Anarchism

As those of you who have read any of my posts will know, I have a firm belief that if we work out how to make the best use of the amazing communication technology we have at your fingertips, learn the skills of civil exchange, and work out how to use these skills to achieve productive collective effect, then we will be able to deal with the significant challenges we currently face. This is at a time when we watch the old, hierarchical, institutional world collapsing around us. The inability of those in charge of large corporations and governments to keep up with and adapt to the changes affecting us is becoming more and more obvious by the day.

My sense of what is possible were largely formed through the work I did inside the BBC encouraging our internal online community to grow and thrive. I realised that it didn’t really need management in a conventional sense. If I trusted people, and gave them the time and space to work out how to use the platform to work together, they would do so. At the time someone, I think I it might have been +Eddie Black, called me an organisational anarchist. I was slightly uncomfortable with the connotations but at the same time quietly chuffed. This incident triggered in an interest in the topic and I began delving into original thinking by the likes of Kropotkin and others. But my focus on the topic reduced and I found other things to worry about.

However the more I worked with organisations of all sorts, commercial or governmental, not for profit or entrepreneurial, and heard people struggle to maintain confidence in a world view that is increasingly irrelevant while lacking a convincing new one to replace it, I realised that we need to learn how to see the world and operate in it in fundamentally new ways, and we need to learn quickly.

I am currently revisiting some of the books on anarchism that I set aside all those years ago and adding as much new thinking as I can to my understanding of the topic. It is still a very loaded word. Partly through the actions of those in the early 19th century who believed that direct action was the way to bring about change, and partly due to the now familiar black garbed disruptors who turn out at any significantly large demonstration in the UK, many people have an understandably negative view of anarchism. But in fact when you start to dig into the subject it is in essence the ultimate in democracy. It is based on the belief that humankind wants to learn, develop, be creative, and be productive together without the need for higher authority.

The perceived need for hierarchy and control has been taught to us consciously and deliberately for centuries if not millennia. We feel that without someone in charge we will descend into chaos. This is not true. The need for authority is not inevitable. We can learn to do better. Anarchism might not be the whole answer, and not for everyone, but the ideas behind it should, I believe, be part of the mix.

This documentary from BBC four called "The Accidental Anarchist" tracks the development in understanding of former British diplomat Carne Ross as he transitions from the world of international politics and strategy, to the amazing story of the Kurdish fighters fighting ISIS and the anarchic principles of the society that they are defending and which supports them. In the process he help explains some of the ideas, history, and potential of anarchism and compares the Kurds’ achievements to those of the Spanish anarchists of the thirties famously described in Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.

[If for no other reason please do watch the documentary to the end to see the inspiring women Kurdish fighters literally on the front line in their battle agains Isis. As one of them says “Without having free women you can’t have a free society”.]

When I get around to writing another book I am going to call it "Changing the World, One Conversation At A Time". I need to keep up the focus in my research and get on with writing it quickly because the need for us to learn how to do this stuff is becoming more pressing by the day.

Artifice

Artifice

Funny how we all expect to agree about things that have happened.

When I was in Cuba last week seeing their perspective of the revolution there compared to my previous understanding of it was fascinating.

Last night I had a very different response to the film Dunkirk from many of my friends and I have enjoyed the resulting conversations about why. In helping me understand my reaction Patrick Lambe used the word "artifice" and Dave Snowden added "...the movie, which is of course an artefact so should demonstrate artifice ..."

Having done two stints of jury duty I am forever aware that even our own stories about what we think we saw happen in real life are artifice.

I am currently thoroughly enjoying Tim Garton Ash's book Free Speech much of which is about the challenge of agreeing to disagree in what he calls "cosmopolis" - the highly connected but fragmented world we live in where we are having to learn to deal with difference and often extremely polarised perspectives.

We fret about being in a "post truth" world. Was there ever a truly shared version of the truth? Can there ever be? Should we treat it all as artifice?

The Origins Of Totalitarianism

I have just finished listening to Hannah Arendt’s The Origins Of Totalitarianism on Audible. All 23 hours of it. Fascinating insights into the political and philosophical shifts through the end of the 19th century and into the 20th. The growth of “the masses”, the birth and distortions of the idea of nation states, mass unemployment and statelessness, the differences between parties and movements, and the parallels between Hitler and Stalin, the Nazis and the Bolsheviks.

