Blogs

Obama – Making sense of the world?

David Price

And so the kaleidoscope turns, and we see the world anew.

Or do we?

Barack Obama’s inauguration today as the 44th President of the United States of America, marks the end of a remarkable personal and national journey. Arrival at such a destination is a cause for global celebration. But as with all great journeys the arrival is also only a beginning.

Obama is taking a leading role in a world system that is severely perturbed on multiple levels. Such perturbation often proceeds collapse: and can proceed the emergence of a more sophisticated and better-adapted system.

It’s not clear—it never is—to what extent the choice of branching paths is open to us. But it surely behoves us to act as if it is.

My (personal) sense is that we face a mess of complex, interrelated and non-linear problems; sane responses to which lie beyond our existing methods and tools. In essence, we need to re-configure our modes of political thinking and organization to enable us—as local, national, and international communities—to move significantly closer to collective maxima of intelligence (both reasoned and emotional).

For those for whom the analogy is familiar, we’re awaiting The Mother of All Demos in the political realm to match Doug Engelbart’s technological masterpiece 40 years ago (which pre-figured much of the technological landscape that we inhabit and take for granted today). It’s the social dimension of Engelbart’s vision of augmented collective intelligence that lags behind our technological achievements: and it needs to catch up quickly.

The signs are that Obama, and the team around him, are mindful of this. As others have noted already, one of the most encouraging aspect of the Change.gov experiment was the speed at which the interaction on the site improved iteratively across the transition. The challenge now is how to crystallize this process—to enable genuine and deeply collaborative sensemaking—and how to set this process in motion in the first few months of the administration when the opportunity and receptivity to change are greatest—and when the character of the administration will be forged.

Readers of The Independent and others who have joined in developing the Obama and Gaza maps over the last couple of months have demonstrated on a smaller scale and in vitro that different and radically collaborative models of sensemaking are possible—and we are grateful to everyone who has participated directly so far, blogged about and embedded the maps, and to the BBC World Service’s Digital Planet, BBC Technology and PRI’s The World: Technology podcast for their support in spreading the maps more widely.

Both maps will continue to develop as exploratory exemplars of the kinds of cumulative, comprehensive and distillative sensemaking processes that the web is starting to enable—with the Obama map, in particular, shifting to a focus on the first 100 days.

Deeper challenges remain. The emerging set of collaborative sensemaking and deliberation tools of which Debategraph, is one example, are still nascent, still figuring out the basic principles—still more VisiCalc than Excel. The tools require a basic visual literacy that itself is only just beginning to emerge in society. And the maps, and other sensemaking constructs, require time to build and time for reflection in an impatient and attention-poor age.

But, today, of all days, is a day for optimism. The day on which Barack Obama embodies the realization that long journeys towards distant mountain tops can reach the summit.

Tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Most viewed

Property search
Browse by area

Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter