Friday fluidity

I wasn’t sure whether to share links about the Coronavirus this week, but obviously, like everyone else, I’ve been reading about it.

Next week, my wife and I are heading to Belgium as I’m speaking at an event, and then we’re spending the weekend in Bruges. I think we’ll be OK. But even if we do contract the virus, the chances of us dying, or even being seriously ill, are vanishingly small. It’s all very well being pragmatic, but you can’t live your life in fear.

Anyway, if you’ve heard enough about potential global pandemics, feel free to skip straight onto the second and third sections, where I share some really interesting links about organisations, productivtiy, security, and more!


How I track the coronavirus

I’ve been tracking it carefully for weeks, and have built up an online search strategy. I’d like to share a description of it here, partly in case it’s useful for readers, and also to request additions in case it’s missing anything.

Bryan Alexander

What I like about this post by Bryan is that he’s sharing both his methods and go-to resources, without simultaneously sharing his conclusions. That’s the mark of an open mind, and that’s why I support him on Patreon.


Coronavirus and World After Capital

The danger we are now finding ourselves in can be directly traced to our reliance on the market mechanism for allocating attention. A global pandemic is an example of the kind of tail risk for which prices cannot exist. This is a key theme of my book World After Capital and I have been using pandemics as an alternative example to the climate crisis (another, while we are at it, are asteroid strikes).

Albert Wenger (Continuations)

I really must sit down and read World After Capital. In this short post, the author (a Venture Capitalist) explains why we need to allocate attention to what he calls ‘tail risks’.


You’re Likely to Get the Coronavirus

Many countries have responded with containment attempts, despite the dubious efficacy and inherent harms of China’s historically unprecedented crackdown. Certain containment measures will be appropriate, but widely banning travel, closing down cities, and hoarding resources are not realistic solutions for an outbreak that lasts years. All of these measures come with risks of their own. Ultimately some pandemic responses will require opening borders, not closing them. At some point the expectation that any area will escape effects of COVID-19 must be abandoned: The disease must be seen as everyone’s problem.

James Hamblin (The Atlantic)

Will you get a cold at some point in your life? Yes, probably most winters in some form. Will you catch ‘flu at some point in your life. Yes, probably, at some point. Will you get the Coronavirus. Almost certainly, but it’s not going to kill you unless your very young, very old, or very weak.


Image by Ivan Bandura
Photo by Ivan Bandura

Work Operating Systems? No, We Need Work Ecosystems.

The principal limitation of the work OS concept is that companies do not operate independently: they are increasingly connected to other organizations. The model of work OS is too inwardly focused, when the real leverage may come from the interactions across company boundaries, or by lessening the barriers to cross-company cooperation. (In a sense, this is just the fullest expression of the ideal of cross-team and cross-department cooperation: if it’s good at the smallest scale, it is great at the largest scale.)

Stowe Boyd (GigaOM)

This post is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, I absolutely agree with the end game that Boyd describes here. Second, our co-op has just started using Monday.com and have found it… fine, and doing what we need, but I can’t wait for some organisation to go beyond the ‘work OS’.


Career Moats 101

A career moat is an individual’s ability to maintain competitive advantages over your competition (say, in the job market) in order to protect your long term prospects, your employability, and your ability to generate sufficient financial returns to support the life you want to live. Just like a medieval castle, the moat serves to protect those inside the fortress and their riches from outsiders.

cedric chin (Commonplace)

I came across links to two different posts on the same blog this week, which made me investigate it further. The central thesis of the blog is that we should aim to build ‘career moats’, which is certainly an interesting way of thinking about things, and this link has some practical advice.


Daily life with the offline laptop

Having access to the Internet is a gift, I can access anything or anyone. But this comes with a few drawbacks. I can waste my time on anything, which is not particularly helpful. There are so many content that I only scratch things, knowing it will still be there when I need it, and jump to something else. The amount of data is impressive, one human can’t absorb that much, we have to deal with it.

Solène Rapenne

I love this idea of having a machine that remains offline and which you use for music and writing. Especially the writing. In fact, I was talking to someone earlier this week about using my old 1080p monitor in portrait mode with a Raspberry Pi to create a ‘writing machine’. I might just do it…


Photo by Lauren McConachie

Spilling over: How working openly with anxiety affects my team

At a fundamental level, I believe work is never done, that there is always another challenge to explore, other ways to have a larger impact. Leaders need to inspire and motivate us to embrace that reality as an exciting opportunity rather than an endless drudge or a source of continual worry.

Sam Knuth (Opensource.com)

This is a great article. As a leader and someone who’s only admitted to myself recently that I am, indeed an ‘anxious person’, I see similarities with my experiences here.


5 tricks to make the internet less distracting, so you can get stuff done

Maybe you want to be more productive at work. Maybe you want to spend more time being creative or learning new skills. Or maybe you just wish you spent more time communicating with the people you love and less time scrolling through websites that bring you brief moments of joy just frequently enough that you’re willing to tolerate the broader feeling of anxiety/jealousy/outrage.

The internet can be an amazing tool for pursuing these goals, but it’s not necessarily designed to push you toward it. You’ve got to work to create the environment for yourself. Here are some ways you can do just that.

Justin Pot (Fast Company)

It’s now over five years since I wrote Curate or Be Curated. The article, and the warning it contains, stands the test of time, I think. The ‘tricks’ shared in this Fast Company article, shared by Ian O’Byrne are a helpful place to start.


