Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Always On

As I sat in a meeting the other day, I watched in amazement as several other attendees performed, what can only be described as a kind of myopic mating ritual, with their Blackberries. Apart from being mentally absent from the room, which is a rudeness in itself, I pondered the consequences of a world were we are always connected – always on. Clearly in the near future the technology will go one step further and imbed personal communications devices in our clothing or on our person and then shortly thereafter, “I’ve got you under my skin will take on a whole new meaning!”

Being ‘always on’ is in many ways quite seductive. We knew in the 20th. Century that information and knowledge was power, and many of us still have that sense deeply ingrained in our psyches. But like many seductions it is all an illusion. While the power, seamlessness, and real time qualities, of streaming information is undeniable, in many ways being ‘always on’ is actually being ‘often off.’ Information without context is really quite useless and certainly can’t masquerade as knowledge.

Of course we need new information, but in a non linear world we also need to take time and space to make sense of what is occurring. We need to understand the new patterns. My experience is that so many Blackberry addicts stay in the old patterns becasue they are so busy being preoccupied with information! They have failed to understand that with the amount of new information being created every day to fill a small sized room with digital information, the rules for success are changing. What we all want and need is the ability to filter, synthesize and apply.

Taking time away from information gives us the space, allows this filtering to occur and also fosters synchronicity. That is the connecting of totally new ideas, from outside our established patterns with what we know, to produce new stuff. Otherwise all that happens is that we just get caught in the hype of the moment. In the 21st Century the processes and frameworks that we use to process the vast array of information are as important as the information itself. Taking time to reflect - turning off - is really the time when processes and frameworks meet information.

In many ways the global media mimic Blackberries on steroids. They think that all people want is information, and of course we all do, but only to a level that helps us make sense of what is occurring around us. I think we also need ideas and commentary that helps us make sense of it all. That ability to provide commentary was what earned the media its initial title of the fourth estate. One, that of more recent times, they have happily abandoned in favour of their infotainment ‘circus circus’ role.[see note below]

Being ‘always on’ is learning how to step away from the information, to get in touch with our internal selves and build the courses of action that will help us navigate this uncertain and turbulent world. In many ways it is much more uncertain because of the rate and nature of information exchange. And for those of you who are really addicted to your email, who really feel that the world can't do with your reply to all emails, do a quick audit and name 10 significant emails that you read last week. Can you?

Note. From four to five estates? The notion of estates refers to the institutions of competing interests that need to be balanced, if one is to create a civil society that is open diverse and tolerant. Depending on who you read, in general terms these estates are, or were: The King, President or executive who constitute the first estate – they lead. The second estate is traditionally the church [or in some societies]senate or representatives of the landed interests [nobles] – and the third estate is the people – they provide mandate and set the laws.

The fourth estate is the media who are in many senses the glue or mirror that enable each of the other estates to interact in honest ways with each other. Some, including me, argue that the traditional media have abandoned their role as the fourth estate and reinvented themselves as infotainment businesses – sort of 21st century versions of the Roman circus – to keep the people happy and preoccupied! I and others hope that the fifth estate – the internet - will in time take over this role and in the process disintermediate and make the role of the fourth estate redundant.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Interconnectedness is very rarely a straight line

Most of us now accept that everything is pretty well connected to everything else. Technologies have made this possible and they are driving profound changes. But it was not always so. As long ago as 2001, a well intentioned but largely derided report, by the politician and commentator Barry Jones was largely consigned to the historical rubbish heap because of a diagram that came to be known as ‘spaghetti and meatballs.’ It was an attempt to describe how the fundamental institutions of an educated society connect to each other. In the run up to an election, the advocates of linear thinking held sway and their view won the day. The idea of interconnection has been banned from the national consciousness.

But what price have we paid? The first is that it makes us hard to have a conversation in other than silos. Most of us ordinary people know that many things are connected. That is our everyday life. What was interesting about the diagram that Barry and his mates produced, was not the original diagram, but how each of the key institutions might evolve as they interacted with each other and as they evolved in their own right.

The second was that it made us hard to have conversations with people who see things in interconnected ways. One has to only look at the how we’ve managed to mangle terrorism, middle eastern tribalism and Islam to get the point. Have the machine based and the linear models, particularly in the western world, impoverished thinking in our societies?

Finally and by no means least, we have a major problem in working out how to balance competing priorities. Of course I know that water issues are important. So is education and so is reform of the health system. The move away from a fossil fuel world also ranks. But how do I decide what is important and how do governments decide what is a priority and what should get what from the economic cake? How can I, or they, possibly integrate anything if everything is presented in disconnected pieces.

The inability to see interconnectedness and to then integrate different ideas is to lose touch with reality. It is, if you think about it, the very behaviour we criticise in alcoholics and people with severe personality disorders. If we can’t discuss a simple diagram with a few extra lines on it perhaps you, me and our society are in a difficult place? Will it take some severe dislocation to rediscover what our biological selves instinctively knows – that everything is interconnected, and that better futures are created by strengthening some connections rather than others.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

This is not a time for good people to do nothing.

If there is a lesson we might all learn from history it is that all too often good people have stood by and let vested interests, at odds with basic values and common sense, impose their will. Regrettably such interests can easily get support from the disaffected, the gullible and the self aggrandising. As we wake up to the nightmares that often such interests create, it takes time, for the forces of the open society, to organise and evict the dictatorship of the few.

What if now was one of those times? What if these vested interests, instead of focusing on the trappings of political power, exercised control, either consciously or unconsciously, and much more quietly, through the levers of economic power? What if in the interests of shareholders – who might be you or me – actions were taken in direct opposition to our interests as humans on the planet? While all this might sound a little alarmist, every day we hear leaders everywhere, almost without thought, putting current economic interests light years ahead of environmental and social concerns. In the face of what can only be called a global environmental crisis, without sounding like some social centralist, or someone so smug in their own righteousness, what should good people do?

Perhaps its time for a different debate? Perhaps as we read the muddy waters of increasingly obscure infotainment we might ask ourselves some of the following questions: [other suggestions gratefully received!!]

1. Will I be able to justify my actions to children born 25 years from now?
2. Do I too easily dismiss the unthinkable because it would undermine what makes me
comfortable and successful?
3. When I consider those things that I believe are important have I thought, at any time, what
information would make me change my mind?
4. Am I the kind of person that needs a crisis, which really affects me personally, before I’m
prepared to advocate change?
5. Do I spend my time listening to those people that support me or those that challenge me?

In sum it’s all a legacy issue. We can decide to build networks with other good people, who are starting the conversation to redesign our planetary society and how to organise to make the 21st Century livable, or we can decide it’s all too hard and simply take what we can now.

In the end we are either future makers or future takers. I know who I want to hang out with.