New Clues: Calling on everyone to be Dutiful Individuals

 

 

 

 

I’ve already written about my reaction to New Clues, the latest instalment from Cluetrain authors Doc Searls and David Weinberger; this serves more as a postscript than as anything else.

Perhaps it was always there in all of Cluetrain. My sense is that it was. But one thing’s for sure, when I read New Clues I felt there was a lot of “we” about it, an “us” about it. Not a “me”, and not an”i”. We. Us. The call to action was to a collective.

I’ve been fascinated by aspects of me-ness and we-ness ever since I was a teenager. The Calcutta I grew up in was for many years a democratically-elected communist state, make of that what you will. The India I grew up in was described in terms like “secular” and “non-aligned” and sometimes even “socialist”. Our 5-year Plans were modelled on Russian examples; while there was an amicable relationship with the UK, with the US and with NATO in general, terms like “bhai-bhai” were used to describe our relationships with Russia and China. We were a democracy then and I hope we still are; but we were also a socialist republic at the same time.

It was a land that celebrated me-ness and we-ness. If push came to shove, the we-ness tended to win. I’m sure it’s common in other cultures, but my personal experience was that everything to do with my identity, with who I was or am or will be, was communal in nature. I was defined more by my context and my relationships than by anything peculiarly “me” about me.

The bureaucracy at the heart of India — the Indian Administrative Service — was a we-ness. The alumnus effect of the IAS would put Western organisations like Accenture and McKinsey or Harvard and Stanford to shame. I chose those four deliberately, given their perceived excellence in managing alumnus effects. The IAS did what an Accenture or a McKinsey did at scale, but that’s not what makes them legendary. The IAS somehow managed to make these effects happen despite the grade structure that is the DNA of most bureaucracies.

Industry was a we-ness. They were either nationalised, in which case they adopted a weaker, less effective IAS-like model; or they were private, in which case they were often run by industrial groups with very strong family links at the senior layers.

There were unions everywhere. Particularly in Bengal. The sounds of Aamader Dabi Mantey Hobey rang out every day in Calcutta streets; I guess the translation today would be something like “Our demands must be met”. They were militant, rampant, as militant and rampant as anything could be in Bengal, especially in summer. There was a reason why Noel Coward said, in Mad Dogs and Englishmen: In Bengal to move at all is seldom ever done.

The power of collective action was well understood in India. And the democratic socialist republic knew how to exercise it: nothing else can explain how Congress lost the 1977 election to the fledgling Janata party, how Indira Gandhi lost her own seat, how the only party ever to have held power in India, led by the daughter of the first Prime Minister, could manage to lose an election where most of the opposition had spent most of the electioneering time in jail.

One of my favourite stories about the power of the collective comes from one of Nirmal Kumar Bose‘s books on his life with Gandhi.

Bose had been given the opportunity to interview the Mahatma on the 9th of November 1934, at Mahila Ashram. Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and his son Ghani were also there. They all went for a walk with Gandhiji that evening. The way the author describes it, Gandhiji could have walked for India at the Olympics. So he rattled off at a serious pace into the fields around the ashram, wearing his customary sandals. The rest of the party followed dutifully, roaming into the gloaming behind the Mahatma. After a little over a mile, he turned back.

And as he turned, he stopped to pick up a few stones. As did everyone else in the walking party. Who proceeded to carry said stones all the way back to the garden of the ashram. Why? Here’s what Bose says:

The fact was, the Ashram was a little way off from the main metalled road, and one had to walk along a sticky, muddy path in the rains to reach it. Some engineer had been called, but his estimate had been too high for the Ashram. So Gandhiji had proceeded in his own direct manner to deal with the problem of road-building. He had promised to collect all necessary road-metal in the course of a few months and this, he expected, would reduce the cost of the road to a considerable extent. Thus, every morning and evening’s walk was meant not only for keeping the inmates of the Ashram fit, but it was also to add to the “wealth” of the establishment in a very different way.

The author goes on:

In Gandhi’s opinion, there seemed to be no problem, however great, in whose solution the smallest individual could not contribute his mite. Indeed, he had the genius of discovering individual solutions in the most ingenious ways. His idea was, if we could multiply the number of dutiful individuals by many, that would lead to the solution of a problem, however massive it might appear at first sight to be.

