The Invisible Revolution - Pamela McLean
It often feels as if I am living in two parallel worlds. In one of those worlds, people believe - or make out that they believe - that any changes happening now are just a temporary interruption. They look towards a future in which things will 'get back to normal': a normal of economic growth, 'full employment', an education system leading to proper jobs, all that kind of thing.
In my other world, I find people who see things quite differently. For them, the present-and-future reality is radically different from the past-and-present reality, the one where we grew up and have lived until now. They find themselves in a reality that they never expected, and they are making sense of it.
I have come to see these people as the vanguard of the Invisible Revolution. Let me explain.
My landscape of change
There are many streams of change at present and I will comment only on the ones I know through personal experience: on the interpersonal aspects of life in a digital world, as I have experienced it and reflected on it over a period of many years.
I am interested in those aspects of current change that cannot be seen, cannot be photographed or easily counted, but are nonetheless real. This invisibility puts a heavy communication burden on anyone who is experiencing these particular deep changes and trying to share the reality of them. If you have experienced them and reflected on the experience, you will already know what I mean. You may also understand why I have called it the Invisible Revolution and why it is so hard to describe.
In writing about these things, I draw on two main sources. First, the work that I have been doing for many years around education in its widest sense, formal and non-formal, in the UK, in Africa and, most importantly, online. Then, a further strand of work which began last year in the UK, including a set of workshops called 'Landscape of Change'. The emphasis of these workshops is on patterns of employment, mainly for people repositioning themselves in the world of work, or trying to enter it for the first time, but also for policy makers and people who are shedding staff.
This work has given me insights into the 'socio-tech' of collaboration across cultures and learning beyond formal institutions, of 'fluid-walled' classrooms, and relationships between online and face-to-face communities. I have observed and experienced various trends, always from a needs-driven, rather than technology-driven, viewpoint.
This new landscape of change is full of uncertainty and comparative chaos, where things emerge and flow in ways that can only happen because we live in an interlinked and networked world. It is a world characterised by rapidly changing roles, collaboration, and confluence. It is about people and their relationships: networking and degrees of separation. It is about personal (rather than organisational) identity, responsibility and accountability. It is also about openness, credibility, trust, and peer references (person to person, and network to network). It connects people through their overlapping interests, concerns and values (not the same thing as shared beliefs).
What should we point to?
The Invisible Revolution is tied in with the proliferation of digital technology. We are increasingly surrounded by mobile phones, laptops, tablets, ebooks and such like, but to focus on these gadgets may be a distraction from what is really going on. It is possible to have all the latest gadgets, and use them incessantly, yet still have no clue about the deep changes that are happening through their use. By contrast, someone who has only reached a minimum entry point with regard to the gadgets may be deeply involved in the new reality. Having the tools is not the same as being part of the revolution.
Looking back from here, it feels as though the Industrial Revolution must have been rather simpler, even if this way of looking is itself an oversimplification. But when steam engines, railways and factories appeared, they gave people something to look at. The engines provided an enormous, noisy and visible source of power for physical work. Railways enabled people and goods to be moved around faster. Factories produced stuff you could get your hands on. To a large extent, people could see what was happening, and if you were creating change in the Industrial Revolution, there would be something physical to show for it. This time it is different. The real changes that are linked to laptops, mobile phones and the internet don’t have the obvious links between form and function that characterised that earlier period of transformation.
The edge of madness
What defines the Invisible Revolution is that key elements of the changes we are living through are impossible to point to; and yet, if you are experiencing them, they become more real than the realities that you can see. These experiences affect your perceptions of other things, and provide the scaffolding for how you think and behave, and yet they remain intangible. It is easy to discuss these realities with those who are experiencing them. It is difficult to explain to others.
For anyone straddling the two worlds, previously simple things become challenging. What seems completely reasonable in one world is utterly irrational in the other. The shared reference points are vanishing. Generalisations are no longer useful. They no longer act as a short cut to understanding; instead, they can cause deep confusion. Shared vocabulary becomes a stumbling block, because this revolution is causing many words to change their meaning. In the face of these elusive forms of change, anecdotes and metaphors become increasingly necessary.
If your internal reality is deeply embedded in the Invisible Revolution, but you are surrounded by people who are not relating to it, then where is your reality? Communication (if it is anything beyond small talk) becomes increasingly difficult. There is a background disconnectedness, and repeated reasons to doubt your own sanity.