How to Dox Yourself on the Internet

To help our Times colleagues think like doxxers, we developed a formal program that consists of a series of repeatable steps that can be taken to clean up an online footprint. Our goal with this program is to empower people to control the information they share, and to provide them with tools and resources to have a better awareness around the information they intentionally and unintentionally share online.
We are now publicly releasing the content of this program for anyone to access. We think it is important for freelancers, activists, other newsrooms or people who want to take control of their own security online.

The NYT Open Team

This is a great idea. ‘Doxxing’ is the digging-up and sharing of personal information (e.g. home addresses) for the purposes of harrassment. This approach, where you try to ‘dox’ yourself so that you can take protective steps, is a great idea.


Header image by Adli Wahid who says “Rest in Peace Posters of Dr Li Wenliang, who warned authorities about the coronovirus outbreak seen at Hosier Lane in Melbourne, Australia. Hosier Lane is known for its street art. “

Friday facings

This week’s links seem to have a theme about faces and looking at them through screens. I’m not sure what that says about either my network, or my interests, but there we are…

As ever, let me know what resonates with you, and if you have any thoughts on what’s shared below!


The Age of Instagram Face

The human body is an unusual sort of Instagram subject: it can be adjusted, with the right kind of effort, to perform better and better over time. Art directors at magazines have long edited photos of celebrities to better match unrealistic beauty standards; now you can do that to pictures of yourself with just a few taps on your phone.

Jia Tolentino (The New Yorker)

People, especially women, but there’s increasing pressure on young men too, are literally going to see plastic surgeons with ‘Facetuned’ versions of themselves. It’s hard not to think that we’re heading for a kind of dystopia when people want to look like cartoonish versions of themselves.


What Makes A Good Person?

What I learned as a child is that most people don’t even meet the responsibilities of their positions (husband, wife, teacher, boss, politicians, whatever.) A few do their duty, and I honor them for it, because it is rare. But to go beyond that and actually be a man of honor is unbelievably rare.

Ian Welsh

This question, as I’ve been talking with my therapist about, is one I ask myself all the time. Recently, I’ve settled on Marcus Aurelius’ approach: “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”


Boredom is but a window to a sunny day beyond the gloom

Boredom can be our way of telling ourselves that we are not spending our time as well as we could, that we should be doing something more enjoyable, more useful, or more fulfilling. From this point of view, boredom is an agent of change and progress, a driver of ambition, shepherding us out into larger, greener pastures.

Neel Burton (Aeon)

As I’ve discussed before, I’m not so sure about the fetishisation of ‘boredom’. It’s good to be creative and let the mind wander. But boredom? Nah. There’s too much interesting stuff out there.


Resting Risk Face

Unlock your devices with a surgical mask that looks just like you.

I don’t usually link to products in this roundup, but I’m not sure this is 100% serious. Good idea, though!


The world’s biggest work-from-home experiment has been triggered by coronavirus

For some employees, like teachers who have conducted classes digitally for weeks, working from home can be a nightmare.
But in other sectors, this unexpected experiment has been so well received that employers are considering adopting it as a more permanent measure. For those who advocate more flexible working options, the past few weeks mark a possible step toward widespread — and long-awaited — reform.

Jessie Yeung (CNN)

Every cloud has a silver lining, I guess? Working from home is great, especially when you have a decent setup.


Setting Up Your Webcam, Lights, and Audio for Remote Work, Podcasting, Videos, and Streaming

Only you really know what level of clarity you want from each piece of your setup. Are you happy with what you have? Please, dear Lord, don’t spend any money. This is intended to be a resource if you want more and don’t know how to do it, not a stress or a judgment to anyone happy with their current setup

And while it’s a lot of fun to have a really high-quality webcam for my remote work, would I have bought it if I didn’t have a more intense need for high quality video for my YouTube stuff? Hell no. Get what you need, in your budget. This is just a resource.

This is a fantastic guide. I bought a great webcam when I saw it drop in price via CamelCamelCamel and bought a decent mic when I recorded the TIDE podcast wiht Dai. It really does make a difference.


Large screen phones: a challenge for UX design (and human hands)

I know it might sound like I have more questions than answers, but it seems to me that we are missing out on a very basic solution for the screen size problem. Manufacturers did so much to increase the screen size, computational power and battery capacity whilst keeping phones thin, that switching the apps navigation to the bottom should have been the automatic response to this new paradigm.

Maria Grilo (Imaginary Cloud)

The struggle is real. I invested in a new phone this week (a OnePlus 7 Pro 5G) and, unlike the phone it replaced from 2017, it’s definitely a hold-with-two-hands device.


Society Desperately Needs An Alternative Web

What has also transpired is a web of unbridled opportunism and exploitation, uncertainty and disparity. We see increasing pockets of silos and echo chambers fueled by anxiety, misplaced trust, and confirmation bias. As the mainstream consumer lays witness to these intentions, we notice a growing marginalization that propels more to unplug from these communities and applications to safeguard their mental health. However, the addiction technology has produced cannot be easily remedied. In the meantime, people continue to suffer.

Hessie Jones (Forbes)

Another call to re-decentralise the web, this time based on arguments about centralised services not being able to handle the scale of abuse and fraudulent activity.


UK Google users could lose EU GDPR data protections

It is understood that Google decided to move its British users out of Irish jurisdiction because it is unclear whether Britain will follow GDPR or adopt other rules that could affect the handling of user data.

If British Google users have their data kept in Ireland, it would be more difficult for British authorities to recover it in criminal investigations.

The recent Cloud Act in the US, however, is expected to make it easier for British authorities to obtain data from US companies. Britain and the US are also on track to negotiate a broader trade agreement.

Samuel Gibbs (The Guardian)

I’m sure this is a business decision as well, but I guess it makes sense given post-Brexit uncertainty about privacy legislation. It’s a shame, though, and a little concerning.


