The Age Of Nothing

Having been so impressed by his previous book, "A Terrible Beauty", I was a little worried that Peter Watson's other weighty tome "The Age Of Nothing" would disappoint. I needn't have worried.

What a fabulous book. As before; thorough, comprehensive, mind stretching, authoritative, and compelling. My one consistent thought while reading it, no doubt as a result of the amount I am reading at the moment about Buddhist philosophy, was that many of the ideas expressed – about cosmic unity, individual happiness, concern for each other, a phenomenological appreciation of the world around us – all chimed with my current reading but were largely missing from Watson's book.

Nonetheless highly recommended again.

Up the workers

Find myself thinking about the nervousness that the middle class still feels about socialism and the "up the workers" history of the radical left.

The irony is that it is those very same bureaucrats, administrators, and "knowledge workers", who make up the bulk of the middle class, whose jobs will be most significantly impacted by artificial intelligence over the coming decades.

They will fnd themselves becoming "the workers" discarded by an increasingly small elite who control the immensely powerful machines and algorithms that will dominate the world of conventional work in the future.

They are going to get very confused...

A Mass Outbreak Of Common Sense

I heard this phrase in conversation with a client today (stated as an aspiration rather than something already achieved I hasten to add!) I wrote it down immediately. It resonated. It excited me. In many ways it is helping people work towards this potential that motivates me.

But why limit the idea to an organisation? How about a mass outbreak of common sense nationally? Why not globally?

Naïve? Simplistic? We know what makes us happy and what causes us pain. We know what harms others and what nurtures them.

What do we need to stop doing to allow this outbreak to happen?

Unreal Friends

I have just had a fantastic "sort the world out" lunch with Darryl Carr who instigated this whole trip by recommending me to the conference organizers here in Perth a few months ago. Our paths have only crossed "in real life" once before five years ago in Sydney. Similarly, most of the people who reached out when I was in Melbourne and Sydney are "unreal internet friends" who I get to see once in a blue moon.

There are those who would claim that we can't be real friends if we only ever meet online. And yet when we do meet there is real affection, real connection, real understanding. In many ways a more intense friendship than some of the ones I maintain in real life.

What's not to like? What are those who are so suspicious of these online friendships so afraid of?

One world

Sitting in a cafe in Sydney watching the world go by. The same world I watched yesterday in Hong Kong. The same world we all inhabit with the same core needs and values.

I wonder if we would have need of nuclear arsenals if travel was obligatory.

I hope I'm not right

I hope I'm not right

The themes of my work have anticipated a few of the trends and changes we are seeing in the world currently:

My book title "Organizations Don't Tweet, People Do" anticipated the institutionally unconconstrained nightmare that is Trump.

"The Ideology Of Algorithms" has become more obvious to more people with the involvement of computer science in steering online sentiment during the Trump campaign.

"We all have a volume control on mob rule" is becoming more and more relevant every day as we grapple with a "Post Truth" society.

My current theme is "Staying ahead of the robots" in which I predict automation taking lumps out of the middle-class, white collar, knowledge work population. My pitch is that to stay ahead we need to rediscover our human qualities which have been in the main denegrated in the recent business environment.

But even if some of us manage to adapt in this way I am increasingly worried that we are mostly not ready for the degree of disruption that AI in its various forms will bring about.

In a recent post about what he learned in Copenhagen Chris McGrath describes my take on things as depressing. Perhaps, but I am worried that too many are in a state of complacent denial.

My sincere hope is that I am wrong.

Facebook and fear of failure

I was mulling over ideas for a post this morning about the mix of excitement and fear that I feel before doing any public event let alone a big commitment like the trip I'm beginning this week.

At the same time my friend Laurent posted this update saying that no one takes any risks with what they share on Facebook any more and that it is going to die soon because the content is becoming bland and boring.

I still think it is a choice. The more open I am with my posts the better a conversation I have and the more I learn about myself and other people.

Facebook is like Twitter, or any online platform for that matter. It is as good as the ideas we share, the people we connect with, and the conversations we have. Just like"real" life.

Social courage

I heard this phrase this morning on a wonderful Tim Ferriss podcast interview with Krista Tippett. She was referring to the themes that fascinate me; the falling apart of old ways of doing things, the opportunity to do something about it using social tools, and the courage it often takes you do so.

That courage to expose our thinking to others, potentially to their disagreement or ridicule, is more needed now than ever. But it is a gentle courage. It is not aggressive or "shouty". It is more about the courage to be our true selves than it is about convincing others to be like us.

It takes practice. It doesn't come naturally to most of us.

Is less more?

