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.
Emergencies fast-forward historical processes. Entire countries serve as guinea-pigs in large-scale social experiments. (Yuval Noah Harari)
For the past few years I have been delivering Digital Skills workshops to interested students at Goodenough College, but the travel restrictions of Covid 2020 means that I’m stuck in Australia and so, like everyone, we’ve had to come up with new solutions and ways to engage.
The flip side is that Covid has brought about ‘the digital moment’ and we are all now participating in probably the largest global experiment as we harness digital media to remain connected, to craft new ways of staying in business, and to keep the wheels of industry turning.
With this in mind Goodenough College Dean Alan McCormack, Alumni Director Hannah du Gray and I decided that it was the perfect time to reach out beyond the current student body to all of our Goodenough community around the world and offer them the opportunity to more consciously think about the digital tools that they work with, and begin to develop some real digital muscle in order to more safely and securely navigate and negotiate our lives online.
Thus was born our Digital Gymnasia, a series of workshops where the emphasis is on education, play, and skill building through conversation and coaching and where we can explore some of the questions and issues which arise in a safe and non-judgemental space.
The Ancient Greek Gymnasia were places for physical activity but also places for intellectual pursuits and philosophical discussion. The word gymnos comes from the Greek unclothed which implies not just nudity but also a vulnerability and a need to exercise in order to attain skills to better prepare for the world around. The Romans continued the idea of the gymnasia with their Baths and we still use the term for both exercise facilities but also schools.
As I thought of what to name the series of digital literacy workshops that have emerged over the past few months the idea of the gymnasia seemed most appropriate. What we need at this time is not something to cure an illness or seek treatment but a space within which to play and test the equipment around us in order to build our confidence, capacity and capability in using it to live better and more fulfilling lives. In short we need to exercise our digital muscles in order to both safely use the equipment and, even better, successfully compete in the digital games that now surround us.
We have become digital in the last few years (especially with our phones) as well as physical beings. There is nothing in physical experience that can fully equip us with what that really means. (Doc Searls)
The tools of the Digital era have been gradually evolving but pre-Covid the legacy and stickyness of Industrial Age thinking has persisted – just consider the World Economic Forum’s idea of a Fourth Industrial Revolution. I would contend that whilst we still live in an ‘industrialised economy’ ever since the birth of the Internet and the Web we have been moving towards a Network Economy.
The Pandemic has provided both the need and the curiosity for many to explore the digital realm in new and unexpected ways. Up until now we have largely been retro-fitting the way we do things in the physical space in to the online environment – insisting on having conferences and events from 9 am t0 6 pm and not taking account of the affordances of the digital medium and how that impacts our emotional and mental needs or reactions. This is still happening but gradually we are becoming more confident and creative and what has surprised and delighted me is how creative people are becoming at working with the online tools – the democratisation of the digital space is enabling and embodying new creative solutions and expressions.
One example of this is Ruby Wax’s Frazzled Café which provides peer support meetings online. Ruby started her in person meetings at Marks and Spencer cafes but Covid has forced them to go online. When I asked her what she will do then some sort of ‘normality’ returns Ruby told me in no uncertain terms that the online Frazzleds will continue because they are so powerful and can reach so many people.
Ruby, and many like her have found the confidence to go online, to a space that they may not have felt comfortable operating in, but bit by bit they are experimenting and developing their digital muscle.
But as with all new exercises and fancy gym equipment it is often best to start off with an instructor, and that is what we are seeking to do with our Digital Gymnasia.
The format of Digital Gymnasia
Our first Digital Gymnasium focuses on the topic Digital 101, a session designed to explore how the socio-technical systems around us have evolved in order to understand where they are now in 2020 and imagine where they might be going. We focus on a brief history of information technologies coupled with some hands on exercises to determine peoples’ levels of digital literacy and awareness.
The second Digital Gymnasium focuses on The Digital Agora where we explore the world of online community spaces and how they are enabling us to remain connected despite the global lockdowns and quarantines. We begin by considering the affordances of digital interaction technologies and what benefits they provide as well as their limitations and consequences.
The third Digital Gymnasium focuses on Your Digital Brand and how we each craft our presence online. This session is built upon the work I have done over the past 2o years (and resulted in my PhD research, see here and here) which at the core considers how our lives online produce our ‘brand’. Our aim here is to really think about how we are perceived by others online.
The fourth and fifth Digital Gymnasia focus on Protecting Yourself Online and provides an overview of tools and techniques to better deal with online safely and security. Our aim is to get people actively engaged with their online security and more fully begin to understand the idea of digital identity.
