Category: Articles (page 1 of 2)

We have it in our power to begin the world over again

It’s sobering to think that, in years to come, historians will probably refer to the 75 years between the end of the Second World War and the start of this period we’ve just begun with a single name.

Whatever we end up calling it, one thing is for sure: what comes next can’t be a continuation of what went before. We need a sharp division of life pre- and post-pandemic.

That’s because our societies have been increasingly unequal since 2008, when the global financial crisis meant that the rich consolidated their position while the rest of us paid for the mistakes of bankers and the global elite.

Image via Oxfam

So what can we do about this? What should we be demanding once we’re allowed back out of our houses? What should we organise against?

I’ve been a proponent of Universal Basic Income over the last few years, but, I have to say that the closer it comes to being a reality, the more concerns I have about its implementation. Even if it’s brought in by a left-leaning government, there’s still the danger that it’s subsequently used as a weapon against the poor by a new adminstration.

That’s why I was interested in this section from a book I’m reading at the moment. Writing in Future Histories, Lizzie O’Shea suggests that we need to think beyond UBI to include other approaches:

Alongside this, we need to consider how productive, waged work could be more democratically organized to meet the needs of society rather than individual companies. To this end, one commonly suggested alternative to a basic income is a job guarantee. The idea is that the government offers a job to anyone who wants one and is able to work, in exchange for a minimum wage. Jobs could be created around infrastructure projects, for example, or care work. Government spending on this enlarged public sector world act like a kind of Keynesian expenditure, to stimulate the economy and buffer the population against the volatility of the private labor market. Modeling suggests that this would be more cost-effective than a basic income (often critiqued for being too expensive) and avoid many of the inflationary perils that might accompany basic income proposals. It could also be used to jump-start sections of the economy that are politically important, like green energy, carbon reduction and infrastructure. A job guarantee could help us collectively decide what kind of work is must urgent and necessary and to prioritize that through democratically accountable representatives.

Lizzie O’Shea, Future Histories

Of course, as she points out, there are a number of drawbacks to a job guarantee scheme:

  • Reinforcement of the connection between productivity and human value
  • Creation of ‘bullshit jobs’
  • Could deny people chance to engage in other pursuits (if poorly implemented)
  • Potential to leave behind prior who cannot work (disability / other health concerns)
  • Seems didactic and disciplinary

Nevertheless, O’Shea believes that a combination of a job guarantee, UBI, and government-provided services is the way forward:

Ultimately, we need a combination of these programs. We need the liberty offered by a basic income, the sustainability promised by the organization of a job guarantee, and the protection of dignity offered by centrally planned essential services. It is like a New Deal for the age of automation, a ground rent for the digital revolution, in which the benefits of accelerated productive capacity are shared among everyone. From each according to his ability, to each according to their need – a twenty-first-century vision of socialism. “We have it in our power to begin the world over again,” wrote Thomas Paine in an appendix to Common Sense, just before one of the most revolutionary periods in human history. We have a similar opportunity today.

Lizzie O’Shea, Future Histories

While I don’t disagree that we will continue to need “the protection of dignity offered by centrally planned essential services,” I’m not so sure that giving the state so much power over our lives is a good thing. I think this approach papers over the cracks of neoliberalism, giving billionaires and capitalists a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Instead, I’d like to see a post-pandemic breakup of mega corporations. While a de jure limit on how much one individual or one organisation can be worth is likely to be unworkable, there’s ways we can make de facto limits on this a reality.

People respond to incentives, including how easy or hard it is to do something. I know from experience how easy it is to set up a straightforward limited company in the UK and how difficult it is to set up a co-operative. To get to where we need to be, we need to ensure collective decision-making is the norm within organisations owned by workers. And then these worker-owned organisations need to co-ordinate for the good of everyone.

I’m a huge believer in decentralisation, not just technologically but politically and socially; we don’t need governments, billionaires, or celebrities telling us what to do with our lives. We need to think wider and deeper. My current thinking aligns with this section on libertarian municipalism from the Wikipedia page on the political philosopher Murray Bookchin:

Libertarian Municipalism constitutes the politics of social ecology, a revolutionary effort in which freedom is given institutional form in public assemblies that become decision-making bodies.

Wikipedia

…or, in other words:

The overriding problem is to change the structure of society so that people gain power. The best arena to do that is the municipality—the city, town, and village—where we have an opportunity to create a face-to-face democracy.