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Header image by Luc van Loon

Thought Shrapnel Vol.1: Personal Productivity

Inspired by Venkatesh Rao’s Ribbonfarm Roughs series, I’ve decided to start creating ebooks, collecting together in one place the best Thought Shrapnel articles on particular topics.

In this first of a series that I’ll be publishing over the coming weeks and months, I’ve chosen to curate selected articles on personal productivity written between 2018 and 2019.

Some may see this as an opportunity to back Thought Shrapnel if they can’t commit to supporting this work on a monthly basis. You may name your price for this book, with a suggested amount of £2.50 (currently around $3.25)

If nothing shows above, or you want a direct link to share, please try: https://gum.co/TSvol1

I’d welcome your feedback on this, including content, format, and length, in the comments section below, or by email.


Note: supporters have already received this book via email.

New to Thought Shrapnel? Try this!

I’m experimenting with turning articles from Thought Shrapnel into ebooks. Here’s a sampler featuring five articles from this year so far.

Thought Shrapnel sampler
Thought Shrapnel sampler

The plan is to make a series of ebooks available free of charge to supporters, and sell them to people who may want to contribute to the continuation of Thought Shrapnel in a one-off way.

Friday feelings

It’s Friday again, so I’m here trawling through not only the most interesting stuff that I’ve read this week, but also verbs that begin with the letter ‘f’.

Happy Valentine’s Day! Especially to my wonderful wife Hannah. We’ll have been together 20 years this coming May 😍


Flying to Conferences

The problem – and the solution – to the issues of environment and poverty and the rest lie in the hands of those people who have the power to change what we’re doing as a society, the one percent who hold most of the world’s power and wealth. They benefit from environmental degradation and we pay the price, just as they benefit from oppressive labour laws, the corruption of government officials, and ownership of real and intellectual property.

Stephen Downes (halfanhour)

This is a fantastic post and one that’s made me feel a bit better about the travel I do for work. Downes deconstructs various arguments, and shows the systemic problems around sustainability. Highly recommended.


Why innovation can’t happen without standardization

Perceptions play a role in the conflict between standardization and innovation. People who only want to focus on standardization must remember that even the tools and processes that they want to promote as “the standard” were once new and represented change. Likewise, people who only want to focus on innovation have to remember that in order for a tool or process to provide value to an organization, it has to be stable enough for that organization to use it over time.

Len Dimaggio (opensource.com)

Opensource.com is celebrating its 10-year anniversary, and it’s also a decade since I seem to have written for the first time about innovation being predicated on standardisation. I then expanded upon that a year later in this post. As DiMaggio says, innovation and standardisation are two halves of one solution.


How to reduce digital distractions: advice from medieval monks

Distraction is an old problem, and so is the fantasy that it can be dodged once and for all. There were just as many exciting things to think about 1,600 years ago as there are now. Sometimes it boggled the mind.

Jamie Kreiner (aeon)

This, via Kottke, has a title rendolent of clickbait, and is an amusing diversion. It’s conclusion, however, is important, that distraction isn’t due to our smartphones, but due to the ways our brains are wired, and our lack of practice concentrating on things that are of importance and value.


How Medieval Manuscript Makers Experimented with Graphic Design

The greater availability of paper in the 15th century meant more people could make books, with medical texts being some of the most popular. A guide to diagnosing diseases based on the colors of urine — a common approach in the era — has two pages illustrating several flasks, so the reader could readily compare this organized knowledge. A revolving “volvelle” diagram on another manuscript allowed readers to make their own astronomical calculations for the moon and time of night. Scraps of medieval songs on loose pages and herbals further demonstrate how practical usage was important in medieval design.

Allison Meier

I think I came across this via Hacker News, which is always a great place to find interesting stuff, technical and otherwise. The photographs and illustrations are just beautiful.


Yong Zhao: PISA Peculiarities (2): Should Schools Promote a Competitive or Cooperative Culture?

As I have written elsewhere, PISA has the bad habit of looking for things that would work universally to improve education or at least test scores and ignoring contextual factors that may actually play a more important role in the quality of education. In so doing, PISA does not (or cannot) have a coherent conceptual framework for understanding education as a contextual and situated phenomenon. As a result, it just throws various variables into the equation and wishes that some would turn out to be the magical policy or practice that improves education, without thinking how the variables act and interact with each other in specific contexts.

Yong Zhao (National education policy center)

Via Stephen Downes, I really appreciate this analysis of PISA test results, which compare students from different countries. To my mind, capitalism perpetuates the myth that we’re all in competition with each other, inculcating it at school. Nothing could be further from the truth; we humans are communicators and co-operators.


1,000 True Fans? Try 100

The 100 True Fans concept isn’t for everyone, nor is 1,000 True Fans. Creators that have larger, more diffuse audiences with weaker allegiance or engagement are likely better off monetizing through sponsorships or branded products. For many, that path will be more lucrative—and require less heavy lifting—than designing the sort of high-value, personalized program 100 True Fans demand.

Li Jin (A16z)

An interesting read. There are currently 53 patrons of Thought Shrapnel, a number that I had hoped would be much higher by this point. Perhaps I need to pivot into exclusive content, or perhaps just return to sponsorship?


Regulator Ofcom to have more powers over UK social media

The government has now announced it is “minded” to grant new powers to Ofcom – which currently only regulates the media and the telecoms industry, not internet safety.

Ofcom will have the power to make tech firms responsible for protecting people from harmful content such as violence, terrorism, cyber-bullying and child abuse – and platforms will need to ensure that content is removed quickly.

