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This is the World We Built

In Russell T Davies’ 2019 BBC limited drama ensemble series called Years and Years, set in the near-future, a Manchester family grapples with a Britain powered by surveillance technologies and controlled by an authoritarian demagogue intent on keeping “Britain for the British.” As the family’s wealth erodes and freedom is curtailed, the matriarch played by the inimitable Anne Reid gives her last toast exclaiming that “Every single thing that’s gone wrong – it’s your fault.” Her grandson asks, “God knows I get blamed for an awful lot but how am I responsible for the entire world?” She continues, “Because we are, every single one of us. We can sit here all day blaming other people. We blame the economy. We blame Europe. The opposition. The weather. And then we blame these vast sweeping tides of history, you know, like they’re out of our control, like we’re so helpless, and little and small. But it’s still our fault…This is the world we built. Congratulations. Cheers all.”

In that quiet moment in the last episode, the power of storytelling becomes clear. Anne Reid’s toast is not just meant for her fictional family. It’s meant for us -- the binge-watching, convenience-obsessed audiences whose present is unfurling at an alarming rate into a future not so unlike the bleak one painted in Years and Years. So what are we going to do about it?

For over 20 years I’ve been running the innovation arm of the Canadian Film Centre. From its inception, the CFC Media Lab was focussed on what future new entertainment and media experiences, products, services and tools would be created as a result of digital networked technology, and on accelerating the development and growth of this next generation of Canadian creators, artists and startup founders. As a part of Canada’s innovation ecosystem, the CFC Media Lab is unique. Our focussed vertical – arts, culture, media and entertainment – allows us to inhabit a space where stories and technology live alongside each other, informing our understanding of the latter in ways that go beyond its typical utilitarian function. In building digital networked products, services and experiences, we know we are helping to build a world. And we know we need to ask questions typically unasked in traditional innovation spaces -- questions such as whose world, for what purpose, of what design, on whose authority…

A set of major theoretical touchstones thus informs the work we do and includes the following:

• Technology is not neutral

• Ideas, meaning, stories, user-driven problem/solution sets, emotional experience, and social impact drive technology

• Paradoxical program design is key: e,g, structured AND chaotic; rigorous AND soft; prescriptive AND emergent

• Collaboration rules

• Always move towards the edges

As we enter the next evolution of digital networked media and technologies, which will be the convergence of artificial intelligence , ubiquitous computing (e.g., smart city platforms), immersive media (from virtual reality to augmented reality) and cybersecurity (e.g., blockchain), we have to be even more vigilant about ensuring the challenges of previous computing platforms aren’t amplified in this next phase. Today, we don’t need to watch Years and Years, or Black Mirror, or read Tim Maughan’s Infinite Detail to understand in our guts the socio-political and economic ramifications of unfettered Big Tech, Big Data, and runaway innovation for the sake of “exponential growth.” Technology monopolies have too much power. Fake news is real. Algorithms are biased. Democracies are under threat. This is the world we built.

But the good news is that what we build can be re-built, re-set, re-designed, replaced. Over the next decade, we at the CFC Media Lab are interested in seeing how our unique position as storytellers and technology makers can help us catalyze change in Canada’s startup ecosystems. Can we create a community that cares as much about the ethical/moral and power structures underlying the “innovation economy” as much as responsible “growth?” Can we accelerate the development of the next generation of startup founders, creators, artists, and makers who viscerally understand that what they make has unintended consequences? Can we be intentional about the kind of world we want to build in the future?

A refrain echoes throughout all six episodes of Years and Years as the consequences of surveillance capitalism rocks the Lyons family – “what are we going to do now?”

What, indeed. While we, among a whole group of institutions, public sector leaders and civil society work on the answers, we also need to pay attention to lessons learned in the past 20 years. Some things when broken can never be properly mended. The days of “moving fast and breaking things” have revealed their inherent destructiveness and we can’t go back to them. The public commons need to be protected, both in cyberspace and the real world. And though we may eventually need smart technology, we need smarter ways of working together if we truly want to build a world we can all be proud of.