On platforms and sustainability

A few years ago, I read this disturbing Rip van Winkle post by Hossein Derakhshan.

He’d been incarcerated for six years, and wrote about how the Web he’d left had changed while he was away. One phrase stood out for me. A departure from a books-internet to a television-internet. It resonated. Deeply.

I’ve believed in the idea of being connected rather than channelled for many years now. Not surprisingly, that phrase occurs repeatedly in the “kernel” for this blog, written as I launched ConfusedOfCalcutta a dozen or so years ago. [Until then my blogging was “closed”, a constraint placed by the nature of the work I was doing at the time].

Hossein’s web-we-have-to-save piece began to gnaw at the Cluetrainer in me. If you haven’t read that yet, do so as soon as you can. Messrs Searls, Locke, Weinberger and Levine are well worth revisiting, not just visiting. I do so pretty much every year.

The Cluetrain Manifesto told us that we weren’t meant to be seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. We were meant to be human beings, and our reach was meant to exceed the grasp … of those who would control us, channel us. If digital advertising revenues are anything to go by, and if the linear nature of streams is anything to go by, it looks like we’re heading firmly back into seats and eyeballs territory. The bait of book-internet was being switched into television-internet, aided and abetted by the “appy” world of the smart mobile device. Words like content and audience were back in favour.

The Cluetrain Manifesto also told us that hyperlinks would subvert hierarchies. Again, in reading Hossein’s piece, there was something that resonated in me about the channelling nature of the hashtag culture in comparison with the connecting nature of the hyperlink culture. Folksonomical in origin, when embedded in streams, the essence of the hashtag ran the risk of becoming a channel identifier.

The Cluetrain Manifesto said markets were conversations. Ah yes. Conversations. I remember conversations. When people could discuss ideas, write “provisionally” as Doc Searls used to say, where (if I remember his metaphors correctly) the blogosphere was souk-like, as described to him by an African pastor on a flight somewhere. I think he also referred to a conversation with George Lakoff where a blog post became a snowball, gathering a momentum all its own as it was cross-linked and commented on. Our moves towards shorter-form posts, towards soundbites and tweets, towards channelled streams, towards video, towards “live”, all of these moves militate against conversation.

So is that it? Back to seats and eyeballs, channelled not connected, “audiences” sucking up linear “content”? Back to a time where discourse wasn’t possible, where law-of-the-jungle-might-was-right, and visceral emotion was the preferred means of communication?

If Hossein Derakhshan had “woken up” in 2017 he may well have assumed so.

Platforms used to be things that we built on, not in.

If platforms are to be built sustainably, that’s principle 1. You build on a platform, not in it. Those that build on the platform should be able to interact with each other independent of the platform if they so choose.

Platforms are not just big business in themselves, they do generate employment. But the on- part of the business must be significant in relation to the in- part. A sustainable platform will create ecosystems that are orders of magnitude larger than the platform itself. That’s part of what makes a platform sustainable. I think that’s principle 2 of platform sustainability.

A part of me wants to evoke Jane Jacobs and Christopher Alexander when it comes to building sustainable platforms. The platform “community” needs to be cared for and looked after, the living spaces they inhabit need to be designed to last. Multipurpose rather than monoculture, diverse rather than homogeneous . Prior industrial models where entire communities would rely on a single industry need to be learnt from and avoided. We shouldn’t be building the rust belts of the future. We should be looking for the death and life of great platforms, for a pattern language for sustainable platforms. Principle 3 of platform sustainability looks at the diversity of the ecosystem.

I think there’s a need for a fourth principle, something to do with the right to repair.


Photo courtesy Rama Sangye, an old classmate from Calcutta

The lungi-clad moustachioed gent above is unlikely to see his job taken by a robot anytime soon. He repairs gramophones. The ones that work off-grid, with bloody great horns, with steel needles eking out sound from lacquer records operating at 78rpm.

