Freelance technical communicator to the stars. Podcaster, video maker, writer of interactive fiction
This post is also available as a podcast and a video.
The past two weeks have been so eventful and I have so much to say about them it’s hard to know where to start. Consequently, this post may ramble and go off at tangents, hopefully there will be enough semblance of sense to grasp some concrete concepts.
Let’s take this chronologically and in order of magnitude, which in this case, are the same.
I attended Web Summit in Lisbon, one of the biggest (if not the biggest) startup and tech events in the World. I had heard mixed feelings and opinions on the event, but went in with an open mind to be pleasantly surprised by the event and it’s ability to organise so many people and events into one cohesive whole.
Apologies for that crazy sub-heading, there are so many component thoughts in my head I don’t know how to separate them, or if they even should be.
Earlier this year, my own birthland voted for Brexit, a situation myself and many others weren’t expecting. It was a culmination of a feeling of disfranchisement felt by enough of those who voted (and maybe even more by those who didn’t) to a perceived ‘order’ that wasn’t working for them. People thought that after the chaos from Brexit, surely the USA would not vote for someone as equally disruptive as Trump. Again, they were wrong, and it seemed the key players were almost as surprised that they won.
Now, let’s get semantics out of the way. It has always been dangerous to wave around terms such as ‘left’, ‘progressive’ and ‘alternative’, as perspective is everything, and rarely is anything ever that clear cut. I will interchangeably use some of these terms in this post, and I’m not even sure what I mean by them anymore, please don’t jump on my use of these terms, and instead try to focus on what I am saying by using them. The time os over for arguing about semantics.
People were shocked by the fact that members of the population could vote for elements of hatred, be seduced by lies, unreasonable promises and roll back steps towards the greater acceptance of minority and suppressed groups.
Do not underestimate the power of a perceived ‘solution to your problems’. The real reason behind your problems may vary, the solution unreasonable or unrealistic, but in truth it doesn’t matter. History is littered with personalities who promise to solve everything for you, and that is all that really matters and explains a lot.
I wont go anymore into how and why we go there, writers have put it far better than me, including:
You’ll notice that these are a mixture of angles on the same subject, because of course there are multiple reasons events happen, but also because they reflect aspects of my interests and solutions.
There has been an increased tendency in recent years to not accept change when it comes, especially from the ‘left’, because they feel that they are just and correct.
In the past I was more involved with activism, but I got sick of it due to the inability of so many groups to stop talking and make any real impact. One thing that the ‘right’ does well is present a (perceived) united message that offers to find a solution (see above on how true this may or may not be).
For the past decades the ‘left’ has spent a lot of time bickering amongst itself, aiming to be as inclusive as possible to everyone, but ended up being not a lot to anyone. Again, please see my disclaimer above about opinions and actions not being as clear cut as this.
This is an issue in itself, we have got used to different political and social opinions mixing so much in a blurred middle, that we neglected to notice the extreme ends of opinion where no longer having a voice. Voicing and hearing a mixture of opinions, no matter how you feel about them is important, only when we acknowledge them can we reason with them.
If we believe in a certain opinion to be correct, and counter the opinions of others, we need to be better at explaining why and doing something about it. The ‘us and them’ attitudes are no longer relevant or constructive. The Don’t Panic article listed above does a good job of explaining how ‘they’ won, what ‘we’ can learn, and how to act better. In the past two weeks I have had conversations with people unhappy with the state of the world, and some I found constructive, with people who saw how we now need to act, whist others were the typical woolly headed academic conversations the ‘we’ have become famous for.
We can no longer just disagree with someone’s opinion, we need to understand why they might have that opinion and if we feel it is incorrect, explain why. Not just demean, patronise and block others who don’t share the same viewpoint. By doing this, we are no better than those we claim are rude and offensive.
As a long term tech worker, I feel I contributed to the situation we are now in. I am always trying to keep my privilege in check (I’m working on separate post on this topic), but of course I am not perfect at this. The mobility, flexibility and money we have as we stride forward ‘disrupting’ industry after industry and leaving a wake of uncertainty behind us is an issue we should be more aware of. I am the first to say that change is often a good thing, but we should be more contentious about it and less arrogant about how clever we are.
A lot of the technologies we helped create have contributed to filter bubbles and confirmation bias. I saw this coming a long time ago as in election after election I watched my friend say over and over again, “How is this happening, I don’t know anyone who votes for x”. In our efforts to create tailored experiences that suit users and make more money from presenting them with the right thing at the right time, we also created a monster that was obscuring the rest of the population.
Related to this is our constant appetite for content to feed this beast, and we saw a lot of blame laid at the feet of certain tech companies for creating a model that encouraged and nurtured fake stories to garner exposure, and of course revenue.
I have been weighing up this question for the past two weeks and haven’t settled on my plan of action yet. First I was thinking about tools to highlight different opinions on social networks or Google searches to show how biased the information you’re receiving is. Then I saw that others had already had this idea and were working on it, which is great, so I encourage you to contribute and help these projects. There have also been steps to battle against ‘fake’ news from social networks, but I am unsure how effective this will be, or even how to judge what is ‘fake’. I heard journalists discussing that instead of banning ‘fake’ news, a better approach is to instead present more evidence along side these stories as to why readers should be sceptical.
These are small projects I could get involved with immediately and have the knowledge to help with, but a part of me wonders if I should be doing more, bigger things. I have felt like heading to developing countries to get involved with education programs, I have considered moving back to the UK where I feel I can be most effective in Politics and social change, but I haven’t reached any concrete plans yet as I still process the events and outcomes of the past weeks.
In closing, we need to better listen to the opinions and problems of those around us and figure out constructive solutions. That’s easy isn’t it?
I’d love to hear your thoughts and action plans.