Reality

I will assume that, like me, you are currently looking at an electronic device of some sort, reading the words that I am typing. But then as I type you are not there, and as you read I am not here. So we are neither here nor there but it feels like we are having a conversation. More and more of us do this more and more of the time. We think it is normal and rather take it for granted.

Is it normal? Is it real? All we get to see is short bursts of text and from these we extrapolate personalities that we can feel attracted to, annoyed by, even close to. But we have no way of proving that they exist. They could be a bot. As far as you are aware I could be a bot. It is increasingly possible.

Our lives are made up of such bursts of input. Not just text on a screen but the sounds of a phone call, even the smiling presence of a body standing before us. Out of these stimuli we create reality. Our reality is created. It is a construct in our mind. This is always true. Sure there are molecules out there and the physical world is real, but what it means, and how I react to it, is all made up.

So to go back to the funny little text boxes that so many of us nowadays spend our lives staring at and responding to, we would do well to remember what they are. They are light streaming from a bit of glass. Nothing more, nothing less. What they mean and how we feel about them is made up. It is up to us. We would do well to remember that.

Capital T Truth

I have just started reading The Patterning Instinct by Jeremy Lent, described as "A cognitive history of man's search for meaning." - Right up my street!

Reading the opening chapters on how language developed, how communal thinking came to be a thing, and the anthropological approaches currently being combined with recent advances in neuroscience, made me realise yet again what a malleable thing the truth is.

Even in the scientific world the best any particular version of the truth can claim is that it is a currently working hypothesis. In fact one of the strengths of the scientific method is that it acknowledges this and is continually testing existing hypotheses and "improving" them.

But one of the points of the book is that what "improving" means changes over time. Our overarching narratives of what life means steer our day to day experiences and determine what sort of truths we seek proof for.

While I worry that we appear to have a generation of politicians in charge who have an even more loose than ever grasp of the truth, the fact that it is making apparent how consensual these truths are will, in the long run, prove to be a good thing.

Fear, and loss of control

We love the idea that we have control over our lives and the world around us. A lot of work goes into maintaining this fiction. How much time and effort is spent in business attempting to convince ourselves that we know what is going to happen next and the reasons why?

But do we? How many ten year, even five year, strategies come to pass as so confidently predicted? How many carefully spreadsheeted cashflow predictions turn out exactly as planned? How many of our own goals do we look back on wistfully as another year passes and nothing turned out quite as we had hoped?

Life keeps on happening, without our control. We are out of control. We don't even control our own thoughts never mind the world around us. Deep down we know this and numb ourselves to the fear it induces with mindless media, sugary food, or alcohol.

But something magical happens when we stop worrying about our lack of control. We can still take actions, we can still think thoughts, we can still affect the world around us, we just stop worrying about whether things turn out as we expect. We stop piling stress on top of the lack of knowledge of how things will end up.

Rather than inhibiting us, the acknowledgement of our total lack of control makes it easier for us to take action. We stop worrying and do stuff. We enjoy going along for the ride and worry less about where we are going. In doing so we might just get somewhere magical - again and again.

Getting annoyed

One of the aims of mindfulness and practicing meditation is to get better at responding to things rather than reacting to them. To take calm, appropriate action when needed rather than to get bent out of shape because things aren't how we expect them to be.

This isn't to say that you end up as some chilled out, passive, punch bag for the world. In fact strong but considered responses are more likely to change things for the better than flying off the handle every time the world doesn't confirm to our expectations.

This is why many of us who have been early adopters of the online lifestyle have become interested in meditation. We have experienced the consequences of letting every online spat wind us up. From "don't feed the troll" to "wait an hour before responding to that email" we have developed techniques to mitigate the power that the internet gives people to press our buttons and meditation helps take this further and deeper.

In fact the internet has for me become a way of extending my practice. Noticing when a comment has triggered a response, watching my reactions, feeling my muscles tense and heart race. Really paying attention to my feelings, and in the moment it takes to do this achieving even a modest distancing from my emotional reaction. Realising that I am not that reaction. I am more than that.

Every day we get to see the consequences of people not applying this understanding. Extremes of vitriol and polarised attitudes are becoming widespread. But it doesn't have to be like this. We can learn to do better. We can learn about ourselves. We can use the opportunity to go deeper rather than to flail around on the surface.

