The Middle Road

This morning, as I was sitting in a Deli on 7th Avenue having breakfast and a coffee, I was also reading the excellent Anarchism by George Woodcock. What appeals about the ideas in the book is the potential they open up for people to take more responsibility for themselves and their actions while being less inclined to defer to authority. However anarchism has also encompassed some unpalatable extremes and the subject of this morning’s chapter was Max Stirner, 19th century author of The Ego and His Own, which contains deeply challenging ideas and advocates an each man for himself approach to life.

Having finished brunch I then walked south down Broadway and through Times Square which was absolutely jam packed with people. They were like herds of animals, all milling around, drawn by the energy of the place but not appearing to be doing anything in particular.

Then moments later I came across what turns out to be a Veterans’ Day Parade marching up 5th Avenue. A rag tag of military personnel of various ages and flavours, backed up by some very loud marching bands, and interspersed with a few armoured vehicles. I found myself marvelling at the pride with which this odd mix of thousands of people mindlessly marched a long the road in serried ranks. Wave after wave of attempted uniformity.

So in the short space of the morning I went from extreme individualism, to a thronging herd, to a group apparently drawn to order and group-think. Three New York streets, three world views, three groups of people behaving very differently. I found myself, yet again, thinking that as so often the answer is “the middle road”. Literally.

Volume control on mob rule.

Being here in New York reminded me of when we visited with the girls. Walking down the street here was one of the times when I was with them when they were being openly leered at by men. Walking the streets now I am conscious that most people will have been aware of #metoo and the stories that it is still surfacing. This is a good thing.

I have often said that the Internet is a mirror. Much of the time we won’t like what we see in it but it does give us the chance to change. We are realising that we have to take that chance, deal with our societal challenges, and change for the better.

Yes, in the short term, there will be polarisation and wild swings and extremes. But we are still learning. We are still working out how to use our volume control on mob rule.

“Social Media”

All I have ever wanted from any of the social networks that I have been part of, either at work or on the Internet, is to have interesting conversations with interesting people and to use the tools to build relationships.

What I don't want is to be spammed about products that I have no interest in, have my data mined and sold to the highest bidder, or to be ideologically gamed by powerful vested interests.

I would happily pay money for the former, and can't wait for the demise of the latter as it falls apart under the weight of its own shit.

Allowing the word media, and all it brought with it, to creep into what we were all doing was clearly a mistake.

The need for good journalism

I agree with what Robin Lustig says in this piece about the importance of a free press.

But...

Each time I am interviewed by mainstream media journalists I am unimpressed by their grasp of the topic; frustrated at their wide of the mark questions; worried about the apparent randomness of selecting me as an “expert”; and nervous, from experience, about my words being twisted to reinforce an agenda that they have already set.

I then extrapolate my experience across the other topics that I used to naively assume were more professionally dealt with.

If journalists want to regain our trust, they have to raise their game - considerably!

Lobbing pebbles

I once described blogging as being a bit like lobbing pebbles into ponds. Each blog post causes ripples, however modest, to go out into the world, hopefully causing ideas and opinions to change. Over time you get better at lobbing bigger pebbles into better ponds.

I love watching my daughter Mollie lobbing her blog posts out into the world and causing ripples. Her most recent post on the #metoo theme nailed some of the core issues and has triggered many interesting and thoughtful reactions.

This is how the world changes. Lots of pebbles, lots of ripples, bigger waves.

#metoo

Saddened but not surprised at all of the #metoo stories being shared by women around the world. And the fact that I am not surprised makes me even sadder.

I don't have to walk very far in public with my daughters to encounter pitiful examples of a predatory attitude towards women. When men call out some obscenity as we pass them we are left stunned at their arrogance and naivety. We joke about it and wonder if they really imagine that the girls are going to think "Oh, you seem like an ideal candidate for a partner, let me leap into bed with you"? But it's not funny.

And this is "just" verbal abuse. That combination of ignorance, arrogance, and aggression when transferred to close physical proximity...

