Conversation

2100. Strange new world

Graham Brown-Martin, founder of the think tank Learning Without Frontiers, talked with us about what technology means to him and where he sees the risks and opportunities for a new kind of society in the digital age.

I would definitely call myself an autodidact. I was 15 when I left school and ever since then, I have chosen how to educate myself. My life has been less than structured since then. I obtained my education through the many books I read. It’s a very simple learning method, but I have always believed in asking people to explain things to me. Mentorship has also been very important to me from a very young age. If I don’t understand something I’m going to ask a specialist to explain it to me. I learn by osmosis because it is the perfect way for me to find out new things and to incorporate them into my life. With knowledge I really am like a sponge, I want to soak it all up.

The Perfect Life of Imperfections

connecting the world * social media for different generations * curating posts * the steady rise of the internet * striving for efficiency * a question of progress

I don’t see how you can unveil your personality in 140 characters.

Modern day technology is great for networking of course, because we are able to connect with people on similar trajectories like never before. It is so much easier to find like-minded people all over the planet. Social media has made it easy to achieve that. However, social media is not an honest tool for educating the next generation about what society is or how it works. If you look at my Facebook page, you’d think I’m leading the perfect life. Of course that’s not the whole story. Like many other people, I curate my Facebook and Twitter posts and select them consciously to maintain my image or my “brand”. My postings don’t really tell you anything about what I am about as a human being and where my position in society is. Twitter is even less personal than Facebook in that regard because it only delivers snippets of information. I don’t see how you can unveil your personality in 140 characters. When you compare the younger generation to my generation, you see they behave totally different with digital media. After three months or so, my daughter lost interest in Facebook. She accepts social media and digital technology as a given and I’m amazed at how intuitively she uses a tablet or smartphone. We are all still somehow stuck in the Industrial Age while she is part of the Information Age, which is taking us by storm and will determine our lives in the future.

Way back when, the internet was about browsers, cables, routers and websites that people collaborated on. In the last decade or so, this has completely changed. Now we see a shift towards a monopolization of the digital space by a handful of large companies that seem to control the economy and also more and more of our private lives. Had I written my book Learning {Re}imagined ten years ago, I would have raved about the liberty that modern technology offers. But now we see that, in addition to making us more efficient in our jobs, it makes us available and measurable at all times. The internet was supposed to liberate us, but instead, it has somehow enslaved us. We are being encouraged to use technology 24/7 because it is convenient for us to do so. Our devices are becoming smaller and smaller, so we can always carry them with us. Soon, there will be things embedded in my body. For the people in Silicon Valley, this sounds like a desirable goal. For me, it sounds ominous and potentially dangerous. The fact that every single one of my moves will be subject to more data agglomeration does not strike me as a good thing. Technology has become too encompassing, and too distracting, in my opinion. I used to have my smartphone switched on all the time until I noticed that I never took the time to reflect anymore. For me, reflection is an essential part of my work, because that is where I get all my ideas. Personally, I need to think about my work and my environment to analyze and make decisions. Instead, my phone was constantly showing me updates and new things to catch my attention. We call that progress. But is it really?

A Lesson in Intuition

agile learning * Lego bricks as teaching tools * curiosity and making intuitive business decisions * a one-dimensional world?

We have lost the privilege of losing our way.

I was in Vietnam recently on a job for a big financial institution. I was supposed to teach the company’s leaders about agile learning. I was in a meeting room with Ivy League grads and all they wanted to know was how to make business decisions based on intuition. The experience was especially interesting for me because what I taught them was how to be curious and how to take time to reflect. You could say, I was appointed to teach them how to be children. So I gave them Lego bricks to play and experiment with. Remember how much fun it was to build ships and castles? Lego will be around long after Google has gone because the principle always stays the same and people can relate to that.

The fact that I get employed to teach people about intuition and curiosity proves to me that technological reductionism is not the way to go. In the Silicon Valley worldview, technology can provide solutions to all our problems. In a vicious circle, the internet dictates what I consume because it shows me things that I often search for or recommendations from my friends. I only get to see what I already know, not what I may want to get to know. Do you remember times when you were on holiday and just got lost and had to find your way back on your own? Nowadays you get a map on Google filled with recommendations and you are shown the exact way back. We have lost the privilege of losing our way. GPS has cost us our own sense of orientation. This over-simplification leads to a rather strange perspective of the world and it is very onedimensional, because it reinforces the belief that technology is the only way to deal with every situation we encounter.