Doing the right thing

One of the first questions in BBC staff surveys used to be "Would you defend the BBC?". My first thought was always "That depends on whether we screwed up or not". It seemed such a stupid question that I struggled to take the rest of the survey seriously.

But how often do we really think about whether our organisations are doing the right thing or not? And do we do anything about it if we feel that they aren't?

In my book I wrote about the possibility of using internal social networks to regain some degree of influence over the large corporations that dominate the world of work and which are forever challenging the abilities of governments to control them. I am pretty sure that this potentially disruptive power is partly why their adoption is still rare!

But how else do we respond to that nagging doubt, that feeling of unease? Are we really powerless? Do we really need to keep working for an organisation that we feel is doing the wrong thing?

Or could we dare to have that first conversation with a colleague to share our concerns, to get the ball rolling, to start to take responsibility?

Digital Ethics

Digital Ethics is fast becoming the latest victim of what I call thingification - the tendency to turn a good idea into a thing that gets oversold, underdelivered and becomes a displacement activity that distracts us from the need for real change. But I think it is important that we hold onto the idea that technology amplifies our human characteristics, both good and bad, and literally hard wires them into the tools that increasingly shape our world.

We need to be aware of the moral and ethical consequences of this. Just because we can do amazing things with our new tools doesn't mean that they all necessarily make the world a better place. We can use them for good or ill. What worries me at the moment that who gets to determine what good or ill means is too often a frighteningly small group of people. This is not their fault. It is as much the fault of the rest of the world who still too often stand back and say "I don't do technology".

This is true within organisations too. I watch IT departments making decisions that will have a massive impact on the interactions and ultimately culture within their organisations, while groups like HR, Comms, and even line management adopt a victim mentality and go along with the changes as if they were somehow inevitable.

These groups need to educate and inform themselves enough about technology to fight back, to put a brake on the rampant march of the digitisation of everything. Not to hold back the future but to take ownership of it, to make sure that it works for all of the varied interests and priorities of the organisation. To increase the chances of it turning out well in the end!

Utopia, dystopia, or a more mundane truth in between?

Every time someone sends me a link to an article about how the internet or social media are destroying the very fabric of civilisation I am struck that they wouldn't be able to send me the link without the internet and I wouldn't be able to maintain a connection to them without social media.

I gave up on Cal Newport's books because I got so wearied with someone who I had only heard of through social media wasting half his books telling me what a negative force social media was!

Talking with a friend recently about the early days and John Perry Barlow's Declaration Of Independence Of Cyberspace I found myself wondering, yet again, how much of that original idealism that was so infectious has been lost. But then I thought that it is all about timescales. If you believe that we are at the end of the impact of the internet and that it's potential has been assimilated into business as usual for commerce and politics then there are reasons for pessimism. If you believe, as I do, we are only at the start of a much longer story arc, then the future is less bleak and there is much to be done.

But that doing is much more low key and ordinary than we expect. It is not about becoming the next internet meme, amassing a huge audience on YouTube, or even becoming some sort of guru or expert and inventing a new ism that ends up discarded and tarnished like all of the others.

Someone asked me the other day if I wasn't interested in increasing my impact on the web, employing marketing techniques to increase my profile. They thought that my ideas were important and worth aiming for greater impact. But to do so would be to fall for the very ideas that I am arguing against. I don't want to "maximise my impact", I want it to be what it will be. If I start chasing audience and employing SEO and other internet dark arts then I might as well give up. I would rather build a future post by post, conversation by conversation, thought by thought, modest exchange by modest exchange.

The future is always much more ordinary than we expect. Contrary to popular opinion we can start living it now.

Life imitating art

Having been learning a lot about consciousness, psychedelics, and the origins of computing recently I had my head done in this afternoon by Brandersnatch, the first episode of the new Black Mirror series.

Watching the gob smacking programme I wondered what the origin of the word Brandersnatch was.

Apparently unconnected, recently read references to Alice in Wonderland in Jed McKenna's Theory Of Everything mean that my unread copy of The Annotated Alice is on my desk.

But now, in my current kindle reading by Greg Goode on non-duality I stumble across the following from Lewis Carrol"s Jabberwocky.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son The jaws that bite, the claws that catch! Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun The frumious Bandersnatch!”

It's all too much...

