The Allegory of Plato’s Cave – a powerful lens with which to view our 21st Century Leaders
2020 has shown us that the challenges of the 21st Century are global ones which we all share. We must learn now how to balance the needs of the ‘me’ with the ‘we’ to collectively change things for the better.
It was just two weeks ago that I was swimming in my favourite pool in North Sydney looking up at the Restaurant above and thinking how incredibly lucky we in Australia have been in 2020, but also having niggling feeling that we are so out of sync with the rest of the world that that luck may well run out. We have had numerous outbreaks of the Covid 19 virus which have been fairly rapidly squashed and the state of Victoria, and Melbourne in particular, has had a pretty torrid time with the harshest lockdown in the world. But our lifestyle had begun to bounce back.
Until last week when we had a reality check with the discovery of two mystery Covid cases found in Avalon, a mere 5 km from where I live, which has now spread sending Governments around the country in to panic mode accompanied by a plethora of conspiracy theories. For those of us living in what is affectionately called the ‘insular Peninsula’ we joined the majority of people on the planet in a locked down Christmas and now New Year.
I don’t envy any of our leaders as they struggle to cope with the rapidly changing situation that the Pandemic presents, not wanting to over-react as the “Festive” season approaches, but as a result creating additional anxiety and frustration with a lack of clear messaging similar to the first few months of 2o2o when the old world disappeared and the new “Covid” normal began to appear.
For Australia and New Zealand much of the strategy has been to aim for “0” as the optimum Covid number, with the only weak links being returning overseas travellers, diplomats and cabin crew. We have been largely successful and our particular response reflects a blend of our Convict Colony roots combined with the Tyranny of Distance. We are good at locking people up down here. But “0” is the most dangerous number and is totally unsustainable.
Governments around the world are now firmly driving the agenda when it comes to responding to the Pandemic, with varying degrees of success. One way of viewing this is to consider our Governments as Social Machines, huge socio-technical systems that bring together the cultural, political and technical characteristics of polities as expressed through policies, rules and regulations.
Years ago we undertook a research project with the Australian and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) and the Web Science Institute on this very concept (see Government as a Social Machine) exploring the co-evolution of the policy and online communications spaces as Governments embraced digital media. Professor Dame Wendy Hall and Dr Kieron O’Hara have further developed this idea with their Four Internets describing how geopolitics is splintering the once integrated global online infrastructure determined by “Four ideologies … because they have been adopted by state-level actors with the resources to push their visions, fund the science behind them and, crucially, “sell” them to allies.” (Wendy Hall)
To me this is the contemporary demonstration of Francis Fukuyama’s Origins of Political Order connecting all political action as a manifestation of long cultural histories and value systems. Now, catapulted by the Pandemic, global Governments are beginning to embrace the next phase of how we govern ourselves with the combination of culture, the polity and technology – the ultimate Social Machine.
Not long ago the mantra in the public sphere was to ‘wind back’ our bloated, bureaucratic and big governments in order to embrace market forces and be more ‘customer focused’. I have always felt that calling citizens ‘customers’ was an insult, together with adopting many of the ideas of managerialism where the bottom line trumped actually serving the public. The pendulum has now swung back to where people are relying on and giving greater trust to their governments to guide us through the Covid-era, and these governments are working feverishly to learn how to utilise the tools of digital information systems to more effectively collect, harvest and analyse data in their fight against the disease. These twin propellers are, as Yuval Noah Harari states
fast-forwarding historical processes (and)… Entire countries serve as guinea-pigs in large-scale social experiments.
As Professor Dame Wendy Hall says we now desperately need to create a new social contract between citizens and our Government Social Machines, but, more than that, we need to reframe how we see our leaders and what leadership in the 21st Century needs to look like as we embrace these global problems.
Up until now the dominant thinking throughout Western societies has been based on “it’s all about Me”, beautifully articulated in the documentary the Century of the Self. This is a mindset that has caused us to exploit each other and our environment for short term gain. As we learn how intimately connected we are and how much we depend on that global connection we desperately need a new type of thinking based on our interdependence and this needs to be reflected in the stories we tell.
The power of truth in storytelling
What is most important is to understand that politics and leadership is all about storytelling and how those we choose to serve in positions of power see the world.
