Tag Archives: politics

3 unexpected ways crime drives innovation

Innovation means doing things differently to do them better. That means breaking rules and conventions. And not all rules are of the ‘wear a tie to work’ variety.

When breaking rules, always be sure to make the typefaces off-horizontal

In order to make things work better, society as a whole needs people to test and break the ‘big’ rules too. These people are criminals.

99% of criminality is of course not socially productive. But, either by intent, or by the response it provokes, it does form an essential function in helping society to innovate and improve. Here are some unlikely examples:

1. Exposing flaws in outdated systems.

When you think of a criminal, one of the stereotpyes that first leaps to mind is one that was formed in the midwest of the US in the early 1930s. Dillinger, Bonnie & Clyde, Machine Gun Kelly, the Barker Gang – a flurry of iconic figures that all derived from a very specific time and place.

This spectacular outburst of criminality derived from two seminal technological innovations – the creation of cost-accessible machine guns and cars.

But what it exposed very rapidly was the Achilles heel of the American police system – the disunity between states. As huge as the United States is, the addition of the car enabled criminals to travel between 9 different Midwestern states, and thus 9 different legal systems, within a couple of hours. Once you got over the state line, you were fine.

Have car, will travel. 6 states in 2 years. 6 legal systems.

This had some negative consequences of course – primarily the militarisation of the FBI and subsequently the police. But the real innovation that they drove, and which J Edgar Hoover used their notoriety to champion, was a centralisation of shared criminal justice data. Which was the first great data project that began to make the United States a more unified society under law.

So think about criminals as like the ultimate QA testers of a civilised society.

2. Pioneering in the grey areas of the economy.

Sometimes, the rules simply aren’t very clear, because the dynamics of society, information and the economy are changing far quicker than the ability of legal processes to catch up. Particularly in areas relating to media and technology.

For example, from the moment of the invention of the internet, the entire principle of music ownership and copyright were effectively a Wild West…which the massed ranks of copyright lawyers, record labels and music publishers had little or no interest in exploring. Then came Napster (invented, of course by Justin Timberlake).

Whatever you think, or thought of Napster (and I am sure a few Metallica fans out there thought it was a bad thing) there is little doubt that they rapidly accelerated a wonderful burst of innovation in the music and content business. And without the Napsters, or Pirate Bays, or other people who by simply not caring about the law define themselves as criminals, it is difficult to make progress.

This need for legal flexibility in the area of content, media and technology continues to flummox us. They need to be answered at some point, but rigid initiatives like SOPA are not the answer. And to even see where the lines should be drawn, you have to allow pioneers to colour in the grey areas.

3. Destroying ‘holy cow’ legacies of the past.

Lest we forget, the legal standards of the present have not always been reflected throughout history – the law is evolutionary, not absolute. Nor is it always ‘progressive’ – it frequently oscillates between extremes and loops back on itself. This can lead to some surprising results, and even very trivial crimes can have significant effects.

For a spectacular example, we can look at one of the most frequently asked historian’s questions: why did the French Revolution occur. Everyone agrees that literature played an important role. Traditionally, people thought the seminal text was this:

It turns out that the flood of cheap political pornography in 1780s Paris, depicting Marie Antoinette, Fersen and Louis XIV in unflattering sexual poses, may have contributed somewhat more to encouraging people to overcome their religious scruples towards the position of the monarchy, and get behind regime change.

Absurdly, given the neo-censorship of the web, this is the closest I can get to finding a political cartoon that was considered only mildly risque at the turn of the 19th century

Fairly trivial crimes, driven by disrespect and entertainment, can have highly constructive outcomes – when they challenge unjustifiable authorities that are holding society back.

This seems like a fertile area. Any other thoughts on the relationship between crime and innovation?

POSTSCRIPT:

Elsewhere in the history of illicit entertainment, see the development of the internet and the explosion of personal photography/video equipment…and if you don’t believe me, check out how they sold the first Polaroids:

and digital cameras:

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There is no Them. There is only Us.

People have always defined themselves by what they aren’t as much as what they are. It gets passed on from group to group: the Brits defined (and continue to define) themselves by difference to the French, and in turn Americans by difference to the English.

This person simply will not pay duties to the hated English without due representation.

Otherness is a fundamental source of inspiration and aggression. Men and women, we are told, are from different planets. National pride and xenophobia continue their uneasy see-saw relationship, despite living in an age of global media, global business and global pandemics. As soon as the psychological power of the boundary between Lancashire and Yorkshire begins to lose its power, it is replaced by the power of the psychological boundary between environmentalists and Clarksonites. Everyone needs a Them.

Them has been one of the great subjects of the rise of the popular media. In particular, from the satirical pornography of the French Revolution to the neon Schwarzenneger epics of the 1980s, via rather a lot of good protest and faux-protest music in the 1960s, raw and paranoid rage against the secret machinations of those in power has been one of the driving forces of the development of what we know as popular culture.

