As we watch the results of the local elections trickle in through the night many a pundit and political communicator briefs us on the battle between labour and conservatives. Baffled by how the Conservatives did not do so well in the national elections last year after massive leads in the polls. Baffled by how the apparently triumphant march of labour did not translate into a sweep at the local elections last night.
The obsession is with UKIP, and where their voters who pursued the ‘protest vote’ are finding their new home.
But this bafflement misses the point. And the obsession with UKIP asks the wrong questions.
UKIP garnered votes from those in the electorate who were not satisfied with the efficacy of our governance structure. But now that change has been ushered onto the table for discussion, are they focused on left or right? No, it does not look like it. The sum equation of dialogue amongst the citizens of this country leaves us in electoral outcomes where there is no appetite amongst us to reward one party over the other. So, what do voters want? Voters want national unity. Wisdom of the crowds.
National unity is something leaders in all spheres and all sectors can focus on. A national conversation about our future – ambitious and optimistic. National unity means standing together in our conversations with other nations, being respectful towards them whilst having the confidence to pursue a winning future for all the citizens of our country.
The level of debate currently taking place is painful to witness. Not because there are no answers to the important questions being asked of Britons today. But because of how this discussion is being pursued.
We could be pursuing a participatory approach to examining these questions and finding the means and medium through which that conversation can take place. After all, we live in the crowdfunding and crowdsourcing generation. These are not unimaginable concepts. In fact, we have been working on them. Yet, nobody has found and nobody is looking for a means through which to activate a participatory, collaborative, inclusive discussions about our future.
Instead, people use the poisonous environments augmented by social media platforms and fear-driven polarisation in the print-media, as meccas for battle with ourselves. A societal self-destruction with inevitable implications of a poorer experience of the future.
If we know that the social platforms today divide and destroy us, why do we continue to use them? We need another approach to community discussion. We need a new version of the village square. A modern day village square that brings ideas into a constructive proximity with each other, nurturing an understanding of the issues, identifying the goals we are trying to achieve as a community and the context and instruments for developing strategies and deliverables that meet those ends.
In this environment, leaders from all sectors and citizens from across the board can come together as equal, in the tradition of open and solution oriented discussion. And we can be fearless. Fearless of one another – because we are all in this together. Fearless, because we know wellbeing for all makes for a stronger and more successful national community. Fearless of one another because we know that the obstacle is the way. Let’s pursue a vibrant ideational space where the needs of all parts of society are recognised, where we can focus on our common goals instead of ideology, and develop solutions that meet the needs of all our communities. We can do this, and when we do we will all be more likely to experience the questions we are asking today as gateways to a brighter future for us all.
The Brexit and the US elections political campaigns raised serious questions about the efficacy of our current practice of democracy, the responsibilities of government to its people, and the role of governance in a globalising world. In reality, there were some merits to all sides of political arguments. Unfettered, spirited and respectful discussions could have allowed those merits to shine. Issues could have been discussed holistically and maturely. New ideas and solutions could have evolved as a result of mature discussion in the public sphere.
This is not what happened with Brexit and the US elections.
In both cases, I watched people become hate-filled and fascistic against those they disagree with politically. Some are people I know personally, good people, whose lives I know to be committed to improving the wellbeing of humanity, who are wedded to the deepest principles. Yet, whether subtle or overt, the virus of oppositional and violent thought, speech and action took hold.
How did this happen? Heavy machinery of propaganda were deployed.
Citizens, media and civic institutions were mobilised as agents of dehumanisation, to conceal the noble moral, political, social and economic arguments being made by those supporting the ‘other’ political stance. Good people were manipulated into believing that their core moral principles were in jeopardy unless they vehemently opposed.
People lost the ability to empathise. Rational discourse broadly disappeared.
It’s all about how the brain works
David Eagleman explains what happens to the brain when it is immobilised by propaganda. Propaganda causes individuals to perceive those who are the subject of the propaganda with the part of the brain that deals with objects. People are turned into objects. Exaggerations, misinterpretations and falsifications are used to transform otherwise empathetic human beings into those who in the worst cases are willing to destroy and murder others on mass and in unison.
What is most troubling and ironic, particularly in the case of Brexit and the US elections, is how so many accepted and propagated the culture of falsification and hatred in the name of democracy, decency, humanity and even anti-fascism. But this is far from the first times these tricks have been pulled.
