Digital Gymnasia Series 2 – 2021

Digital Gymnasia Series 2 – 2021

Last week I held the first of our second series of Digital Gymnasia with Alumni and Members of Goodenough College.

In 2017 Experion created it’s Your Data Self ads which, as the ad says, is what companies see when they’re deciding how to interact with individuals.  One of my goals in these Gymnasia is to introduce particpants to their data selves and to demystify the digital realm so that they can more confidently navigate and negotiate their online lives.

In our first Digital Gymnasia series we made the most of the World going in to lockdown as we all experimented with living online.  The more workshops I did the more I realised that there is a deep seated need for events such as these which both allow people to talk (and later think) whilst simultaneously giving them some practical tools to take away.

The feedback from those who have attended has been largely positive with many telling me they are using what they have learned in their private as well as their professional lives.  But, as with all these things, there are some who have felt that I may be rather negative or cynical in how I frame my view of technologies and the world of tech generally.

This has given me pause for thought and so I am taking this opportunity to articulate my own ideas a bit further in order to provide additional context for future events and, perhaps, encourage some braver conversations.

I have always been interested in the interstice between technology, culture and society and aware that we, as a species, are at the beginning of a major technological revolution, something way beyond “industrial” and something we don’t even have the words to adequately describe as yet.

I bought my first Apple Macintosh when I was a student living in Goodenough College in 1985; I logged on to the early World Wide Web through the first version of the Netscape browser via Australia’s first public Internet Service Provider Pegasus Networks in 1993; I co-created my first Web Consulting company “New Media Connections” in 1995, and I helped to lead a major initiative in Australia called Print21 which sought to understand the impact of digital media on what was then the world’s largest manufacturing industry and the first to be digitised thanks to desktop publishing.

As a result of this I was recruited by Fuji Xerox Australia to help them envisage the future and there I spent almost a decade immersed in the work of the global Xerox Innovation Network researching and exploring the impact of the evolving World Wide Web on how we as social human animals interact and communicate online.  This led to a focus on what was then called the Semantic Web, a set of standards which has helped lay many of the foundations for what we now call ‘Artificial Intelligence’.  It also let me personally to begin working with many of the people who actually built the Internet and Web over the last six decades and who formed Web Science to ensure that it both survives but most of all continues to benefit humanity.

Every technological device we invent (including our laws and language) has our values and human biases built in to it, and manifests how we as human animals see the world.  The affordances of all technologies are a manifestation of how we have crafted the world around us to meet a need and afford us a mechanism to do things – doors are for opening; cups are for holding liquids; chairs are for sitting on.  This is one reason why I teach the history of digital information technologies – they have not suddenly leapt out of the ether, they have emerged as the result of centuries of thought and use to solve particular problems:  Babbage invented his Difference Engine to automate long, tedious astronomical calculations; the Internet was invented to help fortify the US Defence Department during the Cold War; Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web to help researchers share documents; the PageRank algorithm was developed as a new type of search engine.

Each of these has changed the way we operate and go about our daily lives, and each exemplifies the fact that all human inventions have longer term unforeseen consequences.

The Internet and the Web were given to Humanity by their inventors with few, if any, restrictions on how they were used.  As with all things that are perceived as free  if there is a situation where individual users have open access to a resource unhampered by shared social structures or formal rules that govern access and use, they will act independently according to their own self-interest and, contrary to the common good of all users, cause depletion of the resource through their uncoordinated action (the Tragedy of the Commons).  With the Internet and the Web both have created vast wealth for a small group, whilst also enabling access to knowledge and information on an unprecedented scale for anyone connected, but the social and psychological costs of this is something we are only just beginning to understand.

In a recent speech at International Privacy Day Apple CEO Tim Cook states that

Too many are still asking the question “How much can we get away with?” when they need to be asking “What are the consequences?” …  A social dilemma cannot be allowed to become a social catastrophe.

It is these consequences that Shoshana Zuboff focuses on in her most recent work. At an event in 2019 I asked her if she had seen this surveillance internet coming when she wrote The Support Economy in 2000.  She answered that yes she had, but she hoped it wouldn’t happen.  This is similar to Tim Berners-Lee’s response to hearing that there was pornography on the Web – “Just don’t look at it!”