Apparently, the presence of this hot material in Paris in the 1790s is what made revolutionaries feel it was OK to remove this woman's head

This format has been endlessly rehearsed, and forms the plot of roughly 25% of serious TV drama and 50% of Hollywood’s entire output. For me, it reached its nadir in the execrable Adjustment Bureau, on which I expended 2 hours of a recent flight that I could have better spent waiting in the endless, awkward queue for the world’s smallest bathrooms. The Adjustment Bureau was full of a ‘They’ that were all powerful and yet at the same time totally bloody hopeless.

If you haven’t seen the Adjustment Bureau, it is a longer and less good version of this trailer:

Now I realise that power continues to be distribute unevenly and unjustly, and that governments like to get away with doing things they shouldn’t be doing (or at least haven’t asked permission for, like removing the tyrannical leaders of countries.) But as I watched the Adjustment Bureau, I couldn’t help but think of the material I had read from Wikileaks, and for the most part how unbelievably banal and even mostly well-intentioned it was.

The ability of the internet to scale discoveries at lightening speed and the ubiquity of the rolling news camera have largely laid bare the secrets of government. Those that remain buried are, unfortunately, deeper buried than ever. But, for the most part, we have see all the rough edges and hidden errors of our leaders. And frankly, they mainly seem like people we would generally sooner pity than fear. FDR was able to act as President of the USA for 12 years and only two pictures were known to have been taken that showed him in a wheelchair. Whereas with Dubya, we got a pretty constant serving of this:

Now was I thrilled that this guy had his finger on the nuclear button? No. But I knew he wasn’t really a monster, because I do stuff like that all the time.

But that merely moves us from the theatre of fear to the theatre of pantomime. It takes a real work of art to remind us that we aren’t in a theatre at all, and that if we are it certainly isn’t a paranoid retro-futurist conspiracy thriller. This is I think why the Wire is such great drama – not just because of its entertainment value, but because it achieves the almost unique attribute of making every single character rounded and worthy of empathy if not always sympathy. Everyone is trying, everyone is flawed, and everyone is connected.

He allows homicidal drug dealers to die worrying about their hair:

And he allows cynical politicians to express their intentions…which are, at their root, generally positive, no matter how the system may pervert them:

This is a recognition of the reality of the world that we live in – that it is not the puppet show of shadowy cabals or machiavellian geniuses, but a totally interconnected system in which everyone, actively or passively plays their part and affects every other part of the system.

And as the world we live in begins to run on a track of behavioural data and social connection networks, the reality it that more and more the world is becoming a great big human system, in which every one of us is a working part. And the structure of that system is as fragile as it has ever been. It is harder than ever to keep any part of the system secret or separate. And the system itself is much more fragile than it looks.

It has never been so easy to round up a posse

This is a positive thing and a negative thing. It is a danger and a responsibility. It enables some people to break long-standing taboos in the name of humanitarian action, and it enables others to create a pattern of chaos and looting without a cause. But ultimately it is all a reminder that the human system is there, and that everyone is connected.

In this context, it feels like we have taken ourselves down a blind alley and created a worldview that is far too centred on the idea of ‘Them’. You can’t get rid of a sense of otherness, nor should we try. But sometimes it feels like because of Watergate, and Hackgate, and Expensegate, and because of a moviegoer-level understanding of Orwell and Dick, and because of Grand Theft Auto and gang violence and all these things that seem not to translate across generations, we are really prone to devolving to a facile games of Us and Them – which is a dismissal of both hope and responsibility.

We don’t live in the Matrix. Rupert Murdoch isn’t a Bond villain. The TV screen is not the Newsscreen of 1984. We live in the most empowered and interconnected period in history. We all have to ability to reach out to other parts of society at any moment, or at least give their point of view. We have unlimited outlets for self-expression, and a legal system that fights bitterly for our right to use them.

It took mankind a lot to get us to this point, where we have so many tools at our disposal to feed our empathy and impact on our governance. And to watch the modern world slip by us like a bad sci-fi movie or a cartoon Lord of the Flies is a terrible waste of all that effort.

 

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The real NOTW headline – the age of broadcast political bullies is nearly over

This week saw the closure of an outdated and unprofitable Sunday tabloid newspaper. It also saw a feeding frenzy on the unholy relationship between broadcast media players and politicians. One of these stories is very important.

It is so easy to use pantomime villains like Murdoch and Brooks, or even Cameron and Blair, as the focal point of our righteous indignation. To do this is to ignore something much more fundamental at work. What we are seeing is an assassination attempt on the now long-standing axis of News International and the British Government.

There are some angry people out there.

The white blood cells of the Guardian, celebrities and the massed ranks of the Twitterati are in full onslaught against every chink in the Murdoch armour. They are determined to use this moment, in which News International should have been celebrating their impending ascendancy as masters of the convergent media battlefield, to bring their ambitions crashing to earth.

This is no mean feat. After all, this is one of the most potent power relationships in the UK. To an extent many certainly do not realise.

