Nothing is simple or predictable in these rapidly changing times. Little is certain, except the need to accept that we can’t go back to some idealised past and we can’t stay in a “familiar” present. Increasingly the present is unfamiliar. Like it or not our only choice is the future. It’s where we’re headed – and it seems to be racing towards us – disrupting the present.
All around us things are changing
In a way it’s like being a time traveller. Imagine getting in your time machine and arriving in a future that is set in a familiar physical landscape but there is something odd about it. The way things are done, the behaviours and expectations of individual people, these are somehow not what you are accustomed to. Sometimes the things you do in your usual way work out fine, so that you feel nothing is different. Then, at the next moment, you do something else and that simply doesn’t lead on in the way you expect. You feel a bit confused, frustrated or thwarted. Geographically you recognise where you are, but the time travelling means that the mindset you need to function comfortably and effectively requires constant revision.
Perhaps you’re already experiencing some of that “not quite right” feeling in aspects of your daily life. Maybe expectations of “how things are” and “the usual way of doing things” aren’t working out any more. Perhaps in your mind there is the life plan of the baby boomers – “Go to school, pass exams, get job, settle down, get mortgage, keep working, retire….” and yet that doesn’t seem so realistic now. Perhaps there are other expectations that don’t match reality for you.
What about the institutions that “seem to have been around for ever” or at least for as long as any of us can remember? How well established and fit for purpose do they seem? How much of the life you grew up expecting to find ahead of you still seems likely?
Life – version one and version two
I believe we are living in a time of such rapid, deep, and disruptive systemic change that for many of us our early lives and our future lives may be almost unrecognisable as part of the same story. If your present life has increasing mismatches with your previous expectations I suggest you start to consider yourself as a time traveller. Think of yourself as being in transit. Imagine yourself part way between version one of your present life and version two.
Version one of our life is the version that seamlessly connects us (or used to connect us) with the life we’ve lived since we were born.
We also have a “version two” of our life which will connect seamlessly with our future life.
Between the two versions of our lives there may be a disconnect, and for many of us that disconnect is happening now. We all have to take our own journey from version one of our life to version two, and it may be a bumpy ride, which is why the time travel idea can prove helpful.
With time travelling, just like any other journey, there are many ways to go about it. Personally, when I travel, I appreciate some company and some preparation. So I’m looking for travelling companions, and I’m collecting clues about the journey, so I can have some kind of map, some landmarks, to help me on my way.
There are many possible futures, and many possible routes we might take, so let’s check our maps, to see if we’re heading in the same direction. The route I’m taking starts out from the disruptions caused by the internet. To see how our maps compare I suggest you imagine a timeline that starts around 25 years ago and reaches 25 years into the future, better still, sketch it out, and add some dotted lines off in both directions for the more distant past and future. Around 25 years ago mark the invention of the world wide web (Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the world wide web was celebrated at the Web We Want Festival on the South Bank in 2014 and 2015). You can put emails and the internet itself a bit earlier.
Making a map
Continue mapping things out from your own experience. It may be helpful to answer some of these questions:
- When did you first use the internet?
- How did you access it?
- Where was it (a cyber cafe, a library, school, home, work, somewhere else)?
- Who owned the equipment?
- Who paid?
- How has it all changed?
- What internet tools do you use now?
As you search your memory and the images come to mind scatter them appropriately around your timeline.
Now bring your mind back to the present. Think how many times in the day you turn to the internet. Do you know? You may use it so automatically that it’s hard to tell. Maybe it’s just “always on”, and is much part of your life as electricity and the air you breathe.
A little experiment
If you are a frequent user then I suggest a little experiment. Push your tablet, phone, laptop or whatever you use firmly out of reach so next time you want internet access you’ll have to get up and consciously notice that you’re re-connecting. As you push your internet connections away consider how long you’ll feel comfortable being disconnected. Which of the following will you reach for soonest – food, drink or the internet?