Wikipedia

Some people think that, in these days of super-fast connections to anyone on the planet, that nation states are dead, and that we should be building communities on the blockchain. I have yet to see a proposal of how this would be workable in practice; everything I’ve seen so far extrapolates naïvely from what’s technically possible to what should be socially desirable.

Yes, we can and should have solidarity with people around the world with whom we work and socialise. But this does not negate the importance of decision-making at a local level. Gaming clans don’t yet do bin collections, and colleagues in a different country can’t fix the corruption riddling your local government.

Ultimately, then, we’re going to need a whole new politics and social contract after the pandemic. I sincerely hope we manage to grasp the nettle and do something radically different. I’m not sure how we’ll all survive if the rich, once again, come out of all this even richer than before.


BONUS: check out this 1978 speech from Murray Bookchin where he calls for utopia, not futurism.


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Quotation-as-title from Thomas Paine. Header image by Stas Knop.

People seem not to see that their opinion of the world is also a confession of character

Actions, reactions, and what comes next

We are, I would suggest, in a period of collective shock due to the pandemic. Of course, some people are better at dealing with these kinds of things than others. I’m not medically trained, but I’m pretty sure some of this comes down to genetics; it’s probably something to do with the production of cortisol.

It might a little simplistic to separate people into those who are good in a crisis and those who aren’t. It’s got to be more complex than that. What if some people, despite their genetic predisposition, have performed some deliberate practice in terms of how they react to events and other things around them?

I often say to my kids that it’s not your actions that mark you out as a person, but your reactions. After all, anyone can put on a ‘mask’ and affect an air of nonchalance and sophistication. But that mask can slip in a crisis. To mix metaphors, people lose control when they reach the end of their tether, and are at their most emotionally vulnerable and unguarded when things go wrong. This is when we see their true colours.

A few years ago, when I joined Moodle, I flew to Australia and we did some management bonding stuff and exercises. One of them was about the way that you operate in normal circumstances, and the way that you operate under pressure. Like most people, I tended to get more authoritarian in a crisis.

What we’re seeing in this crisis, I think, are people’s true colours. The things they’re talking about the most and wanting to protect are the equivalent of them item they’d pull from a burning building. What do they want to protect from the coronavirus? Is it the economy? Is it their family? Is it freedom of speech?


Last week, I asked Thought Shrapnel supporters what I should write about. It was suggested that I focus on something beyond the “reaction and hyperaction” that’s going on, and engage in “a little futurism and hope”. Now that it’s no longer easier to imagine the end of the world as the end of capitalism, how do we prepare for what comes next?

It’s an interesting suggestion for a thought experiment. Before we go any further, though, I want to preface this by saying these are the ramblings of an incoherent fool. Don’t make any investment decisions, buy any new clothes, or sever any relationships based on what I’ve got to say. After all, at this point, I’m mostly for rhetorical effect.


The first and obvious thing that I think will happen as a result of the pandemic is that people will get sick and some will die. Pretty much everyone on earth will either lose someone close to them or know someone who has. Death, as it has done for much of human history, will stalk us, and be something we are forced to both confront and talk about.

This may not seem like a very cheerful and hopeful place to start, but, actually, not being afraid to die seems to be the first step in living a fulfilling life. As I’ve said before, quoting it is the child within us that trembles before death. Coming to terms with that fact that you and the people you love are going to die at some point is just accepting the obvious.


If we don’t act like we’re going to live forever, if we confront our mortal condition, then it forces us to make some choices, both individually and as a society. How do we care for people who are sick and dying? How should we support those who are out of work? What kind of education do we want for our kids?

I forsee a lot of basic questions being re-asked and many assumptions re-evaluated in the light of the pandemic. Individually, in communities, and as societies, we’ll look back and wonder why it was that companies making billions of dollars when everything was fine were all of a sudden unable to meet their financial obligations when things weren’t going so well. We’ll realise that, at root, the neoliberalist form of capitalism we’ve been drinking like kool-aid actually takes from the many and gives to the few.

Before the pandemic, we had dead metaphors for both socialism and “pulling together in times of adversity”. Socialism has been unfairly caricatured as, and equated with, the totalitarian communist experiment in Russia. Meanwhile, neoliberals have done a great job at equating adversity with austerity, invoking memories of life during WWII. Keep Calm and Carry On.

