In my day


A good day, yesterday for things fitting together and falling into place (to mix up the metaphors a little). The day started reading Amelia’s amazing piece in the Spectator. However much you’re in to new media there’s no denying how cool it is to read people you know in august titles like that, especially when Amelia’s piece is longer, and more prominent than – for examples – Roy Hattersley’s.

The article itself was about the generational gap emerging in technology adoption and it’s well… us. Younger people (under 20s)  find technology to be simply a fact of life* and the older groups (55+) are not cynical about it and have the time and money to explore and adopt.

Slightly ironically, the slow adopters are the group that Coupland named as “Generation X” (today’s 30-somethings) who have the healthy cynicism that comes from having seen the bubble burst once already but without the older generation’s (or indeed Mr C’s) resources to explore and experiment.

A very convincing argument, although one which I suspect is still slightly class-bound, it reinforces many of the points I heard later in the day in a fantastic presentation about social media which Antony gave at Conchango (where I work).

There were hundreds of interesting ideas in that presentation but if I had to pick just three, they would be:

  1. What is happening in the way we communicate really is nothing less than a revolution. As Antony put it, that name may seem overblown as it’s been used too much and too randomly but we must standby it. As with other revolutions in the past, the full effects may take years to become apparent, but Web 1.0, Web 2.0… whatever is as big as the printing press, as big as the enlightenment. As Cluetrain would have it: “deal with it”
  2. When we give people the tools, whether they’re 5 or 55, they take to them. Why? Because we are hard wired to communicate. It’s not clever graphics or gimmickry, it is the need for sociality and it isn’t going anywhere.
  3. Advertising agencies act like they’re getting the message, as they jump on every bandwagon through web-two-point-zero-ville but they are wearing the clothes of the revolutionary without sharing their beliefs. Driven by fear and the desire to return to the well-trodden paths of old, clients and agencies are missing the huge opportunities they could have to actually deliver the basics of marketing through network thinking.

There was a huge amount more of course, plus a look at how Spannerworks is helping clients get to grips with what can be achieved with a positive approach to the new realities.

Finally, I was able listen to Forrester’s take on what web 2.0 means within enterprises. This is a huge topic in its own right, obviously, and one that’s moving very quickly and being driven by a bizarre mix of tiny software companies like Six Apart and the huge vendors like Microsoft and Oracle.

Two points from that resonated, both of which have been talked about in a number of places before but which were really crystallized today.

  1. Getting to grips with scale. No matter how big your company is. It’s absolutely tiny in the domain of the internet (Antony also made this point). Again, this is a “get used to it” sort of a moment for the large corporates.
  2. Back to demographics. Who’s likely to be making the decision about corporate take up of “web 2.0” styles of knowledge management? It’s the IT and operations directors who are unlikely to consume social media and even less likely to contribute to it. Who’s are the next generation of recruits coming into our companies? A group who see these tools as part of day to day life! So expect some very quickly changing attitudes as the new recruits gain their voice.

* Antony recounted a story of a focus group where 11-14 year olds were asked what they would do without the internet. The questioner was met by a series of completely blank looks, as the group found the prospect unimaginable.

Thinking about the future

The late, great Kurt Vonnegut

Several discussions today have reminded me of the great quotes from Alan Kay and Samuel Goldwyn about making predictions.

Alan Kay (inventor of the term ‘object-orientated programming’):

The best way to predict the future is to invent it.

Samuel Goldwin (who also coined “a verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it isn’t written on”)

Never make predictions, especially about the future.

And a few more I’ve found since in trying to remember those ones:

  • “640K ought to be enough for anybody.” Bill Gates in 1981 (potentially apocryphal)

  • “We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.”  Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962

  • “History is merely a list of surprises. It can only prepare us to be surprised yet again.” and “She was a fool, and so am I, and so is anyone who thinks he sees what God is doing.” Kurt Vonnegut

  • “I never predict anything and I never will.” Paul Gascoigne

No room for manoeuvre

Chinese Room - illustration 

I’m as big a fan of Ray Kurzweil as the next man but this post by Northern Planner– fast turning into a favourite (and extremely prolific) blogger – reminded me of something I meant to do a post about ages ago.

Kurzweil and other futurologists often talk about how long it will be before computers become “conscious”. You can see how the thinking goes: computers used to be a bit shit, then they became good enough to do sums, then the internet. Soon, computers will be able to perform more calculations than our own brains and then soon after, they’ll have more computing power than the whole bunch of us.

