Gather-ing some thoughts on societal challenges

On the weekend I went to the GatherNZ event in Auckland, an interesting unconference. I knew there were going to be some pretty awesome people hanging out which gave a chance for me to catch up with and introduce the family to some friends, hear some interesting ideas, and road test some ideas I’ve been having about where we are all heading in the future. I ran a session I called “Choose your own adventure, please” and it was packed! Below is a bit of a write up of what was discussed as there was a lot of interest in how to keep the conversation going. I confess, I didn’t expect so much interest as to be asked where the conversation could be continued, but this is a good start I think. I was particularly chuffed when a few attendee said the session blew their minds :)

I’m going to be blogging a fair bit over the coming months on this topic in any case as it relates to a book I’m in the process of researching and writing, but more on that next week!

Choose your own adventure, please

We are at a significant tipping point in history. The world and the very foundations our society were built on have changed, but we are still largely stuck in the past in how we think and plan for the future. If we don’t make some active decisions about how we live, think and prioritise, then we will find ourselves subconsciously reinforcing the status quo at every turn and not in a position to genuinely create a better future for all. I challenge everyone to consider how they think and to actively choose their own adventure, rather than just doing what was done before.

How has the world changed? Well many point to the changes in technology and science, and the impact these have had on our quality of life. I think the more interesting changes are in how power and perspectives has changed, which created the environment for scientific and technological progress in the first instance, but also created the ability for many many more individuals to shape the world around them. We have seen traditional paradigms of scarcity, centralisation and closed systems be outflanked and outdated by modern shifts to surplus, distribution and open systems. When you were born a peasant and died one, what power did you have to affect your destiny? Nowadays individuals are more powerful than ever in our collective history, with the traditionally centralised powers of publishing, property, communications, monitoring and even enforcement now distributed internationally to anyone with access to a computer and the internet, which is over a third of the world’s population and growing. I blogged about this idea more here. Of course, these shifts are proving challenging for traditional institutions and structures to keep up, but individuals are simply routing around these dinosaurs, putting such organisations in the uncomfortable position of either adapting or rendering themselves irrelevant.

Choices, choices, choices

We discussed a number of specific premises or frameworks that underpinned the development of much of the world we know today, but are now out of touch with the changing world we live in. It was a fascinating discussion, so thank you to everyone who came and contributed and although I think we only scratched the surface, I think it gave a lot of people food for thought :)

  • Open vs closed – open systems (open knowledge, data, government, source, science) are outperforming closed ones in almost everything from science, technology, business models, security models, government and political systems, human knowledge and social models. Open systems enable rapid feedback loops that support greater iteration and improvements in response to the world, and open systems create a natural motivation for the players involved to perform well and gain the benefits of a broader knowledge, experience and feedback base. Open systems also support a competitive collaborative environment, where organisations can collaborate on the common, but compete on their specialisation. We discussed how security by obscurity was getting better understood as a largely false premise and yet, there are still so many projects, decisions, policies or other initiatives where closed is the assumed position, in contrast to the general trend towards openness across the board.
  • Central to distributed – many people and organisations still act like kings in castles, protecting their stuff from the masses and only collaborating with walls and moats in place to keep out the riff raff. The problem is that everything is becoming more distributed, and the smartest people will never all be in the one castle, so if you want the best outcomes, be it for a policy, product, scientific discovery, service or anything else, you need to consider what is out there and how you can be a part of a broader ecosystem. Building on the shoulders of giants and being a shoulder for others to build upon. Otherwise you will always be slower than those who know how to be a node in the network. Although deeply hierarchical systems still exist, individuals are learning how to route around the hierarchy (which is only an imaginary construct in any case). There will always be specialists and the need for central controls over certain things however, if whatever you do is done in isolation, it will only be effective in isolation. Everything and everyone is more and more interconnected so we need to behave more in this way to gain the benefits, and to ensure what we do is relevant to those we do it for. By tapping into the masses, we can also tap into much greater capacity and feedback loops to ensure how we iterate is responsive to the environment we operate in. Examples of the shift included media, democracy, citizen movements, ideology, security, citizen science, gov as an API, transnational movements and the likely impact of blockchain technologies on the financial sector.
  • Scarcity to surplus – the shift from scarcity to surplus is particularly interesting because so much of our laws, governance structures, business models, trade agreements and rules for living are based around antiquated ideas of scarcity and property. We now apply the idea of ownership to everything and I shared a story of a museum claiming ownership on human remains taken from Australia. How can you own that and then refuse to repatriate the remains to that community? Copyright was developed when the ability to copy something was costly and hard. Given digital property (including a lot of “IP”) is so easily replicated with low/zero cost, it has wrought havoc with how we think about IP and yet we have continued to duplicate this antiquated thinking in a time of increasing surplus. This is a problem because new technologies could genuinely create surplus in physical properties, especially with the developments in nano-technologies and 3D printing, but if we bind up these technologies to only replicate the status quo, we will never realise the potential to solve major problems of scarcity, like hunger or poverty.
  • Nationalism and tribalism – because of global communications, more people feel connected with their communities of interest, which can span geopolitical, language, disability and other traditional barriers to forming groups. This will also have an impact on loyalties because people will have an increasingly complex relationship with the world around them. Citizens can and will increasingly jurisdiction shop for a nation that supports their lifestyle and ideological choices, the same way that multinational corporates have jurisdiction shopped for low tax, low regulation environments for some time. On a more micro level, individuals engage in us vs them behaviours all the time, and it gets in the way of working together.
  • Human augmentation and (dis)ability – what it means to look and be human will start to change as more human augmentation starts to become mainstream. Not just cosmetic augmentations, but functional. The body hacking movement has been playing with human abilities and has discovered that the human brain can literally adapt to and start to interpret foreign neurological inputs, which opens up the path to nor just augmenting existing human abilities, but expanding and inventing new human abilities. If we consider the olympics have pretty much found the limit of natural human sporting achievement and have become arguably a bit boring, perhaps we could lift the limitations on the para-olympics and start to see rocket powered 100m sprints, or cyborg Judo competitions. As we start to explore what we can do with ourselves physically, neurologically and chemically, it will challenge a lot of views on what it means to be human. By why should we limit ourselves?
  • Outsourcing personal responsibility – with advances in technology, many have become lazy about how far their personal responsibility extends. We outsource small tasks, then larger ones, then strategy, then decision making, and we end up having no personal responsibility for major things in our world. Projects can fail, decisions become automated, ethics get buried in code, but individuals can keep their noses clean. We need to stop trying to avoid risk to the point where we don’t do anything and we need to ensure responsibility for human decisions are not automated beyond human responsibility.
  • Unconscious bias of privileged views, including digital colonialism – the need to be really aware of our assumptions and try to not simply reinvent the status quo or reinforce “structural white supremacy” as it was put by the contributor. Powerful words worth pondering! Explicit inclusion was put forward as something to prioritise.
  • Work – how we think about work! If we are moving into a more automated landscape, perhaps how we think about work will fundamentally change which would have enormous ramifications for the social and financial environment. Check out Tim Dunlop’s writing on this :)
  • Facts to sensationalism – the flow of information and communications are now so rapid that people, media and organisations are motivated to ever more sensationalism rather than considered opinions or facts. Definitely a shift worth considering!