Not today

As part of her A Level Politics studies Hannah is required to listen to the news in the mornings. I am therefore being subjected to The Today programme for the first time in years.

The almost physical levels of discomfort finally got too much this morning with a story about the government's attempts to curb internet bullying and to "make Facebook and Google mend their ways".

We just looked at each other, rolled our eyes, and raced to the off button.

The Pen and the Sword

I keep thinking of the image of firefighters standing between riot police and protesters in Catalonia that I shared yesterday. Such a powerful image of two sets of ideas coming together in violent confrontation. Only one side, the state, has the “right” to use force.

But we know that in the long run, however much misery it may cause, force is puny in the face of ideas. Using force is an admission of defeat. The state is a fragile concept and I always think how frightened of challenging ideas those who hide behind its force are.

Ideas are what shape our world. Good ones and bad ones, misguided ones and brilliant ones. We all have the ability to share ideas and change our world. Arguably more of us are sharing more of our thoughts and ideas in writing than ever before. Online tools allow us to connect our responses to the world around us and to work things out faster and more powerfully than we are used to. We are still just tinkering with this “joined up writing”.

Ultimately the pen is still mightier than the sword. Our new tools make our ideas even more powerful than before. We should wield that power more thoughtfully.

A thin veneer

Sitting in the sunshine on London’s South Bank yesterday watching people milling around busily being tourists, earnestly discussing work, or flashing by in running gear grabbing exercise in their lunch break, I found myself contemplating Armageddon. What would happen if automation decimates the middle class, western democracies collapse, and our planet’s natural resources run out? It could get pretty ugly.

But then Londoners get bombed on a fairly regular basis and haven’t descended into atavistic chaos yet. In the midst of devastation and suffering they look after each other. Afterwards they revert pretty quickly to their tolerant, multicultural best. Life goes on.

I then thought about my daughter’s school. The sixth form have been allowed not to wear school uniform so long as they wear “office appropriate attire”. Until now this has meant cheap suits for the boys and a world of confusion and pain for the girls. This year the school decided to clarify that for girls this meant a jacket and skirt, of prescribed length of course, “cut from the same bolt of cloth”. “What the hell is a bolt of cloth?” could be heard muttered over many a Buckinghamshire breakfast table when that letter was opened!

Is looking like a corporate drone going to teach the kids to become creative, independent contributors to society? Is looking smart going to prevent a generation from running amok or reverting to tooth and nail when Armageddon comes? Is this a rearguard action by maintainers of order in the face of rising existential panic? Or is it a load of institutional bollocks?

What if the thin veneer of civilisation is an unnecessary fiction? What if it is actually an artificial constraint on our better natures, a means of maintaining power and status through fear and perceived dependency? What if underneath it we are actually less afraid, less divided, less cruel and more kind than we have been conditioned to think we are?

Old wolves in new sheep’s clothing.

It’s understandable I suppose. Even admirable. Each generation believes that it has discovered its magic wand. A new technology that is going to make everything better—achieve equality, right the world’s wrongs, eliminate suffering. The printing press, electricity, the telegraph, the telephone, the internet, social media, AI, Blockchain. The list will continue to go on.

Religions are another technology. A man made device to bring about transformation, to protect us from our worst excesses, to eradicate our sins. Some are thousands of years old but we keep inventing new ones with our latest -ologies and -isms. All of these, both old and new, cause as many problems as they solve.

Magic wands never quite seem to deliver. For all the effort we put into them, and all the faith we place in them, they ultimately disappoint. They are a distraction, a displacement activity. They barely scrape the fundamental underlying problem. Us.

Deep down we remain the same. Each time the wolf in us adopts new sheep’s clothing we fall for it. We think we’ve tamed it. But deep down we know. The wolf still lurks. Maybe it always will.

Doing big stuff

I shared some photos a couple of weeks ago of the Amersham Steam Day. There are a couple of large, steel, riveted water tanks left on one of the platforms. I found myself musing as I waited for my train this morning that it takes so much physical effort, presumably a train with a crane, to get them in and out of position.

