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Humanizing technology

It’s easier to turn technology in the direction of democracy and social justice when it’s developed with social and emotional intelligence. 

Credit: Pixabay/Geralt. CC0 Creative Commons.

Can we use the internet to enhance deep human connection and support the emergence of thriving communities in which everyone’s needs are met and people’s lives are filled with joy and meaning?

That’s a very challenging question, and the answer isn’t just about technology, at least not in the conventional sense of that word. It’s not about any of the emerging trends that are already impacting our societies like bitcoin, drones, Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, hyperloops or any of the things that the Singularity University thinks will converge.

It’s not just a matter of finding new technologies either, even if they are more user-centric or built on self-sovereign digital identities in place of corporate ownership and control—the field that forms my own techno-specialty. And the solutions can’t be driven by a government need to find a military advantage—which is the case for a vast range of everyday innovations today—as Manuel DeLanda outlines in his book, War in the Age of Intelligent Machines

Our work on ‘technical’ technologies won’t generate broad human gains unless we invest an equal amount of time, energy and resources in the development of social and emotional technologies that drive how our whole society is organized and how we work together. I think we are actually on the cusp of having the tools, understanding and infrastructure to make that happen, without all our ideas and organizing being intermediated by giant corporations. But what does that mean in practice?

I think two things are absolutely vital.

First of all, how do we connect all the people and all the groups that want to align their goals in pursuit of social justice, deep democracy, and the development of new economies that share wealth and protect the environment? How are people supported to protect their own autonomy while also working with multiple other groups in processes of joint work and collective action?

One key element of the answer to that question is to generate a digital identity that is not under the control of a corporation, an organization or a government.

I have been co-leading the community surrounding the Internet Identity Workshop for the last 12 years. After many explorations of the techno-possibility landscape we have finally made some breakthroughs that will lay the foundations of a real internet-scale infrastructure to support what are called ‘user-centric’ or ‘self-sovereign’ identities.

This infrastructure consists of a network with two different types of nodes—people and organizations—with each individual being able to join lots of different groups. But regardless of how many groups they join, people will need a digital identity that is not owned by Twitter, Amazon, Apple, Google or Facebook. That’s the only way they will be able to control their own autonomous interactions on the internet. If open standards are not created for this critical piece of infrastructure then we will end up in a future where giant corporations control all of our identities. In many ways we are in this future now.

This is where something called ‘Shared Ledger Technology’ or SLT comes in—more commonly known as ‘blockchain’ or ‘distributed ledger technology.’  SLT represents a huge innovation in terms of databases that can be read by anyone and which are highly resistant to tampering—meaning that data cannot be erased or changed once entered. At the moment there’s a lot of work going on to design the encryption key management that’s necessary to support the creation and operation of these unique private channels of connection and communication between individuals and organizations. The Sovrin Foundation has built an SLT specifically for digital identity key management, and has donated the code required to the HyperLedger Foundation under ‘project Indy.’

While this critical infrastructure is being birthed we need to think about how to leverage it for the world that we want to create—a world of interconnected humanness in place of centralized social networks controlled by profit-driven and publically-traded companies whose mission is to manipulate us into buying more stuff. These networks are selling access to us and limiting our ability to connect and organize independently. They have deals with companies like Cambridge Analytica and Palantir to suck up the digital exhaust of our lives, spy on us, and collectively manipulate us for their own ends.

As the basis of this next generation of user-centric or self-sovereign identities, Shared Ledger Technology is crucial if corporate control of the internet and our lives is to be reversed, but this  won’t be enough to humanize  technology, and that’s my second key point: social and emotional ‘technologies’ are also vital.

Social technologies are the tools we use to interact with each other in groups of any size, from the Parent Teachers Association (PTA) and other neighborhood organizations to national governments and international bodies. They are increasingly important in the shift that is taking place from an exclusive reliance on representative political processes and institutions to an expanded range of deeper and more deliberative forms of democracy. The social technology of voting for representatives was a breakthrough 300 years ago, but these systems are breaking down and are not serving us well enough today.

Emotional technologies are the tools we use to interact with ourselves internally and in our relationships with other people. They are more critical than ever because the mental health of everyone is now a key concern—since one lone individual can inflict enormous harm through high-tech weapons or by hacking into our core infrastructures. Such technologies are well known and include mediation and meditation practices of different kinds, yoga and mindfulness, Nonviolent Communication, Co-Counseling, and 12 Step processes like Alcoholics Anonymous.

Social technologies work a lot better if people have a range of these emotional tools and practices to draw on, because they are better able to manage themselves and interact with others. We want security and have been putting billions of dollars into the security-surveillance-industrial complex post 9/11, but what about the deeper issue of how we connect to each other and solve problems together? What are we doing to address everyone’s mental and emotional wellbeing to reduce alienation and disconnection?

How do you get people on vastly different sides of controversial issues to collaborate to solve what seem to be intractable problems? How do you structure inclusive deliberations that involve whole communities and build up social capital and connection? Individuals like Miki Kashtan, Tom Atlee and Sharif Abdulah and groups like the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation have been working on these questions for many years but deserve much more investment and support. Without further innovations in these social and emotional technologies, no ‘technical’ technologies will save us.

To take a concrete example, my ‘sweet spot’ is in designing and facilitating interactive meetings for professional, scientific and technical communities in what are called ‘unconferences.’ I’ve been co-leading one of these unconferences—the Internet Identity Workshop—twice a year for over a decade, during which we’ve developed many innovations built on nurturing the emotional capacities  of the people involved and the social processes we’ve been using at our meetings.

They are organized primarily through Open Space Technology where the agenda is co-created live on the day of the event with all the participants. We throw in an hour of demonstrations on the second day after lunch and we eat dinner together every night. The patterns described in the Group Works Deck have been particularly useful—things like ‘Embracing Dissonance and Difference’ (meaning that anyone is welcome in the conversation); and opening and closing every day in a circle while diverging into as many as 15 different sessions every hour during the rest of the time we spend together—what in Open Space terms is called the rhythm of ‘Convergence and Divergence.’ Taken together these processes have been very successful in building a stronger Group Culture.

I got excited by the possibilities of user-centric identity technologies over 15 years ago while part of the Planetwork Community, which came together to look at global ecology and information technology and think through how planetary challenges could be addressed more effectively. But through the process of co-leading efforts to build that infrastructure it became clear that we must also invest in the social and emotional technologies that make it possible to collaborate and work together at all scales. 

All three forms of technology are essential to the transformation of our relationships to each other and our bigger social/societal systems. Technical technologies provide the tools that can empower individuals to connect and work together for their own wellbeing and that of their communities. Social technologies enable these tools to be used effectively and inclusively in processes of collective action. And emotional technologies support everyone’s mental health as a precondition for engaging in these processes with more chance of success.

To put it simply, technical technologies are easier to turn in the direction of democracy and social justice if they are developed and applied with social and emotional intelligence. Combining all three together is the key to using technology for liberating ends.

About the author

Kaliya Young, also known as “Identity Woman,” is an internationally recognized expert on identity in the blockchain and an independent advocate for the rights and dignity of our digital selves. Since 2005 she has co-lead the semi-annual Internet Identity Workshop. She designs and facilitates unconferences for a variety of professional and scientific communities and is a principal at Unconference.net.


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