February: Think Global, Act Local and Ride Bicycles in your Mind

A note that the video above gives some reasonable opening context to this essay that might be worth listening to before diving in to the world below :)

Lately I have been thinking about the notion of think globally and act locally. I have been observing local journalism and civic engagement and thinking about the value of local news and local newspapers and the challenges posed by global news headlines. With local news on a local level we can engage and make dents in the spaces around us. When the news is presented to us globally our capacity to engage and make dents is greatly reduced and so we often react emotionally rather than practically. We feel outraged and frustrated and, in this mode, we are more receptive to emotionally impulsive advertising messages than we are to patient, measured thoughts about how to make the world a kinder, smarter and more inclusive place. 

I have been thinking too of course about the role that technology is playing in this space, particularly with regards to the world we are contributing to that our children are growing up to take part in. 

I agree with Jaron Lanier, Tristan Harris, Cal Newport, et al. 

I want to be a good example to an emerging generation.

I believe we have reached an ideological turning point in the last two years with technology and the way engage as citizens. 

Technology is a tool. Steve Jobs said a wonderful thing when he said that technology can be a bicycle for the mind. We know what the invention of the bicycle allowed us to do. It allowed us to leave geographies we had otherwise been restricted to by providing us the leverage to travel greater distances than our natural physicality allowed. This exposed us to other people and other spaces that in turn evolved humanity. When Steve Jobs said that technology can be a bicycle for the mind this is what he was referring to. Technology as a tool that can allow us to overcome what our natural physicality overwise allows. Think of emerging gene editing technologies and the medical breakthroughs that will result. Think of how we can increase the accessibility of education to help reach all learners in ways never before possible. These are bicycles for the mind. 

But there is another direction technology can go. Technology can also be a wall for the mind. It can be a high wall in your mind that stands in front of you and reduces your capacity to socially connect with people in the real world. The wall can be so deceptive that it camouflages itself to look like the real world. The wall can simulate social experiences so you think you are socially connecting with people when really you are reducing your resolve to actually meet up and create meaningful social relationships with those people. You think you are throwing a ball back and forth to someone or perhaps thousands of people but you are really just bouncing the ball against the wall and catching it by yourself. The wall can be a gated community that has provided you with a house free of charge. All you need to do is allow the house to record your life and sell it to advertisers. As long as you agree to be the product and the fuel for the economy of advertising you will be fine. You can bring your wall together with the walls in the minds of others to create sheltered chambers in which when you speak you cannot be sure if you are hearing your own words echo back at you or whether they are the words of the others in the chamber with you because you are all now thinking the same thoughts. The only way to hear what someone else is saying is when the advertisers remove a brick from your wall and from the wall of a bunker ideologically opposite your own so you can hear views that outrage you and everybody in your bunker which incite you to scream into the hole of the bunker opposite you. And as you shout and look for the faces of the people in the bunker opposite you realise that they are not faces at all but are instead advertisements selling a lineup of products that promise to solve all your insecurities that you've been researching online in the long dark hours of the night. 

I don’t want to have walls in my mind. I want to have a bicycle in my mind. I want to contribute to the building of kinder, smarter and more inclusive societies. 

I want children to have access to the best opportunities afforded them, across all strata of socioeconomics and situation. I want children to feel good about themselves without being shamed into shaping themselves into the perfect format to be advertised. I want children to be able to use technology to connect with others in order to relish in the joy of finding other minds and ways of living and visions of the future that stimulate their capacity for personal reflection and evolution. I want children to create unique works of art that can be shared and enjoyed and collaborated on in ways that do not rely on their privacy being violated and their data being extracted and sold to political think tanks. I want children to be able to engage in social causes that are not strategically given enough oxygen so they may expand online in order to fuel stronger destructive social efforts that not only destroy the original cause but worse subvert it through the pipelines of money that maintain the structures of the status quo. I want children to be able to enjoy technology for a time and then to put it in their bags and go for a walk in a beautiful place in the country with no impulse to live stream the moment. I want children to enjoy their young brains untainted by the addictions of poker machine handle pulls with the rotating fantasies that promise a windfall of good feelings but provide only enough positive reinforcement to energise you to pull on the handle again. I want children to enjoy having bicycles in their minds so they may ride to places we adults have yet been able to reach. I do not want children to build walls in their young minds so they miss out on even getting to the places we were able to reach before the walls started going up and I certainly do not want to contribute to the building of walls in the minds of children. I want to provide bicycles and I want to teach how to ride bicycles. 

The decisions we make today, in 2019, as the ideologies of technology are facing a crisis of direction, will make all the difference for our emerging generations. I believe in technology as a tool for helping us improve the world. 

Here are some ways I believe technology can be bicycles in our mind:

Personalisation

  • Tailoring devices to personal routines and lifestyle choices

  • Accessibility for sensory and processing needs

  • Learning styles

Digital Well-Being

  • Time Well Spent

  • Online Ethics / Civic Engagement

  • Blending digital and organic parts of life

Expression

  • Arts

  • Maker

  • Language (journalism, coding, writing)

I think we all need to consider when we are introducing technologies into our lives if they are going to be bicycles for our minds or whether they are going to be walls. I see this a great deal in smart cities which I will talk to further in another essay and which I have previously addressed in other writing - there are smart cities, where smart is a euphemism for the collecting of personal data in order to fuel advertising money, and there are kind cities, in which technology is used to help accessibility, civic engagement and personal and collective expression. Let us be wise and patient and strategic about the world we want to contribute to at this point which feels more and more like a significant tipping point in the recent history of the tools we are using.