This is also in the context of an entire past century in which political power and media broadcasting have been inseparable. In fact the political history of the 20th Century can be seen just as clearly through the lens of media change as through the lens of political wings. After all, it was the era of mass newspaper distribution, of radio fireside chats, of movie newsreels, and live televised debates.

When you think of the icons of the political nineteenth century, you might think of them through their portraits. Or perhaps through their speeches, or their nicknames. When you think of the icons of 20th Century Media, you almost immediately think of them through their media appearances. To be a political superstar in the 20th Century, you had to be a master of the media.

Perhaps the greatest of all was Churchill – just one of a list (FDR being another great example) of true gurus of the radio broadcast.

JFK is of course one of the most iconic American politicians of all time – despite a decidedly patchy administrative and moral record. But he was great on TV. Nixon (at this point a hugely respected figure of great integrity) was not.

And to take things to their most logical and ridiculous extreme, let’s not forget that this man is now pretty much the most respected President of the 20th Century.

And played out to its worst extremes, of course the 20th Century brought us the tide of fascism, of Communist based dictatorship – usually established on a bedrock of broadcast-driven cultural brainwashing.

Even in the succeeding and supposedly more cynical age, the power of the broadcast media continued. In particular, still the press, with which politicians remain absolutely entranced, it being the only medium that is truly interested in them, and which enables them to keep score. Particularly the tabloids, which they perceive as being able to connect with ‘ordinary people’ in a way that they have forgotten. And of course to many of them, it is still the Sun wot won it (or lost it).

Some say Kinnock could have lost it without them

Blair and his ‘spin doctors’ were described as a new generation of super-cynical, media-obsessed politicians. In reality, they were the end of the old era – the last generation of effective media managers. They could still, just about, manage public opinion through 3 or 4 really big media relationships, with Murdoch as the centrepiece. But the mere fact that the world of spin is one of the first things we think of in relation to a government that brought peace to Northern Ireland and war to Iraq is testament to the unravelling failure of that form of message management.

And now, we see Cameron, the apparent heir to Blair, the PR man in Number 10, playing out the next stage of this decaying power structure. Suddenly his power base looks fragile, and his big bet on Murdoch and Coulsen looks rash and destructive. Not only because of ethical questions – but because when it really comes to the crunch, even Murdoch’s legions represent a pretty small part of the spectrum of opinion, and a tiny fragment of the playing field of active participation in political discourse.

The relationship with the media isn’t going away as a crucial success factor for politicians. It can only become more extreme as media itself becomes a bigger part of life. But the axis of politicians with ‘The Media’ – ie a small circle of powerful but venal owners and editors – is no longer a sustainable power model. It is more transparent than ever, and there is more of the political discourse outside of their control. It is a more fragile base than ever on which to build control.

Nor are the traditional skills of message management going to retain the same power as before. The idea of owning the ‘news cycle’ practiced so successfully by Blair and Campbell in their honeymoon period, simply do not work if your ‘workings’ can be scaled to the population at any moment, without the need for a broadcaster to drive the distribution. Which is why this kind of approach from Ed Miliband simply will not work any more.

A new generation of politicians will find a new way to bend the media to their ends no doubt, but retaining the kind of control they are used to won’t be possible in the future. We see politicians dabbling in listening exercises and ‘Twitter Town Halls’ as they dip their feet in the future. But it is fair to see we haven’t got it work out yet (I will consider this in a future post.)

One thing that is clear is that as with entertainment and marketing, a distribution model on its own will not be enough. Ultimately content – transparent and compelling actions – will be more powerful than ever.

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Scientific progress without humanity – Monty Python healthcare in New York

If you want enough medication to tranquilize an elephant, CSI-style forensic testing, or the highest standards of litigation-proof risk management, the healthcare system in New York is for you.

If you want to have sane conversations with sane people, or retain a sense of emotional or spiritual welfare…or indeed combine both of these things with preparing for the birth of a child, I recommend you give it a wide birth.

As with many things, Monty Python explained this situation many years ago better than I possibly can.

“OK. Take her into the foetus-frightening room”.

“And get the most expensive machines, in case the administrator comes.”

“Don’t worry, we’ll soon have you cured.”

“NOTHING DEAR, YOU’RE NOT QUALIFIED!”

Of course, this clip is from 1983, and needless to say it was a bit of a shock to me (to say the least) to see that this is still the prevailing approach in New York hospitals. (And rather worse…for example there are hospitals near hear with a C-Section rate of nearly 50%, and rising.)

Why is this?

Well, lots of reasons. The first is that actually, in lots of respects, New York is actually quite an old-fashioned place, its psychology laced with a strong dose of 1920 gothic ambition and a prevailing undercurrent of 1980s materialism – which combine to support an undercurrent of faith in the power of money and pharmaceuticals and surgery that can seem jarringly antiquated. Also, more obviously of course, this is the most litigious place on earth, and everyone is absolutely terrified of doing anything wrong for fear of having these guys after you.