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (see also) tells the story of people imprisoned in a cave watching shadows on a wall which they take to be their reality. One of their number manages to escape and ventures outside in to the sunshine of the outside and realises that there are different truths to true what is being presented in the Cave. The escapee returns to the cave but no one of those still trapped inside believes these weird stories about light and sunshine and the natural world. Plato talks about the role of philosophers and politicians as being those to manage to escape to consider alternative realities and dream of different futures, but all too often the philosophers are ridiculed whilst the politicians use the situation to their own advantage. The glaring example of this is the use of political spin and manipulation in how election campaigns are run, the Social Media Caves which now provide most people with their news and daily updates, all of which are being filtered by the algorithmic shadows driven by unfettered and unchecked capitalist objectives.
We humans are story telling animals and our very sense of self comes from the stories we are told and what others tell us. It may well be that the modern day equivalent of huddling around the camp fire is that we now huddle around our computer screens, especially now so many of our interactions are limited to being online.
It is the politicians and philosophers who tell the best stories who have the greatest impact, and now more than ever we need these stories to be about hope for the future.
In this interview with Bill Gates and Rashida Jones Yuval Noah Harari talks about the power of stories and the need for leaders to believe in the stories they tell. Throughout history these stories have been driven by religious beliefs, playing on deeply held concepts of good and evil which have ensured that those in power keep control of the unruly masses, a theory beautifully expanded upon by Rutger Bregman in his book Human Kind and Rebecca Solnit’s Paradise Built in Hell and further developed by Joseph Henrich in his description of the West and our WEIRD way of thinking.
The Covid Pandemic is not a story, it is all too real, but how each and every one of us responds to it is determined by the stories we hear, how we retell those stories, and how each one of us uses our ability to filter fact from the fiction, recognise our inbuilt biases towards the negative and forge a path towards something more positive and hopeful.
As never before our leaders from all walks of life don’t want to deliver bad news, but they need to deliver real news and deliver it responsibly in a way that validates the trust that has been given to them, not just by their own citizens, but by the global collective. Just like Climate Change the Virus doesn’t recognise state borders or festive holidays, and it will seep through even the best quarantine systems.
The rollercoaster of the Covid year has left us all with increased levels of anxiety and frustration as we continue on in to the unknown. For me whilst I am not religious I have found that recognising the difference between what I can and cannot control or change has been what has kept me going. and what I cannot has been a powerful lens with which to cope, articulated in the Serenity Prayer.
‘God’ grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.
(The Serenity Prayer)
One of the things we can all control is which stories we listen to and which we don’t, and how we choose to interpret them. A true 21st Century Leader will recognise this and become a master at storytelling, not for personal gain or political expediency, but for engendering hope.
Last week in an article in the Financial Review renown businessman David Gonski talked about the commoditisation of the professions.
Let’s be professional and fight artificial intelligence. (David Gonski)
Gonski is right on a number of fronts, but very wrong on others. He is totally right in that the humans in the workplace need to be human, and deliver ideas with humanity. However, he is wrong about fighting artificial intelligence.
It is too late.
AI may well be the best chance humanity has got to survive. It may be our only hope.
We have extended both our minds and bodies with technology since we walked from the savannah. Our latest invention, artificial intelligence, is set to revolutionise many of the socio-technical systems we rely on every day, and in all likelihood we underestimate the impact that it is already having, and the speed with which it is progressing. It is not the AGI (artificial general intelligence or Strong AI) that is disrupting our world, it is the many and various Weak or narrow AI that is good at doing specific things, and upon which we increasingly rely and daily feed as the Social Machine.
It is the humans that are changing how the world works, not the machines.
This is one reason why we are having our Brave Conversations conference in Canberra in April.
We do need to talk, we need to talk openly and honestly, and we need to talk now.
Why? Because …
AI and robots, like Climate Change, aren’t waiting for us humans to get our heads around the world that is changing, they are marching ahead regardless.
Let’s get a sense of what is going on.
Intelligence has always underpinned human progress and driven our curiosity and ingenuity, and it has been as much a force for good as for evil. With the assistance of our clever intelligence systems – computers and the data we are feeding them – these are just a few of the things that are becoming real in the twenty first century:
All of this is happening because we have developed information systems which enable us to work with data, information and knowledge in new and more powerful ways.
Whilst these things are not yet a part of everyday life they are coming.
As William Gibson said
The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed. (The Economist, December 4, 2003)
That distribution is what is going to determine the future of humanity, because it is going to be those with access to the smartest and most powerful technologies who have the power. We are already seeing that with Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon.
