Tag: Fast Company (page 1 of 2)

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. “

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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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.

Friday flurries

It’s been a busy week, but I’ve still found time to unearth these gems…

  • The Dark Psychology of Social Networks (The Atlantic) — “The philosophers Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke have proposed the useful phrase moral grandstanding to describe what happens when people use moral talk to enhance their prestige in a public forum. Like a succession of orators speaking to a skeptical audience, each person strives to outdo previous speakers, leading to some common patterns. Grandstanders tend to “trump up moral charges, pile on in cases of public shaming, announce that anyone who disagrees with them is obviously wrong, or exaggerate emotional displays.” Nuance and truth are casualties in this competition to gain the approval of the audience. Grandstanders scrutinize every word spoken by their opponents—and sometimes even their friends—for the potential to evoke public outrage. Context collapses. The speaker’s intent is ignored.”
  • Live Your Best Life—On and Off Your Phone—in 2020 (WIRED) — “It’s your devices versus your best life. Just in time for a new decade, though, several fresh books offer a more measured approach to living in the age of technology. These are not self-help books, or even books that confront our relationship with technology head-on. Instead, they examine the realities of a tech-saturated world and offer a few simple ideas for rewriting bad habits, reviewing the devices we actually need, and relearning how to listen amid all the noise.”
  • People Who Are Obsessed With Success and Prestige (Bennett Notes) — “What does it look like to be obsessed with success and prestige? It probably looks a lot like me at the moment. A guy who starts many endeavors and side projects just because he wants to be known as the creator of something. This a guy who wants to build another social app, not because he has an unique problem that’s unaddressed, but because he wants to be the cool tech entrepreneur who everyone admires and envies. This is a guy who probably doesn’t care for much of what he does, but continues to do so for the eventual social validation of society and his peers.”
  • The Lesson to Unlearn (Paul Graham) — “Merely talking explicitly about this phenomenon is likely to make things better, because much of its power comes from the fact that we take it for granted. After you’ve noticed it, it seems the elephant in the room, but it’s a pretty well camouflaged elephant. The phenomenon is so old, and so pervasive. And it’s simply the result of neglect. No one meant things to be this way. This is just what happens when you combine learning with grades, competition, and the naive assumption of unhackability.”
  • The End of the Beginning (Stratechery) — “[In consumer-focused startups] few companies are pure “tech” companies seeking to disrupt the dominant cloud and mobile players; rather, they take their presence as an assumption, and seek to transform society in ways that were previously impossible when computing was a destination, not a given. That is exactly what happened with the automobile: its existence stopped being interesting in its own right, while the implications of its existence changed everything.”
  • Populism Is Morphing in Insidious Ways (The Atlantic) — “If the 2010s were the years in which predominantly far-right, populist parties permeated the political mainstream, then the 2020s will be when voters “are going to see the consequences of that,” Daphne Halikiopoulou, an associate professor of comparative politics at the University of Reading, in England, told me.”
  • It’s the network, stupid: Study offers fresh insight into why we’re so divided (Ars Technica) — “There is no easy answer when it comes to implementing structural changes that encourage diversity, but today’s extreme polarization need not become a permanent characteristic of our cultural landscape. “I think we need to adopt new skills as we are transitioning into a more complex, more globalized, and more interconnected world, where each of us can affect far-away parts of the world with our actions,” said Galesic.”
  • Memorizing Lists of Cognitive Biases Won’t Help (Hapgood) — “But if you want to change your own behavior, memorizing long lists of biases isn’t going to help you. If anything it’s likely to just become another weapon in your motivated reasoning arsenal. You can literally read the list of biases to see why reading the list won’t work.”
  • How to get more done by doing less (Fast Company) — “Sometimes, the secret to doing more isn’t optimizing every minute, but finding the things you can cull from your schedule. That way, you not only reduce the time you spend on non-essential tasks, but you can also find more time for yourself.”