In recent history, Hitler rode to power and to his villainous aspirations of genocide and European domination on the coattails of justice, decency and humanism. This play of turning people into ‘others’ through the use of propaganda has blighted humanity since time immemorial. Perhaps the desire to propagate and the readiness to consume propaganda is driven by the limbic part of the brain – the so called ‘lizard brain’ that operates on fight or flight, hunt or be hunted instincts. But recorded human history can also be characterised by efforts of numerous cultures trying to move away from this kind of behaviour, towards a collaborative model. Efforts perhaps driven by the more evolved parts of our brain, most notably the frontal cortex – facilitating cognitive processes that allow us to feel empathy.
It seems our brains have evolved to deliver two competing experiences of the world: the zero sum paradigm and the win win paradigm.
Under the influence of the limbic brain and within the zero sum paradigm, we react to difference with fear. The rich fear the poor, the poor fear the rich. One society, culture or religion fears the other. The constant nagging feeling is that our survival is threatened by the other, and can only be guaranteed if we run from or we destroy the other.
In contrast, in the win win paradigm, using the frontal cortex of the brain, we can all win. If we can all win there’s nothing to fear of the other. On the contrary, in the win win paradigm we benefit from each other’s wisdom, perception and perspective. Differences are to be treasured, embraced and nurtured.
If our brain functions in this dual capacity, this should have tangible implications for our next steps in terms of politics and technology.
Our political forces us to be divided
An important question raised by Brexit and the US Elections is whether our current practice of democracy is delivering governance that meets the needs of the people. But what is democracy?
In practice, democracy often just means people vote and the majority wins. As an ideal, democracy means governance is according to the will of the people. But majority-rule and the ‘will of the people’ can mean very different and sometimes contradictory things. Why? Majority rule by definition means that the needs of the minority will be ignored.
The word ‘democracy’ comes from the Greek words ‘demos’ (people) and ‘kratia’ (power). People power. The people rule. This is the idea that ‘the people’ should be free. Free from oppression of the elites. Free to rule themselves. Because people know what they need. This may sound obvious, but it was quite the revolution after the emergence of city states beckoned top-down elite leadership in order to maintain efficient order in increasingly complex societies. In this context, the pursuit of people power has been by and large implemented using the simplest model: vote – majority rules. The goal has been to find an agreeable way to disagree.
The problem with majority rule democracy is that it sets us up to fall back into the zero sum paradigm, and for the zero sum paradigm to be exploited and propagated by the elites. We have left ourselves wide open to inclinations of fear of the other; the competitive notion that if you win then I will lose. We are open to propaganda. To be made to feel malice, jealousy, fear. Even early philosophers like Socrates were convinced this would happen (https://youtu.be/fLJBzhcSWTk).
And this is what we witnessed with Brexit and the US elections. The spectacle of otherisation channeled through our current model of the majority-rule democratic medium, in ways that have left the world shuddering in the absence of empathy.
But we are acting as prisoners of our past, instead of standing on the shoulders of giants. Our collective cultural inheritance has become the subject of conspiracy, doubt and ideological fatigue, rather than the object of inspiration – a gift we have the unparalleled power to build upon today.
Democracy can only work if we constantly return to the drawing board to re-examine its meaning and how we practice it. We know that our current practice of ‘majority rule’ feeds oppositional discourse. At the same time we know that on the one hand brain is wired to be exploited by oppositional discourse, and on the other it has the capacity to rise above it.
Could it be that our institutions of governance could be redesigned so that the cooperative part of our brains are more exercised in our political discourse, participation and decision making? Could rejigging our institutional framework of governance make us less susceptible to compromise and the exploitation of our limbic brain?
These are questions we should not be afraid of exploring. No system will be perfect. But one that is better than what we have today can be further improved tomorrow.
Whilst democracy can never happen without some kind of decision-making voting apparatus, it is possible for us to relegate those divisions to substance rather than identity. Here are some examples of what we could do.
a]Appoint the cabinet directly through elections: This would force political campaigns to focus on the substance of the candidates policy platform. Citizens may still end up very divided on certain issues, but it’s more likely there will be areas where any citizen has voted like another. Plus, elected cabinet members would be more accountable to their electoral commitments.
b]Use technology to enable citizen participation in policy development and implementation. We live in the age of the internet, so this is possible. Participating in developing and implementing solutions for the issues that really matter to us will make us more informed about the issues we are voting on, more aware of the complexities, and less susceptible to oppositional discourse. Also, given that relevant stakeholders will be involved in identifying the issues, political candidates will be in a much better position to base their policy platforms on meeting citizen needs.
Whether you voted to remain or to leave, Brexit has exposed deep divisions in our communities; here in the UK and across europe. But there are solutions.
The complexity of governing half a billion people cannot be boiled down to a (generally) one-size-fits-all policy architecture. Communities have differing needs, concerns, risks and opportunities. Provisions that work for one type of economy (e.g. a city) may not work for another type (e.g. a town).
