The question isn’t where is this going, but rather where do we want it to go?

Last week I participated in a two-day workshop on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and digital skills. It was part of an international project on AI and digital discovery that my good friend and colleague Anthony Elliott* has been involved in developing and leading. Anthony argues that what is happening in the world today is no longer a technical revolution, but rather a technical tsunami, where the development and implementation of new technologies is so fast and wide spread that it is unlike anything we have ever experienced before. There are mind-boggling innovations being done in all kinds of areas and arenas, but few have considered what the social connotations of these innovations will be. How will they, for example, affect how we interact with each other in the future? This is something we have actually already started to see since the introduction of social media.

Well, as you can imagine, getting together with academics and practitioners for two days to discuss these issues was an exciting experience. However, there was one thing that struck me right at the start.

During the two days, we were split into groups to talk about and create an understanding of different aspects of AI and leadership and how AI will change leadership in the future. Each group was assigned one aspect of this and right then I thought, wait a minute. The question was formulated, ‘where is so and so (insert an aspect of leadership and organization) going’ but shouldn’t the question have been ‘where do we want it to go’ instead?

Because this is the way we often talk about technology, AI, and any form of innovation and development. We talk about it as something happening to us rather than something we can be involved in shaping to our needs. But the thing is, these new technologies are created for us as tools to help us in our work and every-day lives. We should be involved in talking about and affecting the direction they take – all of us, not just IT developers, coders and engineers. We need to think about what we want and need these tools to do, because yes, AI sounds like something fancy but it is in fact just a tool.

So, AI will transform social life, it already has. And we can’t stop it from happening, it is already here. But we live in a time of change and I am a firm believer that now is the time to affect in which direction we go from here, and that is something that we should all be involved in.

Which brings me to another thing that struck me in the workshop. During the two days, each group was sent on a ‘learning safari’ to get our heads around the questions at hand. My group had a Skype interview with a leader in a Swedish media organization, who had experience of AI and digital implementation. She said something that in all its simplicity was actually quite profound. She said, “I’m not afraid of AI.” The reason she isn’t afraid, is that she has been in contact with it. She has seen what it is and what it does and can do, and she has worked with it. She knows that it isn’t anything to be afraid of; that it isn’t a mystic being developed to replace us and everything human, but a tool to use and shape to our benefit.

So yes, let’s create more opportunities and get-togethers like this workshop so that people – people like you and me – can talk about what our wants, needs, and fears are for the future. Let’s make this our future. Let’s be involved in deciding how it should unfold.

*see his new book The Culture of AI

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“At least for now” – nothing is forever and why that’s okay

One of the things people often wonder when I give talks on my opting out and in research is, what happens further down the line? What happens after a few years, maybe this new lifestyle or way of working proves to not be so wonderful after all and maybe my interviewees will opt out again?

They often say it in a way that suggests that they suspect that I may have missed something, or that I am romanticizing opting out and in and have an unrealistic image of what is really going on.

Well, I’m always glad when I get asked this, because the fact is that this is exactly the thing: the new lifestyle is not forever. It’s good for now, and the people I have interviewed are generally aware of that.

The reason is that things change. Situations change, we change, our needs change, and we invariably adapt our lives accordingly. Some people will opt on to the next thing, someone might even opt back into what they opted out from in the first place, and that’s fine because that is what they want or need to do at that particular time in their lives. The difference is that once you have embarked on an opting out and in journey, you become more attuned to your needs and keep revisiting your situation to check that things are still okay. You remind yourself of what your terms are, terms which change and evolve over time.

I was talking to a new friend of mine the other day. Although we live on different continents we share a similar story. She opted out of a corporate career to become an artist. We were talking about her new lifestyle and when I told her she seemed right in her element, she responded with “at least for now.” Don’t misunderstand, she has gone all in. She sells her creations, she is passionate about what she does and she is good at it. Still, she knows that this is “at least for now.”

Realizing that it is good for now is a strength. It is a strength to understand that things not only might but will change. That doesn’t mean we don’t value what we do now, nor does it mean that we don’t do it full heartedly. It just keeps us open to new opportunities when they present themselves, and it keeps us able to rethink our terms and our lifestyles when needed.

