How might relationships change -- how might we relate to each other, the state, and vice versa?
How Might Relationships Change?,
There are many layers to this question. Let’s begin with the relationship to our selves because it creates a profound ripple effect. Our genome, our facial morphology, our voice modulation, our fingerprints, our heartrate, our urine chemistry, our personal preferences, our physical and digital fingerprints and other kinds of personal data are being recognised as having significant value. These things have value not only to individuals who have either willingly or unwillingly, knowingly or unknowingly, contrived, contributed to or collected the data, but to many others as well. Therefore, it is precisely the relationship between that which we have domain over versus that which we do not which will define the next decade in many ways.
For example, as we increasingly see mobility as a service, we notice a new relationship emerging between providers and users—one of trust of service, as well as protection of personal data such as movements, accompaniments, timing. This is a complicated relationship because some of the information which makes the entire system work is not necessarily that which an individual would like or choose to share. What do we do then? Can citizens opt out of location data? Is there a difference between “duty of care” and invasive intrusion, and where is the line to cross if any?
The ways in which citizens will relate to the spaces around them are also changing and will continue to change. For example, individual comfort preferences may be aggregated and building spaces adjusted to suit them. Augmented Reality apps may provide individuals globally with a depth of information about a place, person, space or service that would have been science fiction only a few years ago. Furthermore, individuals may be required to continue adjusting themselves to suit the environment of a building or place. Such requirements may even be pegged to one’s carbon or resource budget. If you saved resources in order to have a greater impact in shaping your office environment, you would have become a new kind of influencer. And that’s just an example of what we could do with comfort preferences and consumption patterns. If we could know anything about everything, what would we want to know and why?
One last thought is climate-related. Our planet is hitting up against the limits of predictable natural system behaviour. We will see ambient environments impacting our lives in unpredictable ways as we move further into the Anthropocene. I believe that this will result in us having a new relationship to our physical environment. The exact manifestation of this remains unclear. I hope that it would increase sensitivity to environmentally damaging behaviour, but this is not a given. What will happen if large swathes of the population simply reject personal liability and climate or resource responsibility?
The post-war system of global governance is no longer fit for 21st century purpose. We need to recognise and learn from its remarkable achievements over the past 75 years. At the same time, the institutions which worked in a world with a few dominant players are increasingly unable to meet the key challenges of our time. The gridlock reflects the rise of new powers, increasing participation of citizens in decision making, increasing transparency and accountability, and the new forms of risk which have arisen as a result of increasing complexity and integration of societies. Individuals and small groups now have powers which only powerful nation-states previously possessed. Cities and states have incomes which are higher than many countries (California is richer than the UK and Texas richer than Canada) and a few dozen individuals have wealth equivalent to over three billion people. In addition, whether in cyberspace or in finance or in the realm of pandemics, individuals and small groups now pose unprecedented risks. Meanwhile, rising incomes and connectivity means the tragedy of the commons is becoming more acute. The free market-driven choices of consumers is increasingly inconsistent with the needs of sustainability or resource use, of antibiotic consumption and of limiting climate change. The trade-offs between individual freedoms and collective outcomes are similarly being tested in social media as questions of privacy, fake news or foreign meddling, and of new dangers posed by anti-vaccination and other social media trends raises new questions regarding the boundaries between individual choice and regulations.
Relationships need to change in response to this new external operating environment. Global governance needs to give way to groups of actors who can make a significant impact on problems. A critical mass of countries accounts for most of the problems and can provide most of the solutions to climate change, financial stability, ocean degradation, antibiotic resistance, space debris and most other major challenges. The involvement of cities and states in the solutions is vital too, not least when the government may be less willing to act, as is the case with the US Federal Government at present on climate change. Private companies also have a key role to play, not least in the development of drugs, such as antibiotics, but also as a number of previously public sector activities are now conducted by private companies, such as the case with space and satellite launches. Lack of legitimacy is a key question facing coalitions of actors, but this can be addressed by ensuring that the effected as well as the effecting are parts of any coalitions and support the outcomes.
To address 21st century challenges it is vital to change the relationship between the states, cities, companies, communities and citizens.
Creating Space for Personal Piety – The Internet and Religious Reform in Indonesia,
The digital revolution has the potential to fundamentally reform Islam. We are, in my view, at a crucial point in Islamic history where fundamental changes to how we practice and understand Islam can happen. This can be scary, and has often be presented to us as a challenge—a challenge to security, a challenge to the state and to social stability. For example, organisations like ISIS recruit new members through their sophisticated use of social media platforms. We now hear about self-radicalisation, where social media enables actors to distort religious knowledge and cause otherwise "rational" individuals to undertake violence against society.