Image via xkcd

Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted

So said Aldous Huxley. Recently, I discovered a episode of the podcast The Science of Success in which Dan Carlin was interviewed. Now Dan is the host of one of my favourite podcasts, Hardcore History as well as one he’s recently discontinued called Common Sense.

The reason the latter is on ‘indefinite hiatus’ was discussed on The Science of Success podcast. Dan feels that, after 30 years as a journalist, if he can’t get a grip on the current information landscape, then who can? It’s shaken him up a little.

One of the quotations he just gently lobbed into the conversation was from John Stuart Mill, who at one time or another was accused by someone of being ‘inconsistent’ in his views. Mill replied:

When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?

John Stuart Mill

Now whether or not Mill said those exact words, the sentiment nevertheless stands. I reckon human beings have always made up their minds first and then chosen ‘facts’ to support their opinions. These days, I just think that it’s easier than ever to find ‘news’ outlets and people sharing social media posts to support your worldview. It’s as simple as that.


Last week I watched a stand-up comedy routine by Kevin Bridges on BBC iPlayer as part of his 2018 tour. As a Glaswegian, he made the (hilarious) analogy of social media as being like going into a pub.

(As an aside, this is interesting, as a decade ago people would often use the analogy of using social media as being like going to an café. The idea was that you could overhear, and perhaps join in with, interesting conversations that you hear. No-one uses that analogy any more.)

Bridges pointed out that if you entered a pub, sat down for a quiet pint, and the person next to you was trying to flog you Herbalife products, constantly talking about how #blessed they felt, or talking ambiguously for the sake of attention, you’d probably find another pub.

He was doing it for laughs, but I think he was also making a serious point. Online, we tolerate people ranting on and generally being obnoxious in ways we would never do offline.

The underlying problem of course is that any platform that takes some segment of the real world and brings it into software will also bring in all that segment’s problems. Amazon took products and so it has to deal with bad and fake products (whereas one might say that Facebook took people, and so has bad and fake people).

Benedict Evans

I met Clay Shirky at an event last month, which kind of blew my mind given that it was me speaking at it rather than him. After introducing myself, we spoke for a few minutes about everything from his choice of laptop to what he’s been working on recently. Curiously, he’s not writing a book at the moment. After a couple of very well-received books (Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus) Shirky has actually only published a slightly obscure book about Chinese smartphone manufacturing since 2010.

While I didn’t have time to dig into things there and then, and it would been a bit presumptuous of me to do so, it feels to me like Shirky may have ‘walked back’ some of his pre-2010 thoughts. This doesn’t surprise me at all, given that many of the rest of us have, too. For example, in 2014 he published a Medium article explaining why he banned his students from using laptops in lectures. Such blog posts and news articles are common these days, but it felt like was one of the first.


The last decade from 2010 to 2019, which Audrey Watters has done a great job of eviscerating, was, shall we say, somewhat problematic. The good news is that we connected 4.5 billion people to the internet. The bad news is that we didn’t really harness that for much good. So we went from people sharing pictures of cats, to people sharing pictures of cats and destroying western democracy.

Other than the ‘bad and fake people’ problem cited by Ben Evans above, another big problem was the rise of surveillance capitalism. In a similar way to climate change, this has been repackaged as a series of individual failures on the part of end users. But, as Lindsey Barrett explains for Fast Company, it’s not really our fault at all:

In some ways, the tendency to blame individuals simply reflects the mistakes of our existing privacy laws, which are built on a vision of privacy choices that generally considers the use of technology to be a purely rational decision, unconstrained by practical limitations such as the circumstances of the user or human fallibility. These laws are guided by the idea that providing people with information about data collection practices in a boilerplate policy statement is a sufficient safeguard. If people don’t like the practices described, they don’t have to use the service.