I am currently reading Peter Watson's excellent A Terrible Beauty, subtitled "The people and ideas that shaped the modern mind". Reading the section on modernist painters it became clear that visiting galleries showing each other's work and that of their predecessors made a huge impact on them. Imaging walking into a room filled with large canvasses by Cezanne or Braque when you have never seen anything like it before–literally. And if you didn't get to the galleries there was a good chance that you wouldn't get to know what the paintings were like until someone published a book of prints, and even then those books would be expensive.

In contrast I am able to pick up my iPad, do an image search, and bring up every one of the images mentioned in the book instantly. Any aspiring artist today has inspiration and example at their fingertips.

Is it too easy? Do we know a little about everything but a lot about nothing? Was it better when the first sight of a new style of painting was full size and in the flesh? But then that opportunity was only available to the privileged few and now anyone can experience their impact, albeit diminished.

This is not just about the internet dumbing things down, TV and magazines had already expanded the reach of new images. The internet does extend this reach but does the speed and ease with which we can access everything have to mean a slide into superficiality? Or does it trigger more people to make the effort to understand new things, to dig deeper into subjects that have piqued their interest? I guess it is up to us.

Entropy

I met someone last week who was talking about the “staff focussed content” the BBC has begun putting on their intranet. I nearly wept. When I think about how far we got, and so long ago.

But this is common. Most of the places where social has gained a toehold inside an organisation have reverted to their old ways as soon as those who cared enough gave up or left.

Change doesn’t just happen. You have to keep pushing, keep trying, keep picking yourself up and doing it again. If you don’t entropy kicks In and things return to “normal” with depressing predictability.

Volume Control On Mob Rule (reprise)

Much is being made at the moment about fake news and the suggestion that we are living in a post-truth society. We worry that our sources of news have become untrustworthy. We get stressed about our ability to discern the truth in a welter of misinformation. But doesn't this model depend on us having been trained to act like a mass and take the news fed to us seriously? To be passive consumers overstimulated by what is considered "newsworthy".

Unless by accident, I haven't watched television news or listened to radio news for many years. I am aware that this might strike some people as irresponsible. I might not get to know about big important things happening in the world. Big important things like Trump and Brexit. But then I find myself wondering if things like Trump and Brexit could happen without the concepts of media and of mass. Arguably our modern nation state came about with the arrival of the printing press and radio. It required a mass form of communication for the sense of identity on which its existence relies. It was this mass identity and the forms of communication that go with it that allowed Hitler to do what he did. Its modern form, where we act like herds of sheep being shepherded around by the latest meme on the Internet, is what is allowing Trump to do what he is doing.

We need to get much, much more critical in our choices of news consumption. We need to think much harder about the sources of that news, the motivation of those generating the news, and the motivation of those sharing the news.

I don't feel at risk of missing out on information that is truly important to me, confident that stuff that matters will get to me through a network which I spend considerable time and effort trying to ensure isn't an echo chamber and is made up of a group of people thoughtful and astute about what they generate and share.

As I have said many times before "we all have a volume control on mob rule". We need to learn to use that volume control more effectively, for all our sakes.

Voices inside our heads

These apparently innocuous little chunks of text have deceptive power. We allow them inside our heads. They entail an intimacy that even face to face rarely achieves. They are like talking to ourselves but more potent. We can both help and harm ourselves and others. We must learn to tread lightly.

Even bullies need a hug.

I find myself feeling disconcertingly protective towards a second United States president in a row. With Obama I had such a strong feeling that here was a good bloke placing himself in an impossible situation with a lot of hard men out to get him, and I had the instinctive response of putting my arms around him to protect him.

With Trump it is obviously different. He reminds me of those school bullies who were physically terrifying but who you could verbally run rings around if you got the chance to engage in conversation. If they realised what you were up to you might get a slap for your efforts, but you both knew who had won. I would end up walking away from such exchanges feeling guilty for having made their failings so obvious. It felt cruel.

Don't get me wrong. Trump is capable of doing incalculable damage to the United States and needs to be stood up to at every available opportunity. But inside that pouting, sneering, malevolent persona it strikes me that there is a very sad, and completely out of their depth, individual.

I don't really feel like putting my arms around him but might it be possible to be compassionate while standing up to him?

Plain English

I have often said that the biggest challenge facing senior execs who want to engage people through social media is remembering how to talk normally.

We get so used to mincing our words, talking in jargon, using passive verbs, writing in the third person. And it's not just in writing. My partner Penny Jackson has recently run a very successful media training programme for the executive team of a large company and much of that was helping them become clear about what they want to say and saying it well. But we make it hard for ourselves. Partly out of nervousness, partly out of habit, and frankly partly out of laziness.

People have been kind enough to commend my clarity and concision but if I have these skills they don't come easily. I practice constantly. I write all the time, even if no one else sees it. I have a house full of books about grammar and writing skills. I read lots and lots of poetry.

