A Tale of Two Digital Worlds

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!

-EA

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16 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Digital Worlds

  1. So, if I am understanding your position, the end goal is a truly flat world? Is there hope for us every achieving this and/or should we? You make a very interesting point, but it shouldn’t discredit the views of Friedman too much. I suppose he was on the verge of discovering how infrastructure, technology and human interaction at least started the “flat” movement.

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    • There is no denying the impact of the various forces that Friedman spoke of. That being said, I found Florida’s description to be more compelling, noting the great disparities that continue to exist in terms digital inclusion versus exclusion. An appropriate goal seems the leveraging of technology for good while also mitigating disparities through efforts to expand their sphere of influence. I’m not certain that a totally flat world is possible, and it certainly doesn’t seem to be imminent. To arrive there involves addressing a host of challenges for which I lack answers. Yet despite this limitation, even continued marginal flattening seems worthwhile, and more immediately achievable.

      Forums to explore and to discuss these topics–like ours–are an invaluable part of this process for discerning how best to move forward. As such, your feedback is valued and appreciated!

      -EA

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice post, and I like the resources you added. A mentor once told me that leaders get to decide which rules to break…for the right reasons. In this hyperconnected world, this seems more applicable than ever!

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    • Dr. Watwood,

      I loved your comment to EA this week. The need for leaders to break rules, though I prefer to think of it as rewriting the rules, is perhaps more necessary now than ever before. In my new position I hear the comment, “we can’t do it that way because we have always done it this way,” more than I care to admit. In our ever changing world, we need to be nibble and prepared to rewrite the rules often.

      Jason

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      • Yes and yes! Whether we frame it as “breaking rules” or “rewriting rules”, I have also found this to be a valuable perspective in my own leadership (noting also the important qualifier of doing so “for the right reasons”).

        As a leader who operates in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (and specifically Veterans Health Administration), it didn’t take long to see that the bureaucracy’s gravitational pull is strong towards policy, systems, and standardization. My experience is that this pull–which collectively, we might refer to as “the VA way”–can often stifle creativity, innovation, and even simple expressions of the human side of leadership. While embracing “the VA way” is certainly necessary on some (even many) levels, like anything in life a good thing can be corrupted when taken to the extreme.

        In September, I was in D.C. for a conference and had the occasion to hear from the honorable Matthew Collier, Secretary McDonald’s Senior Advisor on Strategic Partnerships. He shared his frustrations as he proposed innovative collaborations with industry partners only to be told time and time again that there is no mechanism within the VA to do so; that “we have never done that before”; or “we’re not allowed to do that”; “check the policies and regulations”. Mr. Collier did just that…he checked! His findings suggested that in nine times out of ten, the prohibition was grounded in myth more than reality, and in those times when supported by an actual policy directive, they were often policies driven by a regulatory climate from 20 years ago (which didn’t always reflect what today’s regulations allowed). So he pushed back, and the results have been remarkable.

        As an example, see how the VA partnered with Google to bring Veterans Day celebrations to veterans through virtual reality: http://www.blogs.va.gov/VAntage/24498/24498/ (there are a few short videos embedded which are definitely worth the watch). Another is VA’s pursuit of collaboration with the world’s leading brain health experts as part of the VA Brain Trust initiative: https://www.va.gov/p3/braintrust.asp .

        Beyond being remarkable, Mr. Collier’s leadership (and results) have also been encouraging, inspiring, and empowering to local leaders like me. He gave those of us gathered in that room permission to break or rewrite the rules–for the right reasons–to the betterment of the agency and the Veterans we serve.

        -EA

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  3. Hello One Foot Raised, thank you for the enjoyable analysis. I appreciate that you touched on both Friedman’s (2007) and Florida’s (2005) perspectives, while aligning more closely with a view of the world as a spiky place. The caution, also, that should one believe in a “fully arrived” flat world, one would risk ceasing to innovate is well placed.

    Considering your perspective explained so far, I am curious whether you believe a truly flat world is ultimately possible? And whether yes or no, what specific flatteners do you think the world is in need of to get closer to a flat state?