Lindsey Barrett

The problem is that we have monopolistic practices in the digital world. Fast Company also reports the four most downloaded apps of the 2010s were all owned by Facebook:

I don’t actually think people really understand that their data from WhatsApp and Instagram is being hoovered up by Facebook. I don’t then think they understand what Facebook then do with that data. I tried to lift the veil on this a little bit at the event where I met Clay Shirky. I know at least one person who immediately deleted their Facebook account as a result of it. But I suspect everyone else will just keep on keeping on. And yes, I have been banging my drum about this for quite a while now. I’ll continue to do so.

The truth is, and this is something I’ll be focusing on in upcoming workshops I’m running on digital literacies, that to be an ‘informed citizen’ these days means reading things like the EFF’s report into the current state of corporate surveillance. It means deleting accounts as a result. It means slowing down, taking time, and reading stuff before sharing it on platforms that you know care for the many, not the few. It means actually caring about this stuff.

All of this might just look and feel like a series of preferences. I prefer decentralised social networks and you prefer Facebook. Or I like to use Signal and you like WhatsApp. But it’s more than that. It’s a whole lot more than that. Democracy as we know it is at stake here.


As Prof. Scott Galloway has discussed from an American point of view, we’re living in times of increasing inequality. The tools we’re using exacerbate that inequality. All of a sudden you have to be amazing at your job to even be able to have a decent quality of life:

The biggest losers of the decade are the unremarkables. Our society used to give remarkable opportunities to unremarkable kids and young adults. Some of the crowding out of unremarkable white males, including myself, is a good thing. More women are going to college, and remarkable kids from low-income neighborhoods get opportunities. But a middle-class kid who doesn’t learn to code Python or speak Mandarin can soon find she is not “tracking” and can’t catch up.

Prof. Scott Galloway

I shared an article last Friday, about how you shouldn’t have to be good at your job. The whole point of society is that we look after one another, not compete with one another to see which of us can ‘extract the most value’ and pile up more money than he or she can ever hope to spend. Yes, it would be nice if everyone was awesome at all they did, but the optimisation of everything isn’t the point of human existence.

So once we come down the stack from social networks, to surveillance capitalism, to economic and markets eating the world we find the real problem behind all of this: decision-making. We’ve sacrificed stability for speed, and seem to be increasingly happy with dictator-like behaviour in both our public institutions and corporate lives.

Dictatorships can be more efficient than democracies because they don’t have to get many people on board to make a decision. Democracies, by contrast, are more robust, but at the cost of efficiency.

Taylor Pearson

A selectorate, according to Pearson, “represents the number of people who have influence in a government, and thus the degree to which power is distributed”. Aside from the fact that dictatorships tend to be corrupt and oppressive, they’re just not a good idea in terms of decision-making:

Said another way, much of what appears efficient in the short term may not be efficient but hiding risk somewhere, creating the potential for a blow-up. A large selectorate tends to appear to be working less efficiently in the short term, but can be more robust in the long term, making it more efficient in the long term as well. It is a story of the Tortoise and the Hare: slow and steady may lose the first leg, but win the race.

Taylor Pearson

I don’t think we should be optimising human beings for their role in markets. I think we should be optimising markets (if in fact we need them) for their role in human flourishing. The best way of doing that is to ensure that we distribute power and decision-making well.


So it might seem that my continual ragging on Facebook (in particular) is a small thing in the bigger picture. But it’s actually part of the whole deal. When we have super-powerful individuals whose companies have the ability to surveil us at will; who then share that data to corrupt regimes; who in turn reinforce the worst parts of the status quo; then I think we have a problem.

This year I’ve made a vow to be more radical. To speak my mind even more, and truth to power, especially when it’s inconvenient. I hope you’ll join me ✊

Technology is the name we give to stuff that doesn’t work properly yet

So said my namesake Douglas Adams. In fact, he said lots of wise things about technology, most of them too long to serve as a title.