The sixth Digital Gymnasium focuses on The Politics of Digital Technologies with an overview of how governments around the world are utilising digital surveillance technologies and systems in the name of Public Health. At the core of this is the concept of Trust which is multi-layered and an expression of our cultural norms and expectations. It is also a clear example of the lack of digital literacy and awareness in the Pubic Sphere.
The seventh Digital Gymnasium focuses on Seeing the World through Data – how data drives everything around us and why this is important. Data has been described as the new oil of the digital economy, but there is a lot more to it than that. In order to build digital muscle we need to understand what digital is made up of (think of how we monitor our diet through exercise) and data is the source. This workshop seeks to demystify the idea of data, information and knowledge to more effectively work with it as our digital systems evolve.
Our final Digital Gymnasium focuses on what being Born Digital means – how digital businesses differ from traditional bricks and mortar ones, but also how they are changing and what this means for the future of work, education, health care and many other aspects of our everyday lives.
These workshops are an opportunity for me and my colleague Leanne Fry (with whom much of this material has been developed and who has lived through the digital transformation of the past two decades with me) to reflect on the work we’ve done and to offer what we’ve learned to others in a way that we hope is useful, empowering and entertaining.
We would love you to join us.
If you are interested please just contact me.
In May last year I wrote about how Brave Conversations was increasing its global reach as we ventured to London England, Kingston Jamaica, Melbourne Australia, Boston USA, and a second event in London in 2019. In 2020 we began to extend that reach working in countries where English is not the first language with our first event in Gaza Palestine in partnership with the Gaza Sky Geeks Code Academy and then in Bangalore India in partnership with the Web Science Lab at IIIT Bangalore.
From there our plan was to go to Haifa Israel in June 2020 for an event in partnership with Kav Mashve’s Coding Bootcamp before returning to work with GSG in Gaza. Then it was back to the UK for the annual Web Science Conference hosted by the Web Science Institute at the University of Southampton.
But, as with everything during the AnthroPause, Covid19 stepped in and the world for all of us has changed.
There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen. (Vladimir Ilyich Lenin)
Up until now our events have largely been held in the real world because we felt that this was where most people lived their everyday lives and felt most comfortable. We have always wanted our focus to be on the human-to-human interactions unmediated by screens, time lags, internet outages or clumsy buttons understanding that as humans we predominantly live in the physical world impacted by socio-cultural and political environments.
This has meant that when we were in Boston President Trump had just issued his first Veto striking down a Senate resolution to end his national emergency declaration to build a border wall; in London 2019 we were embedded by the vicissitudes of BrExit; in Gaza 2020 we were influenced by Trump’s Deal of the Century and Israel’s impending Annexation of the West Bank and Jordan Valley; and in Bangalore 2020 we were acutely aware of the emotional impact of the Mohdi Government’s Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 and recent internet shutdown in August 2019.
In each case we examined the Social Machine from the relative safety of the physical space of being in a room where the affordances of that space enabled us to do what we humans have always done, fully participate in face to face group conversations harnessing the skills we have evolved over the millennia.
Now has come the digital moment and with it the opportunity to take Brave Conversations Southampton fully online delivered via the InterWeb.
We have become digital … as well as physical beings. There is nothing in physical experience that can fully equip us with what that really means. (Doc Searls at WebSci20)
I have always felt that when working with groups it is best to be out in front leading whilst simultaneously coaxing and shepherding those who need to move at a slower pace, and this has been one of the strengths of Brave Conversations where groups of people can learn together through sharing knowledge, experiences and ideas. But it is fair to say that we have only just scratched the surface of fully embracing what it means to be digital because of that relative safety.
The focus of the 2020 Web Science Conference was Making the Web Human Centric asking the question can the Web be reimagined for the public good? When we think about it the Internet, the World Wide Web and the complementary technologies around them have been with us since the mid 20th Century but our mindset has still been largely industrial as evidenced by the World Economic Forum’s focus on the Fourth Industrial Revolution. I have long maintained that we have been moving in to something new, something that we have not had the words to describe and which we are now beginning to fully embrace. Time and history will give a name to this phase in human history but the reality is that we are living in a liminal space, a threshold of humanity’s next phase mediated by data and information as a currency in itself, measurable, tradable and overtly linked to power and control.
So Brave Conversations Southampton 2020 Online brought together the focus of a human centric Web with the opportunity to include people from all around the planet who had attended previous events, thus making it our first truly global event. We determined that there were two key themes which we felt impacted every one of us, regardless of where we sat, what time of the day it was or how much we knew about Web Science.
