Tag Archives: social

Lone geniuses and wise crowds

After a decade that has worshipped the ‘crowd’, and the infinite capacities of the collective intelligence, the tide seems to be rolling back as people once more begin to suspect the fallibility of ‘Groupthink’ and once again idolize the tyrannical creative genius.

'People don't know what they want until you show it to them'

This underlying dialogue affects everything – our attitudes to politics, the way we structure our organisations, even the art we admire as we fall in and out of love with auteurism.

On a more banal level, it impacts the way that we go about effecting tasks, and how we construct the goldfish bowl of collective actions – from conferences, to workshops, to committees and boards. (For the practical minded, I will end this post with some suggestions on how to apply this thinking to structuring working groups, if you are really busy, you can go straight there.)

The basic truth I am exploring is that different unit sizes of people are better at different things.

Without doubt technology has changed those dynamics, taking the theoretical concept of the ‘general will’ and hardwiring it, making group action possible at much greater scale and speed than ever before.

One of many beautiful visualizations of the creative community of the internet.

But humans remain substantially the same in their cognitive capabilities and emotional instincts. Which means that nothing foolproof can be created by lone geniuses, and nothing truly beautiful can be created by wise crowds.

So how do you know how many people you should get to do what?

1) Individual Brilliance

I spend a lot of the last year or more tirelessly advocating an open-minded an open-hearted sense of collaboration, and an openness to letting ideas or projects be strengthened and improved by exposure to as much external stimulus as possible. 99% of which I stand by.

But then I rediscovered Rousseau’s Confessions…and read for the first time Steinbeck’s incredible East of Eden:

“And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about.”

This is an incredible book. Disturbing but compelling. And best read alone.

These both reminded me that any really original, well-developed and imaginative idea, a synthesis that has integrity and power, is developed in a period of solitude and meditation. The same even applies to blog posts.

2) Pairs Solve Problems

Budding philosophy students are sometimes puzzled to flip open Plato and discover not well-reasoned essays, but these rather strange little two-character plays, often featuring Socrates and some randomly selected, often very confused 4th Century BC Greek called Phaedo or Phaedrus or Parmenides.

The pairs are rarely evenly matched in intellect or moral clarity, but the dialectic celebrates the fact that two heads are better than one. Generally one of the partnership has the driving thesis, but by dealing with the confusion, agitation and indignation of their interlocutor, the thesis will gradually become better and better and rise to the level of genuine synthesis.

Dialectic - so powerful that even Watson can do it.

The same works for being a detective, or indeed for comedy. And as anyone who has ever spent the late hours of the evening doing a wall review of an important presentation with someone who simply refused to understand it, it works there too. Ultimately, pairs are great at solving problems, and if you want strategic solutions, putting two heads together is generally the best way to do it.

On the other hand, this is what happens when one smart person tries to do dialectic on their own, or with a hostile partner:

3) Triumvirates Create Friction

Ancient Rome at the close of the Republic was a fanatically warlike culture. As a result, it is deeply unsurprising that they opted twice for the triumvirate form of government, first with Caesar, Crassus and Pompey, and then much more finally with Octavius, Lepidus and Mark Anthony. Because nothing is more certain than that a triumvirate will end up fighting.

Three heads are fightier than one.

The competitive urge create by triumvirates, both for dominance and for each other’s exclusive attention, can briefly create a highly creative and expressive dynamic. If you are looking to open up a question, find some disruptive ideas, or get beyond obvious solutions, a trio left alone to fight for an hour might get you there. If you are looking to create a stable form of government, look elsewhere.

4) Fours Execute Missions

Four is my desert island group size, being both the size of my current team, but also the size of all the greatest bands in the history of music. It is also apparently the size on Navy Seal units.

A group of four is however generally considered highly unstable – which is not my experience at Jumptank, and hopefully is not true of Navy Seals, but obviously and spectacularly is true of most of the greatest bands in the history of music, who very often after a decade of intense brotherhood and success shift into a couple of subsequent decades not speaking to each other.

The tricky thing about fours is that they create a lot of opportunities for pairing off into cabals. But if this can be avoided, a four can be highly effective. There are two key rules to getting the most out of a four:

a) Make sure they have a clear, emotional shared mission. For the Seals, I guess this is easy – for bands it is harder because the mission is so often success…which means that when you achieve it, the band breaks up.

The Stone Roses - firm friends up until the moment they made a single penny of money

b) Make sure the group has a diverse group of skills and personalities. This is the whole strength of fours – it is probably the largest group where a diversity of skills can be effectively hammered together. When everyone has a unique contribution to make, the power of the whole can be incredible. When everyone is stepping on each other’s toes, it can spiral quickly. The Beatles worked great when there was a funny drummer, a thoughtful guitarist, a melodic bass player and an angry rhythm player. When they all wanted to be everything, their time was up. Whereas the Stones, where Charlie Watts is happy to be ‘the bed I lie on’ (Keith Richards) are still just about bumbling along fifty years in.