That was the India I left. Where anything that could be repaired was repaired. Everything came with a right to repair, and people learnt to do that repairing. Sometimes with official spare parts, sometimes with sensible cannibalisation, sometimes with sheer ingenuity when something else at hand was suitably repurposed.

There is no such thing as digital-only. That which is digital exists in and forms part of the world we inhabit. And we need to know how to fix things that break in that construct. Bias in AI systems may be an area where the “right to repair” will manifest itself most powerfully.

Principle 4 of sustainable platforms is the right to repair.

This is, by its very nature, a provisional post. I’m sharing things I’m thinking about, in the hope that a number of you get in touch with me and help me learn about this space. The blogosphere is not what it used to be, and people don’t necessarily comment any more.

We need to be thinking about sustainable platforms. On-platforms rather than in-platforms; platforms that create ecosystems many orders of magnitude larger than the platform itself; platforms designed for sustainable growth rather than digital coal mines, rust belts and hollowed-out precincts, downtowns that die every night; platforms where the right to repair is universal.

More to follow. Maybe. If anyone still reads stuff like this. If markets are still conversations.

A coda:


I had the joyous experience of finding, and acquiring, this timepiece a little while ago. it cost me less than 0.001% of what Paul Newman’s Rolex went for.



It’s a Station Master’s watch from a century ago. Swiss movement, casing ostensibly from Britain, distributed in Calcutta through the esteemed name of Garrard.

It’s lasted well. Works like a charm today.

It lasted well because it was designed and built to last. And it was taken care of.

For something to be sustainable it needs to be designed and built as sustainable.

That’s necessary but not sufficient. Sufficient happens when due care is taken.

Incidentally, one of the recent books I’m reading (and enjoying) refers to time as “the engine of interaction”. I think that time and place and identity are all engines of interaction, and that sustainable platforms have this at their core.

Maybe this coda contains principles 5 and 6. Let us see.



of graveyards and golf courses: A perspective on perspective

When I was a child, I loved seeing photographs of everyday things from not-everyday perspectives. I think the first such thing I remember marvelling about was what a human hair looked like under a powerful microscope. It looked a bit like this image from “Long Hair Community” via Google:

I’m still fascinated by such out-of-normal-perspective images. More recently I came across the work of Pyanek, who appears to dabble in such stuff. Here’s his view of pages from a book.

It’s not just close-in that is interesting, zooming out is as mesmerising. I love flying, and spend a lot of time on planes. When on a plane, I tend to read and write rather than watch films. The odd documentary perhaps, but that’s about it.

In addition, when possible, I enjoy looking out of the window. Even now, seated at home, I marvel at the thought of how placid and glassine the ocean looks when viewed from 37000 feet. After a while you get to recognise the signs of movement even at that distance.

When I’m taking off or coming in to land, I make an effort to try and recognise “objects” from afar. You’d be surprised at the altitude from which you can, with confidence, say to yourself “That’s a golf course” or “that’s a graveyard”. With a little practice it becomes quite enjoyable.

There’s always a coming-home segment to my flights, and I live in Windsor, which means I get to do something unusual. View my house while coming in to land at Heathrow. It only happens when we approach from that side, but it happens often enough for me to know the signs. And so I try and “lock on” to the path as early as possible, filing away telltale signs from distance.

After a while I found I could do it regardless of the approach; coming over Canary Wharf and following the Thames became as recognisable as flying in over Windsor Great Park, circling to the north-west before making the approach became familiar as well.

I still remember the unfettered joy of looking down from maybe 10000 feet and realising that what I was seeing was fireworks at dusk. An amazing feeling.

There’s something special about looking at things from very close or very far away; something to learn about the thing in question; something to help you get balance into your view; something calming, sometimes even therapeutic.

We use phrases like “get the big picture” or “see the wood for the trees”; I am not sure how often we get to practise changing perspective.

Practice in changing perspective is not just a distance thing, it’s a time thing as well. Every morning, as I prepare for the day ahead, I ask myself “what’s the one thing I’d like to get done today”. But I also ask myself regularly “what’s the one thing I’d like to do this year”.