And it’s the same for me. I love where my life is going professionally at the moment. It’s great – at least for now.

 

When it hits you in the gut: what the pay gap really feels like

When we hear about phenomena in the world, we can usually understand what it is we are talking about intellectually, but still it is often just statistics. It doesn’t have a face, it doesn’t feel like it’s happening to real people – real people with real feelings. Take the gender pay gap for example. Yes, I think many of us agree that it must be wrong to pay people less just because of their gender. Or their race for that matter. But it’s still just numbers. Pay should be fair, but looking at the statistics, it doesn’t really affect us. It doesn’t create a sense of urgency.

And one thing I know, is that without a sense of urgency, it is very hard to create change.

So, when I saw an article about how a woman reacted when she realized she was being paid less than her colleagues because of her gender, I though yes, things like this give these issues a face. They give them a feeling, one that helps us understand that this is not just a statistic, this is something that really affects Anne, Elisabeth, Sofia, Andrea… It affects how they feel about themselves. It affects their sense of worth. It affects their motivation. It affects what they can and cannot buy for themselves or for their children. It affects them. They feel the pay gap, it is something that can be felt.

In this article you see a woman who realizes she is holding her colleague’s pay check and you see how her face changes from confused to horrified to defeated. It describes so clearly that this isn’t just a statistic to her; it is a real, lived, physical experience.

Incidentally, the day after I read the article, I was looking through some papers in my office and I stumbled across a piece of memory work I once did. A few years ago, I participated in a workshop to learn about a method called memory work. What we were supposed to do was to write on a theme from our memory for a few minutes without stopping and just let it flow. Afterwards we read what we had written to each other.

The subject we were asked to write about was “A time when I was conscious of my gender.” As I sat down with a pencil and a blank sheet of paper, I spontaneously started writing about an experience I hadn’t thought about for years. The words tumbled out of me faster than I could write them down. It was a story about the gender pay gap.

As I later read what I had written to the group, I got strangely emotional. This memory that I had buried deep inside my mind and not thought about in years, was surprisingly painful to read out loud. It was like ripping open old wounds. It was almost an out of body experience, because although it was about me, it was about a much younger version of me. Yet, it still felt surprisingly raw and painful. Maybe because I had never told anyone about it. I mean, it was embarrassing. I wasn’t being paid what I was worth.

Well, I’ve decided to share it here, my real experience of the gender pay gap. I’ve anonymized it because I don’t want to name any names, but otherwise it’s pretty much exactly as I wrote it in that workshop:

 

A time when I was conscious of my gender

I was about 25 or 26 years old. I was at my second job after graduating from business school, but I was only at my first job for a year or so, so I didn’t have a lot of experience or a lot of self confidence in my professional role. There is one thing I remember specifically that made me very aware of my gender. It was when I saw my colleague’s contract. We more or less did the same job, and we had been working for about the same amount of time – I may have worked a bit longer (since I graduated) – but I realized when I saw his contract that he had a higher salary than I did.

This was the situation: In the office I kept a lot of paperwork that concerned the team. I was the coordinator as well as having [other (the same as my colleague)] responsibilities. In the corner of my office there was a large, locked cupboard with double doors. I was kneeling on the floor in front of the cupboard, flipping through the folders that were kept in there. I was looking for something specific. I can’t remember what it was, but as I was flipping through some papers, I stumbled across his contract. It was in a plastic “pocket” and it had his name on it and I knew right away what it was. I saw his monthly salary, the one he started out with, because for all I knew he may have negotiated a raise already.

I felt the blood drain from my face and a knot develop in my stomach. I felt enraged because they had told me when I was hired and tried to negotiate my salary that there was no way they could possibly pay me more than what they offered. I had felt pretty good about it until now. I felt cheated, and I felt that it was because I was a woman. I had heard about women being discriminated like this, but I never thought it would happen to me. And it just had.