This latter point about movements was the most telling given our current political climate. The idea that in order to establish a totalitarian state those in power had to keep everything moving, to be in constant flux, to be perpetually unpredictable. Even those in the Nazi and Communist state systems were at perpetual risk of being restructured out of power and even existence. The dehumanising intent of all of this, the central place of the concentration camps as the epitome of systematically abusing large chunks of the population to meet the self fulfilling prophecy of some groups being less than human. It was all too modern.

But in its own way Arendt’s book was reassuring. We are not living in the 30s. We are less gullible and more sceptical about the mechanisms of state power. We are less trusting. In the long run this is a good thing. Sure there is a downside which manifests in all the current angst about “post truth” and “fake news”, but as I have said so often it is forcing us to assume a responsibility that was always potentially ours. Despots and totalitarianism rely on infantilising the population, on people’s willingness to leave things to the grown ups, on our inclination to be too lazy to think for ourselves.

The Age Of Nothing

Having been so impressed by his previous book, "A Terrible Beauty", I was a little worried that Peter Watson's other weighty tome "The Age Of Nothing" would disappoint. I needn't have worried.

What a fabulous book. As before; thorough, comprehensive, mind stretching, authoritative, and compelling. My one consistent thought while reading it, no doubt as a result of the amount I am reading at the moment about Buddhist philosophy, was that many of the ideas expressed – about cosmic unity, individual happiness, concern for each other, a phenomenological appreciation of the world around us – all chimed with my current reading but were largely missing from Watson's book.

Nonetheless highly recommended again.

Up the workers

Find myself thinking about the nervousness that the middle class still feels about socialism and the "up the workers" history of the radical left.

The irony is that it is those very same bureaucrats, administrators, and "knowledge workers", who make up the bulk of the middle class, whose jobs will be most significantly impacted by artificial intelligence over the coming decades.

They will fnd themselves becoming "the workers" discarded by an increasingly small elite who control the immensely powerful machines and algorithms that will dominate the world of conventional work in the future.

They are going to get very confused...

A Mass Outbreak Of Common Sense

I heard this phrase in conversation with a client today (stated as an aspiration rather than something already achieved I hasten to add!) I wrote it down immediately. It resonated. It excited me. In many ways it is helping people work towards this potential that motivates me.

But why limit the idea to an organisation? How about a mass outbreak of common sense nationally? Why not globally?

Naïve? Simplistic? We know what makes us happy and what causes us pain. We know what harms others and what nurtures them.

What do we need to stop doing to allow this outbreak to happen?

Unreal Friends

I have just had a fantastic "sort the world out" lunch with Darryl Carr who instigated this whole trip by recommending me to the conference organizers here in Perth a few months ago. Our paths have only crossed "in real life" once before five years ago in Sydney. Similarly, most of the people who reached out when I was in Melbourne and Sydney are "unreal internet friends" who I get to see once in a blue moon.

There are those who would claim that we can't be real friends if we only ever meet online. And yet when we do meet there is real affection, real connection, real understanding. In many ways a more intense friendship than some of the ones I maintain in real life.

What's not to like? What are those who are so suspicious of these online friendships so afraid of?

One world

Sitting in a cafe in Sydney watching the world go by. The same world I watched yesterday in Hong Kong. The same world we all inhabit with the same core needs and values.

I wonder if we would have need of nuclear arsenals if travel was obligatory.

I hope I'm not right

I hope I'm not right

The themes of my work have anticipated a few of the trends and changes we are seeing in the world currently:

My book title "Organizations Don't Tweet, People Do" anticipated the institutionally unconconstrained nightmare that is Trump.

"The Ideology Of Algorithms" has become more obvious to more people with the involvement of computer science in steering online sentiment during the Trump campaign.

"We all have a volume control on mob rule" is becoming more and more relevant every day as we grapple with a "Post Truth" society.

My current theme is "Staying ahead of the robots" in which I predict automation taking lumps out of the middle-class, white collar, knowledge work population. My pitch is that to stay ahead we need to rediscover our human qualities which have been in the main denegrated in the recent business environment.

But even if some of us manage to adapt in this way I am increasingly worried that we are mostly not ready for the degree of disruption that AI in its various forms will bring about.