This is why, in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, despite the giant strides and inroads into our collective consciousness, made by the Occupy movement, it ultimately failed. When it came down to brass tacks, we were frightened that destroying our current version of capitalism would mean we’d be left with totalitarian communism: queuing for food, spying on your neighbours, and suchlike.

So instead we invoked the only “pulling together in times of adversity” meme we knew: austerity. Unfortunately, that played straight into the hands of those who were happy to hollow out civic society for financial gain.

Post-pandemic, as we’re rebuilding society, I think that not only will there be fewer old people (grim, but true) but the overall shock will move the Overton Window further to left than it has been previously. Those who remain are likely to be much more receptive to the kind of socialism that would make things like Universal Basic Income and radically decarbonising the planet into a reality.


Making predictions about politics is a lot easier than making predictions about technology. That’s for a number of reasons, including how quickly the latter moves compared to the former, and also because of the compound effect that different technologies can have on society.

For example, look at the huge changes in the last decade around smartphones now being something that people spend several hours using each day. A decade ago we were concerned about people’s access to any form of internet-enabled device. Now, we just assume that everyone’s gone one which they can use to connect during the pandemic.

What concerns me is that the past decade has seen not only the hollowing-out of civic society in western democracies, but also our capitulation to venture capital-backed apps that make our lives easier. The reason? They’re all centralised.

I’m certainly not denying that some of this is going to make our life much easier short-term. Being on lockdown and still being able to have Amazon deliver almost anything to me is incredible. As is streaming all of the things via Netflix, etc. But, ultimately, caring doesn’t scale, and scaling doesn’t care.

Right now, we relying on centralised technologies. Everywhere I look, people are using a apps, tools, and platforms that could go down at any time. Remember the Twitter fail whale?

The Twitter ‘fail whale’

What happens when that scenario happens with Zoom? Or Microsoft Teams? Or Slack, or any kind of service that relies on the one organisation having their shit together for an extended period of time during a pandemic?

I think we’re going to see outages or other degradations in service. I’m hoping that this will encourage people to experiment with other, decentralised platforms, rather than leap from the frying pan of one failed centralised service into the fire another.


In terms of education, I don’t think it’s that difficult to predict what comes next. While I could be spectacularly wrong, the longer kids are kept at home and away from school, the more online teaching and learning has to become something mainstream.

Then, when it’s time to go back to school, some kids won’t. They and their parents will realise that they don’t need to, or that they are happier, or have learned more staying at home. Not all, by any means, but a significant majority. And because everyone has been in the same boat, parents will have peer support in doing so.

The longer the pandemic lockdown goes on, the more educational institutions will have to think about the logistics and feasibility of online testing. I’d like to think that competency-based learning and stackable digital credentials like Open Badges will become the norm.

Further out, as young people affected by the pandemic lockdown enter the job market, I’d hope that they would reject the traditional CV or resume as something that represents their experiences. Instead, although it’s more time-consuming to look at, I’d hope for portfolio-based approaches (with verified digital credentials) to become standard.


Education isn’t just about, or even mainly about, getting a job. So what about the impact of the pandemic on learners? On teachers? Well, if I’m being optimistic and hopeful, I’d say that it shows that things can be done differently at scale.

NASA Earth Observatory images showing emissions dramatically reduced over China during the coronavirus outbreak (via CBS)

In the same way that climate change-causing emissions dropped dramatically in China and other countries during the enforced coronavirus lockdown, so we can get rid of the things we know are harmful in education.

High-stakes testing? We don’t need it. Kids being taught in classes of 30+ by a low-paid teacher? Get over it. Segregation between rich and poor through private education? Reject it.


All of this depends on how we respond to the ‘shock and awe’ of both the pandemic and its response. We’re living during a crisis when it’s almost certainly necessary to bring in the kind of authoritarian measures we’d reject at any other time. While we need to move quickly, we still need to subject legislation and new social norms to some kind of scrutiny.

This period in history provides us with a huge opportunity. When I was a History teacher, one of my favourite things to teach kids was about revolutions; about times when people took things into their own hands. There’s the obvious examples, for sure, like 1789 and the French Revolution.

But perhaps my absolute favourite was for them to discover what happened after the Black Death ravaged Europe in particular in the 14th century. Unable to find enough workers to work their land, lords had to pay peasants several times what they could have previously expected. In fact, it led to the end of the entire feudal system.

We have the power to achieve something similar here. Except instead of serfdom, the thing we can escape from his neoliberal capitalism, the idea that the poor should suffer for the enrichment of the elite. We can and should structure our society so that never happens again.

