Leading in the Age of Cognition

“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:

  1. we need to recognise and appreciate how important we are, and the power that we have to represent the human in the digital age
  2. we need to be beneficiary, not funder, driven – we need to focus on the human needs of those we seek to help
  3. we need to lead the regulation rather than let the regulation lead us, precisely because we are beneficiary driven, and
  4. 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.