If you were reading this online and have done the experiment, welcome back. (I wonder how long you were away, offline, unconnected.)
Returning to our map, to our audit of how we use the internet. Try to remember when you, or people you know, started to use “internet things”. Think of the equipment and think of what you used it for. Think of what it displaced. (Maybe you remember chunky telephone directories and the Yellow Pages, or going to a reference library whenever you needed to look in an encyclopaedia or large atlas.) Fill the details in on the timeline. Create your rough map of changing times. Don’t worry too much about accuracy, just get a general feeling of when the internet first came into our lives and how much it is now becoming routine.
What happened first? When did you start to look for information on the internet? When and how did you start to send it? Do you remember learning how? Were you around when “digital information” was only exchanged as text, not multi media? What about the speed of access, and the price? What about the kit that you’ve used and the history of the shift from clunky, shared PCs to the smart phones and other devices people habitually carry now?
Patterns of change
Whoever you are, and however much or little you use the internet I’m guessing you’ll be seeing some kind of pattern of growth, and by now it may be steep, rapid growth, not a gentle climb. Even if you’re keeping your personal use to a minimum, the internet is increasingly working away behind the scenes, in the provision of the goods and services we use. Visibly and invisibly the internet is impacting our lives. It is altering the structures of the world where we live. It is affecting our relationships with other people and with our surroundings.
Consider your timeline. How does present use compare with 5, 10, and 25 years ago? Think of some key events in your life, and the date of them, and what was in use then for phones, cameras, and computers and if they connected with the internet. What was it like when you started school, and when you left? Are you old enough to remember the Millennium celebrations and what was around then?
That’s the past. If the pattern of use that you see continues, how will it look in 10 or 25 years time? What will you put on your future timeline? Is it possible to imagine 25 years ahead? Is it even possible to imagine just 5 years into the future?
A connected world
We live in a connected world, and it’s getting more connected by the minute. We are increasingly reliant on information that flows through the internet. Some of us know that we’re addicted to it. We recognise a feeling of discomfort or even panic if we realise the internet is no longer to hand. It’s become like air, food, water and electricity. It’s a “normal” part of our lives. We assume it will be to available and feel surprised and deprived if it isn’t.
This move towards constant connectivity over huge distances is recent. It‘s not the way that life on our planet has been lived in the past. The internet has the potential for a radically different way for us to live our lives. It changes how we can relate to other people when we are not in the same physical place, and how we can learn from each other and work together. It changes what we can know and how quickly we can know it. It alters our experiences of control and complexity and how decisions are taken. It opens up new opportunities for collaboration and transparency. People have never before lived in a world that is so connected. We don’t fully understand its potential, its pitfalls and its dynamics. We lack role models. We lack experience of how to live in this world.
Look back at your timeline. When did the internet become normal instead of a novelty?
How recently did people expect to keep in touch with each other, easily and affordably, even when thousands of miles apart? When did some people stop being “fully present” anywhere or with anyone for long, preferring instead to repeatedly “be elsewhere and with others” by connecting online. What was life like before people checked the internet for information they’d forgotten and stuff they’d never known. How long ago was that other life?
What seems most natural to you now – living in an internet-based, connected world, or living in the one before the internet?
If the connected world seems most natural when did you move over into it? Perhaps you are young enough to have been born there. Who else is in that world with you? Do you know anyone who is still living in the unconnected world (or who thinks that they are)? How much longer do you think they can stay that way? How does it feel to flip between those two worlds, seeing those two parallel “realities”, mixing with people who experience the world in two very different ways?
If you feel you are still largely in the unconnected world, how comfortable are you with that? Is it how and where you want to stay? Do you ever feel that the world that you know is being taken away from you? Do you think it will be possible to stay there or are you being pushed relentlessly towards greater connectivity? Do you ever feel a bit like a displaced person?