The first was our relationship with the platforms that now mediate our everyday interactions, in particular the online meeting spaces such as Zoom, and this generated some interesting reactions. It is worth noting that had this pandemic struck a mere decade ago Zoom didn’t exist, and our digital infrastructure may not have as easily accommodated the sudden move to home working, schooling, online yoga classes and digital Bingo! As time goes on and the novelty of living life online wears off we are beginning to appreciate the benefits but also the limitations of these media and hopefully what needs to be improved both in the technologies themselves and how we use them.
The second issue we considered was that of the relationship between citizens and their governments, and in particular how people felt about the use of Covid Apps and the data being collected in the name of public health safety and security. We analysed a Case Study based around the notion of Antibodies as a Currency (linking to the idea of Immunity Passports) which we hoped would engender some thoughtful discussions. What became blindingly obvious was that whilst a Case like this six months ago may have generated some controversial opinions, in the Covid space now things like this are already in place and rapidly being deployed by many governments around the World, more quickly than we can figure out what to do with them. Few have proven to be particularly effective but that doesn’t mean that the experiments aren’t happening.
Emergencies … fast-forward historical processes … Entire countries serve as guinea-pigs in large-scale social experiments. (Yuval Noah Harari)
What was so interesting to observe during this first online event was how for most people their main curiosity was about how others had been experiencing the Pandemic, how they had coped and were making sense of what is going on. This generated some rich conversations which sadly we were unable to fully explore due to the shortness of time and the limitations of Zoom. However they have now inspired us to think about how to better provide the space at future events.
It has also inspired us to open up our minds to explore how we can better harness the potential of this digital moment and create innovative experiences which reach people in new and different ways. The first of these are our Digital Gymnasia (see next post) and the second is our first dual-language Brave Conversations which will be held in English and Arabic in August for young Arab speakers around the world.
These are exciting times and ones where the world is being reinvented in every way. We cannot go back and a new normal will emerge, one that I am confident will bring us forward on our journey of progress to a better world.
Catastrophes bring out the best in people. I know of now other sociological finding that’s backed by solid evidence that’s so blithely ignored. (Rutger Bregman, Human Kind)
In July last year, before we had Intersticia UK properly set up, I wrote this post.
We are about to take Brave Conversations to the next level with events in Melbourne, Boston and London.
If we know that alternative futures are possible then we can start thinking about better ones. (Cory Doctorow, What should we do about democracy?)
In my last post I referred to Psychohistory, Isaac Azimov’s fictional science which combines history, sociology and the mathematical statistics to make general predictions about the future behaviour of very large groups of people – in other words to explore alternative future.
It has been said that the World Wide Web is a portent of precisely such a thing which is why those who invented it created the interdisciplinary field of Web Science.
“Research tries to anticipate time. If you’re reading the Economist it’s interesting facts.” (Luciano Floridi)
Since its public release in to human society the Web has evolved from being a small academically orientated Read Only (push information out) information community to a global publishing Read-Write infrastructure upon which almost 50% of humans interact with each other facilitated by the largest companies of the modern era.
The Web is changing the World, and the World is changing the Web
(see 10th anniversary video).
Not only do we communicate via the Web but increasingly it is becoming an environment where we actually live (Luciano Floridi) and as with all social ecosystems our ability to co-habit as a bunch of evolved apes is dependent on the rules and norms which govern how we act and treat each other.
“Civilization is but a thin veneer stretched across the passions of the human heart. And civilization doesn’t just happen; we have to make it happen.” (Bill Moyers)
In previous eras the relative rates of technical and societal change have been roughly equivalent. In the digital age this is not the case, which is why we created Brave Conversations in 2017.
Brave Conversations is the first non-academic but publicly focused Web Science event to provide people from all walks of life – industry, government, academia, and the community sectors – with the opportunity to sit back, reflect and respectfully explore the socio-technical issues beginning to arise as a result of digital information technologies. It carries on from MetaLounge, our first attempts from 2008 – 2011 to create these types of event, and has now had four iterations around the world; 2017 in Canberra; Dubai as part of the 2018 World Government Summit; London 2018 in partnership with SoapBox Islington, and Kingston, Jamaica in July 2018 hosted by the Jamaican Broadcasting Commission.
At each event I have been humbled and privileged to help facilitate and encourage people to be truly brave in addressing issues which have been both confronting and uncomfortable, but most importantly to feel that at the end of each session they have left slightly more educate and enabled, but most of all empowered, to more proactively navigate and negotiate their digital lives.
Throughout we have continually been asked “what is a ‘brave’ conversation“?
As we were designing the programme it struck us that the most valuable thing we could contribute to the global dialogue would be to intentionally confront people with ideas, concepts and suggestions that they may intuitively be aware of but were unable to explore, understand or articulate in a public space.