They will also be expected to “minimise the risks” of it appearing at all.

BBC News

While I’m all for reducing the amount of distressing, radicalising, and harmful content accessed by vulnerable people, I do wonder exactly how this will work. A slide in a recent ‘macro trends’ deck by Benedict Evans shows the difficulties faced by platforms, and society more generally.


Why People Get the ‘Sunday Scaries’

When I asked Anne Helen Petersen what would cure the Sunday scaries, she laughed and gave a two-word answer: “Fix capitalism.” “You have to get rid of the conditions that are creating precarity,” she says. “People wouldn’t think that universal health care has anything to do with the Sunday scaries, but it absolutely does … Creating a slightly different Sunday routine isn’t going to change the massive structural problems.”

One potential system-wide change she has researched—smaller than implementing universal health care, but still big—is a switch to a four-day workweek. “When people had that one more day of leisure, it opened up so many different possibilities to do the things you actually want to do and to actually feel restored,” she says.

Joe Pinsker (The Atlantic)

As one t-shirt I saw put it: “You don’t hate Mondays. You hate Capitalism.”


A 2020 Retrospective on the History of Work

The future of work is Open. Open work practices allow for unhindered access to the right context, the bigger picture, and important information when it’s needed most. All teams can do amazing things when they work Open.  

Atlassian

Via Kottke, this is an interesting summary of changes in the workplace since the 1950s. And of course, given I’m part of a co-op that “works to spread the culture, processes and benefits of open” the conclusion is spot-on.


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Image by Nicola Fioravanti

Microcast #086 — Strategies for dealing with surveillance capitalism

Over the last year (at least) I’ve been talking about the dangers of surveillance capitalism. Stephen Haggard picked up on this and, after an email conversation, sent through an audio provocation for disucssion.

Microcast #086 — Strategies for dealing with surveillance capitalism

If you’d like to join this discussion, feel free to comment on this microcast, or reply with your own thoughts in audio or text format in a part of the web under your control!

Show notes


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Image cropped and rotated from an original by Tim Gouw

There are many non-essential activities, moths of precious time, and it’s worse to take an interest in irrelevant things than do nothing at all

I confess to not yet having read Elizabeth Emens’ book The Art of Life Admin but it’s definitely on my list to read this year. A recent BBC Worklife article cites the book and the concept of ‘attention residue’. This is defined as multiple tasks and obligations which split our attention and reduce our overall performance.

“If you have attention residue, you are basically operating with part of your cognitive resources being busy, and that can have a wide range of impacts – you might not be as efficient in your work, you might not be as good a listener, you may get overwhelmed more easily, you might make errors, or struggle with decisions and your ability to process information.”

Sophie Leroy (associate professor of management at the University of Washington)

Attention residue makes us procrastinate at work, and affects our sleep. And sleep, as I explained in my (unfinished) audiobook #uppingyourgame: a practical guide to personal productivity (v2) is one of the three pillars of productivity.

The other two, if you’re wondering, are exercise and nutrition. (While I know very talented people who don’t exercise nor look after their bodies, I don’t know any very productive people who aren’t careful about keeping active and what they put into their bodies.)

Back to attention residue, and as the author of the BBC article points out, getting rid of life admin and the associated attention residue means you can enjoy life a little more, guilt-free:

In my case, the GYLIO experiment proved that self-care is less about carving out time to relax amid chaos, and more about removing to-dos from our crowded lives. With some life admin cleared away, I had a bubble bath and enjoyed the smug delight of a life – momentarily – in order.

Madeleine Dore

For me, sleep is extremely important As I learned when our children were very small, I really can’t function properly if I have less than seven hours’ sleep for two nights in a row.

As a result, I tend to go to bed early, usually before my wife, and definitely having ensured that I’ve avoided screens after 21:00. I’m definitely in bed by 22:00 and then read until about 22:30.

That means, as has been happening recently, if I am disturbed around 05:30, I can get up and carve out some quiet time to myself before the family awakens. Usually, though, I sleep until around 06:30 which means that, according to my smartband, I’m well-rested.


While we’re on the subject of sleep and sleepiness, if you drink coffee first thing in the morning, you might want to rethink that approach:

Source: CNBC

I stopped drinking coffee about a year and a half ago, and instead drink around three cups of tea over the course of the day. Otherwise, I’ve found, it’s very easy to use caffeine as an accelerator pedal and alcohol as a brakepedal.


Without productive routines it’s easy to become overwhelmed. In an article I shared in last Friday’s link roundup about communicating better at work, Michael Natkin, suggests that feeling overwhelmed is a common situation:

We’ve all been there. You’ve got so much on your plate that you don’t know where to start. Things that look like they will take fifteen minutes balloon into five-day poop-storms. Every item you cross off your list seems to spawn three more. The check engine light just went on in your car. And now your boss is chasing you down for an unexpected fire drill. 

Michael Natkin

The temptation, when you’re feeling overwhelmed, is to try and hide, to let no-one know that you’re not coping. But that’s a really dangerous approach, and the exact opposite of what you should do.

Instead, Natkin suggests an approach of ‘over-communicating’ which, he says, engages empathy and invites trust:

  1. Make a (prioritised) list
  2. Write an email to your line manager (and anyone else you should inform) giving realistic estimates of when your projects will be complete.
  3. Agree on a plan, and keep everyone updated

You should ask for feedback on your proposed course of action, he says, rather than giving it as a fait accompli.

I think this is a great strategy. What we all need to realise is that, usually, we were chosen for the position we’re in, and therefore we should use that to fuel our confidence and self-esteem. Communicating a plan is always better than hiding.