This is basically Moore’s law – the power of computers (or, more to the point, their power:cost ratio) will double every 12-18 months. And the rule continues to hold. Mathematically the effect is that useful computing power grows like 2n where ‘n’ is the number of 12-18 month periods. It’s dizzying growth that will keep us in awe of the power of the machines. But it will never amount to consciousness – just like no amount of cheesecake will ever build an elephant – they’re different sorts of things.

Considering it’s our finest feature, human’s are not well disposed to feel protective of our consciousness, and people find it very hard not to think of consciousness as some higher order of information processing.

But it’s not.

Luckily there is an absolutely fabulous analogy to help us understand. This comes from John Searle’s Chinese Room Argument

Searle asks us to imagine a Chinese man wandering through the wilderness who comes across a large room. This completely sealed box has 2 slots on the outside, as well as a pad and a pen. A sign pointing at the top slot invites passers-by to submit questions in writing  in Cantonese into the top slot. Our wandering man does this, asking the room as series of questions: directions, common facts, popular culture questions. Each time an appropriate or correct answer pops out of the bottom slot.

What do we conclude? That the room understands the questions? That there is someone inside who understands?

Now let me tell you what’s actually going on inside the room. As questions come in, a young YTS trainee from Hull (who only speaks English) takes them and checks them against a series of books. All the slips of paper contain strange incomprehensible symols (Catonese symbols). When he finds an exact match, it includes a long number, he then takes this number over to the other side of his room and looks it up in a different set of books. Here he finds the number links to a different set of symbols. He traces these onto a new piece of paper and pushes them back through the slot.

Will our YTS trainee ever learn Cantonese? How could he, all he gets is syntax, he would never get a foot hold onto even the first rung of semantics.

This is what modern computers do. And better, faster processor is a better faster YTS trainee.

(illustration stolen from here)

The Bill and Steve show

Gates and Jobs (read the body language!)

When it comes to technology innovation, it’s interesting to hear some people still talk about a “five-year plan”. After all, YouTube went from zero to £1.65bn in 18 months. Google only lost their beta tag 7 years ago. Paradigms can change literally overnight.

In this fascinating interview, Jobs and Gates reveal that they’ve not got a clear view five years out, although they both broadly are expecting hardware to continue to evolve in a fairly linear way. Gates is sticking to his software-only stance (noting the exception of the X-box, the new and very exciting surface computing – although I’m not sure why that couldn’t be a pure software play for Microsoft – , a new meeting conference hardware called round table, and of course the ill-fated Zune).

While Jobs is clearly still in the hardware+software mode, he sees software as the driver, simply noting that he will continue to make the “nice boxes”. He sees the ipod’s dominance for example as a result of great software. And indeed the majority of the criticism of the Zune has been software related, and that certainly would seem to be the biggest barrier to adoption.

Both believe that users will continue to have multiple devices. Basically this means a laptop (or tablet), a mobile phone (or “post pc” device as Jobs calls it, pesumably to make the iPhone even more significant) and home entertainment equipment which will include what’s been done with media centre but will also, surely, extend to include ubiquitous computing device like the Surfaces product mentioned above.

As well as 3D visual interfaces, which have not yet lived up to their promise, Gates identified other changes in input method as big driver. In fact he talked about several different input methods – the multi-touch approach that Jeff Haan has been on about for years and appears in Surfaces and on the iPhone; what I would call passive video input – again on Surfaces, this is cameras which map how devices relate to each other (well worth watching the demo for that), and possibly in whatever this conference tool is to identify who’s speaking or presenting; and finally a general nod in the direction of natural language input.

Jobs was very tight lipped about innovation although dropped a few hints about improving .mac, most likely in some sort of 2.0, SNS kind of direction. Hugh MacLeod also spots a vieled comment from Gates about re-entering the internet space with renewed vigour from Gates. I’d guess he’s refering the Live Services platform but who knows, perhaps there’s something else about to be launched. I wonder if Hugh knows more than he’s letting on.

Both men seemed suprisingly oblivious to the threat posed by SaaS to their desktop operating systems, with both citing a mix of local applications with cloud services in support.

Interestingly, Jobs also argued that a turning point for Apple’s corporate strategy was when they realised that their success was not contingent on Microsoft’s failure, although his attempt to characterise the “Mac vs PC” advertising as not attacking Microsoft was rather unsuccessful.

School’s out

Sir Ken Robinson

A great video on Ted Talks from Sir Ken Robinson challenges the targets which we set for kids in school. He argues that modern teaching methods are virutally designed to hamper creativity, polarising right and wrong and setting a premium against exprimentation.

A brilliantly witty presentation in its own right, this talk brings to bear some of the same thinking that lean manufacturing brought to its world. Considering we don’t have, really, any idea of what our kids will be doing when they leave school in ten years time, Robinson argues that teaching creativity will be as important as teaching literacy and numeracy.

