Letter to Future Reuters Digital Visions Fellows
June 30, 2003
The offer to “Become a Visionary” was a crucial part of my attraction to the program, and one of the highlights of my fellowship was having the inventor of the mouse show up at my first presentation at Stanford. Doug Engelbart, one of the leading visionaries of the twentieth century, demonstrated the mouse, windows, teleconferencing, and an early version of the World Wide Web in 1968. He described the functionality (only partially) now realized by Microsoft Office in 1962. We spent many evenings together, talking about how visions become reality (or not). Casually talking with this 78-year old as he reflected about the future of humanity and our ability to “learn how to learn” was a poignant, emotional, and thrilling experience. He taught me much about the notion of scale, and how the problems we face scale up very quickly.
If we mix 5 problems together, for example: famine, HIV/AIDS, poverty, social injustice, and an earthquake. These problems interact and reinforce each other quite effectively. Mix 5 “problem solvers” in a room, however, and we are unlikely to get them to collaborate anywhere nearly as effectively. The problems we face today scale much better than our ability to solve them.
Rather than focusing on an ever-increasing collection of problems and problem-solving, Doug is focused on using technology for raising our “collective IQ.” (see www.bootstrap.org) Doug had an epiphany early in his career: having reached a certain point of accomplishment, he asked himself how he could use technology to help humanity as a whole. This vision was based on the positive.
His epiphany paralleled my personal question which brought me to the fellowship, “What is the simplest thing I can do which will have the greatest humanitarian uplift?” My first response to this question was to use information technology to reduce the friction in the philanthropic process.
However, I soon discovered that there were much deeper issues to be addressed. Americans gave $2.3 billion after the events of 9/11, yet public trust in charities soon fell to a 25-year low. People gave out of compassion and generosity, but the result was increased distrust and cynicism. Developed countries have given over $1 trillion in aid to the less developed countries over the past 50 years, but there is little positive correlation between aid received and the development of the country. I soon realized that, given these perversities, that merely making the system more efficient could just have the effect of making things get worse faster. Rather than fundraising, I shifted my focus towards notions of “trustraising” and community. How can we build mechanisms of interaction which allow trust and community to emerge?
This lead to me to look at self-organizing communities, such as eBay. A critical turning point in the early growth of eBay was when founder Pierre Omidyar added a self-rating system to the auction process, because he was unable to personally handle all the complaints of auction participants. He feared that adding a reputation system would be the end of eBay, as people would just use the system to complain about each other. Instead, positive comments far outweighed the negative, and eBay thrived based on this simple reputation system. I think that the dynamics of reputation systems in self-organizing communities is an extremely valuable area to think about. (see Toshio Yamagishi’s presentation at one of the GivingSpace workshops at http://www.givingspace.org/feb2003/toshio.ppt.)
Note the positive orientation of the founding principles of eBay:
I think that his vision of how to inculcate these values with technology is worthy of further attention by future fellows: http://www.givingspace.org/omidyar.htm
I have also been deeply influenced by the notions of Appreciative Inquiry developed by David Cooperrider and others at Case Western Reserve University. This is a model of organizational development which is based on notions of positive discourse. What works in an organization, and how do we more of it? Rather than collecting people to solve problems, their approach focuses on finding strengths to amplify. It is also related to positive psychology – someone whose emotional state is fear of cockroaches will not have nearly the “thought-action repertoire” of someone walking on the beach at sunset with a lover. Bringing forth positive discourse or emotions has a way of creating a virtuous circle of more of the same.
This approach is somewhat difficult to communicate; people think that it is an attempt to ignore problems. Rather, it is a way of looking at problems from an elevated perspective. Rather than starting with the assumption that something is a problem, we start with strengths and resilience. Leaping directly to problem/solution form of thinking may generate much activity, but it may be just counting loops in a vicious circle.
For example, take the “problem” of litter on the roadside. We used to have “Don’t Litter” signs on the highways, until engineers noticed that there was more trash after the signs than before them. “Don’t Litter” is deficit discourse – talking about what is wrong and how to fix it. The sign implies that there someone expects you to be littering, has the authority to tell you what not to do, and that you should accept that authority. An alternative, positive discourse approach is the Adopt-a-Highway program. It does not mention litter, authority, or what not to do. It reinforces trust, community, and positive behavior. Yet, Adopt-A-Highway programs decrease litter by 40%.
Is there some way that we can systematically “flip” our thinking from the “Don’t Litter” mentality to the “Adopt-a-Highway” approach? The Don’t Litter model is an attempt to control, whereas the Adopt-a-Highway is a form of uplift. Hierarchies and those in power tend to deal with issues of control. Web-based interaction is more suited for grass-roots, personal energies. I think that there is great potential to create “virtuous circles” of self-reinforcing, self-propagating models of uplift outside traditional channels of hierarchies and control.
I suppose my major aha! during the fellowship was to shift my focus to the notion of uplift as a building block for interaction. Uplift comes in many forms, such as health or health information, literacy, education, microfinance, small business opportunities, friendship, or access to networks and knowledge. It can be personal, or focused on a family, community, nation, or humanity as a whole. I also think that it is very amenable to internet-based interaction.
This “scale free” nature of uplift has very interesting implications with regard to global networks, opening up the possibility of triggering a “cascade” of uplift. If we were able to get uplifting activities at the personal, family, community, national, and global levels to catalyze each other, we could trigger a self-propagating, self-organizing virtuous circle of amazing significance. In the same way that it does not matter if a forest fire is created by a tiny spark or a huge blowtorch, this cascade needs only the proper initial conditions to trigger it. Connecting people and positive ideas is the key.
For me, this was a year of discovery; of shifting gears from one career to another. My interest is in perhaps unfashionably long term transformation and thinking, things which are measured in decades or generations.
I enjoyed keeping a journal in the form of a web log at www.munnecke.com/blog This wasn’t the perfect solution to tracking ideas and discoveries, but it is a good start. I recommend it.
My year at the fellowship was a wonderful opportunity to incubate these ideas, and meet many new people. I’m continuing to explore them, and look forward to interacting with future fellows and your adventures. I hope that they will be as meaningful as mine. Please feel free to contact me.
May good things come,
Reuters Digital Visions Program Fellow, 2002-2003