It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…
-Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Perhaps invoking 19th century literature—albeit a classic—seems an odd way to begin a conversation exploring themes on technology and leadership in today’s hyper-digital and increasingly-networked environment. I definitely concede that point! Though in reflecting on Thomas Friedman’s (2005) The World Is Flat and Richard Florida’s (2005) The World Is Spiky, I couldn’t help but consider the stark contradictions between the two worlds they described. For Friedman, a series of historical forces contributed to a flattening of the global environment. He suggested that a variety of technological developments have fueled both increased collaboration and competition on a global economic playing field that is arguably more inclusive and equitable. Florida, on the other hand, laid out a portrait of a world that is anything but flat, rather one that is “AMAZINGLY SPIKY” (p. 48, emphasis added). Using measures of population density, economic activity (estimated by way of geographic light emissions), and innovation…he ““charts a much different economic topography” (p. 48) than Friedman, calling attention to the great disparity between the spikes (largely dominant urban centers) and the world’s vast valleys.
While I appreciate Friedman’s position, I view technology’s leveling effect as one of POTENTIAL much more than I do as one of FULLY-REALIZED REALITY. On this, I tend to side with Florida, believing that shifts in tectonics—for example, a shrinking gap between peaks due to increased economic and social connectivity—support a PERCEPTION of a flatter world, but I suspect this would apply largely (if not exclusively) to those who have the luxury of viewing this phenomenon from the vantage point of the peak itself. It seems appropriate—particularly for an inquiry grounded in the Ignatian tradition—to expand our horizon well beyond the haves and the have-mores, to include as a part of the dialogue our concern for justice and care for the marginalized…or those on the have-not’s side of the digital divide. The Digital Inclusion Survey noted both the great OPPORTUNITIES and the great CHALLENGES posed by the Internet’s ubiquity. As promising, and encouraging, and exciting as those opportunities may be, the challenges also deserve our attention. A truly flat world would seemingly demand as much.
Though technology has allowed us to make great strides, Pankaj Ghemawat’s (2012) TED, Actually, The World Isn’t Flat, offered some interesting data points to demonstrate that this talk of a flat world constitutes an overstatement based precisely on this difference between perception and reality…a phenomenon he termed GLOBALONEY. While potentially useful in bringing the globalization issues to the fore, Ghemawat does seem to fear that if we subscribe to a flat world model as one that has fully arrived, we will be less motivated to continue innovating in pursuit of improvements towards additional digital inclusion and radical openness, of which there appears to be ample room.
Employing caution and control as we continue to dream, innovate, and implement remains a necessary and important part of the process, as Nick Bostrom’s (2015) TED, What Happens When Our Computers Get Smarter Than We Are, suggested. Friedman also cautioned of the need to be bold and progressive while also harnessing technology and (to a certain extent) our own imaginations as we develop future generations of advancements, this to ensure that they won’t get the best of others…or ourselves (see Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Big Hero 6 for an interesting portrayal of this struggle in Hiro’s progressive development of Baymax).
The good news is that we don’t have to swing for the fences to be successful. Ghemawat concluded that while radical openness and connection are great, even incremental improvements can have profound impacts. Finding that right balance is key for leaders in this ever-evolving world. The task is big…but recall to whom much is given, much is expected. And while I acknowledge the world’s spikes…we are far from alone on this journey. The best of times really are yet to come! Magis!