Social Technology, Social Capital and Social Impact

While living in Boulder in 2010, I was invited to guest-lecture at the University of Colorado on the intersection between social media and social good. My lecture, perhaps not surprisingly titled Do Something That Matters derided the infantile obsession displayed by many of the great new minds who were fiddling with intricate technologies of limited value while all about them Rome burned. I had recently been introduced to Bill McKibben of 350.org who said in his book Eaarth that the global environmental changes we were once trying to prevent are upon us. One of the principal take aways from this book was his (paraphrased) assertion that:

The popular rhetoric of leaving the world ‘better for our children and our grandchildren’, while effective in eliciting an emotional response, is relatively vacuous.

I’m inclined to agree. Whatever the root cause of the changes we are seeing all about us, they are irrevocable. Our practical responsibility as stewards is to recognise that our actions can no longer afford to be focused on mitigation, but on adaptation. In other words, to a certain extent we’ve already run out of time. The primary message I took away from Eaarth was:

‘Get off your ass and get something done. Now.’

But what do you do when you realise that the scope of the problem may well exceed your capacity to navigate it?

I’ve been in a car crash – a minor one, fortunately, in which nobody was hurt – yet there came a brief moment after struggling to maintain control of the vehicle – to keep it pointed in the right direction, on the road, and not upside down – when I realised that despite all my wrestling, I was behind the wheel of a ton of metal that was undeniably out of my control. All that was left for me to do was to figure out how to survive the crash. The question we seem to be trying to answer is ‘what strategies and behaviors do we need to implement and adopt if we are to prepare to survive the inconceivable?’ Finally, it seems – despite the cult of the individual, the lure of our own superherodom, and the desire to commit ourselves to ‘being the change’ it’s all too much to do on our own. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that ‘social’ has become the hottest thing since the great engineer dipped into the DNA bucket and gave us the platypus. Further, as much as ‘social’ might be a word that has been co-opted by the tech-sector, it’s a word that has a far more profound and necessary meaning than any digital system may ever be able to replicate.

Social is hardwired. Social is intrinsic. Social is foundational.

So why is it that digital ecosystems, long lauded as the panacea for the social ills engendered by isolation are, through both their design and adoption, resulting in an increased sense of isolation amongst those most attracted to their use? Broadcast communications will never replace narrowcast interactions, and the aggregation, analysis and dissemination of data, while undeniably useful, cannot currently (and may never be able to) replace the subtle nuance of direct, personal engagement. The growth in use of social technologies to facilitate social cohesion appears to be, in some fashion, contributing directly to its demise. Language is a technology that has become so ubiquitous that it has done what all good technology should do … disappear into the background. Ineffective use of social technologies results, conversely, in hyper-connectivity, hyper-activity, and hyper-complexity. The constant barrage of information via email, telephone, SMS, IM, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Snapchat and LinkedIn (to name simply the most obvious sources) is simply unmanageable. And every year the situation only seems to get worse.

Despite the proliferation of affordable communications technologies, oratory, while not as popular a communication form, is still far more powerful than power-point.

We are monkeys with a millenia long oral tradition – it’s not surprising, therefore, that we have immersed ourselves in the world of the social web, where a voice can be focused, amplified and accelerated through commercialising content and the curious dynamic of internet celebrity. Unfortunately, there is way too much talking going on, and nowhere near enough listening.

Fast forward five years from my lecture at CU and it’s clear that ‘doing good’ has captured the attention of technologists everywhere. The proliferation of social technologies and ‘platforms for change’ has expanded to such a point that, where once we were starved to find the tools and the data to suit our purposes, now we are suffering the inevitable cognitive overload that arises from vast over-consumption in the too-much-information age. How do we decide what to read? Where to click? Who to believe? What to do?

While the human brain has a capacity we have yet to fathom, there is maturity in recognising that drinking from the firehose is likely to result in acute renal failure.

Further, regardless of how much valuable information we now have access to, there can be no denying that the signal to noise ratio is unacceptably low … and in some cases, getting lower. A consequence of this, however, is that information flows have become far more socialised than they may have ever been. We rely upon our networks to supply us with the information we need when we need it. More than ever before we value the (re)interpretation, analysis and commentary that comes with its dissemination because we so frequently lack the time to wade through the ceaseless, ever-expanding and at times over-whelming flow of data we’ve become addicted to.

Despite the promise of these new technologies to enable greater freedom, there can be no denying that Facebook is the crack of a new generation.

Every year I attend conferences, meetups and hackups, and connect with thousands of ‘changemakers’ through the most popular social tools. Yet even here, at ground zero for the individuals, organisations and communities dedicated to working for the common good, there is no single, unified platform that supports us in extracting meaning from all of this ‘meaning’. It was with this in mind that I started working with Greg Berry on W1SDØM in 2009. At its core,W1SDØM recognised that we live in a single universal system, constituted of an infinite network of highly complex inter-related systems. While knowledge – and on rare occasions genius – may reside in the individual, wisdom undeniably resides in the collective. Refinement follows aggregation, and it should come as no surprise that:

our capacity to demonstrate true wisdom as a species has grown through our ability to aggregate, analyse and disseminate information from, with and through vast, dispersed and disparate sources.

This growth in awareness appears at times to be correlated with a creeping narcissism, however; the inevitable result of ego/user-centric interactions with online ‘community’ that are more transactional than generative, where the rapidity of ‘push’ has resulted in the appearance of dialog, in the same way that cinema tricks the mind into thinking that rapidly moving stills are actually alive.

In fact I would contend that the focus on aggregating users and commercialising their data has, in most instances, resulted in a race to the bottom in both form and function in social technology. After all, if your business model requires you to appeal to the lowest common denominator, then self-interest will trump collective-interest every time.

Ultimately, no matter how evolved we might consider ourselves to be, narcissism is bound to flourish in places where the primary measure of value is the number of likes, shares, or favorites a post gets.

While many of us – myself included – may have begun this journey as artists and scientists, moved by the spirit of enquiry, we have, I believed, unwittingly permitted a creeping homogenisation to supplant our role as shamans, protagonists and edge-riders. Group think has become inevitable, even out here on the edges. In some cases we seem to have become The Borg, permitting our sovereignty to be assimilated into a hive mind, an intoxicatingly expansive echo chamber in which we read, share and comment only upon that which reinforces our own world view. And the algorithms at play in these networks are designed to actively promote this sort of behavior.

None of this is to say that our use of social technology is failing to achieve immediate and generative impacts. We only need to look at the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring for more pointed instances of how these technologies can initiate vast and powerful social movements. And while the curse of clicktivism is ever-present, platforms like Munathara, Change, Avaaz and others are undeniably having an impact upon both our awareness of the scope of challenges we face as a species, as well as our capacity to make some meaningful contribution to mitigating them.

I’ve been thinking about how we can use social technology to fundamentally change everything for quite some time. I’ve been guided, mentored, informed and inspired by some of the most dedicated, intelligent and compassionate people I know – one’s who have genuinely earned the label of ‘changemaker’. I’ve launched several platforms towards this end, learned a great deal about myself and the world about me, and had the roughest edges of my megalomaniacy ground down. Yet

 

I still believe that the development of a single platform that decreases friction and increases the speed of transfer of human, social and intellectual capital between individuals and organisations and communities is a fundamental requirement for achieving the type and scale of change it seems we need if we are to survive.

I know this isn’t a popular idea with many. I know that the idea of centralisation is rife with the potential for abuse. Yet I am more convinced than ever before that the lack of sustainability in our world is primarily a systems design problem. And I’m once again dedicating myself to collaborating with others in service to the design and execution of a better system.

More to come on this soon.

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