Do you find you frequently need to sue people for personal injury? Like, often enough to need an App on your phone? Come to New York.

But there is something else going on as well. The single biggest difference in being treated by the NHS vs the New York health system is the bias that money puts on the care you receive. The NHS is of course constantly strapped for cash, and thus trying to minimize the care you receive – particularly when it comes to testing and medicine. In New York, the only people who want to keep your treatment costs low are the insurers and the patients.

Thus it is in the interest of everyone who treats you to test you as often as possible, to interpret those tests in a way that requires further tests or treatment, to give you as much medicine as possible…but at the same time to get you through beds as fast as possible (because you don’t pay by the hour.) Honestly, for those guys who haven’t experienced this system, you would not believe how scary it feels to require medical treatment but feel like a walking cash machine.

If you sewed your wallet inside your body, these guys would find it.

Throughout of course, this money-driven compulsion to treat is presented as evidence of the extent of progress and capability in the health system – and in some cases this is true. It is certainly easier to get some forms of expensive and useful treatment in New York than in London. But overall, the system stinks. Because it is driven by money, not humanity (my next post will be on some other aspects of the flaws of money as an incentive to progress.)

I wanted to end with a thought, which has occurred to me a few times – which is that resource in this kind of area is a neat balance. There is never ‘enough’ money for health. Having more money in your health service is generally better for patient outcomes. But there is also something to be said for what has been elegantly described as ‘the design constraint of ultra-affordability.’ Because we shouldn’t assume that the right thing to do and the most expensive thing to do are always the same.

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What are ‘locked in’ legacy systems doing to our ears?

I have found, over many years of painful experience, that the first time I do something, I do it wrong.

Quite frequently, I then do it wrong some more. Often up to 20 or 30 times. But eventually I get better at it.

It is a basic principle of life. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again (as my mum used to say, ad nauseam.) Or indeed, how do you get to Carnegie Hall? (though I bet that if I went the wrong way to Carnegie Hall the first time, I would replicate the mistake at least two or three times.)

PRACTICE!

This is fine when you are acting on your own, but when you are in a position to persuade or be imitated, the results can be disastrous. Your attitudes, however ill-formed, are infectious to the people who observe you, particularly those under your power. Often with inhuman and disastrous consequences.

For anyone in a position of influence, this presents two constant challenges, with somewhat conflicting solutions.

1. Don’t start persuading until you are sure what you think (take the stick out of your own eye before etc etc). Failure to observe this is called ‘Clegging’.

2. Be prepared to change even these sureties on the presentation of new evidence (the only true wisdom knows in knowing that you know nothing). Failure to observe this is called ‘Thatching’.

So far, so difficult. But what happens when what you are creating is not an attitude, or an opinion, or advice, but a system.

Nothing has such a unique ability to change your worldview, attitudes or your psychology as the relentless reapplication and repeat of a behaviour. And these behaviours are totally reliant on shortcuts and systems, otherwise life would be an endless rotation of confused manual tasks (to experiment in what this feels like, go out and drink a vast quantity alcohol, sleep for too little tme and then attempt to do something tricky like cooking a full cooked breakfast.)

There are many types of these systems – language systems, software systems, etiquette systems – and whilst they all have some historical rational basis, they almost all have some glitches that make no sense. They were developed at a specific point in time, to the specifications of what seemed sensible or possible at that time, and then they got ‘locked in’ – socialized or codified to the point where it was impossible the change them.

Category 1 – fun, weird stuff that doesn’t matter, mainly language

Language is the classic legacy system – a form of communication that was always meant to be ever changing, but has been increasingly ‘locked in’ by such pesky inventions as the printing press and the dictionary. Legacy language can be dangerous, but there are many more examples of it being odd and funny. For example consider the category of ‘fruits’, which includes bananas (which I believe are technically a herb) but not tomatoes (because they tend to hang out with vegetables, in a category that might more usefully be called ‘salads’.)

Or maybe 'Salad Juice'?

Category 2 – little irritants that stop us from getting on with life optimally

I have talked about this area at great length before, being but one social grace and a lot of money removed from Larry David. For example inconsistent systems of measurement (like having to translate the weather across geographies/generations.) Or, to get back on a past hobby horse, different cultural practices in when the clocks change (yes, recently the US and UK were only 4 hours apart for two weeks again.)

Sometimes 4 hours difference, sometimes 5.

Category 3 – systems that degrade the way that people think

There is no doubt that the systems you use change the way that your brain works, and the way that you behave towards people and decision making (see the Nudge blog in the sidebar for more.) The danger here is that more new systems are being created than ever before, more rapidly, and since they are built into software and technology, they tend to become ‘locked in’ very rapidly.

And, given that many of these systems are created by megalomaniac geeks in California, you might want to think about what they might be doing to your brain. I don’t mean by this to rehearse the nonsense idea that using Facebook stops you from being able to talk to people. But the precise systems by which Facebook forces you define yourself could end up shaping the way that you think about yourself and what you like.

not a good description of what i 'like'...