Now, forget the present and future for a while. Go to the part of your time line that stretches back beyond 25 years, before the start of the internet. What was in existence then? What organisations and systems were there? Think about education, health, law, politics, finance, transport, food production, manufacturing, communications, anything that is important to you. Here and there on the dotted line that represents more than 25 years ago, note what you think of as key dates in the ways those systems have developed. How long are their histories? How far back into our unconnected past do they reach? Decades? Centuries? Millennia? We need to map them because they are the structures and landmarks of “version one” of our lives. They have brought us, and the people near us, to this point in time.
Patterns of thought and behaviour
The major organisational structures that affect our lives have been around for considerably more than 25 years. What does that mean for the way that our institutions and organisational systems “think” and behave? How deeply are their cultures embedded in the pre-connected world? How deeply does that history affect our own normal ways of thinking and behaving? Do these institutions, and their influences, in their current forms, really belong with us in our connected world, or are they part of an earlier world order, one that, as individuals, we are increasingly leaving behind us? If our thoughts, beliefs and behaviours were formed in that pre-connected world and if the world has changed into a connected one then what does that mean to us? Is it any wonder we are sometimes confused and bewildered like newly arrived time travellers trying to make sense of what has changed and what hasn’t?
Adopting and adapting
I‘m not suggesting long-established institutions have failed to adopt digital technologies, or that they don’t use the internet. The paraphernalia of connectivity is everywhere, but what you see is not necessarily what you get. If the institutions pre-date the internet and the connected world then it is natural for them to take connectivity as an “add-on”, something to be adopted in an incremental way, something to improve various aspects of the “usual ways of doing things”. But if the “usual ways of doing things” were designed for a world that is passing away, a world that pre-dates connectivity, perhaps their “usual ways of doing things” are not related to the best, or most appropriate, things to be doing.
I’m pointing to the organisations in which people work, not at the individual people who work in the organisations. People are adapting rapidly. It is the organisations that are more likely to be getting left behind. Any institution that has been around for more than a quarter of a century was designed for a pre-connected-world, not for the connected world where we increasingly live. It has objectives and expectations that were set in the pre-connected world. If the systems around us were created before the internet but our personal lives are internet-based no wonder there are disconnects.
Living in parallel worlds
It’s not surprising if sometime it feels as if we are living in several parallel worlds all at the same time. If the internet is an add-on to the existing system then the system belongs at the start of our time-travel journey (the part that is tied to our past). If the system has been radically redesigned within the realities of the connected world, or has emerged naturally as a part of that connected world, then it belongs at the arrival point in this time travel journey, the point where we connect with our future.
A practical example
I like practical examples. Generalisations are dangerous. We bring such different experiences to them. I’ll use education as an example. Someone working in education might ask “How do we bring the internet and the ‘connected-world’ into our schools and colleges?” Expressed like that, there is an assumption about schools and colleges that suggests the internet is an add-on to “education as usual”. We can turn the question around and ask “How do we bring our educational system into the emerging reality of the connected world?” That provides a different starting point, and can leave previous expectations behind.
A real world example of an emerging system that enables learning amongst adults is GlobalNet21 (GN21) although it doesn’t describes itself in educational terms. It’s an organisation that has grown out of the opportunities for connectivity provided by the internet. It could not have come into existence earlier. I’ll give some key features. Details can easily be found online.
Features of GN21
There is no GN21 building. Meetings happen at various locations (including pubs, people’s homes, public halls and committee rooms at the House of Parliament.) Meetings are announced online with an RSVP box to tick. Places are on a first come first served basis. There is nothing like a curriculum. There are no exams. Anyone can join. People choose what events they want to attend. Many GN21 people connect through social media. They also meet online in real time through webinars and hangouts. It costs £15 a year to join, but no-one is excluded through inability to pay.
