Humans versus technology (and governments): Occupy EU

Eurozone map in 2009 Category:Maps of the Eurozone

Image via Wikipedia

I am so happy that I am not alone in my take on the Paradiso Conference, although the Conference itself is not mentioned.  Not only has an Open Letter been written to the European Commissioner for Research and Innovation (Máire Geoghegan-Quinn), but, to date, over 10,000 people from across Europe have signed it.

This letter, which you can view at http://www.eash.eu/openletter2011/index.php?file=openletter.htm , is  entitled “Horizon 2020: Social Sciences and Humanities research provides vital insights for the future of Europe”.  

The letter points out what Blind Freddy can see: that European society is complex and diverse, and it is more appropriate to talk about ‘societies’ and ‘cultures’ in the plural, rather than the singular.  This in turn suggests that there is no ‘One size fits all’ strategic plan, economic model or financial solution that can possibly be the most appropriate for all the countries in Europe, particularly those who are already members of the European Union.  The ongoing financial crisis in Greece (which is largely about banks not losing money, rather than austerity or poverty experienced by the people of Greece) has provided a very clear example of this.

This letter encourages creative responses to the question of what Europe will look like in the future, given current (and historical) events.  While there is little doubt that there will be change and transitions, as is pointed out, in the final analysis it is the people – of Europe and elsewhere in the world – that should be the focus of all debate, and their well-being the goal to be achieved.  I sometimes think that ‘strategy planners’ forget such simple facts, and assume that’s what is good for them (their companies or banks or governments or whatever) will somehow, by default, be good for the population at large.  We know this is untrue, as we see corporations scurrying to make profits for their shareholders (some of whom are us!) rather than considering the environment or any other short or long term ethical issue.

As far as academia is concerned, and the information professions in particular, this letter raises important issues.  For example, multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary work is encouraged in order to deal with the complex problems that we face: none of the ‘disciplines’ – whatever they are – has the vision, knowledge, methodologies or skills to imagine and put into place suitable solutions on its own.

In particular, it seems to be generally forgotten that ‘change’, whenever it is mentioned, is only important to us if societal change will occur – as a stimulus or a response to, for example, changing medical practices or changing technologies.  We are only interested in change, for the most part, if it will affect our lives in some way: our work, the education of our children, or where we will take our holidays.  If changes occur within a praxis (for example, new techniques for hip replacements) we would only be interested if, for example, either we or somebody we knew were to undergo such a procedure.

Those who praise technology as the most important, or perhaps even the only, agent of change have sadly completely misunderstood what the question was: particularly those who are designing technologies for problems or events that don’t yet exist, where they hope the technology will bring such phenomena or entities into existence.  And this is not to say that this doesn’t happen – look at the internet generally, and Google and Facebook in particular.  But I am fairly certain that none of those involved with the development of these had any idea how they might be used and, indeed, are used quite differently from what they may have imagined.

As the Open Letter points out, we cannot let the future be determined solely by the technologists: a number of challenges (and perhaps the most important ones) fall well within the bailiwick of the Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH).  And that, fellow information professionals, means us.  These areas include, as noted in the Letter, education, gender, identity, intercultural dialogue, media, security, and social innovation (to name but a few).  The Letter notes that it is the “key behavioural changes and cultural developments” which should concern us: “changing mindsets and lifestyles, models for resilient and adaptive institutions” are mentioned as examples.  The authors call this challenge “Understanding Europe…” and believe it is as important as other challenges such as food and transport.  They state, “a climate of sustainable and inclusive innovation in Europe can only be established, if European societies are conscious of their opportunities and constraints – this knowledge is generated by Social Sciences and Humanities research”.

It is time, I think, for all information professionals to consider carefully, and to articulate, how they see their societal role.  This is as important for the world as it is for individual professional futures.

Advertisements

Framing Paradise in Europe

Amelia Andersdotter, Swedish Pirate Party

Image via Wikipedia

PARADISO. a word bursting with promise, was chose as the title of a conference at which to discuss the future.  Subtitled, Ínternet and future societies’, it was never exactly clear whether the intent was to discuss what the present internet is, what the future internet might be, or even which societies were involved.  On one hand, the conference was being held under the auspices of the European Commission and indeed, under their very roof: Charlemagne at Schuman, shorthand for the acre or two in Brussels which is the power seat (or so the bureaucrats would like to think) of Europe: the location of the European Councail, Parliament and Commission.  http://paradiso-fp7.eu/events/2011-conference/  .  All the presentations available can be found at: http://paradiso-fp7.eu/events/2011-conference/agenda/.

