There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen. (Vladimir Ilyich Lenin)
“May you live in interesting times” is an English expression that is claimed to be a translation of a traditional Chinese curse
2020 has certainly been interesting.
As we have all been hunkered down in our respective homes around the world locked up in various level of Covid tier we have connected as never before, created new ways of supporting our Fellows and others with whom we work, and truly begun to embrace the world of digital media that has been at the core of our beliefs about what is needed for 21st Century Leadership.
Intersticia exists to develop and promote digital fluency and develop smarter humans in terms of how we proactively create, manage, harness and utilise digital technologies.
We do this primarily through the following activities:
- We identify, support, nurture and encourage individuals through our Scholarships and Fellowships
- We work with like-minded partner organisations to support entrepreneurship and innovation
- We hold public events with a specific aim of promoting conversations and building skills in digital literacy and leadership
In the 2019 – 2020 year we built on the foundations that were laid in our first couple of years of existence and, powered by the opportunities afforded by the Pandemic, we have been busier than ever. At the end of 2019 I felt that we were completing the work of our first Horizon, developing our Fellowship; clarifying who we are, what we do and how we do it, and creating our partnerships.
As we embark upon 2021 our second Horizon is becoming clearer.
Identify, support, nurture and encourage individuals through our Scholarships and Fellowships
From the outset Intersticia has sought to identify and support emerging leaders who are a little different, are prepared to take risks, are generous of spirit and have a deeply ingrained need to make the world a better place. I am often asked how we find our Fellows and those we choose to support.
The first filter is through our values which are those of authenticity, integrity, persistence, courage and grace. We look for these in how people approach us, how they present themselves, how they interact with the world and the sorts of things they value in life. These are what drive those of our current Fellowship and manifest in how they demonstrate their individual leadership.
The second is our belief that Intersticia is a community. We are not a leadership development or training organisation, nor are we a Charity that ‘sets and forgets’. Our intention is to recruit and embrace individuals who will contribute to and expand the work that we do both individually and collectively, and as a group collaborate to bring about positive change.
The third is the filter of need. There are many who apply for our support who come with worthy ideas that many other organisations will see merit in, and we often encourage them to find those organisations. As a small organisation our interest is in those people who often fall through the cracks, who often straddle multiple disciplines and who don’t fit neatly in to one category or another. These people provide the hidden connections which we see of great value.
We now have 21 people we have supported through Scholarships and Bursaries and of these 19 have been made Fellows (see https://intersticia.org/fellows/).
However, bringing people in to our Fellowship is just the beginning, and one thing that our work thus far has demonstrated is that it is not broadening our reach which is important, but deepening our connection and strengthening our impact. Of those we support some choose to continue being a part of, and contributing to, our community, others choose not to, which is their choice.
For those who stay with us there are four main areas that we have begun to focus on:
- helping our Fellows develop their own Authenticity as emerging 21st Century Leaders
- creating our Fellowship as a Community that shares experiences and learning
- supporting our Fellows to find their Voice in the stories they tell and work that they do
- harvesting these factors to build a collective Resilience in their work and individual lives
This year we have not been able to come together as a group physically but we held our 2020 Retreat online and appended this with Small Group sessions which continue in to 2021.
We have embarked upon a series of Intersticia Brave Conversations interviews with each of our Fellows produced online and available throughout the community. As a complement to this we have begun working with our Fellow Jess Chambers in her professional capacity as a Voice Coach to give all within our community additional skills in how they present themselves publicly.
Finally we have expanded our group of Advisors with the contribution of key individuals who are willing to help and support our Fellowship group. These people have been incredibly generous with their time, energy and enthusiasm – without them we couldn’t do all that we do.
Work with like-minded partner organisations to support entrepreneurship and innovation
We also could not do the work that we do without leveraging the partnerships that we have, in particular Goodenough College, the Web Science Trust, Founders and Coders (FAC) and Gaza Sky Geeks (GSG). It is through these organisations that we have been able to find new opportunities and innovative projects.
Our support of the Founders Programme began our formal partnership with both FAC and GSG and has resulted in three cohorts of Founders from both London and Palestine, and our first cohort of Founders (Joe Friel, Simon Dupree and Ramy Shufara) has created the first spin out in Yalla, “a Web Design and Development agency which helps non-profits and impact-driven businesses drive positive social change in the tech sphere”.
In 2021 we aim to take this to the next level through the development of a pilot Apprenticeship Programme with Yalla employing two Gaza Code Academy Graduates.