I don’t think any of us would argue that we believe in liberal democracy and civil, economic and human rights if we are content with half a population — or even a quarter, tenth or fifth — being unhappy.
Indeed, catering for the varying needs of different parts of the EU electorate is already an important feature of EU values and many other modern governance models. But, in common with all governance institutions today, the policies underpinned by EU values are implemented in a vacuum of technology that can efficiently facilitate responsiveness to local needs. In practice, this results in localised pockets of democratic deficit and an EU institution perceived as unaccountable to its electorate.
But technology can redeem EU values from the chains of unintended totalitarianism and unleash their glory as the guiding lights of responsive policy making and implementation. Technology can be the fuel of democratic accountability, underpinning an EU framework and decision making toolset that allows the EU and its member states to respond to the needs of their electorate.
The single market immigration policy is one but pertinent example. Here, technology can facilitate changing needs in job markets and immigration going hand in hand. Like a point-based system, but far more responsive. Not just ‘free movement’ but ‘enabled and enlightened movement’. Smart immigration. In a smart city, smart society, internet of everything paradigm, single market immigration policy can be adapted around a technology-driven supply and demand approach.
I believe that we are now facing both an unprecedented challenge and an opportunity. A challenge, because it is easier to take out our unhappiness with Brexit and its unfolding drama on fellow citizens or politicians we disagree with. But it can be instead an opportunity to understand what is at the heart of the debate and innovate on the very systems within which we operate – so that we all come out better off.
To me, at the heart of the debate are policies underpinned by 21st century values delivered with 20th century implementation instruments.
I see a future where technology powers not just a more direct and participatory democratic infrastructure, but policies that are hyper needs led, and hyper responsive.
We sometimes wonder whether technology changes us, or whether we change technology. Right now, we see the miserable effect of social technology haphazardly mobilising and fuelling a great divide between our communities here in the UK and communities across Europe. Technology is changing us. But we should be changing technology; designing it to help us respond to each others’ needs to mutual benefit.
We are amidst a profound energy revolution. Advances in technology mean it is now possible to harvest and storemore energy than we could possibly use from ocean-waves, rain, wind and of course sunshine.
Very soon, the need for oil, coal and gas will be a thing of the past. But it’ll take innovators and entrepreneurs to extend this transition to energy consumers across technologies and around the world, and to help make important decisions about implementation. This is a huge opportunity for citizens to propel a process to ensure rapid and informed decision making that can foster a clean energy revolution that’ll displace causes of war and environmental destruction.
We’ve all heard of solar energy. It has been in around for a very long time indeed; since the 1860s – would you believe! So what’s been holding us back from powering everything with this omnipotent source of power? One forbidding challenge has been energy storage. See, the electricity powering cities is always on the move. Once produced in the power station it is making its way to our homes, office buildings and factories; or it is on its way back to the grid where it is again redistributed. This means that civilisations powering up with solar would risk having no power at night, and that wouldn’t work. It also means that energy-guzzlers like planes, boats, cars and industrial equipment have little chance to exploit solar.
Batteries, up until now, have been too inefficient to offer an effective energy use-on-demand solution. But now companies like Tesla have developed batteries efficient enough to solve the storage problem. This changes everything.
Energy storage sorted, take a deep breath and consider this: only a fraction of Earth’s surface would need to be used for collecting solar energy in order to provide energy for the entire planet. According to the LAGI (Land Art Generator Initiative) an area the size of Spain, distributed in key locations around the globe, could do the trick.
Ocean-wave kinetic energy
Oceans covers 70% of planet earth. Every second of every day, trillions of water particles interact with the wind and each other resulting in a body of water that is constantly moving: waves. Ever wondered how the weight of that all that water sloshing about must equal huge amounts of energy? You wouldn’t be alone. There has been a lot of research into oceanic power. Now, with the help of a couple of sailors, Danish company Wave Star Energy has overcome the main challenges and developed a working solution for harvesting the ‘kinetic energy’ from waves. It arrives on the market next year!
It is believed that just 0.02% of kinetic energy available for harvesting from ocean-waves could meet the world’s energy demands entirely.
In practice, it is easy to imagine how this solution could be implemented. Relatively small areas of the sea can be turned into wave/wind farms which could power entire countries and even continents. Because a critical factor in this technology is protecting the wave harvesters from violent waves, perhaps these areas could even be cordoned off in order to create controlled wave environments. It blows the mind. All that energy sloshing about, just waiting to be harvested by clever little machines that we are inventing and deploying today.
