Hope and Holodecks

i.

Like anyone, I worry about the future.

Right now we’re on the cusp of Trumpocalypse. Even if Donald J. doesn’t get to power, the US – and the world – will have to face the consequences of his campaign. The US election is the second scary vote in the English-speaking world this year, after Brexit – and look at how riven that’s left British culture and society.

And yet – I feel hopeful.

I’ve just been reading Digital Identity 3.0 (PDF download), a report from the Chair of Digital Economy at Queensland University of Technology.

One of the co-authors, Dr. Willem Mertens, was also responsible for the excellent Advancing Queensland’s Public Libraries report earlier this year.

That report distilled the challenges facing 21st century libraries into a lively, practical document which acknowledged the importance of fun, creativity, and community exchange for cultural spaces across the Sunshine State.

In Digital Identity 3.0, Willem and his QUT colleague Professor Michael Rosemann take a broader view. They imagine a society which empowers people to decide who creates, updates, reads, and deletes their data – where our digital identities are still available for interaction with organisations, governments, and our peers, but fully under our control.

Under this system, retailers, banks, and public bodies still benefit from data, as each individual identity serves as a magnet to draw in the services we need or desire at any given time – but instead of people being at the mercy of institutions, they get to exercise control over their own digital presence.

The QUT report expresses an economist’s perspective on the person-centred future which might await us.

All of this year, I’ve been reading, hearing from, and working with brave, smart people who are striving for a future where people have power, where humans use technology to gain freedom of choice in how we live, work, and play together.

At Griffith University, I teamed up with occupational therapists whose profession is far removed from the basket-weaving stereotypes of the past. Today’s OTs use person-centred models to explore ways of helping people find health, happiness, and wellbeing in the occupational activities of work, leisure, and daily routine.

At the State Library of Queensland, I’ve worked with teams delivering programs and partnerships which put others at the heart of what we do – whether that was supporting regional librarians to deliver their own professional development in the city of Townsville, or encouraging the State Library to experiment with a Fun Palaces model which supported communities across our state to create art and science events on their own terms.

It heartens me to hear so many voices and forces calling for a world where people have increasing freedom – and the notion of digital identity in the QUT paper would leave space for other ways of organising society, other priorities, other identities, other ways of seeing the world.

ii.

A great piece by Nadine Millar in the Māori and Pasifika magazine e-tangata highlighted the ongoing impact of cultural difference in postcolonial nations like New Zealand / Aotearoa. She gave the example of a data analyst complaining about a noho marae trip – a visit to a traditional Māori meeting house – which he was expected to attend as part of workplace cultural competency training:

He threw up his hands and said: “Why do I need to learn about Māori culture?” I felt like saying: “You need to learn about Māori culture so you can learn about yourself.”

Millar’s article highlights the difference between Māori and Pākehā (white New Zealander) cultural norms, in particular the notion of timekeeping:

The question of whether something is expensive depends on the value you place on it. In te ao Pākehā, time is very highly valued. We don’t like to keep people waiting. We start things as close to on-time as possible, and we recognise that invited speakers are important and may have other places to be. It’s about respect.

In Māori contexts, time is important too. It’s just not the most important thing. Sometimes, it’s more important to hear the koroua who stood at the very last minute to challenge someone on an important issue, than it is to break for lunch on schedule. Sometimes, the most important thing is to spend 15 minutes acknowledging the life and work of a person who’s no longer with us, than it is to start the next workshop at exactly the time stipulated in the programme. That’s also about respect.

The digital infrastructure described in Digital Identities 3.0 is sufficiently flexible and user-centred that it might be equally capable of accommodating Māori norms as Pākehā in New Zealand, or Indigenous Australian norms on this side of the Tasman Sea.

This is important because, as Beth Nowviskie pointed out earlier this year, our digital future needs to be designed in a way which addresses the cultural bias of its designers. She recognizes that as a white Anglophone woman,

I am all too typical of the people building digital cultural heritage infrastructure in North America, much of Europe, and across the Anglophone world. I’m painfully typical of the practitioner community designing what some of our American funders have begun calling a “national digital platform,” and I’m painfully typical of the researchers and administrators who theorize and support it.

I am, like the authors of the QUT paper I’ve been discussing here, yet another white middle-class college graduate dreaming of the digital future from an office in the centre of a major city – but this dream is sufficiently open and flexible that it might be taken up by communities globally, reshaped and reformed and reimagined to suit their purposes.

