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
[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].
[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.
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.
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.