Still Human After All?
Notes from the World Economic Forum Summit on the Global Agenda in Abu Dhabi
I arrived in Abu Dhabi late at night, as most international flights land after dark, and immediately lost my footing. That’s what cities built on desert sand do to you — they take your jet lag and play mind games with it. They empty your brain, challenge your assumptions, and trick you into believing that you came here without an agenda, like an empty vessel. The next day I spent by the pool, working away on my laptop, and only after taking a quick break did I notice the sand that had slowly covered my screen, like a veil on my tired soul. Everything is a blur in Abu Dhabi, and while your beliefs feel very strong, you are not so sure whatto believe in anymore. I had the exact same experience the first time I visited, two years ago. Now I had come back in my capacity as a member of the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Agenda Council on Values, and it dawned on me that my mood upon arrival — a profound sense of disorientation — would become the overarching theme of the whole week.
The World Economic Forum, arguably the world’s most influential multi-stakeholder platform to tackle the world’s most pressing issues, runs a Network of Global Agenda Councils, comprising more than 1,500 experts and leaders in business, government, academia and civil society, grouped in more than 80 so-called Global Agenda Councils, to jointly shape the global, regional and industry agenda. Councils are devoted to issues from Youth Unemployment, to Water Security, to New Economic Thinking, to Design and Innovation, to the Future of Health and the Future of Media. Every year the Forum convenes more than 800 council members in the United Arab Emirates to discuss key trends in their fields and devise a list of priorities and recommendations that then inform the program of the Annual Meeting in Davos, a series of regional summits throughout the year, and the public discourse beyond. Ahead of the summit in Abu Dhabi, the Forum also presented its annual flagship publication, the Outlook on the Global Agenda, a comprehensive report based on input from the councils that outlines key drivers of change for the year ahead, broken down into several tracks: globalization, economics, geopolitics, science and technology, international development and leadership values.
Many of the topics discussed in Abu Dhabi had been on the global agenda for a while, and there weren’t any surprise additions. The priorities, however, change slightly from year to year, and issues such as youth unemployment, hyper-connectivity and women’s empowerment rose to a higher level of prominence this time than in previous years. The Forum’s Outlook report identified growing societal tensions in the Middle East and North Africa as the biggest global trend for 2014, closely followed by widening income disparities, persistent structural unemployment, intensifying cyber-threats, lack of action on climate change, and diminishing confidence in economic policies, as well as a lack of values in leadership.
By design, these lists are seldom statements of optimism, but against the backdrop of the ongoing crisis in the Middle East and continued NSA spying revelations, the mood at the summit in Abu Dhabi was noticeably grimmer than in previous years. As part of several cross-council meetings, I had the privilege of speaking with members of the Arab World Council and the Council on Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Weapons, and it was hard not to observe that a hitherto hopeful pragmatism had made way for a more bitter one. As someone pointed out in a workshop session, “We may be more connected and unified, but we are also more isolated and divided than ever.” Indeed, we increasingly face strong dichotomies, divisions and widening chasms that seem unbridgeable because the underlying value systems are so disparate. If “the other” does not respect the most fundamental value, the sanctity of life, is it naïve to believe this chasm can ever be bridged? And in the case of weapons of mass destruction, how can we minimize the degree of abstraction that widens the distance between decision-making and impact? Or should we maintain this distance so as to make sure we keep the unimaginable unimaginable and the cognitive threshold high for pulling the trigger? These are, in essence, social psychology, neuro-scientific and, not the least, communication questions, and like so many big challenges of our time, it is worth bringing them down to the individual human level. We are human after all.