When I think of the internet, when I think of the web, I am reminded of this passage by Bose about Gandhi. The pioneers of the internet and of the web kept building and evolving a philosophy, some principles, a set of agreements, ways of doing things, that carried this hallmark — the smallest individual could contribute his mite.

New Clues is there to tell us three things:

The context has evolved in scale and scope, but the conversations that started with Cluetrain continue today and will continue tomorrow

There is a philosophical battle, and that battle is deep in Then-They-Fight-Us territory.

And then we will win. But to win, as in the story of the roads at Mahila Ashram, we need to be dutiful individuals contributing our mites.

The Clues are there to help us understand what being dutiful means, and where we need to be contributing our mites.

And then we win

 

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The Cluetrain continues to roll. Two of the original authors, Doc Searls and David Weinberger, have set out some New Clues.

If you want to tune in (or for that matter, if you want to turn on or drop out) the Gillmor Gang piece in TechCrunch is a good place to start. Dave Winer’s got a listicle going. Kevin Marks has reposted the Clues. There’s a whole lotta forking going on. Conversations sprouting everywhere.

If you haven’t been on the Cluetrain, now’s a good time. You can get to the whole of the original book for free, so there’s no excuse. But then I’m biased. Privileged to call these guys my friends.

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The conversation that Cluetrain started all those years ago is one that has continued. The music never stopped. Neither did our power to connect, participate or share in the independence of cyberspace.

When I was reading the new clues, my first reaction was Gandhian. Or maybe it was Nicholas-Kleinian. Who may have said. In 1914. Or maybe even 1916. Or maybe it was  1918.

It doesn’t matter. What matters is that our ability to check the facts is continuing to improve. What matters is that our ability to converse with each other about the facts, and to share our opinions about those facts, has improved. What matters is that those abilities are now available to more and more people, and critically at a time when such abilities are more and more needed.

Internet users have grown by at least an order of magnitude in the time elapsed between the first Cluetrain and New Clues. [Thank you Mary Meeker, thank you Internet World Stats].

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The quantum of data on the web (and here I make no assertion as to the quality or reliability or usability of that data) has also grown exponentially, and continues to grow:

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As Moore’s Law and Metcalfe’s Law have continued their march, the number of conversations has also grown out of all proportion: this, from Cairbre Sugrue, is a telling chart.

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More connected people. More shared data. More open data. More ways to converse. More ways to challenge.

More ways that we can create and share learning and experience and joy and sadness.

The way I look at things now, Cluetrain was written during a First-They-Ignore-You time. The years since were initially Then-They-Laugh-At-You.

I think New Clues has been written because we’re now in the midst of Then-They-Fight-You. There’s a clear call to action. A call for all of us. A call we’ve been hearing for a while, to do with DMCA and DRM and region-coding and patent trolls and net neutrality and SOPA and PIPA and lock-ins and walled gardens.

Then they fight you. Actually it’s better to say “Then they fight us“. The “us” is important, because that’s the heart of this indescribable thing that is the internet and the web.

It’s an us thing. Not an Us thing. Or even an US thing. It’s an us thing. An us that is to be found in the hearts and minds of those who built the infrastructure that makes it all possible. [In this context, besides Cluetrain, I’ve found the conversations facilitated by people like David Isenberg and Gordon Cook invaluable; similarly, the writings of people like Bob Frankston on ambient connectivity and Sheldon Renan on netness continue to shape and inspire my thoughts on the subject. People like Steven Johnson, Clay Shirky, Howard Rheingold, Cory Doctorow continue to help me understand the value of community and of the ways in which people learn and share and build things that last.

Then they fight us. It’s a war. And yes, like any other war, this war has correspondents risking limb, and sometimes even life, to ensure that the rest of us have a clue. If you want to follow this particular war, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Boing Boing are good places to start.

Then they fight us. There is no longer any need to debate the value generated by the internet and the web. At least once every six months, I go and watch this conversation between Tim Berners-Lee and Tim O’Reilly to remind me about all this.

