Innovations in technology in the last 20 years have created unprecedented changes that people and societies must learn to navigate. That rate of change will only continue to accelerate, and David Bray, an expert on leadership in turbulent environments, thinks the implications for privacy, civil society, and our pluralistic democracy are profound.
How human beings adapt to these changes is what concerns Dr. Bray, who spoke about the need for pluralism, diversity of ideas, and positive change agents during his April 25 visit to campus for the inaugural lecture of the CVP Speaker Series @ GW. The new speaker series was conceived by Mr. Anirudh Kulkarni, B.S. ’86, M.S. ’88, the CEO of CVP and a SEAS alumnus who committed the company to a public speaker series to address the impact of technology on change.
Dr. Bray advocates that each of us learn to be what he calls “positive change agents,” people who “help make sense of the turbulence around you and try to build bridges across different groups that might not be talking to each other.”
With a photo of Earth taken from Voyager 1 in 1990 projected behind him, Dr. Bray cited statistics of the growing pervasiveness of digital technologies since 1990. There was one webserver in 1990; today an estimated 1.2 billion servers exist. In 2013, the planet was home to 7.1 billion human beings and 7.1 billion networked devices, but if current trends continue, experts estimate a population of 8 billion human beings and 75-to-300 billion networked devices by 2022.
“That’s going to raise questions about privacy. Who owns the data? What’s done with the data you produce?” asked Dr. Bray. “There is no textbook for that world we’re going into . . . that’s why we need positive change agents.”
Dr. Bray particularly noted the role of the internet in allowing people to share ideas on an unprecedented scale. Anyone can be a publisher, he said, but that comes with a downside.
“Are we becoming armchair quarterbacks?” he asked. “How do we live in this world, in which anyone can be a publisher?”
One particular concern for him is that the constant sharing of opinions can create a judgmental atmosphere that stifles risk-taking and creative thinking. To illustrate this, Dr. Bray told the story of the Corona Project, launched in 1958 by the U.S. government’s Advanced Research Projects Agency.
Project leaders were tasked to launch a rocket into space, take a photo of the Soviet Union, parachute a film capsule over the ocean and have it be picked up by a helicopter before it landed into the ocean. The first 13 rockets blew up and never left the launch pad. The crew wasn’t able to successfully retrieve the film canister until the twenty-first attempt. But in 1995, the U.S. government declassified the maps produced by Project Corona, and Google ultimately acquired them. “Google Maps actually uses the basis of what came from Project Corona back in 1958,” said Dr. Bray.
He challenged the audience to imagine trying to do a similarly difficult project today, and asked how many of us would have watched the rockets explode and then called for a halt after the fourth or fifth unsuccessful attempt.
“We’ve lost the appetite to experiment,” he said. “I celebrate that we’ve become more transparent, but we’ve also become more judgmental, too. And the question is, ‘How do we lead in this era in which people are paralyzed to do nothing, because that’s better than doing something and being wrong or not have it work out?’”
With the increased transparency and ability to share information that the internet and other digital technologies provide, early developers of the technologies thought these innovations would bring different groups of people together as living and learning communities. Dr. Bray doesn’t believe that’s the current reality. In fact, along with many others, he believes that people increasingly use the internet to find others who agree with their views.
During his recent stay in Europe as a Marshall Scholar, Dr. Bray had several conversations with colleagues in Poland, Germany, and the United Kingdom about changes in their societies. The common sentiment was their sense that each country now has two different societies who each have their own news outlets and don’t talk to each other.
“Increasing polarization is why we need positive change agents who at least say it’s okay to build bridges, it’s okay to find a third, fourth or fifth way that’s neither A nor B,” he pleaded.