Authors and publishers preach social & economic change at RSA/Britannica debate
I’m encouraged to notice that although the world of the word published on paper in volumes known as books is undergoing something of an identity crisis, it is still authors and publishers who are driving forward vital social discussion. Thursday evening's energetic RSA/Britannica debate The Economic Crisis and the Age of Uncertainty featured three prominent authors alongside an eminent academic economist who, between them, set a fair few cats amongst the pigeons.
After a tentative start with a temporary Powerpoint failure neatly counterpointing his evangelism of the transformational power of new technologies Don Tapscott soon hit his stride (with the support of an off-stage tecchy). Those familiar with Tapscott’s Wikinomics will not have been surprised at his proselytising web 2.0 as a force for collaboration, self-organisation, economic renewal and, ultimately, for good (and that’s leaving aside the way in which web-based social interaction is believed to be rewiring the human brain).
Two of Tapscott’s three respondents, economist Professor Lord Eatwell and Dan Hind (author of The Threat to Reason: how the enlightenment was hijacked and how we can reclaim it - and publisher at the Bodley Head for his day job), approached the economic theme of the evening more directly than Tapscott in his upbeat but tangential presentation. For a while it looked as though the evening would fail to cohere or to fulfil its potential. Hind mused that having been failed by the self-regulation of financial institutions and the inability of the advertising-funded media to explore the truth, the public must step up to the plate to both demand and promulgate transparency by, amongst other methods, creating a new structure for funding investigative journalism. Professor Lord Eatwell, meantime, began by expressing the view that the interactive web is nowhere near so significant a force for change as the steam engine, electricity or the combustion engine. Notwithstanding the fact that Web 2.0 could not exist without electricity there was almost an audible intake of breath from the disbelieving audience. As his speech progressed although we were moving deeper into the causes of abject failure in our global financial systems, we were straying further from the heart of the matter – which is (it seems to me) the question: how can we transform the global economy into a viable, sustainable and maybe even fair framework for humanity to support itself within?
And then respondent number three, Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur - how the Internet is killing our culture – whose body language confirmed his contrarian mindset as he resolutely remained seated, eschewing the lectern – spoke out in resolute tones articulating both his disagreement with Lord Eatwell over the relative significance of old and new technologies and his dubiousness about the over-simplicity of Tapscott’s view that it is the young who have become enabled experts and who will moderate the social and economic transitions that we so desperately need. Keen pointed out that although the young are empowered by new technologies, they are still children and we are still their parents. Sparks began to fly as he spoke of the unnoticed social revolution that has handed children supremacy over adults and he posed the questions “have we let our children down?” and “have we failed as parents?”.
By this time all four panelists had begun to bristle with energy as the debate jumped several gears into overdrive. The woefully inadequate time remaining for Q&As brought four viewpoints from the floor, including the question – “if pedagogy is dead, will universities be reinvented?” and a fascinating insight into what is wrong with the structure of the economy from the founder of a peer-based banking organisation (his view seemed to be that the fundamental flaw of our historical economic structures lies the homogeneity of education, thinking and expectations of the highly intelligent people who devised and operated them). Each of the four points raised could form the basis of a whole new debate in their own right (and it is to be hoped that the RSA and Britannica take note of that).
Almost out of time, the four speakers were engaging at a level that was simultaneously contentious and collaborative – all four in their summations managed to agree and disagree with the others. The final few minutes ranged from Tapscott’s suggestion that a far better comparison for the changes that are being wrought by Web 2.0 is not the steam engine, but the printed book, which was the first vehicle for mass dissemination of information, to Keen’s disturbing and unanswered question, “what would have happened to global democracy in the 1930s if the social web had existed then?”
Chairman Matthew Taylor (Chief Executive of the RSA) in closing the evening described it as the most contentious he had witnessed in RSA lecture theatre. The pity is that it was far too short - the room was bursting with informed professionals many of whom had much to contribute to the discussion. I can only hope that all of us present left asking ourselves how we as individuals can ensure that the debate is not left within the four walls of the RSA – but taken out into our lives, workplaces and homes – to find a way forward for the economy, and thereby for society, that does not go down the paths that Andrew Keen so darkly hinted at in his references to 1930s fascism.
And in the meantime - three cheers for authors and publishers.