But are we? Attending a session on “New Frontiers of Tech” made me question this basic assumption. First, I learned that there is no international (and not even a national) regulatory framework for the non-military use of drones, so it’s a free-for-all at this point (except for a preliminary attempt by the American FAA to formalize air space for civil drones). This is a frightening scenario and becomes even more frightening when you combine it with the rise of 3D printing, the latest manifestation of the “democratization of economies” mega-trend. Dario Floreano, a leading drone expert from the École Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, was adamant that it would take no longer than a year before anybody could 3D-print basic drones at low cost. Of course drones can be extremely helpful tools for civic purposes, such as the erection of ad-hoc communication networks or the distribution of goods in humanitarian crises, as the Drones for Good and other Friendly Drones initiatives are keen to prove. On the scarier side, however, the big fear remains the scenario of “killer-apps” going awry — what if we outsourced our decision to kill another human being to algorithmically programmed drones, robots and other smart devices? Algorithms are already capable of predictive policing, forecasting the time and location of likely criminal activities; what does it do to our integrity as human beings if we empowered them to make pro-active, intelligence-based decisions on life and death?
Coincidentally, on the flight to Abu Dhabi, I had watched Stanley Kubrick’s “2001,” and two things struck me after seeing the seminal movie again: how much its predictions had become part of our shared cultural vernacular, but also how long it took for that to happen (the movie debuted in 1969). Without a doubt, the time between science-fiction and reality will soon shrink dramatically. Many of the advanced technologies that are now part of public debate impact our lives long before we have the chance to even consider the ethical implications, let alone to deliberate over ethical frameworks. The sheer pace of technology-driven change has accelerated in an almost grotesque fashion. As Rod A. Beckstrom, a member of the Council on the Future of the Internet, put it, “When we recognize change, it has already begun to profoundly transform our societies.” All we’re left to do is play catch-up and orchestrate our responses.
The tech session concluded with Nayef Al-Rodhan, who calls himself a “neuro-philosopher,” and he added a somber perspective on the potential of “transhumanism,” the ability to turn human beings into hybrids of biological and technological creatures, enabled by biogenetics and wearable (and soon, body-embedded) computing. At the very moment we transcend the original concept of human life and trespass the uncanny valley to body and cognitive enhancement, some discomforting questions become inevitable: Who gets enhanced? On what merits? And who decides? Will it be citizens of select states? Will it be those who need it most or those who deserve it most based on prior performance? Another digital divide is looming, one that is potentially far more existential than the one over access to information. Al-Rodhan believes that technological advances trump every other driver of change. And indeed, we may be able to deal with economic, social, and political challenges, we may find solutions to health issues and even contain nuclear proliferation; however, the implications of new technologies are harder to manage, and they change the playing field forever. Surveillance, Big Data, smart devices and ultimately transhumanism make it at least doubtful whether we will remain human after all.
It is not only scientific breakthroughs that are challenging our moral capabilities; it is also the growing complexity of our networks that makes them more and more ungovernable. The hyper-connected world, a popular topic at WEF gatherings over the past few years, and according to Thomas Friedman the “world’s single most important trend,” has shown its darker, dystopian side this year, thanks to the disclosures of Edward Snowden. Bruce Schneier, a security technologist who works for The Guardian and one of the few people with complete access to the Snowden files, was one of the most sought-after attendees at the Abu Dhabi summit, and his off-the-record insights did not do much to alleviate a great sense of concern for the security of the Internet. “We need to understand that only an Internet that is secure for anybody will be an Internet secure for everybody,” Rod A. Beckstrom asserted fervently and demanded this become a truly multilateral matter. Yet the surveillance society has already become the new norm, and while some are rightly pushing for new public policies (and the Internet Engineering Task Force is apparently working on a fully encrypted Internet), it seems paramount that we quietly and privately carve out and design for more “safe spaces.” If all of our words and actions are observed and stored anywhere, at any time and in perpetuity, only these safe spaces will remain as havens for those seeking asylum from the claws of ubiquitous productivity, radical transparency, permanent memory and forced intimacy. These are offline and online forums where we can opine without consequences, act without action, have private conversations without public record and exchange ideas without hidden or overt transactional interests. These spaces grant us both distance and intimacy, as well an opportunity to show our true selves and ask the smallest and the biggest possible questions. We can use them to get to know each other and to fundamentally rethink our lives, organizations and economies.