The photo above is of one of the most interesting speakers at this conference, a Member of the European Parliament representing the Swedish Pirate Party.  Her presentation is unfortunately not available on the official Paradiso website.  Her name is Amelia Andersdotter.

Interestingly, the conference was free and open to all: all those, of course, who could be in Brussels for three days in early September.  Registration was limited to 450 attendees, thereby excluding the other 6,999,999,550 for whom attendance was impossible for one reason or another.  It was no surprise therefore to find that the majority of attendees were from Brussels itself (surely the bureaucratic capital of the world) and furthermore, that at least 30% of the attendees were invited speakers.  The majority of these were representatives of the EU in one form or another, CEOs or owners of IT companies.  For decency’s sake, a few representatives of the social sciences were invited:  amongst these, Philippe Quéau, Representative of UNESCO to the Maghreb; Ruben Nelson, Executive Director, Foresight Canada;  Lynn St Amour, President & CEO, The Internet Societyand Australian Genevieve Bell, Director, Interactions and experience research, Intel Labs.   For the post part, the attitude that became evident during the conference was epitomised by a quotation from Wired which Angela Hariche of the OECD offered:

Google‘s founding philosophy is that we don’t know why this page is better than that one: If the statistics of incoming links say it is, that’s good enough.  No semantic or causal analysis is required. Wired 2008

Unfortunately, I missed the opening evening, and so cannot comment on that.  The winner of an international children’s drawing competition was announced, in which children from several countries (a strange selection of these…) were asked to depict the internet of the future.  For the most part, the children showed that they are as human as the rest of us: they are unable to predict the future but rather, at best, extrapolate from and exaggerate characteristics of the present.  One picture was, in particular, quite alarming: a person which his back to us is placed in front of a screen which shows a female characteri behind a desk.  She is surrounded by symbols of commercial concerns: FaceBook, Twitter, MSN.  The enquirer is clearly cast as subsidiary and trivial, a supplicant at the altar of technology, in need of its blessing and, at the same time, a consumer of ICT and its products.

The presentations  from the conference are downloadable from the link mentioned above, as mentioned, as so they are not duplicated here.  Please read them as you may well disagree with what I have to say here, which constitutes my impressions and opinions only.  Overall, it was hard to determine the purpose of the conference.  I was labouring under the delusion that it was a forum for discussion; a place where those who had studied the issue: the intersection between ICTs and society.  Sociologists considering social change, futurologists, and perhaps developers of advanced technologies discussion their design and use processes in order to bring about the social ‘development’ and ‘progress’ of society.  Was this the place to start piecing together the many bits of the complex mosaic so that a clear image of the future and how to achieve it would emerge?  But rather than identifying and dealing with the challenges that we are currently facing, I came away with quite different impressions.

The mindset of the majority of the speakers, participants and attendees seemed to be still strongly located in an industrialist, late capitalist/consumerits, modernist or ‘scientific’ world view.  Either they are unaware of, or do not wish to recognise, that different models exist and may perhaps be more useful, given the theme of the conference.  It seemed as if the speakers were invited particularly in order to convince the policy-makers in the Brussels bureaucracy what budgets they should consider for the issues they identified: issues that largely explored what developments their companies could undertake and, furthermore, that their companies (or committees) would be able to meet the challenges of the contemporary world successfully, as they had already created and could deliver solutions.

No magic wand was evident.

Perhaps (and caveat: I am cynical) the devout wish of the organisers and participants (for the most part) was to give the illusion of providng an open public and transparent platform at which all interested parties could express their views, debate and reach consensus, although the real (obscured?) intent was to ensure the continued funding of ICT projects in the EU.  The use of public monies for such purposes was not questioned, in spite of the present economic problems of the world, and particularly the Eurozone.  In other words, ‘problems’ were viewed selectively and not holistically.

The list of the ‘problems’ with which ‘society’ is now confronted was chanted as a liturgy by nearly every speaker: climate change, the financial crisis and political confusion, amongst them.  Of course, the solution – or the keys to paradise to continue the metaphor – is ICTs, particularly as conceived and executed by the interested parties.  ‘Research’ appeared to refer to the development of new technologies, and it was an outcome devoutly to be wished that the EC would supply a budget robust enough to support such ‘research’.  Strangely – to me, anyway – problems such as unemployment and joblessness, poverty, illiteracy and ignorance, and even education (no, not even elearning) were not mentioned.