Hold public events with a specific aim of promoting conversations and building skills in digital literacy and leadership
From the outset Intersticia has sought to operate within the interstice between society, culture and technology, the space of the Social Machine.
Our flagship activity is our Brave Conversations events which seek to educate the general public about the Social Machine and act as an Outreach activity for academic research of Web Science. We have now held events around the world, and, with the opportunity afforded by Covid in 2020, online.
Our plan for 2021 is to build on these foundations to further expand the footprint encouraging a greater partnership with the Web Science Trust and its network of Web Science Labs, beginning with our second event hosted by IIIT Bangalore in February 2021. We will also be an integral part of the 2021 Web Science Conference to be held online in June 2021 and intend to integrate content from the Web Science Untangling the Web podcasts in to our activities.
All of our events are listed below and on the Brave Conversations website.
2020 Brave Conversations Kav Mashve
2020 Brave Conversations Arabic/English
2020 Brave Conversations Southampton Online
2020 Brave Conversations Gaza
2020 Brave Conversations Bangalore
2019 Brave Conversations London
2019 Brave Conversations Boston
2019 Brave Conversations Melbourne
2018 Brave Conversations Kingston
2018 Brave Conversations London
2018 Brave Conversations at the World Government Summit Dubai
2017 Brave Conversations Canberra
Digital Gymnasia Series
In a ‘normal’ year we would usually hold a series of workshops at Goodenough College to promote digital literacy and digital skills to current students of the College. Given the restrictions on travel we have instead now developed our Digital Gymnasia Series which has been delivered throughout 2020 to students and Alumni of the College around the world. In 2020 we developed and delivered eight workshops which attracted between 20 – 30 attendees each time. In 2021 we will be delivering an additional four Gymnasia to the Goodenough community in 2021 on the topics of Building Digital Brands, Demystifying AI, Facilitating Online and Digital Governance. All of these are now being recorded to be made available online to the general public, especially the Boards of Charities and Not-for Profit organisations.
2020 has taught us the value of our networks and connections, whether they be IRL (in real life) or via the virtual medium. What I have found is that whilst I have been ‘grounded’ in my physical space here up on Pittwater and have connected more frequently with my local neighbours and community, I have been much more active with a broader range of people around the World and my Global community. I have spoken to my family and friends more often, I have held more meetings and I have been more productive than I have ever been. Through this I believe we have been given the opportunity to deepen our relationships this year, particularly with our Fellows and Advisors, who have all brought their personal experiences and challenges of negotiating and navigating through 2020 and shared without hesitation.
We have been given the opportunity to slow down and consolidate rather than madly race around looking for new adventures and shiny new distractions, and for that I am extremely grateful.
So what comes next? We have talked about our planned 2021 Retreat in Devon and following that we plan to take our Fellows to walk through the Sinai Desert led by our Advisor Louise Sibley. These face to face activities where we don’t have to rely on words but can commune as a group of humans physically together are now more important than ever. As are our ongoing Brave Conversations events where we ask our Fellows to share their thoughts about the work they are doing and perhaps the theme for 2021 may be “Brave Conversations Unplugging” as the World gradually unfreezes from it’s Pandemic state (thanks to Sam Crock for that idea).
More on that to come!
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.
Fortune favours the prepared mind. (Louis Pasteur)
They say it also favours the brave.
I have never been what I consider a risk-taker, nor considered myself particularly brave. But I do know that when my spider-sense tells me something I should listen.
This is what has guided me in all that I do, and was no less present in the early conversations that I had when we were planning Brave Conversations.
What is it to be brave? I think it is different for each and every one of us, and from the outset when Simon Longstaff and I discussed doing this event together, our objective was: to take some risks, to set few boundaries (other than those which engender trust and respect), and to encourage as much debate and discussion as we could. There were many prepared minds in the room before we even began, but there were equally a good number who were eager to learn, who were ready to listen, and who came away a good deal more prepared than they were when they arrived.
Bravery as often defined involves two key elements – fear and courage. I feel that both were demonstrated and exhibited at Brave Conversations, in various degrees and in many guises. This cartoon above was tweeted on Day One, and perhaps part of being brave is to raise your head from the day to day, and look around to see what is on the horizon and face what the future is presenting you – to take the time and have the courage to face your fears.
It is not just about doing things more effectively or efficiently, about being more productive or profitable, or doing things better. It is about consciously deciding how the technologies we are inventing and imbibing and assimilating are impacting on our day to day lives, and asking not just the what and how, but also the why and the should.