I’m in a weird place, emotionally, at the moment, but sometimes this can be a good thing. Being taken out of your usual ‘autopilot’ can be a useful way to see things differently. So I’m going to take this opportunity to share three things that, to be honest, make me a bit concerned about the next few years…

Attempts to put microphones everywhere

Alexa-enabled EVERYTHING

In an article for Slate, Shannon Palus ranks all of Amazon’s new products by ‘creepiness’. The Echo Frames are, in her words:

A microphone that stays on your person all day and doesn’t look like anything resembling a microphone, nor follows any established social codes for wearable microphones? How is anyone around you supposed to have any idea that you are wearing a microphone?

Shannon Palus

When we’re not talking about weapons of mass destruction, it’s not the tech that concerns me, but the context in which the tech is used. As Palus points out, how are you going to be able to have a ‘quiet word’ with anyone wearing glasses ever again?

It’s not just Amazon, of course. Google and Facebook are at it, too.

Full-body deepfakes

Scary stuff

With the exception, perhaps, of populist politicians, I don’t think we’re ready for a post-truth society. Check out the video above, which shows Chinese technology that allows for ‘full body deepfakes’.

The video is embedded, along with a couple of others in an article for Fast Company by DJ Pangburn, who also notes that AI is learning human body movements from videos. Not only will you be able to prank your friends by showing them a convincing video of your ability to do 100 pull-ups, but the fake news it engenders will mean we can’t trust anything any more.

Neuromarketing

If you clicked on the ‘super-secret link’ in Sunday’s newsletter, you will have come across STEALING UR FEELINGS which is nothing short of incredible. As powerful as it is in showing you the kind of data that organisations have on us, it’s the tip of the iceberg.

Kaveh Waddell, in an article for Axios, explains that brains are the last frontier for privacy:

“The sort of future we’re looking ahead toward is a world where our neural data — which we don’t even have access to — could be used” against us, says Tim Brown, a researcher at the University of Washington Center for Neurotechnology.

Kaveh Waddell

This would lead to ‘neuromarketing’, with advertisers knowing what triggers and influences you better than you know yourself. Also, it will no doubt be used for discriminatory purposes and, because it’s coming directly from your brainwaves, short of literally wearing a tinfoil hat, there’s nothing much you can do.


So there we are. Am I being too fearful here?

Saturday strikings

This week’s roundup is going out a day later than usual, as yesterday was the Global Climate Strike and Thought Shrapnel was striking too!

Here’s what I’ve been paying attention to this week:

  • How does a computer ‘see’ gender? (Pew Research Center) — “Machine learning tools can bring substantial efficiency gains to analyzing large quantities of data, which is why we used this type of system to examine thousands of image search results in our own studies. But unlike traditional computer programs – which follow a highly prescribed set of steps to reach their conclusions – these systems make their decisions in ways that are largely hidden from public view, and highly dependent on the data used to train them. As such, they can be prone to systematic biases and can fail in ways that are difficult to understand and hard to predict in advance.”
  • The Communication We Share with Apes (Nautilus) — “Many primate species use gestures to communicate with others in their groups. Wild chimpanzees have been seen to use at least 66 different hand signals and movements to communicate with each other. Lifting a foot toward another chimp means “climb on me,” while stroking their mouth can mean “give me the object.” In the past, researchers have also successfully taught apes more than 100 words in sign language.”
  • Why degrowth is the only responsible way forward (openDemocracy) — “If we free our imagination from the liberal idea that well-being is best measured by the amount of stuff that we consume, we may discover that a good life could also be materially light. This is the idea of voluntary sufficiency. If we manage to decide collectively and democratically what is necessary and enough for a good life, then we could have plenty.”
  • 3 times when procrastination can be a good thing (Fast Company) — “It took Leonardo da Vinci years to finish painting the Mona Lisa. You could say the masterpiece was created by a master procrastinator. Sure, da Vinci wasn’t under a tight deadline, but his lengthy process demonstrates the idea that we need to work through a lot of bad ideas before we get down to the good ones.”
  • Why can’t we agree on what’s true any more? (The Guardian) — “What if, instead, we accepted the claim that all reports about the world are simply framings of one kind or another, which cannot but involve political and moral ideas about what counts as important? After all, reality becomes incoherent and overwhelming unless it is simplified and narrated in some way or other.
  • A good teacher voice strikes fear into grown men (TES) — “A good teacher voice can cut glass if used with care. It can silence a class of children; it can strike fear into the hearts of grown men. A quiet, carefully placed “Excuse me”, with just the slightest emphasis on the “-se”, is more effective at stopping an argument between adults or children than any amount of reason.”
  • Freeing software (John Ohno) — “The only way to set software free is to unshackle it from the needs of capital. And, capital has become so dependent upon software that an independent ecosystem of anti-capitalist software, sufficiently popular, can starve it of access to the speed and violence it needs to consume ever-doubling quantities of to survive.”
  • Young People Are Going to Save Us All From Office Life (The New York Times) — “Today’s young workers have been called lazy and entitled. Could they, instead, be among the first to understand the proper role of work in life — and end up remaking work for everyone else?”
  • Global climate strikes: Don’t say you’re sorry. We need people who can take action to TAKE ACTUAL ACTION (The Guardian) — “Brenda the civil disobedience penguin gives some handy dos and don’ts for your civil disobedience”