5) Democracy is Odd, not Even

Anything over 4 is basically hopeless for actually creating anything, but if you are making decisions, there is definitely some wisdom in numbers. Groups are good at criticizing and judging (as long as something is pretty well thought through already.)

One secret quirk of decision-making groups is that it can actually be pretty important to think about whether the size of a group is odd or even, if there is any chance that they might formally or informally need to vote on something. The group will want to act effectively as a group – which might lead to some consensus voting that could lead you in the wrong direction:

Never ask a band to make a 'majority rules' decision

6) 12 Apostles, not 12 Angry Men

Once you get to double figures, the group begins to lose the ability to even make decisions effectively. I mentioned this to someone recently, and they raised the test case of jury sizes – if a group of say 12 (also an even number) is so bad at making decisions, why has it been a key historical unit for judging?

My answer is this:

The point of having 12 people on a jury is not to make quick, effective decisions – but to maximize doubt. If that is your goal, by all means have a 12-person decision-making panel. If not, I would think 12 apostles – great for spreading the word, for going and doing likewise, but not a nimble and accurate decision-making group.

7) Dunbar’s Number: 100-230

The final unit size I’d like to consider is the ideal maximum size for a team, or a company. The key element to remember here is that you aren’t just herding cattle – you are trying to create highly effective and sustainable networks. The ideal number here is ‘Dunbar’s number’ – that a group shouldn’t exceed roughly 150, a number limited by the size of a human’s neocortex.

If it feels to you like a healthy community ought to be able to be bigger than this, that’s because you’re thinking about the wrong number. The question isn’t how many people are in the group, but how many relationships exist within the group, and therefore how well integrated it is. This increases exponentially, as below – so 150 people actually means 11,175 effective working relationships to maintain. Ow.

The number is actually supposed to vary a bit with intelligence levels, meaning you can stretch the effective group to about 230 in academic circles for example. Though I personally am yet to see a cohesive unit of 230 academics.

8) The Wisdom of Crowds

Many people have already written brilliantly on this subject, both on ‘community crowds’ (eg very large groups of programmers working on improvements to open source software) and the intuitive capabilities of ‘real crowds’ (ie randomly selected, much better at Who Wants to be a Millionaire than your best friend, but occasionally spectacularly wrong.)

My only contribution would be that real crowds are good for research; and community crowds, whilst connected to a larger effort by software platforms, tend to work in practice in ones, or twos, or sometimes, very briefly, in triumvirates.

 

GROUP DYNAMICS IN PRACTICE – WORKSHOP EXAMPLE

1. Give well-stimulated individuals the scope to create and craft ideas.

2. Encourage dialectic pairs to improve and substantiate those ideas.

3. Allow threes to get a couple of disruptive new ideas on the table.

4. Give a well-balanced four the mission of bringing the ideas to fruition.

5. Get a group of 7 or a 9 to sift and choose the best ideas.

6. Use the broader group (12, 14, 18…?) to go forth and spread the word.

7. Don’t get a team of any larger than 150 to execute anything, ever.

8. Test your solution against the crowd – don’t expect them to design it.

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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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Honest little nudges from the rubbish bins of California

So it’s been a big week for this blog. Firstly, it is on tour in Northern California – and if you want to immerse yourself in the world’s current prevailing view of progress, whether technological, cultural, ethical and environmental, this is where you want to be right now. I am also currently staying somewhere that looks roughly like this, which will tend to help give you some good perspective on just about anything.

yosemite valley. you can't fail but take a good photo of it.

Secondly, and just as importantly down in the long tail of the blogosphere, my stats have gone crazy. After several months plowing a steady furrow in worthy examinations of technological progress, I wrote a piece airing my point of view on the peeling of bananas and racked up about 1,000 hits in the last week. About 95% of this is thanks to a link on the blog of one of my favourite books of recent years, Nudge.

http://nudges.org/2011/02/22/assorted-links-48/

For those that have not had a chance to read Nudge, one of its major preoccupations is with ‘choice architecture’ – broadly speaking the effects on human behaviour that can come from relatively small changes in the way that choices are laid out in front of people.

Putting California and Nudges in the mental blender with my wife’s eagle eyes for intriguing minutiae, and my mind is on the choice architecture of rubbish bins.This particular bin is from the thoroughly inspiring Exploratorium in San Francisco:

It's not where it comes from, it's where it's going that matters

I have never seen a bin like this before, but now I cannot work out why every bin in the world doesn’t look like this. I defy you to want to put anything in the slot furthest to the right. Because the choice being put before you is a simple one – do you want your rubbish to organically decompose, to be turned into something else, or to be buried in the ground for future generations to sort out? Your choice!