Moving into Politics

a secret hidden in plain sight * monitoring social media * digital vs. human * disrupting the system * the answer is algorithms? * Big Data * Brave New World

I don’t see the government as too powerful at the moment….

The data that we produce by using the internet has become the currency that corporations use to influence the government. Thanks in part to Edward Snowden, the effect has become quite obvious, along with the realization that the government is buying our data from the big names in the digital game. It has become a criminal offense to uncover the actions of big organizations. Look at what happened to the guys behind LulzSec, the group of hackers that was focused on pointing out flaws in the digital proceedings of companies and the government; many of them are in prison now. With all the data stored and sold, criminalization occurs much quicker than before. This is a result of the monitoring of our social media activities. The fact that we are all visible to corporations, and that they use our data for algorithms to predict and influence our emotions and decisions, is questionable. Even if those decisions are primarily purchase-oriented, this process is also changing our behavior towards each other, because communications are being reduced to basic functions to promote efficiency. Technology tries to facilitate that but I’m wondering how all those simplistic digital conversations can mirror the complexity of a human mind? The data used to deduce what I personally need is simply too shallow for that. However, we are only too happy to rely on technology and our dependency on smartphones and other gadgets proves that.

In my opinion, we waste a lot of time with Big Data instead of focusing on big issues. This “big brother is watching you” discussion may sound like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but to me it is more like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Orwell wrote about a totalitarian state that would oppress human kind in the not too distant future. Huxley on the other hand wrote about the rise of a capitalist nightmare in an over-processed and automated society that relies heavily on technology and loses its self-determination. I don’t see the government as too powerful right now, and I’m certainly not convinced we should have the biggest and most influential corporations telling us in which direction we should go and what the future should look like. Corporations really are perfecting capitalism with the accumulation of enormous amounts of data. And we don’t seem to mind that this will have consequences for us as a society.

Companies have infiltrated politics and I regard that as highly alarming.

When we regard the shift of power that is occurring these days, Karl Marx’s theory of base and superstructure comes to mind. Digital corporations have relocated from the base to the superstructure. They do not operate on the level of production any more, but influence our ideology. Governments and big organizations are intertwined like never before, with the former relying too much on the latter for information about the public. I was at the Changing Higher Education UNESCO Talk in Barcelona recently, where we observed that a lot of physical wealth has moved to the virtual world, with a major transfer of capital from one group of people to another. This has happened before in history, of course. But it has never happened on such a scale. Companies have infiltrated politics and I regard that as highly alarming. If we don’t trust the government to get the job done on its own, the alternative would be to imagine this oligopoly of huge corporations as countries. What would the society they create look like if they relied on techno-solutionism and developed algorithms to teach us about culture and ethics? How would they redesign society? The government isn’t perfect, but at least we can influence democracy with our voice and with our vote. This is not a given with corporations, who would basically rule society with a lot of unelected power, influencing our thinking and our emotions while molding politics to suit their needs. I’m trying not to be too pessimistic, but that sounds very frightening to me.

The Corporate Scenario of Education

companies spread out to schools and universities * reforms and reductionisms * let’s solve problems with a code * production to replace education?

We need to get rid of grades and tests to really make a difference in the world.

The reductionist perspective is slowly taking over in the area of education as well, as Silicon Valley branches out to schools and universities. There is no doubt that the school system needs reforming, but the question is whether we want technology to substitute teachers in the future. If technology is supposed to make me more efficient, what will it do to my children? It sounds to me as if education would turn into an automated process, destined to grow our children into economically valuable goods, instead of into well-educated adults. We need to rethink our grading and testing methods. The assessment method is what really doesn’t work. We contribute to the success-driven outlook of the big corporations by reducing every child to their test results. Good grades are measurable and they determine whether the child will receive higher education, which in turns leads to a well-paid job. This is the fallacy of higher education at the moment because, in fact, there are only certain degrees that will get my child a job. All we are doing with this mindset is breeding more capital, not educating our children to solve problems on their own with the help of technology.

