{teaching} 4th Gen Expert Guest: Johannes Koponen on our Future and Human Rights

Our course is titled The Fourth Generation, as a reference to the possibility of information and communication rights soon entering the formal realm of human rights. But the phrase Fourth Generation of Human Rights can also be used to refer to the rights of the future generations: What kind of world are they entitled to and how should we take their rights into account, already now?

This last lecture of 4th Gen combines the above two interpretations.

Our esteemed Guest Lecturer is Johannes Koponen, an expert in strategic futures studies and development of business 2015-04-22 20.11.05models through futures studies methods. Currently, he’s working for the Nordic Think Tank Demos Helsinki. He’s also the co-founder and current CEO of Scoopinion that won the biggest Nordic media innovation award in 2011 (Uutisraivaaja, by Helsingin Sanomat Foundation).

Johannes holds a M.Sc. (Tech.) from knowledge intensive business major at Aalto University. He also has a broad understanding in communication and media research, and is currently working on his PhD at the University of Helsinki in Media and Communication Studies. In addition he teaches futures studies in Aalto University  and Open University.

Follow him @johanneskoponen.

Problem-solving as a passion and a profession

“I have always been interested in futures studies and that entails scenario-building. I was always interested in social and political sciences but ended up studying at the University of Technology. Those studies gave me a solid foundation in thinking that is centered around problem solving.  I always say that engineers can find a simple solution to a complex problem; but social scientists can see that the problem is actually more complex than the engineers could even envision. Bringing together these two views – complexity and a search for solutions – is what I want to do.

At the University, I worked quite a bit with usability studies and user-centric approaches. Interestingly, that field and futures studies both utilize scenarios as methods. It felt natural to move on to futures and strategic studies and research. Scenarios became the main method I use at Demos Helsinki and in my other work.

The essence of this kind of work is not only to see trends but envisions alternative ways of being and doing. The directions of trends will change. The truly interesting aspect of depicting change resides in understanding its array of possibilities.”

The power of disruption

“The possibilities I’m talking about are related to fundamental changes. We are often entrapped in this false sense of inevitability of the outcome regarding a problem. But if we spread the timeline far enough we can see openings and completely new possibilities.  At the same time, it’s good to remember the transformations that some in the field of technology call “disruptive”, are only profound when a product, practice, or structure changes into something that people want more than what existed before.

For instance: In the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, the trade of spices was one of the largest forms of business. In fact, the entire currency system in the West was based on that trade. And then, at the end of the 19th century, one man, named Tudor, changed it all. He introduced the idea of refrigerating food with ice: He started to import ice blocks stored in saw dust from Michigan, the US, to warm countries – to those importers of spices.  People use spices, like the media, for many reasons, but one very important one was the fallacy that spices would preserve food.

Now ice, then ice machines, and later on fridges did the job. People working for the spice trade were not getting jobs in the ice cube trade, or the ice machine industry, or then in the manufacturing of refrigerators. Disruption will happen again when something – maybe Amazon Fresh – meets the most pressing use of the fridge and responds to that need in a new way. So meeting the need is the determining factor in disruption.”

Disrupting communication rights

“So now, if we think of communication, and communication rights, the disruption that has already happened and has already been established is about authorship and active participation. I suspect that the formalization of the rights also limits them somewhat – the times of the wild and free Internet are over.

But we can think of the field of media being somewhat similar to the field of energy production. We had major players in the industry, distributing energy to the masses. With renewable energy sources, and accessible technologies, many individuals can become actors, and produce their own solar power for their home. And if most people join the bandwagon, then perhaps it becomes a right to be able to be energy-self-sufficient.

The challenge we have now in the field of the media, when we think of those involved – say, Facebook, Google, and so on – that they are not producers of information as such and they have no interest in producing quality products. Their interest is in segmenting us, and to sell us, segmented, to the advertisers. And our unsafe and insecure world doesn’t invite us to break out of our comfortable filter bubbles.”

The Sensor Revolution and its challenges to human rights

“Another set of challenges is posed if we continue to think about the Internet of Things, or, as I think is more accurate, about the Sensor Revolution. If this phase isn’t thought through carefully, we will end up in a state of digital feudalism. All these developments, like the Amazon Dash Button, make our everyday lives so much more convenient and comfortable. But at some point we need to begin to question what this does to us as humans. If Tinder recommends a bride, and another site suggests the location at which we should get married… At which point do I make the decision? And the challenge is: Decision-making is a tough process and we’d love to avoid it as long and as often as we can.

The Internet is already almost like water. If it doesn’t flow, we’re in trouble. The discourse on [Internet] rights has taken interesting twists and turns, especially when much has been justified with freedom of expression. Those have been important discussions. But as radical as it may sound, I believe we must begin to bring some of the decision-making into the real of public policy, not only private enterprise. We need to guarantee access, and then we can begin to bring in the responsibilities that come with it, for organizations, businesses, as well as individuals.”

The future of us?

“One of the biggest challenges for us as scholars/experts will be – employment. We must start to radically rethink how we find our place in the world, and, in practice, how we work. This is no longer a choice to find a “different career path” but a necessity.  The old school, traditional employers of the industrial era barely exist anymore.

In physics, work is defined as “overcoming resistance”. Our world today is such that if someone invents an algorithm that could replace that person at work, he or she will get fired. But we should continuously make ourselves redundant. Yet, there’s so much work in the world – so many problems to solve – but how to find that space, collective, organization in which you can work, make a living, and participate in the society in that capacity.

There are a couple of methods to go about this. The most interesting of these has been coined by Juha Leppänen: We have heard so much about the “Creative Class” but it’s a very exclusive concept.  We should instead think about the Curious Class – curiosity is an innate ability in everyone. It’s fascinating, I find, how little we talk about curiosity given that  it’s a fundamental feature of problem-solving and innovation. Another aspect is that all of us must embrace digital tools. Those shouldn’t be denied from those who are not immediately at ease with technology. “