“Software is eating the world”

Quoted here, from which also this:

The connected world we’re building may resemble a computer system, but really it’s just the regular old world from before, with a bunch of microphones and keyboards and flat screens sticking out of it. And it has the same old problems.

Evgeny Morozov would agree.

Obama’s civility in a polarised world

We wrote last week about political polarisation, through which we include two different-but-related things: (1) exaggerated debate about public services being the norm; and (2) the role of interest groups in polarising politics.

Then up popped a video comparing Barack Obama and Donald Trump’s ways of dealing with hecklers:

This echoed David Brooks’s piece reflecting on the civility of Obama’s presidency, and the fact we’ll miss it when it’s gone:

Obama radiates an ethos of integrity, humanity, good manners and elegance that I’m beginning to miss, and that I suspect we will all miss a bit, regardless of who replaces him.

What I note about Obama is that he always plays the ball and not the player. He engages in the debate and doesn’t resort to name-calling, ad hominem  attacks or the tone someone employs.

As you would hope, he engages at the upper scales of the Hierarchy of Disagreement:

DH0: Name-calling

DH1: Ad Hominem

DH2: Responding to tone

DH3: Contradiction

DH4 Counterargument

DH5: Refutation

DH6: Refuting the central point

Our polarised political debate means Obama’s civility stands out. Perhaps we can restore civility and try to engage in what people are saying and why, rather than who they are and how they say it?

Twitter: It’s not you, it’s me

TwitterDying
Image via A Gentleman’s Journal

There I was, about to write another post on why I’m not as enamoured with Twitter as I once was (I have previous on this). The latest addition would have been prompted by this post on why Twitter still isn’t a social network, and particularly this bit:

[U]nless you’re a power user, someone sharing a unique story or a chance witness to something big, Twitter is essentially a broadcast you’re viewing[.]

But then Paul Clarke wrote a characteristically insightful and honest piece about Twitter. He notes:

[I]f you wanted to keep Twitter fresh for you, you needed to work at it.

And what did we do?

[W]e didn’t.

Dagnammit, he’s right.

For the last two years, it’s me who hasn’t put in the effort I used to with Twitter. The disappointment I have when my timeline isn’t what I want it to be is reminiscent of how I feel when I only get bills through my letterbox or promotional emails in my inbox. But there’s a reason that happens, too: I don’t send letters and only get personal emails if I’ve sent one myself.

So, you see, Twitter – it isn’t you, it’s me.

The issue I now face is that the only time someone says this is when they’re about to break up.

Always carrying a notebook

DV notebook
One of da Vinci’s notebooks. Source: The Leonardo Project

A good friend at university used to have a pen in their pocket all the time. We called it Wrighty’s Indie Pen, our sentiment a mixture of bemusement, disparagement and admiration.

Only in the last 18 months have I understood that Wrighty was on to something. In that time, I have carried an A6 notebook and pen in my pocket at all times and it has been fantastic. The notebooks have all sorts in them – thoughts, reminders, work, useful numbers, sketches, lists etc. – and I can’t now see a time when I wouldn’t have one in my pocket.

I mention this because of reading 9 things that happen when you carry a sketchbook with you nonstop. From there, it is a short hop to the positive difference carrying a notebook can make and the unanswerable question of which style notebook to use.

There is then the matter of how others have used their notebooks – here are 20 famous examples (I don’t know why they’re all men’s notebooks).

It’s a different experience entirely to making notes on your phone/tablet or carrying a more formal notebook of, say, A5 or A4 size. I commend the notebook to you.

We may already have our answer to the future of Twitter

Thanks to @CommCats for pointing me in the direction of a post from HR blogger @HRManNZ[1] on the decline of social media and blogging.

Some choice questions:

  • Have we reached a saturation point where every element of HR has now been battered, blogged and tweeted into submission?
  • Are our attention spans now so short we can’t read anything more than a one paragraph summary without passing judgement and moving on?
  • Is there simply too much out there that it’s getting harder and harder to find the quality and the different perspective?
  • Are there too many other ways of getting messages out there now?
  • Has the move to accessing everything online via phone made it harder to really take things in?
  • Are people consuming their learning in different ways?
  • Or, are we just consumed by group think and boring each other senseless?

and an interesting reflection:

Perhaps there is just too much noise and it’s just time for a little more quiet reflection in the HR and business world rather than trying harder to shout above it.

This is right in line with a consistent thread of thought here – see, for example, Whither Twitter(?) and No News is Good. This way of thinking has lead to my trying to blog, read and watch films more and tweet less in 2016 and numerous Twitter breaks over the last two years.

What I think is most interesting, though, is that HRManNZ‘s thoughts are related to a specific area of expertise (i.e. HR). Part of me had been thinking the issues of social media and blogging had been general ones, but his post alerts me to the fact that the problems actually apply just as much – if not more – to specific areas (in my case, that’s primarily social care, health and public service reform, where there is indeed a weekly avalanche of ‘content’).