The fact is, of course, that this is ALWAYS the choice in front of you. And whilst I know the recycling issue is not as simple as the banana-peeling issue (see below) this choice is in fact pretty damned simple. But it is almost never the one that is presented. Normally the choice is something like ‘recyclable waste’ (poorly defined list of plastics etc) vs ‘general waste’ (a default choice for whenever you aren’t sure, or in a hurry, which if you are in front of a bin is almost always.)

And that’s if you get any kind of choice. In Britain we are generally still so pleased that people don’t just drop shit on the ground that you still see this fella in quite a lot of places…

yes, you too could be like this admirable stick character, if you can only manage to land your rubbish in a container

Now don’t get me wrong. This bin didn’t have it all cracked. As is customary, they still managed to make the ‘Recycle’ option look a bit like a man trap, as remains customary. And no amount of ‘Choice Architecture’ is going to over-rule irrational fear of losing a hand, or the ability to resist a great big gaping hole when you have rubbish in your hand. As also evidenced by this fine example at the launching dock for Alcatraz:

hmm...which to choose?

But what’s great about the choice between Compost, Recycle and Landfill is its ability to look at a set of legacy behaviours and language through a completely new set of eyes – and come up with something that reframed the action in a way that was nonetheless 100% honest and direct.

On a related ethical subject, I was immediately put in mind of a fantastic South Park moment, which speculated on the effects on the veal industry of a little bit of renaming as the ‘little baby cow’ industry. The same job on foie gras might be a good idea too (though they can leave black pudding as it is, thank you)

I think genuine innovation in language is often underestimated, compared to innovation in gadgetry for example. The real experts tend to be marketers or demagogues. Supporters of religious and racial harmony in the US had no answer to the brutal linguistic elegance of ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ (in reality not a mosque, and not at Ground Zero.) Perhaps a fresh, honest look at some of the language around political, ethical and social issues, big and small, would help us to rethink some things.

For today, I am just happy that California keeps nudging me to remember to question little legacy phrases of an age of greater carelessness – like ‘throwing away’.

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when mickey mouse met stravinsky – whatever happened to innovative cultural fusion?

today it is 70 years since the launch of fantasia, in which walt disney reinvented classical music for a new generation through mickey mouse and a lot of hand drawn animation.

it is an incredible film. we are fortunate to live in an age of incredible animation that has produced the first 45 minutes of wall-e, and the first five minutes of up (still the most emotionally satisfying exposition of character that i’ve seen in years.)

but despite the technical wizardry, incredible heart and storytelling craft of the pixar gems, nothing quite matches the insane bravery of making a film which was essentially a music video to bach, stravinsky and tchaikovsky, in which the boundaries of hand-drawn animation were broken several times every day during production. it is a great example of the incredible innovation that comes from combining two seemingly irreconcilable forms of culture – with spectacular, transformational effects.

i’ve just finished re-reading, for the fourth time or so  i think, ‘easy riders, raging bulls’ by Peter Biskind. if you haven’t read it, it is a phenomenal examination of the reinvention of hollywood in the early 1970s. i recommend it highly…if you haven’t got time, here is a snippet of the accompanying documentary to whet your appetite.

again, what is remarkable about this period, in which hopper, beatty, scorcese, coppola, friedkin, lucas and spielberg rewrote the rules of cinema, is not extraordinary technical progress, or even extraordinary originality, but an incredible facility in blending together generations, cultures and styles. in particular, each of these directors in their own way was obsessed with applying the cerebral style of the french new wave to new, pop culture genres – the western, the gangster story, the detective story – again changing the medium in the process.

this of course isn’t limited to movies. it underpins many other fields – like the stages of bob dylan’s progress, particularly the seminal moment when he linked the traditional folk music of the american midwest to the electric ryhthm and blues of new york – in itself an innovation so powerful that large sectors of the transatlantic folk community wanted to lynch him. which he took with his usual wacky humour.

there are a million other examples, from the distant and elevated (ancient rome meets renaissance florence) to the recent and humorous (clueless merges beverley hills 90210 and jane austen’s emma.) but i can’t think of any recently.

i have a couple of thoughts on why this might be, both of which are coloured by the marketing world that i operate in.

the first has been the inexorable rise of the mash up. bringing together different times, different cultures through music and images, is almost too easy now, too commonplace. it has become the province of the joke, or the statement of cool, rather than the statement of art. (though this, featuring snow white, feels quite magical to me…)

the second, i think, is related to the world of marketing. at its best, modern marketing is very good at focusing on the authentic, the pure, the ‘usp’. this kind of focus is what i see in some of the braver films of recent time – where the fashion has become the ‘redux’, the ‘more original than the original’, rather than the skewed retelling for another age. at its worst, modern marketing is all about having as predictable a set of demand as possible – which you get by creating sequels, or creating genre pictures – which may not necessarily break the mould of cinema, but do provide much more predictable box office (crucial to an industry with huge marketing and infrastructure costs in advance of release, and small profit margins.)

