Blockchain In Government

Last week's Blockchain In Government conference that I hosted in Washington was great fun. Thanks to Jane Dysart and Information Today for taking the leap and organising it. We managed to pull together a really smart bunch of people directly involved in implementing blockchain in a number of interesting ways.

It yet again reinforced my impression that once you get past the crypto currency hype there is much to be excited about with the advent of this new technology. As is so often the case, people's ability to grasp what is possible, practical, and sensible, is often compromised by the overselling and almost deliberate obfuscation that goes on around anything new. I am frequently reminded of Clay Shirky's aphorism that any new technology only becomes interesting once it has become boring.

Something else that became apparent was the need for people to have the opportunity that we gave them to work with each other, understand things that other people are doing, and get a sense of what is possible. This was very different from so many conferences where people end up being talked at rather the furthering their understanding. Many of the participants commented that it being a smaller group enabled them to be more open in their conversations and therefore to learn more.

This model seems to work really well and I said to the attendees that I believe that it also has prospects for being effective inside organisations, helping the various groups, Technology, HR, Comms, and the business management to fully come to grips with their challenges in the face of disruptive technologies.

So if you know anybody who could do with this sort of intervention and event you know where to find me.

Difference

One of the pleasures of my work, both speaking and now driving, is the number and range of types of people that I meet. It struck me the other day how nice they all are. Watching a porter help a blind man into the hotel here in Washington yesterday; having someone call after me when I dropped something out of my pocket in NY; the amount of kindness I have been shown by pretty much everyone I have encountered as I learn the ropes of truck driving.

And yet we somehow manage to make up stories about ourselves and others, create a sense of "other", and end up in warring tribes.

I understand the power of community and acknowledge the deep seated need we seem to have to belong, but increasingly wonder why we can't be content with belonging to the biggest grouping of them all - humanity?

Our incessant squabbling, whether within business or wider society, wears us down and reduces our collective and individual abilities to deal with our challenges, many of them created by the very same sense of otherness and made up stories.

Shame we seem unable to stop...

Presentation at CSPS

Nicely shot video of me doing my bit at the Canadian School Of Public Service in Ottawa a couple of weeks ago. My talk starts at 2hrs 30mins in but before that, at around 1hr 2mins, there is a fantastic panel of four women from the school that is one of the best discussions of the real issues in tech that I have seen for a long time.

The session was really well received and if you know anyone who is grappling with the issues I raise in my talk do, please, pass this on.

Being places

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I never take for granted the opportunities I have had to be places. Interesting places, different places. One of the appeals of truck driving is the opportunity to be lots of new places.

But I am always reminded of Jon Kabat Zinn's "Wherever you go, there you are." The constant challenge to truly be somewhere rather than stuck in our heads. 

Whether having a conversation with a loved one, tasting new food, seeing new sights, the constant labelling and commentary, that we so take for granted that we don't even notice it, steps between us and the world around us.

It is worth practicing being aware of this as it keeps it at bay, if only for a moment.  

Discomfort

We naturally tend to avoid discomfort but without it we never learn or grow. If we are to change in any way we have to get out of our comfort zone.

There are so many elements of freelance truck driving that are unfamiliar to me. In some ways the driving is the easy bit. Relating to agents and clients... learning the unwritten rules of what's expected and what's not... grasping the when and where of refuelling... I feel like I should be wearing a massive L plate on my back!

But it's a good feeling. It's making me think hard about my comfort zone, where its boundaries are and why. It is certainly stretching it!

The three Cs

I recently wrote a post about the potential for systems to be self organising and the way that we compromise this ability by attempting to exercise control over the world around us. In order for systems to become self organising the networks that make them up have to be comprised of healthy cells.

It occurred to me yesterday that in order to become healthy the cells need to be encouraged to work on the following three characteristics.

Curiosity

Wondering why things are the way they are. A willingness to relax their grip on fixed ideas and to consider alternatives. An inclination to tinker. This is what allows kids to adopt new technology so quickly. We have driven curiosity and playfulness out of the workplace in our attempts to be "businesslike" and in the process have compromised our collective ability to adapt and be effective.

Critical thinking

Constantly thinking about where information is coming from, who are its sources, and who has vested interests in its propagation. Working out the likely truth of the things we consume measured against our other experiences and with a healthily sceptical attitude. Considering the consequences of onward sharing of the information we take in.

Conversation

Adopting a more conversational tone in how we share ideas and discuss the world around us. Avoiding dogma and dogmatic attitudes. Engaging in a to and fro with equals. Recognising that we are conversing with another human being who shares our challenges and is also struggling to make sense of the world. This last principal needs to be applied just as much online as off.

These three Cs are just as important as the traditional three Rs and we should consider teaching them in school.