I see GN21 as part of the 21st century adult education system because it provides rich resources and opportunities for its members to think and learn. Many different topics are covered, all relating to aspects of life in the 21st century. People explore their individual interests by connecting with experts and newbies. They tap into the knowledge of practitioners and share their own expertise. They collaborate to make the most of the online tools that are available to share information and enable discussion. It’s a global network, with thousands of members. No two people follow the same path. GN21 is different things to different people. It describes itself as a global public square.
Old and new
The online world is full of new ways of doing things, ways that couldn’t have existed before the internet. They are emerging as we get to know the online space. Simultaneously some ways that pre-date the internet continue to prove their worth. Additional old ways are being rediscovered and readopted thanks to our increased access to information and to each other. Meanwhile some of the old ways (especially those around planning and control, getting feedback and making decisions) are becoming too slow and cumbersome for connected-world living.
Our time travelling
Our time travelling could be taking us anywhere. Maybe we’ll shuttle back and forth in our time machines between version one of our lives and version two. Maybe next time we go forward we’ll find there is no way to come back to where we are now. I don’t want us to dash off unprepared, grabbing the wrong stuff and leaving behind what really matters. If we shuttle back and forth enough we may get to the future like experienced campers who’ve learned what’s required and have what is needed to hand. Maybe we’ll follow trails that other people have marked out. Maybe we’ll help to mark those trails.
I’m expecting my time travels to take me to a more connected future world, but nothing is certain. Perhaps the electrical power will have run out and there will be no connected future world to arrive at. Perhaps my time machine will arrive in a future where the political power system has destroyed our freedoms to connect and work together. Maybe the future will be dire, or maybe somehow it will become better than the present that we leave behind. We won’t know until we get there.
Hopes and reality
I’m going to leave speculation and tie this back into reality again. I’m hoping to live in a connected world influenced by the kind of people I’ve already met through my internet-based networks. These are people with practical skills, knowledge, and creativity . They have values that I admire and appreciate. From the people I’ve already met I know there are more out there. Their influence would mean a future with an emphasis on knowledge-sharing and collaboration, with strategies built on practical experience. Under such influence we could expect a renewed understanding of ourselves as part of the living world and a rejection of the short-term, selfish, plundering approaches of our immediate past and present. That also tends towards more emphasis on community, sustainable development and shared responsibilities – less push towards the isolated individualism and competitive consumerism we have been taught to desire.
Steep learning curves
Of course there will be difficulties and things that go wrong as we try to discover how to live together in our changing world, with its many looming, perfect storms and challenges. Real life is messy. Learning together and developing new approaches involves trial and error. We have steep learning curves ahead and time is not on our side.
Things won’t always turn out as we hope. People don’t always get on well together. We have different viewpoints, different cultures, different strength and weaknesses. Fortunately some people are strong in people skills, supporting collaborations and enabling conflict resolution. Between us, world wide, we have huge creative, problem solving skills and capacity. Something new will emerge.
What we’ll find in our future depends on our vision and values, what we take with us, what we leave behind, and how soon and energetically we arrive to start exploring and building. As we set out we know that there are new possibilities, big challenges, and there is urgency.
We need to get started while options are still open to us. If we look for patterns in the connected world we can see positive things that are already happening. We can be more aware of them, join in and help to accelerate their growth. We need to build our online communities, not just online communities of individuals, but online “communities of communities”. Online involvement doesn’t mean neglecting local and face-to-face. “Local” is where we live our physical lives. Ironically it is through our online connections that we can accelerate new connections with people in our physical locality. We can be increasingly active and connected both in the real world and the virtual one.
As we discover more future-centred people locally we can develop stronger, shared-interest, future-centred, more sustainable, local communities. We need effective connections between these local communities, quickly learning from each other and collaborating. We need openness about what we are trying to do and what seems to be working (or not) and why. We need true connections between the local and the global. We need new habits of mutual respect and collaboration.
The world we have known is disappearing. We have to move on. Let’s do our best to make it a good move.
“Journey mercies” to us, time travellers all.