When it rains it pours – pours energy! Yes, it turns out that solar energy is trapped in raindrops which can be released using graphene – a material you’ve probably heard of by now for its many other uses, like bendy mobile phones. But the energy harvesting use alone is astounding. Buildings can be covered with solar panels which use graphene so that, come rain or shine, energy is being constantly collected. Heck, thousands of micro wind turbines could be added into the mix meaning that in virtually all weather conditions energy bouncing into buildings is harvested.
A brave new world
The energy sector is about to be transformed in an historically unparalleled energy revolution. As this article shows, renewable energy sources can power the world’s energy requirements countless times more than current and any foreseeable requirements. But the transition from oil, coal and gas to electricity will take time, will need to overcome challenges and could go in several directions that lead to varying outcomes. For example, will we have centralised power stations in cities or will self-sufficient homes be the future? This is why it is imperative for innovators, entrepreneurs and citizens/communities to engage early on in the process.
Communities need to become informed and engaged to help innovators deliver on what communities want and need, and entrepreneurs can help champion, guide and implement that process whilst ensuring equity for all.
The faster communities engage, the more rapidly decision makers will come on-board, the more equitable an energy future we forge and the closer we get to fostering a world within which energy consumption is no longer the cause for environmental degradation and military conflict.
I often find myself listening to the radio as I drive to and from meetings or spending time with friends. Normally, I listen to BBC Radio 4, LBC or BBC London, where discussions are taking place on a range of topics. LBC and BBC London in particular are, by and large, phone-in radio show programmes which facilitate debate between citizens of London about the issues that matter to them.
Or, at least, that is the idea.
But I am becoming increasingly alarmed at the lack of discussion/debate on topics that are of great importance today, particularly those relevant to smart society.
New smart society innovations are surfacing all the time, which we already know will radically transform the way we live in cities, and as communities in general. Whether mind reading technologies, artificial intelligence and robotics, virtual reality, new ways of organising traffic flows or parking in the city, innovative ways of delivering education and governance and myriad other big data, smart society applications. These are innovations that are being prepared for and are usually already being tested in some communities/markets – sometimes even in the UK.
Key to successful delivery of innovation is an iterative process of feedback from those for whom these innovations are supposed to benefit. Without an iterative process of reflection by communities, many key problems with the innovation can be overlooked or opportunities missed, resulting in flawed or mediocre ideas being delivered. This in turn means that innovation takes longer to maximise its benefits to society, and can also mean that innovations result in immense harm where benefit was intended.
How can we be lurching at a gazillion miles an hour towards a new age of technology that’ll utterly transform our lives, yet those who facilitate public debate on radio offer us radio silence on these questions?
It’s not that there is an issue with many of the topics the producers of these shows focus on. Racism, gun crime, accidents on roller coasters and new political developments are of critical importance for public discussion.
Yet, firstly, I often hear the most inane topics being pursued, like the latest gaff by a public figure. Now, it is true that these are important questions to focus on because they help us forge our cultural personalities and evolve our sense of right and wrong. But really, might there be a bit of an overkill, particularly when there are (as it is being argued herein) more important questions to be explored?
Secondly, producers often have several questions for discussion on the go at the same time. They do this, I presume, because it’s hard for them to know exactly which questions are going to pick up listener interest. That being the case, why can’t the producers regularly add into the mix of questions those that relate to newly emerging innovations and just see if those questions hit the sweet spot with their listeners?
Third, there’s always the 12-5am shift! Surely, it is the nightowls who are predisposed to consider questions of magnitude. Yet night radio show hosts seem all too ready to rehash the previous day’s subjects, or choose to focus on the stories that were too boring to discuss during peak hours. That just seems like lazy programming. Why not test out the more interesting topics on the night shift?
Some may argue that even if an iterative process of feedback is really important to the success of innovation, we still have to be practical about things. For radio show producers it’s the pursuit of a simple goal: more listeners. The bottom line is that these innovations are just not ‘yet’ relevant to ordinary people’s lives. We must wait for the application of these innovations to actually matter in the day-to-day lives of the majority of people before listeners of radio shows will take a real interest.
At first glance, this seems to be a fair point. But, then, perhaps this assumes the listeners of radio shows to lack any faculty of imagination – an assumption that must surely be questioned. Indeed, radio show producers are brilliant at making even the most seemingly boring topics ‘interesting’ and ‘relevant’ to listeners. Applaudable! If they put even 50% of that creativity into questions about innovation, then the resulting debates might just turn out to be electric, thought provoking and highly empowering in what is now a sprint towards smart society innovation.