While sitting in the airport in Halifax, Nova Scotia, waiting for the second leg of my journey home from Ottawa, I became aware of what I thought was someone listening to a video on their mobile phone with the sound turned up loud.

It was of an annoying child's whining voice, repeating over and over. I decided it was some YouTube video, or a video of a beloved grandchild. I thought that I had discovered the culprit, an older guy staring at his phone. He became the focus of my irritation, my righteous indignation at the increasing trend to watch video in public spaces with the sound turned up. I began to imagine myself walking over and asking him to turn the bloody thing off, to buy himself some headphones.

And then, walking towards me, and coming from behind this innocent old guy (who could have been doing his taxes online for all I know), I saw a father with two kids, one holding each hand, and one whining over and over in this high pitched, annoying, voice...

I'd made the whole thing up!

We do this all the time without being aware of it. We interpret reality and make it conform to our prejudices, our sense of right and wrong. We impose our stories on the world and make ourselves happy or sad as a consequence. We should try not to.

On not having a job

When we dropped Mollie off in Cambridge for the start of term I got to meet her best friend's parents for the first time. As the dad and I started chatting it became apparent that we actually worked in very similar, or at least related, fields. We hadn't realised this until we met and it occurred to us that neither of our daughters had been able to explain to the other what we did!

People not being able to describe what I do is not new. I face that all the time. In fact when it comes to filling in forms I struggle myself! I usually say something about being a writer and public speaker or consultant, but none of those feels quite right. I suppose in essence what I do is try to be interesting and relevant and then I'm very lucky that people find enough reason to pay me to pass on my ideas and thoughts.

I marvel at the fact that even nearly 13 years after leaving the BBC I am still able to do that. In fact I'm about to travel to Canada, the United States, and Dubai in the next three months. But nonetheless there are gaps. Work doesn't always come in a steady flow. I get caught in the trap of wondering whether I should be "marketing" myself more, spending more time networking, all the things that everybody else seems to do but which I find difficult and uncomfortable. The thought of getting a real job again doesn't appeal. I love my lifestyle. But it isn't easy. Nagging doubt is a constant companion.

This sense of being in never never land is something that I guess more people are going to have to get used to as the structures and stability of "real jobs" begin to diminish in society. People talk about the gig economy as if that was another established, structured, similarly stable way of going about things. But often it is not. It is harder than that. It raises more existential challenges.

As more and more "knowledge work" jobs are replaced by technology we are going to have to do a lot of work as a society to help people adapt to this very different lifestyle. Not all of them will find it easy.

Sticking our oars in

Most systems have the potential to be self organising. With the right feedback and thoughtful, aware, tolerant, adaptive individual cells it is amazing what is possible. Just look at nature and the incredible complexity, and adaptability, that it achieves. Look at what our unbelievably sophisticated bodies achieve every day, often in spite of our attempts to derail them!

So why do we get it so wrong? We don't trust our natural, emergent systems, we impose ideologies, we put small groups of people in charge of large groups of "others", we impose rules based on partial (in both senses of the word) understanding, and then we meddle constantly.

No wonder things go so horribly wrong.

Blogging equals thinking

Well, writing equals thinking. I can't remember who it was that said "I don't know what I think until I start writing " but certainly for me it has always rung true.

I've not been writing much for a while, and it feels like I've not been thinking. Sure, ideas flit through my head and I can ruminate endlessly as we all do, but by not writing I've not focussed my thinking. I've become reactive rather than proactive, being triggered by things around me rather being productively creative.

But I am delivering a keynote in Ottawa next week on the topic of The Ideology Of Algorithms so I am starting to focus my thinking again, pulling ideas together into something hopefully meaningful and helpful, and starting to write things down.

It feels good. I've missed it.

Interconnected

Most of the time I get excited about how interconnected we are becoming. The way technology helps us to realise that our actions have consequences to others as well as ourselves. A harsh word posted while in a bad mood sends out ripples that we can see coming back to us. We can choose to take responsibility for those consequences and adjust.

But our interconnectedness can also have dire consequences. The amplifying effect of the web can turn a conversation into a mob, apparently innocuous data when combined can become life limiting, pulling the plug on data centres in our "just in time" food supply chain could have us fighting each other for bread outside Tesco within days.

With great power comes great responsibility. This was always true, but the responsibility is now more widely distributed than ever.

Your phone doesn't have to be your enemy.

It has been interesting using the beta of iOS 12 for the past month or so and the new functionality that allows me to keep a track of my phone usage. By far the greatest use of my phone is reading books, followed by activities related to managing my work, then general productivity, and only then social media. My phone allows me to:

  • Read more books than ever before.
  • Maintain a task list that allows me to keep track of all the things I have to do.
  • Monitor my sleep patterns.
  • Record the distances I walk.
  • Record my water intake.
  • Track changes in my weight.
  • Record and re-live the routes I take in mountains.
  • Take better photos than any camera I've ever owned.
  • Play me podcasts.
  • Play me music.
  • Time my meditation.
  • Do cool things like show my mum and dad places I am visiting, live as I am doing things like kayaking on the sea.
  • And lots more...