Questioning things

Last night I watched a documentary about King George VI which contained lots of archive footage of political events and state occasions many of them during the war.

It struck me that, despite the turmoil of the times, society, in terms of its attitudes to power and the establishment, was so much more trusting and compliant than the attitudes we are experiencing now.

In fact you could argue that part of the reason for people voting leave in the Brexit referendum was a nostalgia for a previously more stable and predictable society. But it has had the opposite effect. The ensuing chaos has left us feeling even less "strong and stable" than we did before.

Likewise in the US. The unpredictable madness of Trump has thrown things up in the air to such a degree that I heard someone comment on a podcast that the next incumbent is going to have a challenge working out what "acting presidentially" even means any more let alone how to do it!

But no matter how uncomfortable all of this change is making us feel in the short term I am increasingly confident that in the long run it will make us stronger.

The falling apart of the myth of stability and predictability that is so carefully maintained by the state and the media is in the long run a good thing. It is waking us up from the collective dream state that we have been conditioned to think is normal.

It feels painful at the moment but questioning things is good for us. It makes us work harder at seeking truth. It makes us feel more alive.

Just what I wanted

Today, as I sat in a large city office in London, with its glass and steel and modern furniture, discussing possible work in Hong Kong, I had to keep pinching myself as the couple of days before I had been driving a truck up and down the M1, staying overnight in a Premier Inn, and delivering in and around the Leeds and Bradford areas.

I'm loving the fact that my two worlds of work are so very, very different!

Magical thinking

One of my first jobs at the BBC was scheduling the use of video and film equipment. We had A3 planning sheets, coloured pencils, a ruler, and an eraser. Resources were arranged vertically down the side and time slots horizontally across the top. You could visually take in lots of information at a glance and make changes in an instant.

And then the system was computerised! We only had a partial view of the information at any one time, we had to remember what it was we were changing and what we were changing it to, and changes were a complex multi step process. We were told this was progress!

Many moons ago I wrote "Is it unfair to characterise the IT industry as a bunch of dodgy characters in cheap suits selling wish fulfilment to out of their depth executives ". Sadly not much has changed.

The IT industry still resorts to the sort of magical thinking peddled by religions of various flavours for millennia. "Perform these rituals, obey these rules, give your power to our priests, and we will take your pain away and deliver a state of bliss/enlightenment/rapture."

Don't fall for magical thinking. Think for yourself, be skeptical, choose your tools and methods very carefully, and avoid priesthoods of any flavour.

Magic in our hands

It never ceases to amaze me how much technological power is at our fingertips these days.

One of the benefits of my alternative career in driving is having time on my own to think, and being able to capture thoughts simply by raising my watch on my wrist and dictating to Siri is incredible.

In fact most of my writing these days is done either by dictation or, as is the case now, by handwriting on my iPad which Good Notes then automatically converts into text.

Like I said, magic. But not just magic for its own sake, magic that makes me more productive, and creative, while having fun at the same time!

Bad weather

This morning I woke up the sound of heavy rain on the window and felt excited. As I said recently - I love rain. On the other hand my wife woke up and said "what awful weather".

Even on Friday when I drove my truck out of the yard with heavy rain obscuring the mirrors, car headlights sparkling and dazzling my view, it felt exciting. Terrifying, but exciting.

I don't tend to do much mountaineering in the summer. It is when the air gets colder, the days shorter, and the exciting prospect of snow becomes a possibility, that I start sorting my kit out and planning trips.

Bad weather feels real, coping with it makes me feel alive and it is so true that "There is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes!"

It's always the small things...

In the current turmoil brought about by Brexit and Trump it is so easy to think that we need to do something, to take action, to do something grand, to join a movement, to wave banners. But if we see the world as dominated by grand things, big things, things that we have no control over, then we either go numb and feel powerless, or we overreact and provoke a counter-reaction.

But neither Brexit nor Trump happened because of big or grand things, they happened because of the combination of a lot of small things. Conversations that weren't had, daft ideas that weren't discussed, unpleasant attitudes that weren't questioned, power that was deferred to rather than challenged that incrementally got out of hand.

It is only ever the small things that we have any influence over. We need to make sure that we exercise that influence. If we hear someone trashing immigrants, or being nostalgic for an "old days" that never existed, have a conversation with them, or for that matter failing to question the power in Brussels, ask them why they feel that way. Instead of building opposition movements, which just exacerbate the polarity and divisiveness, have lots of brave conversations, all the time, with everyone you meet.

