Recently I was invited to give a TEDx talk at a Canberra event for women speakers. It was a good opportunity to have some fun with some ideas I’ve been playing with for a while around the concept of being a citizen in the era of the Internet, and what that means for individuals and traditional power structures in society, including government. A snipped transcript below. Enjoy and comments welcome 🙂 I’ve put a few links that might be of interest throughout and the slides are in the video for reference.
Video is at http://www.youtube.com/embed/iqjM_HU0WSw
I want to talk to you about digital citizenship and how, not only the geek will inherit the earth but, indeed, we already have. All the peoples just don’t know it yet.
We are in the most exciting of times. People are connected from birth and are engaged across the world. We are more powerful as individuals than ever before. We have, particularly in communities and societies like Australia, we have a population that has all of our basic needs taken care of. So we have got time to kill. And we’ve got resources. Time and resources gives a greater opportunity for introspection which has led over the last hundred years in particular, to enormous progress. To the establishment of the concept of individual rights and strange ideas like the concept that animals might actually have feelings and perhaps maybe shouldn’t be treated awfully or just as a food source.
We’ve had these huge, enormous revolutions and evolutions of thought and perspective for a long, long time but it’s been growing exponentially. It’s a combination of the growth in democracy, the rise of the concept of individual rights, and the concept of individuals being able to participate in the macro forces that shape their world.
But it’s also a combination of technology and the explosion in what an individual can achieve both as a individual but also en mass collaborating dynamically across the globe. It’s the fact that many of us are kind of fat, content and happy and now wanting to make a bit of a difference, which is quite exciting. So what we’ve got is a massive and unprecedented distribution of power.
We’ve got the distribution of publishing. The ability to publish whatever you want. Whether you do it through formal mechanisms or anonymously. You can distribute to a global audience with less barriers to entry than ever before. We have the distribution of the ability to communicate with whomever your please. The ability to monitor, which has traditionally been a top down thing for ensuring laws are followed and taxes are paid. But now people can monitor sideways, they can monitor up. They can monitor their governments. They can monitor companies. There is the distribution of enforcement. This gets a little tricky because if anyone can enforce than anyone can enforce any thing. And you start to get a little bit of active concerns there but it is an interesting time. Finally with the advent of 3D printing starting to get mainstream, we’re seeing the massive distribution of, of property.
And if you think about these five concepts – publishing, communications, monitoring, enforcement and property – these five power bases have traditionally been centralised. We usually look at the industrial revolution and the broadcast age as two majors periods in history but arguably they’re both actually part of the same era. Because both of them are about the centralised creation of stuff – whether it’s physical or information – by a small number of people that could afford to do so, and then distributed to the rest of the population.
The idea that anyone can create any of these things and distribute it to anyone else, or indeed for their own purposes is a whole new thing and very exciting. And what that means is that the relationship between people and governments and industry has changed quite fundamentally. Traditional institutions and bastions of any sort of power are struggling with this and are finding it rather scary but it is creating an imperative to change. It is also creating new questions about legitimacy and power relations between people, companies and governments.
Individuals however, are thriving in this environment. There’s always arguments about trolls and about whether the power’s being used trivially. The fact is the Internet isn’t all unicorns or all doom. It is something different, it is something exciting and it is something that is empowering people in a way that’s unprecedented and often unexpected.
The term singularity is one of those fluffy things that’s been touted around by futurists but it does have a fairly specific meaning which is kind of handy. The concept of the distance between things getting smaller. Whether that’s the distance between you and your publisher, you and your food, you and your network or you and your device. The concept of approaching the singularity is about reducing those distances between. Now, of course the internet has reduced the distance between people quite significantly and I put to you that we’re in a period of a “democratic singularity” because the distance between people and power has dramatically reduced.
People are in many ways now as powerful as a lot of the institutions which frame and shape their lives. So to paraphrase and slightly turn on it’s head the quote by William Gibson: the future is here and it is already widely distributed. So we’ve approached the democratic singularity and it’s starting to make democracy a lot more participatory, a lot more democratic.
So, what does this mean in reality? What does this actually translate to for us as people, as a society, as a “global village”, to quote Marshall McLuhan. There’s quite massive changing expectations of individual. I see a lot of people focused on the shift in power from the West to the East. But I believe the more interesting shift is the shift in power from institutions to individuals.
