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.


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.


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.

Real men

Real men don’t get bent out of shape when women expect to be treated with respect and have the same opportunities as they do.

Real men don’t have tantrums when people who don’t happen to have the same skin colour as them expect to be able to live without fear of physical violence, or not to be considered further down the evolutionary scale.

And real men don’t care what other men do in their beds or with whom.

Some of the men who are currently throwing their toys out the pram need to grow a pair.


Much is being made these days of the benefits of mindfulness, being present, noticing what is happening around you, living in this moment now rather than digging up old ones or fearing the ones yet to come.

But let’s face it, few of us achieve this ideal. For most of us our waking hours are usually mindless. We respond without thinking to what life throws at us based on what our parents taught us or what we see others around us doing. Conditioning kicks in before we get the chance to think for ourselves.

If we think at all we usually think what we feel we should think. Or even worse we do what we think we should do based on role models in film and television, or images drip fed to us by marketing teams since we were children.

We are asleep. We’ve been trained to be asleep. Waking up and asking awkward questions just causes trouble. Life is easier if we don’t question those in authority. But we risk sleepwalking into some pretty dystopian futures. We need to wake up.

Mindfulness is not just about some new age sense of well-being it is also about stepping back from mindlessness. About getting clear about what is happening in our lives right now, and what to do about it. This moment is the only chance we get to do something, everything else is mindless dreaming.

The challenge of saying what you think

I have never underestimated the challenge of saying what you think in writing, in public that social media presents. This challenge has been the focus of much of my work. How does someone representing BP, or The UN, “find their voice” and speak to the rest of us in a way that we can relate to and respond to? Can they? Is it inevitable that they resort to bland marketing corporate speak that fills our networks with more signal than noise?

And what about inside work? Is it unreasonable to expect people who are nervous about what their boss or peers might think to open up and share their thoughts and insights about what they do without protecting themselves by hiding behind the usual veneer of management bollocks.

And what about us, here, now. Not at work, representing no one but ourselves. Why does it feel so scary to so many to engage, to post more than holiday snaps, to respond in comment threads, to question what we see?

I understand. I feel scared. I feel exposed when I write these posts. I risk disagreement, disapproval, scorn or just being ignored. But it’s worth it. It’s worth it for what I learn about me, about the people who respond, about the world around us, and how we might get better at living in it.

The same rewards are there for those brave enough to find their voice at work or representing their work to others. After all these years, I still think it is worth trying. If anything the need gets greater by the day.

On punching Nazis

In a recent post I shared a cartoon based on Karl Popper’s paradox that intolerance needs stood up to, that you need to be intolerant of intolerance. There is an image of someone kicking Hitler in the cartoon. This has caused some of my friends to question the use of force. I share their concern. I worry about polarisation, I worry about vigilantism. I worry about righteous indignation being an excuse for fighting fire with fire.

But I have also visited Auschwitz. I have seen what happens “when good men remain silent”. I have seen what happens when bullying and intimidation become political instruments. I know that there comes a point when it seems that you need to use force to resist.

But then I also know what Ghandi achieved in India with passive resistance. I know that once you have resorted to force you have lost, you become as bad as them.

What to do, what to do... ?

Not giving up on people

There are people I know who hold racist and sexist views. I have tried discussing with them, arguing with them, expressing everything from frustration to disgust at their worst extremes, and in the end I sometimes have to walk away from them.

But I go back. I can’t give up. I have to find a way to reach out, to not judge, to feel compassion for whatever deep seated fear or hurt has led them to feel so angry about other people.

When my daughters and I are trying to understand violence in the news, or grappling with what motivates some Neanderthal who has grunted at them in the street, I often say “Try to imagine what it is like to go around with a head that thinks that such behaviour is ok, to be so unhappy and dysfunctional that you project vile nastiness onto the rest of the world and don’t even realise that you are doing it.”

I don’t believe that people are born sexist or racist. They become that way because of the things that happen to them, the ways they see others around them behaving, and, perhaps most importantly, because they are not challenged and held to account for their views early enough while they are still forming.

Holding them to account means making them face up to the consequences of their actions. It means standing up to them face to face or ultimately invoking policy or the law to protect the vulnerable from their poison.

But if we want to prevent them acting the same way again, or being seen as a martyr or role model by others, we have to get close to them. Closer than we would probably like. Giving up on them is giving up on ourselves.

So, would I punch a Nazi? You bet if I saw them threatening someone else. But I might want to buy them a coffee afterwards.

Where the thread goes, nobody knows.

It fascinates me the way comments threads on posts twist and turn in ways that I didn’t anticipate. I try to write in as clear a way as I can, and it’s not as if there is a right and wrong way to interpret what I’ve said, and yet there are reactions that come out of the blue and even sometimes disagree with something I didn’t think I had said!

This used to frustrate me but I’ve learned to love it, to go with the flow, to wonder what the different direction says about the people responding, what it says about me, what is says about our relationship, what it says about life.

Sometimes it is challenging, sometimes, it hurts, but overall I love it.