Reconciling Development and Disruption (Gold Coast Forum, June 18, 2015)

Last week I gave a short presentation with the title above at the end of the Gold Coast City Council ‘Senior Executive Forum’ at the Royal Pines Resort. The hotel had been recently refurbished and provides an attractive venue. I had the pleasure of meeting the mayor, Tom Tate, and a number of his colleagues. The whole event was something of an eye-opener for me.

It is perhaps regrettable that many people, including myself, tend to have a kind of default scepticism about those working in and for local authorities. We often see them as ‘faceless bureaucrats’. But the two presentations that preceded mine contradicted that stereotype completely. The CEO of the council provided a clear, appreciative and highly competent overview of the last year’s activities as well as an overview of up-coming events and issues. He also introduced a number of people new to their positions. Next came the head of the ‘water’ division who proceeded to entertain the audience even as he informed them. He vacated the lectern and the stage to address the group from the back and sides of the room. I learned a lot about the challenges of servicing a mainly flat and low-lying area near the sea that sometimes had more water than it could ever use. Overall I came away with a sense that the Gold Coast was being very competently run.

That, however, was ‘now’ so to speak. My role was to draw attention to possible or likely future challenges that need to be considered well in advance of any of them becoming full-blown crises. I drew on contrasting sources (including the World Economic Forum, the Post-Carbon Institute and the Transition Network) to consider sources of likely disruption that needed to be considered. Not all related to changing climate issues and global warming. Some had social and economic origins. Nor did I dismiss the growing concern on the part of many that the ‘digital revolution’ was being undermined by the simple fact that, as one person put it, ‘it’s easier to attack and defend.’ The point, of course, was not to portray the future as gloomy and threatening but, rather, as requiring a good deal more explicit attention than it tends to get when the short-termism of ‘now’ tends to dominate. I suggested that the emerging ‘knowledge precinct’ within the Gold Coast might well be the locus of such developments. I also drew attention the Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning (RAHS) program in Singapore that, in stark contrast to Australia, happens to be situated right next to the Prime Minister’s office. Perhaps Singapore knows something that is yet to be acknowledged in resource-rich Australia?

I’ve placed a 2pp summary of the address along with several of the key resources I refereed to on my weblog at:

Contesting Silicon Valley’s Default View(s) of the Future

In recent work I raised a number of questions about the views of prominent Silicon Valley figures and, in particular, their rather idiosyncratic framing of the ‘Digital revolution’. (See ‘Beyond the global emergency: Integral futures and the search for clarity’ on the new Work page of my weblog.) I did so for a couple of reasons. One is that within US culture generally, but also in within what might be called the broad ‘futures community’ there, it’s common to take the view that ‘technology’ is the dominant force in ‘creating the future.’ With a background in STS (Science, Technology & Society) studies that view has always seemed naïve. Technologies are outgrowths of social processes without which they would not exist. They are never value-free or autonomous. The specific forms that they take and the functions they perform are ever and always outgrowths of social, cultural and economic processes. These, of course, get overlooked, along with the very specific interests embedded within them and driving change in very specific, mostly self-interested, ways.

The other reason for renewed concern is that some of the richest high-tech companies in the world (including the all-too-powerful ‘Internet oligarchs’) appear intent on believing that they have some sort of God-given right to ‘invent the future’ in their own delusional self-image. So it was good to recently find an article with the following heading: In an age of machines, it’s humans that matter. The author, Kentaro Toyama, who is based at the University of Michigan’s School of Information, clearly knows of that which he speaks. He quotes Google CEO Larry Page as declaring that: ‘I think we should be training more people on how to change the world. Obviously, technologies are the way to do that…that’s what drives all the change.’ Tim Cook of Apple also contributes the view of Steve Jobs to the effect that the latter ‘convinced me that if we made great products we could change the world.’ Finally, Toyama quotes Facebook’s founder Zuckerberg’s view that ‘the richest 500 million [people in the world] have way more money than the next 6 billion compared.’ He adds that ‘You solve that by getting everyone on line.’

In my own ‘global emergency’ piece I also quoted Zuckerberg and drew on evidence that questions Google chief scientist Ray Kurzweil’s preoccupation with what he calls the ‘singularity’ (the moment when humanity is overwhelmed by artificial intelligence machines, departs this world and ‘goes virtual’). As someone who has read a great deal of science fiction for a many years I think it’s vital to recognise the difference between fact and fiction. So it concerns me that what one might call the ‘default future’ advanced by these people and their cash-laden organisations looks more and more like the early dystopias that I read decades ago. In other words I question the worldview, values, priorities, goals, social interests etc. of these currently powerful players.

So it was good to read Toyama’s contrasting view that ‘technology doesn’t add a fixed benefit. Instead it amplifies underlying human forces.’ He continues: ‘amplification explains a broad range of man-machine interactions. It explains why the Internet boosts free speech in America but stifles dissent in China and spreads misinformation in Russia. And, it explains why a technological golden age in the world’s richest country isn’t enough to end poverty – Americans don’t seem to care enough about it.’ He says a lot more in the short space afforded by an Op Ed piece in the Guardian Weekly (vol. 193, no. 2. p. 20). But his overall point is simply that ‘amplification reaffirms human agency in an age of machines, as well as the power of non-technologists to cause meaningful change. The technology industry will keep building faster engines, but it’s up to us as human beings to decide where we go.’