Then they fight us. The internet, while not a series of tubes, is many things, a state of mind, a worldview, a philosophy. Philosophical battles can get Blefuscudian, so it’s important to understand the facts rather than just concentrate on the emotion. Which is why we should all try and support the work of the Web Science Trust and of the Computer History Museum, as they strive to preserve our understanding of where all this comes from and where all this is headed. [Disclaimer: That’s why I try and serve as a trustee at both those institutions].

Then they fight us. In some ways, the philosophical battle we face is one that pits the individual against the collective, and our current wailing and tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth on subjects like internet governance and intellectual property and identity and privacy are all consequences of this battle. These are not simple battles and we’ve only just begun. There’s still a lot of theatre in this theatre of war, and we need to move on, as Bruce Schneier continues to remind us.

Then they fight us. Some of the benefits that accrue from ubiquitous and affordable connectivity and the consequent power to collaborate and share at scale can appear asymmetrical: gains are perceived at a collective and “society” level, while harms are perceived at an individual and “person” level. It is against this backdrop that the marauders and fools referred to in New Clues operate, and  that’s what makes it possible to entice and delude the Us referred to by the authors.

New Clues is a timely reminder of the transition taking place from Then-They-Ridicule-Us to Then-They-Fight-Us.

What Doc and David are doing is reminding us that we have a role to play in making sure the next phase goes as intended.

And then we win.

 

Bureaucracy as a platform? The power of diversity

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I was born in a house that housed a printing press in its basement. When I first left home, it was in that basement that I stayed. [Not for long: my need of home cooking proved far greater than my yearning for independence].

We left that house around 1960, and I grew up in flats where typewriters sprouted like houseplants. A Smith Corona here, a Remington there, portables mixing with standards, a splash of green here, a dash of black there. Typewriters everywhere. In all sizes, in all shapes. But we still owned the printing press.

I loved going to that press. The way the smell of printing ink hit you right in the face as you walked in. Rows after rows of galleys, some still occupied by erstwhile leaders, the type still burnished and glowing with ink. The rumble of the presses. The hypnotic motion of the paper feeds. The strange attraction held by the gigantic inkpad; the knowledge that you’d be caught red-handed if you touched it. More precisely, you’d be caught black-handed: our press didn’t do much colour in those days.

Yes, I loved going to that press. I think we called it Dorchester Printing Works. I have no idea why, but what I do know is that my grandfather had rooms at the Dorchester in London for months at a time, and that he gave the hotel as his address when he misplaced his passport sometime in the 1930s.

I was aghast when I first saw a linotype machine keyboard.

linotype

Etaoin Shrdlu? Aha. Now I knew why that ghost phrase would occur in partial proofs, the lorem ipsum of a bygone age. And I remarked so.

Yes, etaoin shrdlu indeed, said my father. He then went on to explain that anyone designing for speed and efficiency in typesetting in the English language would build a keyboard based on letter frequencies. And then he said something that shocked me more than etaoin shrdlu, something everyone knows now (given the increased penetration of the keyboard into everyday life since then) and something no one will know in years to come (given the impending obsolescence of the keyboard).

The QWERTY keyboard was designed to slow you down. Not a new idea, yet one that will run and run. For those of you who want to delve deeper into “productive frictions” of this sort, there’s no better place to start than the working papers on Creation Nets by John Hagel and John Seely Brown, published nearly a decade ago. Which in turn should ensure that you get hold of the book that followed, The Only Sustainable Edge. Well worth a read.

Those trips to the printing presses made heavy impressions on the schoolboy that was me in the 1960s. [Yes, pun intended, before you say anything about it]. Even today, my love for linotype, for letterpress, for type (particularly wood type) continues unabated. Just look at the patina on the type below:

WoodType

You’ve probably figured this out by now, I think of my childhood and youth with great fondness; schooldays were filled with glee. Which is probably why I am still in touch with so many of my classmates fifty years later; in those intervening five decades, we’ve had a diaspora of sorts and can now be found in the US, the UK, Germany, Brazil, Japan, Singapore, Australia, Canada, the Middle East and of course India, amongst others. And we meet as often as we can.

A Parsee, a Muslim, a Christian and a Hindu walked into a restaurant. Sounds like the beginning of a joke, but it’s actually an accurate representation of what happened last month, as a number of us from the “batch of 1975″ had dinner in London.