I am listening to many of these conversations as I travel around the world, and it is time that we Australians actively engaged in it, bravely, with courage, and a little bit of daring. We need to consider what we can bring to the table that is different, that is uniquely ours, and not something that we are trying to emulate from elsewhere.
What do we do differently? Here is a short list to start off with:
- we have the tyranny of distance – our distance from the Northern Hemisphere, the US and Europe means that we often watch what is going on via our screens, rather than experience it directly. This both mediates our response but also gives us the opportunity to be less reactive and more objective;
- this distance also means that we are often little more than a sales channel for the multinationals who do very little research here, but we are a great test market;
- we can be innovative, but I believe that most of all we are fast followers – we see how others have done things and we quickly embrace new ideas, adopt new technologies, and then we play with them, alter and amend them, and apply them to new problems;
- we are a young country which is also an island – as a white nation we have never been invaded, however we have built this by invading the lands of others. This gives us a juxtaposition of security versus insecurity,;
- we have amongst us the original custodians of this land, who have, over the last 60,000 years. accumulated wisdom, knowledge and experience about the natural world and the place of humanity in it;
- we have a resilient and robust economy, which seems to be able to weather global crises;
- we have a stable system of government (despite the instability in our politics, and an appalling lack of leadership) built upon the foundations of the Westminster system which itself has endured for centuries;
- we have a strident multi-culturalism and a determination to embrace and accept ideas, cultures and creeds of all kinds;
- we have a young mindset which sits on a very old, ancient and fragile land;
- we inhabit the fringes of our continent, clinging to the edges and are often at the mercy of nature at her harshest with fire, floods and storms. Through this we have a respect for nature which I think other places are gradually losing.
These are the things that I believe we can contribute to the global conversation because they impact on each and every one of us in our day to day lives.
People have asked me what the outcomes of our Brave Conversations will be.
To be honest, I have no idea. But, nor should I. That is not my role. My role is to get the right people in the room together and then let them toss ideas around in a safe and respectful manner, to explore connections and gain insights that they might not otherwise do.
But there are a number of themes that will emerge:
- what is the role of government in the digital age? At present governments around the world are struggling just to keep up, let along provide a framework within which the Social Machine is developing. This is what Tim Berners-Lee and Nigel Shadbolt saw when they went to Gordon Brown and created Web Science.
- what is the economic value of a human as capitalism declines and democracy is in question?
- what is the importance of Web Science, which, as a multi-disciplinary field bringing together the Social and the Machine together, is needed, now more than ever. Whether it is Asimov’s PsychoHistory or something else, the Web has changed the world, and the world has changed the Web. The world and the Web are symbiotic. Web Science considers all actors – human and technical, individuals, governments and enterprise – it is humanity in motion.
I asked Professor Susan Halford about the importance of Web Science and she responded thus:
Finding ourselves in this position raises questions that are both profoundly important and difficult to answer.
- How do we ensure that the Web benefits everyone?
- And what are the business and governance models that would underpin this?
- How do we deal with conflicts of interest, for example between openness and intellectual property, the right to anonymity and policing cybercrime, data based business models and ownership of our own data?
- Artificial intelligence and human accountability?
- As the Web continues evolve in networks of social, technical, legal, political and economic relations we find that none of the existing areas of academic research are able to fully address the profound questions that are raised.
- Whilst computer scientists understand the technologies, psychologists how they impact on human thinking, lawyers understand the legal challenges that arise and sociologists the ways that family life, communities and social identities are changing, any one discipline can only provide a partial answer.
Web Science was established for this reason: to ask the difficult questions, and establish the interdisciplinary capacity to answer them fully.
In these times of rapid change we need leaders who do bring the human skills as Gonski has said, but more importantly, we need leaders who are watching the horizon, who understand the implications of these powerful technologies and appreciate both the risks and the benefits, who can anticipate some of the potential consequences, and who are open to explore humans and society in new ways.
Our technologies are redefining who and what we are. There is no stopping that and, thanks to AI and all that it enables, the humans who walk this planet in 100 years will be very different from those of us who are here now. We have a responsibility to at least try to comprehend what is going on, and to proactively make choices that will benefit future generations, not stick our fingers in the dyke and hope that it will just go away.
Some may doubt that all of this is happening, and many may want to put their heads in the sand. But, as with Pascal’s Wager, it would be foolish to not at least make provision, just in case.