At Brave Conversations we tried to do something different, not to have a conventional conference where everyone hid behind their professional personae, delivered papers and were generally spoken at. For some, who have attended numerous Hackathons and Unconferences, what we did may not have been that unconventional, but for many who are used to the traditional conference format where people confer about a particular topic, we did provide some challenges. Our objective was quite simply to generate one big conversation, unfettered by convention or agendae, where everyone in the room was involved in whatever way they felt comfortable and began to take off their masks as a diverse a group of people coming together just as people. In order to do this we first had to create a safe space within which individuals could engage in real human to human conversations, and ask any question or seek any clarification, no matter how dumb or naive that might seem.
We set ourselves the challenge of
encouraging debate, critical thinking, creative design and social awareness in order 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.
We hoped to create a space where, as Martin Stewart-Weeks describes in his follow-up paper,
Conversations are exchanges. And the point of an exchange is to create something – in this case, insights, ideas and knowledge – that was not there before the conversation started.
So, how did we go and what did we achieve?
The feedback we have received has been very personal, and our hope that Brave Conversations would be a very personal experience has been supported by this. For some, the conversations were those with which they are already familiar and they were a little disappointed at the lack of integration and the persistence of silos; for others there was a lot of personal bravery in revealing both a level of technological ignorance as well as naivety about the Web and its origins. For everyone the time constraints meant that it was difficult to delve deeply into key issues; but for many there was an overwhelm of information.
From my observations as the facilitator – and thus having to sit on the outside for most of the time – it seemed that a lot of people were taken out of their comfort zones, particularly on Day One which was relatively unstructured, and relied on the energy of the group to create momentum. Pia Waugh’s first session Choose your own adventure please, articulated some of the challenges of data as the currency of the digital age, and Nicholas Gruen’s session Arteries and Capillaries gave a counterpoise by challenging the current structures through which society is governed, speaking to ideas he has articulated in a recent essay in Mandarin. These two presentations set the scene for the afternoon when people chose one of these four themes
- Democracy & politics
- Privacy & individual liberty
- New economics
- Technology leadership & ethics
The task was, within a limited timeframe, to scratch the surface in terms of identifying key changes aligned to the potential impacts on individuals, organisations and communities, and identify what actions could, and should, be considered to benefit the humans, and the machines. This was always a big ask, and the solution wasn’t our goal – it was the process we were seeking.
As a part of this process Martin, in his summary of Day One, asked everyone to identify their greatest concern through a question, which was then collated and exhibited the next morning. (We will be collating all of the photos, material and feedback and publishing on the Brave Conversations website).
The challenge of any two-day format is that there is never really enough time, but by the end of Day One many of the boundaries had begun to break down and there was an engaging energy in the room when we all convened over drinks at the National Press Club, courtesy of our wonderful host Tim Shaw.
On Tuesday we began the more formal part of the event with a Welcome to Country and Smoking Ceremony preformed by Auntie Agnes Shea and her nephew Robert, his son Peter, and Peter’s daughter Lexie – the first time that all four generations had worked together. The sun shone, the courtyard of University House enveloped us all, and the magic of these ancient ceremonies energised and grounded the conversations which ensued. I personally believe that these ceremonies anchor any congregation of people as they gather, but only when done in an authentic way and given both the reverence and gravitas that they command. We were witness to something very special, and I felt that through this there was a certain openness, honesty and willingness to collaborate that emerged within the group as a whole, anchored to the land, to the physical environment sheltered by the trees nestled within the ANU, and overseen by our collective ancestors from Australia and beyond.
The energy that second morning was palpable, so much so that we changed the format in order to accommodate what we felt was required from the group in its desire to both engage and converse. The first panel’s focus on The World – with and without the Web brought many of the threads of Day One together, and the Debate A machine-driven world is a better world brought out both humour and seriousness as some of the identified thorny issues. In response to this we integrated the third panel into the round-table conversations themselves in order to promote speaking with rather than speaking at.
The post-lunch session is usually a hard slog at any event, but I have to say that Simon Longstaff’s Good Life session was one of the most magical special I have ever witnessed. Simon determined to utilise the fishbowl facilitation process sitting the panel around the table with two empty chairs for anyone else to join. This format, which harnessed the collective trust in the room and underpinned by probing questions, challenging linkages and open dialogue, created a calm, honest and egalitarian space within which no permission was needed order to speak. Testimony to this was the fact that three of our younger participants (all under 20) felt confident enough to move to the table. I felt that there was a degree of bravery in the observations shared, and that some of the core issues – such as fear and love, death and mortality, power and inequality, nudging towards Transhumanism – were tabled. I know that not everyone felt this, but I certainly did.