To refrain from imitation is the best revenge

Today’s title comes from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, which regular readers of my writing will know I read on repeat. George Herbert, the English poet, wrote something similar to this in “living well is the best revenge”.

But what do these things actually mean in practice?


One of my favourite episodes of Frasier (the only sitcom I’ve ever really enjoyed) is when Niles has to confront his childhood bully. It leads to this magnificent exchange:

Frasier:
You know the expression, “Living well is the best revenge”?
Niles:
It’s a wonderful expression. I just don’t know how true it is. You don’t see it turning up in a lot of opera plots. “Ludwig, maddened by the poisoning of his entire family, wreaks vengeance on Gunther in the third act by living well.”
Frasier:
All right, Niles.
Niles:
“Whereupon Woton, upon discovering his deception, wreaks vengeance on Gunther in the third act again by living even better than the Duke.”
Frasier:
Oh, all right!

In other words, it often doesn’t feel that ‘living well’ makes any tangible difference.

But let’s step back a moment. What does it mean to ‘live well’? Is it the same as refraining from imitating others, or are Marcus Aurelius and George Herbert talking about two entirely different things?


During an email exchange last week, someone mentioned that they weren’t sure whether my segues between topics were ‘brilliant’ or ‘tenuous’. Well, dear reader, here’s a chance to judge for yourself.


In a recent article for Fast Company, ostensibly about ‘personal branding’ Trip O’Dell gets awfully deep awfully quickly and starts invoking Aristotle:

Aristotle is the father of Western philosophy because he didn’t focus on likes, engagement, or followers. Aristotle focused on the nature of authenticity; what it means to be real but also persuasive. He broke the requirements for persuasiveness into four simple elements: ethos (reputation/authority), logos (logic), pathos (feeling), and kairos (timing). Those four elements are required to argue persuasively in any context. However, the stakes are higher in business. Confidently communicating who you are, what you stand for, and why you’re great at what you do is not only essential, it’s liberating.

Trip O’Dell

What I particularly like about the article is the re-focusing on ‘personal ethos’ rather than ‘personal brand’. Branding is a form of marketing, of changing the surface appearance of something. It’s about morphing a product (in this case, yourself) into something that better fits in with what other people expect.

An ethos runs much deeper. It is, as Aristotle noted, about your reputation or authority, neither of which are manufactured overnight.

The hardest part of establishing a professional ethos is describing it; it takes work, and it isn’t easy. The process requires a level of maturity and self-awareness that can be uncomfortable at times. You’re forced to ask some essential questions and make yourself vulnerable to critique and rejection. That discomfort is the tax that is paid to eliminate self-defeating habits that hold many people back in their professional lives.

Trip O’Dell

This is where that magnificent word ‘authenticity’ comes in. No-one really knows what it means, but everyone wants to have it. I’d argue that authenticity is a by-product of reputation and authority. Easy to destroy, difficult to build.