In other words, never waste a crisis. What are you doing to help the revolution? Remember, when it comes down to it, power is always taken, never freely given.


BONUS: after writing this, I listened to a recent a16z podcast on Remote Work and Our New Reality. Worth a listen!


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Quotation-as-title by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Header image by Ana Flávia.

We are too busy mopping the floor to turn off the faucet

Pandemics, remote work, and global phase shifts


Last week, I tweeted this:

I delete my tweets automatically every 30 days, hence the screenshot…

I get the feeling that, between film and TV shows on Netflix, Amazon deliveries, and social interaction on Twitter and Mastodon, beyond close friends and family, no-one would even realise if I’d been quarantined.


Writing in The Atlantic, Ian Bogost points out that Every Place Is the Same Now, because you go to every place with your personal screen, a digital portal to the wider world.

Anywhere has become as good as anywhere else. The office is a suitable place for tapping out emails, but so is the bed, or the toilet. You can watch television in the den—but also in the car, or at the coffee shop, turning those spaces into impromptu theaters. Grocery shopping can be done via an app while waiting for the kids’ recital to start. Habits like these compress time, but they also transform space. Nowhere feels especially remarkable, and every place adopts the pleasures and burdens of every other. It’s possible to do so much from home, so why leave at all?

Ian Bogost (The Atlantic)

If you’re a knowledge worker, someone who deals with ideas and virtual objects rather than things in ‘meatspace’, then there is nothing tying you to a particular geographical place. This may be liberating, but it’s also quite… weird.

It’s easy but disorienting, and it makes the home into a very strange space. Until the 20th century, one had to leave the house for almost anything: to work, to eat or shop, to entertain yourself, to see other people. For decades, a family might have a single radio, then a few radios and a single television set. The possibilities available outside the home were far greater than those within its walls. But now, it’s not merely possible to do almost anything from home—it’s also the easiest option. Our forebears’ problem has been inverted: Now home is a prison of convenience that we need special help to escape.

Ian Bogost (The Atlantic)

I’ve worked from home for the last eight years, and now can’t imagine going back to working any other way. Granted, I get to travel pretty much every month, but that 95% being-at-home statistic still includes my multi-day international trips.


I haven’t watched it recently, but in 2009 a film called Surrogates starring Bruce Willis foreshadowed the kind of world we’re creating. Here’s the synopsis via IMDB:

People are living their lives remotely from the safety of their own homes via robotic surrogates — sexy, physically perfect mechanical representations of themselves. It’s an ideal world where crime, pain, fear and consequences don’t exist. When the first murder in years jolts this utopia, FBI agent Greer discovers a vast conspiracy behind the surrogate phenomenon and must abandon his own surrogate, risking his life to unravel the mystery.

IMDB

If we replace the word ‘robotic’ with ‘virtual’ in this plot summary, then it’s a close approximation to the world in which some of us now live. Facetuned Instagram selfies project a perfect life. We construct our own narratives and then believe the story we have concocted. Everything is amazing but no-one’s happy.


Even Zoom, the videoconferencing software I use most days for work, has an option to smooth out wrinkles, change your background, and make everything look a bit more sparkly. Our offline lives can be gloriously mundane, but online, thanks to various digital effects, we can make them look glorious. And why wouldn’t we?

I think we’ll see people and businesses optimising for how they look and sound online, including recruitment. The ability to communicate effectively at a distance with people who you may never meet in person is a skill that’s going to be in high demand, if it isn’t already.


Remote working may be a trend, but one which is stubbornly resisted by some bosses who are convinced they have to keep a close eye on employees to get any work out of them.

However, when those bosses are forced to implement remote working policies to keep their businesses afloat, and nothing bad happens as a result, this attitude can, and probably will, change. Remote working, when done properly, is not only more cost-effective for businesses, but often leads to higher productivity and self-reported worker happiness.

Being ‘good in the room‘ is fine, and I’m sure it will always be highly prized, but I also see confident, open working practices as something that’s rising in perceived value. Chairing successful online meetings is at least as important as chairing ones offline, for example. We need to think of ways of being able recognise these remote working skills, as it’s not something in which you can receive a diploma.


For workers, of course, there are so many benefits of working from home that I’m not even sure where to start. Your health, relationships, and happiness are just three things that are likely to dramatically improve when you start working remotely.

