Why Our Now Matters: What Makes 2017 Different from 1957, 1857, or 1777 ?


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…

So begins Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cites” (1859) — with the narrator later noting that this characterization of contrasting superlatives is in fact a common thread throughout all of human history.

We humans always seem to want to claim that this moment is the ultimate apex of something in human history: either something really good or something really bad.

Nowadays it appears the same remains true.

The last few weeks have been busy with work in travel, to include speaking at SxSW and SxSWedu a few weeks ago and the World Economic Forum’s “Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution” in San Francisco. These events had me pondering what — if anything — truly defines the challenges of our modern era differs from other challenges that humanity has faced in the past and overcome?

I’d like to suggest three challenges that distinguish our modern era from previous ones:

1. The Internet May Redefine How We Organize as Large Groups

Humans are social creatures. Over the years, I’ve written about human nature and how we humans want to work in groups and at the same time we humans face challenges of adapting to changing environments as groups. It’s only when things get really bad that a human group finally accepts that what previously worked in the past no longer works and we must try something different, thus necessitating the need for “positive change agents” in the most adverse of situations.

Pulling up a plane from a downward uncontrolled spiral is hard to do, and even harder when the plan only has 2,000 feet of elevation left before it hits the ground. The same is true for organizations that have lost their relevancy to the new demands of an era.

In public talks throughout the years — dating back as far as 2003 and 2004 when I was with the Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Program at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, I have raised questions about whether the internet might challenge the notion of organizing by geography.

The printing press predated the Treaty of Westphalia by about 200 years and one could argue that organizing by national sovereignty vs. other means (be they religious or imperial in nature) was only possible once enough people had learned, through books, about philosophy, economic principles, logic, and reason. The distribution of knowledge made possible through the printing press gave rise to humans choosing a new form of organizing — specifically nation states — to meet the changing world order.

Our world is witnessing internet use and ubiquity (though not for all of the world yet; for more on this I recommend checking Vint Cerf’s People Centered Internet initiative).

The question is whether the internet, which transcends national borders and does span the plan, might challenge nation-states as the only way in which humans might organize?

We already see transnational corporations as large in annual GDP as nation-states. Last year there were five companies (Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Ali Baba) who combined had more revenue than Russia. Each of these companies were also expected to grow much faster in revenue in the next few years ahead.

These same corporations are able to receive special privileges that would not necessarily have been possible decades era. One wonders how long it will be before a company asks a country for the equivalent of ‘diplomatic immunity’ in return for providing jobs and revenue from the incomes that their locally-based employees spend?

Similarly around the world we now see emergent movements, some internet-based and some ideology-based, that span geography and use the internet to spread their beliefs and values. These too challenge notions of the sovereignty of nation-states.

Finally the disappointment in the unfulfilled promise of globalization to “rise all boats” have left large numbers of individuals in developed nation-states disillusioned with what was promised to improve their standard of living. This too creates pressures on new ways of organizing to meet our internet era that might include an attempted return to strong nationalism or a continued fragmentation of nation-states into smaller and smaller groups?

2. The Internet Challenges How We Know Truth and Each Other

Much has been written in the last year about the growing challenge of “fake news” from all angles and perspectives. In 2009 I saw this problem first-hand in Afghanistan when I was deployed.

Without going into detailed specifics, while deployed I was involved with the follow-up to an incident involving a planned detonation of a propane tank by combatants with the intention to claiming innocent civilians had been killed by a “missile strike” using social media — when in fact it had been local combatants who had intentionally detonated the propane tank and immediately jumped to social media with photos and text messages claiming a missile strike had occurred.

That was over eight years ago — one can only imagine what has happened since regarding the growing challenge of discerning what is truth (and what is not truth) on the internet.

I had another experience in 2013 when I transitioned from working as a Senior National Intelligence Service Executive to a Senior Executive and CIO at the Federal Communications Commission, something odd happened. First, multiple individuals started a Wikipedia article that initially posed fairly benign factual things about my past roles with the Intelligence Community and FCC, and then after multiple edits started adding additional details myself and my wife. This struck me as odd because (1) while I recognize as a public figure I’m exposed to whatever the public wants to critique about my work, I don’t think my wife is subject to the same — especially since I’m a non-political civil servant, and (2) some the details would not have been easy to know through just web searches. Some editors on Wikipedia however didn’t necessary agree.

