Meet Ricard Ruiz de Querol
The future is inevitable. But what that future may look like is not. That is the underlying message in the new book by Ricard Ruiz de Querol, (Ph.D. from MIT and former Telefónica etc.). In the conversation with Christer Windeløv-Lidzélius they speak about technology, the information society and future.
First, could you start by introduce yourself to those in our audience who may not know who are, where you come from and what you do?
I think that I’m a person who has enjoyed learning to make sense of things (I still do). That led me to get a Ph.D. in Physics at M.I.T., only to then decide to leave Physics and dedicate myself to more applied things. Those included working successively as a computer expert, as a network consultant, as a corporate strategist at a computer services company and later at Telefónica, where I stayed for 12 years.
At one time at Telefónica I was assigned to oversee corporate relationships and information society strategy in Catalonia, a 7+million people region of Spain, which has Barcelona as its capital. Motivated by what I saw as ambiguities and uncertainties in this matter I enrolled at graduate program at the Open University of Catalonia and got a Ph.D. in the “Information and Knowledge Society”. Soon after I left Telefónica (I should rather say that the company let me go as part of one of its massive layoffs). I was the offered to lead a research group on social networks, which I resigned to after realizing that the interest of its corporate sponsors (and that of Facebook, which was nascent at the time) was to amount to spying on the social network users.
In the meanwhile, my interest in technology innovation had been gradually shifted to that in social innovation. I thus joined Coperfield, a start-up aspiring to make itself a place in the market as consultant and facilitation of collective change. I worked that until I formally retired a little over two years ago.
I may add that I am 68, happily married, father of two and grandfather of four. And that my hobbies include reading, writing, ballroom dancing and learning to play the clarinet and the saxophone.
Ricard, we met more that 10 years when you came on a research tour of sort, and we have worked together and have maintained our relationship over the years. Can you share how it came to be?
I discovered the Kaospilot in the course of my work on information society at Telefónica. There was at the time an open discussion about the most appropriate course of development of what some people expected to be a new model of society. In Catalonia in particular, the ambitions of the policy strategists were split among those advocating for Catalonia to become the Silicon Valley of Southern Europe and those defending the aspiration of becoming the Finland of the Mediterranean. As neither of those made any sense to me, I realized that Denmark consistently ranked among the leaders on the information society rankings of the time. I knew nothing about Denmark, so I started doing a little research, on the course of which I found the Kaospilot. I was quite intrigued by the description of the school, so I ended up meeting you (Christer) in Aarhus late in the afternoon of a winter day in 2009. We got along well, I should say, and we agreed to explore potential collaboration opportunities, some of which we found soon.
I should add that as part of the development of our collaboration I enrolled in the “Creative Leadership” workshops led by David and Paul. I still rank them among the most life changing experiences of my whole life.
You have just published a very exciting and important book. Can you talk to us about the book, how did it come to be?
It a confluence of two stimulus. I had been writing for some time small pieces about the intersection of technology and society, lately for a magazine on “Alternative Economics”, edited by a cooperative to which I am associated. Shortly after I retired, one of the leading editors of the magazine challenged me one day to collect in a book my thoughts on «digital society». I had the time and accepted the challenge. Then the pandemic struck and my wife and I had to suspend other activities, so it was easier to concentrate on the writing.
On the other hand, the thoughts about the subject of the book have been brewing for some years. More so after I undertook getting a Ph.D. on «information society» at the Open University of Catalonia. I thought at the time that I had some knowledge about technology and business, but that something else was necessary in order to grasp a fuller understanding about both the world of technology and about a world with technology. The graduate work opened my perspective and led to many open questions, some of them reflected in the book.
Why did you write this particular book, what is it purpose would you say?
In an article published in 2001 in The Economist, Peter Drucker wrote that the society of the future, as those in the past, would not be determined by any technology, but by the prevalent problems, theories, ideologies and institutions. I agreed with the editor that my starting point would be looking through this lens at the development of the «internet society» from the early 1990s on. With the expectation of thereby getting a foothold on a perspective on how «digital society» would evolve.
I also felt that the assertion by my Ph. D. thesis advisor, Professor Manuel Castells, that the concept of «information society» is “unspecific and misleading” could also be applied to the concept of «digital society».
I sensed that these thoughts could well be a starting point towards the articulation of a counterpoint to the assertions that (digital) technology just “needs to evolve” as if it was subject to a hidden irrepressible force, and that the dawn of «digital society» and that of a 4th Industrial Revolution is therefore just “inevitable”.
Which are the main messages that you are trying to convey in this book?
The first one, as the title of the book suggests, is that there is nothing deeply ‘unavoidable’ in the evolution of digital. At the same, we need to keep in mind that, as Castells also asserted 20 years ago, the informational/digital paradigm displaces the industrial on by being more efficient in the accumulation of wealth and power. If evolution of digital is considered through the logic of this process of accumulation, it turns out into a social, political and psychological matter.