I remember sitting there, on the floor by the cupboard, with the binder in my lap, feeling just horrible. I think that was the beginning of the end for me at that company. I lost faith in the organization and in my superior. I realized that it was just business for him, that he was going to pay me as little as he could get away with. And even worse, I felt disappointed in myself because worse than feeling cheated is the feeling that you let yourself be cheated. I felt I was a stupid girl who let people discriminate me and pay me less than I was worth just because of my gender.

Making the world better for boys too

My idol, Professor Mirjam Kalland, had a column in my local daily newspaper last week. She wrote about boys and girls, about gender structures and about how we value and treat people differently based on their gender. She wrote about gender discrimination and about how this affects both boys and girls as they grow up. Her column struck a chord with me because this is what I am always saying. Although a lot of people don’t realize it, gender equality is not only a women’s issue, it’s a societal issue. It’s about men and women, about boys and girls, about the wellbeing of all.

There is research that shows that gender norms and structures, while still being discriminatory towards women, are not good for men either in a number of ways. One of the ways is men’s health. Gendered structures and norms affect men’s physical and mental health negatively. For example, suicide rates are, as we know, higher among men than women.

I think of this as I watch my son grow up. I have a girl and a boy, both are smart, sensitive, inquisitive, social beings and it pains me when I see how they are treated differently, for no other apparent reason than their gender.

I remember when my son was a lot younger, and nervous about going to the dentist. We have found a wonderful dentist, to make going as easy as possible and I had been taking my daughter there for a couple of years at least before I went with my son. Both the dentist and his assistant were always very kind and patient towards my daughter, making sure not to do anything until she was ready. As a parent you feel so grateful to people who are kind to your children.

Imagine my surprise when I went with my son. He needed the same time and patience, but what he got instead was a snide comment from the assistant (who was female, in case that matters), to be quiet and open his mouth so we can just get this over with and go home.

This was the nurse who had been treating my daughter completely differently for years, and when I came in with a much younger child who was nervous, but calm and polite, and was wondering what was going to happen, like his sister had often wondered, the response was be quiet and open your mouth. I’m pretty sure there was no other reason than that he was a boy and you don’t coddle boys. “How are they otherwise ever going to become men?” Have you heard that before? I have and all of a sudden, I was experiencing it too.

Well, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. I see how little boys are treated differently than girls all the time. I’ve witnessed it at my children’s day care (which, for the record, was a wonderful place). I’ve seen girls hurt themselves and how they’ve been hugged and soothed, rightly so. I’ve seen boys hurt themselves, and handled kind of roughly when they’ve been picked up off the ground, even when they are crying. I’ve seen a little boy laughed at by a grown-up at day care when he hurt his genitals, because that was kind of embarrassing and I guess laughter just came more spontaneously than a hug.

And this is in a country that is considered one of the most gender equal in the world, where day care workers have degrees in early childhood education and care.

Well for my son, the gendered treatment continues. He is much older now and very much aware of what is going on around him. He is still sensitive, and one of the most empathetic people I know, and he sees how he and his friends get treated differently than girls in school because they are boys (again, I need to stress, he goes to a really good school).

He says boys are damned before they even open their mouths. He’s frustrated that the worst is often expected of him before he has even done anything. That he is told to be quiet when he has a question and expected to be rowdy, even though that really hasn’t been his tendency. He knows that people often don’t even realize that this is what they are doing – that they don’t necessarily do it on purpose – but the term that comes to my mind is self-fulfilling prophecy. That is how boys will start acting if that is all that is expected of them.

So no, I don’t think gender equality is a women’s issue. I think it is everyone’s issue. I think gender equality really would make the world a better place. For both girls and boys, men and women, and everyone else too!

How do we design technology that actually enhances our quality of life instead of making us lonelier?

I’m reading a book* about iGen at the moment. iGen is the generation of kids who have grown up with the Internet, computers, smart phones and the like. In other words, my kids’ generation. It’s fascinating reading and they are a remarkable generation in many ways. They are tolerant and sensible and instill hope for the future, at least for me personally. I like the book’s approach, the way it says their values and ways of life are not good nor bad, they just are. I like that because we spend so much time judging iGen kids and comparing their ways to the reality the rest of us had when we were the same age, even though the realities they deal with now are completely different from what ours were in many ways.