We can all ponder the question of the future of Twitter and the like. If you’re already personally feeling like you’re not enjoying it much and are looking around for different ways to be, to reflect and to be in touch with interesting people, we may already have our answer.

[1] – A man called Rich W who also enjoys cricket. He must be right!

Solidarity amongst the Grapes of Wrath

I first read the Grapes of Wrath when I was 17. Re-reading it now I realise how little I understood it then but that, at some level, it must have helped to form a sense of anger at the injustice and inequality in the world.

Of the many causes of this injustice and inequality, I was struck this time by Steinbeck’s description of the anonymity of the banks and companies causing so much misery, and the way in which they are somehow more than the people who make them up:

The Bank – or the Company – needs – wants – insists – must have – as though the Bank or Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them. These [men] would take no responsibility for the banks or the companies because they were men and slaves, while the banks were machines and monsters all at the same time.

Steinbeck skewers the supposed helplessness of individuals who work within these monsters (in a way that, to be frank, brings to mind what we often hear people who work in large public sector bureaucracies say):

‘It’s not us, it’s the bank. A bank isn’t like a man. Or an owner with fifty thousand acres, he isn’t like a man either. That’s the monster…’

‘… Yes, but the bank is only made of men.’

‘No, you’re wrong there – quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.’

What’s worse, the anonymity of the banks and companies is combined with a lack of understanding of the land, histories and culture their actions are displacing. This picks up a theme Steinbeck covers in a series of seven journalistic essays he wrote in 1936, The Harvest Gypsies, which provided much of the research and material for The Grapes of Wrath. There he notes:

Having been brought up in the prairies where industrialization never penetrated, the [migrant farmer families] have jumped with no transition from the old agrarian, self-containing farm where nearly everything used was raised or manufactured, to a system of agriculture so industrialized that the man who plants a crop does not often see, let alone harvest, the fruit of his planting, where the migrant has no contact with the growth cycle.

There is a sense of hope, though – represented most directly in the character of Tom Joad and more mystically through Rose of Sharon. The contrast between “I” and “we” –

This is the beginning – from ‘I’ to ‘we’… the quality of owning freezes you forever into ‘I’, and cuts you off from the ‘we’.

– provides through communal effort a basis on which Man will always, somehow, progress:

This you may say of man – when theories change and crash, when schools, philosophies, when narrow dark alleys of thought, national, religious, economic, grow and disintegrate, man reaches, stumbles forward, painfully, mistakenly sometimes. Having stepped forward, he may slip back, but only half a step, never the full step back.

There is solidarity amongst the grapes of wrath.

Tom Joad is often portrayed as the hero of The Grapes of Wrath, and is given this famous speech (in both the book and 1940 film adaptation):

I think the real hero, though, is Ma Joad. Steinbeck describes her like this:

She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt or fear, she had practice denying them in herself. And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was on her, it was her habit to build up laughter out of inadequate materials. But better than joy was calm. Imperturbability could be depended on. And from her great and humble position in the family she had taken dignity and a clean calm beauty. From her position as healer, her hands had grown sure and cool and quiet; from her position as arbiter she had become as remote and faultless in judgment as a goddess. She seems to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever really deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall, the family will to function would be gone.

She herself describes the role of women compared to men like this:

This seems to me right, and why, perhaps, people “is aimed right at goin’ on… Jus’ tryin to live the day, jus’ the day.”

Brad Pitt and the 2008 financial crisis

Two films about the financial crisis of 2008, both with Brad Pitt in them. Is he trying to tell us something?

I enjoyed both Killing Them Softly and the recent The Big Short, though the latter’s editing takes a bit of getting used to. (It’s based on the book by Michael Lewis, of The Blind Side and Moneyball, which also had Brad Pitt in it.)

As films, what was most interesting (alongside the editing choices) is that both chose to break the fourth wall.

The Big Short’s approach is audacious: nearly all of the main characters talk directly to the audience, and there are three breaks in the narrative in which people-as-themselves (including Selena Gomez and Richard Thaler sitting together at a casino table, obviously) explain some of the complex financial instruments central to the crash (such as Collateralised Debt Obligations, or CDOs).

Killing Them Softly’s fourth wall technique is much more subtle. An edit chooses to maintain the shot of a camera mounted on a car door as the car door opens and closes. Some have suggested this is a bit of a show-off shot, but I take both films’ breaking of the fourth wall to highlight that what they’re talking about – the economy – is about “you”, i.e. us.

More books, blogging, films; less tweeting

sand clock
Image: (c) Zeek_ on Flickr

As I’ve said before, social media and the vast majority of mainstream media is a sink on people’s time. Whilst I’ve done a pretty good job over the last 18 months of reducing my news consumption (see how and why), I’ve done much less well on social media, specifically Twitter (I’ve done ok reducing Facebook usage).