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The Calcutta I grew up in was cosmopolitan; there was something remarkable about the way we represented a heterogeneous mass in “caste, creed and colour” as the saying went. And yet to us it was normal, wholly unremarkable. It was familiar; it was warm; it felt safe and secure.

Why did it feel that way? Because it was safe and secure. In the years that have passed since, I have felt at home in many cities. But not necessarily safe. To get that warm feeling, I had to be somewhere cosmopolitan. Which is probably why I love London, San Francisco, New York, Cambridge (Massachusetts). A feeling of warmth, safety and security, a natural consequence of the heterogeneity of the population.

I’ve travelled to over fifty countries since, been threatened with arrest, beaten up, even pummelled into a coma. Sometimes I’ve felt safe, sometimes I haven’t. And I learnt something.

When everyone around you is different and you’re different, then you’re all the same. When everyone around you is the same and you’re different, then you have a problem. There is a warmth, an inclusion, that comes from diversity.

My fascination with the power of diversity began at an early age, triggered by nascent thoughts about productive friction. I’d never left India until after I was 23. In those days, received wisdom for travellers went along the lines of

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This was told to all would-be visitors to places like India; when I asked why, I was told “gypsy tummy”, “Delhi belly”, “Montezuma’s Revenge”…. the phrases were varied and colourful, but they all described the same condition. And when I asked why this never affected the people who lived there, I was told it had to do with antibodies and immunity.

I was young and I was obdurate. So when I heard all this I could only make one decision, I could only go one way.

I drank the water. And paid for it.

And then I kept drinking the water. Every time I went to a new place, one of the first things I’d do was to drink a glass of tap water. Yes, initially I paid for it. But only initially. After a few years of having tap water in every port, I’d built up the immunity I needed. To put it another way, I was made safe by the “diversity” of the water I drank.

Many years later, I had the chance to listen to someone at a TED conference, speaking about something else that fascinated me. Seed and crop diversity. His name was Cary Fowler; I spent some time talking to him, he even agreed to sign one of his books for me. I was spellbound. Seed banks deep underground. Not just preserving the seeds we used, but going further and preserving those that weren’t suitable for our environment. Because they could be suitable. One day.

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Future-proofing through the preservation of diversity. I loved it.

Over the past decade, I’ve had to understand more and more about the human immune system, as family and friends were afflicted by imbalances of different sorts. I began to appreciate the view that we humans had done well in targeting and eradicating “point” diseases and conditions, but fared significantly less well when it came to handling immune system issues. I began to learn terms I’d never really come across before: biome, biota, even “fecal transplant“. I shall be kind to you and give you the thousand word version rather than the picture for that one.

There were strange ideas floating around, fascinating in their strangeness. Was it possible that the dahi that formed part of the classic Indian diet, the thayir-shadam of the TamBram, was an elegant way of replenishing the immune system? More outrageously, could it be possible that the appendix was originally a boot disk for the immune system?

Health through diversity, this time in the micro-organisms ingested.

The last thirty years have seen increasing damage done by viruses of a different sort, the cyber kind. And words like monoculture have often been used to explain why one platform was more vulnerable than others. While at Salesforce, I marvelled at the technical brilliance of the core platform: one codebase to serve all customers, regardless of their market segment or size and style of operation. As I looked more closely, I understood something, something important. The variety of the customer base was an intrinsic part of the strength and stability of the platform — the codebase was “exercised” in umpteen ways, something that could not happen without customer diversity.

Platform stability through variety in usage patterns, again strength in diversity.

Hmmm. To the platform hammer of my mind, everything looked like the proverbial diversity nail.

And then. And then.

And then, while reading some quite diverse things (yes, diversity strikes once again), I began to toy with some ideas that others were already exploring.

How come India emerged as a “stable” country post-colonisation, in comparison to many others? The Partition riots were appalling, dehumanising, tragic. But the country moved on. Every now and then, there have been warning signs of monoculture, of “ethnic cleansing”, of homogenisation. But so far those attempts have been fruitless.