Our Canberra event taught us the importance of actively listening to, and integrating the voice of young people. It also demonstrated the benefit of having a diversity of voices in the room, sometimes creating discomfort and tension when language was a barrier, by which I mean those comfortable with technical language and those not. This is why we chose to partner with SoapBox Islington and a huge thanks to James Dellow, Nick Crivello and all the team there for their wonderful hospitality and terrific group of young people who joined us. Thank you also to Tris Lumley, Lydia Hascott and Jo Wolfe for their incredible support and amazing organisational skills in supporting Leanne Fry, Bel Campbell and me throughout.
Brave Conversations London in partnership with SoapBox Islington
“Technology challenges us to assert our human values which means that first of all we have to know what they are.” (Sherry Turkle)
As we were framing Brave Conversations London we reflected on the 2018 Data breach scandals and the calls for ethics to be more proactively integrated in to the development of digital technologies. But which ‘ethics’? Ethics, from my understanding, is relative and is based on how you see the world, what matters and how things fit together. As we explored this we determined that what was more important was to help people focus on and articulate their values as a foundation piece in order to have brave conversations, particularly as the group was quite diverse having a good mix of sexes, around a third under the age of 35, together with a number in their 70s, and one family of three generations.
In understanding the difference I found this to be a very useful overview:
- Values are the basic beliefs that an individual thinks to be true. Every individual has a set of values through which he looks at all things and also at the world.
- Ethics are guidelines or rules that are set for a society or an organization rather than for an individual.
- Values can be said to be the guiding principles in one’s life. ‘Value’ can be defined as a bridge by which an individual makes a decision regarding good and bad, right or wrong, and most important or less important.
- Ethics can be defined as set of rules formulated by a country or a company or some institutions. Ethics is mainly based on the moral values.
We crafted our values framework based on both an interpretation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs combined with Moore and Khagran’s Strategic Triangle for Creating Public Value. Not only did we frame our questions around the questions of ‘what Can we do‘ (logos, the technology) and ‘what Should we do‘ (ethos, culture) but we also highlighted the need to ask ‘what May we do‘ (pathos, authority).
In addition we created a very simple, but quite informative, algorithm to poll the group about their feelings towards technology asking four questions to elicit their confidence that five potential technology innovations would improve their lives.
This graphic shows the results - a score of -0.18, in other words they were not confident at all.
Whilst the exercise was both crude and we did not have a lot of time to explain it in detail, it was indicative in terms of the general feeling in the room over the two days and the flavour of the discussions that were held.
What we learned in London then informed how we framed the conversations for Jamaica.
“We need to ensure that future citizens have the human capacity to operate in the digital world.” (Dr Andrew Wheatley, MP, Jamaica)
I met Cordel Green at the Harvard Kennedy School and our mutual interest in digital literacy and the need to empower people in the digital world resulted in his very kind invitation to travel to Kingston to hold Brave Conversations.
Not only was I welcomed with open arms but I was almost overwhelmed by the hospitality I was given and a huge thanks to Cordel, Karlene Salmon, Don Dobson and all at Broadcom for giving me such a privileged insight in to Jamaica. Thank you also to Kemal Brown and his wonderful team who recorded it all.
Broadcom is the communications regulator in Jamaica, but not only is it doing that it is taking the lead in educating the Jamaican community about the world of information and both their rights and responsibilities in it. We kicked off with an interview on Smile Jamaica, the opening of the Jamaican Teachers’ Federation Conference, and a radio interview, all of which gave me some initial insights in to this wonderful country.
Many of the conversations I heard in Jamaica were similar to those I hear elsewhere, but with their own unique twist. Jamaica’s history, geography, climate and demographics have created an island paradise from which individuals have always shone on the world stage and of course writers such as Ian Fleming have been at their creative best.
Jamaica’s most pressing challenge is its crime rate. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2017-2018 the most problematic factors for doing business in the country are Crime and Theft, Taxes and Corruption. But this links to so many other factors, and what resonated deeply for me was the determination to help young people develop the resources and resilience through both education and opportunity to help change this and determine a different future. This was coupled by the high level of religious affiliation which was proudly displayed and acknowledged.
When I was crafting Brave Conversations Jamaica I wondered what impact this would have particularly as one of the key thinkers we reference is Yuval Noah Harari, whose Homo Deus and interviews directly challenge traditional religions comparing them to the “playing of virtual reality games in order to give humans meaning and purpose”.
It proved to be a core part of the conversations, and an opportunity to push both boundaries and ideas.