Being able to communicate effectively is a key skill in any walk of life. Sharing our ideas well is what will differentiate us from the advancing threat of artificial intelligence. We would do well to work hard at getting good at it.

The need for vigilance.

Yesterday I watched a moving special edition of The Antiques Roadshow focussed on relics of The Holocaust. One of the most chilling was a children's board game the object of which was to be the first to roundup and deport a set number of Jews. [This was not a government propaganda exercise but a commercial product made for profit which was very successful!]

I am currently reading the works of the later Roman Stoics Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca which contain occasional, and almost casual, references to the horrors of The Coliseum.

How do we do it? How does mankind ever allow itself to get into these positions where it can dehumanise chosen groups to such an extent? We are all fundamentally the same. Flesh and blood, hopes and fears, ups and downs.

But the problems start when we divide ourselves into good and bad, them and us. When we start telling ourselves stories about each other that demonise and dehumanise those we perceive as different from us. We then start taking these stories very seriously. Deadly seriously.

We need to be ever vigilant to avoid this tendency—in others, but most crucially in ourselves.

Interesting enough.

"I don't think that what I do is interesting enough" is a concern often expressed when I suggest people share more on their organisation's social network about what they do. Even, perhaps especially, people at a senior level worry that the stuff that fills their days is boring.

Firstly, what feels routine and boring to them can be fascinating to others. Things that feel unimportant can be significant. Small details can reveal insights. Good descriptions and shared stories can reveal aspects of them and how they see the world that even those who work closely with them have never seen.

Secondly, if their posts really are boring, maybe they should do something about it! Part of the value of writing posts is the self reflection it affords. Holding up a mirror to our lives, revealing what we do and why. Having this discipline makes us more thoughtful, more aware of what is happening around us. If we don't like what we see we can choose to change.

These principles apply more generally. Here on the public social web much is made of the trivial nature of many of the updates people share. But they needn't be trivial. Detail can be revealing, what is routine can have meaning. Well written posts have power whatever their topic. I've always liked the phrase "intensity of the mundane" (which I think I first heard from Rob Paterson). We consistently underestimate this intensity.

The day to day needn't be insignificant. Poets know this. We could learn from them. We can be more interesting than we think if we try.

Advice

There is no shortage of advice these days. Whatever we are contemplating doing we have, at our fingertips, confident, and often conflicting, assertions of what we should do.

But there is a world of difference between telling people what they should do and sharing with fellow travellers insights you have gathered along the way. This is why my writing usually takes the form of "memos to self" or "I've noticed that..." posts rather than "Ten ways to...".

"To rescue someone is to oppress them". Telling people what people they should do just keeps the one needing helped in a passive, subservient position. Walking alongside them as they work things out for themselves builds shared strength.

We need to own our solutions and put some passion behind them. We need to "Stop reading case study porn and get on with it".

And yes, as you have almost certainly guessed by now, this post is a "memo to self"!

The written word

For all its faults, and its inclination to distract us with images and memes, Facebook allows us to share words on a scale and at a speed as never before. This joined up writing has a power we are only now playing with. The power of connection and shared meaning. My knowledge of you comes through the words you choose and the order you place them in. My knowledge of myself comes through the words I choose and the order I place them in. We should choose our words carefully. If we want to use our new found power responsibly.

The fine line between bravery and foolhardiness.

I love walking in mountains on my own. There is something about relying on your own experience and competence under pressure that is incredibly rewarding. But it takes very little to switch from feeling like a hero to feeling like a chump.

A couple of years ago I climbed a pair of Munros, Ben Vorlich and Stuc a' Chroin, in winter. Visibility dropped to about ten yards above 2,000 ft but to begin with navigation up Ben Vorlich and along the ridge between the two hills was pretty easy. However the gully that the path was meant to take up Stuc a' Chroin was blocked by a huge snow cornice. There appeared to be a track heading round to the SW so I decided to follow this on the oh so often erroneous assumption that if others had followed it "it must be ok".

It wasn't. I ended up crawling up this slippy, crumbly, near vertical gully clinging on with everything I had. It got to a point where I could see no route above me but did not want to reverse because of the very real risk of slipping off the hill and down into the glen. There was no mobile signal that side of the hill and a very real chance that if I did fall my body would not be found until the next stalking season!

Needless to say I did make it up, eventually having to squeeze my way past a smaller cornice than the one that had blocked the main route. But I felt considerably chastened. In fact I was so rattled that I made a schoolboy error navigating on the top ending up heading in the same wrong direction—twice!

Why am I telling you all this? It struck me that the same fine balance between hero and chump faces us at work. The choice between playing safe and taking a risk. Heading out on our own or staying with others in the valley.

The whole point of taking risks is that it can go wrong. There are no guarantees that things will work out. All you can do is prepare the best you can and keep your wits about you.

At least at work there is more chance of having a mobile signal!