The Qi of People-Centered Internet

A reflection on July 28th Design Meeting

It’s about the People (and their smiles)

Context: People have asked me “What is the People-Centered Internet”? I still can’t tell what it is, what it will be, let alone have an elevator pitch. But I can describe how it feels like to be involved, how the people behind it are. Let me describe to you what I saw during the July 28th meeting in San Francisco State University to give you a sense.

It was the most energizing long meeting that I have ever been to. From 8am to 8pm (some even stayed to continue the discussion during dinner after). I was touched by the sheer energy and dedication of the people here: people volunteered their time and resources to come and work that hard. It was much more so than any Hackathon, which taught me that no amount of Red Bull or coffee or big rewards could trump passion.

The day started with Dr Effie Chow — a world-renowned Qiqong grandmaster and healer — leading us in a Qi (life force) breathing exercise. We were blown away (figuratively and for some literally) when this tiny lady demonstrated pushing four heavy men that together weighed up to 800 pounds. What just happened? “The irresistible force met with the immovable object, and the object moved”, as one person commented after being pushed. What a metaphor for our work — the impossible task meet with the beyond-reasonable people, and the task will get done.

How is a Qigong practice related to a group of people who care about steering the future of the Internet towards greater good for people? I think the answer is evident: it helps connecting with each other and with ourselves, which is the key to working together well especially for a new, rapidly growing group like PCI. Success will come from our people, from our energy and relationships that we have been cultivating. As Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the Internet, said “PCI is nobody else. It’s us”. Nothing significant has ever been done alone. The better question is how can we learn to harness such irresistible force to move forward?

Throughout the day, one could sense a delicious enthusiasm, blended with occasional laughter and topped with witty comments. Where did that much energy come from? It was the people again, as someone commented Everyone in this room cares about people they have never met.”

It wasn’t all easy though. One of the challenges whenever such a large, bold and diverse group is brought together is that it is very difficult to agree, even on a general direction. People shared many aspirations during the session where we were asked “What would the world look like five years from now if PCI was a success?” The group had yet to converge on a single set of values, principles and messages at the meeting. Nevertheless, it might be better that way, for the enormity and complexity of what we are trying to achieve requires longer and more thinking. Indeed it could be tempting to settle on an elevator pitch for People-Centered Internet now — there is so much more to unpack in what the phrase conveys.

How do we know when we are ready? I don’t think we can tell. We just have to stay present and do what needs to be done now. Which was precisely what John Hagel shared in his reflection: focus on the short term, keep in mind the long term vision and learn as much as possible during the process.

Here are three core assumptions from the conversations throughout the day that I think we want to remember as we move forward:

  • Everyone can contribute, unless proven otherwise.
  • Everyone can be trusted, unless proven otherwise.
  • The better connected we are, the more we thrive.

If these sound familiar at all, it is because they are the spirit behind the original Internet. It connects people so that we can trust each other more, contribute what we can and thrive together.

Many ideas
Some general direction is emerging.

A few other reflection I had afterwards on what to focus on:

  • Relationships: Gary Bolles reminded us in the midst of our high-minded, fiery discussion to come back to our heart — what is it that we truly desire? We have to come back to the heart to connect to each other at a deeper level. Why? 
    First, because only then can we develop trust that allows us to learn from the wealth of tacit knowledge inside ourselves. Facing with great challenge, the only way to go is to learn fast to succeed early. Second, acting from the heart will help us cultivate the relational space, which determines what gets done. To quote Peter Senge, “We have the potential to achieve anything, but if we are so busy on focusing on the thing and not on the relational space, we won’t accomplish a thing.”
    Just think about how everyone in the room is connected one way or another to a few core people. People might first join because of mutual interests, but people stay because of relationship. Is is indeed the soil on which good work can grow.
  • Actions: Intention needs to be acted upon to be realized. I used to doubt about what can I — a college student — contribute to these unfathomably large and thorny issues. Now I’m learning to doubt less, trust more and act anyway. On this, I keep Peter Senge’s advice again to people with bold dreams: “Choose where to put your attention, and do exactly what you can do. And just know that that’s all anybody ever does.” Worrying whether I’ve made a difference is often a distraction. Small move, smartly made, can indeed set big thing in motion. Through consistent action and learning, I can hone myself to become what the legendary Buckminster Fuller had his tombstone carved: “I’m a trim tab.”

The meeting ended with a call to action by Mei Lin Fung — one of the main orchestrators behind PCI: “an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that will affect all future generations”. I could sense a palpable aliveness in the room. The organizing team is aware of the halo effect after such a highly energized meeting though. From experiences, the glow of excitement will last for about three weeks and slowly wane. On that, Mei Lin’s closing words best summed up our stance: “I appreciate the applause, and I will appreciate more if we take actions.”

There are still a lot more to follow up, one of which is to set the stage for others can get involved. The first small step you can do is to sign up for the PCI Newsletter here.

We look forwards to having you join force with us.

and be fully engaged!