Sometimes I do this looking backwards rather than forwards. “What’s the one thing I achieved last year”. Sometimes it’s with a more critical twist: “what’s the one thing I would have liked to have done last year”.

Changing perspective can be enjoyable, instructive, even illuminating. Changing perspective in the grain size of what you look at: very small to very large, very near to very far; changing perspective forward and back in time; each of these exercises can be valuable.

Today, with the tools of social media, you can test questions like “most played/watched/read this day, this week, this month, this year”. We should be able to apply the same techniques to issues beyond just entertainment.

Sometimes the platforms give you the ability to change context: trending globally, trending in country A, trending locally. This should be something we should also be able to do in time rather than just geography.

It becomes even more important when you can point the mechanism towards “trending amongst people whom I trust and whose opinion on this topic matters to me”.

We will get there, as we learn the real potential and value of the friend graph .

I intend to write more about this; I’m not sure when, but it will happen. My urge to write has been weakened by the polarisation and politics and sheer venom I see around me.

I’m going to be 60 in a few months. My second grandchild is due any moment. Some of the people I care for aren’t well. Some of them aren’t here any more.

There is a lot we cannot control. And there is a lot we can change. That we must change.

To make the right changes we must understand. Understanding requires being able to stand in someone else’s shoes. Or footprints.

Perspective matters. The ability to change perspective, and to learn from that change, matters. The ability to hold on to what matters also matters, as you learn from a variety of perspectives.




Making new mistakes


This is part of a map of Calcutta published in 1842. It’s the city I was born in, the city I grew up in, the city that was my home for the first twenty-three years of my life. A city I remember with fond memories and one I visit with joy in my heart. [Incidentally, it’s a map whose original is safely with me, and whose copyright might just have expired by now, 175 years later…]

The city shown above is a very different city from the one I grew up in.

I was born in Lower Circular Road, Sealdah, in 1957. A few years later, after the death of his father, my father moved us to Hindustan Park, Ballygunge, and that’s where I stayed till 1969. That would have meant nothing to the people who lived in Calcutta when the map was drawn. There wasn’t much happening in Ballygunge then. Fields.

The house I was born in had a bloody great railway station close by. It didn’t start getting built till 1869. The Jesuit school and college I went to, St Xavier’s, aren’t on the map either. All you see are what I think are the grounds to the Bishop’s Palace, some of which became my alma mater in 1860.

The house I inhabited during my last decade in Calcutta, on Moira Street, wasn’t built by then. But the road existed. Theatre Road is on the map, with a massive theatre at the Chowringhee end. The road was still there when I was there, but sans theatre. Free School Street, where I could buy secondhand books and albums cheaply, is shown; it then still had a Free School on it; I know the road but never saw the school.

I whiled away many hours in the New Market, Lindsay Street. That didn’t get built till 1874, more than thirty years after the map above. Fenwick’s Bazaar, the reason why New Market was “new”, doesn’t make the grade, either nonexistent or too small to count.

Victoria Memorial, another place I spent many hours in, doesn’t make the map. Not surprising, since Victoria was very much alive and not a subject of memorials when the map was drawn. She would get her memorial later, built between 1906 and 1921.

I rarely left Calcutta during my time there; when I did, it was usually by train, from Howrah Station. I have wonderful memories of that place, the sights, sounds and smells. Buying platform tickets in large quantities as we greeted or saw off family members. Remembering where the car was parked, off Platform 9, always for some reason near a damp part of the platform, and never far from a bookseller. Watching the redshirted coolies go about their business, as kitchen-sink holdalls and trunks were transported along with their kitchen-sink owners.

No Howrah Station on the map. Hadn’t been built. If it had been built, it would have been a job getting there. No Howrah Bridge there. That would come later.

No Lansdowne Road, where Miss P. Hartley set up her school in a converted stables, my happy home from 1963-1965. That was opposite where Gyan Singh used to live, the Gyan who influenced my taste in music more than anyone else, the Gyan who married my cousin Jayashree (who was almost as big an influence on my musical taste), the Gyan whose son is the Singh in Parekh and Singh. The Gyan I still miss. (And Jayashree, get well soon!).