For example, let’s just take the commute. This dominates the lives of non-remote workers, usually taking an hour or more out of a their day — every day. Commuting is tiring and inconvenient, but people are currently willing to put up with long commutes to afford a decently-sized house, or to live in a nicer area.

So, let’s imagine that because of the current pandemic (which some are calling the world’s biggest remote-working experiment) businesses decide that having their workers being based from home has multi-faceted benefits. What happens next?

Well, if a large percentage (say we got up to ~50%) of the working population started working remotely over the next few months and years, this would have a knock-on effect. We’d see changes in:

  • Schools
  • Volunteering
  • Offices
  • House prices
  • Community cohesion
  • High street
  • Home delivery

…to name but a few. I think it would be a huge net benefit for society, and hopefully allow for much greater civic engagement and democratic participation.


I’ll conclude with a quotation from Nafeez Ahmed’s excellent (long!) post on what he’s calling a global phase shift. Medium says it’s a 30-minute read, but I reckon it’s about half that.

Ahmed points out in stark detail the crisis, potential future scenarios, and the opportunity we’ve got. I particularly appreciate his focus on the complete futility of what he calls “a raw, ‘fend for yourself’ approach”. We must work together to solve the world’s problems.

The coronavirus outbreak is, ultimately, a lesson in not just the inherent systemic fragilities in industrial civilization, but also the limits of its underlying paradigm. This is a paradigm premised on a specific theory of human nature, the neoclassical view of Homo-Economicus, human beings as dislocated units which compete with each other to maximise their material self-gratification through endless consumption and production. That paradigm and its values have brought us so far in our journey as a species, but they have long outlasted their usefulness and now threaten to undermine our societies, and even our survival as a species.

Getting through coronavirus will be an exercise not just in building societal resilience, but relearning the values of cooperation, compassion, generosity and kindness, and building systems which institutionalize these values. It is high time to recognize that such ethical values are not simply human constructs, products of socialization. They are cognitive categories which reflect patterns of behaviour in individuals and organizations that have an evolutionary, adaptive function. In the global phase shift, systems which fail to incorporate these values into their structures will eventually die.

Nafeez Ahmed

Just as crises can be manufactured by totalitarian regimes to seize power and control populations, perhaps natural crises can be used to make us collectively realise we need to pull together?


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Header image by pan xiaozhen. Anonymous quotation-as-title taken from Scott Klososky’s The Velocity Manifesto

What the crowd requires is mediocrity of the highest order

What expectations do you have for your life? What were they aged seven? How about aged 17? Or 27? Did those expectations change? If so, why did they change?

Did you become a different person? Perhaps you met someone? Or did something unexpected happen?

Could it be that your expectations increased as time went on? Did you realise that you’d be able to surpass what other people thought you could achieve in your life? Perhaps you met people who had higher expectations of themselves and others?

If your expectations decreased as you got older, how do you feel about that? Did you tell yourself that you’re being ‘realistic’? Or did a comment or action from someone, or group of people, cause you to reassess things?

Maybe you came to a realisation that what you thought was important, actually wasn’t really? Or, it could have been that what you thought was unimportant, actually was vitally important to you?

Was it your health? Were you sickly when younger and grew stronger over time? Or was it the other way around? Is your health an excuse? A crutch? Or have you flourished despite your constraints?

Have you ever reflected on your expectations of yourself? What about those of others? Are you harder on yourself than on other people? Or are you harder on them than you are on yourself?

What would your seven-year old self say? How about the 17 version of you? Would your 27 year-old self be happy about your current expectation levels?


Quotation-as-title by Auguste Préault. Image by Davide Ragusa. If you liked this, you’ll love The Interrogative Mood by Padgett Powell.

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.

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

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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To others we are not ourselves but a performer in their lives cast for a part we do not even know that we are playing

Surveillance, technology, and society

Last week, the London Metropolitan Police (‘the Met’) proudly announced that they’ve begun using ‘LFR’, which is their neutral-sounding acronym for something incredibly invasive to the privacy of everyday people in Britain’s capital: Live Facial Recognition.

It’s obvious that the Met expect some pushback here:

The Met will begin operationally deploying LFR at locations where intelligence suggests we are most likely to locate serious offenders. Each deployment will have a bespoke ‘watch list’, made up of images of wanted individuals, predominantly those wanted for serious and violent offences. 

