Who represents the human in the digital age?

KeepCalm

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 [1] 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 [2]. 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 [3]?

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 [4] is changing our relationship with such things as privacy [5] as well as with both ourselves and each other [6].

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 [7] are increasingly pervading almost every aspect of human existence [8] and, in many ways, gettting to know us better than we know ourselves [9]. 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 [10] community who observe and seek to understand what is going on, or those in the commercial sector, who are driving the technological development [11]. Those who are charged with setting policy boundaries and enforcing regulation (our governments) are like rabbits in the headlights struggling to keep up [12].

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 [13] 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 [14]. 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 [15], let alone understand [16], particularly as they are now creating machines that are capable of building themselves [17]. 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 [18] around precisely these topics. Australian economist Nicholas Gruen presented his thoughts about what he sees as the disconnect between the arteries and capillaries [19] 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 [20] I challenged the sector [21] 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 [22]) 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 [23]. 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 [24]. 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 [25]. A new currency is emerging which is based on the world’s most valuable resource, data [26], 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 [27] 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 [28]. 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 [29] of entrepreneurship, leadership and innovation, and provides the legitimacy upon which trust is based [30]. 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 [31]. The more they try to garner greater insights through data and surveillance, the more they alienate the people they seek to reach [32].

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 [33] 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 [34].

In his books Sapiens [35] and Homo Deus [36] 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 [37]. 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 [38] 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 [39] rests on these same issues because we are beginning to link wealth to meaning, rather than just productivity and ownership [40]. Notions of good work [41] 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 [42], 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 [43]. 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 [44], 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 [45]. Most people are flat out getting their heads around Transhumanism [46], let alone Posthumanism but things are changing very quickly.

As Futurist Gerd Leonhard says [47]

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 [48], 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 [49].

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 [50].

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 [51].  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 [52] 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.

Endnotes

[1] Philip E. Auerswald The Code Economyhttp://www.goodreads.com/book/show/26720923-the-code-economy

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Algorithm

[3] Key decisions around Human DNA editing – https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/human-genome-editing-who-gets-to-decide/

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_machine

[5] 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)

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_addict

[7] 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/

[8] https://www.vox.com/new-money/2017/5/18/15655274/google-io-ai-everywhere

[9] http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/computers-using-digital-footprints-are-better-judges-of-personality-than-friends-and-family

[10] See Web Science Trust www.webscience.org

[11] 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

[12] Companies and governments need to get on board with data – Australian Financial Review 21st May, 2017

[13] http://intersticia.com.au/moving-towards-a-more-examined-world/

[14] http://intersticia.com.au/the-anthro-pocene-era-and-redefining-humanity/

[15] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/04/the-end-of-forecasting/

[16] https://aeon.co/ideas/science-has-outgrown-the-human-mind-and-its-limited-capacities

[17] https://futurism.com/googles-new-ai-is-better-at-creating-ai-than-the-companys-engineers/

[18] www.braveconversations.org

[19] http://www.themandarin.com.au/77680-governments-organic-structure-the-living-and-the-dead/

[20] Is Philanthropy Future Ready? http://www.philanthropy.org.au/conference/2016/intro/

[21] http://intersticia.com.au/the-future-readiness-of-philanthropy/

[22] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921800914000615 and

http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20170418-how-western-civilisation-could-collapse

[23] James Gleick wrote about this in The Information, https://www.theinformation.com/

[24] http://www.economist.com/node/21548493/ and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantified_Self

[25] 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

[26] http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21721656-data-economy-demands-new-approach-antitrust-rules-worlds-most-valuable-resource

[27] http://jarche.com/2012/03/innovation-is-about-making-connections/

[28] http://www.shoshanazuboff.com/new/recent-publications-and-interviews/ and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0QwPHinDdOc

[29] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_currency

[30] 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.com.au/evolution-of-the-digital-brand/)

[31] See Edelman Trust 2017 http://www.edelman.com/trust2017/

[32] https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/may/18/in-europe-political-attitudes-are-changing-to-facebook?utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=GU+Today+AUS+v1+-+AUS+morning+mail+callout&utm_term=226700&subid=8643697&CMP=ema_632

[33] See UK Report https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/532104/Public_trust_and_confidence_in_charities_2016.pdf)

[34] http://intersticia.com.au/philanthropy-in-the-quantified-age/

[35] http://www.ynharari.com/book/sapiens/

[36] http://www.ynharari.com/book/homo-deus/

[37] https://qz.com/968692/luddites-have-been-getting-a-bad-rap-for-200-years-but-turns-out-they-were-right/

[38] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/when-robots-take-jobs-remember-luddites-180961423/

[39] 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

[40] Jeremy Rifkin, A World Beyond Markets, The RSA – https://www.thersa.org/events/2014/04/a-world-beyond-markets

[41] 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

[42] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ingenuity

[43] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/06/the-poetry-of-progress

[44] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Event_horizon

[45] https://rdmagazine.wordpress.com/2017/04/23/the-post-human-movement/

[46] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transhumanism

[47] http://www.futuristgerd.com/2017/05/16/new-film-by-futurist-gerd-leonhard-technology-vs-humanity-the-future-is-already-here/?utm_content=buffer64127&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

[48] http://longnow.org/

[49] Interview at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08nqc4j

[50] http://fortune.com/2017/04/24/alibaba-jack-ma-internet-economy/

[51] https://www.greenleaf.org/what-is-servant-leadership/

[52] http://www.thinknpc.org/publications/charities-taking-charge/