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This is the second of three articles originally published on Medium.com in connection with the public Corona Conversations in April and May 2020 by Dr Steve Ellis and myself tackling sense- and decision-making, agency and collaboration in the post-pandemic world.
On the brink of the new millennium, a young duo trapped in a narcissistic monologue took their guns to Columbine High School. Our flawed responses to the pandemic reveals a similar segregation on a global scale — the result of decades of intellectual, cultural, economic, political, psychological, emotional, organisational and individual putrefying self-isolation. This article is a call for a new form of conversation as the way out of the mental equivalent of your Mum’s basement.
Dr Steve Ellis, Business Faculty Dean at Regent’s University London, and Jakob Werdelin, Founder of Werdelin Education, hope to launch a series of inquisitive online conferences about sense- and decision-making, agency and collaboration in the post-pandemic world. [Original registration on bit.ly/coronaconversations].
The petri dish
Are you old enough to remember those naïve days when it was believed the fledgling internet would open minds, facilitate conversations and share ideas for a united humanity? That the brave new world of the egalitarian web would bring peace and justice to all? That corporate media control would be challenged by everyone’s limitless access to the public? That endless communication would give our perceived enemies a human face, ending all wars forever?
That was before Google, Cambridge Analytica and Facebook moved into the dark realm of what today’s intelligence community terms “perception management” and history books term “propaganda.” It was before every single click on the web limited your choice to an ever finer point defined by an algorithm written by unelected and unknown programmers in some unknown location. Before your mind was mapped out on a server and your responses predicted by a digital simulation. It was before regular people were actively helping fake news spread “significantly farther, faster, broader, deeper in every category of information.”* Before ‘clickbait’ and ‘microtargeting’ became household words and before a communique of 280 characters was considered an upgrade (from Twitter’s original 140 total).
There are endless reasons why the internet in general and social media in particular do not facilitate complex and intelligent conversation between accountable, civilised adults in any scenario (let alone adults facing a life-threatening crisis). Let’s pick an example that any reader with children might find interesting: As an education professional, I keep my own kids away when I scroll through the education sector’s Twitter feed due to the prevalence of primitive language, threats and sarcasm (and, apparently, unsolicited sexual content). Call me credulous, but I wish to think the best of my colleagues and the teachers of your children, so I hold to the theory that the overheated petri dish of social media actively promote poor behaviour among otherwise sensible adults. And, if this is the case, what do social media promote in people who have significantly less cultural capital than the average teacher?
The narrow limits of broadband
The point is that tech does not help communication. On the contrary, tech can actively undermine it, and does. Communication in this context does not mean passing a set of information from A to B, or even A to Z as Amazon’s logo so alluringly promises. The trillions of words and images bandying around only have meaning once they are interpreted. And that interpretation, its range and scope and depth, is the weak link in the techno-fetishists’ chain and cannot be solved by increasing bandwidth. Tech is only a transport tool: If the end user is illiterate, sending him daily truckloads of great classical authors won’t help any more than sending him picture books, probably less. So, does he need more picture books? Or does he need to learn to read?
Leaving the realm of metaphor, do we stop sending back and forth emotive images, one-liners and links to one-sided articles to defend whatever corner we (or the Bots) have painted ourselves into? Or do we start having real, painful, challenging, heart-breaking conversations where we discover the world is so infinitely bigger than we ever dreamed, and can be experienced in radically different ways?
In summary, we are not talking about improving the quantity of communication. If that were the issue, 5G might be worth the brain cancer. We are talking about improving the quality of communication. Two things are needed, both of which are the bricks and mortar of an attempted solution we have dubbed Co-Creative Conversation. One, that the format of the communication is expanded. Two, that the variance of participants is expanded. Both are the antithesis to online social media.
Out of your comfort zone
To expand the format, the communication must involve the whole human being in a direct face-to-face, real-time learning experience with other human beings. This is why social media cannot facilitate conversation, let alone civilised conversation. Remember the adage that “the media is the message,” and think of the most insulting comment you have ever come across on social media. Now imagine that same comment delivered face-to-face over a cup of tea, with other adults present. It’s not likely, is it? There is no avatar to hide behind.
By engaging in a real conversation where you are unshielded by anonymity, you have stepped out of your inner version of Mum’s basement where the Columbine killers hatched their plans in the ultimate precursor to the internet filter bubble. By stepping into a real conversation, you will step into real-life, as it has been lived for the vast majority of human history, instantly facing the consequences of your speech and actions. Being able to voice your convictions and having those convictions intelligently challenged by others is the only way to stop you on the long winding road to picking up the guns and heading for the high school (or ethnic, social or religious group, or political class, or specific nation or individual) you hold responsible for your woes.
Here, the simple act of conversation is the first step to competence, be it in the personal, political, social arena. If you can express and negotiate something complex, multi-layered and multifaceted, you are able to act in a complex, multi-layered and multifaceted way. The launch of the public online ‘Corona Conversations’ is the first step.
Finally, make no mistake that the left is as guilty here as is the right. Just remember how Cathy Newman’s single-minded attempt to reduce Jordan B. Peterson to a deranged alt-right sociopath demonstrated Channel 4 News is just as eager to generate controversial, confirmation-biased click-bait as Fox News. As we pointed out in the previous article, the objective of the Co-Creative Conversation is not more passing of blame, but rather to recognise each of us are stuck in our very own rancid petri dish, to take responsibility for that situation and to help each other out.
Step up on bit.ly/coronaconversations.
‘I did not know that I am. I lived in a world that was a no world … Then I learned the meaning of “I” and “me” and found that I was something’
Helen Keller, The world I live in. New York: Century, 1904/1908.
- All articles on the Corona Conversations
- In a word: Co-Creative Conversation explained concisely
- Knowledge Management #1: What business can offer education in the year of the Platypus
- Knowledge Management #2: From Sparks to Wildfire; Education’s first Route Maps
1) Sinan Aral, MIT, podcast, 2018.