The thing about travelling is that it broadens your perspective, it gives you views you never had when you stood still. Whilst travelling by train through Europe at the weekend, a friend commented that she’d never realised how restrictive her society was until she moved out of it. Funny how we never see all of the walls until we walk beyond them.
Technology is moving to bring us all together by making communication effortless and instantaneous, but it doesn’t, by itself, create a level playing field. We are separated by chasms of inequality from our brethren around the world. These are differences of wealth, of opportunity, of access to information, of collaboration, of political power, of freedom and of privacy. Whilst technology can bring us closer together, our own communities can drive us further apart.
The promise of the Social Age is that work will be revolutionised, that our relationship with knowledge will change, that our potential is increased through the amplification of ideas that come from generosity and sharing. The promise of the Social Age is that opportunity will be equal and that everyone will have a voice, no matter how far away they are shouting from, no matter how they live, how they love, what they think. Historically, the spread of ideas was limited by barriers in communication: the time delays involved in getting news from the frontline back to the home front and then the time taken to actually publish it once it got there. ‘News’ wasn’t really new at all, but rather a stultified reflection of reality.
Today, ‘news‘ is instant, broadcast by citizen journalists from their smartphones, interpreted by the community and made sense of in real time. Or at least, it is when there is no interference in either the technology or the messaging. When London rioted, we were free to watch, on grainy smartphone video and through Twitter, but the reporting was not unmoderated. Unless one reached out into the networks to discover the primary sources, the reporting on TV was still moderated, curated into the one ‘true’ story. There was still hyperbole and interpretation, storytelling. The reality of the riots may have been less dramatic than the news reports. Similarly, the current US trend of interviewing victims of high school shootings whilst they walk from the scene may be driven more by a need to create an advertiser friendly dramatic narrative than a true reflection on events.
Technology itself does not guarantee unbiased reporting and that’s just in the UK or US, where our access is pretty much unrestricted and our society predominantly liberal. Technology does not make us all equal, indeed, it may be a force that drives us further apart.
People who broadcast through social media are always simply a subset of the total population: the group that choose to share stories. They are, by definition, subjective reporters of facts. Within any social learning or collaboration space, we all bring our back story, our worldview, our opinions and bias. Whilst technology makes it easier for us all to speak, it doesn’t do away with prejudice, it doesn’t make the world a fairer place.
I’m interested in the relationship between people at an individual level and society as a whole: one of the mentoring projects that i’m involved in matches UK mentors up with mentees in developing regions. It’s not a programme to change the world, it’s a programme to share knowledge, to create opportunity, between two people. It’s a professional friendship. And yet it does change the world. In small ways.
Mentoring in social spaces, online, globally, effects small changes that may be cumulative. In small ways it lets us step outside our walls, it lets us see the barriers and, once the invisible is made visible, it helps us to think differently. Small changes can lead to a growth in authority, the ability to curate one’s story from a wider viewpoint. These changes, if focussed on developing concomitant skills, can leave to greater economic success: greater economic power can lead to political power and political power changes society. So two people, collaborating, on a foundation of generosity and sharing in a global social space can, in small ways, change the world.
But what about the disenfranchised? What about people who have no access to this liberating technology, or what about where our access is moderated, where our messages are censored, restricted, tampered with? What about where organisations seek to own the messages or where governments look to control them?
Today, on Facebook, i see people taking umbrage at the fact that Ian Duncan Smith, one of our cabinet ministers, has stated that he could live on minimum benefits, the amount that we ask the poorest people in our society to live on. There has been an uproar of opinion, people asking him to make good on his statement. This very dialogue is healthy: the fact that we can challenge authority with impunity. Indeed, it’s a greater level of challenge than we see in many businesses everyday. How often do we see the groundswell of opinion about strategy or change result in challenges to leadership? Not very often, and yet it affects us all.
Whilst the social technologies make it easier for us to form communities and for those communities to unite behind a common opinion, it doesn’t in itself, make us more equal. There are skills beyond the technology that do that.
From a learning perspective, greater access to information, the ability to curate and share that information and the permission to form groups to discuss it, these are all strengths. From the organisational perspective, a willingness to engage in debate, to be challenged, to recognise that not all the conversations are for our ears, this is the challenge. From the perspective of society, we have to recognise that it’s important to look after the disenfranchised, those who, through poverty or lack of understanding are unable to participate in the debate. Even if we disagree with their viewpoint, it’s a collective responsibility to get them into the conversation.
Finland was the first country in the world to make access to broadband a legal right, an important recognition that access to our communities online is as important as that in the ‘real‘ world. Organisations need to pick up on the spirit of this: access to information, access to systems, freedom to use any spaces we like for discussion and debate, for development.
The Social Age is about collaboration, it’s about creating meaning, but this can only be done through equal access to information, through the permission to have these conversations. Together, we should be able to walk outside the walls of our own limitations, to learn new skills, to create new meaning, to share and be generous with what we discover, and to do this without fear of repercussions. I come back again to the power of two: the conversations that we have, the conversation that we’re having right now, these things change us in small ways. Social spaces allow for conversations that change us, that let us develop and, if this development leads to economic empowerment, leads to political strength, then it leads to change.
We cannot be passive in our struggles for equality: be that for gender equality, sexual equality or the rights to live and love as our conscience takes us. We must strive for inclusivity, for access to levelling technologies for all and we must personally be willing to listen to dissenting voices with courtesy and tolerance. Learning is built upon a willingness to take part in conversations and to be generous with our time and skills. As we rely on our social learning spaces to develop ourselves ever further, our willingness to engage and to reach out to the disenfranchised will differentiate us as a measure of success.