Finally, a word about admin. Some people absolutely love spreadsheets, get a little thrill when they reconcile transactions, and don’t mind filling in forms. If, like me, that sounds like the exact opposite of the things I enjoy doing, then you need some admin support.

You can pay for it, you can ask your employer to provide it, or you can call in favours. Either way, without it, you’re going to eventually drown in life admin at home and work admin at the office.

My only bit of advice would be to really set your stall out for this. Don’t whine or complain about your workload; instead, explain the situation and the impact of admin on your productivity. Put it in financial terms, if necessary.


What are your tips around “attention residue” and what to do when feeling overwhelmed?


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Image by Max Kleinen. Quotation-as-title by Baltasar Gracián

Friday flaggings

As usual, a mixed bag of goodies, just like you used to get from your favourite sweet shop as a kid. Except I don’t hold the bottom of the bag, so you get full value.

Let me know which you found tasty and which ones suck (if you’ll pardon the pun).


Andrei Tarkovsky’s Message to Young People: “Learn to Be Alone,” Enjoy Solitude

I don’t know… I think I’d like to say only that [young people] should learn to be alone and try to spend as much time as possible by themselves. I think one of the faults of young people today is that they try to come together around events that are noisy, almost aggressive at times. This desire to be together in order to not feel alone is an unfortunate symptom, in my opinion. Every person needs to learn from childhood how to spend time with oneself. That doesn’t mean he should be lonely, but that he shouldn’t grow bored with himself because people who grow bored in their own company seem to me in danger, from a self-esteem point of view.

Andrei Tarkovsky

This article in Open Culture quotes the film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky. Having just finished my first set of therapy sessions, I have to say that the metaphor of “puting on your own oxygen mask before helping others” would be a good takeaway from it. That sounds selfish, but as Tarkovsky points out here, other approaches can lead to the destruction of self-esteem.


Being a Noob

[T]here are two sources of feeling like a noob: being stupid, and doing something novel. Our dislike of feeling like a noob is our brain telling us “Come on, come on, figure this out.” Which was the right thing to be thinking for most of human history. The life of hunter-gatherers was complex, but it didn’t change as much as life does now. They didn’t suddenly have to figure out what to do about cryptocurrency. So it made sense to be biased toward competence at existing problems over the discovery of new ones. It made sense for humans to dislike the feeling of being a noob, just as, in a world where food was scarce, it made sense for them to dislike the feeling of being hungry.

Paul Graham

I’m not sure about the evolutionary framing, but there’s definitely something in this about having the confidence (and humility) to be a ‘noob’ and learn things as a beginner.


You Aren’t Communicating Nearly Enough

Imagine you were to take two identical twins and give them the same starter job, same manager, same skills, and the same personality. One competently does all of their work behind a veil of silence, not sharing good news, opportunities, or challenges, but just plugs away until asked for a status update. The other does the same level of work but communicates effectively, keeping their manager and stakeholders proactively informed. Which one is going to get the next opportunity for growth?

Michael Natkin

I absolutely love this post. As a Product Manager, I’ve been talking repeatedly recently about making our open-source project ‘legible’. As remote workers, that means over-communicating and, as pointed out in this post, being proactive in that communication. Highly recommended.


The Boomer Blockade: How One Generation Reshaped the Workforce and Left Everyone Behind

This is a profound trend. The average age of incoming CEOs for S&P 500 companies has increased about 14 years over the last 14 years

From 1980 to 2001 the average age of a CEO dropped four years and then from 2005 to 2019 the averare incoming age of new CEOs increased 14 years!

This means that the average birth year of a CEO has not budged since 2005. The best predictor of becoming a CEO of our most successful modern institutions?

Being a baby boomer.

Paul Millerd

Wow. This, via Marginal Revolution, pretty much speaks for itself.


The Ed Tech suitcase

Consider packing a suitcase for a trip. It contains many different items – clothes, toiletries, books, electrical items, maybe food and drink or gifts. Some of these items bear a relationship to others, for example underwear, and others are seemingly unrelated, for example a hair dryer. Each brings their own function, which has a separate existence and relates to other items outside of the case, but within the case, they form a new category, that of “items I need for my trip.” In this sense the suitcase resembles the ed tech field, or at least a gathering of ed tech individuals, for example at a conference

If you attend a chemistry conference and have lunch with strangers, it is highly likely they will nearly all have chemistry degrees and PhDs. This is not the case at an ed tech conference, where the lunch table might contain people with expertise in computer science, philosophy, psychology, art, history and engineering. This is a strength of the field. The chemistry conference suitcase then contains just socks (but of different types), but the ed tech suitcase contains many different items. In this perspective then the aim is not to make the items of the suitcase the same, but to find means by which they meet the overall aim of usefulness for your trip, and are not random items that won’t be needed. This suggests a different way of approaching ed tech beyond making it a discipline.

Martin Weller

At the start of this year, it became (briefly) fashionable among ageing (mainly North American) men to state that they had “never been an edtech guy”. Follwed by something something pedagogy or something something people. In this post, Martin Weller uses a handy metaphor to explain that edtech may not be a discipline, but it’s a useful field (or area of focus) nonetheless.


Why Using WhatsApp is Dangerous

Backdoors are usually camouflaged as “accidental” security flaws. In the last year alone, 12 such flaws have been found in WhatsApp. Seven of them were critical – like the one that got Jeff Bezos. Some might tell you WhatsApp is still “very secure” despite having 7 backdoors exposed in the last 12 months, but that’s just statistically improbable.

