were amongst the first to experience technological displacement. Much of the current dialogue around the future of work and a Universal Basic Income  rests on these same issues because we are beginning to link wealth to meaning, rather than just productivity and ownership . Notions of good work  are becoming important, as is the need to harness and leverage human creativity.
The power of ingenuity
Everyone these days wants to innovate and we have Innovation Labs popping up everywhere. My own personal opinion is that the real ideas don’t come from bean bags and refrigerators full of beer and mineral water, they come from the combination of necessity and invention, from ingenuity.
Ingenuity is about being clever, original, and inventive , and applying ideas to solve problems and meet challenges. Above all ingenuity includes a sense of imagination and play.
One of the ways we can become more ingenious is by imagining how the world around us could be, and nowhere is there more inspiration than in the world of Science Fiction.
Science fiction predicts the present, and inspires the future (Cory Doctorow)
Most of those who have invented the technologies around us have always been avid readers of Science fiction and we now live in a world that its writers have been dreaming up for centuries . The technologies upon which we so increasingly rely have been sitting in the labs for decades, but what has happened is that they have coalesced and been let loose in the wilds of human society. It is not the technologies that determine what happens next, it is the humans, and, as far as Science Fiction is concerned I believe that we are approaching an event horizon , a point from which we can no longer see what lies beyond because we are reaching the limits of what we can imagine. This is what is being described as the Posthuman world . Most people are flat out getting their heads around Transhumanism , let alone Posthumanism but things are changing very quickly.
As Futurist Gerd Leonhard says 
Never in human history has the present been so temporary.
Whatever the future holds for us is being determined right now, and this means that we need to ensure that we learn as much from the past as we can while we still remember it. Alexander Rose, Executive Director of the Long Now Foundation , believes that preserving the elements of what we value today is crucial in order to provide future generations with as many options and choices as possible .
A time for brave leadership
With all of this in mind the fundamental question facing each of us is what role do we want to play, and how do we steer our organisations through the disruptive times ahead, which people like Alibaba Founder Jack Ma believe are going to be very difficult .
I believe that the greatest contribution we can make is to focus firmly on the people who are the ultimate beneficiaries and become true Servant Leaders . Those who are prepared to step up and lead the brave conversations that need to occur.
This requires taking a long hard look at how we run our lives, and ensuring that we take the time to step back and recalibrate, to focus on continuous, challenging and adaptive learning, and harness our imagination to become more ingenious.
As leaders we can not leave this to other people, it is the role that each and every one of us must take on ourselves, regardless of age, stage or position. Beyond any need for skills and capabilities what we need most is to put our humanity first and take on the philanthropic mantle.
Postscript – New Philanthropy Capital’s State of the Sector report  has highlighted that in terms of digital and data:
There is a limited understanding among charities of what digital and data can achieve. This is matched with an overconfidence about how advanced charities are in their use of digital. In a number of cases the more confident a leader was that their organisation was making the most of digital, the less well they seemed to understand the nature of digital and its benefits.
 Philip E. Auerswald The Code Economy – http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/26720923-the-code-economy
 Key decisions around Human DNA editing – https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/human-genome-editing-who-gets-to-decide/
 Some thoughts around Privacy on the Web – http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Passcode/2015/0216/Web-privacy-is-the-newest-luxury-item-in-era-of-pervasive-tracking)
 For a good over see Shoshana Zuboff’s Age of the Smart Machine – http://www.shoshanazuboff.com/new/books/in-the-age-of-the-smart-machine/
 See Web Science Trust www.webscience.org
 See http://www.afr.com/technology/silicon-valley-has-too-much-power-20170515-gw4w58?eid=Email:nnn-16OMN00050-ret_newsl-membereng:nnn-06%2F09%2F2016-MarketWrap5PM-dom-business-nnn-afr-u&et_cid=29077909&et_rid=1925792216&Channel=Email&EmailTypeCode=&LinkName=http%3a%2f%2fwww.afr.com%2ftechnology%2fsilicon-valley-has-too-much-power-20170515-gw4w58%3feid%3dEmail%3annn-16OMN00050-ret_newsl-membereng%3annn-06%252F09%252F2016-MarketWrap5PM-dom-business-nnn-afr-u&Email_name=MW5-05-15&Day_Sent=15052017 and https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2017/04/25/the-information-landscape-how-do-we-tackle-the-problems-caused-by-silicon-valley/?informz=1
 Companies and governments need to get on board with data – Australian Financial Review 21st May, 2017
 Is Philanthropy Future Ready? http://www.philanthropy.org.au/conference/2016/intro/
 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921800914000615 and
 James Gleick wrote about this in The Information, https://www.theinformation.com/
 http://www.economist.com/node/21548493/ and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantified_Self
 One example is how Google is tracking not just advertising but shopping behaviours https://phys.org/news/2017-05-google-aims-online-ads-real-world.html
 http://www.shoshanazuboff.com/new/recent-publications-and-interviews/ and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0QwPHinDdOc
 I am indebted to Dr Simon Longstaff (http://www.ethics.org.au/about/our-people) for the articulation of the relationship between trust and legitimacy. I also explored this in my PhD research, more of which you can find out about at http://intersticia.org/evolution-of-the-digital-brand/)
 See Edelman Trust 2017 http://www.edelman.com/trust2017/
 See UK Report https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/532104/Public_trust_and_confidence_in_charities_2016.pdf)
 Anthony Painter, In Support of a Universal Basic Income, The RSA – https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/rsa-blogs/2015/12/in-support-of-a-universal-basic-income–introducing-the-rsa-basic-income-model
 Jeremy Rifkin, A World Beyond Markets, The RSA – https://www.thersa.org/events/2014/04/a-world-beyond-markets
 Matthew Taylor, “Why we need to talk about Good Work”, The RSA. – https://medium.com/@thersa/why-we-need-to-talk-about-good-work-728d7d82877c
 Interview at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08nqc4j