Working with dummies

Some time ago, Ivo Gormley, a young and gifted filmmaker, came to see me about a project he was working on, on participative citizenship, mass collaboration and the internet, and their implications on government as we know it.

That project became Us Now, a one-hour documentary produced by Banyak Films. It had its premiere at the RSA yesterday, a wonderful location for events of this type. Ivo asked me if I would introduce the film and frame and moderate the discussion to follow, an honour and privilege I was delighted to accept.

If you live near London, do try and watch the film for yourself as soon as you get the chance. There’s a screening due next week, details here. I believe there are a number of other previews planned before general release, and will post the details once I have them. In the meantime, particularly if you don’t live in the UK, there are clips and transcripts available here, with contributions from Clay Shirky (pictured above), Don Tapscott, Paul Miller and Lee Bryant amongst others.

Using examples ranging from Couch Surfers and Ebbsfleet United through to Zopa, Ivo weaves a convincing picture of the potential of collaborative software in a participative society, a narrative that flows effortlessly while punctuated by relevant yet succinct interviews and observations.

The questions that followed appeared to have three themes:

  • Can we do this? Can we bridge the generation gaps between the adopters of these technologies and the general population?
  • How can we do this? How do we actually begin to realise the potential of these tools in government, both local and national?
  • What can go wrong? What about the potential for such tools to do harm? How do we protect against misuse?

Ivo’s film has started the debate, it makes sense to continue it at the Us Now blog, so please direct your comments and questions here.

So what does all this have to do with the title of this post? Simple. I wanted a reason to point people towards this wonderful blog, Quite Human: Meeting people who work with dummies. How did I get to that blog in the first place? Well, yesterday, before the screening, Ivo introduced me to his father. A gentleman called Antony Gormley. I wondered why his name seemed familiar, why his face seemed familiar. But then I forgot all about it and went out for dinner with friends. Today, while having a cup of green tea with Malc, the subject came up and he reminded me. Which led me to some lazy surfing this evening, perusing Antony Gormley’s works. Which in turn led me to this entry:

Time to bespeak up and defend the language

We live in interesting times.

Last week, it was reported that the Advertising Standards Authority had decreed that the word “bespoke” could now be used to describe suits that weren’t entirely handmade.

Moustache quivering in indignation, I went over to Wikipedia to see what it said about the word “bespoke”:

Bespoke is usually a British English term for tailored clothing made at a customer’s behest, and exactly to the customer’s specification. Bespoke clothing is created without use of a pre-existing pattern, differentiating it from made to measure, which alters a standard-sized pattern to fit the customer.

I’ve known a number of bespoke tailors over the years; one of them, Thomas Mahon, even has his own blog. I count him as a friend, so I thought I’d go and check him out, see if he had anything to say about the subject. And this is what I found:

A lot of people use the terms “bespoke” and “made-to-measure” interchangeably. They are mistaken.

‘Bespoke’ is actually a term which dates from the 17th century, when tailors held the full lengths of cloth in their premises.

When a customer chose a length of material, it was said to have “been spoken for”. Hence a tailor who makes your clothes individually, to your specific personal requirements, is called “bespoke”. This is unlike “made-to-measure”, which simply uses a basic, pre-existing template pattern, which is then adjusted to roughly your individual measurements.

What the ASA has done is in effect allowing the nice distinctions between phrases like “bespoke” and “made-to-measure” to disappear, and for no good reason. Language does evolve, and we need to be adaptable about it. But that does not mean we have to do stupid things with language. Allowing “made-to-measure” and “bespoke” to be used synonymously is inaccurate and unnecessary. It is the equivalent of allowing yogurt to be called vegetarian while containing beef gelatin. Strange world we live in.

Even more strange when you consider the other craftsmen that use the word “bespoke”. Software engineers. Ironic, isn’t it? People buy software they call “off-the-shelf”, then mangle it amazingly beyond recognition. This happens constantly in the ERP and SCM markets.

But they don’t dare call it bespoke. Because their CFO knows that “bespoke” is also a synonym for “expensive.” They might as well call the software bespoke, given the level of changes they tend to make, but they don’t.

One group of people who use patterns when they shouldn’t, and they want to call a suit bespoke when it isn’t.

Another group of people who don’t use patterns when they should, and they don’t want to call software bespoke when it is.

Go figure.

Musing about Wounded Knee and Wikipedia and the US Open

As a child and as a boy, I’d heard about the Battle of Wounded Knee, about Sitting Bull and about Big Foot, but as seen through the eyes of cowboy comics illustrators. My real knowledge about the battle didn’t amount to much as a result.

Today, reading newspaper reports about Tiger Woods and the US Open, I decided I wanted to know more about it, and quite naturally I went to Wikipedia. I found it intriguing that I did not go first to Google, and thought about why. I decided that there was a class of information where I considered Wikipedia to be my first stop; that this class was characterised by something I could not find anywhere else.

What was this unique thing? A notice that said “The neutrality of this article is disputed“. Sure, I’ve known about Wikipedia’s NPOV principles, and about the use of such notices. What I hadn’t appreciated was how important that notice was. What I hadn’t appreciated was that, for some classes of information, I would go to Wikipedia in preference to other places because of the willingness of Wikipedia to point out its own provisionality.

Anyway. I found the article on Wounded Knee fascinating, and spent some time wandering around related articles.

Talking about wounded knees, apparently Tiger Woods has never failed to win a major after ending the third round with a share of the lead. He’s meant to be recovering from knee surgery; watching him play yesterday, one begins to wonder what it would really take to defeat him when he decides he wants to win. Amazing player.

Some weeks ago I let you know that I’m a big fan of Camilo Villegas. Good to see him performing well (he’s lying 6th), this is the best I’ve seen him do at a major, and I’m going to be rooting for him tonight. Defeating Tiger in this mood is going to take something special from someone, and Camilo has the capacity. Every time he stands at the tee he’s thinking birdie or eagle. All he has to do is improve his driving accuracy, and he could be a contender.