One thing that strikes me though, yet again, as I read about those who are young today, is the issue of loneliness. They are a lonely generation, and as research has shown in a number of different countries, loneliness among young people today is a huge and rising problem. And one of the problems is, of course, social media. I think no one is surprised by that.

While social media is supposed to connect people, it has especially young people meeting online rather than face-to-face. They have friends who they socialize with, but due to many reasons, they mostly socialize with them on social media platforms. And, as may also not come as a surprise, chatting on social media does not fill the same function as meeting in person. Humans need relationships, we need intimacy and closeness. We experience connections on a deeper level when we meet and have conversations with people in person, which we just don’t do in the brief chats and messages we exchange over social media. These deep connections provide meaning and a sense of community that we as humans all need.

Not only that, research has also shown that even when they are at home with family, iGeners will often rather be alone in their rooms on their phones with their doors closed, than be with the rest of the family. So even though loved ones may be there on the other side of their bedroom doors, they are still often alone.

But what strikes me is that even though social media may exacerbate loneliness among iGeners, possibly even cause it, it isn’t really social media as such that is at fault. Social media is just technology that we humans have developed. It is how we have designed and defined it, and how it has been programmed to be used that is the problem.

The same goes for AI (artificial intelligence). Many feel threatened by it, and worry what it may or may not do to our lives. But the fact is, that it is we humans who decide what it should be and what it should and should not be able to do. The threat is not social media, it is not AI, it is how we humans decide to define and develop it.

There is so much happening in society now. Life as we know it is being redefined as we speak, and we need to make sure it is done in the right way. Social media can be great. AI can change our lives for the better in uncountable ways. We just have to make sure that it is developed to do so, and not to harm us and our wellbeing.

So instead of having social media designed to isolate us and make us lonely, as it seems to be today, how about we design technology to bring us together rather that to keep us apart? How about reinventing social media so that we actually interact with each other more in person and not less? How about using technology to actually enhance our quality of life, and not isolate us and make us lonelier?

This is for all you programmers and developers out there. Please design technology to be the resource it could really be.

*iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant and Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood (and What That Means for the Rest of Us) by Jean M. Twenge, PhD

Do you set things up for failure or for success?

I experienced something heart wrenching this weekend. I’m visiting Adelaide for work and I love taking walks in the morning in the wonderful parklands that surround the city. The sound of the birds and the scent of the gum trees are what I always take with me when I go back home and I’m trying to enjoy them as much as I can while I’m here. There is a large green area very close to where I live where there are horses. Those of you who know me, know how much I love horses and I enjoy walking over there just to look at them.

On this particular day there were just three horses out in the pasture. They were further off in a different enclosure than usual so I walked towards them to get a better look. I find Adelaideans so friendly that I end up having meaningful conversations with complete strangers every day (this is true), so I thought maybe I could have a chat with the owners of the horses.

As I approached, I noticed that the people there had been saddling up two of the three horses and that they were leading them away towards the gate. The horse without a saddle was trotting alongside them looking very excited to be going on an outing. He (it could have been a she but let’s just say he for the sake of simplicity) didn’t seem to register that he wasn’t wearing a bridle or a saddle, he just knew that his herd was leaving so he was leaving too. A man started waving a stick at him to distract him and in the meantime the other two horses slipped out with their riders and the man with the stick quickly followed.

What happened next was the part that was so heart wrenching.

The horse left behind panicked. Horses are herd animals and this horse’s herd had left without him. He started neighing and he neighed and neighed and neighed. He called after them; it sounded like he was crying and shouting at them to come back. In a complete panic he started galloping from the gate where he was standing towards the fence (where I was standing, but on the outside), which was also towards the direction his herd had gone. He ran around, back and forth and then full speed towards the fence again, grinding to a halt right before he crashed into it. Then the was off again. Then he came back and he neighed and called out to them again. By this time, they were out of sight.