However I just found a more elegant example in a highly provocative book I am reading, ‘You are Not a Gadget’ by Jaron Lanier…the example of MIDI.

MIDI was a casual experiment by a synthesizer geek in the 1980s called Dave Smith, who was trying to find a simple way to represent music in software. It is based on a ‘key-down, key-up’ methodology…great for keyboards, not good for the clarinet solo at the beginning of Rhapsody in Blue.

Dave Smith didn’t intend MIDI to become anything more than a good way of creating and capturing synthesizer music. But it rapidly became ‘locked in’. It spread through instruments, and computers, and is now in billions of phones around the world.

Now it wouldn’t have spread so fast if the software hadn’t been useful. But along with the software, something else got ‘locked in’ – the concept that all of music can be reduced to ‘absolute notes’, that exist not only in theory (ie on manuscript paper) but in reality. Now many millions of musicians around the world spend 90% of their musical creative life playing with systems that are fundamentally rooted in MIDI…and it cannot help but change the kind of music they create (and not for the better.)

The ultimate end point – is this legacy software system, now easily improvable, changing not only the way that we make music – but also the way that we hear it?

This makes new design not just a craft, but a moral discipline, particularly when it comes together with software to create scalable locked in systems. Having spent much of this week at the MIT Media Lab however, there is an optimistic conclusion to this – many of the people creating this future are acutely aware of this…and are determined to make a better future for people through healthier systems…not just brighter and shinier ones.

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The Gilded Cage: Why inside every Apple user is a Charlie Sheen waiting to get out

It’s just possible that there a few people out there who think that being Charlie Sheen would be really great.

I certainly wouldn’t mind a crack at it for an evening, or maybe as a short weekend break. But ultimately, we can collectively agree (once we’ve finished pointing, staring and giggling) that overall Charlie Sheen is a figure worthy of pity rather than amusement.

Why?

After all, he is rich. And (just about still) good looking. And he knows lots of people that you would like to know. And talented (I’m no 2 ½ Men enthusiast, but I wouldn’t have minded being in Wall Street, or Platoon, or, for that matter, Young Guns.)

The fact is that Charlie may be rich, and good looking, and talented, but mainly nowadays he is defined by the kind of experiences he has (decadent, unrestrained, medicated) rather than who he is or what he does.

As a result, right now he is just FAMOUS. He is pretty much just a professional celebrity, and that is a pretty terrible thing to be. Because being a celebrity mainly means that people look at you all the time, and report what you do to others.

The people that have most in common with celebrities, therefore, are maximum security prisoners. Constantly observed, logged and restricted in movement.

Hollywood is no Alcatraz. It is a place of almost unrestricted money and pleasure (as well as a place where a lot of creative people do a lot of great work.) But when you reach the Charlie category of celebrity, Hollywood is a cage. A Gilded Cage, but a cage nonetheless.

Alcatraz - good location for a rehab facility?

And over the long haul, doesn’t pretty much everyone want to break out of the Gilded Cage?

An interesting question…and by no means an easy one to answer.

Politically, this is one of the most interesting long view questions out there. Until a couple of decades ago it was relatively usual to see the arc of history as a long march to political freedom, through economic and military hardship.

This has fallen out of favour during the last few years…though current events in the Middle East and the fate of Gaddafi are an interesting crucible to see where we are going next.What is certain is that the assumed link between wealth and political liberality is by no means certain. In fact it is not uncommon to see ‘progressive’ politicians like Tony Blair openly question the old paradigm of liberalism – effectively to assert that in a modern inter-dependent economy and society, it is out of date. In his infuriatingly readable memoirs, he asserts that it is about the social quality of your experience of life, not your absolute freedom.

Personally, I would say that freedom never goes out of date. It’s just the conversation that changes (as explored by my friend Ben Wilson in this excellent book.)

Good question, good book.

This conversation was always a lot simpler when it came to the Internet. The argument was that online users would always break out of the cage, no matter how gilded.

Having worked with AOL through its heyday as an ISP in the UK, I watched this in slow motion as its ‘Walled Garden’ approach became an anachronism in the digital economy – no matter how much content or how many services they created, no-one would accept life in the Gilded Cage.

Here we find ourselves, in 2011, gasping with anticipation at the launch of the iPad 2, giddily in love with Apple and all its shiny things. Apple is the most admired company in the world for the sixth year running, and the second most valuable.

And yet isn’t Apple’s model just another Gilded Cage? It is beautifully designed, wonderfully tactile, intuitively mobile, but isn’t Apple’s ecosystem basically a prison of corporate control and cross-sell?

Like many sane people, Charlie Brooker both loves and hates Apple

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/feb/28/charlie-brooker-pfroblem-with-macs

I’m just a month into my relationship with my iPhone, so for me the jury is out on the overall experience (it isn’t until you have at least two Apple devices that they really start getting to work on you.) But there is certainly something irritating, and, dare I say it old fashioned about their attempts to fence me in.