Three things have combined to create the online environment within which we now live.

  1. The first is the generosity and näivety of the early digital inventors who were enamoured by the technology largely ignoring the science of human behaviour
  2. the second is the pure greed which was allowed to run amok and untethered in the wild digital frontiers largely due to the fact that the early technologies emerged within the West Coast of the United States with it’s free market approach to regulation and dare-devil attitude to innovation and novelty
  3. the third is the almost complete lack of understanding of the affordances of digital information by government regulators, policy makers and politicians which meant that they missed the early opportunities to reign in monopolistic and anti-competitive behaviour.

These have now played themselves out but the public and our governments are beginning to step up and demand that there is a new phase in how these systems operate –   the Australian and now Canadian governments are beginning to challenge the current ad-based publishing dominance of the large tech platforms, and hopefully new business models for online commerce will emerge.

The key question is

“Which philosophy do you want to pursue? Do you want a business that serves your customers? Or one that takes advantage of customers to serve your business?  (Justin Bariso)

As my dear friend Professor Dame Wendy Hall states if it wasn’t for the Internet and the Web we would not have been able to remain connected during the Pandemic and it remains the most powerful innovation of all time.  Precisely because of this

we … need to be prepared for the internet that we know to evolve unpredictably, and work to ensure that it remains beneficial for humankind.

For me, as a full time philanthropist, Wendy’s words resonate deeply.  When we created our family Charity Intersticia we chose to focus on working to support individuals as 21st Century leaders with a focus on helping to build digital fluency.  To complement this we hold our Brave Conversations which are open to all, we partner with Goodenough College to hold our Digital Gymnasia, and we partner with Tech for Better organisations (such as Founders and Coders and Gaza Sky Geeks) who teach coding skills to those who seek to harness them for social good.

I am often asked why I do what I do and what I hope to achieve.

My main objective is to get people to think, to wake them up from the somnambulist state they are in as they go about their daily lives largely unaware of the systems which underpin each and every interaction.  As Melvin Kranzberg states

Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral

We are our technologies and they are us.

There is much to be hopeful for in this new era, and the Covid corridor is speeding up technological progress by forcing us all to become more digitally fluent and savvy.  It is empowering governments to be less passive and reactive in how they approach technology (which has both a positive and negative side of course) which means that the balance of power between governments and the tech companies is changing.

It is purely speculative to try to predict what will happen in the next month, let alone the next decade! but it is prudent to give people some tools to at least begin to imagine some of the possibilities.  If the early tech inventors had studied more psychology, philosophy and history perhaps they might have had a clearer picture of what might happen themselves.  This is why Web Science is so important – precisely because it does seek to bring together as many perspectives as possible.

As with so many inventions Web Science was inspired by Science Fiction, in particular Isaac Azimov’s Foundation series and the dream of Hari Seldon to build Psychohistory.  This is  why I stress to all who come to our workshops that reading Science Fiction is probably the most important way to begin to imagine the future.

This second series of Digital Gymnasia seeks to instill a confidence in the imagination and an ability to more robustly address and explore some of the thornier issues which are emerging.

I have crafted this second series to build on the first (which we are in the process of recording) and to work from the individual to the group and community.  At present we have four to be delivered over the next couple of month:

  1. Your Digital Brand – Who are you online?
  2. Demystifying AI – What are we collectively building in the online world?
  3. Facilitating Meetings Online – How are we taking our work online?
  4. Digital Governance – How are we holding each other to account Online?

Some events will be more content heavy (such as Demystifying AI and Digital Governance) but I hope to bring practical exercises in to them all.  As with every event I work with who is in the room at the time, the questions that arise, and largely let the group determine both the pace and how much we cover in the time allotted.  This is a tricky balance and is a collaborative effort where we all learn from each other.

The most important measure of success is not that everyone agrees with or likes what is presented … it is that they are stimulated to think about their data self slightly differently and with a bit more agency and confidence.

For more information on these events please either contact me or Melissa Morley at Goodenough College.