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.

 

Museum of the Future

Museum of the Future

On my way back to London in May I decided to stop in via Dubai to catch up with Intersticia Fellow Osheen Arora.  Having some time to spare I popped in to visit the Museum of the Future.

Dubbed the most beautiful building in the world by its creators the building seeks

to confidently straddle the past and the future, applying advanced technology to traditional artforms. The building ‘speaks Arabic’: its facade is a canvas for the poetry of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum rendered in the calligraphy of Mattar bin Lahej.

It’s form is ‘futuristic’ and stands in stark contrast to the Dubai skyline with it’s geometric towers and multi lane highways.  It aims

to provide light in dark times: in an age of anxiety and cynicism about the future, we are showing that things can and must progress.  Our imagined futures are fundamentally hopeful, but honest about the dangers of the present.

These are noble aims and as I wandered around the pristine and beautifully presented immersive experience I was reminded of conversations that we had had with the young people who came to our Future Worlds Challenge Brave Conversations in Sharjah in September 2022.

One of the exercises we did with these young people was to ask them about Science Fiction and the role it had played in their lives. The response was that, apart from the relatively modern content available to most young people in the digital age, the main stories they had heard were those of fantasy such as The Arabian Nights and Sinbad.  According to this observer the genre of Science Fiction is Arabic cultures is relatively new and is linked to the post-colonial era and particularly the English language.  Arabic cultures have a long heritage of curiosity and knowledge building which can be experienced in a visit to the House of Wisdom in Sharjah, but it seems that true Science Fiction (based on science and technology and depicting scenarios that could be true one day) is relatively recent.  As with Chinese Science Fiction the integration of translations of western science sparked an interest in the ideas explored but this came in waves as local cultures adapted to their own changes and moves to become increasingly industrialised.

The House of Wisdom, Sharjah

As a child Science Fiction stories and both British and American television shows and movies were all around me and I grew up on a cultural diet of Lost in Space, My Favourite Martian, The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, Dr Who, Thunderbirds, Superman, and anything else I was able to watch.  I would be glued to the television as I came home from school and had afternoon tea, and if I was allowed at any other time.  I read Azimov, H. G. Wells, John Wyndham, William Gibson, Douglas Adams, Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, Kurt Vonnegut, Arthur C. Clarke, Aldous Huxley, Jules Verne, Philip K. Dick and later Cixin Liu from cover to cover.

What I have found as I’ve run our Brave Conversations workshops over the years is that this upbringing is not common, but I believe that the thinking processes around this type of storytelling and imagination are now crucial to how we face the rapid socio-technical developments which are all around us.

In this interview historian Yuval Noah Harari describes his thoughts on the importance of Science Fiction:

It shapes the understanding of the public on things … which are likely to change our lives and society more than anything else in the coming decades.

This is the essence of what I senses at the Museum of the Future, a desire and ambition to educate and demonstrate new ways of thinking about the future from a non-Western point of view.  As I wandered around there was nothing particularly outstanding or mind-blowing in the exhibitions themselves, but what was new and different for me was a fresh approach to technological development coming from the perspective of a young developing nation.

Dubai’s history is fascinating.  Not that long ago it was a fishing and pearling village on Dubai Creek which developed into a major shipping port. In 1966 everything changed with the discovery of oil and over the past fifty years Dubai has undergone nothing less than a radical transformation of which the Emirati are, and should be, rightly proud.

In the Museum of the Future a vision is presented of the world in 2071 largely based around Hope.  From the extraplanetary sky-lift taking visitors to the orbiting Space Station O.S.S. Hope; the Lunar Equatorial Solar Belt providing shared energy back to the Earth; the HEAL Institute with a Digital Amazon and DNA Library; the Alwaha Wellness Centre, finishing in Tomorrow Today, the visitor experience around the Museum is one of hope in the power of human ingenuity to increasingly understand and manage our planetary environment and beyond.

I sensed a freshness about how everything is presented as the Emirati culture experiences the transition of Science Fiction in to Science Fact.  But I also felt a certain naivety and almost childlike approach, something positive and expansionary with a limitless zeal for new bright shiny things.  This made me conscious of my own biases and cultural conditioning which is much more suspicious and hesitant, rehearsing scenarios in my mind about what could go wrong instead of working towards what could go right.

The breadth of the ambitions of people in this part of the world are staggering as can be evidenced by the Saudi Arabian led NEOM, (Neo-Mustaqbal – New Future) an entirely new model for sustainable living, innovation and advanced manufacturing and eco tourism.  Whilst NEOM has its own share of challenges there is something about the sheer audacity of the project which echoes something of the courage that drove other great construction projects throughout history or the Moon landings more recently.

The Museum of the Future is a bold statement by the Emirati government that they are thinking long term and want to be a player in the modern world we are all co-creating.  This just doesn’t come from throwing money at things and hoping for the best; it is something that evolves through taking responsible steps building on each previous one and understanding the deeply intertwingled relationship between technical tools, social systems and human nature.

I am very excited by the emergence of these different and diverse ways of seeing, alternative ways of working and fresh approaches to the challenges of being human as we co-evolve with socio-technologies.  We need these diverse approaches and different ways of thinking.

I just hope that non-Western cultures don’t feel that they have to copy and emulate what we in the West have done to succeed.  We need to learn from them as much as the other way around, the world we are building is for all of humanity not just those of us who happen to live in the more developed parts of the planet which have so successfully exploited natural resources for our own benefit.

The way forward is together celebrating the richness of human cultures and the hope that together we can create something positive for future generations.

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?

 

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

-->