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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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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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10 things Bob Dylan taught me about progress

I’m jumping the gun slightly, but Tuesday is Bob’s 70th birthday. And unlike most 70 year olds, he remains the embodiment of change. In fact, to me he seems like one of the greatest chroniclers of change – technological, emotional, social.

I think Bob is like a shark. If he doesn't keep moving forwards, he'll die. He even looks a bit like a shark.

Here are 10 things that Bob Dylan know about progress and technology that I now also know, partly thanks to him.

1. Journalists are an unreliable source of understanding of what change is really happening in society. They tend to mainly chronicle the phenomenon of journalistic interest. Or rather, they know something is happening, but they don’t know what it is.

2. You shouldn’t define, who you are, or what you believe, by what technology you do or don’t use. And certainly not by what other people think of it.

3. The future is unevenly distributed, and that means that there’s a lot in the past that hasn’t finished its path yet. Like Woody Guthrie.

4. Sometimes, more interesting things develop when you hand things on to someone else, rather than trying to keep control of them. The intersection between Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix might be better than anything either could achieve alone.

5. Young people are braver and faster to embrace change. But you can do things to stay young, or even to think younger than you used to, which can only lead to good things.

6. Artists may be really good at defining a vision of where society should be going, or giving shape the the collective thoughts of a new generation. That doesn’t mean they should be in charge of making it happen.

7. Hard work and creative thinking gets you a long way. But inspiration is real, and is magical. It’s where all the really big leaps come from. If you experience it, don’t take it for granted – even if you are uniquely blessed it doesn’t last forever.

8. There is nothing more destructive in the world, or more likely to hold back the invention of exciting new things, than fear. Fortunately, there is also nothing more ridiculous, particularly to a posterity who have to look back at the era of Communist fear. Not many people saw this as clearly as Dylan.

9. It doesn’t how much technology there is in the world. And how messed up your throat gets. There is still no substitute for physical performance. Just keep singing through the pain. 50 years of continuous gigging is inherently admirable.

10. Progress isn’t everything. Some things are timeless. And sometimes it can feel like the whole of history is happening at the same time, if you really use your imagination. The latest technological developments are pretty irrelevant on Desolation Row.

Anyway, thanks Bob. His music gives me inexhaustible pleasure, and I think he’s said more useful things about what changes and what stays the same as time passes than pretty much anyone else. Happy Birthday.

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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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Why basing a movie on a media tycoon is unlikely to win you an Oscar

Is The Social Network the new Citizen Kane? They certainly have one big thing in common – both probably should have won big at the Oscars, but didn’t.

Citizen Zuck

This blog has written before about the great difficulty of making the internet dramatic, whether as theme or plot device (http://wp.me/pR2Nu-c). But the genius of The Social Network was that it defiantly wasn’t the movie I feared it would be – a eulogy to/apocalyptic vision of the world created by Facebook. To paraphrase Zadie Smith’s great review, it was written by the wizards of 1.0, not 2.0 hipsters, and concentrated on the compelling central figure that a movie mogul can present.

As a result it inhabited the same territory as Kane – they are both the story of young men, with masses of talent and ambition to change the old order, who are transformed by the experience of building a media empire. Both stories hinge on a craving for love, that warps into a craving for attention. Both mix the adrenaline of triumph with the tragedy of megalomania.

In fact there are scenes that are pretty similar, and character dynamics too. Swap the dusty newsroom of the early twentieth century for the glossy funk of a San Francisco nightclub and there is not a lot different between this:

And this:

The Oscar reward of both of these movies ended up focusing on their screenplays – both, in another similarity, fictionalised accounts that were pretty close to the bone. In the Social Network’s case, this is hugely deserved. Personally, I find the screenplay of Citizen Kane one of its least appealing aspects – whereas the failure to recognise the brilliance of the direction is more of a mystery. After all, shots like this were not common in cinema at the time…

But when it came to the big gongs, both fell short. In the case of Citizen Kane, this has generally been laid at the door of William Randolph Hearst, whose influence in Hollywood was huge and who was not amused at seeing himself in Kane. There have been few whispers about similar influence by Mark Zuckerberg, so I’m not going to invent a conspiracy theory here (but, maybe…?)

Certainly the competition for Best Picture this year was unusually hot. Citizen Kane on the other hand lost out to John Ford’s turgid exploration of the politics of Welsh mining culture, How Green Was My Valley. Heavy-going stuff.

When you look at the movie that did win this year, however, you see an interesting parallel. The King’s Speech, like The Social Network, uses as its dramatic backdrop the rise in power of a new medium – in the case of the King’s Speech, the radio (again written of before in these pages.)

There is something intangible about The King’s Speech that somehow makes it much more Academy appropriate. It is much easier to feel comfortable with the heroic struggle of a man to rise the the challenges of using the medium, rather than being the person who creates it. Quite simply, it is much more straightforwardly heroic – and the Academy loves heroes.

Media tycoons on the other hand are not viscerally lovable characters. Both in fiction and in real life, they tend to be egotistic, obsessed by attention and a strange kind of power. At the best they are complex heroes – and my feeling about The Social Network is that whilst it is a sceptical movie, it is not a cynical one. It felt a little sad…but to me ‘Zuck’ felt like a better man at the end of the movie than the start, which makes him at least a kind of hero. Which obviously cannot be said of Kane.

And in someways his journey to self-discovery, happening as it did in the full glare of the world during a period of adolescence, is what gives this movie its strange power.

But one suspects that giving a body like the Academy a movie about a media tycoon to judge is never going to end well. One suspects they are somehow more comfortable with another kind of movie media tycoon – the straightforward villain. Not that this performance by the otherwise excellent Jonathan Pryce really troubled the scorers…

But I still think The Social Network is the most compelling movie I have seen in a long time. It is great in all those conventional ways – script, humour, music, emotional core etc – but it is also a movie that encapsulates our time in a way that is far more compelling than the ‘Facebook movie’ I feared would have done.

And for me, this is specifically because of the difference in its treatment of the very same subject matter that helped make Kane such a landmark film. The media tycoons of our age may be geeks craving social success, they may be megalomaniacs just like all those other grizzled veterans  – but they are also young guys who really want to create things that people love and that haven’t existed before. And that doesn’t make them villains – in fact it makes them imperfect but compelling heroes.

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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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