Fear and love
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” (Nelson Mandela)
We chose the word brave because any discussion around technology forces us as human beings to confront our deepest beliefs, aspirations and above all fears – how we see and make sense of the world and above all the things we are afraid of losing – from the basics of safety and security, to the intimacy of love.
At each of our Brave Conversations a mini-community evolved within which there was a degree of discomfort, people did have to explore and listen to different, and often challenging, viewpoints, but there began to emanate both a sense of trust and the preparedness to be brave.
“The real existential risk is a loss of the ability to make sense of the world around us: what is worth doing, and what the likely effects of things will be.” (Daniel Schmachtenberger)
Having now run Brave Conversations in numerous countries, and with other invitations in the pipeline, we are keen to do whatever we can to help people better understand and appreciate the new digital space within which they are living.
What I have learned is that if we can provide the framework, the information and safe space for people to take a risk, present themselves as truly curious and smart humans, they will be brave and they willingly embrace the opportunity.
The real question of course is that armed with the insights of research, coupled with the power and communication afforded by our technologies, and with Humanity’s future at stake, can we afford not to be brave?
(Quote from David Brin)
On 1st March Ariana Huffington posted an article entitled “The Great Awakening” which stated that
For most of the internet’s young life, the assumption of virtue was built in — it was largely taken for granted that the increased access to data and information, and the increased connection to everything and everybody could only be positive. … And in the political sphere, social media was unquestioned as a force for democracy. … But that idea — that more sophisticated technology necessarily means more social progress — came crashing down in 2017. … The realization wasn’t as abrupt of a wake-up call as it was in the political conversation, but the cultural shift is unmistakable. The reality of what our technology is doing to us was so inescapable that acknowledging it became a virtual requirement for tech executives wanting to be taken seriously.
Finally, humanity is beginning to wake up to Kranzberg’s First Law that
Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.
Human bias, goals, objectives and values are built in to everything that we invent, create and utilise, and no technology has unforeseeable social consequences.
Nowhere has this been better demonstrated than in the current Facebook and Cambridge Analytica saga which has been gradually unf0lding over a number of years.
Whilst there is currently a deluge of media about the issue of data and privacy, the truth is that this has been the inevitable outcome of many of the digital platforms upon which so much of the 21st Century commercial system relies, and, from a Web Science perspective, what we have predicted from the get go.
For anyone who has read their Azimov the Web is as close to Hari Seldon’s Psychohistory as we have currently got, but this is only just the beginning.
The Web is changing the World, and the World is changing the Web
Many are writing and observing this, but my key interest is what does this mean for those who lead in the 21st Century? And not just companies but governments, social enterprise, and the philanthropic sector.
The current situation for Facebook – and I would suggest many companies who have harnessed and exploited the data supplied by naive users – has largely been facilitated and enabled by the fact that those in leadership positions are very poor leaders.
Good leaders admit mistakes, apologize quickly, show up where they’re needed and show their belief in the company by keeping skin in the game.
As anyone who has heard my rants over the past decade know I have always hated Facebook and the only reason I ever created an account was to ‘lurk’ on my children, which has proven to be useful as a teaching tool for us all. I have never posted, I have never followed and I have studiously avoided maintaining any correspondence on it, or other platforms such as LinkedIn, where, like Twitter, I maintain a professional and public profile.
Each and every business has a fundamental business model which emanates from the values of its founders.
As the Economist succinctly puts it
Facebook’s business relies on three elements: keeping users glued to their screens, collecting data about their behaviour and convincing advertisers to pay billions of dollars to reach them with targeted ads. The firm has an incentive to promote material that grabs attention and to sell ads to anyone. Its culture melds a ruthless pursuit of profit with a Panglossian and narcissistic belief in its own virtue. Mr Zuckerberg controls the firm’s voting rights. … The episode fits an established pattern of sloppiness towards privacy, tolerance of inaccuracy and reluctance to admit mistakes.
A key part of any leader’s role is in building trust and if Facebook is to survive this is what must be done, but this is just one instance of the crisis that is gradually engulfing all digital media companies who deal in data.
These companies are in many ways industrial age dinosaurs operating in a digitally mediated ecosystem. They seek to create monopolies and some believe that they should be treated as public utilities and regulated in a similar way. Certainly the European Union is upping the ante with this.
The challenge for everyone who relies on these platforms in the wake of data breaches etc is that merely shutting down your Facebook account won’t help – they own Instagram and WhatsApp, they are insideous in how they are now woven in to many business systems.
What I have understood from the outset is that these companies’ business models are based on treating their users as commodities, to be harvested, cajoled, taunted, and fed like cattle in a feedlot. Their role is purely and simply to feed the Social Machine with little regard for the longer term effects of social ramifications.
