On this new canvas, reclaiming the human instinct
Society acquires new arts and loses old instincts. This observation, made by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his 1841 essay, “Self-Reliance,” was also made this year by many of our BIF9 storytellers.
With high optimism, and a bit of awe, they spoke of the immense potential that innovative systems and technologies can offer. But they also told us: We are missing things. We are acquiring new arts, yes, but losing the instincts of personal connection.
They reiterated the human, the very real time we spend with other people: talking, convincing, helping, explaining—and of course, listening. They called it “leverage.” We have to come out from behind the tools and the markets and the screens, they said, and find each other.
It is easy to miss those human connections in the era of big data—that unstoppable force that tracks us everywhere, collecting bits of us, and constructing profiles of who we are. JoAnn Stonier, global privacy and data protection officer at Mastercard Worldwide, touched a nerve when she spoke about privacy. But even as the algorithms close in on us, she said, we can shape our own data records. We just have to insist.
The social paradigms around privacy are changing dramatically, Stonier acknowledged, but we can’t wait for the law to protect us. We must be vocal about how we want our data to be used. “I don’t want to live in a world where I don’t get a say, and I don’t get to choose,” she said.
"I don’t want to live in a world where I don’t get a say, and I don’t get to choose."
- JoAnn Stonier, SVP/Global Privacy & Data Protection officer for MasterCard Worldwide
Learning to use data with integrity has been a boon for Community Solutions, a national non-profit that creates housing for the homeless. President and CEO Roseanne Haggerty said the organization uses data to map homelessness, identifying people with no shelter, knowing them by name, and determining what they need. “We realized we were onto something very powerful,” Haggerty said of their data mapping process. “We had figured something out that was needed by every community in America.”
But it wasn’t so obvious at first. Haggerty described the tireless work that went into reclaiming a dilapidated hotel in Times Square and turning it into decent, affordable housing. One homeless woman in the neighborhood, who had habitually refused offers of food, blankets, and healthcare, eventually appeared on site looking for housing. Haggerty asked her why she had never taken assistance before, and she replied, “You never offered me help finding a home.”
For an organization dedicated to creating homes for the homeless, the missed opportunity there was significant. Haggerty called it a “confrontation with our own blindness.” But the lesson was clear, she said: Go to people and ask them what they need. Or ask them what they can do. She said the greatest asset in creating homes in blighted neighborhoods is the people who already live there. They want to act, and Community Solutions helps them to connect the dots.
That’s social leverage.
Howard Lindzon, co-founder and CEO of StockTwits, wore a T-shirt with those exact words as he stood on the BIF stage declaring that the banking days of old were over. With the crash of 2008, “financial leverage was thrown out the window,” he said. “It’s not a strategy—it’s a tactic. It’s fun if you use it for a week or a month, but not for 40 years.”
People woke up after 2008, Lindzon said, and started talking to each other. Platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn became hubs of conversation about how to move markets. At first, Lindzon hesitated to jump into this space and passed up an opportunity to turn $25 thousand into $7 million on an investment in Twitter.
He is now a convert to the financial chatter emanating from social media, the real-time talk about what drives revenue and profits. While crusty old bankers get stuck in the morass of their own monetary stratagems, people on the streams move ahead. “Soon robotics will be what the mutual fund and hedge fund managers will be talking about,” Lindzon said. But right now, they can’t see through their financial paper tricks to what’s already on the ground. “They don’t spend time playing with the products. They’re not connecting the dots—they’re gathering assets.”
Even as Lindzon touted the great promise of social media tools like his own StockTwits, he cautioned against seeing them as the great elixir of market success. “They are tools,” he said. “Social leverage is a tool—it’s not the be-all, end-all. It’s just another weapon in your arsenal.”
In a municipal twist on the same topic, Peter Hirschberg, chairman of the Re-Imagine Group, spoke about using the “levers of power” to push civic innovation in our cities. “We have a lot of planning organizations,” he said, “maybe we need more doing organizations.” Hirschberg has been studying the city as a “canvas of creativity”— a “cacophony where, with the least government and the most innovation, you could try things out.”
The city could be a living lab, he said. In immersive intensity, it could surpass the World’s Fair, that “canvas like no other,” where visitors went to be amazed by what industry had in store for them. And they waited for it to happen. “The future was going to be given to us by American enterprise; there wasn’t a whole lot of room for us in there.” But we can no longer take that future sitting down, he said.
Hirschberg summed up what Stonier, Haggerty, and Lindzon touched on in different ways: The canvas we are creating now is a “justice movement,” he said. “It’s about using our values of openness and connection to bring about a better city.” We are reclaiming our human instincts and making change.
Self-reliance, as Emerson would have it.