The power of place

As with all media stories, and social media memes, it is easy to become dulled to the impact of what is being said. Seeing all the posting and commentary about the 75th anniversary of Auschwitz passing by on TV screens and in social media news feeds it is all too easy for it to join the list of things that we “consume” – and then move on to the next snack.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz. The place has an impact way beyond words or images. It seeps into your bones. It doesn’t go away.

If you get the chance – go.

The potential is still there

I recently watched a Louis Theroux documentary on the Hillsboro Baptist Church. It was the second one where he goes back to visit the community after the father, who founded the church, had died. One of his daughters summoned up the courage to leave the group and ended up being a very articulate critic of its ideas and the behaviour of its members.

When explaining to Louis how she had become aware of how wrong headed their views were, and how she had realised that she had to leave, she placed great importance on the connections she had made on Twitter. These connections were her first experience of a world outside the church and the ongoing conversations there had helped her realise that there was another way of looking at the world.

In the early days of the web, and my interest in explaining its potential, I used to use the example that in the past if you were the only bloke growing up gay on a remote island in the West of Scotland you had no way of know that that was OK. With the internet you were suddenly able to connect with people beyond your limited community and explore other ways of viewing society and your place in it.

With all the current headlines about the downsides of social media, and the problems it is seen as causing, it is easy to get disillusioned with the web. It is also fashionable to denigrate the original excitement that we all had in the early days as being naive optimism.

But what I loved about the Hillsboro story is that it shows that the potential is still there. That ability to cross boundaries, expand our view of the world, and foster new connections is still available to all of us. We just have to choose to use it.

Things that have caught my eye

Sorry I missed last week, a weekend in Bournemouth got in the way, but here are some links that I noticed since the last of these posts.

4 Ethical Concerns For The Connected World.
I have written a fair bit myself about the ethical and moral issues being raised by our increased use of technology and this article from ReadWrite is worth a read.

Constant doubt and outrage.
Following on from the ethical concerns expressed in the last link my friend Harold Jarche has a great post on how we can take greater responsibility for how this all turns out!

Back to the Future: Drones in Humanitarian Action.
Patrick Meier’s blog iRevolution has long been a favourite for keeping up with innovative and positive uses of technology. This article on using drones in humanitarian work, and on improving understanding of their impact and effective deployment, is fascinating.

Hope you find these links as interesting and useful as I did.

Cathedrals of the future

In my driving work I occasionally visit the massive warehouses that are springing up around the country known as RDCs (Regional Distribution Centres). These are incredibly impressive, huge, cathedrals to consumerism. Built on a scale that is hard to comprehend, especially up close, they can be overwhelming the first time you visit.

When you get inside they are full, floor to ceiling, of whatever products the centre is distributing. The products are stacked on massive shelves which are accessed by various combinations gantry mounted pulleys and manned fork lifts. Even these are increasingly automated with the result that an eerily small number of staff can be responsible for the whole thing.

In fact even as a driver you just open the truck’s rear doors, reverse up to one of the loading bays, a red light comes on on the wall of the RDC, the shutter door on the warehouse opens, you feel fork lifts moving in and out of the back of your truck, then the light turns green, you pull forward to close the doors, and off you go. If it wasn’t for the fact that I was interested and went inside to have a look I needn’t have had any contact with anyone during the whole process.

Some of my other driving jobs involve providing the materials for the glass and steel office structures that we are still allowing to reshape our city centres. I was struck the other day by the increasing similarities between the cathedrals of consumerism and these cathedrals of bureaucracy. In both we are seeing the onward march of automated processes that take what used to be human labour and trim them down to the maximum repeatable efficiency. Skeleton staff who oversee the process, and radically reduced interchange with the outside world.

The capabilities of AI and automation are currently being oversold and are underdelivering, like every other technology that has preceded them. But it is clear that as more of our day to day work takes place in entirely digital environments the prospects for systems learning from our patterns and replicating them increases by the day. Add to this the fact that once the essential patterns are understood the inessential stuff can be trimmed away, and much of the current bureaucratic business that currently employs the bulk of the middle class disappears.

We need to start thinking about what we all do when that happens…

Alone with our thoughts

Yesterday I went for a walk in The Black Mountains with my good friend Dave Snowden. All walks provide an opportunity for thinking but when the weather is as bad as it was yesterday, with high gusting wind and driving rain that meant we could barely hear each other, you batten down the hatches, pull the drawstring on your hood tight, and basically stare at your feet as you plod your way up the hill.

Apart from an occasional glance to see where you are, and if you are lucky the clouds lift for a moment and allow you to experience a bit of a view, you are left with nothing to do but observe your own thoughts for a couple of hours.

Those thoughts can vary wildly from: “This is awful. My legs hurt. It’s cold. It’s wet. Why am I doing this? I’m getting too old. We should have stayed at home.” To the next moment thinking: “This is a fantastic adventure. I feel stronger than I expected. It’s great to be in nature experiencing the harshness of the environment. I should do this more often.” These two very different sets of thoughts alternate most of the way up, and for most of the walk.

In fact they do this all of the way through our lives. Moment to moment we flip from seeing the world one way, and then the next moment seeing it totally differently. One moment: “Everything is all right, I’m successful and happy. I’m in the right place at the right time” and then moments later: “I’m a failure, I can’t do this. Why did I bother? The people around me are idiots. I wish there was somewhere else.”

But for all my thinking, the mountain was still there, my body was still there, the weather was still there, movement was still happening.

Everything else was in my head. It was all made up. It wasn’t real.

This is also true of life. Most of it is made up. Most of it isn’t real!

Things that have caught my eye

Thinking faster with mind maps.
I have used MindMaps on and off since first reading Tony Buzan’s books way back. I mostly use them to get ideas out of my head and into a state where I can rearrange them and do this for longer articles and keynotes. This post by Brett Terpstra lays out his process which some of you might find useful.

Laziness Does Not Exist.
Maybe it was wishful thinking that drew my eye to this article but in fact it is a really thoughtful piece about our attitudes to laziness – particularly other people’s!

China’s alternative to GPS should be complete by mid-2020.
I have often thought that with our increasing dependence on GPS (sat navs, autonomous vehicles, drones etc.) that we are at risk of someone pulling the plug. I can therefore totally see why China would want to develop its own GPS system.

Danny MacAskill’s gym workout is absolutely not like yours.
And finally those of you who have enjoyed Danny MacAskill’s mountain biking videos will enjoy his visit to the gym!

Toeholds on the future

When working with large organisations it can sometimes feel as if I am trying to resuscitate dinosaurs and that it might be kinder to shoot them and let evolution take its course more rapidly. With all of their legacy systems, and legacy attitudes, it can feel like trying to turn around the Titanic and people inevitably end up shuffling deckchairs.

(Does having two metaphors in such rapid succession count as mixing them?)

But most of the office based working population works in those sorts of organisations, and they are increasingly aware that massive change is heading their way, if not already upon them. A combination of faster networked communications, increasing potential for automation of repetitive bureaucratic processes, and often a customer base whose expectations are far outstripping the organisation’s ability to respond, and it is clear that something has to be done.

The trouble is that often what is done is more of the same. More initiatives, more communications plans, more technology spend. But underneath nothing changes and everyone knows it. The phrase “lipstick on a pig” frequently comes to mind.

What if the future is about less, or smaller? Incremental changes rather than large corporate initiatives. Individual behaviour change rather than sweeping “culture change”. Smaller, more autonomous teams rather than vast open plan offices full of people feeding the system.

What would it take for you to adapt to that world? What would you start doing? What would you stop doing? How would the next conversation you have at work be different?

How could you grasp that first toehold on the future?