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Was it possible that one of the essences of India, the babu-dom of Writers’ Building, the bureaucracy-taken-to-an-extreme of the Indian Civil Service, the gargantuan offspring of the Imperial Civil Service — was it possible that the bureaucracy was itself a source of stability?

The Civil Service in India was built to cope with diversity in its customer base, drawn as they were from at least fifteen different languages, hundreds of dialects, worshipping pantheon upon pantheon of gods, colourfully variegated in their clothes and diet and united in their love/hate affinity with the English language.

That civil service, that pinnacle of bureaucracy, may itself be one of the core reasons India remains united today.

Strength and stability in diversity. Even bureaucracy can be a platform.

Just some of the stuff I’ve been mulling over. Let me know what you think.

Of sharing and millionaires and learning: A Sunday stroll

 

 

 

The first “job” I ever had was mind-numbingly boring. I had to go every morning to Kidderpore Docks in Calcutta, find my way to a steelyard there, walk over to the only building in the steelyard, and proceed to occupy that space from 8am to 5pm. A desolate job in a desolate place.

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Calling the structure there a “building” was gross exaggeration. It was a hut. With a table and chair in it, some papers on a shelf, and a single solitary naked bulb gently dangling in the middle of the room.

And a phone. A special one. One that came without a dial. It may have been green at one time, but it was hard to tell. Looked a bit like this:

Screen Shot 2015-01-04 at 15.59.46

Occasionally it would make a sound. PG Wodehouse would probably have called it a strangled yelp. It was that sort of sound, designed to shatter the reverie of dreaming 18-year-olds. Which it did, but only occasionally.

My job was simple. When the device yelped, pick it up. Wait a few minutes. Then go stand outside the hut for a vehicle to arrive. Sometimes it was a train, sometimes it was a truck. [Oh yes, this steelyard had all mod cons. Even a railway line running through it].

When said vehicle arrived, I had to direct it to the weigh bridge. Not that much directing was called for: the steelyard had steel (oodles and oodles of it, gently rusting); it had a hut, of which I was the sole occupant; and it had the weigh bridge. Which I had to point to.

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Vehicle gets on weigh bridge. Weight noted. Steel “billets” taken off vehicle. Weight noted. And in the meantime, words like Gross and Tare entered my daily vocabulary.

Sometimes the sequence was changed. The vehicle arrived empty and the billets went on rather than off it. Variety, the spice of life, helped keep me awake.

One or two such incidents a day. No rhyme or reason as to when the vehicle arrived. But always, always, preceded by the strangled yelp.

Taught me patience. And powers of observation. Gave me the ability to keep myself occupied for long periods while doing nothing and seeing nobody. Not to be sneezed at, came in very useful in later years.

They called me Management Trainee and paid me Rs 400 per month at the time. This was January 1976. I’d just finished school.

It wasn’t as if I’d never worked till then. I had. I’d been proofreading for my dad, working part-time for the family business, a weekly financial journal, from the time I was 14. As I grew older, he entrusted me with writing a page of what today would have been called The Week: a summary of everything that happened in the world of Indian Finance which wasn’t already covered elsewhere in the journal. A thousand words of regurgitation and summary.

Taught me about immovable deadlines. About agile working. About what it really meant. In those days agility meant knowing precisely how long you could leave something before it just had to be done. Which meant that by the time you actually did what needed doing, your information base for carrying out the task was as rich as humanly possible.

Those times with Indian Finance and Martin Burn in Calcutta were seminal, insofar as they informed my perspective on what constituted work. I was a child of the information age.

Which is probably why, many years later, I claimed that all enterprise software would only consist of four types of application: publishing, search, conversation and fulfilment. That was a decade ago.

In the meantime, email has been seen off by social networks and smart mobile devices have become ubiquitous; always-on connectivity and communications have entered the realm of possibility, even if we haven’t quite got the coverage we would want, a point Bob Mankoff makes delightfully in the New Yorker. I love the New Yorker cartoons, I have an a-ha moment of empathy with at least one cartoon a week.

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Today, the “knowledge worker”, the child of the information age, works in streams. The streams may get called Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn and Chatter, but they’re still streams nevertheless. Information flowing through, in chronological order, based on what they subscribe to, who and what they “follow”. The streams have replaced the ponds and canals of email, as power moved from sender to recipient: that simple, subtle shift ensured that firehoses could be tamed.

