I (just about) put my faith in humans

St Pauls from the conference venue

This is the text of a speech I gave at a dinner at a digital policing conference. It is not verbatim as I never read stuff out and my ipad died 5 mins in but its basically what I covered.

I wanted to post it as its reflects some of my current grinding anxiety that while our politicians argue with each other we are failing to face off into the challenges that an epoch shift brings us.

I started off with some explanation of who I am and what I am doing now – I have spared you that here!

This internet stuff can make me feel old……I sometimes feel like a refugee from another age. I feel I should confess that I was once a techno-utopian. I am now a techno-hopeful.

I can still however be accused of living 5 years in the future and while a few years ago that felt exciting it now feeling alarming. I have a deep seated anxiety that we are now trying to spend more of our energy on recreating our past and not nearly enough on shaping the the future we are trying to create. Where I used to think it would be possible to evolve towards a different future I am now more worried that we are going to have to break the system before we can see something new emerging. We are failing to evolve our democracy, our legislation or our economy to respond the the changes which technology is putting in front of us and we have just a short window in which to influence and shape our future if we want to avoid it being written for us by technology giants over whom we have little control.

I discovered the world wide web just before the first dot com boom when it was much closer to Tim Berners Lee’s vision of a connected space which was for everyone.

My still abiding research interest is in the way in which community functions online and I am still astounded by the ways in which strangers who never meet can come together to support each other.

8 years ago people mobilised after civic unrest and the hashtag riot clean up brought thousands of people together to fix their communities. Fast forward only a few years and people are using sophisticated automated tools to insert their views into the heart of our democratic process.

I’m a sociologist and so I see everything through that lens and the change I see over the last 10 years is a slow creep of technology taking over what used to be human interactions.

Social media doesn’t seem to be much about society any more.

The transactional power of the internet can’t be denied – nor can the ability of digital and networked technologies to remove dull and repetitive work from humans. But transactional connections are not relationships and speeding up the time to transact perhaps slows down the time to connect.

I’m the last person to speak against the benefits which digital in its widest and most ill-defined sense has given us but we need to accept that we are still very often riding on its coat tails rather than actively shaping the future that we want to see.

We’re not dealing with technology driven change democratically, legislatively or economically – and I believe that you are the people who are at the front line accepting the consequences of our inability to address these issues.

Everywhere we see unintended consequences of what was intended as a way to make the world a more understandable and connected place.

  • Creeping personalisation which is about turning people into the sum of their most granular consumer choices rather than expressing who they really are.
  • Instagram filters which capture the best version of the moment you are in
  • A shift in our relationship with news and information which is leading to a dramatic breakdown of trust…in everything
  • Anti social behaviour online which we can only hope would never be replicated at the scale we see it virtually in real life

Cyber crime has a special place on this list – mostly because we are still so ill equipped to secure ourselves against in. It’s like wack-a-mole and so the question has to be how do we become more agile and adaptive??

But what has that got to do with citizen and victim voice?

Citizenship is a fairly abstract idea – or it was until we all started debating Brexit but its an idea that contains a balance of rights and responsibilities. This balance is lacking online. On the one hand it is incredibly difficult to hold someone to account for their behaviour, or the other hand we are almost powerless in the face of the exploitation of our data and our identity by third parties.

But people do still find their voice:

  • Greta Thunberg – the 16 year old environmental activist
  • The Parkland school activists – Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg
  • Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC)
  • Sara Ryan and her amazing Justice for LB campaign

These people are citizens – and before you have a society you need people who will stand up and stand for something. Community can be formed from shared values or shared purpose – and sometimes if you are lucky from both. In policing you can’t choose your audience but you can chose the audience that you want to amplify and accentuate.

I want to believe that these people can be found in all of our communities and I do believe that knowing who these people are is one of the strengths of community policing. But creating an environment where it is safe to speak out is something that we all need to think carefully about.

Our emphasis on social media – and online generally – has for a long time been on scale. We are dazzled by the number of connections, shares and likes that are possible to achieve. But we are perhaps counting the wrong things – what if we were to count the social aspect of social networks and not simply their size. Can we prioritise social impact, social cohesion and social capital instead? Can we support citizenship as the norm and not as the high profile exception?

Jon Alexander of the New Citizenship project thinks so and he, along with a number of other researchers are seeing signs of a shift in people accepting their role as consumers and acting instead as citizens. I think we can see this in things like the way Generation Z are showing greater signs of social awareness or the rise of what the marketeers are calling the experiential economy.

To do this we would need to look much smaller – to look at human rather than global scale networks. But we can’t just prioritise connections with the people with whom you share values or purpose to do this – the other vital component of the communities we really live in is proximity – successful societies are able to form bonds with people who think differently to us but with whom we need to peaceably share resources. We need to be able form communities of place because community is a vital but missing aspect of how we keep ourselves safe online.

I am suggesting ways in which we can return to a more human scale internet – where individuals do feel a sense of tangible connection and where citizens feel confident enough to keep each other safe. I’m also suggesting we concentrate on creating connections with the people who want to build the future with us.

I am not naive about this – large scale cyber crime is only going to grow and we need to make sure that we continue to advocate for that democratic, legislative and economic change – but we also need to make it possible for people to support each other online and that’s about behaviours and connections not just about technology. It’s about depth of experience and connection and not scale.

This internet stuff can make you feel old – but after the rampant consumerism of the dot com boom and its dressed up cousin of collaborative consumption I am seeing signs of people wanting a more human and connected world – a rise in the concept to of tech for good and socially responsible business the means the question now if we can effect technology fast enough to make an impact.

We are at an inflection point – we’ve lost our techno-optimism but we don’t yet have the skills we need to be citizens in a digital age. We’re vulnerable and if we want to make it any different we need to be actively shaping our future.

I have always been drawn to the concept of policing by consent – but your legitimacy comes partly from public trust in whether you see the citizen as they see themselves. We have generations who cannot see themselves in the institutions which we are trying to preserve and this should make us think.

So I want to end with a few questions:

  • How will you create a shared view of the future you want to create?
  • How do we give people the tools they need to make themselves safe; resilience, data awareness, connectedness?
  • How do we make the human visible?
  • How do we support good citizens online?

Ultimately I do put my faith in humans to figure this all out – but we need to remove the intellectual limitations of a world that no longer exists and start to shape our future if we want to tap into the unlimited potential of humans to fix things. I put my faith in humans but we really need to crack on.

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