• Nobody's off the hook

    Dictators and wannabe dictators, the category I put Trump in, are quite pathetic once the infrastructure that elevates and supports them crumbles. Think of Saddam, unshaven and unkempt, being fished out of the underground hole, his last hiding place. Or Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania's strongman, driving around Romanian countryside in disguise trying to escape the revolution that overthrew his nearly thirty-year rule. Or Pinochet, brought into the Chilean court in a wheelchair, claiming dementia as a defense against prosecution for abhorrent human rights violations. Without the props and symbols bestowed upon them, these once all-powerful figures are quickly reduced to mere mortals, pitiful more than powerful, tragi-comical more than heroic, Groucho's Rufus T. Firefly more than Charleton Heston's Moses. This is exactly the transformation Trump is beginning to undergo right now. Deprived of access to his favorite social media platforms, with key enablers and allies on the run, he is left to rant into a quickly expanding void.

    The infrastructure that enabled, normalized, and amplified him is crumbling, revealing how weak this wannabe dictator is when all the props are taken away. But while we need to reveal Trump's and his Administration's corrupt and likely criminal deeds, let's not declare victory. They are just the most visible part of the problem. We can't let many others off the hook. We need to seriously examine the infrastructure that has enabled Trumpism in the first place. This infrastructure is extensive and was not built in a day. It extends well beyond the Republican party and its most egregious offenders — Hawley, Cruz, Mo Brooks, Kevin McCarthy, and over a hundred other members of Congress whose names should go down in infamy in history books. They are the most obvious pillars of it. However, this is not the time for many others to wash their hands of responsibility. Almost every sector of our society has to seriously reflect on what part it has played, and continues to play, in the infrastructure of un-democracy and polarization.

    There are some obvious culprits — the tech companies and their funders who, in search of financial returns, have perverted the meaning of unifying concepts such as community, connectedness, openness, and transparency. There are CEOs and corporate leaders who've supported Trump and fed money to the party that was destroying democracy. Reluctant to share their enormous wealth, they are responsible for paying workers unlivable wages, in the process creating the kind of desperation and economic insecurity that was written on the faces and bodies of many people who stormed the Capitol (yes, many did not look well, physically and mentally). Needless to say, media companies too, played a role, despite the work of many brave journalists which should be admired and rewarded. And I am not talking about Fox News, Newsmaxx, or OANN — they are the known villains. But many reputable media organizations far too often picked up on Trump's and his lieutenants' tweets and turned them into news stories, in the process normalizing governance-by-tweeting. Let's not forget economics departments and business schools that have been teaching the gospel of productivity, innovation, efficiency, scale, and profits to generations. Unfortunately, evil can also be done profitably, efficiently, innovatively, and at scale, with devastating impacts on our environment and people's health and wellbeing. It is difficult to admit this, but even our educational institutions, with their focus on preparing people for skills and jobs at the expense of teaching history, civics, liberal arts, have become, if not complicit, at least sidelined in helping foster a functioning democracy. One of my favorite tweets from the last few weeks sums it up best: "What will you do with a liberal arts degree? Oh, I don't know. Not be brainwashed by a death cult & storm the capitol." I couldn't agree more!

    So, while we are untangling ourselves from the last four years that brought us to the brink of losing our democracy, we need to honestly ask ourselves — what role have I, my sector, or my organization, played in enabling the last four years? What have we learned? What do we need to do differently to preserve our democracy and unity?

    Call it start of the de-Trumpification process we so urgently need.

    And no one should be let off the hook.

    Marina Gorbis is Institute for the Future's Executive Director

  • Without social organizations, social technologies will eat us alive

    The bane of the futurist's existence is that almost daily you see, hear, or read something and want to scream, "I told you so." Sometimes, it's a cause for exhilaration—we got it right—and other times, it makes you angry—why didn't we do something about it earlier, why did we not heed the warning signs?

    Right now, I am in the latter state. As stories of Facebook's deflection and manipulation of public opinion dominate the news cycle, I am harking back to things I and others wrote almost ten years ago, in the early days of social media. In 2010, while seeing the great promise of social production (work that involves micro-contributions from large networks of people who often receive "payment" in the form of fun, peer recognition, and a sense of belonging, i.e. social rather than monetary currencies), I started worrying about its shadow side. It seemed that many social media platforms had the potential to re-create the manor economies of the past in the digital world.

    Reflecting on the lawsuit brought by bloggers who contributed free content to Huffington Post but didn't get any financial returns when the site was sold for $315 million to AOL, I saw similarities between the medieval and emerging digital manor economies:

    Just like digital manor economies today, the manorialism of feudal society in medieval Europe integrated many elements of commons production. In most manors, peasants and tenants were assigned rights to use the commons—pastures, forests, fisheries, soil—within each manor's boundaries…The dark side of manor economics, however, lay in the fact that it perpetuated huge inherited disparities in incomes. So while most of the population in these Middle Age pastoral settings survived at subsistence levels, the lords of the manor were able to live lavishly off the rent, taxes, and free labor the tenants were obligated to supply them with, as well as various fees tenants had to pay for the use of resources such as mills, bakeries, or wine-presses.

    Here's looking at you, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Uber, and myriads of other platforms increasingly fueling our media and work environments as well as rapidly rising rates of wealth inequality. Seeing something worrisome ahead, however, is not enough. A responsible futurist has to come up with workable solutions, actions for us to take to shape a more desirable future. This is why I suggested principles for governing and running platforms based on social production in this 2010 essay:

    If we are to truly fulfill the promise of technology tools we have created, we urgently need to design new governance models and new ways of creating value. In the least, organizations whose value derives from communities they create should incorporate the governance principles of successful commons organizations and use the same technology platforms that are at the core of their operations for governance purposes. Here are some principles I believe they need to put into practice:

    1. Clearly articulate the promise of the platform to the participants, with all the ensuing rights and responsibilities for members
    2. Create or elect a community governance board (without direct financial incentives to the project) to guide and review major policy and strategy decisions.
    3. Crowdsource major decisions guiding development and evolution of such platforms.
    4. Ensure radical transparency around key decisions and financial metrics.
    5. Create reward structures for management and employees more akin to those of non-profits or coops rather than for-profit entities."

    I applaud Facebook's attempts to create an independent body, a kind of a Supreme Court for Facebook, to oversee some of its decisions. However, it's not enough. I think the other principles still stand, and we will probably need to include new ones about ownership and governance of data.

    The big question is whether it's too late for Facebook, and other platforms whose business models have been built against commons-based governance and ownership principles, to really change. Here's the dilemma (from the same 2010 essay):

    Our technology tools and platforms are highly participatory and social. They take advantage of intrinsic human motivations to contribute in order to be noticed, to share opinions, to be a part of something greater than ourselves. Otherwise how would one explain remarkable success of Wikipedia and many other crowdsourced sites that rely on contributions of volunteers? Our business models, by contrast, are based primarily on monetary rewards. They are mostly hierarchical and non-participatory…And they operate without the kind of transparency of information when applied to their own operations that is at the core of communities they enable.

    As many social scientists understand, it is nearly impossible to mix social and monetary rewards and interactions. Once we introduce money, it totally changes the context and the nature of how we interact with each other and with our communities. Unfortunately, our existing social media platforms have used social, commons-based technologies and fit them into money-driven organizational structures. My hope is that either today's social media platforms will evolve organizational structures to fit the promise of these technologies, or that they will be simply washed away to be followed by the next generation of platforms structured and governed to realize the promise of social technologies they are built on.

    Marina Gorbis is Executive Director of the Institute for the Future (IFTF), a 50-year old non-profit research and consulting organization based in Silicon Valley.