Yesterday, I was in Manchester at a digital rights conference held by the Open Rights Group. You can find my idiosyncratic and subjective reporthere. One element of the day which particularly caught my attention, being as I am by profession a teacher and always interested in the crossover of knowledge between established frontiers of interest, was a session on bursting the bubble of everything digital. Here’s an excerpt from the report I’ve linked to above:
[...] the most interesting session, for me at least, mainly because of my interest in crossover dynamics, was an unconference session called “Bursting the bubble”. Led by a member of the Pirate Party UK, it started out looking like an indirect (or not very indirect) PPUK appeal for ideas to help further its future election strategies. To be fair, it did also interface with ORG’s own presence and efforts; one attendee, in particular, did wish ORG and other digital rights’ activists were better able to “sell” their wares. One idea that came up was a kind of products division, where specific and highly focussed needs (browser plugins, websites for checking mobile phone blocking etc) could be identified and satisfied in a programmed and properly marketed way. Adding value to members and supporters of organisations which carried out such development would certainly help to raise their profile in the eyes of ordinary people.
Everyone did agree that ORG punches way above its size, which is a credit to the professionalism of the resources it provides. But, even so, the digital bubble still exists, and whether we wish to reframe digital rights as human rights (for the latter is also, sadly, a term plagued with its own set of very English prejudice) or, alternatively, argue that the best strategy might be to interface one step away – as ORG is already beginning to – with charities and other interested parties whose mission it is to work with the poor who are, by the by, also digitally disadvantaged (better placed as they may be to interpret the language of digital activism in such a way that those most affected but least knowledgeable might begin to benefit from the research taking place), in truth the pursuit of a wider evangelisation must be a long-term objective of everyone interested in what we might term an evermore digitally-underpinned justice.
And as I continued to argue (the bold is mine today):
It’s possible, therefore, that ORG must remain a focussed teller of frank truths for it not to lose the value it consistently adds to UK digital-rights debate. But there is little point in forever telling the truth to the politicians, legislators and thoughtful civil servants if you leave behind the very people you are trying to protect and defend: that is to say, the citizens themselves.
There must come a time when digital rights are sold differently – when, in fact, they are sold as the rights that underpin the laws which software engineers now make, every day of the week, behind closed corporate doors; outside of Parliament; within the recesses of their brilliant and unpredictable minds.
A true digital economy would be one which matched the power of transnational corporations to innovate astonishingly with the rights of individuals to continue living their lives with sense and sensibility.
Most corporations tend to prefer to convey the impression they are champions of openness, community and engagement with society. In their ongoing battle to beat mighty oppositional forces, however, such HR- and comms-driven instincts are in practice destroyed in their day-to-day behaviours. They too, as perhaps our politicos, are at the mercy of much broader systems and processes.
We are all, it would seem, disintegrating morally and economically in the face of structures far more powerful and persistent than almost any of us. Each of us is on the evolutionary end of a process whereby civilisation and its peoples once had a clear overview of procedures and chains of command – a process which has now terminated in an overwhelming specialisation of skills and responsibilities. Yes. With such specialisation, we can do so very much in societies of such massive complexity – but, on the other hand, we have lost the ability to comprehend the nature of another’s work.
And thus we have lost the ability to properly work alongside and together with others – except when in the thrall of considerable fears: fears of losing a job or promotion; fears of losing market share or shareholder trust; fears of consumer lawsuits; fears of patent challenges … the list is fearfully endless – and underlies almost everything we don’t do.
From bankers whose complex sums destroy the future economies of whole nation states to politicians unable to channel the vagaries of markets whose only responsibility is to themselves, this is how specialisation is destroying our connective tissue.
The bubbles we must burst, then, in a society of the tenuously complex, involve a real education piece of the profoundest kind. So it is that where people like our current Coalition’s education minister are getting it right is in their questioning whether our existing education system is up to the job of breaking down such barriers. Where such people are going radically wrong is in suggesting that other – more traditional – barriers be erected in their place. We need an education system which doesn’t simply teach the tenets of an unquestioned British history or how to parse adecontextualised sentence in cold-blooded confusion. Rather more importantly, it’s the skillset of appreciating wider lessons – of assessing the potential implications of one set of knowledge on another – that our education strategies need to focus on now.
A kind of Renaissance Man education for a world where men, women and children are now all equals.
The Open Rights Group’s dilemma – whether to attend exclusively to the needs and discourses of top-flight makers and shakers or widen its brief to include that massive and ongoing education piece for citizens I allude to – is simply one far more broader symptom of how problematic this process of specialisation, these bubbles which need bursting, has become.
And as in the times of ancient dark arts, there doesn’t always exist an incentive for those who now practise them to break down the barriers in the first place. Whilst income is maximised through their very presence, the downsides to a civic society will continue to have a serious impact.
After all, few professionals are going to want to do themselves out of job. Even if, locked up in their silos as they are, this means they’re doing civilisation out of a shared future.