Certainly at the moment, the online world seems to be a balance between user freedom and the feel of the experience. New fault lines are breaking out, with Google appearing more and more the standard bearer of freedom and functionality, vs the curated experience of Apple.

Does this mean I think there is a crazed Charlie Sheen inside every Apple user, desperate to escape? Do I believe Steve Jobs is cowering in fear at the insurgency to come?

Of course not. Ultimately the technology user won’t choose between experience and freedom. They will demand both. So in the long term, I can’t see the Gilded Cage of Apple looking as secure in 10 years as it does now.

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geek dictator, or hippie engineer?

we live in a world currently driven by two very different models of innovation – what you could describe as the Apple model, or the Google model. both are incredibly suited, in different ways, for the demands of a technologically convergent digital world.

apple or google? eventually, you may have to choose a side...?

the Apple model is orchestrated brilliantly by steve jobs. its cornerstone is fiercely centralised creativity, symbolised by the keynote speech. it has a small number of incredibly desirable, globally uniform, visually iconic products, able to command a value far beyond their basic utility. through the potential scale of modern distribution, marketing and advocacy, Apple has been able to turn a very small number of beautifully designed objects into incredible business value.

what will he say? what will he say? oh, a slightly smaller one? wow, where do I queue?

the Google model may have been founded by the wizardry of Larry and Sergei, but its driving force of innovation is entirely decentralised. across the world, crews of very differently skilled programmers and engineers collaborate to develop and optimise its products and services. every day, you almost certainly participate in optimising Google’s product for them, just by searching for stuff. through the potential scale of modern diffusion of control, data, and participation, Google has been able to turn the behaviour of millions of information seekers into incredible business value.

it is more difficult to find a compelling image of google...i could probably have done better than this

people like google. but people love apple. partly this is because apple products are shiny, tactile, look good in your handbag. but i think it is partly because people are still instinctively drawn towards the drama of steve jobs and the keynote, rather than hundreds of visionary engineers around the world collaborating, cross-fertilising and optimising to create forms of information management that are transforming the world.

applying this to another field – there are two things this week that have, more than anything else, been occupying the more interesting areas of my mind.

firstly, i have spent a lot of time thinking about ‘the social network’ – a film that, thanks to having a small child and busy evenings, i actually haven’t yet seen – but that i have spent lots of time talking about (particularly with francesca of Jumptank), reading about and thinking about. at the heart of it sits the enigmatic, semi-horrifying, era-defining character of ‘Zuck’ – the latest in a long line of socially awkward geeks who have used unusual technical expertise and incredibly singular vision of the world to create totally new social and economic models.

no matter what your brain tells you, you want to be them. you may even already think you are.

secondly, i have spent a fair amount of time thinking about MIT. not least because of trishan’s triumphant progress in the 100k with the wonderful http://www.mycareapps.com, but also because i am fascinated by their Media Lab institution and the way that they work. what fascinates me about the Media Lab is seeing the collision of totally different skill sets – textile makers with electronics experts, doctors with technologists – collaborating to create the future. and the totally intrinsic, unselfish joy that motivates the people who work there.

MIT media lab. when i went there, it really made me sad to leave.

again, the world stands in shock and awe at the feet of the Zuck, inventor of ‘the Facebook’. at the same time, the incredible, world-changing efforts of the design-focused collaborators of MIT and the world’s top scientists and engineers remain in relative obscurity.

ok, well, that’s entertainment. films about unique individuals tend to be more dramatic than films about successfully operating groups. there are, lest we forget ‘no status of committees’ (apart from rodin’s burghers of calais.) though i challenge you to find a statue of a living, happy, well-adjusted individual.

a statue of a committee. the exception that proves the rule.

where is this taking me? well, a summary of my recent experiences are beginning to suggest to me that these analogies we apply to ourselves, thinking about ourselves as characters in movies, or as potentially subjects of monumental sculpture, are part of a rather unhealthy perspective on health, success and happiness.

to our stock of romantic anti-heroes, the gangsters and con-men, we have added a new type – the geek dictator, the strange spawn of the culture of alienation and flowering of personal computing in the 1980s. these are the new collossi that bestride the world. in our minds (and theirs) they are indivisible from superheroes…weaklings with a dark side, ruling the world by night.

zuck, in his own mind, probably

and yet at the same time, what is also happening around us is the endless proliferation of incredible works of science, engineering and culture created by a different kind of creator…one that fuses a somewhat hippy ethic with a collaboration and fusion of disciplines that is very much 21st century.

we might not want to see movies about these guys, but when we are thinking about the things that we want to create and the things that we want to achieve, these guys might provide a better example for us to internalise and follow. the concept of embracing and getting the most out of differences between people, of leading by giving up power, of interacting rather than delegating or obeying, may lead us not only to happier lives, but to more successful ones, filled with great discoveries and innovation.

in this context, the psychology of power politics gives way to an instinct towards partnership. towards the enthusiastic non-ownership of ideas. and that is when great stuff like organising the world’s information, or creating technology that transforms the world’s ability to access healthcare, or even just creating great, sustainable businesses, really comes to life.