This kind of mismatch between the internal views of reality of people sharing the same external space is a favourite theme of storytellers. My mind goes immediately to Rebecca, 'The Emperor’s New Clothes', 'The Blind Men and the Elephant'. There are many more. Minor mismatches may be amusing, but major ones are potentially catastrophic - therein lies the road to madness.
Conversely, if we can find meeting points, areas of confluence where the various insights and realities can flow together, we may find saner solutions to the problematic situations in which we now find ourselves.
The world turned sideways
We are all entering unfamiliar territory, but not everyone has noticed yet, and those who have are noticing different things. We need to gather all the insights we can get. Fortunately, the new social structures enabled by the internet make it easier than ever before to escape from our silos and rub minds with people who have quite different experiences and perspectives. We don’t have to face this new reality alone.
It is nothing new for people in the younger generation to feel that their lives are disconnected from the reality of their parents or teachers. Yet the present feeling of moving into a new world is not simply a generation-gap difference. The experience of deep change and a related disconnect from the past is touching people of all ages. The realities that we have known are crumbling. Those of us who recognise this as irreversible and are looking closely at the essence of those changes need to explore together and share our insights and strengths.
People have talked for decades about the impact of computers and an 'information revolution'. Often what they mean is doing what was done before, but handling the related information in a slightly different way. People who collect facts and figures now collect many more facts and figures. Companies who need people to give information to customers move their customer information services away from behind local counters to call-centres thousands of miles away. Such examples are all around us.
However, introducing the technology does not immediately translate into systemic change. Established organisations add computers and the internet to the way they achieve their objectives without any deep institutional change or altered mindset. Top-down organisations have websites and may be 'two-way' in their use of the Internet (sending out online questionnaires, using Twitter and Facebook, and inviting 'bottom-up' feedback through various channels) while still maintaining the same traditional structures, with the perceptions of 'top' and 'bottom' unchanged.
The Invisible Revolution involves a more dramatic change. Think of it as a 90 degree rotation: then there is no top from which to send information down, and no bottom from which to send it up, only a crossways flow. This kind of interconnected reality has been described as a flat world, and also as a spiky one. I see it as flat, regarding the directions of information flow, but spiky in terms of how information is attracted to flow in the first place. The flatness is because of an equality and shared respect between the people who are communicating with each other. The spikiness is like someone raising a banner on a battlefield. It is a visibility issue, necessary so that people can know where the action is, and demonstrate readiness to join in.
Digital but not binary
The deep changes of the Invisible Revolution are based on digital technologies and their impact on how people relate to each other. Yet these changes are by no means characterised by an emphasis on simple binary choices of yes/no, true/false, or fixed multiple choice questions. Its focus is far more human than tick boxes allow.
On this human level, it is about new opportunities for relationships. These are relationships between people, and also people’s relationships with ideas, information and knowledge creation. Barriers of distance and elitism are breaking down. Sharing interests is a more important point of introduction than frequenting the same places, or knowing the right people. Socially, intellectually and entrepreneurially, it is easier than ever before to find the people you are looking for.
Creating our futures
In some ways, this new reality could be a great equaliser. The time-gap between the unknown future and the present is narrowing. In certain areas of our lives, we are exploring the ground of the future. When we are privileged to take the first step on what is truly untrodden ground then, by definition, no one else was here first. If no one was here first, then there need be no pre-existing hierarchy or established mindset. Everyone is equally a pioneer.
We may be arriving by different routes, but there is the possibility of connecting up with other pioneers, talking to each other, and exploring this reality together in meaningful ways. It is already real to us. It is becoming increasingly clearly defined. It is where we live, and together we will need to work out how to make the best of it. In some ways it is deeply threatening. In other ways it is a new chance. Things are going to be different, and as we explore this developing landscape together we share responsibility for the shape that things will take.
So, at the turn of the year, my attention is drawn to the dissolving boundary between the face-to-face aspects of life and the online aspects. I find myself looking at the intermeshed areas of collaboration, community, education, work, and social life. My field work is the life that I am living and my research findings are reflections on what I experience and the patterns I observe. Reflecting on all this, I wonder if the theme emerging may be 'coagulation', as previously separate initiatives become increasingly visible, find each other, and decide to stick together? Perhaps, as that happens, things will accelerate, and more that has been hidden will become tangible, obvious and increasingly mainstream? Perhaps 2012 will be the year in which the Invisible Revolution stopped being quite so invisible?