In Abu Dhabi, we created such a “safe space” on the eve of the conference, in the form of a private dinner that I co-hosted on behalf of NBBJ with my friend Priya Parker, a visioner and advisor who serves on the WEF Global Agenda Council on New Models of Leadership. We had invited 15 attendees from various councils and asked them to talk about the meaning of “a good life,” the quintessential question underlying our philosophies, ethics and economics. Every guest was asked to give a toast at some point during the evening, and as special twist — providing a strong incentive for getting into a good flow — the last one had to sing his. Stripped of the need to display status and credentials, we gave our guests permission to be vulnerable, and the result was a genuinely sincere and delightful conversation. No one knew what to expect, and when we closed the dinner, no one knew either what exactly had happened. But hearts and minds were full as people returned to their hotel rooms. Everyone had seen and was seen. The evening reminded me of what the photographer Platon (famous for his portraits of world leaders) told me in Abu Dhabi about his work: “I try to be to as intuitive as possible when I approach my subject. It’s like I see them for the first time, and my empty mind allows me to truly recognize them as who they are.”
After three years on the Forum’s Values Council, the week in Abu Dhabi helped me appreciate this notion of emptiness, and I suddenly realized what I had suspected all along: the greatest value we could bring to this community as a Values Council was not to develop an elaborate moral framework, a new social contract or the definitive guide to ethical decision-making; it was something more humble: we could help the other councils as well as leaders worldwide to look at themselves in the mirror, we could support them in recognizing the values driving their decisions, and we could serve as an unprejudiced empty vessel for articulating and addressing their moral dilemmas. We could create the safe spaces they needed to have an honest dialogue on values, to reach across the aisle and reconcile seemingly opposing truths. We drafted a “New Social Covenant” as a first step—a deliberately loose, informal container. Its content will come from many future gatherings like the one in Abu Dhabi, or perhaps even more importantly, from many future dinners and private conversations.
This epiphany gave me some optimism amidst the doom and gloom. And so did the younger generation, represented in Abu Dhabi through the Forum’s Global Shapers, a network of individuals under 30 who have demonstrated exceptional drive to transform their communities. I had the great pleasure of facilitating a session titled “Intergenerational Dialogue for Action,” in which some of these Shapers presented their projects, creative micro-enterprises tackling big global issues such as youth unemployment; women’s empowerment, skills and education; and entrepreneurship on the local level. There was Khalid Alkhudair, who gave up his regional CMO post with KMPG to co-found Glowork, a company that created the first job marketplace for women in Saudi Arabia. Glowork matches women with jobs by creating opportunities in sectors previously inaccessible to them. So far it has put more than 3,000 women in the workplace and found work-from-home jobs for 500 women. Khalid is now planning a fitness studio chain for women in Saudi Arabia. Michelle Arevalo-Carpenter from TECHO in Venezuela provides millennials with “citizenship education” by enlisting them as volunteers in the fight against extreme poverty and involving them in transitional housing and other social inclusion programs. Or take May Habib, the founder and CEO of Qordoba, a Dubai-based start-up that has built a network of more than 1000 linguists for Arabic-English translation services and digital content. Awarded “Young CEO of the Year, Arabian Business,” May acts as a vocal champion of young female business leaders in the Arab world and its increasingly vibrant start-up scene.
It is not only the pace of the technological change that is dizzying. Social norms, too, are evolving much faster than popular belief would assume. And therein lies the biggest reason for hope. Joseph Nye, the godfather of “soft power” and a member of the Council on the Future of Government, made it clear that we have the means to shape our cultures and governance models the way we want them to be. Whether we will be led by an informal parliament of mega-cities, ruled by central government, or live in gated private communities; whether we will delegate parts of our humanity to artificial intelligence or to the “rational” calculus of markets, our future could be entirely dystopian or mark the beginning of a new era of human flourishing. We still have a choice.
This article was first published by Means The World.