In the final session we sought to somehow wrap up the two days, but with the caveat that Brave Conversations was never meant to be a one size fits all, nor a one off, nor a simple solution. It wasn’t about giving me, or anyone else a to-do list, or set of ideas to pursue. The outcomes of Brave Conversations were meant to be personal, something that each and every person in the room – and the vast majority of the initial 87 participants were still with us at 5 pm on Tuesday afternoon – could, and should, take and do with it as they pleased.
Brave Conversations was a catalyst and, as Pia Waugh has so rightly said:
The only meaningful outcome from all of this is what you will do different today.
- What sort of future do you want? How can you build that into your everyday life?
- What changes do you need to make in your thinking, actions, career and personal life to make that future a reality?
- How will you ensure you continue to have brave conversations into the future?
So, what are the outcomes at this early stage?
Firstly, there have been a number of media interviews:
- Tim Shaw interviewed our Year 12 Tuggeranong College student Matthew Torrens on Canberra 2cc
- Katina Michael spoke on Talking Tech
- ABC Lateline’s Jeremy Fernandez interviewed Wendy Hall
- Katina Michael was interviewed by Wendy Harmer on ABC Radio 702
We have been contacted by journalist Margot O’Neill, who was unable to get to the conference, who may be interested in pursuing some of the ideas which came up via a series of programmes.
For my own part the Intersticia Foundation and the Ethics Centre have now taken our first initiative by supporting Angie Abdilla to attend the 2017 United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues which coincides with the Tenth Anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Angie’s mission is to take the conversations she has been having here to the UN Forum with a view to working with us and begin developing the Ethical Framework for a new UN mechanism and Private Sector Tech protocols for human and tech rights. This is no mean feat, and if anyone can do it, Angie can. We will see what has transpired when she returns, but the conversations that we all had in Canberra have helped identify and begin to describe ways in which we can collaborate to address some of the huge issues which face humanity as the result of information being created, managed, archived and distributed in digital form.
Wendy, Tris and I have been talking about holding a Brave Conversations in both London and Washington partnering with the Web Science Trust and others. If we use Canberra as a pilot then there is much to learn from what we did, but we have also created something that others can understand, and initiated a group of people who are keen and supportive to join the wave of conversations happening globally.
Martin Stewart-Weeks has written up his own reflections (which can be found here and report) and in them has presented Web Science with a leadership challenge, which I for one, am prepared to step up to.
“Web Science” is a label for a conversation – research, debate, exploration – about the web (and technology more broadly), society, people and nature to get the best out of each, to improve their interaction and to lift the prospects of their combined impact on opportunity, inclusion and sustainability.
For Brave Conversations to have made a difference is it up to each and every one of us to take the conversations that we had and make a conscious choice about the world we want to create. I believe that those of us who have been either watching, or proactively creating, the Social Machine and all that it encompasses, have a duty to determine what A Good Life is, and to actively work towards ensuring that humanity as a whole is given the opportunity to have it. As the age of digital disruption gains momentum – and people like Jack Ma believe we still have a long way to go – it is those of us engaged in these conversations who need to take the lead, support the next generation, and go out to our various communities to teach, explain and provide hope.
I would like to thank each and every person who played a part in Brave Conversations:
- The Intersticia Foundation Board who supported the event, and
- The Ethics Centre with whom we partnered
- The Web Science Trust and the Web Science Institute for enabling Susan Halford, Ramine Tinati and the Southampton PhD students to visit Australia
- The AIIA for their support as well as the ODI in Queensland and others who helped promote
- The fabulous team of Marti Pattinson, Leanne Fry, Lisa Baldwin and Terry Hanisch as the Web Science Australia Board
- Martin Stewart-Weeks for his fabulous reporting, and Peter Thompson for stepping to facilitate when I needed him
- My niece Bel Campbell and her friends for recording, filming, photographing and their overall enthusiasm!
- Nicholas Gruen, Pia Waugh, Nick Byrne, Chris Monk who all had creative input from the outset and then totally delivered during the event
- All of our Brave Conversations speakers and panelists, regardless of what role they played
- Sue at University House who, as she did in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011, helped make our event happen on the ground!
- and each and every person who gave up their precious time to be with us.
Thank you and I challenge every single one of you to turn these conversations into actions, each in your own way.