That is the more fascinating shift not just because individuals have power but because it is changing our expectations as a society. And when you start to get a massive change of expectations across an entire community of people, that starts to change behaviors, change economics, change socials patterns, change social norms.
What are those changing expectations? Well, the internet teaches us a lot of things. The foundation technical principles of the internet are effectively shaping the social characteristics of this new society. This distributed society or “Society 5” if you will.
Some of the expectations are the ability to access what you want. The ability to talk to whom you want. The ability to cross reference. When I was a kid and you did a essay on anything you had to go look at Encyclopedia Britannica. It was a single source of truth. The concept that you could get multiple perspectives, some of which might be skewed by the way, but still to concept of getting the context of those different perspectives and a little comparison was hard and alien for the average person. Now you can often talk to someone who is there right now let alone find myriad sources to help inform your view. You can get a point of comparison against traditionally official sources like a government source or media report. People online start to intuitively understand that the world’s actually a lot more gray than we are generally taught in school and such. Learning that the world is gray is great because you start to say, “you know what? You could be right and I could be right and that doesn’t make either perspective necessarily invalid, and that isn’t a terrible thing.” It doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive or a zero sum game, or a single view of history. We can both have a perspective and be mutually respectful in a lot of cases and actually have a more diverse and interesting world as a result.
Changing expectations are helping many people overcome barriers that traditionally stopped them from being socially successful: economically, reputationally, etc. People are more empowered to basically be a superhero which is kinda cool. Online communities can be one of the most exciting and powerful places to be because it starts to transcend limitations and make it possible for people to excel in a way that perhaps traditionally they weren’t able to. So, it’s very exciting.
Individual power also brings a lot of responsibility. We’ve got all these power structures but at the end of the day there’s usually a techie implementing the big red button so the role of geeks in this world is very important. We are the ones who enable technology to be used for any agenda. Everything is basically based on technology, right? So everything is reliant upon technology. Well, this means we are exactly as free as the tools that we use.
If the tool that you’re using for social networking only allows you to talk to people in the same geographic area as you then you’re limited. If the email tool you’re using only allows you to send to someone who has another secure network then you’re only as free as that tool. Tech literacy becomes an enabler or an inhibitor, and it defines an individuals privacy. Because you might say to yourself, oh you know, I will never tell anyone where I am at a particular point in time cause I don’t want someone to rob my house while I’m out on holiday. But you’ll still put a photo up that you’re Argentina right now, because that’s fun, so now people know. Technical literacy for the masses is really important but largely, at this point, confined to the geeks. So hacker ethos ends up being a really important part of this.
For those that don’t know, hacker is not a rude word. It’s not a bad word. It’s the concept of having a creative and clever approach to technology and applying tech in cool and exciting ways. It helps people scratch an itch, test their skills, solve tricky problems collaboratively. Hacker ethos is a very important thing because you start to say freedom, including technical freedom is actually very, very important. It’s very high on the list. And with this ethos, technologists know that to implement and facilitate technologies that actually hobble our fellow citizens kind of screws them over.
Geeks will always be the most free in a digital society because we will always know how to route around the damage. Again, going back to the technical construct of the internet. But fundamentally we have a role to play to actually be leaders and pioneers in this society and to help lead the masses into a better future.
There’s also a lot of other sorts of dangers. Tools don’t discriminate. The same tools that can lead a wonderful social revolution or empower individuals to tell their stories is the same technology that can be used by criminals or those with a nefarious agenda. This is an important reason to remember we shouldn’t lock down the internet because someone can use it for a bad reason in the same way we don’t ban cars just because someone used a vehicle to rob a bank. The idea of hobbling technology because it’s used in a bad way is a highly frustrating one.
Another danger is “privilege cringe”. In communities like Australia we’re sort of taught to say, well, you’ve got privilege because you’ve been brought up in a safe stable environment, you’ve got an education, you’ve got enough money, you’ve got a sense of being able to go out and conquer the world. But you’ve got to hide that because you should be embarrassed of your opportunities when so many others have so little. I suggest to you all that you in this room, and pretty much anyone that would probably come and watch a TED event or go to a TED talk or watch it online, is the sort of person who is probably reasonably privileged in a lot of ways and you can use your privilege to influence the world in a powerful and positive way.
You’ve got access to the internet which makes you part of the third of the world that has access. So use your privilege for the power of good! This is the point. We are more powerful than ever before so if you’re not using your power for the power of good, if you’re not actually contributing to making the world a better place, what are you doing?