Yet, I make the case that the digital revolution with its depth of disruption has the potential to fundamentally reform Islam in the same way that the scientific revolution transformed Christianity. How will this happen? Just as the internet has disrupted the educational landscape, it is also fundamentally changing how religious knowledge and practices are transmitted to Muslims. In the process the role and power of the traditional religious scholar (ulama) has changed. The potential to surpass (or undermine) traditional religious authority and to individualise Islam is therefore great. This is an opportunity of great consequence. How Muslim authorities embrace this transformation and how the state manages this process is important lest it becomes a lost opportunity.
My research focuses on a microcosm of Islamic society—the country with the largest Muslim population in the world. 87% of Indonesia's estimated 269 million people are Muslims. The impact of the digital revolution on the nature of Islamic society in Indonesia is now quite visible, and research on what this means for Muslim communities as well as for Indonesian politics and society is beginning.
While Islamic beliefs and practices in Indonesia are diverse, a majority are Sunni Muslims, and the transmission of Islamic knowledge has largely been via Islamic schools. These schools take on two main forms—(a) traditional Islamic boarding schools (pesantren) or (b) madrasahs. The religious scholar (ulama or kyai) is the figure who reads, understands and transmit knowledge to the student. The transmission is largely one-way, face-to-face narrations between teacher and student and reinforced through discussions that occur in religious study circles, known as halaqah or usrah, led by the religious scholar. This mode of transmission reinforces the central authority of the religious scholar.
Today, however, increasing numbers of young Indonesian Muslims are exploring religion through social media. They are accessing YouTube for sermons, religious songs and videos. They actively use of Facebook and WhatsApp chat for their own religious discussions. They are bypassing the traditional Islamic scholar/preacher, and have fewer face-to-face engagements with the “localised” community of believers. The interpretation and transmission of Islamic knowledge and practice is now truly global. In the process, we can see an interesting mix of the global and the local in everyday life such as fashion and song. There is also an impact on more vertical relationships, such as those with Islamic organisations and religious authorities.
There are fears that these changes are making Indonesia an Islamic state and that this is a threat to regional stability and security. The evidence suggests however that it can go either way. The disruption brought on by the internet presents an opportunity to create a space for critical thinking within Islam.
The Future is Not Very Evenly Distributed
In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman examined the implications of a world whose primary mode of discourse had shifted from the printed word to the moving images of television. How a culture talks to itself derives to a large degree from its medium of choice and those who master the tools of the moment are the ones whose voices ring loudest.
This year, for the first time, the average time people spend per day on mobile phones exceeded that spent watching television for the first time. This is simply a lagging indicator, however. For many people, this transition from the passive entertainment of television to the two-way dialogue of the internet came to pass long ago. Looking at recent history, we already see the effects of this new topology of information distribution. For those left behind in this seismic shift, the world feels increasingly weird.
One of the most notable stories in technology this past 15 years has been the rise of Amazon Web Services, but in parallel, a different technology stack was built. Not by one company, and not in a coordinated fashion. In plain sight, used by nearly all of humanity. Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp and WeChat, to name the most notable of many. Social media behemoths of a scale never seen in human history. In their totality, this set of services make up a technology stack that allow individuals and small groups of people to “programme” other people at a scale and efficiency never possible before.
In software, we tend to think of platforms as systems that can be programmed by external developers. By connecting billions of humans, this new wave of internet services has allowed anyone to distribute and run “code” in other people's minds. That the code often comes in the form of memes, viral videos on YouTube, and rumours passed around on WhatsApp doesn't make them any less effective; in an environment of declining trust in elites they may be even more potent.
Leaders in government, religion, education and other fields have long used rhetoric and narrative to rally others to their cause. What's changed is the reach and targeting of the tools. Social media companies are powered by attention; they are marketplaces where user attention is traded to advertisers for revenue. To grow their share of human attention, they each iterated on their content recommendation algorithms. One reason mobile has surpassed TV is that these algorithms have become stunningly good. Whereas once advertisers who wanted to reach an audience had to trade off precise targeting against global reach, now anyone can achieve both.
Economics explains some of the surprising rise of many politicians who don't come from within older political parties and institutions, but this political upheaval is also a story of a new generation sneaking up on the establishment who thought themselves secure in traditional corridors of power, ones in which the most critical information arrived via older forms of media like television and print.