It’s a new year, though, so what the heck: let’s give a resolution of sorts a go.

Thus, I’m aiming to use Twitter considerably less over the coming weeks and months. Instead, I’m going to do four things:

  1. Continue to read books (mainly non-fiction). You can see what I’m reading on my Libib library
  2. Do the vast majority of my reading through RSS feeds (Feedly is my reader of choice – remember the good old days of Google Reader?)
  3. Capture what I’m reading and occasional reflections using Pinboard  – with links reflected on this site, too. (Remember the good old days of Delicious?)
  4. Finally, I aim to blog more regularly. A few posts will be original writing; most is likely to be reflections, comparisons and capturing themes of the stuff I’ve read above.

I’ll still tweet a bit – probably directing folks to the four things above (plus films I’m watching), but will be trying to limit the time spent on Twitter considerably. To help along the way, I’ve deleted the Twitter app from my phone – let’s see if that helps.

Happy 2016!

Public and private silos

We’ve all heard someone lament at how poor public services are at what they do. Two common refrains are:

One hand doesn’t know what the other is doing

and

They have such stupid rules in place – they lack common sense.

Though it doesn’t always follow the lament, an unfavourable comparison with how the private sector is run often comes soon afterwards (and quite often from politicians).

It will come as something as a surprise for commentators such as these to see Gillian Tett’s summary of her latest book, “The Silo Effect: Why putting everything in its place isn’t such a bright idea“:

Tett notes of banks that:

One hand doesn’t know what the other is doing

and

They have such stupid rules in place – they lack common sense.

How funny! It’s almost as if the distinction between public and private organisations is next-to-useless when pitted against the issues of any organisation as a complex combination of weirdly-behaving humans trying to get something poorly defined done.

 

The current state of politics: insipid, not inspiring

Scene_at_the_Signing_of_the_Constitution_of_the_United_States
Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States (Source: Wikimedia)

One film and two essays have come together in my mind recently that have caused me to reflect on the current state of politics.

The film was Best of Enemies, detailing how Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley came to blows throughout the US Convention season in 1968:

It’s noted throughout the film how the Vidal-Buckley debates introduced a new era of public discourse and punditry in politics, the consequences of which – essentially “news” that lacks any explanatory power – we live with today.

This linked in my mind to a case made by Public Policy and the Past that I personally find very persuasive:

Britain’s politics look a lot more sterile, and a great deal less fluid, than they did at the beginning of the year.

To watch BBC Question Time or the Andrew Marr show – both derivatives of what Vidal and Buckley started – you would never draw this conclusion about the state of politics. But yet this appears to be exactly where we are, as Public Policy and the Past sets out in some detail, concluding:

[W]e declared that Britain was entering a political ice age: but we thought that the snow and ice would fall only on the forest canopy. But now it is clear that the frost is penetrating the soil and the roots. It is threatening to kill the entire political ecosystem stone dead for years to come.

The irony is that this sterility is one part of a paradox, though, for:

We live in a time of unprecedented political turbulence – facing the rise of populism, the continuing long-term decline of old political loyalties and a febrile atmosphere of social media shouting-as-comment that undermines any and all alternatives in a welter of cynicism and contestation.

The second essay is a 2012 piece by Walter Russell Mead at The American Interest, titled “The Once and Future Liberalism“.  It is a, long, wonderful, historical view of the 4 flavours of Liberalism there have been since 1688. It’s simply not possible to do it justice through summary, and I commend the whole piece to you. But it’s opening gives a glimpse of the depths it serves:

The gaps between the social system we inhabit and the one we now need are becoming so wide that we can no longer paper over them. But even as the failures of the old system become more inescapable and more damaging, our national discourse remains stuck in a bygone age. The end is here, but we can’t quite take it in.

This is the same point as Public Policy and the Past’s, but writ large so that it isn’t just about politics but about the state and its institutions. Mead concludes:

The success of our institutions and ideas has so changed the world that they don’t work any more. We cannot turn back the clock, nor should we try. [Our] job is to boldly go where none have gone before, not to consume our energies in vain attempts to recreate the glories of an unattainable past. We need to do for our times and circumstances what other[s] have done before us: Recast classic liberal thought… in ways that address the challenges before us…

This should be a time of adventure, innovation and creativity in the building of [a new] liberalism. [We are] ready for an upgrade to a new and higher level; indeed, we are overdue for a project that can capture the best energies of our rising generations, those who will lead the [us] to new and richer ways of living that will make the “advanced” societies of the 20th century look primitive, backward and unfulfilled.

This couldn’t be more true, and yet we’re stuck: whilst there’s seemingly more and more for us to disagree about, exacerbated by a politics-as-entertainment media, the political environment is remarkably and ineffectively stable, whilst the world around us is actually undergoing fundamental shifts.

The current state of politics is insipid, when what we need it to be is inspiring.