Since 2006 I’ve friended a few thousand people on Facebook, followed a few thousand on Twitter, linked to a few thousand on LinkedIn; in the decade prior and since, I’ve probably given away my mail address and mobile phone number to many many more.

When I look at what happened as a result, I remain amazed. Over a thousand emails a day, a number that’s been pretty constant for nearly two decades. And yet: maybe ten SMSes a day, mainly from my immediate and local family, a few friends; maybe five fb messages a day; maybe five Twitter DMs a day; maybe five LinkedIn mails a day. Strange, what happens when power moves from sender to recipient.

That’s not a particularly fair representation of what happens, since the world of mail didn’t really have any concept of “notifications” outside the core mail message. But it’s instructive.

My narrow, anecdotal, and unscientific view of knowledge workers has been gained over 35 years and while working in companies that ranged from tens of thousands of workers to hundreds of thousands. Fairly large information-age enterprises.

And what I’ve watched is this. The stimulus to get a piece of work done, to perform a particular task, may come from within you or without you (Cue for Beatle song: do I really need an excuse to link to a George Harrison song? No) ; that does not affect the work pattern:

Find out all you can about what needs to be done. If there’s something you’re not clear on, talk to people about it, ask someone. Once you know what you need to know, do it. Leave it as late as possible to do it, because it means you will know more than you would have otherwise. But make sure you do it in time for whatever purports to be the “deadline”

That’s what I was trying to describe when I spoke of publishing, search, conversation and fulfilment as the four pillars. I didn’t do too well doing the describing, but it’s what I meant. You need ways of sharing information with people (publishing), you need ways of finding what people have published (search), you need to talk to people about what you’ve learnt, questions you may have (conversation). And then you need to go and actually do it (fulfilment). Placing an order, booking a trip, shipping a product, delivering a service, it doesn’t matter. The questions are the same. What has to be “delivered”? To whom? Where? When? How is value going to be exchanged? How will people know when it’s done?

Today people know more about publishing and about subscribing, which should be seen as “repeat search”. Or if you prefer you can think of search as “ad hoc subscribing”. Humans are social animals, so I don’t need to say more about conversation. People talk. And getting things done is “fulfilment”. Enough with those terms.

I’ve been trying to find better metaphors for all this, and while lazing over Christmas on the plane back from India, something strange occurred to me.

Maybe I should describe Who Wants to Be A Millionaire.

When you get asked to do something, if you’re sure about it, then you go straight to Fulfilment. Do not pass Go, do not collect £200. But if you’re unsure, then you have some options. You could call a friend. Ask the audience. Maybe even both.

Real collaborative workspaces make this whole process easier.

To call a friend, you need a simple way to get to the class of person termed “friend”, and a simple way to connect with that person, to “call” that person. In analogue closed systems, this was easy. Face to face, synchronous, oral. In a distributed digital context, with both synchronous as well as asynchronous communications, there’s some work to be done to ensure that the person you’re calling is the person you meant to call, and that the communications modality is appropriate.

Asking the audience, similarly, needs codifying. Who’s the audience? Your network? Including Friend Of A Friend? Wider, deeper? How is the question to be couched, so that the audience’s understanding is consistent and reliable and repeatable?

And remember, you have thirty seconds to make your mind up. Thirty seconds to make the firehose consumable, comprehensible, actionable. So having filters and rating mechanisms and +1s and Likes and recommendations becomes important, learning how to use them becomes important. Many of the things we call “social” are actually filters.

When I came to the UK, it was expensive to call home. At a time when my monthly disposable income was measured in two digits, making a regular three-minute £10 call home was outside the bounds of probability.

Today the cost of finding out what your friends think has dropped alarmingly. Today we can all phone a friend or ask the audience about pretty much anything. And get an answer quickly and affordably. And have that answer in a persistent and shareable and findable form. And learn from that answer, and apply the learning to the answer. Iteration in an open and connected context, amongst people who are keen to help each other. And to learn.

That’s really where collaboration begins.