The UK has one of the most entrepreneurial communities of innovators. Moreover, finding innovations could not be easier. A quick scan of start up community websites or popular crowdfunding websites will provide an endless resource of ideas for radio show producers looking to pioneer these types of discussions/debates. Moreover, the authors of these innovations can be easily contacted and invited into the discussions to be interrogated and challenged about the value of their ideas, whether in terms of the challenges they represent or whether the application of their innovation has sufficiently considered to deliver maximum benefit quickly.
I recently bought a second mobile phone in order to have an unlocked handset whilst abroad. My primary phone is an iPhone, which I chose because it has an excellent camera (including HD in slow motion). However, I’ve always wanted to try out one of the Chinese brands which cost a 6th of the price of the major branded phones – just to see if it works.
So I took the gamble and bought a Leagoo Lead 2, costing just £80, fulfilled by Amazon (there, some guarantee if things go wrong). It’s only been a few days but, [not] to my surprise, the phone is stunning. An elegantly designed phone that comes loaded with useful apps, no bloatware, the screen is beautiful and it is pretty responsive. Even the battery life is at least comparable and potentially far superior than the iPhone, despite having a much larger screen. Plus, I get to use some of my favourite exclusively Android apps once again.
All of this gets me thinking. Why are we paying so much for our phones? How are the big brands getting away with selling the vast majority of the Western market phones that cost between three to seven times the price of phones of similar values?
There’s obviously a big gap in the market in terms of importers, retailers, reviewers – that’s a shoutout to anyone in the mobile phone industry.
But more broadly, for me this highlights two distinct problems with the consumer markets and the role of producers and service providers within it. One part of the problems is the way branding rather than the effectiveness of the product plays such a key role in the minds of consumers. The result is that we have a distorted perception of value, and it is easy for us to be manipulated by brands that have huge marketing budgets and clever marketers. Another part of the problem seems to be the way the communication between regional consumer markets is highly sectioned. Even if half of the population of China were celebrating the advantages of a specific phone handset, us buggers – sitting at our computers in Europe would hardly hear about it. And vice versa.
As a result we are all losers, and end up spending much more than we need to.
But it does not have to be this way.
In fact, these are two problems we are trying to solve here at Humanity Online. In our view, products are here to solve problems that experience as individuals and as communities. At least, that’s how they should be seen. At Humanity Online we want to make it really simple for the consumer market, the producers and service providers to come together as a community – locally, regionally and globally – to identify goals in a measurable way. Once this has happened, it’ll be rather easy, using our technology, to link up products to the goal of the solution. We will be able to see, for example, that product A is meeting market expectations in terms of providing effective solutions, quality design and a competitive price, whilst product B only meets price expectations but has a rubbish design and is unreliable with some of its solutions.
This can offer a broadly different approach to marketing, because marketing will focus on connecting with the consumer and even working together with the consumer in a far more tangible, proactive and collaborative way.
At the same time, we will no longer be estranged from feedback coming from consumer markets in other global regions. Instead, we will be able to engage with markets as local as our neighbourhood, and as global as the whole world.
I turned around to face him. He can’t have been older than 17. Without saying a word I looked him squarely in the eyes, as though to say, “Why do this? Surely you know that punching me in the back of the head, without any provocation, is wrong?”. I then slowly turned back around to face the opposite direction, ready to disembark at the train station we were pulling into.
BAM! I felt the exploding and reverberating sensation of another well placed punch to the back of my head. I didn’t move. BAM! BAM! More punches followed. There were around ten teenage boys in the group, and it seemed like they were all taking turns punching the back of my head. Hard. I knew that if I turned around and fought them there was a risk of a knife being pulled. My father and my mother were sitting nearby on the other side of the carriage. So a fight would necessarily mean that my father would come to defend me. What if he got hurt? I stayed put. The thought processes that happen in the flicker of a second.
As the train pulled into the station, a nearby passenger noticed what was happening and called out in indignation for them to stop. But the train doors opened promptly and the teenagers fled into the night.
I was around 23 at the time. We were on the train from Stansted Airport, on the way back from Dublin visiting my sister’s family. The same night, we were heading to our Wales holiday house. I had been sitting on the train with my computer open, doing some work, when the group of teenage boys boarded the train. There was one girl in the group. They had gathered around the table that was parallel to me, all of their attention focused on the girl. “We gonna come round party at your house”, and other suggestions flew across the table. The girl looked uncomfortable. I glanced across and caught the eye of one of the lead boys, gave him a look that said “stop pestering the girl”. “Whatcha lookin’ at?!” he challenged me. I resisted response and turned my glance back to my work. At the next stop, the girl got off. The boys stayed on the train. I was relieved for her.
We began to approach Tottenham Hale, where my parents and I were to disembark. I closed my computer, gathered my things, got up and stood in the aisle waiting to arrive at the station. My back was to the teenagers. That’s when the first punch landed on the back of my head. Of course, the police were called and they took details. Nobody was caught. I think they said the cameras were not working.