While in Edinburgh last month, in a hotel opposite the new Forth Road Bridge that was still being built at that time, I was thinking as I often do, what confidence/arrogance it takes to even consider such an undertaking.

Every time I sit in an Airbus A380, trundling down the runway at the speed of a fast tractor, I find myself wondering what nutter ever thought they could get something that size to take off.

Sure, I remain confident that it is ideas that change the world, but there are some bloody amazing people who make it happen.

Networking

The topic of networking has come up a couple of times over the past few days and it is clearly a word that carries baggage. Some people associate networking with those uncomfortable professional events where people thrust their business card into your hand before you have even finished the introductions. Or even worse it conjures up horror stories of outrageous nepotism or cronyism.

But the world works through networks. It always has. Building a network of people you trust and who trust you is the best way of getting on in any sphere of human activity. It needn’t be creepy. It can just be a case of making the effort to meet more people in areas of work that interest you and staying in touch with the ones you respond well to.

Most of us still feel that we should go through the proper process of applying for jobs, sending in CVs, taking our chances with the randomness of selection processes. But the best jobs are secured at least partly by personal recommendation and the more senior you get the more true this becomes.

Clearly there is a need to be fair and transparent but if knowing someone who knows someone gets you closer to the decision makers then that helps both them and you. I often quote Seth Godin who once said “Avoid the tyranny of being picked”. If you are in the position of being just another CV in the pile, rather than standing out because of a personal recommendation, you put yourself at a real disadvantage.

We are all now building these networks online. The same rules apply. The more interesting and smart people we connect with, the more opportunities will emerge. Part of our credibility comes from who we associate with and who is willing to be seen to associate with us. It is not just on the overt networking sites like LinkedIn. Facebook also makes visible the people we are willing to spend time with and how we interact with them. Even the people who comment on your Facebook posts, and how you respond to them, are a reflection of your character and can be used to make judgements about you.

This is all highly visible which can make us uncomfortable. But it also makes us more accountable. We need to make the effort to reach out and connect with interesting people. We need to maintain those connections and respect them. We need to be thoughtful about who we associate and what it says about us. In the long run I believe this will prove to be a good thing.

The still, quiet, voice.

My main contribution to The Copenhagen Letter that I shared last week was the line that originally said "Make products that you would love people you love to use, and listen to the still quiet voice telling you to stop if you are not".

The challenge for developers and designers like the ones at the event is that they probably work for a company under pressure to repay investors, or satisfy shareholders, who expect them to build manipulative or addictive software because that is what attracts advertising revenue. Saying no is hard.

When doing workshops with people who work in communications of one sort or another most of them know the impact that bland, safe, impersonal "content" has on the networks they are part of and yet that is what their bosses expect them to pump out because it is safer than the unpredictability of reaching out to build real relationships. Doing otherwise is hard.

Whatever job we are in we usually know the right thing to do. That still quiet voice is longing to be heard. No one says it is easy, but we should get better at listening to it.

Thoughts for a Sunday.

My strongest memories of church are of hard, wooden pews and an incredibly itchy short trousered tweed suit. The combination was purgatory.

At University, singing in the chapel choir at St. Andrews, church was a place where you nursed hangovers and lusted over the sopranos sitting opposite.

But as I get older I find myself drawn to sitting in churches. The sense of centuries of people spending time thinking about life and its meaning, especially in small, rural, English village churches, creates an atmosphere of thoughtfulness and seriousness that I relish.

If I could just feel confident that I wouldn't be accosted by someone who believes in a beardy guy in the sky I might visit them more often.

The Copenhagen Letter

Last week I attended a great the event organised by Thomas Madsen-Mygdal and Aydoğan Ali Schosswald, in Copenhagen. I met many really smart, really nice people there. Those new connections were enough reward in themselves but we had a greater purpose in coming together.

The focus of the event was the impact that the technology industry has on society and an aspiration to make it take more responsibility for the consequences.