Thinking about 2015

 

 

 

A new year is upon us, particularly if we are of the Gregorian persuasion when it comes to calendars. Even if we aren’t of that persuasion, it helps to have a label to refer to a bucket of time, particularly when said bucket comes in 365-day sizes. I hope and pray that every one of you has the opportunity to reach and extend your potential in the year to come, in 2015. I hope and pray that each and every one of you continues  to learn about life with passion and patience — and laughter in 2015. That’s what I wish for myself, and that’s what I wish for you.

It’s already been a big year for me. I started a new job yesterday, one that I hope and expect will be my last traditional job, at least for the next five or ten years. I loved the job I was doing; and yet I’ve always believed that

to everything there is a season

[RIP Pete Seeger, one of the many personal heroes of mine to have shuffled off this mortal coil last year. Thank you for entertaining and enlightening us. Credit must also go to Koheleth, the writer of Ecclesiastes, for providing the original inspiration].

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[This gives me a reason to link to the wonderful Seekers version of the Seeger song. As if I needed an excuse.]

The season that is upon me now is one of great joy, as I look forward to becoming a grandfather. It seems only yesterday that I walked my eldest child down the aisle; “yesterday” was over five hundred days ago, and in a few weeks time a new generation of my family will walk this earth.

I am so very excited.

And yet.

The season that is upon me now is also one of considerable sadness, as I enter an age where I am required to attend funerals more often than marriages. Death and taxes are painful in their certainty. The generation that begat me and my wife is now approaching fourscore years on this earth; Ray Kurzweil notwithstanding, Father Time has been busy. And it’s not just my parents’ generation: a friend, colleague and erstwhile boss (from a few decades ago) passed away a couple of weeks ago; shortly before that, another good friend from that era lost his wife. My thoughts and prayers are with them and with any and all of you who were bereaved last year. May God go with you.

You’ve probably noticed that I’ve been quieter of late here. That’s not a temporary thing. As I grow older (I turned 57 a few weeks ago) I find myself listening more, reading more, thinking more.

I’m also spending time decluttering my life, putting things into order, cleaning up the detritus of decades. It’s been quite instructive doing that, having to decide what to keep and what to throw. And then having to decide how best to archive the “keepers” and how best to dispose of the rest. And then having to decide how best to share what I’ve done with others, so that the legacy lives on. Archives are only useful if people know they exist and can get to them easily and conveniently. In this context, David Weinberger’s Everything Is Miscellaneous was salutary in its usefulness. If you haven’t read the book yet, may I suggest you rectify that state of affairs forthwith?

And so to 2015. Already a momentous year for me, with a new generation on its way soon. And a new set of opportunities to learn from every day at work.

Some years ago I was quoted as saying

“There’s no such thing as work-life balance. There is only life”. 

I haven’t changed my mind about it in the years since. There was a time when I lived my life in different non-overlapping compartments. Home. Work. Friends. Church. Pub. Bridge club. Golf club. That sort of thing. As I grew older, something strange happened. The compartments started merging. Over time it all became just one compartment. Life.

With that in mind I’ve tried to ensure that the things I think about, the things I read, the things I talk over with friends, the things I learn about and from, the things I work on —- I’ve tried to ensure that all these things have some common themes, some learning that I can take from one context and apply in others.

That’s what I will continue to do in 2015. For what it’s worth, here are some of the themes that will occupy me over the next twelve months:

Collaboration : Many of the problems we face today are global in nature and often interconnected: climate change, energy, water, food, disease, nutrition, youth unemployment, extremism, cybersecurity. Hitherto inalienable concepts like identity and privacy are under severe strain. The institutions that were designed to help solve global problems appear to be no longer fit-for-purpose, deeply ingrained with values that relates to obsolete political and economic orders.

Polarisation : It’s not just about institutional structures, there are cultural changes afoot as well. There’s a Blefuscudian aspect to everything nowadays, as people debate which end of the egg is the one that should be broken. Life used to be so much easier when people only argued about the mathematics of celestial beings atop sharp metal objects.

eggs

There was a time when two-party states worked, when terms like being elected, being in government and being in opposition meant something. Over the past four or five decades these meanings appear to have changed. People seem to be more hung up about being re-elected than about actually serving the people or for that matter governing. Years of subtle gerrymandering may have resulted in larger numbers of returning districts or constituencies becoming one-horse races, with increasing homogeneity of the electorate. Democracy is done a disservice in consequence, and it becomes harder to get anything done.