this film made perfect marketing and commercial sense...

but more generally it feels like we have reached a place culturally where we are uncomfortable with the idea of reinvention, or remixing, as a serious artistic statement. and as a result it feels like we are in a somewhat conservative place – at best lots of slavish devotion to original text, at worst lots of repetitive, formulaic product.

maybe it would be nice to see things being mixed up a bit again…?

i’ve acquired lots of new readers recently, which has been very exciting. thanks. if you are enjoying what you’re reading, you can subscribe on this page, or add me to your reader if you are a pro. or just drop in from time to time. thanks!

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dreaming of touch-screen Blockbusters, and getting to ask Bob for a P

some TV entertainment formats could only have been born great in the modern, 24-hour, super-interactive media age.

some have achieved greatness, through fusing formats as old as the hills with new forms of interactivity.

other, dormant formats that we remember from our childhoods are surely waiting to have greatness thrust upon them.

in the first category, big brother. a show that simply couldn’t exist without 24 hour live TV coverage, and text voting. a show that turned the device in your hand into an instrument of torture and judgement. a show that thrived on deprivation of information at the very moment that information was ubiquitous and unlimited.

a show that is dying or dead in most countries. for me, there were two great mis-steps. firstly, it was weakened every time it broke its own information deprivation principle – letters from home, last minute re-introductions of housemates – which fractured the spell of the laboratory atmosphere. secondly, it missed the chance to give viewers ever greater control about what happened inside – they could still only vote on one thing, in or out. but still, maybe the first great convergent reality/game show, and still in many ways the daddy of them all.

it's watching you. chances are, you're not watching it.

in the second category, x-factor/pop idol/american idol/australian idol/britain’s got talent etc etc. of course, this show is really Opportunity Knocks. or the Gong Show, or pier-end karaoke. but with text voting (ok, and simon cowell.)

it’s still a show with incredible power and ubiquity. but the signs are that it’s slipping – not so much in the UK where its power over the media remains incredible, and the potential of merchandising grows every year – but in new markets, where new version don’t seem to be going down quite so well (see australia).

i haven't voted on x-factor. but only because after watching it i am normally too inert to reach for the phone.

so what’s coming next?

well, the first thing is that we are clearly due a new wave of superconvergent game show vehicles. maybe these won’t even need the TV in order to be huge, though i’m not buying angry birds as the replacement. i’m sure it’s coming, whether it is choose-your-own drama, or live action/tv integrated game shows. but the need has hit at the same time as an economic crisis in broadcasting, and at the moment i’m not seeing a great deal of paradigm-breaking format investment from the networks.

so in the meantime, what about the next step along the x-factor/idol path? what about all those great formats we loved in our childhood, or in previous generations, that are just begging to be taken to new platforms, or incorporating mass interactive mechanics? what about all that unused intellectual capital lying around unused, just waiting for a springle of convergent media fairy dust. here are some starters for 10 – though i’m interested in any ideas…

touch-screen, geo-targeted Blockbusters tournaments in which all viewers can take part, but in which the game hub is able to actually disable your toilet until you ask ‘Bob’ for a P

bob - he may be dead, but he might have the keys to your toilet

a new live version of Neighbours in which the audience can decide to change the actor playing a major character at any moment, and the rest of the cast have to just get on with it (if they crack up or miss their lines they mysteriously disappear in an off-screen car crash)

jim robinson got so fed up with having his daughter constantly replaced he had to go to america and become really famous

Blind Date Redux – in which we get to ask the questions, and choose for ourselves which people to match with who, choose the date, and then get to watch actual live action dates with shoulder mounted cameras rather than those terrible post interviews

blind date. prefigured the lies of online dating with a simple retractable wall

what do you think? all ideas for reboots gratefully received…hey, maybe we can make this happen…?

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10 ways in which london is better than new york

1. you are allowed to drink outside. in the park. on the street corner. this is one of the things that makes life worth living

2. the big bin is for recycling

3. the availability of actual real news. including a series of videos demonstrating the world’s most important events. this is literally unavailable on new york tv

4. clear, well organised signage, particularly on all forms of transport

5. a riverside that acts as the cultural and social heart of the city, not as a peripheral wasteland in which to distribute helipads and sports centres

better than a helipad

6. self-deprecation, and the instinct to apologise rather than to sue

7. children are encouraged to share, rather than to ruthlessly defend their own property

8. the taxi drivers know where they are going

9. the tiny park near your work where you sometimes eat your sandwich would probably constitute the second great park of manhattan

10. because living in london sometimes feels like living in ten different eras of history all at the same time

immemorial churches in the shadows of glass and chrome skyscrapers. mmm, london.

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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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