In some ways getting busy with initiatives is easier than having those conversations. It's a bit like at work. Kicking off a grand change programme (ideally involving considerable spend on technology) is easier than facing the existential challenge of behaving differently, of relating to people differently.

It is in our relationships that our real power to change our world lies. We should spend more time focussing on that than on displacement activities.

Funny old things brains...

Pulling a Marlboro soft pack from the chest pocket of my combat jacket while looking down at the wet cobbles of a Glasgow backstreet as they glisten in the early morning streetlights just bubbled up forty years after the event.

Funny old things brains...

The Blockchain and the New Architecture Of Trust

One of the best bits of the blockchain conference I hosted in Washington recently was hearing from people directly involved in practical implementations of the smart contract use of the technology. What was reassuring was the absence of hype and over selling of what blockchain can do.

One of the most grounded, realistic, sceptical, yet positive, presentations came from Kevin Werbach, Associate Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. Kevin and I realised that we have known each other nearly seventeen years, and he is one of the smartest people I know. His new book, The Blockchain and the New Architecture of Trust, comes out in the UK mid December and if, like me, you believe that blockchain will survive the hype cycle and become really interesting and important, I would highly recommend checking it out.

The gap

Viktor E. Frankl once wrote:

"Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."

Hannah is currently studying Psychology as one of her A Levels and yesterday we were chatting about neuroscience's discovery that our subconscious reacts to stimuli before our conscious brain is aware that we have had that thought. She told her classmates of my experiment where I try to observe myself deciding to get out of the bath in the mornings and the fact that I fail every time. I know that I am likely to get out of the bath soon, and then I know that I am standing up, but I have never been able to observe myself making that decision. If I am not consciously making that decision I am not consciously making any decision. But does this mean I have no free will?

On the way to my Class 1 HGV test yesterday the truck developed a fault, serious enough that we considered telling the examiner and rescheduling the test. We decided to go ahead anyway and to say that this increased my stress levels is an understatement! But because of my years of meditation practice I am so much better these days at noticing my thinking.

I may not have control over my situation, I may not be able to control my thinking, but I can notice it, and I can do so more quickly. Instead of my rising panic swamping me, I was able to observe it and in doing so reduce it. This noticing gives me space.

This is the gap. The space between the stimulus and the response. This is what Viktor E. Frankl was talking about. This is what Buddha realised 2,500 years ago. This is why it is worth practicing.

Drifting off

Doing anything new always requires more attention than something we are familiar with. Once an activity has become routine it is so easy to slip into auto-pilot. Once the auto-pilot is on we can indulge in the endless chatter with which we fill so many of our waking hours. The constant churning of regrets about the past and worries about the future.

Driving is for many of us the most common example of this. That moment when you suddenly realise that you can't remember any of the past ten minutes of motorway driving no matter how busy the traffic. But this is why my current truck driving adventures are so interesting. I have to be completely on the ball all of the time. Nothing is happening on auto-pilot yet. I have to keep my wits about me all of the time.

If I make a mistake my brain wants to go over and over it. What I got wrong, what I should have done, what could have been worse. 0ff I go spinning stories about something that didn't happen rather than keeping my mind and attention on what is happening now. But we live like this all the time. We miss our lives because instead of being here now we drift off into analysing what happened a week ago or terrifying ourselves about what might or might not happen next month.

Observing ourselves doing this is what meditation is all about - increasing our ability to realise that we have drifted off and away from the present moment. Catching myself doing this is going to be critical to my ability to safely negotiate my truck and its cargo through busy traffic. I seem to be reasonably good at doing this. Little did I think that practicing meditation all these years would benefit me in such an unexpected way!

Today’s workplace

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First day of proper HGV driving (I'd previously done a day but in a 3.5 tonne van). Great fun. Lots of complicated reversing, having to unload gazillions of window frames on my own, and the general nervous wear and tear of manipulating 7.5 tonnes through busy rush hour traffic and small country villages - I'm knackered.

This sort of multi-drop is not my longer term aim, and suspect I may be getting the older truck because I'm a newbie, but both are fair enough. Happy to pay my dues and work my way up.

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.