The Information Age is supposed to be the great equalizer by providing unhindered access to information, but are our current systems setup to work in favor of or against that goal? In order for the Information Age to work as it should to create long-lasting social change, what do we need to change? As I introduced last week, my friend, Alex, and I entered into a self-directed, business boot camp. The first reading of the week was Entering the Information Age by Albert Wenger. Albert is a partner at Union Square Ventures and has backed companies such as Twitter, Tumblr, Foursquare, Etsy, and Kickstarter. His thesis in the article is that we are currently transitioning into the Information Age. I thought we were already in the Information Age, but according to Albert, I’m wrong.
The Ages Before
Wenger lays out, in broad strokes, the three ages that have preceded us—the Forager Age, the Agrarian Age, the Industrial Age—and describes the common characteristics of the transitions from Forager to Agrarian and Agrarian to Industrial. I’m not going to get into his specifics; you can read the article if you’re interested. The part that Alex and I found most interesting was the issue of scarcity and abundance across the ages.
“Much of what we believe to be true about society is informed by the more recent historical record. But the forager age might be more informative going forward. Why? Because both the agrarian age and the industrial age were fundamentally marked by scarcity. Only the forager age had a relative sense of abundance. In the digital realm, however, we are dealing once again with abundance and we are gradually extending that to the real world.”
Scarcity and Abundance
Where is the scarcity, and where is the abundance in our society right now? In some ways, we have the same problems of scarcity that we’ve always had: poverty, hunger, homelessness, racism, prejudice, etc. Some of these scarcities are caused by personal decisions, but all have a base of systemic causes, too. People over the ages have made created systems around our economy, our wages, how we treat each other, and who is worthy.
Some scarcities are newer but related to core scarcities like not owning a computer, no access to higher education so no way to advance past low-paying jobs, a broken service industry that can’t afford to pay its workers a living wage, and many more. According to Wikipedia, the Information Age is supposed to “allow individuals to explore their personalized needs, therefore simplifying the procedure of making decisions for transactions and significantly lowering costs for both the producers and buyers…new economic incentives would then be indigenously encouraged, such as the knowledge economy.” The knowledge economy is, quite simply, “the use of knowledge to generate tangible and intangible values.”
The Information Age = knowledge; therefore, knowledge really does/will = power. How is this going to be affected by the scarcity/abundance principle? There have always been gatekeepers to society’s resources, so why would it be any different with knowledge? Who are the gatekeepers? Who will be granted access? Who will be allowed to succeed, and who will be held back? Will technology be an equalizer of access to knowledge or a barrier?
The Information Age and Rebellion
Krista Tippett interviewed Parker Palmer and Courtney Martin on this week’s episode of On Being. They were at the PopTech conference in 2014 and discussed the concepts of rebellion and how it related to sustainable, resilient social change. I’m interested in resilient social change. The need for social change becomes more and more evident the more our technology evolves. Now, we can watch videos and live streams of black men being shot by police. It’s not a new thing that black men are being shot by police, but it is a new thing to have it be documented on video and then have that video go viral. As technology evolves, more and more people’s stories are available to anyone with a computer.
There are so many people unseen and unheard and they need to be heard into speech. —Parker Palmer
From Instagram to Facebook to blogs to websites, strangers’ stories are at our fingertips. The uncomfortable stories make us question our own stories and bring to light our power and privilege. We must create space for these stories. We need to hear these stories. Parker said, “How do we create safe spaces for truth-telling? There is a technology of creating safe space…Learn to listen deeply to each other. Learn to ask honest open questions to hear each other into speech. There are so many people unseen and unheard and they need to be heard into speech.” How many of our discussion forms are actually about listening, and how many are about waiting our turn until we have a chance to talk? How can we create the technological architecture for safe spaces? What would that look like?
Courtney picked up the thread, saying, “Unless we create those safe spaces, we don’t have a place to grapple with our own power. We talk about rebellion and we think about the powerless rebelling against the powerful, but the people in this room are holding a lot of power. Where are the spaces where we can tune in and question how we’re using that power, whether it’s money or time or networks or whatever? I was so busy making a life that I didn’t realize I was gaining power, and I didn’t ask what I was going to do with this power. A lot of very powerful people have no time to pause, and they don’t create those spaces to reflect on their power. Some of the most unethical things that happen in the world are because of that cacophony.”
There aren’t a lot of pauses built into the internet age. —Courtney Martin
Safe Spaces to Pause
One of my main efforts the past two years was on building the Discussion Dinner Club. I wanted to create a safe space for people to tell their stories. I wanted to create a pause long enough to ask questions that “hear people into speech.” We used technology–a website and a Facebook group–but the real work was done in community, in person. Perhaps, online introductions and planning should always culminate in actual face-time.
My second effort to create pause and hear people into speech is with my podcast, Designers Drink. I’ve found that unless a designer seeks out speaking gigs or gets famous, they’re never asked about their philosophies and methodologies and why they do what they do. They’re never asked about their story.
Victoria Safford speaks that our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of Hope. As we stand at the gates of Hope, we beckon and call to people, sharing what we are seeing and asking what they see. I’m not sure if I’m creating “resilient social change” in my efforts—although, I’d like to—but I am asking people to tell me what they see. In order for the Information Age to succeed in being the great equalizer, we have to create these safe spaces to pause.
“Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of Hope — not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of Self-Righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges (people cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through); nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of “Everything is gonna be all right.” But a different, sometimes lonely place, the place of truth-telling, about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle. And we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we are seeing, asking people what they see.” – Victoria Safford