(via sixtysecondview)

Truth and classification

Libraries are no fun

Like Antony, I’m waiting for Royal Mail (or rather Amazon) to deliver my copy of Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder by David Weinberger. From reading around the book, it seems it will be a fascinating look at the role for taxonomy in the new world order of infinite capacity.

The traditional taxonomies of mass storage systems (that’s a euphemism for the fusty libraries of my youth) were necessary to make it possible to find stuff. Because physical items (books) must have a physical location, we need some way to map and understand that, hence we need some sort of filing systems, and we end up with taxonomies that put everything in its precise place: Non fiction > Travel > Humour > B > Bill Bryson > Neither here nor there. But we all know the limitations of that approach. What do we do when Bryson writes a book on copy editing, or the English language, or an autobiography about growing up in small town America (all of these things have happened). Now it looks more like a useful taxonomy is Authors > American > Slightly overweight > and funny > Bill Bryson.

And, of course, we get into the bizzare circumstance where the tail starts wagging the dog and it becomes a skill to navigate the taxonomies. It becomes  something you learn in school, even though it is not a natural way of thinking. The brain is much more able to build rich adaptive non-hierachical maps of how things fit together (the packed cupboards of the Advertised mind).

In this interview, Weinberger points to the underlying belief (which he describes as Aristotlean) that there is a perfect classification of things. Of course Aristotle was never faced with some of the quandaries we have today like the Jaffa Cake problem (is it a biscuit or cake). And indeed many brand marketers are now employed specifically in order to challenge and break taxonomies.

But the bigger problem is an even older debate, and it is the most fundamental taxonomy decision: true or false. I might be able to say something is green and yellow. I might be able to describe something as old-fashioned and trendy at the same time. I can describe something as  a tool, an advert, and an event at the same time. But can I describe something as true and false simultaneously?

The question becomes more obtuse when we look at socially owned knowledge like Wikipedia. Can a post in Jimmy Wales’ encyclopedia ever be truly correct?

Again, we can thank the ancients here. And this time it’s Plato, and in particular some interpretations of Plato which place knowledge as an unchangeable mirror of underlying forms and essences. This has led many to expect certainty in knowledge which in our day-to-day experience is simply not there. If all our knowledge had to stand up to that level of inspection, we’d never get out of bed.

How many of our views could not be reversed without damaging our overall framework? What if – for example – it turned out that the world wasn’t round. I don’t mean flat, or polo shaped but, lets say it’s actually shaped like an egg. I’d carry on my life with little disturbance. So which of our truths aren’t like that. Could George Bush be a quiet genius with a dastardly plan to fool the world? Perhaps that’s taking things a little too far.

I was lucky enough to study under Michael Welbourne many years ago (and millions of brain cells ago) at Bristol University. One of his central beliefs and areas of study was about the role of testimony (telling) in knowledge transfer. In fact, having been told something by a source we trust is the source of much of what we regard as knowledge. So what has changed recently isn’t perhaps the nature of knowledge but the nature of testimony. Historically we may have had to have been told something directly to believe it (and incorporate it into our ‘knowledge’). Now we can co-opt whole knowledge frameworks, and whole authority frameworks straight off the web.

Future of facebook

Rather than trying to predict new trends across the whole of the interweb, let’s take things one at a time and try and trend spot just what will happen on Facebook, the site which – within the agency echo-chamber at least – appears to be becoming a bit of a phenomenon. 

With the minor exception of their API privacy policy which is a mess as Antony points out, the extremely redundant message below, Facebook have done a very good job of delivering only useful features and extremely usable interfaces so what can we expect to see in the next 6-12 months?

You are now online message from Facebook

  1. A tie up with Last FM. That was easy, it’s trailed on the Last FM website. I think we can expect statuses to change depending on listening habbits although the sheer voume of Last FM current output could be a bit overwhelming.
  2. In-page instant messenger (linked to existing platforms such as Live services perhaps)
  3. A partnership with a phone service like Skype or Google Talk
  4. More Mobile. In the states, they’re already doing a really sophisticated mobile service by SMS. Their mobile version of the main platform is really good already but I’d expect closer integration and maybe even a download. In fact that could be the real killer app for mobile – the whole communications experience re-engineered around a social network. A facebook branded phone perhaps. Be interesting to see how the networks would take that on!

There must be more, I’m sure I’ve only just scraped the surface. Anyone from Facebook fancy leaking a few, or any other suggestions? Answers on a postcard please.

Size matters


The site that promised to measure the size of the internet has failed dismally. It failed for the same reason that “viral” campaigns fail on the internet and in the real world – because the message or motivation wasn’t strong enough. But this shouldn’t be suprising, messages that captivate everyone are incredibly rare. Advertising people should beware – great ideas are great but they have a limited audience. Event the greatest ideas are limited by this.

