On SXSW2012, the pessimistic web and culture as therapy…

“Who could be against more communication and conversation, participation and collaboration, transparency and free speech? To question the spread of the web would be like being against dolphins, green space and trees and things that are self-evidently good. Yet many sensible and thoughtful people, not just Luddites and cultural conservatives, have grave reservations about the impact and implications of the web.” — Charles Leadbeater

In his 2008 book “We Think”, Charles Leadbeater wrote a chapter called For Better or for Worse in which he weighed the potential of the web to strengthen democracy, freedom and equality against the possibility that negative effects will overwhelm the gains leaving us worse off, less free, more controlled, more confused.

Much of my experience of the South by South West conference this year seemed like a safari through the jungles of those negative effects and the fears they generate. I didn’t specifically plan it to be such, although given the thousands of sessions on offer I’m sure I could have chosen to spend my time among people of a more utopian bent. Perhaps it’s retrospective apophenia — just my brain seeing meaningful patterns in essentially random data…

Whatever it is, many of the sessions I went to involved speakers who wanted to share concerns about the direction the web is heading. Here are the most significant ones in a nutshell:

  • Alec J Ross (senior Advisor for Innovation to Hilary Clinton): How 21st Century Tools Are Disrupting Global Power
    Governments, of all denominations, are terrified of social networks and are rapidly developing enormous surveillance and control capabilities.
  • Andrew Keen (author and cultural critic): Digital Vertigo
    Social media sharing places individuals in a virtual ‘panopticon’ which limits choice, expression and ultimately our freedom.
  • Jaron Lanier (computer scientist, author and musician): Is Technology Making Our Lives Richer or Poorer?
    The open web is being consumed by giant proprietary networks that extract value from our activity but don’t return any of it, which is an unsustainable economic dynamic.
  • Brian Solis (social media analyst and author) and Billy Corgan (musician): The End of Business as Usual
    The internet is hollowing out the creativity and substance of music, leaving only “corporate robots and jerks in basements”.
  • George Friedman (CEO of foreign policy analysis consultancy Stratfor): Surviving Technology
    The internet is a breeding ground for conspiracy, because in “an absence of information one imputes the worst, the most dangerous, of motivations in others”.
  • Bruce Stirling (science fiction author): The Ultimate Bruce Stirling Talk
    The world is dominated by five ‘stacks’ — Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft who don’t treat us as customers but as livestock. The ‘stacks’ will ultimately fall, but in the meantime our future is looking like “old people in big dirty cities, afraid of the sky”.

Now those summaries don’t do proper justice to any of the talks, all of which were excellently argued and nuanced (and I highly recommend you check them out — much of the audio from the sessions has already been published at the above links). However, I do think there are some clear themes running through them all — of fear, dehumanisation and of economics. And furthermore I think in the aggregate they express something important about where we are in the progression of the new form of communication and it’s sociopolitical impact.

I left the conference with my mind churning with thoughts of how these effects will be mitigated and what kinds of institution will be involved in mitigating them. After chewing it over for a few days, I came to the conclusion that one of the other (much more optimistic!) sessions I went to might hold the key.

On Saturday afternoon, Baratunde Thurston gave a keynote speech entitled: How to Read the World. Thurston is a comedian, author and digital director of the satirical website The Onion. In his talk he argued that the future will be defined at the intersection of politics, technology and comedy:

“The internet of crap is emerging for all of us, it’s a magical time. This casts a lot of noise. It creates some tension in opportunity for clarity and trust because with all this noise and confusion, we look to institutions for trust. They often come up short. Government is trying to shut it down. Religion missing in action. Your parents are awkwardly texting you. And the media is busy talking about the state of the media.
So, who’s left? You’ve got comics, willing to speak truth to the youth and beyond.”

And I think he’s right. Actually, I think it’s about culture in a wider sense than just comedy — there’s a huge demand for culture that both engages people and that gets to the heart of these issues, that changes the way people feel about what’s happening as well as highlighting the absurdities and calling out the failures.

Furthermore I think this is true at all scales and in all contexts. Fear, confusion and alienation exist locally and within organisations as well, and there too culture can change attitudes and enable behaviours that promote the best of what the Internet can be.

I’m not talking about something abstract here, I’m not using the world ‘culture’ in the way it is often used to signify ‘just the way things are here’. I don’t mean ‘team-building’, I mean creating culture by actually making things — drawing, painting, sculpting, doing comedy sketches, videos, acting out plays, that kind of thing. Engaging in a shared creative experience around a theme or challenge. Just as in the wider world negative effects can’t be overcome simply through legislation, so too within communities and companies they can’t be overcome with mere policy. There has to be something deeper, something that increases understanding, trust and confidence, and that creates norms of behaviour that people adhere to because it’s right to do so.

This is quite anathematic to a lot of people. Very few organisations recognise its importance to the point of incorporating it deeply into their practice, despite the problems associated with a lack of culture being well identified. Many people prefer looking to technical solutions to address these problems instead of dealing with the complexity of people. And of course technical (‘architectural’) solutions play an important role, but just like policy, they often fall short in use. Without addressing culture in a way that transcends mere ‘training’, technical solutions will not fulfil their promise — at least not unless they are so cleverly and beautifully designed that they engage with deeply evolved traits in the individual, that require little understanding and learning.

In a nutshell: if companies, communities and societies want to take proper advantage of the opportunity presented by the new communications realities, they have to figure out ways of encouraging positive norms of behaviour and attitude. And instead of doing this from above by diktat or shipping it in from outside, I think it needs to emerge — small groups, bottom-up, in a creative and inclusive process, sharing with others.

Where there is challenge, there is opportunity. And I think this is an area that is crying out for more innovation.

Originally published at suspendedjudgement.net.