Other feedback from the room included:

  • The importance of considering ethics, values and privilege in making decisions.
  • The ability to route around hierarchy, but the inevitable push back of established powers on the new world.
  • The idea that we go in cycles of power from centralised to distributed and back again. I confess, this idea is new to me and I’ll be pondering on it more.

Any feedback, thinking or ideas welcome in the comments below :) It was a fun session.

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One Response to Gather-ing some thoughts on societal challenges

  1. Thanks heaps for your talk! It was a good inspirational round up of societal/future/government trends.

    At the end of the talk I brought up Bitcoin/blockchain tech seeming to fit perfectly with your points (open, distributed, surplus (“anyone” can create a currency), tribalism (Internet money, no border/conversion, fast international transfer) etc). There seems to be a decent amount of media backlash and public confusion about Bitcoin, “experts” saying Bitcoin is dead but “blockchain” technology will be the potential revolution. Either way both currently have usability issues to tackle akin to early Internet / email.

    Also sent you the tweet mentioning wanting to bring up studies showing that while, yes: you are correct that “we” are more empowered than ever, but power is more and more consolidated than ever before.”

    I don’t really feel qualified to speak critically, perhaps naive, but I do feel its an important point to raise / try to discuss.

    Yes, TED talks are pretty surface level, but this is very interesting talk about USA. While describe as a democracy, its really an Oligarchy where the government and media do not actually serve “the people” but the extremely wealthy “Beware, fellow plutocrats, the pitchforks are coming” http://www.ted.com/talks/nick_hanauer_beware_fellow_plutocrats_the_pitchforks_are_coming

    For more concrete similar examples “BBC News: Study: US is an oligarchy, not a democracy” http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-echochambers-27074746 , source study “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens” http://journals.cambridge.org/download.php?file=%2FPPS%2FPPS12_03%2FS1537592714001595a.pdf&code=7191634fb19b00000e7fa9d615b280fd

    While these links refer only to USA, some would say most other countries are not any better – Russia, China, Europe, Australia, New Zealand etc.

    Semi-related and a bit less depressing is Paul Mason’s talk on “PostCapitalism” at Google https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cQyr9l22fLE . Not sure that I agree with everything he says but its all very interesting. Speaking to surplus of most interest to me personally as game developer are thoughts/quotes on digital “surplus”. Example: “…If the reproduction cost of something is dictated by the action “CTRL”+C “CTRL”+V, then economics tells you that its price should fall to zero, or close to zero…”. He also speaks of “Unconditional Basic Income” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dNWGmQD6yy8 as a transitional period to enable smooth advancement of society toward mass automation (which will happen regardless). Whether transitional or not, I think it (UBI) is a powerful idea and will drastically improve society… tricky to have properly implemented though considering prior the topic (Oligarchy).
    I love talks, lectures and discussions like this about the future, technology, the planet and the lives of the people on it.

    Bring on the rocket powered 100m sprints and cyborg Judo competitions.

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