Their values are all about what benefits Facebook, not about the people who use their services. As a result the technological environment which has been created is so powerful that people are actually addicted to it, and people are going to find it hard to both do business and conduct their social lives until they find a suitable alternative and one that all of their friends are also using.
What people have done is less about just buying Facebook services, they have actually invested in Facebook through the data and trust they have put in it as a way to keep up with friends, family and or B2C, customers.
So, if we think about this from an investment point of view the relationship between the leadership and the investors is a useful lens with which to view how we treat them.
Some of the key questions for anyone using these platforms to ask themselves include
- What is the business model of the platform? What are they getting from me and what do they want me to do?
- If I see myself as a prosumer – both a consumer and a producer – then what sort of relationship do I want with them?
- If I look at other investments I have – both online and offline – how does this compare in terms of Return on Investment?
We cannot expect these companies to behave in any other way than they have because it is how they were created, but there are those out there that do have a Moral Compass and we should seek them out and then support them through our investments of data, trust and time. The only problem then is that they succumb to greed and are hoovered up by the big guys … but again this comes down to the values of the founders and Board.
I was once advised that when it comes to investing in any organisation one should look at those in leadership positions – the senior management, the Board or Trustees – and what sort of people they are – their histories, what values they espouse, and what they stand for.
This is where leadership comes in, and in my next post I am going to explore my current thinking about leading in the 21st Century and some of the ideas which we are now exploring through Intersticia.
A version of this was written for NPC’s “State of the Sector” report.
What do we mean by “digital”?
In his book The Code Economy  Philip E. Auerswald talks about the long history of humans developing code as a mechanism by which to create and regulate activities and markets. We have Codes of Practice, Ethical Codes, Building Codes, and Legal Codes, just to name a few. Each and every one of these is based on the data of human behaviour, and that data can now be collected, analysed, harvested and repurposed as never before through the application of intelligent machines which operate and are instructed by algorithms . Anything that can be articulated as an algorithm – a self-contained sequence of actions to be performed – is now fertile ground for machine analysis, and increasingly machine activity.
So, what does this mean for us humans, who, are ourselves a conglomeration of DNA code ?
I have spent many years thinking about this. Not that long ago my friends and family tolerated my speculations with good humour, but a fair degree of skepticism. Now I run workshops for Boards and even my children are listening far more intently as people sense that the invasion of the Social Machine  is changing our relationship with such things as privacy  as well as with both ourselves and each other .
The Social Machine is the name given to the systems we have created which blur the lines between computational processes and human input, of which the World Wide Web is the largest and best known example. These smart machines  are increasingly pervading almost every aspect of human existence  and, in many ways, gettting to know us better than we know ourselves . So who stands up for us humans and determines how society will harness and utilise the power of information technologies whilst ensuring that the human remains both relevant and important?
Thus far this has mainly been either those in academia, such as the Web Science  community who observe and seek to understand what is going on, or those in the commercial sector, who are driving the technological development . Those who are charged with setting policy boundaries and enforcing regulation (our governments) are like rabbits in the headlights struggling to keep up .
I believe that there is a space in between which presents both the greatest need to promote the cause of humanity, and the greatest opportunity to challenge and call to account the current onslaught of technological progress and demand that it serves humanity rather than undermine it.
Philanthropy’s time has come!
Philanthropy can be defined as love of humanity (philanthropos tropos) expressed as the caring, nourishing, developing and enhancing of what it is to be human.
I have written  about Socrates’ concept of philanthropy and his desire to promote the welfare of others by wandering around talking to people, examining them as he examined himself. His goal was to help individual men and women understand themselves in order to live better lives and better serve their communities . The more I have reflected on this the more I realise that the concept of philanthropy needs to be at the centre of everything if humanity is to both survive and thrive in the digitally driven world. Other players are seeking to speed things up, to rush towards a future that no one can predict , let alone understand , particularly as they are now creating machines that are capable of building themselves . These technologies will be of enormous benefit to humanity if they are harnessed and utilised for good but someone has to stand up and demand that this is at the forefront of all technological design and creation, not an inconvenient afterthought.
In April of this year a group of people from all walks of life came together in Canberra, Australia, to have some Brave Conversations  around precisely these topics. Australian economist Nicholas Gruen presented his thoughts about what he sees as the disconnect between the arteries and capillaries  of government as a reflection of the more pervasive inequality within society. In essence what he highlighted was the inability of many of our existing systems to address the differing needs of human culture at different scales because the arteries (those dealing with policy) neither leverage nor understand what happens in the capillaries (service delivery at the coal face). As I listened to Nicholas I realised that this is precisely the space which those who have championed social change outside of the established systems of both business and government resulting in many of the great social reforms, have occupied. It is what philanthropy is all about.
