Developing new social connections muscles

June 1, 2020 -- Susanne R Janssen

Developing new social connections muscles
Fadi Chehadé discusses new ways of using technology and what this crisis is teaching us

By Susanne Janssen

Amid the crisis caused by the latest coronavirus, big parts of our world just crumbled. Offices, schools, restaurants and churches are closed; we are not allowed to visit our family members and friends anymore; and we hope our economy, communities and education system survives.

What does still work is the internet. Everything, from birthday parties, college lessons to choir practices and concerts, has transferred to the virtual. Living City’s editor Susanne Janssen spoke with internet expert Fadi Chehadé. He is on the advisory board of the World Economic Forum’s Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a member of the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation and the former CEO of ICANN, the global authority that oversees the internet’s logical infrastructure.

Did you ever think that the internet would become so important during the pandemic?

The internet works because it was designed for this, precisely to deal with this kind of crisis to make sure that we could still communicate. It was not designed for YouTube and Netflix. And it works: we can all work, we can share information, and we can remain together and hear each other’s joy and pain.

But there’s unequal access; there are those who work from home, whose children can follow online lessons, and those who don’t even have a laptop...

There is inequality, there is a gap. But my prediction is that because the internet has proven to be a resilient tool, everybody will eventually get access to it. And I think this will fuel investments. For example, in the aftermath of school closures due to the coronavirus, New York City immediately gave free laptops to students in need…

What is positive in this trend? What could be dangerous?

This push to connect virtually is happening in a time when we are told to practice social distancing. If I look at my own kids (who are in their 20s), they really miss going out and having coffee and a deep conversation with a friend. They never said that before! How often I went out for dinner with my wife and we would see five 20-year-olds eating with one hand on the fork and the other hand on the phone. Now they are all saying: “We’re going crazy. We need to meet our friends face to face!” I think that maybe some good will come out of this forced distancing. I am an engineer and I believe that every pendulum finds its balance.

However, after the lockdown is lifted, people might be fearful to go out, to shake hands, etc. Do you think there’s a risk that our public life will become more virtual than ever?

I think that we’ve crossed a line that will be hard to walk back from. I see it everywhere, not only in business.

I am on the board of a small charity in Los Angeles, all ladies and gentlemen in their 70s and 80s, who have never used Zoom before. I begged them for three years to allow me to connect remotely, but they said, “No, we all have to meet and have tea together.” Right now, we are all meeting on Zoom, and I think these are things that are difficult to unlearn.

We are developing new “social connection muscles.” However, it’s not the objective, it’s a tool.

One friend told me that this week she made the decision to pay all the workers whose services she used in the past, even if she doesn’t use their services right now. She uses her phone app to pay them electronically — for example, she paid her manicurist $100. And the manicurist called her saying if she hadn’t given her $100, she couldn’t feed her kids this week.

That habit of the heart is not something she can unlearn. I think social interactions will return because we are missing them terribly right now, and the virtual used as a tool will come into a balance as a means, not as the final goal. Spending time on Instagram is not a goal, but using Instagram to communicate what you’re up to with people visually is wonderful.

Should people still be careful about what they put on social media?

More than ever we have to be careful. We need personal care, more than ever, and to develop good judgment, asking ourselves, “Do I share this out of love and care for others or to boost my ego?”

On the other hand, it’s important to increase our effort to monitor the companies. Zoom had a couple of security incidents when a couple of weeks ago, details of a cabinet meeting of the UK were revealed. It was done with little care, because they wanted to host more meetings even when they were running out of capacity. So they ran content through not fully secured channels with the risk of being compromised.

Something has to happen so that our meetings and data are safe. We care so much about where we store our house keys but are far less concerned about our virtual keys. Unlike a month ago when we only had to focus on securing our bank data, now it’s everything: work, life, financial information, my secrets, my family. So it becomes a personal and collective responsibility to set standards.

On the level of those providers, what could be done to eliminate misinformation? For example, how could a company like Facebook eliminate fake news yet guarantee freedom of speech?

It’s important that we install some guardrails — I use the word guardrail very carefully here, because it has to be more than a guideline. Governments have to make sure companies stay within these reasonable guardrails with their platforms and services. Those guardrails should also be enforceable.

It’s the difference between two yellow lines in the middle of the road that say “don’t cross these” and putting an actual, physical barrier. And those reasonable boundaries of both behavior and performance need to be monitored and enforced. This is missing today, the legislation is very fragmented, and companies use this fragmentation to their advantage — they love it.

Regarding fake news, the world has had a problem with the truth for a long time. A hundred years ago people stood on a chair in the marketplace and yelled about a miraculous cure; now they can do it on a website that reaches millions of people. However, there are already existing frameworks that allow you to identify fake news based on its source.

There are three or four competing frameworks: one of them is by Google, one by Facebook, but there’s only one that is independent, and I would count the most on this because it’s not compromised by private interests. It was set up in New York by the ex-publisher of the Wall Street Journal; it’s called newsguardtech.com. This tool tries to help, saying, “Be careful with this page, here’s who’s behind it…” So it’s actually a useful tool.

However, there are countries that want to actively interfere with foreign elections. What can be done to solve that?

Everyone was alarmed when we first learned about Cambridge Analytics, the company that interfered in many elections, including the last presidential election. Now it’s almost completely accepted that there is meddling with elections around the world. The democratic process is now less trusted than it was two years ago. I think this shaking of the global system is being appropriated by regimes that benefit from the lack of faith in the democratic process.

They love that, and they want to show that during the pandemic, such top-down regimes serve their people better; hence there is massive propaganda going on in some countries, saying, “Look, we got it right because we managed top-down.” 

So what might we learn from this crisis, as a society and as individuals?

What I’ve learned the most from this is that we are more like the aspen trees that are connected underground through their root system than the palm trees that grow by themselves. Considering that 38% of Americans live alone, what this crisis has taught me more than anything is that it’s up to me to start connecting with others who might be alone. Our communities need to evolve more like aspen trees than palm trees.

The second thing I learned by reading a great book, Finding Sanctuary: Monastic Steps for Everyday Life, written by the abbot of a Benedictine monastery in England. He explained how each one of us can find sanctuary in the world.

I have many Zoom meetings with my friends every evening, and I can see that some are experiencing a huge loneliness, whether they are physically alone or with their family. But others try to find sanctuary by reflecting, resetting and restoring: reflecting by taking some time for the Lord, resetting because we need the courage to adjust some things, and then restoring the beauty of God he has called us to.

On the macro level, the crisis has exposed the fragility of our world systems: the political system, the economic system, the healthcare system have all been tested. I think the fragility of these systems surprised many of us, and I think it will rekindle the debate about which systems we want as a society to work.

And we need to address the topic of inequality. I think in the past months, the world has become more united than it has ever been. This small, invisible virus has a democratic way of clinging itself to every human, and it is clear that we are truly one people and one planet.


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