[…]

Don’t let yourself be fooled by the tech equivalent of circus magicians who’d like to focus your attention on one isolated aspect all while performing their tricks elsewhere. They want you to think about end-to-end encryption as the only thing you have to look at for privacy. The reality is much more complicated. 

Pavel Durov

Facebook products are bad for you, for society, and for the planet. Choose alternatives and encourage others to do likewise.


Why private micro-networks could be the future of how we connect

The current social-media model isn’t quite right for family sharing. Different generations tend to congregate in different places: Facebook is Boomer paradise, Instagram appeals to Millennials, TikTok is GenZ central. (WhatsApp has helped bridge the generational divide, but its focus on messaging is limiting.)

Updating family about a vacation across platforms—via Instagram stories or on Facebook, for example—might not always be appropriate. Do you really want your cubicle pal, your acquaintance from book club, and your high school frenemy to be looped in as well?

Tanya Basu

Some apps are just before their time. Take Path, for example, which my family used for almost the entire eight years it was around, from 2010 to 2018. The interface was great, the experience cosy, and the knowledge that you weren’t sharing with everyone outside of a close circle? Priceless.


‘Anonymized’ Data Is Meaningless Bullshit

While one data broker might only be able to tie my shopping behavior to something like my IP address, and another broker might only be able to tie it to my rough geolocation, that’s ultimately not much of an issue. What is an issue is what happens when those “anonymized” data points inevitably bleed out of the marketing ecosystem and someone even more nefarious uses it for, well, whatever—use your imagination. In other words, when one data broker springs a leak, it’s bad enough—but when dozens spring leaks over time, someone can piece that data together in a way that’s not only identifiable but chillingly accurate.

Shoshana Wodinsky

This idea of cumulative harm is a particularly difficult one to explain (and prove) not only in the world of data, but in every area of life.


“Hey Google, stop tracking me”

Google recently invented a third way to track who you are and what you view on the web.

[…]

Each and every install of Chrome, since version 54, have generated a unique ID. Depending upon which settings you configure, the unique ID may be longer or shorter.

[…]

So every time you visit a Google web page or use a third party site which uses some Google resource, this ID is sent to Google and can be used to track which website or individual page you are viewing. As Google’s services such as scripts, captchas and fonts are used extensively on the most popular web sites, it’s likely that Google tracks most web pages you visit.

Magic Lasso

Use Firefox. Use multi-account containers and extensions that protect your privacy.


The Golden Age of the Internet and social media is over

In the last year I have seen more and more researchers like danah boyd suggesting that digital literacies are not enough. Given that some on the Internet have weaponized these tools, I believe she is right. Moving beyond digital literacies means thinking about the epistemology behind digital literacies and helping to “build the capacity to truly hear and embrace someone else’s perspective and teaching people to understand another’s view while also holding their view firm” (boyd, March 9, 2018). We can still rely on social media for our news but we really owe it to ourselves to do better in further developing digital literacies, and knowing that just because we have discussions through screens that we should not be so narcissistic to believe that we MUST be right or that the other person is simply an idiot.

Jimmy Young

I’d argue, as I did recently in this talk, that what Young and boyd are talking about here is actually a central tenet of digital literacies.


Image via Introvert doodles


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Software ate the world, so all the world’s problems get expressed in software

Benedict Evans recently posted his annual ‘macro trends’ slide deck. It’s incredibly insightful, and work of (minimalist) art. This article’s title comes from his conclusion, and you can see below which of the 128 slides jumped out at me from deck:

For me, what the deck as a whole does is place some of the issues I’ve been thinking about in a wider context.


My team is building a federated social network for educators, so I’m particularly tuned-in to conversations about the effect social media is having on society. A post by Harold Jarche where he writes about his experience of Twitter as a rage machine caught my attention, especially the part where he talks about how people are happy to comment based on the ‘preview’ presented to them in embedded tweets:

Research on the self-perception of knowledge shows how viewing previews without going to the original article gives an inflated sense of understanding on the subject, “audiences who only read article previews are overly confident in their knowledge, especially individuals who are motivated to experience strong emotions and, thus, tend to form strong opinions.” Social media have created a worldwide Dunning-Kruger effect. Our collective self-perception of knowledge acquired through social media is greater than it actually is.

Harold Jarche

I think our experiment with general-purpose social networks is slowly coming to an end, or at least will do over the next decade. What I mean is that, while we’ll still have places where you can broadcast anything to anyone, the digital environments we’ll spend more time will be what Venkatesh Rao calls the ‘cozyweb’:

Unlike the main public internet, which runs on the (human) protocol of “users” clicking on links on public pages/apps maintained by “publishers”, the cozyweb works on the (human) protocol of everybody cutting-and-pasting bits of text, images, URLs, and screenshots across live streams. Much of this content is poorly addressable, poorly searchable, and very vulnerable to bitrot. It lives in a high-gatekeeping slum-like space comprising slacks, messaging apps, private groups, storage services like dropbox, and of course, email.

Venkatesh Rao

That’s on a personal level. I should imagine organisational spaces will be a bit more organised. Back to Jarche:

We need safe communities to take time for reflection, consideration, and testing out ideas without getting harassed. Professional social networks and communities of practices help us make sense of the world outside the workplace. They also enable each of us to bring to bear much more knowledge and insight that we could do on our own.

Harold Jarche

…or to use Rao’s diagram which is so-awful-it’s-useful:

Image by Venkatesh Rao

Of course, blockchain/crypto could come along and solve all of our problems. Except it won’t. Humans are humans (are humans).


Ever since Eli Parisier’s TED talk urging us to beware online “filter bubbles” people have been wringing their hands about ensuring we have ‘balance’ in our networks.

