These are questions Olivia asked me at a Before I Die Network meeting.
We didn’t record it.
The answers might have gone this way (based on the time allocations she had in mind for the questions).
What are you passionate about working towards at the moment?
I’m working with David Bovill on something called FEAST.
F E A S T is about Food, Environment, Art, Speech and Tuning-in-to-the-radio. It’s about sharing our own local experience with local experience in other places. We’re doing that by having local events and twinning local radio stations in different places.
Right now I’m working on a radio programme that brings in people who are doing amazing projects in Nigeria and Ethiopia.
And for me it’s not just about the content it’s about the long term vision – and combining different elements of communication technologies in new ways and bringing people together.
On top of that it ties in with a chapter I wrote recently for a book about possible futures.
In my chapter there is a fictional celebration set in 2027. Exactly what we’re celebrating is explained in the chapter – but what delighted me about FEAST is that it’s got all the elements I need for my future event – but in their 2017 versions. So working with David on FEAST in 2017 is part of making my story of 2027 into fact instead of fiction.
You’ve set up a charity, Dadamac Foundation, written about the future of digital communities, worked to create more collaborative and value-led communities through technology…
What do you think is the common thread/theme to what you’ve been working on?
It’s related to an idea that I picked up when I was doing an Open University course many years ago – and it’s about using digital technologies to make the kind of world I want to live in.
I went on this course way back before mobile phones, or laptops, or the Internet as we know it today. The course was about computers and people.
The amazing idea was that digital technologies (which we called “computer power”) would change almost everything about the way we would live our lives – and I’ve seen that become true – although we’re still in the very early stages.
I was taught that this world was so new that we could shape it – not just as end users but as designers and influencers.
Back when I started exploring digital technologies we had stand-alone microcomputers with very small memories, and people like me learnt to write our own programs, so we could make the computers do what we wanted them to do. I was lucky that I was also influenced by Professor Max Clowes who introduced me to more powerful computers as well, and to Artificial Intelligence.
Things changed as the personal computers got more powerful and came with all kinds of capabilities built in so most people just became users. Perhaps in a way things are changing back a bit now with mobile phones and more people writing apps – which is something David teaches people to do. I don’t know.
The idea that links all my work is a curiosity and exploration of what it means to live with this new power. I’m intrigued by the implication of living at this point in time – a time when digital technologies are dramatically changing so many aspects of our world and how we can relate to it and to each other. Human beings have never lived in this kind of world before. We all need to decide if we’ll play our part in shaping it, or if we’ll just leave it to other people and hope we’ll like what they’ll do. Personally I prefer to help shape it.
What’s the ultimate vision for that? (Since you wrote a chapter about 10 years into the future – what’s your bold / audacious vision for what will have changed in the world for the better in 10 years?)
The most interesting changes I think will be changes in how “most people” think. There will still be people who cling onto outmoded thinking norms of the early years of the 21st century, and some extreme versions of them, but they will be the minority. The full reality of living in a connected world will finally have permeated people’s imaginations.
We’ll also be responding to other huge technological changes.
There are lots of ideas that are around now that seem bizarre to many people, but will be mainstream in another ten years.
I could point you to all kinds of work relating to big shifts in how things will be different – not for utopian reasons, but simply because of old ways crumbling and not being fit for purpose. Things will change because there will be such a mismatch between the old ways of doing things and the new ways that are shaped by the tech that will underpin how everything is done in future.
Information will be much faster flowing, more informative, and “natural” to interact with than it is today thanks to artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and all the rest. We’ll be as comfortable interacting with people we’ve never “really” met, as we are with our face-to-face contacts, and we’ll know much more than we are able to know now.
In that kind of world, relationships are either ultra-local (easy to meet up face-to-face) or ‘beyond local’ – which means people who are anywhere in the world where you’re more likely to connect virtually than face-to-face. Virtual locations may only be a couple of hours “local journey” away, or they may be the other side of the world. On a day-to-day basis there’s not much difference.
This experience of connectedness changes our sense of identity and “local belonging” and our personal place in the world. It’s ultra-local then globally scattered. People are people, and we get to connect with each other far more than before. This genuine personal connectedness makes a nonsense of many of our previous ideas of identity, and separation from “others” – national boundaries and so forth.
Many “realities and perceptions” will change. It’s hard to explain any of the many mind-shifts without having first had time to explain the interrelated technological, financial and social shifts surrounding them – but from my view point they are positive
Where do you think that vision started for you?
There was a book called “Technology versus Humanity” by Gerd Leonhard – which built on my long-standing fascination with the relationship between digital technologies and people.
He outlines the rate of technological change and the scary fact that “technology has no ethics”. But people do have ethics – so I started to wonder what the world would look like if we started to concentrate on becoming better at the things that computers aren’t so good at like ethics, and genuine empathy and creativity.
He’s not the only influence. I could give you a long list of the people who have influenced my thinking over the years, and the inter-related topics that have been covered – but it would just sound like a list of set books, and meetup groups, and names of friends, and it wouldn’t convey the ideas themselves so I won’t do that.
I’ve been obsessively interested in this stuff for years, I’ve done lots of innovative practical work, learned from people who are creative and original thinkers and doers, and I’ve reflected deeply on what I’ve seen and experienced. It’s all interconnected and it feeds into the vision.
What would you like your role to be in contributing towards that vision?
That’s a much easier one to answer. It’s to help people to mould the future, for themselves and for others.
My role is to find people who have a sense of the deep changes that are happening, who are attuned to the pre-shocks of the disconnect that is coming between the present-and-past and the-present-and-future and then help them. Some of them feel the disconnect, but don’t know what it is. They think it’s just that they are in the wrong job, or something like that. Often they are dissatisfied or confused and think it is “their fault”. They don’t see it in the context of the deeper systemic changes and of their transition into this totally unknown future.