Modern “democratic” countries seem to be in the same boat as the global institutions they belong to, with governance models that aren’t quite fit-for-purpose. Every debate is filled with polemic and hatred, every argument is grounded in polarised and intractable starting points. Discussions that should have been about “true” or “false” are now carried out across the plane of “right” and “wrong”, a moralising fervour that can operate independent of the facts. [In this context I’m looking forward to seeing what Justin Farrell has observed about this phenomenon as he studied diverse contexts ranging from Yellowstone through KKK to BP]. The last two decades of arguments on climate change, on GMO, on fracking, these are symptomatic of this moralising malaise.

Increasing inequality:  The breakdowns in our ability to decide and to act are taking place at a very inconvenient time. Economic inequality appears to be on the rise globally, as does youth unemployment. “Failed state” is a term whose frequency is likely to go up; such environments become magnets for disaffected, disenfranchised constituencies, exacerbated by the inequality and endemic unemployment.

The need for objective, reliable data: These debates and dramas are taking place with a lot of Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow about: there’s sound,  there’s fury, there’s idiocy, and quite a lot of nothing being signified. [And yes, it’s reasonable to charge me with being one of those idiots. My intention of talking less and listening more and thinking more and learning more is in the fervent hope I can become less of an idiot in the process.]

Many of you reading this post work in an “information age” job. Your time has come. Your skills are needed. Really needed.

That is why I agreed to serve as a trustee of the Web Science Trust some years ago, in the belief that the principles of the web are the very ones that can help turn back the waves of polarisation, disenfranchisement, disaffection and inequality.

That is why I agreed to serve as a trustee of the Computer History Museum, helping preserve and make accessible the artefacts of history of the Information Age.

Both these institutions are working on issues that need your help and support. If you want to get involved, do let me know.

That is why I have so enjoyed learning from Marc Benioff and all my till-a-few-days ago colleagues, working in an environment where the principles of the Foundation are deeply embedded in day-to-day activities, and where the tools, techniques and enablers of collaboration get adopted and adapted at frenetic pace.

New tools, new skills, new ways of approaching things: As with anything else, there’s always a sense of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. And yet I think there are some significant differences. We’re not going to solve many of the arguments we face without better, reliable, objective, emotional-frame-free data. Which means we’re going to have to learn much more about the provenance of the data, about corroboration and fact-checking, about the context in which the data was gathered, about the conventions used to represent the data, about the conditions under which the data was archived and made accessible.

We’re going to  have to learn much more about the “ownership” of the data, particularly as each and every one of us becomes a sensor at the edge of a hyperconnected world, augmented by orders of magnitude more sensors both around us as well as within us.

That in turn places considerable pressure on some of the ways we looked at identity, at privacy, at intellectual property. The rules and tools for these were all built for a time that is long past, a time that will not return.

We’re going to have to learn a lot more about how to make the data accessible and comprehensible to greater and greater numbers of people; we’re going to have to learn about “the future of search is verbs“; we’re going to have to ensure that open data is a natural part of our lives, at personal, corporate, state and even at global levels. If you say tomah-to and I say tomay-to, the risk of polarisation increases. In this context it’s worth looking closely at the sterling work being done by the Open Data Institute here in the UK. Yet another institution that deserves your support in all the forms that you can provide.

Yes, data is the lifeblood for this change: There’s so much more to learn about how we use and gain value from the investments we make individually and collectively in data.

There’s a collective intelligence viewpoint, where our ability to act as distributed sensors helps create the information base we need to inform us on a number of key debates. In such cases, there is often the likelihood of benefits accruing to society at the same time as harms accruing to the individual. We need to learn about this and ensure we do things the right way.

There’s a predictive analytics aspect, as we learn to spot patterns we could not see before, a sightedness that comes from having deeper, broader, more accurate and more accessible information.

Yes, data is the lifeblood of this change.

As I said before, many of you have the skills and motivation needed to make a difference.

in 2015, you have the opportunity as well.

Happy New Year.