Interestingly, some recent research by the Reuters Institute at Oxford University, paints a slightly different picture. The researcher, Dr Richard Fletcher begins by investigating how people access the news.

Preferred access to news
Diagram via the Reuters Institute, Oxford University

Fletcher draws a distinction between different types of personalisation:

Self-selected personalisation refers to the personalisations that we voluntarily do to ourselves, and this is particularly important when it comes to news use. People have always made decisions in order to personalise their news use. They make decisions about what newspapers to buy, what TV channels to watch, and at the same time which ones they would avoid

Academics call this selective exposure. We know that it’s influenced by a range of different things such as people’s interest levels in news, their political beliefs and so on. This is something that has pretty much always been true.

Pre-selected personalisation is the personalisation that is done to people, sometimes by algorithms, sometimes without their knowledge. And this relates directly to the idea of filter bubbles because algorithms are possibly making choices on behalf of people and they may not be aware of it.

The reason this distinction is particularly important is because we should avoid comparing pre-selected personalisation and its effects with a world where people do not do any kind of personalisation to themselves. We can’t assume that offline, or when people are self-selecting news online, they’re doing it in a completely random way. People are always engaging in personalisation to some extent and if we want to understand the extent of pre-selected personalisation, we have to compare it with the realistic alternative, not hypothetical ideals.

Dr Richard Fletcher

Read the article for the details, but the takeaways for me were twofold. First, that we might be blaming social media for wider and deeper divisons within society, and second, that teaching people to search for information (rather than stumble across it via feeds) might be the best strategy:

People who use search engines for news on average use more news sources than people who don’t. More importantly, they’re more likely to use sources from both the left and the right. 
People who rely mainly on self-selection tend to have fairly imbalanced news diets. They either have more right-leaning or more left-leaning sources. People who use search engines tend to have a more even split between the two.

Dr Richard Fletcher

Useful as it is, what I think this research misses out is the ‘black box’ algorithms that seek to keep people engaged and consuming content. YouTube is the poster child for this. As Jarche comments:

We are left in a state of constant doubt as conspiratorial content becomes easier to access on platforms like YouTube than accessing solid scientific information in a journal, much of which is behind a pay-wall and inaccessible to the general public.

Harold Jarche

This isn’t an easy problem to solve.


We might like to pretend that human beings are rational agents, but this isn’t actually true. Let’s take something like climate change. We’re not arguing about the facts here, we’re arguing about politics. Adrian Bardon, writing in Fast Company, writes:

In theory, resolving factual disputes should be relatively easy: Just present evidence of a strong expert consensus. This approach succeeds most of the time, when the issue is, say, the atomic weight of hydrogen.

But things don’t work that way when the scientific consensus presents a picture that threatens someone’s ideological worldview. In practice, it turns out that one’s political, religious, or ethnic identity quite effectively predicts one’s willingness to accept expertise on any given politicized issue.

Adrian Bardon

This is pretty obvious when we stop to think about it for a moment; beliefs are bound up with identity, and that’s not something that’s so easy to change.

In ideologically charged situations, one’s prejudices end up affecting one’s factual beliefs. Insofar as you define yourself in terms of your cultural affiliations, information that threatens your belief system—say, information about the negative effects of industrial production on the environment—can threaten your sense of identity itself. If it’s part of your ideological community’s worldview that unnatural things are unhealthful, factual information about a scientific consensus on vaccine or GM food safety feels like a personal attack.

Adrian Bardon

So how do we change people’s minds when they’re objectively wrong? Brian Resnick, writing for Vox, suggests the best approach might be ‘deep canvassing’:

Giving grace. Listening to a political opponent’s concerns. Finding common humanity. In 2020, these seem like radical propositions. But when it comes to changing minds, they work.

[…]

The new research shows that if you want to change someone’s mind, you need to have patience with them, ask them to reflect on their life, and listen. It’s not about calling people out or labeling them fill-in-the-blank-phobic. Which makes it feel like a big departure from a lot of the current political dialogue.

Brian Resnick

This approach, it seems, works:

Diagram by Stanford University, via Vox

So it seems there is some hope to fixing the world’s problems. It’s just that the solutions point towards doing the hard work of talking to people and not just treating them as containers for opinions to shoot down at a distance.


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Friday featherings

Behold! The usual link round-up of interesting things I’ve read in the last week.

Feel free to let me know if anything particularly resonated with you via the comments section below…


Part I – What is a Weird Internet Career?

Weird Internet Careers are the kinds of jobs that are impossible to explain to your parents, people who somehow make a living from the internet, generally involving a changing mix of revenue streams. Weird Internet Career is a term I made up (it had no google results in quotes before I started using it), but once you start noticing them, you’ll see them everywhere. 

Gretchen McCulloch (All Things Linguistic)

I love this phrase, which I came across via Dan Hon’s newsletter. This is the first in a whole series of posts, which I am yet to explore in its entirety. My aim in life is now to make my career progressively more (internet) weird.


Nearly half of Americans didn’t go outside to recreate in 2018. That has the outdoor industry worried.

While the Outdoor Foundation’s 2019 Outdoor Participation Report showed that while a bit more than half of Americans went outside to play at least once in 2018, nearly half did not go outside for recreation at all. Americans went on 1 billion fewer outdoor outings in 2018 than they did in 2008. The number of adolescents ages 6 to 12 who recreate outdoors has fallen four years in a row, dropping more than 3% since 2007 

The number of outings for kids has fallen 15% since 2012. The number of moderate outdoor recreation participants declined, and only 18% of Americans played outside at least once a week. 