People talk about disruption of existing structures and norms a lot, but this disruption will be achieved by teaching and that cannot possibly mean just an algorithm. We need to get rid of grades and tests to really make a difference in the world. I have yet to see a convincing teaching concept coming from the big corporations who have begun pushing into education. A lot more can happen with a caring human teacher involved in the learning process instead of technology driven by a calculated sense of what children need to learn. Of course the idea behind the current approach is to produce another Elon Musk, Steve Jobs or Richard Branson and to make even more money. But our current school system doesn’t really produce people like that and also, how many vastly successful and rich people can we have in our society? Should individualistic financial success really form the ethical backbone of future society? Observing all of this, my conclusion is that it is a culture of selfishness we seem to be striving for, not the greater good. All schools do for me with their assessment methods is to perpetuate this status quo, and I want to speak out against it.

Critical Thinking, Collaboration, Creativity and Communication

11 billion * the future face of immigration * a call for change * intellectual colonization * having a voice, and using it * global democracy

We need to make sure that technology doesn’t distract us too much from the topics that we will have to deal with eventually. What do we really know about the 21st century? Well, we know something or other about climate change, and we know that by the end of this century we will be 11 billion people. 11 billion people will bring our planet close to its carrying capacity and I don’t see much planning happening for that reality. What will our society look like with so many people? What will our values and morals have to be for us to live together peacefully? Here in the UK, we have many political voices speaking out against immigration and that strikes me as a ludicrous conversation, because 11 billion is unavoidable and we will be faced with waves of immigration like never before. We will have to make room for people, in our houses as well as in our economy. Now is the time to truly redesign society and speak up about what will happen in the near future. What we need are global democracy solutions, not only local ones. Education also needs to be a global phenomenon and technology should be a tool to advance that, but it cannot be the goal.

Where is the impetus of change? Big corporations are not the right leaders to look to when it comes to planning our future in 30 years. They won’t make risky investments in education, because there is no measurable ROI in it for them. What they are preaching is critical thinking, collaboration, creativity and communication. According to big names like Apple or Google, these are the necessary four skills to achieve success in the future. I’m not denying that these are important skills, but it is interesting that nobody actually mentions the elephants in the room: 11 billion people. In 2080, I may not have the luxury of choosing local products, because the place I live in might be unsuitable for crops and animals. Merely talking about the four skills won’t be enough for people in the future. I feel like corporations are not addressing the really vital issues, but are spending time talking about superficial topics. Instead, we have to use institutions like the European Union to prevent intellectual colonization and to give the most people possible a voice to speak their minds, especially children. Everyone should have the right to participate in redesigning our society. Technology in this case serves as a tool to spread democracy, not as means to establish social norms based on selfish goals. This in turn needs to happen through elected political powers. Of course, that entails everyone getting involved, unless we are happy to remain oblivious to what is actually happening around us. Corporations also need to step up and reach the goals they set for themselves. Sustainability should be much more present in the design of products, for instance. Why doesn’t the government pass a law to tax packaging? That could drive innovation in the product development area of a large organization.

Change Done the Right Way

it’s all about people * old times a thing of the past * the object of time * now is what we have * a truly important number

There is one number that determines my life and my work, and that is 11 billion.

The business metrics have to be changed in my opinion, this attitude that success has to be scaled and money must be made into more money does nothing to address future issues. This self-interested human nature is very appealing to the followers of philosophers like Ayn Rand, but it is irresponsible to think and act that way when there will be so many people on the planet and the climate is changing. It should be more about people and less about money or how to increase consumerism.

So, what lies ahead of us in the future? I believe that the next big thing will be time. I think we have the entire concept of time wrong and getting that corrected will require a drastic change to our thinking. I’m referring to topics like “isolated consciousness” and how our mind is not contained all the time. Time is just as much an object as it is a structured unity. Is there really something like a past, is there a future? Are we repeating ourselves over and over again? All we know about the universe is that matter comes together and creates the stuff we are made out of. Current movies like Interstellar play with the idea of time travel and I am very much interested in that. But overall, now is all we’ve got and that’s what we have to deal with. It is time to end this feeling of being disconnected from the real world. There is one number that determines my life and my work, and that is 11 billion.

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