But then I began wondering about the kind of mindset that would result in a group of teenagers launching a savage attack in this way. How do they see their peers? How do they see the rest of society? What kinds of aspirations do they have? It seemed to me their outlook must be pretty grim and that others in society were – to them – somehow the enemy. Why would that be?
These questions played on my mind and contributed to later decisions to study Sociology with Politics. I wanted to understand what makes communities stick together and what makes them fall apart. To get some experience on the ground I also started working in the community sector e.g. mentoring parents of disadvantaged families and helping staff at local companies to volunteer to run projects with schools in disadvantaged districts of Westminster.
At my job in Westminster, I began initial work to set up a network of school based TV stations where young people who were disaffected could lead in exploring the challenges they are experiencing together with local decision-makers and other relevant people in the community. The aim would be for the young people themselves to lead the way in identifying issues they feel are holding them back, and to develop and implement solutions. Unfortunately, before we could implement any plans, the youth volunteering scheme we were running at the time collapsed after government funding was pulled. Instead, I experimented with this idea at University with project SIBE, and this helped pave the way to the development of engage.re where a key aim is to enable grassroots to directly contribute towards problem solving in the community.
Whilst the punches were painful and made me a dizzy, the return on investment was immense. I’m pretty sure a much higher return than that received by those who do professional boxing for a living. Talking to a close friend the other day, I realised that the experience had taught me something incredibly invaluable. We should not just ‘turn the other cheek’, but that we should be ready to look the person in the eye and try to understand what has been said; even if the person saying or expressing the thing of significance had, for whatever reason, no constructive means to do so.
I find this approach important in every situation of conflict – however severe, even if extraordinarily violent. Our enemies are only those who by the fate of time enter into our lives in a way that the colliding paradigms demonstrate a deficit that, when met through the right investments, can result in a return that was only possible through those two paradigms being synthesised.
On Sunday, millions across France, along with leaders from over 50 countries, marched against the obscene violence that was tragically perpetrated last week by just a few individuals in the name of God and Islam. Around the world debate is unfolding, centering on whether or not ‘we are all Charlie’. A muslim I know asked me on Friday, “Why would people produce cartoons that would upset 1.5 billion people around the world and expect nothing to happen?”. Alleged leaked emails from Al-Jazeera express a similar view: “I guess if you insult 1.5 billion people chances are one or two of them will kill you…”, Mohamed Vall, Doha based Al-Jazeera roving correspondent allegedly wrote.
How did it come to be that an interpretation of a religion could establish a mind-set where “chances are” that someone could be killed for “insulting” a group of people? The answer is that this is not a new phenomenon. Our history books are littered with numerous cases where people insulting European monarchs or rulers of empires are murdered. An absolute power insulted might feel the need to remove those who would call the legitimacy of the absolute power into question, otherwise the critique could bring about dissent, rebellion and the end to the reign of the absolute power.
So, when people declare ‘we are all Charlie’, are they stating a simple idea: power in this world can never be seen as absolute? As former French Prime Minister Edith Cresson put it, “If you afraid, you are a slave”.
This question about the interpretation of ‘we are all Charlie’ is important. Not all of us think that insulting other people’s religion is a good way to go about things. On the contrary, we know there are many constructive ways to interrogate each other’s belief systems, with fruitful outcomes. Many would argue that freedom of expression with no regard to consequences of hurting the feelings of others is in fact a moral contradiction in terms. Most importantly, I have never met anyone who disagrees with the notion that if we focused on the values that are common to all of us, humanity would be making faster and more effective strides towards solving major problems we face as a community.
But if that is the case can we say that ‘we are all Charlie’? It sure sounds like that in so doing we would be saying that we all believe insulting cartoons are the way to achieve social, political and cultural harmony. I personally reject that attitude, most people I know reject it and it is antithesis to the vision of Humanity Online and engage.re. But if ‘we are all Charlie’ means that stating a view that insults a source of power should never ever be a reason to be murdered, then absolutely: we are all – and if we are not we must all be – Charlie. We all have the right to live, no matter who we insult.
