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Saving community from technology


20 June 2019

I bring you this TWOG (TWeet 2 blOG—no human intervention) dictating into my iPhobe1 with my head down, so that you can read it on a sidewalk with your head down, bumping into strangers.

Individualism runs rampant in society while community runs down: we isolate ourselves to the detriment of our social relationships. Blame the technologies that were developed to serve us: they have been driving us away from each other. The consequences could be dire.



Let’s start with the wheel, which, quite literally, made it easier to drive away from each other. Just throw our belongings into a wagon and roll off to some private place.

I bring you this TWOG (TWeet 2 blOG—no human intervention) dictating into my iPhobe1 with my head down, so that you can read it on a sidewalk with your head down, bumping into strangers.

Individualism runs rampant in society while community runs down: we isolate ourselves to the detriment of our social relationships. Blame the technologies that were developed to serve us: they have been driving us away from each other. The consequences could be dire.



Let’s start with the wheel, which, quite literally, made it easier to drive away from each other. Just throw our belongings into a wagon and roll off to some private place.

When the printing press came along, we no longer had to go to some monastery to read a book. We could buy it, take it home in our wagon, and read it in isolation. (When the flashlight was invented, we could even do that under the covers.) 

Eventually we developed various motorized uses of the wheel. The railroad took us further and faster away from our communities, albeit riding together. But the automobile took care of that: we could speed away from the masses all alone, albeit en mass.

Of all the technologies, the automobile is perhaps the epitome of our individuality. We wrap ourselves in this hunk of metal and tear along some highway, bearing down on the car in front that is passing at the speed limit.  Some nerve. “Get off my highway!“

This is called “tailgating.” Have you ever been tailgated on a sidewalk? Of course not. This is community: you can turn around and say “Hey buddy, this is our sidewalk.” Actually, of course yes. Now we are tailgated constantly on sidewalks, and worse, by all those people texting, head down (making use of a newer technology—see what I mean). “Hey buddy, get up: you’re in my way!”

In fact, we no longer need so many sidewalks. Thanks to the automobile, we can live in the suburbs, where we can drive from our driveway straight to the local mall, to shop. But not in a market. The word used to designate the place where we congregated on Saturday morning to talk and shop—this was the heart and soul of community. Today the word market designates a heartless cyberspace where we buy and sell electrons.



The radio brought entertainment into our homes, as voice. Television added image, so that we no longer had need to go to a theater, let alone to a drive-in. We sit on a couch like a potato as it all comes to us.



The telephone was maybe more of a game changer. When we first moved to France (in an airplane—another get-away technology), phones were hard to get. So there came these unexpected knocks on the door: a colleague dropping by to chat, someone else wanting to ask a question. How quaint! Then the telephones arrived, and took care of that. My French friends stayed home and phoned.



Now we have the social media, which should be called the anti-social media. Why call? Who needs voice? Find a sidewalk, put that head down, and text, text, text. Just be careful to step around that guy we knocked over.

All the new electronic devices— laptops, pads, phobes, whatever—have certainly put us in touch. I refer to our fingers, with a keyboard, while the rest of us sits there, for hours, working at home and shopping from home or else playing videos at home, all of this all alone. No need for those malls, let alone those sidewalks. “Ah,” you tweet back, “but can we ever network now!” Sure, so long as you understand that a network is not a community. (If you don’t, try getting your Facebook “friends” to help paint your house, let alone rebuild your barn.2)

These technologies may be extending our social networks in amazing ways, but they are doing so at the expense of our community relationships. We are so busy texting and tweeting that we barely have time for meeting and greeting. Where is the technology for meaning?3

Of course, there remain places where we can still connect with real people. Elevators, for example, even at home, with the family. But to do that, we would have to lift our heads, however momentarily. Why bother? Just to greet a neighbour we never met? Or talk with a colleague to whom we are texting anyway? Or connect with the kids? (Good luck: try getting them to raise their heads.)

Guess what? Community matters. We are social animals, dependent on our relationships to live full lives, even to survive intact. Collaboration is necessary to get things done, but don’t expect it from the binary bits of an electronic device. In his New York Times column in 2012, Thomas Friedman reported asking an Egyptian friend about the protest movement there that failed: “Facebook really helped people to communicate, but not to collaborate,” he replied. Friedman added that “at their worst, [social media] can become addictive substitutes for real action.” That’s a serious problem.

Face it: our cherished technologies cage our social relationships. We need to restore community—at work, at home, and on the sidewalks of society.