In a recent post about what he learned in Copenhagen Chris McGrath describes my take on things as depressing. Perhaps, but I am worried that too many are in a state of complacent denial.

My sincere hope is that I am wrong.

Facebook and fear of failure

I was mulling over ideas for a post this morning about the mix of excitement and fear that I feel before doing any public event let alone a big commitment like the trip I'm beginning this week.

At the same time my friend Laurent posted this update saying that no one takes any risks with what they share on Facebook any more and that it is going to die soon because the content is becoming bland and boring.

I still think it is a choice. The more open I am with my posts the better a conversation I have and the more I learn about myself and other people.

Facebook is like Twitter, or any online platform for that matter. It is as good as the ideas we share, the people we connect with, and the conversations we have. Just like"real" life.

Social courage

I heard this phrase this morning on a wonderful Tim Ferriss podcast interview with Krista Tippett. She was referring to the themes that fascinate me; the falling apart of old ways of doing things, the opportunity to do something about it using social tools, and the courage it often takes you do so.

That courage to expose our thinking to others, potentially to their disagreement or ridicule, is more needed now than ever. But it is a gentle courage. It is not aggressive or "shouty". It is more about the courage to be our true selves than it is about convincing others to be like us.

It takes practice. It doesn't come naturally to most of us.

Is less more?

I am currently reading Peter Watson's excellent A Terrible Beauty, subtitled "The people and ideas that shaped the modern mind". Reading the section on modernist painters it became clear that visiting galleries showing each other's work and that of their predecessors made a huge impact on them. Imaging walking into a room filled with large canvasses by Cezanne or Braque when you have never seen anything like it before–literally. And if you didn't get to the galleries there was a good chance that you wouldn't get to know what the paintings were like until someone published a book of prints, and even then those books would be expensive.

In contrast I am able to pick up my iPad, do an image search, and bring up every one of the images mentioned in the book instantly. Any aspiring artist today has inspiration and example at their fingertips.

Is it too easy? Do we know a little about everything but a lot about nothing? Was it better when the first sight of a new style of painting was full size and in the flesh? But then that opportunity was only available to the privileged few and now anyone can experience their impact, albeit diminished.

This is not just about the internet dumbing things down, TV and magazines had already expanded the reach of new images. The internet does extend this reach but does the speed and ease with which we can access everything have to mean a slide into superficiality? Or does it trigger more people to make the effort to understand new things, to dig deeper into subjects that have piqued their interest? I guess it is up to us.

Entropy

I met someone last week who was talking about the “staff focussed content” the BBC has begun putting on their intranet. I nearly wept. When I think about how far we got, and so long ago.

But this is common. Most of the places where social has gained a toehold inside an organisation have reverted to their old ways as soon as those who cared enough gave up or left.

Change doesn’t just happen. You have to keep pushing, keep trying, keep picking yourself up and doing it again. If you don’t entropy kicks In and things return to “normal” with depressing predictability.

Volume Control On Mob Rule (reprise)

Much is being made at the moment about fake news and the suggestion that we are living in a post-truth society. We worry that our sources of news have become untrustworthy. We get stressed about our ability to discern the truth in a welter of misinformation. But doesn't this model depend on us having been trained to act like a mass and take the news fed to us seriously? To be passive consumers overstimulated by what is considered "newsworthy".

Unless by accident, I haven't watched television news or listened to radio news for many years. I am aware that this might strike some people as irresponsible. I might not get to know about big important things happening in the world. Big important things like Trump and Brexit. But then I find myself wondering if things like Trump and Brexit could happen without the concepts of media and of mass. Arguably our modern nation state came about with the arrival of the printing press and radio. It required a mass form of communication for the sense of identity on which its existence relies. It was this mass identity and the forms of communication that go with it that allowed Hitler to do what he did. Its modern form, where we act like herds of sheep being shepherded around by the latest meme on the Internet, is what is allowing Trump to do what he is doing.

We need to get much, much more critical in our choices of news consumption. We need to think much harder about the sources of that news, the motivation of those generating the news, and the motivation of those sharing the news.