Following last year’s Philanthropy Australia conference  I challenged the sector  to take the lead in occupying this middle ground. Instead of reacting to the social problems created by ecological strain and economic stratification (the two factors which have throughout history led to the collapse of all civilisations ) to stand up for the humans and proactively start to shape the value system which will determine how both government and business operates both now, and as the digital world evolves.
There are two ways that the sector can do this.
Firstly, by focusing on educating ourselves, and those with whom we work, about science and technology and the social impacts which are already emerging.
Secondly, by being ingenious about how we leverage our space in the interstice between the arteries and capillaries in order to create a legitimate, important and powerful role in championing the humans we serve.
Education as the hidden connections (Vaclav Havel)
The best place to start understanding the digital world is to begin to see the world, and all that it comprises, through the lens of data and information, now being rendered as a form of digital currency . This links back to the earlier idea of Codes. Our activities, up until recently, were tacit and experiential, but now they are becoming increasingly explicit and quantified . Where we go, whom we meet, what we say, what we do is all being registered, monitored and measured as long as we are connected to the digital infrastructure . A new currency is emerging which is based on the world’s most valuable resource, data , and it is this currency that connects the arteries and capillaries, and reaches across all disciplines and fields of expertise. The kind of education that is required now is to be able to make connections  and to see the opportunities in the interstice.
The dominant players in this space thus far have been the large corporations and governments who have harnessed and exploited digital currencies for their own benefit, which Shoshana Zuboff describes as the Surveillance Economy . But this data actually belongs to each and every human who generates it. As people begin to wake up to this we are gradually realising that this is what fuels the social currency  of entrepreneurship, leadership and innovation, and provides the legitimacy upon which trust is based . Trust is an outcome of experiences and interactions, but governments and corporations have transactionalised their interactions with citizens and consumer through exploiting data and as a consequence have eroded the esteem with which they are held . The more they try to garner greater insights through data and surveillance, the more they alienate the people they seek to reach .
If we are smart, as philanthropists, what we need to do is to understand the fundamentals of data as a currency and integrate this in to each and every interaction we have in order to create relationships with people which are based on the authenticity of purpose, supported by the data of proof. Yes, there have been some instances where the sector has not done as well as it could and betrayed that trust  but this only serves as a lesson as to how fragile the world of trust and legitimacy are, and how crucial it is that we define all that we do in terms of social outcomes and impact, however that is defined .
In his books Sapiens  and Homo Deus  Yuval Noah Harari describes the symbiotic relationship between humans and technology framed around the economic value of humans to society throughout history. His argument is that this has evolved from humans as hunter-gatherers, to farmers, soldiers, and, from the mid Twentieth Century, as consumers. Our role is currently to gobble up the fruits of industrialisation, pay our taxes and go from cradle to grave as cogs in the wheels of industry.
This is what the Luddites saw coming when they smashed the looms in the early 1800s . Without necessarily seeing the world which would evolve they sensed the degradation of human-kind and they fought for social equality and fairness in the distribution of the benefits of science and technology to all. Their struggle is instructive  because they were amongst the first to experience technological displacement. Much of the current dialogue around the future of work and a Universal Basic Income  rests on these same issues because we are beginning to link wealth to meaning, rather than just productivity and ownership . Notions of good work  are becoming important, as is the need to harness and leverage human creativity.
The power of ingenuity
Everyone these days wants to innovate and we have Innovation Labs popping up everywhere. My own personal opinion is that the real ideas don’t come from bean bags and refrigerators full of beer and mineral water, they come from the combination of necessity and invention, from ingenuity.
Ingenuity is about being clever, original, and inventive , and applying ideas to solve problems and meet challenges. Above all ingenuity includes a sense of imagination and play.
One of the ways we can become more ingenious is by imagining how the world around us could be, and nowhere is there more inspiration than in the world of Science Fiction.
Science fiction predicts the present, and inspires the future (Cory Doctorow)
Most of those who have invented the technologies around us have always been avid readers of Science fiction and we now live in a world that its writers have been dreaming up for centuries . The technologies upon which we so increasingly rely have been sitting in the labs for decades, but what has happened is that they have coalesced and been let loose in the wilds of human society. It is not the technologies that determine what happens next, it is the humans, and, as far as Science Fiction is concerned I believe that we are approaching an event horizon , a point from which we can no longer see what lies beyond because we are reaching the limits of what we can imagine. This is what is being described as the Posthuman world . Most people are flat out getting their heads around Transhumanism , let alone Posthumanism but things are changing very quickly.