Hipsters are a major danger. Billy Bragg made the perfect quote which is, cynicism is the perfect enemy of progress. There is nothing more frustrating than actually making progress and having people tear you down because you haven’t done it exactly so.
Another danger is misdirection. We have a lot of people in Australia who want to do good. That’s very exciting and really cool. But Australians tend to say, I’m going to go to another country and feed some poor people and that’ll make me feel good, that’ll be doing some good and that’ll be great. Me personally, that would really not be good for people because I don’t cook very well. Deciding how you can actually contribute to making the world a better place in a way is like finding a lever? You need to identify what you are good at, what real differences you can make when you apply your skills very specifically. Where do you push to get a major change rather than, rather than contributing to actually maintaining the status quo? How do you rewrite the rules? How do you actually help those people that need help all around the world, including here in Australia, in a way that actually helps them sustainably? Enthused misdirection is I guess where I’m getting at.
And of course, one of the most frustrating dangers is hyperbole. It is literally destroying us. Figuratively speaking 😉
So there’s a lot of dangers, there’s a lot of issues but there is a lot of opportunities and a lot of capacities to do awesome. How many people here have been to a TED talk of some sort before? So keep your hand up if, after that, you went out and did something world changing. OK. So now you’re gonna do that, yeah? Right. So next time we do this all of those hands will stay up.
I’ll make couple of last points. My terrible little diagram here maps the concept that if you look at the last 5,000 years. The quality of life for individuals in a many societies has been down here fairly low for a long time. In millennia past, kings come and go, people get killed, properties taken. All sorts of things happen and individuals were very much at the behest of the powers of the day but you just keep plowing your fields and try to be all right. But is has slowly improved over a long time time, and the collective epiphany of the individual starts to happen, the idea of having rights, the idea that things could be better and that the people could contribute to their own future and democracy starts to kick off. The many suffrage movements addressing gender, ethnicity and other biases with more and more individuals in societies starting to be granted more equal recognition and rights.
The last hundred years, boom! It has soared up here somewhere. And I’m not tall enough to actually make the point, right? This is so exciting! So where are we going to go next?
How do we contribute to the future if we’re not involved in shaping the future. If we aren’t involved, then other powerful individuals are going to shape it for us. And this, this is the thing I’ve really learned by working in government, but working in the Minister’s office, by working in the public service. I specifically went to work in for a politician – even though I’m very strongly apolitical – to work in the government and in the public service because I wanted to understand the executive, legislative, and administrative arms of the entity that shapes our lives so much. I feel like I have a fairly good understanding of that now and there’s a lot of people who influence your lives every day.
Have we really hit this tipping point? You know, is it, is it really any different today than it was yesterday? Well, we’ve had this exponential progress, we’ve got a third of the world online, we’ve got these super human powerful individuals in a large chunk of different societies around the world. I argue that we have hit and passed the tipping point but the realisation hasn’t hit everyone yet.
So, the question is for you to figure out your super power. How do you best contribute it to making the world a better place?
Powers and kryptonite
For me, going and working in a soup kitchen will not help anybody. I could possibly design a robot that creates super delicious and nutritional food to actually feed people. But me doing it myself would actually probably give them food poisoning and wouldn’t help anyone. You need to figure out your specific super powers so you can deploy them to some effect. Figure out how you can contribute to the world. Also figure out your kryptonite.
What biases do you have in place? What weaknesses do you have? What things will actually get in the way of you trying to do what you’re doing? I quite often see people apply critical analysis and critical thinking tools without any self-awareness and the problem is that we are super clever beings and we can rationalize anything we want if, emotionally, we like it or dislike it.
So try and have both self-awareness and critical analysis and now you’ve got a very powerful way to do some good. So I’m going to just finish with a quote.
What better place than here? What better time than now? All hell can’t stop us now — RATM
The future is being determined whether you like it or not. But it’s not really being determined by the traditional players in a lot of ways. The power’s been distributed. It’s not just the politicians or the scholars or the researchers or corporates. It’s being invented right here, right now. You are contributing to that future either passively or actively. So you may as well get up and be active about it.
We’re heading towards this and we’ve possibly even hit the tipping point of a digital singularity and a democratic singularity. So, what are you going do about it? I invite you to share with me in the creating the future together.
Thank you very much.
You might also be interested in my blog post on Creating Open Government for a Digital Society and I think the old nugget of noblesse oblige applies here very well.