Nor were solutions to specific problems offered, except for it being suggested that a more interactive, participative democracy may be possible using the internet.   This was particularly ironic for me, because as a member of the LinkedIn Paradiso Group, I have made a couple of comments in the discussion surrounding the event, only to discover that not only have they all be deleted, but I have been expelled from the group!  While I could have guessed that the organisers may feel omnipotence as they are, after all, setting out to change the world, I did believe that open discussion was a pretty important part of contemporary and future life, never mind paradise or other utopias.

Another element of confusion was the geographic focus.  It appeared as if there would be an emphasis on Europe, but alas, here too I was mistaken, confusing ‘geographic’ focus for ‘economic’ focus.  There were representatives from the United States, China and India.  And the mobile phone situation in Mali was discussed, if only to illustrate how it was possible (although I am sure seldom exercised) to access the internet from an old mobile phone.  My experiences in Africa, having spent the best part of 4 decades there, suggest that few people use mobile phones for internet access, and even fewer have smartphones of any kind.  And the internet is far from easily available or cheap.  And there are questions of literacy etc but I’ll leave it at that for the moment.

It’s all very well talking about how ICTs change our lives (in middle-class, affluent, well-resourced populations), as Neelie Kroes did in her opening address, but without being specific, and looking at both the good and bad, such statements are less than meaningless.  It’s not the ICTs, Neelie, it’s what people do with them.  And what do they do with them?  They share ideas (information) across time and space.  Quickly.  And that’s about it.  And it’s not even this that is so very important:  what is most important of all is what people do with those ideas, how they know which ones are useful, which they can trust to make decisions and to act upon, which ideas will help them – in the long run – achieve happiness, act in sustainable ways, or whatever else the current objectives of humans happens to be, as varied and diverse as they (and which include making a profit, controlling people, ensuring safety or whatever).

There were some speakers that hinted that a new way of thinking about the world – and in fact, just thinking, as a new experience – was now required, and I must agree.  Sustainability, well-being and happiness:  can it be that these same people really desire these ends?  Carlo Sessa, President of ISIS, Italy, coordinator of the PASHMINA project and member of the Global Europe 2030-2050 expert group, spoke towards these ends, and his comments were very interesting.  But how may they achieved against the hegemonic backdrop of vested interests and profiteering?

What’s the point?

Center for Information and Communication Techn...

Image by whiteafrican via Flickr

There is no question that there is a surging urge to digitise. But what inspires this? What is the point of all this activity? There are a number of conversation strands to this topic, and I look at some of them here.  It is likely there are more, and others.  What does emerge is that there are professional, philosophical, economic and possibly even cultural differences in approach to digitisation, and these are by no means consistent or consensual. In fact, some of the drivers for digitisation seem to be using the same means to achieve quite different ends.

1. The first and perhaps most obvious inspiration for the digitisation of the world’s documents and cultural artefacts finds its origin in the zeitgeist of the so-called information society: a zeitgeist, may it be said, which by now is surely rather old and tawdry, and exposed for the misconceived delusion that it is. We now know that all societies have always been ‘information societies’; that we by and large agree with Daniel Bell and Manuel Castells that the concept of the ‘information society’ is in fact but another stage of the capitalist industrial society, which encourages consumerism. We are aware that the notion of ‘globalisation’, in the way it is enacted by multinationals to exploit the poor and disadvantaged in favour of the rich, has some serious ethical questions to answer. We can also, quite quickly, dismiss the idea that technologies, in and of themselves, can create change or increase social development: it is the USE of them, and the PURPOSES for which they are used that will make the desired differences in the lives of individuals, communities and societies. This purpose, from the point of view of information professionals, is to assist in the communication of information (or ideas) between people. Alas: at the same time, there seems to be a parallel desire to keep populations ignorant or misinformed, at least by certain regimes: information flows are suppressed.