Incidentally, if the plan were working, maymapname would have 600,000,000,000,000 registrants (that’s actually more than the population of the world) but it actually has 18,000. That’s six thousand more than they had on day five. Well done to them for at least trying (if not that hair cut).

So who will carry  out this internet survey? Well facebook is looking like a likely candidate right now (some stats), or MySpace (with 10,000 times the membership of mmn (above)). Or why don’t we just take the Unique Users from Google.

The battle for hearts and desktops

Babel disc networking

A lot of arguments are about complex nuance and deeply entrenched beliefs. They seem intractable because they are so closely related to ideology.

Well here’s one that isn’t. This is just the difference between X as tool and X as hobby:

Linux people can never understand why people would want to use Windows: all those fidgety user-interfaces, hand-holding wizards, automatic updates and patronizing marketing material. Windows users can never understand why people would want to use Linux for precisely the same reasons. They want a bit of packaged nanny-state to their operating systems and they don’t want to turn the page in the manual and find “to achieve this you simply need to re-compile the kernel with your favourite text editor”.

A new product from Pipex founder Peter Dawe at last brings us a Linux distribtion without too many bells and whilstles, but with all the features most users actually want. Debates about technical superiority aside, the new product Babel disc sounds like a neat solution and is also a  sign of the times for operating systems in general.

In additon to taking a particularly cut-down configuration of the operating system and bundling it with a Skype, MS-compatible productivity suite (open office), browser (Firefox), email, IM, even Freeview app out of the box (actually off the disc), Babel disc depends on using a fashionable new storage device called the interweb (as well as being able to access USB memory sticks and local drives).

Vista may get bigger and the new Max OS X (puma? giraffe? lion?) will doubtless do the same and become shinier. But all the variants will have this in common – all will become essentially client terminals linked into server computing power online. And where’s the revenue coming from in all this? Mac and Windows are charging for base software (and/or fancy hardware). Babel disc are charging for the internet storage. Google has a potentially cleverer idea… making money from access to your preferences and interests.

Is Babel disc to early? Perhaps. I think there’s a bigger risk it’s already too late. In the next year, Google may be able to deliver 90% of the OS experience inside the browser. That could make any computer with an internet connection and a decent processor the terminal on your own digital virtual computer: no disc, no configuration no more re-installing.

Passion and hatred

Kathy Sierra standing infront of slide saying ‘not rational’ 

 On Friday 6 April, Kathy Sierra posted a follow-up on the ‘death threats’ nightmare that began on 26 March when she was forced to cancel an appearance at the O’Reilly ETech conference. Here is the original post related to that.

As a high profile blogger, Sierra had been subject to criticism, including the occasional abusive post. The crucial difference was when the posts became overtly misogynist and began to threaten violence.

Similar posts threatened Maryam Scoble, and Sierra became so concerned for her own safety that the police became involved.

At first it appeared that several bloggers who had been critics of Sierra’s were responsible for the offensive comments. It later turned out that this blame was wrongly assigned with the offensive posts the work of still anonymous hackers, looking to stir up trouble between Sierra and her opponents.

One of those initially blamed Chris Locke, released a joint statement with Sierra on Monday 1 April to clarify some of this.

What is truly truly sad about all of this, which is highlighted in Sierra’s post on Friday is that she is now afraid to continue either her speaking engagements or her (fantastic) blog.

This is a talented author, speaker and incredibly insightful thinker. Sierra is not a politician or a pundit, she is advocate for a modern approach to brands and consumers in the electronic age.

How can we have rewarded her open, sharing and intelligent input with nothing less than an open-air mugging?

And, like all violent crime we leave a victim who will constantly be on the look out for the next attack. Her post from immediately after the incident said:

“I have cancelled all speaking engagements. I am afraid to leave my yard, I will never feel the same. I will never be the same.” 

The whole episode has perhaps left Sierra over-sensitised to misogny and hate, although it would be difficult not see those characteristics, particularly, lurking in the background of much of the IT industry.

Most galling is that there doesn’t seem to be a single thing we can do about it. No-one is defending the posts themselves because they were essentially acts of vandalism. This is not a free speech debate. This is not  a question of a blogging code of conduct.

The only answer can  be a zero-tolerance for abusive content and abusive motive. And if the hackers can be found, they should be treated no differently than if the threats had been sent by post or written on the outside of Sierra’s house.

Apart from that, all we can do is pray that Sierra has the courage to go on and does not loose faith in power of people to do good and help each other, and the role the web can play in enabling that.