Analogue leadership in a digital world

Human Dignity in the 21st Century

Human Dignity in the 21st Century

The House of Protection, Utøya

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

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

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

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

WEXFO’s aim is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sam Gregory with a message of hope

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

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

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

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

Irene Khan reinforced the ACTIVE nature of freedom of expression

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Brave Conversations Stuttgart 2024

Brave Conversations Stuttgart 2024

Students from The School for Talents, University of Stuttgart.

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

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

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

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

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

Where did all of this come from?

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

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

www.braveconversations.org in January 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethos – What may we do?

Logos – What can we do?

Pathos – What ought we do?

 

WebSci24 and the emerging Agent Society

WebSci24 and the emerging Agent Society

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

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

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

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

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

These key moments were:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mere thought of this sends chills down my spine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

OpenAI was created

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

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

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

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

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

As Anthropology Professor Michael Wesch so rightly said in 2007:

The Web is Us/ing Us.

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

 

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

Kardamyli 2023

Kardamyli 2023

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.

Surfing the digital wave

Surfing the digital wave

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.

A European Brave Conversation

A European Brave Conversation

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!

 

June 2024
M T W T F S S
 12
3456789
10111213141516
17181920212223
24252627282930

-->