Let me set my stall out by saying that I think that Marcus Aurelius (“To refrain from imitation is the best revenge”) and George Herbert (“Living well is the best revenge”) were actually talking about much the same thing.

I don’t know much about George Herbert, but Wikipedia tells me he was an orator as well as a poet, and fluent in Latin and Greek. So I’m surmising that he at least had a passing knowledge of the Stoics. The chances are he was using his poetic flair to make Marcus Aurelius’ quotation a little more memorable.


Revenge can be dramatic and explosive. It can be as subtle as tiny daggers. Either way, revenge involves communicating something to another person in such a way that they realise you’ve got one up on them.

Malice may or may not be involved; it’s probably better if it isn’t. The pop diva Mariah Carey is the queen of this, claiming that she “doesn’t know” people with whom she’s allegedly having a feud.

But, back to the dead white dudes. In How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, Donald Robertson explains that the Stoics saw that both way we live and the way we communicate as important.

The Stoics realized that to communicate wisely, we must phrase things appropriately. Indeed, according to Epictetus, the most striking characteristic of Socrates was that he never became irritated during an argument. He was always polite and refrained from speaking harshly even when others insulted him. He patiently endured much abuse and yet was able to put an end to most quarrels in a calm and rational manner.

Donald J. Robertson

In other words, you don’t need to imitate other people’s anger, irritability, or lack of patience. You can ‘live well’ by being comfortable in your own skin and demonstrate the calm waters of your soul.

This, of course, is hard work. Nietzsche is famously quoted as saying:

He who fights too long against dragons becomes a dragon himself; and if you gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss will gaze into you.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

Feel free to substitute ‘internet trolls’ or ‘petty-minded neighbours’ for ‘dragons’. The effect is the same. Marcus Aurelius is reminding us that refraining from imitating their behaviour is the best form of revenge.

Likewise, George Herbert is telling us that ‘living well’ is (as Trip O’Dell notes in that Fast Company article) about having a ‘personal ethos’. It’s about knowing who you are and where you’re going. And, potentially, acting like Mariah Carey, throwing shade on your enemies by not acknowledging their existence.

Friday floutings

Did you see these things this week? I did, and thought they were aces.

  1. Do you live in a ‘soft city’? Here’s why you probably want to (Fast Company) — “The benefits of taking a layered approach to building design—and urban planning overall—is that it also cuts down on the amount of travel by car that people need to do. If resources are assembled in a way that a person leaving their home can access everything they need by walking, biking, or taking transit, it frees up space for streets to also be layered to support these different modes.”
  2. YouTube should stop recommending garbage videos to users (Ars Technica) — “When a video finishes playing, YouTube should show the next video in the same channel. Or maybe it could show users a video selected from a list of high-quality videos curated by human YouTube employees. But the current approach—in which an algorithm tries to recommend the most engaging videos without worrying about whether they’re any good—has got to go.”
  3. Fairphone 3 is the ‘ethical’ smartphone you might actually buy (Engadget) — “Doing the right thing is often framed as giving up something. You’re not enjoying a vegetarian burger, you’re being denied the delights of red meat. But what if the ethical, moral, right choice was also the tastiest one? What if the smartphone made by the yurt-dwelling moralists was also good-looking, inexpensive and useful? That’s the question the Fairphone 3 poses.”
  4. Uh-oh: Silicon Valley is building a Chinese-style social credit system (Fast Company) — “The most disturbing attribute of a social credit system is not that it’s invasive, but that it’s extralegal. Crimes are punished outside the legal system, which means no presumption of innocence, no legal representation, no judge, no jury, and often no appeal. In other words, it’s an alternative legal system where the accused have fewer rights.”
  5. The Adults In The Room (Deadspin) — “The tragedy of digital media isn’t that it’s run by ruthless, profiteering guys in ill-fitting suits; it’s that the people posing as the experts know less about how to make money than their employees, to whom they won’t listen.”
  6. A brief introduction to learning agility (Opensource.com) — “One crucial element of adaptability is learning agility. It is the capacity for adapting to situations and applying knowledge from prior experience—even when you don’t know what to do. In short, it’s a willingness to learn from all your experiences and then apply that knowledge to tackle new challenges in new situations.”
  7. Telegram Pushes Ahead With Plans for ‘Gram’ Cryptocurrency (The New York Times) — “In its sales pitch for the Gram, which was viewed by The New York Times, Telegram has said the new digital money will operate with a decentralized structure similar to Bitcoin, which could make it easier to skirt government regulations.”
  8. Don’t Teach Tools (Assorted Stuff) — “As Culatta notes, concentrating on specific products also locks teachers (and, by extension, their students) into a particular brand, to the advantage of the company, rather than helping them understand the broader concepts of using computing devices as learning and creative tools.”
  9. Stoic Reflections From The Gym (part 2) by Greg Sadler (Modern Stoicism) — “From a Stoic perspective, what we do or don’t make time for, particularly in relation to other things, reflects what Epictetus would call the price we actually place upon those things, on what we take to be goods or values, evils or disvalues, and the relative rankings of those in relation to each other.”