At a deployment, cameras will be focused on a small, targeted area to scan passers-by. The cameras will be clearly signposted and officers deployed to the operation will hand out leaflets about the activity. The technology, which is a standalone system, is not linked to any other imaging system, such as CCTV, body worn video or ANPR.

London Metropolitan Police

Note the talk of ‘intelligence’ and ‘bespoke watch lists’, as well as promises that LFR will not be linked any other systems. (ANPR, for those not familiar with it, is ‘Automatic Number Plate Recognition’.) This, of course, is the thin end of the wedge and how these things start — in a ‘targeted’ way. They’re expanded later, often when the fuss has died down.


Meanwhile, a lot of controversy surrounds an app called Clearview AI which scrapes publicly-available data (e.g. Twitter or YouTube profiles) and applies facial recognition algorithms. It’s already in use by law enforcement in the USA.

The size of the Clearview database dwarfs others in use by law enforcement. The FBI’s own database, which taps passport and driver’s license photos, is one of the largest, with over 641 million images of US citizens.

The Clearview app isn’t available to the public, but the Times says police officers and Clearview investors think it will be in the future.

The startup said in a statement Tuesday that its “technology is intended only for use by law enforcement and security personnel. It is not intended for use by the general public.” 

Edward Moyer (CNET)

So there we are again, the technology is ‘intended’ for one purpose, but the general feeling is that it will leak out into others. Imagine the situation if anyone could identify almost anyone on the planet simply by pointing their smartphone at them for a few seconds?

This is a huge issue, and one that politicians and lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic are both ill-equipped to deal with and particularly concerned about. As the BBC reports, the European Commission is considering a five-year ban on facial recognition in public spaces while it figures out how to regulate the technology:

The Commission set out its plans in an 18-page document, suggesting that new rules will be introduced to bolster existing regulation surrounding privacy and data rights.

It proposed imposing obligations on both developers and users of artificial intelligence, and urged EU countries to create an authority to monitor the new rules.

During the ban, which would last between three and five years, “a sound methodology for assessing the impacts of this technology and possible risk management measures could be identified and developed”.

BBC News

I can’t see the genie going back in this particular bottle and, as Ian Welsh puts it, this is the end of public anonymity. He gives the examples of the potential for all kinds of abuse, from an increase in rape, to abuse by corporations, to an increase in parental surveillance of children.

The larger issue is this: people who are constantly under surveillance become super conformers out of defense. Without true private time, the public persona and the private personality tend to collapse together. You need a backstage — by yourself and with a small group of friends to become yourself. You need anonymity.

When everything you do is open to criticism by everyone, you will become timid and conforming.

When governments, corporations, schools and parents know everything, they will try to control everything. This often won’t be for your benefit.

Ian Welsh

We already know that self-censorship is the worst kind of censorship, and live facial recognition means we’re going to have to do a whole lot more of it in the near future.

So what can we do about it? Welsh thinks that this technology should be made illegal, which is one option. However, you can’t un-invent technologies. So live facial recognition is going to be used (lawfully) by some organisations, even if it were restricted to state operatives. I’m not sure if that’s better or worse than everyone having it?


At a recent workshop I ran, I was talking during one of the breaks to one person who couldn’t really see the problem I had raised about surveillance capitalism. I have to wonder if they would have a problem with live facial recognition? From our conversation, I’d suspect not.

Remember that facial recognition is not 100% accurate and (realistically) never can be. So there will be false positives. Let’s say your face ends up on a ‘watch list’ or a ‘bad actor’ database shared with many different agencies and retailers. All of a sudden, you’ve got yourself a very big problem.


As BuzzFeed News reports, around half of US retailers are either using live facial recognition, or have plans to use it. At the moment, companies like FaceFirst do not facilitate the sharing of data across their clients, but you can see what’s coming next:

[Peter Trepp, CEO of FaceFirst] said the database is not shared with other retailers or with FaceFirst directly. All retailers have their own policies, but Trepp said often stores will offer not to press charges against apprehended shoplifters if they agree to opt into the store’s shoplifter database. The files containing the images and identities of people on “the bad guy list” are encrypted and only accessible to retailers using their own systems, he said.

FaceFirst automatically purges visitor data that does not match information in a criminal database every 14 days, which is the company’s minimum recommendation for auto-purging data. It’s up to the retailer if apprehended shoplifters or people previously on the list can later opt out of the database.

Leticia Miranda (BuzzFeed News)

There is no opt-in, no consent sought or gathered by retailers. This is a perfect example of technology being light years ahead of lawmaking.