Part of the event was held in the Enigma museum of Post and Communications in Copenhagen who had mounted an exhibit of various manifestos from history. Inspired by those examples The Copenhagen Letter is our attempt to hold ourselves accountable as a group to being more mindful of leaving the world a better place as a result of our work in technology and related professions.

If it resonates with you, and you work in a related field, please feel free to sign it.

#cphletter

On Facebook and dying.

I am currently listening to John O’Donahue reading his wonderful book Beauty. In the current chapter he is talking about the process of dying and his own attendance as a priest at the bedside of people during their last moments. The writing is all the more moving given that the writer died in his sleep last year at the young age of 52.

He talks of how removed we have become from death. How we hide death behind hospital doors and don’t discuss it in polite society. How this makes us if anything more terrified of our own deaths.

So what has all his got to do with Facebook? I have been struck recently by the number of friends who have written sensitively and movingly there about the death of a loved one. As someone whose parents are both in their eighties (though thankfully still in remarkably good health) I am ever more aware that the death of someone I care deeply about is something I will have to face.

I am grateful to those friends who have had the courage to share their experiences there on Facebook, and grateful to live in a time where we have platforms to share such experiences in ways that we might not otherwise.

Meetings—talking shops or changing the world?

I spend much of my working life, when I am not writing, in meetings of one sort or another. Meetings which others might describe as “talking shops”. The implied criticism in that phrase used to bother me— that all that mattered was taking action, that those who weren’t directly involved in some sort of activity were wasting their time.

It’s true. There are meetings that are a waste of time. More often than not they are the kinds of meetings that you forget why they are in the diary but go along anyway because they are a safe place to hide for a while.

But ideas are what change our world and those ideas take shape in meetings. Ideas determine what actions we take and why. Those ideas are generated, refined, and shared in meetings of whatever size from two people up to huge conferences.

The trick is to get better at working out which kind of meeting you’ve been asked to then being ruthless about not attending those that are a waste of time, and enthusiastically throwing your energy into the kind that might change the world.

Good intentions.

I can cope with marketing if the intention is to help me make better informed decisions about the things I want to buy. If the intention is to interrupt what I am doing to shout at me about shit I don’t remotely need my brain is getting better at filtering it out and not even noticing it.

If the intention of journalists is to hold the powerful to account and to explain the world better to me I will pay attention. If it is to churn out a daily list of scandals and things for me to be frightened about I stop reading newspapers or watching tv and radio news.

If your intention here is to have interesting and informed conversations that help us work out together how to make the world a better place then I’m up for it - even if I disagree with you. If your intention is to pick fights, dominate others, and bully my friends I am becoming more willing to use the unfriend button by the day.

I’m becoming more rigorous at working out intentions, both my own and others, because intentions matter. We all need to become more aware of them.

The end of civilisation as we know it?

As tools and services provided by companies such as Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon become key parts of the infrastructure of our lives they, and their respective Chief Executives, exert increasing influence on society.

How we see ourselves individually and collectively is shaped by their products. Our ability to do things is in our hands but their control. How we educate ourselves and understand the world is steered by them. How we stay healthy, get from one place to another, and even feed and clothe ourselves is each day more dependent on them.

We used to rely on our governments to ensure the provision of these critical aspects of our lives. Our governments are out of their depth and floundering.

Are we transitioning from the nation state to some other way of maintaining and supporting our societies? How do we feel about this? Is it inevitable? Could we stop it even if we wanted?

Boxes ticked

I worry when I hear “Oh yes, we’ve done social media. We have a very good team”.

It’s the second sentence that is revealing.

It’s not “Our staff are encouraged to talk about what we do and engage the public through their networks”.

It’s not “I love it. I love nothing better than rolling my sleeves up and having a bloody good conversation online with customers who care about what we do.”

It’s not “Our senior management and subject experts write great posts about their challenges and how they grapple with them. It helps them learn.”

It’s definitely not “We love the tension that social media creates between what we currently do and what we should be doing. It helps us see where we need to improve, holds us to account.”

The web is still held at arms length. It’s not how most businesses live and breathe. Boxes have been ticked, but there’s a long way to go.