Finding life amazing

We think that we know all about life and have made it ordinary.

We label things and think that means that we understand them.

We focus so much on getting what we don't have that we miss what we do.

We get upset when life isn't as it should be without realising that it is perfect as it is.

We want the ups without the downs and fail to see that one can't exist without the other.

While doing all this we forget the power of just being.

We forget how amazing life is and how lucky we are that, despite incredible odds against it happening, we are here at all.

We might as well relax more and enjoy it while we are.

Drawing lines

Last night I read some of the anti-semitism being shared on Twitter. In one tweet the poster asked Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, whether his company was unable to police anti-semitism or just unwilling to. I then thought of Facebook’s decision to delete the iconic image of the child running along a road in Vietnam because it had crossed some line of decency (they later reversed this decision).

Both of these examples reminded me of the early days of the internet when too incautious an exploration of Usenet would invariably expose you to really disturbing images or ideas. We learned to look away, but we also learned what fellow humans are capable of.

It takes a lot of work by dedicated teams to filter extremes of human nature from any of the public facing platforms. Given my view that the greatest opportunity afforded by the internet is that it is a mirror, part of me thinks that this is important work – part of me worries that it is protecting us from ourselves.

Where do we draw our lines? Do we draw our own or do we rely on others to draw them for us? Is it better to be made aware of the darker side of our nature and forced to face up to it - or do we need protected from it?

Maybe there is no easy answer…

Mirror, mirror

Mirror, mirror

"The internet is full of idiots." "The internet is dumbing us down." "The internet is spoiling our kids." "The internet is destroying society."

The internet is wires and code.

The problem is you. The problem is me. I can't change you. You can't change me.

But we can see each other [waves]

Staying ahead by slowing down

I have always loved the phrase "Don't just do something stand there." It conveys the paradox that very often doing things is less productive than taking a moment to reflect. A moment to work out what is really going on. A moment to ponder what we we really want to happen. A moment to gather ourselves before stepping back into the hectic stream of modern life. 


This willingness to be still is becoming ever more important. The fad for mindfulness in the geek and startup communities that has emerged over the last few years is a sign that chasing the newest shiny thing and frenetically pursuing the ultimate in productivity eventually takes its toll. We end up "busily bored" as Todd Henry calls it. Never having enough time but constantly wondering what the point is.

I used the phrase "Staying ahead by slowing down" in my talk at Learning Live last week. My theme was that we need to get better at our most human characteristics if we are to add value when AI and robots can run rings around us in terms of efficiency. Rather than efficiency, effectiveness needs to be our main focus, doing the right things for the right reasons. Sometimes sitting quietly in a room on our own, even for a little while, is the best way to work out what those are.

Being at work

A long time ago I wrote a post entitled "When an office becomes a liability". It was about how having an office was shifting from being a status symbol, a place to get things done, to being a place where the network was slower than at home, someone controlled what apps and technology you could use, and your creative energy was sapped by endless meetings.

Ten years later, having experienced over that time the joy and increased effectiveness of being a freelancer in charge of my own productivity, I marvel at organisations agonising over whether or not to give their staff the choice to work at home, over engineering the technology they feel is needed to allow them to do so, and having time wasting meetings about whether they can be trusted not to waste their time!

Work is more about attitude of mind than place. Most of us can do it anywhere. I am writing this on my phone in bed! It could be a report or an email. I could even be taking part in a phone conference - with the camera turned off!

Too often being at work is about being seen, about politics, about insecurity. Given how much time and valuable natural resources we waste getting to and from the places where we may, or may not, be able to get things done, we need to get braver about taking the alternatives seriously.

We the media

A friend in Australia just asked me what I thought about an article on celebrities leaving Twitter as a result of trolls and the amount of vitriol they increasingly face. My initial response was "Don’t follow celebrities or people who post bile! Oh, and stop reading newspaper articles about it."

I said this for two reasons. The first is that I see none of what she was talking about. I don't see celebrities, nor the appalling behaviours that they unfortunately attract, when I visit Twitter. My experience is deliberately limited to the 100 smart people who I pay attention to on there.