This is all well-and-good in situations where adults are going into public spaces, but what about schools, where children are often only one step above prisoners in terms of the rights they enjoy?

Recode reports that, in schools, the surveillance threat to students goes beyond facial recognition. So long as authorities know generally what a student looks like, they can track them everywhere they go:

Appearance Search can find people based on their age, gender, clothing, and facial characteristics, and it scans through videos like facial recognition tech — though the company that makes it, Avigilon, says it doesn’t technically count as a full-fledged facial recognition tool

Even so, privacy experts told Recode that, for students, the distinction doesn’t necessarily matter. Appearance Search allows school administrators to review where a person has traveled throughout campus — anywhere there’s a camera — using data the system collects about that person’s clothing, shape, size, and potentially their facial characteristics, among other factors. It also allows security officials to search through camera feeds using certain physical descriptions, like a person’s age, gender, and hair color. So while the tool can’t say who the person is, it can find where else they’ve likely been.

Rebecca Heilweil (Recode)

This is a good example of the boundaries of technology that may-or-may-not be banned at some point in the future. The makers of Appearance Search, Avigilon, claim that it’s not facial recognition technology because the images it captures and analyses are tied to the identity of a particular person:

Avigilon’s surveillance tool exists in a gray area: Even privacy experts are conflicted over whether or not it would be accurate to call the system facial recognition. After looking at publicly available content about Avigilon, Leong said it would be fairer to call the system an advanced form of characterization, meaning that the system is making judgments about the attributes of that person, like what they’re wearing or their hair, but it’s not actually claiming to know their identity.

Rebecca Heilweil (Recode)

You can give as many examples of the technology being used for good as you want — there’s one in this article about how the system helped discover a girl was being bullied, for example — but it’s still intrusive surveillance. There are other ways of getting to the same outcome.


We do not live in a world of certainty. We live in a world where things are ambiguous, unsure, and sometimes a little dangerous. While we should seek to protect one another, and especially those who are most vulnerable in society, we should think about the harm we’re doing by forcing people to live the totality of their lives in public.

What does that do to our conceptions of self? To creativity? To activism? Live facial recognition technology, as well as those technologies that exist in a grey area around it, is the hot-button issue of the 2020s.


Image by Kirill Sharkovski. Quotation-as-title by Elizabeth Bibesco.

How you do anything is how you do everything

So said Derek Sivers, although I suspect that, originally, it’s probably a core principle of Zen Buddhism. In this article I want to talk about management and leadership. But also about emotional intelligence and integrity.


I currently spend part of my working life as a Product Manager. At some organisations, this means that you’re in charge of the budget, and pull in colleagues from different disciplines. For example, a designer you’re working with on a particular project might report to the Head of UX. Matrix-style management and internal budgeting keeps track of everything.

This approach can get complicated so, at other companies (like the one I’m working with), the Product Manager manages both people and product. It’s a lot of work, as both can be complicated.

I think I’m OK at managing people, and other people say I’m good at it, but it’s not my favourite thing in the world to do.

That’s why, when hiring, I try to do so in one of three ways. Ideally, I want to hire people with whom at least one member of the existing team has already worked and can vouch for. If that doesn’t work, then I’m looking for people vouched for my the networks of which the team are part. Failing that, I’m trying to find people who don’t wait for direction, but know how to get on with things that need doing.

It’s an approach I’ve developed from the work of Laura Thomson. She’s a former colleague at Mozilla, and an advocate of a chaordic style of management and self-organising ducks:

Instead of having ‘all your ducks in a row’ the analogy in chaordic management is to have ‘self-organising ducks’. The idea is to give people enough autonomy, knowledge and skill to be able to do the management themselves.

As I’ve said before, the default way of organising human beings is hierarchy. That doesn’t mean it’s the best way. Hierachy tends to lean on processes, paperwork and meetings to ‘get things done’ but even a cursory glance at Open Source projects shows that all of this isn’t strictly necessary.


Last week, a new-ish member of the team said that I can be “too nice”. I’m still processing that and digging into what they meant, but I then ended up reading an article by Roddy Millar for Fast Company entitled Here’s why being likable may make you a less effective leader.

