How "Open" Can Make Us More Closed

Whether you have misgivings about social media, or an addiction to mobile devices, you might already be onto a strange paradox: as we head to a world that is more open and efficient, people can get frightened into being more closed!

Might a book about the tyranny of total transparency provoke us to work differently, embracing the best of the new without losing what is precious?

Having dabbled but not really embraced social media, I am not surprised when a friend says that Facebook is making his daughter depressed: her friends have better lives, better jobs, and more fun. And if I am honest, Facebook confused me (trying in vain to find walls to write on!), while Twitter had me constantly on edge (what to share that might attract followers, rather than death threats from trolls?). Am I just not a social media kind of guy?

But despite my "old git" struggles, I can't deny something different is happening, not least because users of Facebook and Twitter keep increasing, as do the bank balances of the owners. What is more, I see the Facebook kids as unstoppable: when they cannot breathe, they simply move on to a new company. But why are they particularly attracted to working at Google or Apple, or something a bit like them?

Perhaps you will find some answers in The Circle, a novel by David Eggers, or if you don't have time for that, read on for a summary.

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Can this story be our wake-up call? The open idea is certainly attractive – when we share information we can learn faster and be more efficient, and perhaps even address the big challenges that seem beyond us (Dictators? Climate change? Youth unemployment? Scarce resources?).

Curiously the wheel (if not The Circle!) might finally be turning. Is the gloss already going off when we find the new information arriving through social media is mostly trivial (as in celebrity gossip), or scary (as in death threats or terrorism)? And how long will we tolerate technology companies expanding unchecked, tax exempt, while destroying jobs, and widening the gap between haves and have-nots?

According to Susan Pinker, face to face contact is now demonstrably vital to our happiness and health. Even Facebook is moving on when it buys for $22bn a company called WhatsApp, that convenes real friends and colleagues. Humans might finally be outfacing the trolls!

But what could all this mean for leaders? In switched-on companies they seek to be different, and ever more agile and efficent. Technology is a tool, but the core challenge is to build a workplace culture where people really share. Our earlier Jot ("How We Can Evolve") reported two ways leaders are getting to grips with this: "circles of trust" and "bias towards giving".

In summary, transparency without freedom and privacy, or information without face to face relationship, fast becomes overload: an invasion, and a tyranny. A total lack of boundaries makes for madness, and good fences always made good neighbours. But today might a good fence need to be more "see-through" for all concerned to respect it? How will we each learn to build the needed trust with each person, and in each moment, to function well?

Until we return to this, why not try a bit of action research? If we observe and check how well our fences are serving us, we might find out how we can be open and accountable, and what can keep us from becoming overwhelmed.