The second is that the journalist who wrote the article works for a newspaper and is part of the media engine that has a commercial interest in building up celebrities and thereby making them a potential target for the envy, and at the worst abuse, that they attract.

Many years ago, when Stephen Fry began using Twitter and the early conversations he was able to have in the relatively small world of Twitter users began to turn into something very different, someone commented that "On Twitter celebrity doesn't scale". My response was that the problem was with celebrity not with Twitter.

But Twitter chose to aspire to be a media company. They chose to be part of the problem not the solution. If they are going to play that game they have to take responsibility and be more assertive in managing the behaviour of those who use their service.

As to the long term, the Internet is a mirror that is forcing us to see aspects of our behaviour that we may not be very proud of. I remain optimistic that, eventually, more of us will realise that "we all have a volume control on mob rule." We will take responsibility, both individually and collectively, for what we link to and what we ignore, what we react to and what we resist. We will more actively manage the attention which both celebrities and trolls crave.

We will realise, at last, that we are the media.

Inevitable?

I am enjoying reading Kevin Kelly's new book The Inevitable. It does a good job of laying out the consequences of technological change in twelve main themes. The themes are very familiar, have formed the basis of my own work, and are still inspiring. I know, or have met, most of the people he mentions in the book, from Tim Berners Lee to Jimmy Wales, Jochai Benkler to Brewster Kale. Smart people doing good things.

But reading it I find myself swinging wildly between feeling reinvigorated and affirmed - and tired and depressed. Why depressed? I met most of these world changers more than a decade ago. Their ideas, which still feel revolutionary, are glacial in their impact. There is a degree to which the book feels like banging on about old news, rehashing ideas that have missed their chance.

Most people still have no grasp of what is happening around them and to them. They are unaware of ideas that are shaping our world, and in many cases don't care. The utopian idealism of the early days of the web is looking tarnished and naïve. Commercial interests have slowed, corrupted, or assimilated many of the more potent innovations that we got so excited about.

But...

It is so import to remember that we are just getting started. Kevin talks in terms of thirty year horizons and most of you will have heard me saying that it will be fifty years before we fully understand the true impact of the internet. This is why it is important that Kevin wrote the book. It's why I do the work I do.

On a good day I do believe that what he describes is inevitable - just not imminent. Those of us still excited about changing the world have to be in it for the long game. We have to be patient and yet at the same time help others to catch up. We have to learn to go fast and slow.

No one said that the inevitable was easy!

Losing control

Four years ago the Olympic Committee's attempt to ban social media at The London Olympics seemed laughable. The collapse of that ban, and the resulting enthusiasm and fun that social media enabled, subsequently played a large part in those games' success.

And yet four years on here they are making silly pronouncements about what people can and can't share from the Rio games.

It's like they are in denial. They really don't appear to know what to do with the loss of control. Instead of opportunity they see threat, instead of seeing new money making opportunities they protect their old ones.

It's like the music industry all over again. It's like companies who still ban Facebook or don't know that senior managers are using Whatsapp to communicate with each other because they are fed up waiting for the old world to catch up.

It's why I still reckon that it is going to take so much longer than people realise for the true impact of technology to become apparent.

Nice people

At school in the seventies, describing someone as "nice" was to sneer at them for being wimpy, compliant, a "goody two shoes"!

Even now I'm not drawn to people who try too hard to be liked, who fit in, who don't like ruffling feathers.

But I do know, respect, and value being able to spend time with some really, genuinely nice people. I want to be more like them. We need more people to be more like them.

Dealing with bullies.

Last week when we were in Greece two young "lads" from Manchester started paying attention to my daughter Hannah. The form this attention took was learing at her and making lewd comments. When she ignored them, though I wasn't aware of this at the time, they started calling her "a slag" and becoming more aggressive.

That evening, my daughters and I, along with some friends they had met on holiday, were sitting around a table having a chat. A stone suddenly landed on the table. We glanced around and there were the two lads sitting several yards away staring at us. When I looked back, trying to work out if it was them who had thrown the stone, they started posturing aggressively and asking what I was looking at!