I pay a premium for Apple products to not be the product. I know which platforms try to track my actions and don't allow them to unless it's my choice. I keep intrusions from notifications to an absolute minimum.

Don't let the media convince you that it is inevitable that you are a victim of technology, and make the effort to ensure that you are not. I've made my phone my friend. You can too.

Stormy weather

We are off to Sweden tomorrow for our family holiday. Like us they have had a spectacularly hot summer. Like us the weather has broken.

We are conditioned to expect summer holidays to be hot - to be disappointed if they are not.

This week may be testing...

Just checking...

I am currently reading yet another book which claims that the internet is turning us all into dysfunctional narcissists, unable to determine true from false, and huddling together in tribal mobs for protection.

This is not my experience. Is it yours? I mean really yours, as in your direct day to day experience?

Or is it just what we are being told is the truth by people keen to sell books or journalists desperately trying to hold on to their previously privileged positions in the hierarchy of truth tellers?

Like I said, I'm just checking. Might be worth you checking too.

Whenever you come to a fork in the path take it

I have always loved this Yogi Berra saying. It says so much about a potential approach to life.

Many of us get bent out of shape when things go wrong, when we feel we have made the wrong decision, when fate seems to be against us. We end up “fighting what is” to quote Byron Katie.

But if we accept that much of life is random, what can appear to be the worst thing can often turn out to be the best thing, and that it is our mindset when we deal with whatever transpires that is the greatest determinant of whether our experience is unpleasant or unpleasant, then we can more confidently take whichever path appeals.

On driving and being driven

This seems an appropriate post to write given that I sit my HGV theory test tomorrow but glancing through people’s Linkedin profiles it struck me how many of them describe themselves as “driven”.

Hmm..

This is up there with “driving change” in its ability to make me recoil. Nothing wrong with enthusiastically committing to the things we do with our lives, or for that matter encouraging others to do the same, but “driven” has a manic, out of control, aggressiveness about it that has the opposite effect on me.

Put your own oxygen mask on first.

Society is made up of multiple networks of individuals, operating individually or in consort. In order for those networks to operate effectively, to use a biological metaphor, the cells have to be healthy.

We will only have a healthy society, or organisations, if we each become healthy, autonomous, tolerant, and sensitive to those around us. To do this we have to recover from being trained to be complacent, compliant, consumers.

We have to to be sceptical of ideologies and -isms. We have to develop the skills of self awareness and critical thinking that will enable us to work things out for ourselves and to do so in the context of those around us.

Before we can help others we have to deal with our own challenges and aspire to our own physical and mental health. We have to journey inward before we can return and take our place in our various networks in order to deal together with the challenges we all face.

Looking after yourself first is not a selfish act, it's an obligation.

Little injections of energy

It is easy to get overwhelmed these days; to take the "lists of things to be frightened of" that news media serve up every day seriously; to succumb to the waves of doom that ripple around the internet; to feel that we are too small and too powerless to do anything about it all.

I remember reading somewhere that each of us should aspire to leave the people we talk to feeling a little bit better after a conversation with us, a little bit braver, a little bit more optimistic.

This is not Pollyanna-ish, this is taking responsibility for our collective wellbeing. This seems like a worthwhile thing to do.

The era of the autodidact

As I wrote elsewhere recently “fake news is good news because it is forcing us to make more effort to work out what is true and what isn’t”.

I had someone say to me the other day “Wasn’t it better in the old days when life was simpler and the news told you the truth?”

Life was never simple, the news just simplified it, made it look like theirs was the only version of the truth, and we didn’t know any better.

We can’t go back to those days.

We need to learn critical thinking, we need to work harder at working out where our information is coming from and what bias it is being subjected to.

We also need to apply the principle expressed in my book that “we all have a volume control on mob rule". We need to think harder about what we share, why we are sharing it, "=and what the consequences will be.

In order to make these decisions about truth and what we share we need to be better informed. We need to be more curious. We need to learn more and faster. We need to do this for ourselves.

Happenstance

It's amazing how much of our lives comes about through chance or unexpected twists of fate.

I am struck how often people end up in jobs they hadn't anticipated, how much organisational and business success is down to luck, and how we are forced to respond to the vast and mostly unpredictable complexity of life.

We then feel an irresistible urge to retrofit meaning to maintain the illusion that we are in control.

Maybe we would be more relaxed with each other if we remembered this more often...