As we are now well aware of, the internet society has evolved during the last 20 years under the logic of enlarged capitalism. One of the ideological pillars of industrial capitalism was to consider work, money and nature as three (false) goods to be subject to the mechanisms of (an almost) free market. The internet capitalism added ‘ideas’ and ‘information’ to this cast of false goods to be monetized. Digital society is adding still one more: that of our attention and therefore that of our minds.
What that means is that if we aspire to a more equal and sustainable society there are two fights to be fought. The first is an individual one: that of preserving and enhancing our attention capabilities. The second one, collective and political, entails the design and implementation of new collective action practices and democratic institutions. The technocrats (falsely) assert that the ‘natural’ exponential pace of technology advances needs not to be hampered by (outdated) democratic regulations and institutions. This is (should be) unacceptable.
Who do you think would benefit from reading this book? For whom would it be helpful?
I hope that this book might be helpful to ‘digital natives’ as they grow to become mature and responsible adult citizens. But in order for this to happen, I expect that the book might help educators to provide students with broader mental frames for them to think about the development of digital and its consequences. I would as like to think that some politicians would find the book useful as well, but this might well be quite a naive expectation.
You joined Telefónica and pursued studies during a period dramatic change to our society brought by in part by the introduction of new technologies and communication tools. On that note, how was your view of technology, the digital and society changed over time?
Both my job at Telefónica and the graduate program at the UOC made me realize that my views about technology, its development and its impact were quite naive, to say the least. And also, that I wasn’t by alone in that. It is now quite apparent that technology is not something that is developed outside of society, then evolves according some fixed, predetermined rules and then produces an impact to which everyone has no alternative other than to accommodate as much as she can or otherwise face the risk of be pushed to the margins.
Nowadays, the discourse about the so-called 4th Industrial Revolution state that its ‘inevitable’ development will deeply change the way in which we work and live. One would, perhaps naively, expect that changes of such magnitude would be subject to the approval and control of democratic institutions. The technologists argue that the ‘natural’ pace of development of technology is exponential and refuse to be subject to the slow and antiquated rules and procedures of government. This is of course an ideological and political statement, which more people around the world start to consider unacceptable.
We have also realized with time that there many different uses for every technology, not all of them good, and the tech propaganda tends to highlight the potentially positive outcomes and disregard the others. At the onset of the Internet era, Manuel Castells asserted that the informational/digital paradigm would displace the industrial one by being more efficient in the accumulation of wealth and power. We haven’t heard the digital industrial complex to admit to that, albeit this exactly what they have been doing for the last two decades. Not only that. As Soshanna Zuboff has described the process by which Google and Facebook became instruments for the systematic accumulation and exploitation of private information was conscious, deliberate and purposely undercover.
There is an additional element which I think has not received enough attention up to the moment. This is the psychology of our widespread attachment to technology and to technological artifacts. As I’ve been a programmer, I’m well aware that one can find programming to be addictive. The success of some to use digital tools to exploit people’s vulnerabilities runs in parallel with the fact that many people do not seem to be aware of their vulnerabilities. Influencers wouldn’t be such were not for existence of so many people looking to be influenced.
Given your work on this book I would be interested in unpacking more about what and where you see are the more pessimistic signs but also the more positive signs towards a more sustainable and equal society?
We are now aware that the evolution of digital has resulted in some realities that we neither wanted nor to expect 20 years ago. Otto Scharmer’s question, how come that we end up collectively creating realities no one wants, is therefore pertinent. Because, as it also happens with the climate emergency, we have been part of the creation of this reality, be it actively or passively, consciously, or unconsciously.
I remember that the one of the KP Creative Leadership lemma was “There always more possibilities than you think”. This is also true also regarding technology, its development, and its impact.
The undesirable side effects of the digital expansion will not go away spontaneously. Rather to the contrary, we must assume that the impulses to expand them will continue, and they will prevail unless they encounter some effective opposition. The consequence in the souls of the world could be as serious as the current ecological and climate in the material world.
I believe that there are two processes needed to create better and alternative futures. The first one is to increase our awareness of how our individual and collective relationship with the digital world changes our abilities and practices of thinking, feeling and willing. The incipient ‘techlash’ that appeared around 2018 hinted to the emergence of this awareness.
Then, what is needed is that the people with this increased awareness team together to imagine and create digital alternatives. These might well be small at the beginning, something alike to the ‘islands of sanity’ advocated by Margaret Wheatley. This is something which I believe the KP can very well make a significant positive contribution.
About the book
The book (“It is not inevitable”) is already in print. It is being published by Alternativas Económicas (https://alternativaseconomicas.coop/).