As Futurist Gerd Leonhard says 
Never in human history has the present been so temporary.
Whatever the future holds for us is being determined right now, and this means that we need to ensure that we learn as much from the past as we can while we still remember it. Alexander Rose, Executive Director of the Long Now Foundation , believes that preserving the elements of what we value today is crucial in order to provide future generations with as many options and choices as possible .
A time for brave leadership
With all of this in mind the fundamental question facing each of us is what role do we want to play, and how do we steer our organisations through the disruptive times ahead, which people like Alibaba Founder Jack Ma believe are going to be very difficult .
I believe that the greatest contribution we can make is to focus firmly on the people who are the ultimate beneficiaries and become true Servant Leaders . Those who are prepared to step up and lead the brave conversations that need to occur.
This requires taking a long hard look at how we run our lives, and ensuring that we take the time to step back and recalibrate, to focus on continuous, challenging and adaptive learning, and harness our imagination to become more ingenious.
As leaders we can not leave this to other people, it is the role that each and every one of us must take on ourselves, regardless of age, stage or position. Beyond any need for skills and capabilities what we need most is to put our humanity first and take on the philanthropic mantle.
Postscript – New Philanthropy Capital’s State of the Sector report  has highlighted that in terms of digital and data:
There is a limited understanding among charities of what digital and data can achieve. This is matched with an overconfidence about how advanced charities are in their use of digital. In a number of cases the more confident a leader was that their organisation was making the most of digital, the less well they seemed to understand the nature of digital and its benefits.
 Philip E. Auerswald The Code Economy – http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/26720923-the-code-economy
 Key decisions around Human DNA editing – https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/human-genome-editing-who-gets-to-decide/
 Some thoughts around Privacy on the Web – http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Passcode/2015/0216/Web-privacy-is-the-newest-luxury-item-in-era-of-pervasive-tracking)
 For a good over see Shoshana Zuboff’s Age of the Smart Machine – http://www.shoshanazuboff.com/new/books/in-the-age-of-the-smart-machine/
 See Web Science Trust www.webscience.org
 See http://www.afr.com/technology/silicon-valley-has-too-much-power-20170515-gw4w58?eid=Email:nnn-16OMN00050-ret_newsl-membereng:nnn-06%2F09%2F2016-MarketWrap5PM-dom-business-nnn-afr-u&et_cid=29077909&et_rid=1925792216&Channel=Email&EmailTypeCode=&LinkName=http%3a%2f%2fwww.afr.com%2ftechnology%2fsilicon-valley-has-too-much-power-20170515-gw4w58%3feid%3dEmail%3annn-16OMN00050-ret_newsl-membereng%3annn-06%252F09%252F2016-MarketWrap5PM-dom-business-nnn-afr-u&Email_name=MW5-05-15&Day_Sent=15052017 and https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2017/04/25/the-information-landscape-how-do-we-tackle-the-problems-caused-by-silicon-valley/?informz=1
 Companies and governments need to get on board with data – Australian Financial Review 21st May, 2017
 Is Philanthropy Future Ready? http://www.philanthropy.org.au/conference/2016/intro/
 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921800914000615 and
 James Gleick wrote about this in The Information, https://www.theinformation.com/
 http://www.economist.com/node/21548493/ and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantified_Self
 One example is how Google is tracking not just advertising but shopping behaviours https://phys.org/news/2017-05-google-aims-online-ads-real-world.html
 http://www.shoshanazuboff.com/new/recent-publications-and-interviews/ and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0QwPHinDdOc
 I am indebted to Dr Simon Longstaff (http://www.ethics.org.au/about/our-people) for the articulation of the relationship between trust and legitimacy. I also explored this in my PhD research, more of which you can find out about at http://intersticia.org/evolution-of-the-digital-brand/)
 See Edelman Trust 2017 http://www.edelman.com/trust2017/
 See UK Report https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/532104/Public_trust_and_confidence_in_charities_2016.pdf)
 Anthony Painter, In Support of a Universal Basic Income, The RSA – https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/rsa-blogs/2015/12/in-support-of-a-universal-basic-income–introducing-the-rsa-basic-income-model
 Jeremy Rifkin, A World Beyond Markets, The RSA – https://www.thersa.org/events/2014/04/a-world-beyond-markets
 Matthew Taylor, “Why we need to talk about Good Work”, The RSA. – https://medium.com/@thersa/why-we-need-to-talk-about-good-work-728d7d82877c
 Interview at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08nqc4j