I don't feel at risk of missing out on information that is truly important to me, confident that stuff that matters will get to me through a network which I spend considerable time and effort trying to ensure isn't an echo chamber and is made up of a group of people thoughtful and astute about what they generate and share.

As I have said many times before "we all have a volume control on mob rule". We need to learn to use that volume control more effectively, for all our sakes.

Voices inside our heads

These apparently innocuous little chunks of text have deceptive power. We allow them inside our heads. They entail an intimacy that even face to face rarely achieves. They are like talking to ourselves but more potent. We can both help and harm ourselves and others. We must learn to tread lightly.

Even bullies need a hug.

I find myself feeling disconcertingly protective towards a second United States president in a row. With Obama I had such a strong feeling that here was a good bloke placing himself in an impossible situation with a lot of hard men out to get him, and I had the instinctive response of putting my arms around him to protect him.

With Trump it is obviously different. He reminds me of those school bullies who were physically terrifying but who you could verbally run rings around if you got the chance to engage in conversation. If they realised what you were up to you might get a slap for your efforts, but you both knew who had won. I would end up walking away from such exchanges feeling guilty for having made their failings so obvious. It felt cruel.

Don't get me wrong. Trump is capable of doing incalculable damage to the United States and needs to be stood up to at every available opportunity. But inside that pouting, sneering, malevolent persona it strikes me that there is a very sad, and completely out of their depth, individual.

I don't really feel like putting my arms around him but might it be possible to be compassionate while standing up to him?

Plain English

I have often said that the biggest challenge facing senior execs who want to engage people through social media is remembering how to talk normally.

We get so used to mincing our words, talking in jargon, using passive verbs, writing in the third person. And it's not just in writing. My partner Penny Jackson has recently run a very successful media training programme for the executive team of a large company and much of that was helping them become clear about what they want to say and saying it well. But we make it hard for ourselves. Partly out of nervousness, partly out of habit, and frankly partly out of laziness.

People have been kind enough to commend my clarity and concision but if I have these skills they don't come easily. I practice constantly. I write all the time, even if no one else sees it. I have a house full of books about grammar and writing skills. I read lots and lots of poetry.

Being able to communicate effectively is a key skill in any walk of life. Sharing our ideas well is what will differentiate us from the advancing threat of artificial intelligence. We would do well to work hard at getting good at it.

The need for vigilance.

Yesterday I watched a moving special edition of The Antiques Roadshow focussed on relics of The Holocaust. One of the most chilling was a children's board game the object of which was to be the first to roundup and deport a set number of Jews. [This was not a government propaganda exercise but a commercial product made for profit which was very successful!]

I am currently reading the works of the later Roman Stoics Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca which contain occasional, and almost casual, references to the horrors of The Coliseum.

How do we do it? How does mankind ever allow itself to get into these positions where it can dehumanise chosen groups to such an extent? We are all fundamentally the same. Flesh and blood, hopes and fears, ups and downs.

But the problems start when we divide ourselves into good and bad, them and us. When we start telling ourselves stories about each other that demonise and dehumanise those we perceive as different from us. We then start taking these stories very seriously. Deadly seriously.

We need to be ever vigilant to avoid this tendency—in others, but most crucially in ourselves.

Interesting enough.

"I don't think that what I do is interesting enough" is a concern often expressed when I suggest people share more on their organisation's social network about what they do. Even, perhaps especially, people at a senior level worry that the stuff that fills their days is boring.

Firstly, what feels routine and boring to them can be fascinating to others. Things that feel unimportant can be significant. Small details can reveal insights. Good descriptions and shared stories can reveal aspects of them and how they see the world that even those who work closely with them have never seen.

Secondly, if their posts really are boring, maybe they should do something about it! Part of the value of writing posts is the self reflection it affords. Holding up a mirror to our lives, revealing what we do and why. Having this discipline makes us more thoughtful, more aware of what is happening around us. If we don't like what we see we can choose to change.

These principles apply more generally. Here on the public social web much is made of the trivial nature of many of the updates people share. But they needn't be trivial. Detail can be revealing, what is routine can have meaning. Well written posts have power whatever their topic. I've always liked the phrase "intensity of the mundane" (which I think I first heard from Rob Paterson). We consistently underestimate this intensity.

The day to day needn't be insignificant. Poets know this. We could learn from them. We can be more interesting than we think if we try.