I can help them to see their present from the view-point of the future I see, so they can make decisions in the light of arriving safely in that future. Other futures are of course available, and some are grim. Personally I prefer to walk in the direction of the one I describe in my “Exponentially Human” chapter – and help others to head that way and co-create it.
So – we’ve talked about the ultimate goal. Tell me about some of the key highlights / turning points / obstacles you’ve overcome so far on that journey. (What scenes would make it into the film of your story so far?)
That’s a very “Before I Die Network” question – like when you ask us to imagine getting a Nobel prize and we have to take turns saying why we’ve won it. So – a film….
I suppose visually it would be interesting to see the development of the technology so we’d go back to the early days of programming my Exidy Sorcerer and using it with the infants I was teaching. That was down in Cornwall so we could linger on some stunning scenery as well.
Then probably we’d jump to the start of my African involvement, so you’d see me with my friend Agnita and her Nigerian husband Peter, and their children in London. You’d see Agnita and Peter and me doing various things for his “Oke-Ogun Community Development Agenda 2000 Plus” project. Then you’d see Peter leaving for Nigeria with all the equipment he was taking out there.
We couldn’t ignore the terrible time when I got the email saying he’d been killed, and I had to go round and tell Agnita.
Then it would be me on the way to Nigeria to represent Agnita and the children at his funeral, and during my time there we’d see some of the people who were to play key roles in the continuation of his work.
My shift from full time work to supply teaching (which was “challenging”) was noteworthy. It makes the point about the tension between paying the bills and giving time to the work you believe is important – work that doesn’t “tick the boxes” for external funding.
There were various adventures during my working holidays in Nigeria, Zambia and Kenya over the years – visually interesting – but to be honest they weren’t the most important part of the story. The important parts were always the relationships I was forming, the way my assumptions were being challenged, and the insights I was gaining. Both the Oke-Ogun project and Fantsuam Foundation would feature strongly.
The UK side included work I did with Lorraine Duff and then Nikki Fishman that enabled some useful UK-Africa collaborative initiatives, including the launch of “Peoples-uni” with Lorraine Duff, Omo Oaiya and Professor Dick Heller, and what Nikki and Dil Green are now doing for DadaMac. The outcomes were good – but I’m no screen-writer and visually I don’t know what “scenes” there would be to show.
Much of the work has been where there is a need for communication and connection but the tech isn’t sufficiently developed to make it happen, or the cultural differences make for gaps in understanding. Then we do work-arounds to make up for what is missing. That is very “time-intensive, human work” – some if it could be done better by developments in “the communications technology” and some of is it, and always will be, all about the human relationships.
Most of the story is about painstakingly developing ways to work effectively at a distance – based on what I was learning about the reality on the African side. The other side of it was recognising the communication gaps between on-the-ground projects and the “establishment” of “International Development” – big NGOs, universities, politicians etc. There are also perception gaps between interests in “technology as development” and “technology for development” (I wasted most of 2008 because of not recognising that).
So lots of learning curves, and going down blind alleys. Lots of going to free meetings in London, and joining online groups. Lots of one-to-one typed communications with people I know and respect but seldom if ever meet face-to-face.
Most of what I’ve done is visually boring. It’s months and years of hour-after-hour and day-after-day working somewhat obsessively, often in physical isolation.
But all the time there has been the experience of pushing the boundaries of communication – and experiencing a very real new kind of “community” – because of the ways we could overcome barriers of distance, and culture.
My work has always been different because of the way it has been built on relationships, and the need to keep communicating despite distance, and not giving up despite that fact that the internet only provided part of the solution. It was never just the easy stuff of communicating where the Internet existed, or staying in my own cultural silo.
Perhaps that is what makes my work special, and gives it a futuristic feel. It’s because of this imperative to communicate, a sense of people drawn together in order to rub-minds, and share our very different perspectives and resources, because of a shared purpose.
I hadn’t thought of that before – but it is having a shared purpose that connects people despite differences, and this is what will be the world changer – when we finally realise that we do all have a shared purpose (which is about enabling humanity to continue to thrive on the one and only planet we have).
In my UK-Africa and Internet work it’s like being on a journey together where we all bring something different and the differences give us our strength – when we manage to overcame the challenges that such differences and “distances” throw up.
Years of experience of working in the “online space” with mixed communities and shared purpose has shaped my thinking of how it is, and could be, to live in a more effectively interconnected world. What I’ve written in Exponenentially Human, and what I’m doing within FEAST make those ideas and realities accessible to a wider audience.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known at the start of that journey? (or what 3 lessons or reflections have you learnt that could help people at the start of similar journeys?)
One is about organising time.
I don’t always do it, but I’m glad I have it as a possibility. It’s a combination of “The Holacracy of One” approach and the Pomodoro Technique. But you’ll need to look them up, as they take quite a bit of explaining.
The second thing is about seeing we have two ears and one mouth – and taking that as a reminder to try to listen more than we talk – and to really listen, not just take a turn at being quiet while our minds wander elsewhere. This is like a lot of good advice I pass on – I have considerable difficulty doing it myself.
The third thing is about seeing things from other points of view. (The u.lab MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) on Transforming Business, Society, and Self is good for addressing that.)
This excellent, important and often illusive skill is illustrated in a cartoon where two people are sitting at opposite sides of a table looking at a card with a number on it. To one person it looks like a 9, to the other it looks like a 6.
I love the caption. It says “Just because you’re right doesn’t mean that I’m wrong” and of course its equally true the other way round – and we’d avoid so many arguments and and worse if only we could remember that.