Our responsibility to protect the life of others should be a fundamental of any goal and purpose that we pursue as humans. This is nicely illustrated in the Genesis story of Cain and Abel, the first biblically recorded death, a murder, which ironically results from one man’s motive to have a perfect relationship with God. In the Genesis story, Cain kills Abel after his own sacrifice to God is not accepted, whilst God accepts the sacrifice of his brother Abel. Afterwards, God says to Cain, ‘where is your brother?’. Cain replies to God, ‘I did not know that I am the protector of my brother’. Cain had wanted to redeem himself from the feelings of inferiority – the anger and depression he experienced – when God rejects his offering. Before he kills his brother, God had said to him, ‘Why have you become angry and why are you depressed? Is it not the case that if you improve then you’ll succeed, but if you don’t do better you will just get caught up in a destructive cycle’. Despite this advice, Cain murders his brother, perhaps to prove to God just how important God’s acceptance is to him. God’s reply to Cain is that he has gotten his priorities wrong: if you’re thinking about service of the divine, priority number one is protecting the life of your brother.
Whatever we believe as truth, whatever we believe as purpose, it can only be legitimately practiced if it is in a way that results in the wellbeing of those around us.
In the end, religions and ideologies – whatever their source – are put into practice and thereby interpreted by human beings. Whenever a Muslim mentions the founder of Islam, Muhammad, they say ‘the Prophet Muhammad- peace be upon him’. My Muslim friends tell me that as children they were taught how their Prophet Muhammad – peace be upon him – forbade his followers to punish those who critiqued or even mocked him. In this light it is no surprise that the Qur’an itself begins with the words “In the name of Allah, the beneficent, the entirely merciful..” and regularly reminds readers how God, as represented by Islam, is kind and forgiving. Then there are later interpretations of Islam which, into the present day, are used to justify murderous attacks, not just on cartoonists who insult Islam, but on entire communities in Baga, Nigeria, simply because they are of another faith and not practicing Islam. Bus hijackings where passengers are asked to recite Muslim prayers; those unable to do so being shot dead. But it is peace, kindness, forgiveness and mercy being associated with Islam that seems consistent with lessons we can learn from the Genesis story, that our number one priority is to protect the life and wellbeing of others.
Scientific research suggests we are actually biologically wired to be empathetic. Human endeavour and our great achievements in cultures, religions, ideologies, science and technologies have always been the search for community, and how living and working together uplifts and benefits the lives of all the individuals who form the whole. Communities in this sense have only ever been possible to achieve through the discovery of the other. We develop languages, norms, values and rules that help us understand each other and then share things that are common to all of us, so that through those shared ideas we can explore, discover and thereby address common challenges and achieve new goals. My father reminded me last night how the great Islamic scholars helped replace the Roman Numeral system with the Indo-Arabic numeric system we use today. This provided the basis for major advances in scientific discovery and the development of technologies that have allowed us to improve food and shelter security and the means for travel and communication never before possible. The Islamic scholars also studied, translated and brought back into currency the works of the Greek philosophers, which in turn later resulted in the re-ignition of the search for discovery in Europe. These are legacies of Islam where peace has been brought upon the name of Muhammad; the zeros and ones that ultimately form the basis of the technology that powers this blog and the entire age of communication.
Whatever religion, ideology, culture or creed we follow, we can ask ourselves whether we live by it, like Cain, as a mechanism for justifying how right we are, destroying anything or anyone that highlights our failure, instead of pursuing the extraordinary growth we can achieve, or, are we applying a paradigm that gives us a mechanism for achieving peace through the discovery of our own and other people’s potential? These are questions that we can ask ourselves in the privacy of our own thoughts, interrogating our own motivations for accepting truths that form the cornerstones of meaning in our lives. Beyond that, these are the questions we can ask our friends, our family and our broader communities. And the broader community reaches a global level. Every day it becomes clearer how we are, as humanity, a single global community – whether we like it or not. How we behave in one part of the world, affects others elsewhere. The ripples through natural ecosystems and through social communication infrastructures are boundless.How will we use the unique opportunity afforded to us by communications technology and how will we approach the unprecedented responsibility in the face of rising conflicts and challenges to contribute towards the peace and prosperity of humanity? These are not choices of leisure. The extreme interpretations of religion are colliding with far right movements in Europe in ways that only mass, robust and constructive choices can mitigate. Can we focus on those things that we have in common to form the basis of a shared community where the life and wellbeing of others is held as valuable above all else?
What kinds of methods of coming together can help facilitate this kind of learning and transformation of the global community? Is it just about government policies, social attitudes and religious interpretations, or is it also about how social technology can offer an environment within which we can discover each other and pursue the common good? Can we suffice with social technology that merely facilitates challenging notions of power and the mobilisation of groups against one another, or do we need something more sophisticated that also thereafter facilitates a constructive dialogue and constructive and effective collective action?
Stephen Hawking told the BBC in an interview yesterday that “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race”.
A terrifying idea which we will all be familiar with from popular culture film-features and literature. Of course, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is being pursued because it can help us in the most remarkable of ways; and I am not just talking about robots doing our household chores.
