I help others engage, therefore I learn!
The premise of my previous article was that today’s world values participation above consumption and the new economy of attention selects those who engage with others and not those who focus on earning and spending money.
As I mentioned at the end of the article, though, there’s one more aspect about this view of the world that I didn’t cover. It is an aspect that I am most excited about and would like to lay it out here!
In a peculiar twist of random events converging to an unexpected outcome — which will become obvious below — after writing the article last night, today I got to watch Carne Ross, the first ever “freelance diplomat”, speaking at one of TED’s partner conferences, the Business Innovation Factory summit last year.
Carne tells the story of how he got disillusioned in the way diplomacy was practiced in the world and how the institutions he was working for failed him with their inability to adapt to the world we live in — the world in which attention is the primary drive and participation the main fuel of that drive.
In 2004, he ended up joining the UN in Kosovo and after facing an episode of rampaging riots leading to a horrible massacre, he had a revelation that changed his perspective on diplomacy. The problem, as Carne came to see it, was that the Kosovars were disenfranchised from their own future, which alongside other factors was fueling riots all around. There were diplomatic negotiations about the future of Kosovo going on then and the Kosovo government and in particular the Kosovo people were not allowed to participate in those talks!
At that point, Carne shifted his view of the role he was playing in the world of diplomacy and formed Independent Diplomat, a first-ever independent diplomatic agency providing advice to groups that the traditional institutions left out of the process of conflict resolution.
What Carne did was not only to participate in the world and engage with other people to resolve conflict situations, but to help others be brought into the discussions — help disenfranchised groups participate in the negotiations and engage with the negotiators! Ultimately, he created an opportunity for those groups to get attention and actively shape their own future, instead of being frustrated about it or finding ways to fight it!
Carne made it possible for me to see in clear light the ultimate shift in mindset that the world must undergo in order for the new economy of attention to positively impact the lives of everyone on this planet. While the feedback loop between attention and participation can lead to increased happiness for those who choose to participate, the choice to participate is not always given!
Some people may be prevented from participating — like the example with Kosovo or many other places in the world where people are discriminated by race, gender, etc. Some people are simply unable to participate — they may still be dealing with poverty, i.e. living in a money-driven world and they need to be helped to cover their basic necessities before they can engage with anyone. Some, sadly, may not have had an opportunity yet to voice their desire to participate and are therefore ignored by those who make decisions in their name — kids being a prime example of this kind I passionately care about!
As I’ve been arguing when calling for the organization of TEDChildren, we, the adults, seem to think that it is our sole responsibility to fix the problems impacting the future of our kids. While there’s certainly truth to that, we’re behaving in ways which are not dissimilar to what the diplomatic institutions did with the people from Kosovo when excluding them from the negotiations about their future. True, we’re not explicitly excluding the kids from the process, but at the same time we are not providing enough opportunities to include them in our discussions and decisions!
To me, the following is very clear:
A world in which only some individuals choose to engage — but do not work to get others to engage too — is a disconnected world in which only select people end up with enough attention currency and power to make global decisions impacting the future of all of us!
This kind of world is not going to be a happy world! It is not much better than the earlier world in which the disconnect was between the rich and the poor and lead to widening as opposed to closing the gap between these groups.
Only when those people who decide to engage go one step further and help others engage too, do we unleash an unlimited creative power that can be used to deal with any global problem imaginable and which can deliver a true growth on the happiness scale!
There’s a lot to be learned from Carne’s example of the Kosovo riots about the problems of a disconnected world in which participation is only possible in clusters. When a group is left out and not engaged, they will most certainly find a way to resolve their problems in their own way.
With adults, frustration will almost certainly be one of the top actions those groups will take! With kids, on the other hand, new cultures may sprout that will significantly reshape the future once their generation takes over the world from us.
Kids creating their own culture is not necessarily a bad thing. This capacity is actually one reason why I think we should tap into their abilities and help them engage with us adults in coming up with proper choices that would make the transition from our current culture to their future culture easier.
However, without providing a bridge between the two cultures, we’re risking the loss of some of the knowledge that made our generation aware of the problems putting the future at risk in the first place.
Humans evolved in who we are today by preserving the knowledge of the previous generations and building upon it with each successive generation. Culture may have possibly been the greatest invention to preserve that knowledge by weaving it into its very fabric — traditions, stories, music, arts, behavioral norms, etc.
In the non-flat world of the past, the new generations couldn’t produce a drastically different culture from that of their parents. However, today the world is rapidly becoming flatter and flatter and it is not inconceivable for great cultural innovation to happen that will not build on the existing traditions and behaviors, but introduce many novel elements from scratch — especially if the group inventing the new culture is disconnected from the group ignorantly leaving in the existing culture.
Failing to provide a bridge to move knowledge from the old cultures of our generation to the new one created by our kids — or the generation after, i.e. our grandchildren — could put in danger the very survival of humanity on this planet if some of the mistakes of the past get repeated!
This is the reason why I think platforms like TEDChildren are important as they should enable adults and kids from everywhere in the world to truly engage together as partners in discussing the problems the future generations may face in the future. Such participation will not only tap into a greater pool of ideas — and access to curios and inquiring minds I shall add! — but also, along the way, it will help in transitioning the knowledge of our generation into the new future culture of our kids!
The new world of participation is already here! More and more people are acknowledging it and some, like TED’s own Chris Anderson, are already looking at how different aspects of the technology advancement can fit into it. While I appreciate that the technology enables us to build such a participating world, I think the human factor is still far more important than anything the technology can offer, for the reason below.
There’s one fine detail I left out when talking about the attention economy. While engaging by sharing your knowledge can earn you attention from other people, your knowledge is a finite resource. Therefore, it is important that you constantly replenish that resource with fresh new knowledge if you’re to get more attention!
But where do you get that knowledge? Certainly not by going back to school every few years! Especially not the broken school systems we inherited from the past and are struggling to transform!
The only sustainable way of constantly acquiring new knowledge is by engaging with more and more people that can open new perspectives and facilitate your learning. This is the essence of why helping others engage is important — a bigger pool of ideas and knowledge being shared leads to greater opportunities for learning and contributing back!
I think we have plenty to learn from each other. I also think our kids have a lot to teach us about novel approaches to existing problems. I am thrilled at the idea of bringing everyone together under a common platform for partnership to shape the future. I hope you’re with me!