At this point my inner 6'3" Scot kicked in and I went over and had a few words. The more aggressive boy's response was to suggest we go outside and sort it out. I said something to the effect of "you must be fucking kidding" and went back to the girls. I then had the challenge of ignoring him as he did his best to look menacing each time he saw me for the remainder of the holiday.

My initial response could easily have escalated things and I could have ended up facing charges. Should I have ignored them? Should I have been a snitch and complained to their mum and dad? Should I have invoked authority in the form of the hotel staff? I never got the opportunity to try it out but I decided that my next step would be to walk over to them and suggest that rather than throwing stones and making faces, they come and chat over coffee. Who knows where that might have led.

Why tell this story? It got me thinking hard about my options and about bullies in general. It is easy to imagine how in other circumstances they could have been carrying a knife, or even a gun. They could have been thugs representing a fascist movement, they could even have been in positions of authority.

Sadly bullies seem to be proliferating around the world. Sadly more of us will have to work out what we do about them.

How the other half live

So there we were, on our noisy tourist boat moored next to a beach on Paxos, as hoards of said tourists dived in and swam towards the beach.

Along side us was a massive private motor yacht. As we watched, the back of the yacht opened up to reveal a bay housing a smaller powerboat and to then form a platform for swimming from. Crew members hosed down the platform and carefully placed a director's chair on it.

Moments later we noticed an elderly man sitting in the chair as the crew put flippers on his feet and a snorkel and mask on his head. He then descended the steps into the sea followed by one of the crew who also got in the water. The old man then swam (well I say swam but it was more like controlled drowning) towards the beach. The crew member swam alongside him - towing a life belt - just in case.

We were left feeling more stunned than jealous.

Don't just do something stand there

So many of the world's problems stem from our inclination to seek happiness outside ourselves. Damaging the planet in our drive to manufacture and buy more stuff to try to make ourselves happy. Violence and wars driven by the idea that "If we just sort them out, or remove them, we will be happy". Marriages that become battlegrounds because if we could just force our partner to be more like us we'd be so much happier...

There is also a macho about taking action, about "doing something" about our problems, organising things, fixing things, being busy.

Even fixing ourselves is doing something. The self help industry is driven by the feeling that "If I just buy that next book all my problems will be fixed", "If I buy the latest app and meditate enough the pain will stop".

It's so much easier to do this than to face the real unhappiness which, deep down, we all know starts inside ourselves and won't go away no matter how busy we get.

To quote Blaise Pascal yet again "All of man’s misfortune comes from one thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room”.

We need to get better at facing that deep unhappiness, not running away from it or blaming it on other people.

We need to be more willing to work out what makes us a grumpy wee shit in the first place before we start sorting the rest of the world out...

The weight of the world

It is all too easy to feel overwhelmed by the world's problems. To feel powerless in the face of so much that we have been taught to trust falling apart.

But how were our institutions built in the first place? Where did our idea of civilisation, that we have perhaps taken for granted, come from? Where did the powerful people, who we may fundamentally disagree with and hold responsible for the destruction of all we hold dear, get their power from?

One thought at a time, one idea at a time, one conversation at a time, and increasingly, dare I say it, one Tweet at a time.

We can all manage that can't we?

It's never to late to try.

Them and us

It starts with a feeling of being more like some people than others.
The comfort of being with people like you.

Then "them and us" become more clearly defined, more comforting in times of trouble.
Then "they" become the problem, they become other, they become less.
Then "we" feel the need to protect ourselves from "them", justified in demonising and dehumanising.
Our language starts to change, to reinforce, to exclude.
Laws are made - "We need to draw the line somewhere."
Crossing the line becomes life threatening.

Auschwitz is still there.
It looks like its last, sorry, occupants walked out yesterday...

I am currently reading Eli Wiesel's book "Night." If you haven't read it already, do so. And remember it every time you meet "other people" in the coming days and weeks.