I created the @fcc_cio Twitter account in October 2013 so I personally could engage directly if the public had questions about what we were doing at the FCC, about why I had made the shift from the IC to the FCC, and our focus on digital transformation. Unlike Wikipedia, I could voice my views and respond — and at the same time any member of the public with a real name or pseudonym could ask questions, respond, and interact. The @fcc_cio account has been and continues to be monitored by just me and I personally answer tweets directly because I think engagement is a way to overcome distances involving geography and perspectives.

About two years ago I noticed even more details being posted about myself and my wife to the point of being uncomfortable with the Wikipedia article — and it was shared that the multiple edits were believed to be the same unknown individual. Given all of this, I requested Wikipedia remove or “reboot” the article, which was not an easy process. It took several weeks to demonstrate to Wikipedia that I was the actual person/subject the article asking for it to be removed. Since that time, I have noticed other articles that seem to have edits to them that seem benign at first and over time seem to build to skew the article one way or another. It makes me wonder if Wikipedia recognizes how it can be used and misused to skew current perspectives; while it strives for a “neutral” point of view, is that possible in today’s era?

Caveat: I am and remain a strong supporter of both transparency and “collective intelligence” (aka, crowdsourcing), even though I also know from the research that collective intelligence only works if all participants have the same shared goals from the start. I’m not sure that’s the case with some of the crowdsourced platforms on our internet today? I intentionally am not on Facebook for example.

Lastly, WIRED has a good summary of photo editing to make photos appear more dramatic or impactful throughout the years — noting this is not a uniquely internet-based phenomenon.

What the internet has done is make it easier for almost everyone to edit a photo to add more smoke, more sirens, or even more missiles being launched akin to what apparently happened in 2008. Again, that was more than eight years ago, so presumably this problem has only gotten more widespread?

3. The Internet Warps Our Sense of How Social Change Happens

I’ve written earlier about a wonderful book called “Distraction” by Bruce Sterling. The title sums up my third thought about how the challenges of our modern era differ from other challenges that humanity has faced in the past and overcome: we’re increasingly distracted.

Several folks (included myself when I was pursuing my PhD) wrote in the mid-2000’s about the increasing cost of distractions for our attention, the loss of focused thought, and the cost to organizations of shifting between multiple tasks. At the time I wrote in 2007, the cost from distractions in the workplace was estimated to $588 billion a year, more than the gross domestic product of Argentina at that time. The cost of distractions in the workplace presumably is much higher now.

At the same time the amount of video content being uploaded to the internet continues to increase dramatically — when I gave a talk in 2014 an estimated 72+ hours of YouTube video was uploaded every minute.

By 2016 that number was, as reported to an official with Google, more than 500 hours of YouTube video was uploaded every minute and growing exponentially.

To be certain, a lot of the video probably includes cute cats; yet the videos also include “video loggers” (vloggers), non-syndicated news programs, and other forms of narration about our changing times. To some degree humanity has always pondered what makes one particular era different from another — and, as Charles Dickens’ begins with ‘A Tale of Two Cities” we always think our specific era is the best and worse compared to all the ones who came before.

My concern is we increasingly have videos, both in terms of Hollywood movies as well as internet-videos, that tell us only the snippets of how real social change happens. We get the shiny highlights and perhaps a little character development if we’re lucky, before the credits roll and we feel like the world changed in less than two hours.

Real meaningful social change is much harder. It requires working across different groups and teams, often with different agendas, beliefs, and views on the world.

Real meaning social change requires sharing and refining narratives to bring folks together. It requires identifying what motivates different groups and incentivizes them to make lasting change happen — sometimes it is the promise of better outcomes, sometimes it is the promise of financial returns, sometimes it is political returns, sometimes it is thinking about the future and the next generation, sometimes its thinking about the present and the needs of the now. Meaningful change involving groups of humans is never simplistic, never easy, and never done overnight.

The internet in all of its videos, social medias, “snap chats”, and other distractions may make us feel like we’re more connected and informed about the what’s going on now — yet I’m not entirely sure the internet is helping us understand how really meaningful social takes hard work, time, and committed change agents across organizations?

Closing Thoughts

Throughout my private and public sector roles, I’ve remained intentionally non-partisan as I believe the moment one picks a group then confirmation bias sets in that colors your perspectives. While I certainly have views on the world, I want my blindspots pointed out and I want to always be learning — always growing in my understanding of others.

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