I’m now wondering how long it will take for this more hopeful view of the future to emerge and, equally, how long it will take for the millionaires of Silicon Valley to take a more modest view of their achievements.

Who is Inventing the Future? Is Anyone Paying Attention?

For about a year now I’ve been taking a fresh look at the ‘digital revolution.’ We hear a great deal about ‘the next big thing’ such as driverless cars, robots, artificial intelligence (AI) and the so-called ‘Internet of things’ – the list is literally endless. My working conclusion, however, is that the much-hyped high-tech future has major drawbacks. It is being vastly oversold and therefore we should be far, far more careful before we agree to any of it. I use the term ‘oversold’ advisedly. For example, a recently renovated shopping centre near where I live recently erected a huge 3 x 7 metre full colour digital screen displaying pop culture factoids and ads in an endless and repetitive loop. When I looked around the whole building I found over 90 smaller – but equally hard to miss – screens each of which is devoted to exactly the same kind of high-impact visual assault. While thoughtful people have known for some time that consumerism rests on shaky moral grounds (let alone perverse assumptions about human beings and their world) the owners of ‘marketing central’ are one of a number of powerful and well-resourced groups selling that redundant view more ferociously than ever. But they are part of a world, and worldview, that should have been abandoned long ago.

It’s been clear for some time that ‘the future’ was being invented elsewhere. One of most influential places is Silicon Valley in California. It is here that the IT behemoths cluster in close embrace with the Internet Oligarchs (not that they are entirely separate). I’ve considered what some of the leaders and opinion makers from these organisations actually say about what they think they are doing and the justifications they unreflectively offer. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, I found levels of self-belief and self-confidence that set a new low point for institutional arrogance. An ABC program on Google and the World Brain added further evidence. For example, a couple of young Google execs flew to Paris in an attempt to obtain the support of the Director of a leading French library for their bid to digitise the world’s books. But they misread the situation completely. Their idea of a suitable gift for this sophisticated European was a small portable Thermos designed to keep drinks warm on train journeys. They were way out of their depth at a cultural level and were no doubt surprised that their ‘gift’ and proposals were declined. Google’s self-reinforcing view of the world provides it with few or no concerns about being a prime source of disruptive innovations, the consequences of which may well reverberate around the world. Those working there seem not only believe that they are building the future, they also think they have a right to do so. Moreover there’s no end in sight.

On the other hand, Australia, like so many other countries, has little or no capacity to either take part in designing such technologies, or greatly influence their use. Rather, it has a worldwide reputation for being among the first and fastest to adopt them regardless of consequences. I then discovered that Google Australia itself has some 500 engineers working here on various projects. If anyone can be charged with ‘inventing the future’ it surely has to include these high end engineers. Yet there is virtually no one in the nation, no organised capability at all, to facilitate the kind of high quality foresight that world-changing innovations clearly require. That is, the ability to think far enough ahead, think widely or deeply enough, to even begin to evaluate the technological wonders that are expected to emerge from this apparently endless pipeline. Yet that is not the case everywhere.

During mid-2015 the Australian government made much of forming a new and closer relationship with Singapore, a nearby northern neighbour. Around the same time an Op Ed article by Singapore’s High Commissioner in Canberra made much of the ‘special relationship’ between the two countries and, indeed, they have a lot in common. Sadly, however, what they don’t share is the ability to engage in high quality risk assessment and horizon scanning. Known simply as RAHS, the program exists not as a poorly funded marginal unit buried in the depths of some remote bureaucracy but as an essential component of the Singapore Government. In fact the office where it resides was deliberately positioned right next to the Prime Minister’s office. Which tells us a lot about that government’s view of the centrality of high quality, purposeful, foresight. By contrast in Australia we have a right-wing government that retains an irrational and Pollyanna-ish belief in the power of markets to resolve a great many issues and problems. This is despite the fact that market-led ‘solutions’ have proved disastrous in so many different contexts.

It is long past due that the civil administration of this country re-engages with and learns from earlier foresight-related work (including that of our own much maligned Commission for the Future) and from contemporary Institutions of Foresight around the world. Viable futures do not arise autonomously – they require sustained work over time and wide public involvement. They have to be discerned, negotiated, worked toward and eventually achieved. There are no quick fixes – especially in light of two significant shifts have occurred over recent decades. First, and for good reason, the shared image of the future has become progressively darker and more Dystopian. Second, given the magnitude and nature of global forces that are clearly at work in the world, the near-term future looks increasingly turbulent and unstable. It’s simply not credible to deny either of these facts. Yet that’s what happens each day in government and in commerce. The passivity of government and the unjustified self-belief of engineers, marketers and IT gurus reinforces the view that we can somehow buy, consume or innovate our way forward. This view permeates contemporary culture. The error is compounded by the withdrawal, or cocooning, of whole populations from the dynamic and demanding reality that surrounds them.

Our collective failure to re-engage in the multi-faceted tasks of cultural and generational renewal suggests to me that viable, sustainable and humanly compelling futures will not be easily achieved. We are certainly kidding ourselves if we think that Australia can secure any sort of future worth having by sticking with the familiar refrain of ‘lifestyle in – tonnage out’. The penny has not really dropped anywhere that the high-tech consumerist future we are being groomed to accept actually undermines any real prospect of liveable futures. But this kind of in-depth interrogation of choices and options is largely absent from our national conversation, discourse and life. We can do better than this.

(C) Richard Slaughter. July 2015.