Earlier in the year in an interview on this site, Columbia University’s Professor Beth Povinelli argued that

a new interdisciplinary literacy is the only hope for finding a way to square our current arrangement of life with the continuation of human and planetary life as such. Scientists, philosophers, anthropologists, politicians, political theorists, historians, writers, and artists must gather their wisdom, develop a level of mutual literacy, and cross-pollinate their severed lineages.

She pointed out that Australia was a key frontier for this challenge, because it is the place where a Western worldview – which saw the natural world as an object to be exploited through activities such as mining – has been forced to confront a range of Indigenous cultures for whom the land has personhood and agency.

What if the current moment of crisis and change is the turning point? What if we use that turning point to head to something better?

Imagine if “digital identity 3.0” meant not just freedom for the individual or for the collective – imagine if we accepted that extension of personhood into the material world.

iii.

…the nonhuman entities with which we share the world – including, but not limited to, our tools – are active in their own right. They have their own powers, interests, and points of view. And if we engineer them, in various ways, they “engineer” us as well, nudging us to adapt to their demands. Nonhuman things must therefore be seen as…active agents with their own intentions and goals, and which affect one another, as well as affecting us…Steven Shaviro

The smarter machines get, the closer we come to a society where we must treat them with the same respect we would accord to people.

Will we be programming the computers of the future or training them like dogs? And if computers get as smart as pets, should we be swearing at them or otherwise abusing them?

Just as one wouldn’t kick the office cat or ridicule a subordinate, the very idea of mistreating ever-more-intelligent devices becomes unacceptable. – Michael Schrage

Our expanded notion of personhood might include the natural as well as the digital or mechanical world. Indigenous ways of knowing already value the natural environment; they might become even more important in the future. In Aotearoa, the Te Urewera national park has been granted legal personhood with all the attendant rights, powers, duties, and liabilities. Traditional Owners of the land are now able to advocate and bring lawsuits on its behalf.

Take this one step further. Think back to those 21st century occupational therapists at Griffith University. Their profession isn’t just about assistive technology – they seek to address dysfunction in our daily occupations and use occupation itself as a tool of therapy. Could future therapists see a river or a mountain or a national park, too, as an occupational being? Could occupational therapists, digital technologists, Indigenous communities, and environmentalists join forces to represent and protect entities like Te Urewera?

iv.

The big shift isn’t that content is digital. It’s that the learning culture is participatoryAngela Maiers

The changing digital world isn’t really about gadgetry, except insofar as tech improves our opportunities to participate, speak up, and reshape the world around us.

I went to a tech conference this week and the least interesting or challenging part was when the various company representatives were trying to wow you with their gadgets.

There were so many projects and installations which were “immersive” or “interactive” but only within the constraints of what the designers wanted you to do. People were more excited about production values than the liberties of their users. I was keen to see something which granted as much freedom as possible to the wider public.

In our own small way, that’s what we’ve tried to do this year with the State Library’s remixable comic maker. But the work of the QUT Digital Identities team points to a larger and more radical social transformation.

I’ve said before that what I’m really trying to do is prepare us for the world of Star Trek’s holodeck: a fully immersive, interactive, physical space which uses technology to simulate any conceivable environment.

Star Trek holodeck gif

This space would be a playpen and a laboratory, a place for simulation or historical reenactment, forensic reconstruction, communication, education, or fantasy.

The real trick to preparing for such an opportunity is not the technological gubbins which underpins it: it’s a broad and flexible understanding of human interaction, play, and liberty.

The real holodeck, when it comes, shouldn’t just look like what Paramount Television was capable of imagining for the Starship Enterprise in the 1980s and 1990s.

It should be designed and built by, with, and for as diverse a community of creators and users as possible. It should be open and flexible enough to reflect, respond to, and be shaped by many ways of seeing, understanding, organising, and representing the world.

But this is also why I feel strangely optimistic on the eve of potential Trumpocalypse.

To see so many people in so many disciplines – economists, occupational therapists, librarians, web designers – sharing overlapping dreams of personal freedom gives me hope, even in this rotten, scary time.

Utopian visions are only drafts of what is to come, bound to be chipped away at by time and politics and the constraints of reality — but what if good things are around the corner?

There are so many people who want good things for all of humanity, working so hard right now.

Hope and holodecks, that’s what’s keeping me going.

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