"Just a way of looking at things"

Each time I read a new book on eastern philosophy, or non-duality, or even just how to be happy, and get excited about new perspectives on life I hear a voice, usually my Dad's, saying "Oh that's just a way of looking at things" in a dismissive tone.

But it's ALL just a way of looking at things. We interpret the world around us all the time, filtering and adjusting, making up stories, mostly unconsciously, often on the basis of environmental and cultural influences.

Why not become more conscious about our choices? Why not pick "a way of looking at things" that is gentler and kinder, both to ourselves and those around us?

The truth

In a recent article Emily Bell wrote:

"Tweaking an algorithm to favour “family and friends” is the engineering equivalent of “people have had enough of experts”, in that it acknowledges that how people feel is a better driver of activity than what people think."

Bollocks.

The only reason I read anything Emily writes is because my network links to her. Yes some of that network are my friends but they link to her because they have seen value in her "expertise". They have thought about what they are linking to and why.

She writes for a newspaper whose output is so politically slanted that I have learned not to trust it, along with all the others, and TV news has become light entertainment info-porn. I trust my network of friends more.

Three points:

  1. This only works if I am careful who my friends are and avoid ending up in a self reinforcing echo chamber.

  2. I totally concede the increasing influence of the ideology of algorithms on our lives and Facebook should be no more blindly trusted than the owners and editorial boards of newspapers.

  3. If more of us become skilled at using our volume control on mob rule we might arrive at something closer to the truth that Emily clearly cares about than we do currently.

She arrives at a similar conclusion:

"If we tolerate a political system which abandons facts and a media ecosystem which does not filter for truth, then this places a heavy burden on “users” to actively gather and interrogate information from all sides - to understand how they might be affected by the consequences of actions, and to know the origin of information and the integrity of the channels through which it reaches them. For this we are definitely better together."

Things is, can we be bothered and can we handle the truth?

Playing God

Dave Snowden and I have had many exchanges over the years about the need to balance individual responsibility with collective change. How does any group change happen without individuals behaving differently? How much structure is optimal? When does a focus on individual change tip into what he calls New Age Fluffy Bunnydom? When does tweaking the system towards predetermined outcomes tip into playing god? A spectrum from Anarchy at one end to Facism at the other?

His recent blog post attacking the sacred cows of OD raises all of these issues for me. He is spot on about the inadequacy of our current approaches to change, and as ever I agree with what he us saying more than I disagree.

But...

As usual I am still left feeling uneasy about who gets to play God and what their qualifications are. If they get good at manipulating the system towards predicted outcomes, but those outcomes turn out to be wrong, destructive rather than productive, is getting to the wrong place more effectively a good thing? Is our current inefficient and often ineffective way of approaching change less damaging than some mad scientist pressing all the buttons? Does replacing that mad scientist with a committee make things better or worse? Does all this apply to nation states and our current governance shambles?

Hmm...

Fighting reality

We like certainty. We want to know what is happening next. We think that if we do enough thinking we can control our futures. But this is an illusion. Surely this week in British politics has proved that any certainty about what is going to happen next is folly?

We also like to think that we can control the actions of others. If we are persuasive enough, if we rant enough, if we do enough Facebook posts, if we bully enough, we can make them bend to our will.

All of this is resisting what is, and that is a battle we will never win. We waste enormous amounts of energy fighting what is and wishing it was otherwise. Our wishing projects into a future we can't control. It distorts our relations with those around us, and with ourselves.

Does giving up this resistance to what is leave us adrift, apathetic, and buffeted by fate?

Or does it allow us to be more aware of our current realities? More able conserve our energy and to respond authentically one thought at a time, one conversation at a time, one small action at a time?

A great unraveling.

Our house was built in 1935. I lie in bed this morning thinking of its first, proud, owner, watching clouds gathering over Europe and wondering what it meant for his family's future.

It may be that we are seeing the beginnings of a great unraveling. In many ways it is overdue. There is much needs sorting out at a fundamental level in society and how we as individuals take our place in the world.

I hope we are up to the task and meet our challenges by peaceful means.