Jason Blevins (The Colorado Sun)

One of Bruce Willis’ lesser-known films is Surrogates (2009). It’s a short, pretty average film with a really interesting central premise: most people stay at home and send their surrogates out into the world. Over a decade after the film was released, a combination of things (including virulent viruses, screen-focused leisure time, and safety fears) seem to suggest it might be a predictor of our medium-term future.


I’ll Never Go Back to Life Before GDPR

It’s also telling when you think about what lengths companies have had to go through to make the EU versions of their sites different. Complying with GDPR has not been cheap. Any online business could choose to follow GDPR by default across all regions and for all visitors. It would certainly simplify things. They don’t, though. The amount of money in data collection is too big.

Jill Duffy (OneZero)

This is a strangely-titled article, but a decent explainer on what the web looks and feels like to those outside the EU. The author is spot-on when she talks about how GDPR and the recent California Privacy Law could be applied everywhere, but they’re not. Because surveillance capitalism.


You Are Now Remotely Controlled

The belief that privacy is private has left us careening toward a future that we did not choose, because it failed to reckon with the profound distinction between a society that insists upon sovereign individual rights and one that lives by the social relations of the one-way mirror. The lesson is that privacy is public — it is a collective good that is logically and morally inseparable from the values of human autonomy and self-determination upon which privacy depends and without which a democratic society is unimaginable.

Shoshana Zuboff (The New York Times)

I fear that the length of Zuboff’s (excellent) book on surveillance capitalism, her use of terms in this article such as ‘epistemic inequality, and the subtlety of her arguments, may mean that she’s preaching to the choir here.


How to Raise Media-Savvy Kids in the Digital Age

The next time you snap a photo together at the park or a restaurant, try asking your child if it’s all right that you post it to social media. Use the opportunity to talk about who can see that photo and show them your privacy settings. Or if a news story about the algorithms on YouTube comes on television, ask them if they’ve ever been directed to a video they didn’t want to see.

Meghan Herbst (WIRED)

There’s some useful advice in this WIRED article, especially that given by my friend Ian O’Byrne. The difficulty I’ve found is when one of your kids becomes a teenager and companies like Google contact them directly telling them they can have full control of their accounts, should they wish…


Control-F and Building Resilient Information Networks

One reason the best lack conviction, though, is time. They don’t have the time to get to the level of conviction they need, and it’s a knotty problem, because that level of care is precisely what makes their participation in the network beneficial. (In fact, when I ask people who have unintentionally spread misinformation why they did so, the most common answer I hear is that they were either pressed for time, or had a scarcity of attention to give to that moment)

But what if — and hear me out here — what if there was a way for people to quickly check whether linked articles actually supported the points they claimed to? Actually quoted things correctly? Actually provided the context of the original from which they quoted

And what if, by some miracle, that function was shipped with every laptop and tablet, and available in different versions for mobile devices?

This super-feature actually exists already, and it’s called control-f.

Roll the animated GIF!

Mike Caulfield (Hapgood)

I find it incredible, but absolutely believable, that only around 10% of internet users know how to use Ctrl-F to find something within a web page. On mobile, it’s just as easy, as there’s an option within most (all?) browsers to ‘search within page’. I like Mike’s work, as not only is it academic, it’s incredibly practical.


EdX launches for-credit credentials that stack into bachelor’s degrees

The MicroBachelors also mark a continued shift for EdX, which made its name as one of the first MOOC providers, to a wider variety of educational offerings 

In 2018, EdX announced several online master’s degrees with selective universities, including the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Texas at Austin.

Two years prior, it rolled out MicroMasters programs. Students can complete the series of graduate-level courses as a standalone credential or roll them into one of EdX’s master’s degrees.

That stackability was something EdX wanted to carry over into the MicroBachelors programs, Agarwal said. One key difference, however, is that the undergraduate programs will have an advising component, which the master’s programs do not. 

Natalie Schwartz (Education Dive)

This is largely a rewritten press release with a few extra links, but I found it interesting as it’s a concrete example of a couple of things. First, the ongoing shift in Higher Education towards students-as-customers. Second, the viability of microcredentials as a ‘stackable’ way to build a portfolio of skills.

Note that, as a graduate of degrees in the Humanities, I’m not saying this approach can be used for everything, but for those using Higher Education as a means to an end, this is exactly what’s required.


How much longer will we trust Google’s search results?

Today, I still trust Google to not allow business dealings to affect the rankings of its organic results, but how much does that matter if most people can’t visually tell the difference at first glance? And how much does that matter when certain sections of Google, like hotels and flights, do use paid inclusion? And how much does that matter when business dealings very likely do affect the outcome of what you get when you use the next generation of search, the Google Assistant?

Dieter Bohn (The Verge)

I’ve used DuckDuckGo as my go-to search engine for years now. It used to be that I’d have to switch to Google for around 10% of my searches. That’s now down to zero.


Coaching – Ethics

One of the toughest situations for a product manager is when they spot a brewing ethical issue, but they’re not sure how they should handle the situation.  Clearly this is going to be sensitive, and potentially emotional. Our best answer is to discover a solution that does not have these ethical concerns, but in some cases you won’t be able to, or may not have the time.

[…]

I rarely encourage people to leave their company, however, when it comes to those companies that are clearly ignoring the ethical implications of their work, I have and will continue to encourage people to leave.

Marty Cagan (SVPG)

As someone with a sensitive radar for these things, I’ve chosen to work with ethical people and for ethical organisations. As Cagan says in this post, if you’re working for a company that ignores the ethical implications of their work, then you should leave. End of story.


Image via webcomic.name