Calvin & Hobbes cartoon found via a recent post on tenpencemore

Friday feeds

These things caught my eye this week:

  • Some of your talents and skills can cause burnout. Here’s how to identify them (Fast Company) — “You didn’t mess up somewhere along the way or miss an important lesson that the rest of us received. We’re all dealing with gifts that drain our energy, but up until now, it hasn’t been a topic of conversation. We aren’t discussing how we end up overusing our gifts and feeling depleted over time.”
  • Learning from surveillance capitalism (Code Acts in Education) — “Terms such as ‘behavioural surplus’, ‘prediction products’, ‘behavioural futures markets’, and ‘instrumentarian power’ provide a useful critical language for decoding what surveillance capitalism is, what it does, and at what cost.”
  • Facebook, Libra, and the Long Game (Stratechery) — “Certainly Facebook’s audacity and ambition should not be underestimated, and the company’s network is the biggest reason to believe Libra will work; Facebook’s brand is the biggest reason to believe it will not.”
  • The Pixar Theory (Jon Negroni) — “Every Pixar movie is connected. I explain how, and possibly why.”
  • Mario Royale (Kottke.org) — “Mario Royale (now renamed DMCA Royale to skirt around Nintendo’s intellectual property rights) is a battle royale game based on Super Mario Bros in which you compete against 74 other players to finish four levels in the top three. “
  • Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think (The Atlantic) — “In The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, Jonathan Rauch, a Brookings Institution scholar and an Atlantic contributing editor, reviews the strong evidence suggesting that the happiness of most adults declines through their 30s and 40s, then bottoms out in their early 50s.”
  • What Happens When Your Kids Develop Their Own Gaming Taste (Kotaku) — “It’s rewarding too, though, to see your kids forging their own path. I feel the same way when I watch my stepson dominate a round of Fortnite as I probably would if he were amazing at rugby: slightly baffled, but nonetheless proud.”
  • Whence the value of open? (Half an Hour) — “We will find, over time and as a society, that just as there is a sweet spot for connectivity, there is a sweet spot for openness. And that point where be where the default for openness meets the push-back from people on the basis of other values such as autonomy, diversity and interactivity. And where, exactly, this sweet spot is, needs to be defined by the community, and achieved as a consensus.”
  • How to Be Resilient in the Face of Harsh Criticism (HBR) — “Here are four steps you can try the next time harsh feedback catches you off-guard. I’ve organized them into an easy-to-remember acronym — CURE — to help you put these lessons in practice even when you’re under stress.”
  • Fans Are Better Than Tech at Organizing Information Online (WIRED) — “Tagging systems are a way of imposing order on the real world, and the world doesn’t just stop moving and changing once you’ve got your nice categories set up.”

Header image via Dilbert