______________________________________________

1 I made this typographical error recently, when hitting one of the tiny keys on my iphobe.
2 In fact, the word community has become fashionable to describe what are really networks, as in the “business community” or the “medical community”—“people with common interests [but] not common values, history, or memory.” A century or two earlier, the word “seemed to connote a specific group of people, from a particular patch of earth, who knew and judged and kept an eye on one another, who shared habits and history and memories, and could at times be persuaded to act as a whole on behalf of a part” (Giridharadas, 2013).
3 In an article entitled “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?”, Marche claimed that, thanks largely to ourselves, “we suffer from unprecedented alienation…. In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society.”

© Henry Mintzberg 2019. Extended from a passage in Rebalancing Society…radical renewal beyond left, right, and center.

Concerned but confused? Time to coalesce and correct

18 May 2019

I had a dream recently. I was going up and down an elevator, to find some event, not sure what. There was nothing doing at the top, but I found people congregating at the bottom, only to hear an announcement that the event was canceled.

So a few of us, milling around--a motley crew of fifteen or so, most of the others young, all of us concerned but confused about the state of the world—made our way to an open field, to do something about it. We kicked around a few ideas, not much of consequence. When another thirty or so people joined, we had a critical mass, all ready to go—but where? Since it was my dream, I took charge, suggesting that, wherever we go, whatever we do, it has to be...

I had a dream recently. I was going up and down an elevator, to find some event, not sure what. There was nothing doing at the top, but I found people congregating at the bottom, only to hear an announcement that the event was canceled.

So a few of us, milling around--a motley crew of fifteen or so, most of the others young, all of us concerned but confused about the state of the world—made our way to an open field, to do something about it. We kicked around a few ideas, not much of consequence. When another thirty or so people joined, we had a critical mass, all ready to go—but where? Since it was my dream, I took charge, suggesting that, wherever we go, whatever we do, it has to be...

targeted. We should be going after some low-hanging outrage, directly, decisively. Not sitting on Wall Street so much as standing up to some obscenity behind one of its doors. Not the women of America marching on the streets to protest the election of an appalling president so much as the women of Paraguay pelting the house of a corrupt politician with eggs. (He resigned.) Whatever it is, we need to coalesce, to correct some behavior that is truly…

intolerable. We have to fix what can no longer be tolerated (if it ever should have been)—like all the sugar in our diets, or the offensive pricing of pharmaceuticals that allows people to die for want of medicines that could be affordable and adequately profitable. Some outrage that even well-intentioned governments are not fixing, like climate change. (Read about Greta in Sweden.) With this kind of inaction so common, some motley crews at some non-events in some obscure fields will have to act. But let’s be sure it is…

legal, at least morally so, like Mahatma Gandhi’s salt march in India, or Rosa Parks holding her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Both set off groundswells that restored some decency to an indecent world. But, especially, these actions will have to be…

clever, unexpected.   Once upon a time, a big bully was toppled with a slingshot. More recently, in San Antonio, Texas, a big phone company was brought down by a penny. People fed up with it paid their bills plus 1¢. This drove the company crazy and its resistance toppled. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as president of the United States, was asked to act on a social issue, he had a great answer: “I agree with you…make me go out and do it.” This requires what can be called communityship. (If you want to see what it looks like, watch the groundswell that develops from some nut dancing in an open field, thanks to a leadership that follows.)

I dreamt these points, but not their details. These have been on my mind for some time; it was the points that came together that night. But we need no Freud to interpret this dream. The message is clear enough: if you are concerned but confused about the state of the world, forget about finding the answer at some top—nothing doing there these days—and skip the staged events. Find some motley crew in some open field and coalesce to create your own event, on the ground. Target some morally intolerable outrage—there is no shortage of them these days—and correct it: cleverly, decisively, morally, almost legally. Stop dreaming and start acting.

 

© Henry Mintzberg 18 May 2019. For my daydreaming beyond these night dreams, see Rebalancing Society…radical renewal beyond left, right, and center.

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From Ebola to Imbalance

30 April 2019

Co-authored with Joanne Liu

Ebola

When Joanne was an emergency room physician in the Ste. Justine children’s hospital in Montreal, and a frequent volunteer with Doctors Without Borders (MSF, as it is known by its French initials), she enrolled in McGill University’s International Masters for Health Leadership (imhl.org), founded by Henry. During the program, she decided to run for the international presidency of MSF. Several members of the class formed her campaign committee, and Joanne was elected in 2013.

Co-authored with Joanne Liu

Ebola

When Joanne was an emergency room physician in the Ste. Justine children’s hospital in Montreal, and a frequent volunteer with Doctors Without Borders (MSF, as it is known by its French initials), she enrolled in McGill University’s International Masters for Health Leadership (imhl.org), founded by Henry. During the program, she decided to run for the international presidency of MSF. Several members of the class formed her campaign committee, and Joanne was elected in 2013.

Soon after, MSF was facing a looming crisis: an Ebola outbreak was spreading in villages in West Africa. MSF was on the ground there, and realized the potential severity: cases confirmed from locations kilometers apart, at the junction of three countries—Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone—where the populations were mobile.