The Calcutta of the map is a very different Calcutta from the one I grew up in.

Just like today.

The Calcutta of today is also one that’s very different from the one I grew up in.

This post is not a wallowing-in-nostalgia post. Instead, what I’m trying to do is to emphasise the importance of knowing past contexts.

Esther Dyson, someone I admire greatly, someone I’ve learnt a lot from listening to, reading and observing, used to sign off her emails with “Always make new mistakes”. I loved that. It made complete sense in the “I have not failed, I have found ten thousand ways that do not work” mould.

To make new mistakes, you must know what the old mistakes were. To interpret an action as a mistake, context is critical. Without that the correct lesson isn’t learnt, and we get into a “history repeats itself” cycle.

Every organisation I join, every organisation I spend time with, I try and understand what went on earlier. The context in which prior decisions were made. The assumptions, the consequences. It is only in that hindsight that the unintention of the consequences becomes clear.

Without that contextual awareness of the decisions and the history, I can’t be sure I’m making new mistakes.

Much has been made of the need for organisations to become learning organisations. A learning organisation is a failing organisation. It must be a failing organisation, but with a difference. Failures aren’t repeated. They are learnt from.

Many organisations are set up to militate against failure. That militancy is deep in organisation culture. And in that very militancy lie the roots of real failure, the failure that comes from not learning.

Making new mistakes is hard if you don’t know about the mistakes of the past. You don’t need to re-make the mistakes of the past in order to learn from them. But you must know about them. And know the context in which they were made.

That requires a cultural willingness to accept mistakes, to record them, to understand the context in which they were made, and to understand what was done to deal with the root cause.

Not all the maps I study are geographical in nature. Some of them aren’t maps. Some aren’t even written. But they all give me context in which to understand and learn from past mistakes.

So that I can keep making new ones.




musing about mise-en-place

If you know me well then you know I love to cook.

When I cook, one of the things I do is based on what professional chefs call mise en place.

Take yesterday for example. I was cooking a ragu for the family; it wasn’t gramigna alla salsiccia, my usual favourite, because I couldn’t get the gramigna and didn’t have time to make the pasta from fresh. So I got some fresh egg spaghetti instead … especially since my grandson adores spaghetti. The two-year-old makes the demolition of spaghetti an art form, as only two-year-olds can.

But I stayed true to making the ragu a salsiccia of sorts. And I wanted to make sure the sauce was allowed to cook for at least six hours, preferably more like eight. So I got started yesterday morning, and the first thing I did was this:

I laid out the ingredients. You can’t see the sausage meat or the pork mince or the beef mince (they’re all still in the fridge) nor can you see the milk (which was keeping the meat company in the fridge, in separate compartments of course).

I try and do it every time I cook; it’s something that professional chefs do. I’m lucky enough to have visited many great chefs at work in their kitchens, and privileged to call a number of them good friends. If they think something’s a good idea, whom am I to argue?

I find the whole process of preparing the mise-en-place instructive, often uplifting, sometimes even cathartic. Preparing the ingredients by hand gets you involved in the cooking in ways that you just couldn’t otherwise. For example, you get to really know the aroma released by a herb when you crush or tear it by hand; you get to feel the texture of the soffrito ingredients, a feeling that helps you figure out when they are truly soffrito, under-fried. And if you’re like me, you graze not-quite-absentmindedly on the leftovers while you peel, chop and crush. By the time you’ve laid all the ingredients out you have a heightened sense of the smell, taste and texture of the dish.

From a practical viewpoint, you get to perform a visual check, a quick way to confirm that everything is in its place and that there’s a place for everything. So there’s no oopsing and traipsing off to get the missing ingredient, you can proceed serenely.