I tried talking to him, thinking maybe my voice would calm him down. Maybe it did, I don’t know. Either way he started trotting back and forth along the fence, stopping to neigh and to have bowel movements (he had a few so I can only conclude that it was caused by the stress). He went back and forth like a caged animal, but with this nervous energy that he would suddenly not be able to contain and then he was off again galloping in a panic.

At one point he came over and reached out to me over the fence, so I put out my hand. He sniffed it and then he was off again. I talked and talked to him, but there was nothing I could do. I didn’t know this horse; he was someone else’s property and I didn’t have a right to touch him. Nor would it have been wise, we’re talking about 500+ kilos hurtling around uncontrollably.

I stood there for a while feeling miserable for this animal. Out of compassion, I was unable to leave. I felt that at least someone should stay with him, but finally I just had to go. Again, I had to remind myself that this was not my horse and there was nothing I could do. The owners/riders would be back soon. I turned to walk away and the neighing that had stopped by then, started again. It broke my heart.

Where I come from and where I horse-back ride, this would never have happened. We have a strict rule never to leave any horses alone in the pasture. If there are two of them and you need to fetch one, you always take both because you can’t leave one behind. And the reason for that suddenly became absolutely crystal clear to me.

One of the things that really bothered me though, was how unnecessary all this was. This horse was subjected to extreme stress and the situation was potentially very dangerous. He could have been hurt in his panic-stricken state. If this happens regularly, which I assume that it must, it invariably has a long-lasting effect on the horse and his wellbeing. So, you end up with a horse with all kinds of issues who might become nervous in different situations, causing even more potentially dangerous situations for no reason what-so-ever. I say no reason because this was a situation that could have been avoided. You can just decide never to leave a horse alone like that and you will have a much calmer, happier and healthier horse that is a lot easier to handle. And a horse that is easier to handle makes you calmer and happier, which in turn has a positive effect on the horse again. See what I’m getting at, it becomes a good circle.

But isn’t this true for most things in life? You can set things up to succeed or you can set things up to fail. By creating situations and doing things in a way that minimize friction and conflict, you enable everyone involved to succeed. By not doing so you potentially set yourself and everyone else up for both conflict and failure. Or if nothing else, it just makes it harder to get anything done.

Opting out of the expected and in to the unexpected

I was adopted about a week ago. I was adopted into an opting out family, which now consists of two opting out sisters, me and Kenieshiear Czetty.

What happened was that I was found through my Instagram account (@ingrids_silk_painting) by the creator of the opting out podcast series.

Kenieshiear contacted me through Instagram (this is social media at its best, connecting people globally), saying how she was so excited to find me and my opting out research, and that she felt like we were sisters. It was mind-blowing, I was just as excited to be found. However, I’ve been travelling for the past three weeks and I have had such a bad internet connection that, excited as I was, I wasn’t able to listen to any podcasts until the other day.

But then I did. I started listening and listened for about an hour and a half worth of podcasts in one go. To be honest, I kind of toyed with the idea of an opting out podcast of my own at one point, but I’m not sure I could do it. At least not as openly, honestly and spontaneously as Kenieshiear. I have a lot more listening to do, but let me share with you the most profound things I took away from these first 90 minutes.

  • She talks about opting out of the expected and opting in to the unexpected. That’s so eloquently put and exactly as I see it. It may be the expected and unexpected on a personal level, you might surprise yourself. Or it may be the expected and unexpected out of a social perspective. This means that not everyone will get what you are doing, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.
  • If something feels hard, if it’s overwhelming you and making you feel bad, you need to not ignore it but to dig deeper and explore it.
  • You have permission to do what feels natural to you.
  • Lock arms with someone who will walk with you on your opting out journey, someone who will help you ignite what you have. Everyone isn’t ready for this, isn’t open to the unexpected, and if not, they won’t be able to support you. Be sure to find someone who can.
  • If you’ve had the courage to change your life, if you’ve been set free, you can go and set someone else free. “Let’s all be the wildfire of change.” Don’t you just love that?

Anyway, listen for yourself: https://houseofczetty.com/series/opting-out/