2. A second driver for digitisation is certainly economic. This has two aspects: firstly, digitisation and increasing use of information and communication techologies (ICTs) seems to be understood to be the way to create new jobs, new possibilities to make money and perhaps even fortunes. This aspiration was dashed at least once, with the dot.com bust in the 1990s: the only people who seem to be making money now are those who are selling the equipment – which needs to be constantly updated and replaced – and the software – although possibilities here seem to be limited with the increased availability of free software and, more importantly, Open Source coding systems. Some online endeavours are financially valued in strange ways, too, which are perhaps difficult to understand. The billions of dollars that Facebook is allegedly worth is, to my mind, a strange phenomenon. But there are still seemingly unlimited opportunities for online merchandising, marketing and retailing, and consultants in social networking marketing seem to be thriving.

The other side of the economic or financial aspect is the possibility for saving money and cost-cutting. This applies not only to the vending of virtual objects such as ebooks or online services (website hosting, for example), which cost little to store and maintain. The replacement of libraries by the internet seems to be a very real possibility for many governments dealing with the fallout from the Global Financial Crisis (GFC – which always, for some reason, reminds me of Dahl’s Big Friendly Giant – BFG). David Cameron‘s present regime in the UK is a good example of this: it extends to replacing large numbers of public servants whose work can, apparently, also be done by citizens using the internet. ICTs continue to be deified as saviours of the world, if one is to believe the rhetoric that is expressed in many government documents, particularly perhaps some of those emanating for the iEurope European Union’s digital economy initiatives.

3.  Digitisation of documents does, however, open doors that were previously firmly shut. The Open Educational Resources University  (http://wikieducator.org/OER_university#Core_initiatives_of_the_logic_model) campaign being led, to all intents and purposes, by Wayne Mackintosh, is a prime example of this. It uses the best characteristics of the ‘information society’ , such as globalisation, to reach scholars and teachers all over the world, in order to create and distribute university learning materials to those who live all over the world – not just in the rich parts – so that they will have access to tertiary education. Surely this is the only way forward, in this dimension? I have mentioned Open Source software; there is also an increased movement towards access to ideas that is possible in a digitised, virtual, networked, information environment: Open Access. This is particularly useful for the dissemination of scholarly information, as well as those documents that are required to support other roles in society, not forgetting entertainment. All of these possibilities, combined with the increasing mobility of ICT devices (smaller and cheaper) and wireless access, may perhaps lead to significant improvements in people’s lives. Some even say that ICTs facilitated the recent political changes we have seen in North Africa.

4. We cannot rule out the possibility that digitisation is also being stimulated by technological determinism. “Oooh! I want to build a twaddler! It’s new! It’s big! It’s shiny!” But what can it be used for? Does it help me? Will it last for ever? Do we need one?  Rather cynically, there does appear to be some of this in a few digitisation initiatives, which have lasted for only as long as the funding has been around – and there doesn’t appear to have been enough reason or purpose to continue the funding. While, for many reasons, I endorse and support – and am enthusiastic about – the purposes to which the digitisation of cultural resources and documents can be put, I am still more than a bit concerned about the long-term prognosis. ‘Digital preservation’ still appears, to me, to be an oxymoron. As well as this, as I have been saying for about two decades, the technology is still very primitive: I don’t think that our clever colleagues in computer science and technologies have come anywhere near to where their work might still take them. Regarding existing technologies as the ‘last word’, or even suggesting that things may stay more or less the same (simply because our imaginations fail us), could mean making a very big mistake indeed.

5. The last aspect of the enthusiasm for digitisation may be motivated by a desire for control (above and beyond any economic or financial considerations). Access to information (or ideas, which I find to be the most useful synonym) has always, and will always be, regarded politically, as ideas may be – and indeed often are – dangerous: at least to the status quo, and especially to those who would be upset or lose out if the status quo were to be disturbed. Paradoxically, digitisation simultaneously provides the possibility for loss of centralised control: the use of Twitter and Facebook in Egypt, for example, or perhaps as a slightly more exaggerated example, WikiLeaks and now UniLeaks (http://www.unileaks.org), which could be seen as serving as the conscience of contemporary society. Citizen journalism – and indeed all social media – are other expressions of this facility. Information, or ideas, no longer have to be sanctioned by those in power or positions of authority: anybody (even me) can say what they like and have the possibility of being heard all over the world. UKUncut ( http://ukuncut.org.uk/blog/26th-march—invite-your-friends) provides  but one example of this.  This may possibly be an unexpected outcome of (4) above: “We invented the twaddler but we didn’t realise it could be used like THIS!”.

Looking forward to hearing from you – and please post comment here and on the Wallwisher!

All the best as ever, wherever you are

S