It’s a slightly oddly-framed article that quotes Prof. Karen Cates from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management :

Leaders should not put likability above effectiveness. There are times when the humor and smiles need to go and a let’s-get-this-done approach is required. Cates goes further: “Even the ‘nasty boss approach’ can be really effective—but in short, small doses—to get everyone’s attention and say ‘Hey, we’ve got to make some changes around here.’ You can then create—with an earnest approach—that more likable persona as you move forward. Likability is a good thing to have in your leadership toolkit, but it shouldn’t be the biggest hammer in the box.”

Roddy Millar

I think there’s a difference between ‘trying to be likeable’ and ‘treating your colleagues with dignity and respect’.

If you’re being nice to be just to liked by your team, you’re probably doing it wrong. It’s a bit like, back when I was teaching, teachers who wanted to be liked by the kids they taught.

The other approach is to simply treat the people around you with dignity and respect, realising that all of human life involves suffering, so let’s not add to the burden through our everyday working lives.

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The above is one of my favourite quotations. We don’t need to crack the whip or wield some kind of totem of hierarchical power over other people. We just need to ensure people are in the right place (physically and emotoinally), with the right things (tools, skills, and information) to get things done.


In managers are for caring, Harold Jarche points a finger at hierarchical organisations, stating that they are “what we get when we use the blunt stick of economic consequences with financial quid pro quo as the prime motivator”.

Jarche wonders instead what would happen if they were structured more like communities of practice?

What would an organization look like with looser hierarchies and stronger networks? A lot more human, retrieving some of the intimacy and cooperation of tribal groups. We already have other ways of organizing work. Orchestras are not teams, and neither are jazz ensembles. There may be teamwork on a theatre production but the cast is not a team. It is more like a community of practice, with strong and weak social ties.

Harold Jarche

I think part of the problem, to be honest, is emotional intelligence, or rather the lack of it, in many organisations.

Unfortunately, the way to earn more money in organisations is to start managing people. Which is fine for the subset of people who have the skills to be able to handle this. For others, it’s a frustrating experience that takes them away from doing the work.


For TED Ideas, organisational psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic asks Why do so many incompetent men become leaders? And what can we do about it? He lists three reasons why we have so many incompetent (male) leaders:

  1. Our inability to distinguish between confidence and competence
  2. Our love of charasmatic individuals
  3. The allure of “people with grandiose visions that tap into our own narcissism”

He suggests three ways to fix this. The other two are all well and good, but I just want to focus on the first solution he suggests:

The first solution is to follow the signs and look for the qualities that actually make people better leaders. There is a pathological mismatch between the attributes that seduce us in a leader and those that are needed to be an effective leader. If we want to improve the performance of our leaders, we should focus on the right traits. Instead of falling for people who are confident, narcissistic and charismatic, we should promote people because of competence, humility and integrity. Incidentally, this would also lead to a higher proportion of female than male leaders — large-scale scientific studies show that women score higher than men on measures of competence, humility and integrity. But the point is that we would significantly improve the quality of our leaders.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

The best leaders I’ve worked for exhibited high levels of emotional intelligence. Most of them were women.

Developing emotional intelligence is difficult and goodness knows I’m no expert. What I think we perhaps need to do is to remove our corporate dependency on hierarchy. In hierarchies, emotion and trust is removed as an impediment to action.

However, in my experience, hierarchy is inherently patriarchal and competitive. It’s not something that’s necessarily useful in every industry in the 21st century. And hierarchies are not places that I, and people like me, particularly thrive.

Instead, I think we require trust-based ways of organising — ways that emphasis human relationships. I think these are also more conducive to human flourishing.

Right now, approaches such as sociocracy take a while to get our collective heads around as they’re opposed to our “default operating system” of hierarchy. However, over time I think we’ll see versions of this becoming the norm, as it becomes ever easier to co-ordinate people at a distance.


To sum up, what it means to be an effective leader is changing. Returning to the article cited above by Harold Jarche, he writes:

Hierarchical teams are what we get when we use the blunt stick of economic consequences with financial quid pro quo as the prime motivator. In a creative economy, the unity of hierarchical teams is counter-productive, as it shuts off opportunities for serendipity and innovation. In a complex and networked economy workers need more autonomy and managers should have less control.

Harold Jarche

Many people no longer live in a world of the ‘permanent job’ and ‘career ladder’. What counts as success for them is not necessarily a steadily-increasing paycheck, but measures such as social justice or ‘making a dent in the universe’. This is where hierarchy fails, and where emergent, emotionally-intelligent leaders with teams of self-organising ducks, thrive.