MSF shared its concerns with the U.N. agency, the World Health Organization (WHO), but to no avail. Meanwhile, MSF teams in the field were warning that the number of cases was growing, and that its own facilities were over capacity. By June of 2014, when one of its epidemiologists claimed that “the epidemic is out of control”, MSF realized that it has to pull the alarm, imperatively. The only tool it had was to speak up—issue an urgent wake-up call. Joanne arranged a meeting with Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the WHO, to convince her to declare this a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC)  With overwhelming evidence of the epidemic in West Africa, and growing hysteria from the Global North, mostly related to the evacuation of infected care-givers outside the region, Dr. Chan did so, on 8 August 2014.

Joanne was invited to brief the United Nations General Assembly in New York on 2 September 2014.  The Under General Secretary stated that only MSF could brief on the situation, not the usual UN agency, because MSF was one of the rare organizations deployed to care for Ebola patients.

Imbalance

For some years, Henry had been struggling with another concern, the imbalance that he believes is pervading much of today’s world, in favor of private sector forces over public sector needs and plural sector concerns. In 2015, he published a book about this, entitled Rebalancing Society:…radical renewal beyond left, right, and center. Since then, he has been pursuing possible solutions for redressing the balance.

Many people expect government to do so. After all, it is the ultimate authority, representing “the will of the people” in democratic societies. Unfortunately, many  governments are failing in some of their basic responsibilities. Thus, an increasing number of concerned people now expect business to fix society’s problem of imbalance.  But Henry questions this: can private sector forces fix a problem significantly of their own making? He looks, instead, to the plural sector to begin the process of radical renewal.

What is this plural sector? It comprises those associations, many of them rooted in communities, that are owned neither by the state nor by private investors. Some, such as cooperatives, are owned by members, while others are owned by no one. Think of all the foundations, clubs, religions, charities, many of the world’s renowned universities, and non-government organizations (NGOs), including Greenpeace, Amnesty International, and, of course, MSF.

Enter the NGOs

Why not carry the message of the MSF experience to this concern? From Ebola to imbalance. Acting together, prominent NGOs could draw attention to this crisis of imbalance, by issuing a wake-up call, to get plural sector communities and public sector authorities as well as responsible businesses in the private sector working together for balance. For example, what if a group of prominent NGOs published a compelling manifesto about what needs to be done to restore balance in society?

Who better than the NGOs on the ground, beyond the formal conferences in the fancy facilities—as was MSF, experiencing the consequences of Ebola firsthand? Do not the characteristics of many NGOs make them suitable for doing this, especially those not dependent on government or corporate funding? (MSF, for example, gets 94% of its funding from private donors.) Moreover, many NGOs have the capacity, and the legitimacy, to carry their messages far and wide. Their voices are global, yet they are organized locally, in communities that are networked around the world. And being committed to a cause, they can generate the altruism, the energy, the courage, and the flexibility necessary to act decisively.

Common Cause

But why would any NGO want to do this? Because while each has its own cause, together they have common cause: the imbalance that creates, or at least exacerbates, the very problems with which they have to deal. This imbalance is causing the degradation of our environments, which is the concern of Greenpeace, the demise of our democracies, which is addressed by Amnesty International , and the degradation of ourselves, which MSF faces most literally in war zones. Imbalance is the meta-issue behind many of the NGO’s own issues.

To do this, however, the NGOs will have to get their collective act together, which they can be reluctant to do.  Well, private sector businesses do this quite effectively—it is a major factor behind their power. (Compare the conferences of the World Economic Forum with those of the World Social Forum: one super-organized and highly-reported, the other disorderly and  obscure.)  Businesses may compete with each other in the marketplace, but when they want something broader, such as reduced taxes, they know how to work together, for example by using their chambers of commerce. Why not the NGOs?

Back to Balance

The centuries-old divide between right and left, namely private sector interests versus public sector controls, has obscured the pivotal role that the plural sector can play in dealing with major social problems. A stable society, like a stable stool, has to sit on three legs—public. private, and plural sectors—not two (public and private), let alone one (public communism, private capitalism, or community populism). This will happen only when the plural sector takes its place alongside those called private and public (hence this label plural sector, instead of “civil society” or “not-for-profits, etc.).

Nobody can expect any NGO to forgo its specific cause for common cause.  But the future of our progeny and our planet surely merits greater attention to common cause—from the NGOs and the rest of us. Together we face challenges from warming, weapons, and the skewed distribution of wealth. This is our looming crisis, vast and multi-faceted. Thanks to the vast and multi-faceted efforts that were eventually mobilized, Ebola was contained. Our imbalance needs to be.

© Henry Mintzberg and Joanne Liu 2019. Joanne is completing her second term as International President of Doctors Without Borders.