There’s also something else. If you do this every time you cook a particular dish, you get a real feel for proportion, for the relationships between the various ingredients. When you couple this “proportion” knowledge with the “smell, taste and texture” from the process of preparation, you have something very powerful: you can experiment with accentuating or diminishing the character of the dish in subtle ways, because you know something about how they fit together. You know it deep inside you.

I love music but wouldn’t call myself a musician. A crass amateur guitarist at best. When I see real musicians, I know they feel their way about a piece of music in a similar way: they know, instinctively, what goes with what, and how they can vary things, the proportions, the sequences, the lot. I have no such feel for music. Even though I love music, I love musical instruments, I love listening to music, I love going to concerts. Even though I have good friends (including close relatives) who are really talented. (For example, I’m at the Dylan concert on Tuesday, and watching  my nephew’s band Parekh and Singh a week or two later. Check them out. Really looking forward to both events).

When you’re cooking something like a ragu, there’re a few added benefits. You can wash and clear away all the utensils while you’re putting the sauce through its early paces, as it does its egg-larva-pupa-imago transformation. Which looks a bit like this, going clockwise from top left:

I don’t taste the sauce while it’s in the first two quadrants; I need to be sure the meat is cooked sufficiently before I intervene. But I smell it all the way. For sure. And I stir it regularly to get a sense of the texture. If interventions are required, the earlier I know about it the better.

By the time the sauce is ready for the taste test I will have laid the table, set out drinks, put away the preparation utensils and started getting together the serving dishes and ladles and spoons and suchlike. There’s a variant of the mise-en-place at this point, when you get to do visual checks on the empty serving dishes. Parmesan? Check. Pasta? Check. Salad? Check. Kevin? Kevin!

Yes, cooking like this can be edifying, uplifting, sometimes even cathartic.

But it’s not just about cooking. I found myself doing something very similar when I went travelling. I would lay out the things I needed, first in a list, then in a visual presentation, then get going. Flying out early tomorrow morning? Pack and get clothes out tonight. That sort of thing.

There’s something about this whole discipline that I like thinking about when it comes to getting things done. The overall population of tasks. What’s mandatory, what’s optional. The relationships and proportions. Subgroups and dependencies. What you can vary and when, in what proportion. The effect it will have. The need to test regularly. The knowledge of how to act on the feedback. The minimum time. The maximum time. The optimal time.

What mise en place does for me is to remind me about the power of the senses in all this. How sight and sound and smell and touch help me. And what that means in the context of things other than cooking. The “muscle memory” of getting things done. The synaesthetic aspects, the sanity checks, the smell tests, all of which come from practice and observation and learning.

The principal reason I cook is because I enjoy cooking. And eating. And serving others what I’ve prepared.

But there are other things I learn at the same time. Which makes it all so pleasurable.

There’s something happening here

There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware

I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down

There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
Young people speaking their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind

It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down

Buffalo Springfield, For What It’s Worth

People keep telling me Twitter is dead. And yet.

When I woke up this morning I saw that a number of friends had DMed me overnight. That in itself was not unusual. What was unusual was that a handful of them had pointed me to a particular conversation that was happening on twitter:


There’s something happening here.

I’d never heard of Pookleblinky before today.

And I’m very glad that some of my friends bothered to point me towards this conversation.

For all this to have happened, a few things had to be true. I had to be connected to people who knew my interests. I had to be connected to people who had the time and inclination to tell me when something that would interest me surfaced somewhere. There had to be a “somewhere” where conversations like the one started by Pookleblinky could be formed, shared, expanded.

There are many social networks. There are many places where such conversations take place, where many people can participate in those conversations, and where the conversations can be shared. There are better and better tools to be used to find and to recommend such conversations.


What happened overnight has an elegance and a simplicity that will endure.

When I want bursty single-topic conversations with meaningful contribution by a decent cross-section of people, unpolluted by off-topic rants,  and often embedded with links to “long” or TL;DR material (for those interested in delving into a topic) Twitter remains the place to go to.

There’s still something happening here.

What it is ain’t exactly clear.