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daily mail online feels like my nightmares

in which my good internet dream is shattered by a swirl of shouty headlines and repeating pictures of samantha cameron


like a beautiful piece of design thinking, like the work of isambard kingdom brunel, the online experience is marching towards an ever greater sense of fluency, clarity and simplicity. the ruthless impact of unlimited user choice demands it. that type fonts become clearer. that things are easier to navigate. that images please the eye, but don’t distract from it. that html must triumph over flash. that i win.

in fact, surfing the internet now feels like my most liberating dreams – where i can fly, move with effortless speed, and shape the world around me. i feel stress ebbing away, and power seeping into my body.

but the daily mail online is the stuff of my nightmares.

like a nightmare i have set in a fairground

i shall leave any personal or political disagreements i have with this fine media outlet, and focus instead on style. have you ever had one of those dreams, where the same figure, menacing and strange for no good reason, keeps turning up in multiple places, with the same strange expression, like a hideous echoing noise? well check out this page, with its endlessly repeating samantha camerons. at least six on this page, i think all of them identical though framed to look slightly different. and for that matter, two andrea mcleans from loose women, looking alarmingly like the twins in the shining.

stay out of my dreams, strange repeating woman

totally mindbending.

and then the text. just so much of it, almost all of it BOLD SO IT FEELS LIKE IT WANTS TO SHOUT A THOUSAND TIMES AT ME AT THE SAME TIME WITH A THOUSAND MOUTHS AND TONGUES. This is like that bit at the very end of a nightmare just before you wake up where everything starts going much too quickly and you start getting panicky. me no like.

WHY ARE WE SHOUTING?!!!!

i know i can’t avoid my nightmares. but this is the internet god dammit. NO-ONE had to go there. and yet apparently many people do.

there can be only one conclusion. just as some people want a newspaper that scares the living daylights out of them every morning for no good reason, some internet users must want to find an online experience that makes them feel stressed, panicky and disorientated. and they are flooding to the mail online, basking in the experience of a simulated nightmare with grinning reflections in fairground mirrors coming from every direction, and a thousand angry journalists standing around them shouting.

it doesn’t make any sense. but i guess it takes all sorts to make the world. even people who prefer feeling like they are having a terrible nightmare when they could just go elsewhere for their news…

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dreaming of the historical potential of 100 years of google…

if you’ve never read ‘fooled by randomness’ by nassim nicholas taleb, it’s definitely worth a look. this is what it looks like in paperback – though not my coffee which is inexplicably covered in coffee. well, coffee spillage was always going to be happen to someone, so i shouldn’t feel upset that it was me.

i can’t quite agree with Malcolm Gladwell that ‘it is to conventional Wall Street wisdom approximately what Martin Luther’s 95 these were to the Catholic Church.’ in fact i suspect in saying this that gladwell is making exactly the mistake scoped out in the book – mistaking a short term blip in intellectual discourse for a a long term see change in a thinking paradigm. but it is rather good.

it is a defiantly unscientific book in many ways, which appeals to me, but also (once you get past layer after layer of egotism on the part of its author) rather a refreshing and human one. in particular, it is salve to the wounds created by those peers or competitors that you see as being slightly more successful than you – don’t worry, says taleb, they are almost certainly just lucky, and if you hang around for a bit, you’ll see them fall flat on their faces (as long as you haven’t got too cocky yourself in the meantime, in which case it’ll be your face you should be worried about.)

the bit that i have been particularly enjoying is around the dangers of having too clear an idea of what is going on at the moment. he counsels traders to try to track their investments on a weekly rather than a daily basis, and laughs with scorn at those who check share prices of wirless devices. i think i will join him, it is a satisfying thing to do. the item below is a trap for fools of randomness.

of course it immediate occurred to me that this mistake is prevalent in all of the worlds in which i am most active – in marketing, in media, in politics and indeed in music and movies. we’ve all got to start checking the results a bit less often, otherwise we will never really know what is going on.

this is difficult of course. i have lost count of the time i have spent talking about social monitoring, instantaneous course-correction, live planning etcetra and nauseam. and if i have an intensely functional problem to solve, like getting as many people as possible into a cinema or onto a website within a couple of days, then this stuff is all pretty useful.

but if you really want to get a perspective on the health of a brand or company, or the quality of a piece of music or film, or the long term political prospects of a party and individual, a bit of patience clearly works wonders – otherwise you run the risk of becoming obsessed with burst of tweets or opinion polls or test screenings that really just reflect the consistent background noise created by randomness.