Yet there is this nagging fear that once we have advanced AI to the point that it can truly ‘think for itself, evolve by itself’, then it will surely seek to destroy us.
Whilst some treat this as comical paranoia, to others it is a serious question. But why? Why should the things that we have created to help us – into which we have invested sound logic and which has undergone rigorous testing – end up hurting us?
But that’s exactly it, isn’t it? It would seem that we humans have a long way to go before we can safely say that we are consistently logical about things. For all that we have accomplished, for all the challenges overcome, the technology authored, the immense ideas we have imagined and implemented – there is not a day that goes by in which we are not fighting with each other viciously, whether in business, ideologically or militarily; so often it is a case of death to the end, even in situations where it makes no sense at all for us to do so.
In this light, building artificial intelligence systems on the basis of human intelligence does not seem smart at all.
Even if we say the people creating AI are guided by altruistic visions of improving lives through technology, once a benevolent AI exists it’ll take just a few angry people to try to exploit it and to (perhaps even inadvertently!) cause major or total destruction. !
If we want Project ‘Artificial Intelligence’ to be useful, then we need to establish a baseline of human intelligence that we know works consistently. We need to figure out what kinds of tools and processes are required in order to move from where we are now towards an era when human actions by and large maintain the fine balance of the eco-system and when ‘others’ are seen as benefits rather than threats whether culturally, socially, economically and politically.
Put simply, we need to develop collective intelligence before we pursue fully formed artificial intelligence.
This morning I was driving to a 10.30 meeting and had the providential opportunity to listen in to the event in Glasgow marking the start of the First World War, 100 years ago to the day.
During the ceremony we heard excerpts of the diaries of those who had fought, some of whom had fallen, and political leaders – including Prime Minister David Cameron – prayed for the strength and the courage to act in service to the people they govern, and to nurture and strive for peace.
It was a moving ceremony, and a cause for contemplation of what we have done as human beings. As a youngish guy myself, I imagine the huge beasts of war, trampling underfoot a generation of talent that had been emerging during the turn of the century. It is hard to imagine what the world might have been like. Many attribute some of the immense inventions of the last century to innovation forced due to needs of war. But perhaps without the war we would not be plundering the world at the rate that we are right now. Perhaps a more moderate approach would have been pursued upon the discovery of new technologies, with proper consideration to the environment and to sustainability.
Yet what could have been is a mystery. What remains is the responsibility that we bear to one another for the deeds past, for the Second World War that followed the First, for believing that the destruction that we had spread all around us was inextricable; for creating ideologies that were so exclusive of one another that morality was a weapon wielded by man to swear the destruction of the other.
Today we are surrounded by enlightened spirit, by ambitions for improving living and political standards the world over. Today we have what is becoming global communication technology infrastructure that allows us to share with one another and understand each other like never before in history.
Yet despite all that, and despite the end of the cold war, each year that goes by seems to bring the world closer to a precipice from which the destructions of the First and Second World Wars would – heavens forbid – be eclipsed. Wars are raging across North Africa and the Middle East; Europe, the US and Russia stand at the crossroads; military posturing between China and Japan over disputed islands.
So much of this comes down to disputes of land. But at its heart is an ideology that says we as a human species cannot live together to mutual benefit. Even the European Union, which was sown using the language of collaboration desperately found amidst the burning embers of Europe – today sounds the trumpet of isolationism when talking beyond the borders of Europe.
Somehow, non-cooperation is so embedded in our cultures that it finds itself seeded even at the heart of sectors that are explicitly entirely about charity.
Yet we all know deep down that cooperation is a great idea. It’s what makes human beings so smart and brilliant.
It seems as though there is a contradiction. And there is.
To me, this contradiction exists because we haven’t yet innovated our way to co-existence. We haven’t yet created a cultural infrastructure, rooted in practice – that lets us live together in genuine peace. Whilst we know in our hearts that it is better to work together, we simply have not figured out the logistical process for achieving the mutual benefit in all situations that we find ourselves. Whether it is religions, nations or organisations, it all comes down to one bottom line: what’s in it for everyone? That’s why social innovations are so important, and that’s why we believe so much in the work we are doing at Humanity Online.
Wherever we go, people want to work with us to help us achieve one thing: to make it easier for people to work together in a way that everyone can be appreciated for the value they put in, and in a way that everyone involved can reap the reward in a mutually beneficial way.
It’s an idea and a vision; a vision that has been articulated into method of practice; a seed that is beginning to take root and soon we hope will grow. In the meantime, let’s remember this day, 100 years ago, and think of one conflicting situation in which we find ourselves – and come up with a mutually beneficial way forward.