Come join us and make your own adventure (to quote Pia Waugh).
Come and be brave!
Web Science is becoming increasingly important.
As JP Rangaswami writes in one of his recent blog posts
We need to get better at studying the impact of change over time. Proper, longitudinal study, collecting and preserving the right data sets, with the relevant discipline and safeguards in place. That’s why I have been fascinated by and supportive of Web Science.
I sat with JP at our recent Web Science Trust Board retreat in Oxford and we discussed how much of what is happening in modern society – from the death of privacy to Fake News to the rise of AI – had been predicted by Web Science over the last decade but we were too far ahead of the market.
The market is catching up, and catching up quickly!
As we look at the world around us despite the fact that on many levels humans have never had it so good many believe that our systems are in crisis and are broken (see Edelman Trust Barometer 2017). Even global leaders at Davos are searching for solutions to the obvious rise in global discontent.
It appears everyone is talking but what is actually being achieved in making change?
Web Science has been asking these questions for the past decade:
Before I discovered Web Science I was involved with a small group of people who held a number of conferences in Australia focusing on the impact of the Web on society. At that time we too were ahead of the market, we didn’t know about Web Science, nor did we realise how crucial what we were doing really was. We called our conferences Metalounge because we had been inspired by the emerging conversations around the world of data, and we couldn’t think of what else to call them.
But now what we have been talking about is of crucial importance and the time has come to both reboot these conversations and formally launch Web Science in Australia.
Our conference focuses on the Social Machine and we quite deliberately want to create a space where
participants need to be brave, to say the things that they know need to be said, and be prepared to apply intellectual rigour to challenging ideas that might take us to uncomfortable places.
We want get people from all ages and stages, working in academia, government, business, the media and the third sector THINKING + TALKING + FEELING together. We want to address some of the profound issues that are arising as human life becomes progressively entwined with the internet and the Web.
We want to wake the humans up! by exploring:
- LIFE IN THE SOCIAL MACHINE Humans & Technology – what is the future for both?
- AUSTRALIA’S PLACE WITHIN THE DIGITAL WORLD How prepared are we?
- CREATIVE-DISRUPTION The future of organisations?
- THE NEW ECONOMY Digital identity, new economic models and the economic value of humans.
- THE PHILOSOPHY OF TECHNOLOGY What should, and shouldn’t, we allow our machines to do for us?
So, what are we actually doing?
Day One is Human Hack Day
There have been sooooo many “Hackathons” … but how about a Human Hack Day?
Pia Waugh will kick things off by asking us to “choose your own adventure, please!” Based on the work that she has been doing for many years Pia wants to encourage the Humans to make ACTIVE versus PASSIVE choices about the future we are all collectively creating.
Following this we are bringing together people from government, business and social enterprise who have real world problems which need to be solved, and adding researchers and students who are researching the Social Machine and may have some insights and solutions.
Day Two – Building Smart Humans
On our second day we bring together a whole bunch of people who are immersed in their fields, many of whom you may not have heard of because they are so busy DOING that they don’t have time to talk about it!
We will explore:
THE WORLD AND THE WEB
- The World Wide Web – what it is and what it is becoming. What is the future for the web?
- The world with the Web – the Social Machine
- The world without the Web – as the machine to machine conversations increase what is the role for the human? How do we keep humans in the loop?
- In a machine driven world what is the economic value of a human? As both a producer and a consumer?
- The Universal Basic Income and the value of data.
- The Surveillance economy and the future of identity.
THE GOOD LIFE
- If we create a world where our lives are mediated by machines, how and who determines what “good” looks like?
- The ethics and philosophy of the World and the Web
- Are we returning to a pre-Descartesian world?
Building emotional resilience
Plus … there may be topics that we’ve missed and that you would like to add …
Please do so by sending us your ideas via #braveconversations
This conference is evolving as we put it together.
It is not an academic conference. There will be no formal presentations – just lots and lots of conversations where no stone will be left unturned due to political correctness or commercial bias.
We will create a safe and open space for people to think, reflect and perhaps have time to consider their own challenges and what they might do about them.
We want to encourage debate, critical thinking, creative design and social awareness.
We want to push the boundaries in terms of thinking about the World and the Web and our focus is on helping to develop “smart humans” for the digital age.
That is our challenge and we in turn challenge you to come along and help us!