    References
    Florida, R. (2005, October). The world is spiky. The Atlantic Monthly. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/images/issues/200510/world-is-spiky.pdf
    Friedman, T. (2007). The world is flat. Retrieved from http://www.wikisummaries.org/wiki/The_World_Is_Flat

    Julie

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    • Thank you for sharing some thoughts, Julie. Over our time together in the program I have grown to value your input and contributions to my learning!

      As I commented above, I’m not certain that a totally flat world is possible. That being said, my time in ministry left me with an insatiable affinity for bold and audacious pursuits! I’m not sure that any one of us holds all the answers or resources to make a totally flat world a reality, and so the best path forward is to tackle this one small bite at a time. Some advancement is better than none. And, what is most encouraging to me is the prospect of reaching some of those valleys of the digital divide and the added momentum that can be achieved, and leveraged from there.

      -EA

      Liked by 1 person

      • EA, thank you! I agree with your comments, while believing that acceptance is mainly a matter of time and evolving perception versus a lack of ability to leverage novel mechanisms. I think the ability is there. I draw upon a comparison to illustrate.

        Let us say the physical university is like the physical library, which was also grounded in a pre-digital age, and go back about 20 years. My very earliest days of undergrad did not allow use of resources garnered online for citations though some information was there for the taking. I remember struggling to get to the library during its open hours to access what I needed for assignments. Then, we entered a time period not too much later, where we were allowed to quote online resources that were deemed trustworthy. Access to information suddenly felt wide open. For the most part, these were the physical library’s resources finally, fully available online. While much of the Internet is awash in crap, there is a sense, if people choose to leverage it, as to what comprises a trusted resource. Then there is a lot of other stuff that may or may not be valid.

        Some of the early online university offerings were like some of the early online Internet resources – untrustworthy and presenting difficulty in ascertaining the real value. They sprang from the Internet versus expanded to it. However, as physical universities have made their offerings available online, and time has passed to increase comfort with the perception that an online educational offering has just as much value, I think we are slowly heading toward an inevitable future, where future universities can begin online and have trust. I started my online MS with Creighton in 2009. Whether my sensitivity or no, I felt people blinked a little oddly when I mentioned it was all online and talked about how exciting that was. I got the sense they did not think it was “as good.” I no longer feel that reaction when I talk about our online program now.

        The quote you pulled from Weinberger is really interesting. It dovetails nicely with a comment I found regarding HarvardX discovering a large percentage of its registrants were in India. Harvard began to tailor its online experience to fit the Indian student’s reality (Hashmi, 2013). They transformed the medium and likely transformed knowledge in the process.

        Hashmi, A. H. (2013, September 5). Students from U.S. and India top HarvardX registrants list. The Harvard Crimson. Retrieved from http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2013/9/5/edx-enrollment-harvardx-india/

        Julie

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  4. EA,

    I do not have any specific questions for you but I did want to express my appreciation for your work this week. Your comments framed the readings well and the synergy among not only the materials but also the Ignatian tradition. Job well done!

    Jason

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  5. EA,

    Your additional sources, such as the Ghemawat TED talk, did a great job conveying something I found lacking in both Freidman’s and Florida’s analysis…perspective. I think it can be somewhat difficult for many of us in this course to imagine what is must be like to be on the other side of the digital divide. Your optimism towards the world becoming flat is inspiring, and initiatives to connect more people to the internet (like Facebook’s Internet.org) make it seem promising. However, it will be interesting to see the new challenges that appear as more people are interconnected.

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    • Thanks for your input, Chris. You are right that if we can be certain about anything, it is the inevitably of new challenges ahead. I agree that it will be interesting…and I appreciate this opportunity to learn and to grow as preparation for that uncertain future.
      -EA

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  6. EA, I really appreciate your points about social justice as an important part of the discussion on technology and globalization. I wonder if we can conceptualize of a “technology privilege” in the same way that we can think of “white privilege” or “male privilege”? To Chris’ point above, perspective is a huge part of thinking about leading in a global environment. Not everyone has access to technology, and as we’ve been discussing this week, that has a profound effect on thinking, relationships, culture, learning, and so much more. If we begin to think critically about those different lied experiences, I think that will be a valuable lesson for leaders in this climate.

    Thanks for your thoughtful post this week! Looking forward to many more interesting posts in the weeks to come!

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  7. Pingback: Eight Days a Week. – Cat on the Keyboard

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