Since modern content travels more often through social media via personalised channels, opposition coalesces in the dark, from the bottom up, distributed and coordinated by social networks. In the shift from a world where information filtered through a limited set of gatekeepers, it was possible to see your competition coming from a mile away. In a mesh network topology, it's impossible to pin down all the coalitions. They seem to be everywhere and nowhere all at once.
The dominant identity frameworks of a previous generation were vertical (race, country, family, et cetera) overlaid with a few horizontal identity bands like religion. In this hyper-connected world of social networks programmed to maximise connection and thus engagement, horizontal identity structures sprout up more quickly than ever before. Longstanding institutions are used to reaching their constituents infrequently, through synchronous in-person rituals: attending church on Sunday, political rallies, legal ceremonies. The new internet-enabled gurus and cultural institutions build their identity structures continuously, asynchronously, from a distance, through digital screens.
People continue to want to feel a sense of belonging and community, of achievement and self-worth. As old institutions like lifetime employment decline in the West, new movements rush in to fill the void. Fortnite, Jordan Peterson, the MBL in Brazil, the alt-right, Crossfit and now Peloton are all examples of more modern communities that would not have been possible without the internet. We live in an age where “YouTube politician” is a fresh term; someday we'll just call them politicians.
It's no coincidence that many upper middle class urban elites now identify more with other city-dwellers spread across the world than they do with people in neighbouring rural communities who share their citizenship. The internet has displaced geography as a critical tribal coordination axis. Brexit and the expanding political polarisation between urban and rural populations in the United States are just symptoms.
People once received much of their identity and sense of belonging, the top floors of Maslow's hierarchy, from the same institutions that provided lower functions, like food and shelter, roads, police, and medical care. Technology, however, has a habit of unbundling functions. The challengers to the institutions of old are particularly vexing because they focus only on the top of Maslow's pyramid. Fortnite might not feed or clothe you, but it can make you feel part of something larger than yourself.
Perhaps it's no surprise that two countries who saw most clearly the downstream implications of wiring up the world were China and Russia, two nations whose Communist histories trained them in the power of propaganda. Russia leveraged the new infrastructure to try and sow discord and manipulate elections abroad. China, in a move that looks more and more prescient in hindsight, erected a Great Firewall and continues to police and moderate content across all their more popular social media services. Governments tend to be fine with internet services until they start to compete with governments, but China neutered that threat before it reached the internet’s escape velocities.
In the United States, Trump is thought of by many as a first harbinger of the power of harnessing the internet, but in fact it was Obama who should've been the first sign of what might happen when a politician understood he could go direct to consumer and bypass the power structures of old. Obama hijacked the weakened, out-of-touch Democratic Party, and Trump did the same to the Republican Party. Obama used the internet to speak to minorities and the young, and Trump used it to speak to whites and the working class. Neither was thought to have a chance early on, but in the end the parties had no choice but to fall in line.
Pundits debate when virtual reality will become the next dominant technology platform, but when you walk through the world with your head up, what you see is your fellow man with heads bowed, in smartphone prayer mode, staring at screens. We already live half in a virtual reality, just not one rendered in three dimensions.
The now familiar vertical blocks of information stacked one upon another to infinity—the News Feed, the Timeline—are the new city streets and plazas in which citizens bump into one another most frequently. Young children spend hours cultivating their images on social media because the number of people who see them there exceeds those who see them IRL by magnitudes of order.
If there's hope for those who failed to see this technological gentrification happening it's that the tech companies who built these new cities out of software started with a very rudimentary set of primitives: likes, posts, comments, reshares, profiles. The norms were ill-defined, and it turns out that after a period of seemingly endless network-effects-driven growth we've now started seeing the network defects of these first attempts at digital urban design. For example, though we are more connected than ever through our phones and social networks, more and more people the world over report feeling lonely. This first wave of social apps were solving for engagement, but the desired second order effects such as community are a trickier problem. It turns out that some layers of society are more durable and slow-moving than others, for good reason, and technology's ability to manipulate the more fluid shearing layers remains only a partial success.
Building the next generation of digital society, one that better copes with the problems of this first wave of social networks, is hard work that has just begun. It's far from too late for even the slowest moving of institutions to jump in.
It's imperative that they do. Some may believe that the migration out of Facebook is some sign of a mass defection from our smartphones back into the real world, but this is more likely a temporary slowdown. Feedback loops in the digital world are so tightly wound and the financial incentives are so great that if the social networks of today are not the end state they are likely antecedents to digital worlds where our children and grandchildren interact even more than today.
As William Gibson noted, “the future is already here—it's just not very evenly distributed.” Until it is, expect the unexpected as a select few, either with intent or by accident, hack away at society.