this takes me back to my post from yesterday (see below) and back to my friend Edmund Burke – a political opposite but a philosophical exemplar for me. if you really want to work out what the best thing is to do, don’t just ask lots of people right now, or analyse the patterns of behavioural data from the last couple of weeks – give it some time, and try to analyse what is really happening based on decent, long terms trends. we will then become less obsessed with trigger events and revolutions, and wiser in our understanding of evolution, and what might happen next. thanks edmund.

what becomes really exciting is when we begin to think at what this deluge of instantaneous data, thus far momentous in scope and detail, but fickle in terms of its trending and caught up in patterns of self-reference, could mean for understanding of human nature, if we start giving layering on to our approach for it a respect for the collective wisdom of time.

the mind boggles at what a historian would be able to do with 100 years of twitter or search data. i hope these sources are jealously preserved, and that someone remembers to look at them and ask interesting questions…once we get over the excitement of discovering the most tweeted subject of the week.

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The internet election that wasn’t, the digital democracy that might be

So, the UK election is finally over. Until the next one at least, which could be pretty soon.

This was supposed to be the ‘internet election’, whatever that means. It’s certainly pretty tricky to argue that the massive surge of Cleggmania amongst the Twitterati turned into anything very substantial. Or to disagree that if the media had any really significant role to play in this election, it was in the relentless long build of support for Tories, primarily in the press, undercut at the last moment by the arrival of its big daddy, live TV, which seemed to serve up a sample to people of what it would be like to have David Cameron on TV all day every day, which no-one really seemed to go far.

As an entertainment spectacle however, there is no doubt that the internet (preferably alongside a mobile phone) was the best way to watch this election. Endlessly entertaining pastiches of advertising, palpable excitement during live events from interaction in social environments – I even found out David Cameron was going to see the Queen just a few minutes ago on Twitter. Despite being in New York, I felt closer to this election than the last couple, and found myself talking to people about politics that I would never have spoken to before…which despite what some teachers of etiquette might say, is a good thing.

But whilst the Sun may have failed to win the election, Twitter and Facebook certainly can’t claim to have won the war either. But to me, what is much more interesting is to see whether, in this fragmented post election world, the value systems of a digital context generation will help to shape the peace.

Whatever exact form government takes is almost an irrelevance, taking the long view – some party or collection of parties will try to reduce the deficit without angering anyone, but the new government is hardly going to shape the ideological direction of the next two decades as 1997 did. What is inevitable however is that we will have to examine our system of beliefs and practices around government, and obviously this is overdue to say the least.

As part of this, a new generation will be coming to look at our existing systems of government. If they expect them to make sense, they should connect with their history. Virtually the establishing principle of British government is that nothing should ever make any sense, that it’s very stability relies on a system that flows, evolves and is patched up over time.

You may call this undemocratic (and surely, by any reasonable standard, it is) – but Edmund Burke, a strange but very intelligent conservative of the 19th Century would refer to it as a different form of democracy (though he would never have used that word, which would have been almost an insult in that period of history). He refers to the importance of institutions that have been build by many different people’s will – those of the past and those of the present. He said this in reaction to the Revolutionary thinkers of his contemporary France/USA such as Thomas Paine – who were much more of the ‘none of this makes any sense, let’s rethink it from base principles’ brand of political thinking. The path of British political reform, and particularly the development of its sense of voting rights, has tended to steer an even course between the anchor of tradition and the development of radical, a priori thinking based on a modern set of values. And now is clearly a time to re-triangulate once more.

But if we are re-triangulating, the new moving point becomes a re-revaluation of modern values – and if those values have a base anywhere, it is in the ethics of a digital-centred generation.

Waking up to the reality of their constitution, they are immediately astonished and disgusted by the logical insanity of a first past the post system, so distant from the wisdom of the crowds that has built the great online institutions like Wikipedia and Amazon.

They have turned up at a time of their own convenience to a community building that they didn’t know existed, and been deprived of their right to vote by their inability to get the right piece of paper, or to get into a little building in time – when every other decision in their life can be made wirelessly, any time, in any place.

They have had to wait for a week as a collection of white middle class men have secret, one to one meetings in secret, just as their real heroes and influencers put problems in the cloud for many hands to fix, transparently and collaboratively in public.

This group of people, this generation, need to act as the ‘radical anchor’ that helps to take politics to a different place right now. They need to engage, with scepticism but not cynicism, with this unique opportunity to change a system that is undeniably in need of intense surgery if it is not to suffer from perpetual disengagement.

They will not get everything they want, and neither should they – the Thomas Paine of today would no doubt subscribe to the theory of an always on, mobile-accessed, vote now system of referendum led government which I for one would not choose as a wise framework for government. We need a bit of Edmund Burke too. But it is surely time to apply some of the thought dedicated to building communication models, transactional models and technological models to one of the great eternal challenges – what is the ideal political model?

If the minds of the UK now engage with this challenge, this could turn  out to be a formative period in the next century of our government. And I hope that what we would form would be a political system that feels more rational, more open, more participate, and a lot more just than what we have at the moment.

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