Not another top ten! Yup… my top ten reads of 2013

In no particular order…..

1. The news is bad for you – Rolf Dobelli in The Guardian

Rolf Dobelli has taken a bit of Jonah Lehrer style criticism but I try and only read the news once a week and find much to agree with here.

2. The Cult of Shareholder value – The Washington Post

Agree with a lot of this, maximising shareholder value is a very narrow, short term objective. We ought to have triple bottom line accounting where all stakeholders are taken into account not just the owners of capital.

3. The rise of the full stack marketeer – Kyle Tibbitts

The essential marketing skills for start ups. Am really curious as to whether an agency could package these up for the start up community to tap into vs have in house. 

4. The liberation of magic – Martin Weigel

As ever lucid and compelling argument from Martin Weigel on successful brand marketing based on the Erhenberg/Sharp school -Top of mind awareness and relevance to infrequent purchasers are more important than differentiation and appealing to fans if a brand wants to grow. 

5. The Boston Manhunt and social media – New York Magazine

Gripping dissection of the impact of social media on how news is reported and how easily falsehoods are shared and reported as fact as media outlets trip over each other trying to be first with a scoop.

6. Dan Weiden on chaos and culture (from 2005)

Not technically from 2013 but re posted by W+K on their blog last year. Amazing 2005 speech by Dan Weiden on the importance of chaos to creativity and insight into the agency philosophy.

7. Free speech in the era of it’s technological amplification – MIT Tech Review

Fab piece on the impact of technology on free speech written as a letter to JS Mill.

8. An app for gender equality – Natascha McElhone in The Guardian

What constitutes modern feminism has been a hot topic recently and I enjoyed this by Natascha McElhone on the fourth wave of feminism that is tackling society and culture’s remaining issues around gender equality. 

9. In praise of laziness -The Economist

As one of the many people that I am sure hates email this rang true. And the start of the year certainly feels like a good time to focus on getting meaningful work done rather than spinning the wheels doing email and attending pointless meetings. 

10. An interview with Rick Rubin –

And finally, thought this was great insight into the creative process in the music industry from Rick Rubin’s work with artists such as LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys and Red Hot Chilli Peppers.

Hope you find some of them interesting and have a great 2014….


Retrospective- top reads from 2012 on technology, innovation, economics and the pace of change

Time for a cliched New Year top ten list! Here are the articles and posts from the year gone by that have stuck with me most. The ones that have shed light and new perspective on the topics I have been interested in this year which include technology and the pace of change, innovation, economics and living life with meaning.

1. Beyond Terrordome – The New Inquiry

What we unwittingly give away in terms of our personal identity when we use Social Media.

2. John Gray and Jaron Lanier in conversation – Tank Magazine

A meeting of minds on entropy, technology & social connectivity.

3. The Coming Civil War over General Purpose Computing – By Cory Doctorow

The challenges we face in holding on to the benefits of general purpose computers as computing power increases and devices miniaturise and proliferate.

4. The true fathers of computing – The Guardian

George Dyson’s new book challenges computing’s creation myth by highlighting the key role played by John von Neumann in attempting to create Turing’s “mansions for the soul” and the first true general purpose computer.

5. True innovation – Lessons from Bell Labs – The New York Times

What we can learn from Bell Labs, the 20th Century’s most significant innovation and research centre responsible for technology such as the transistor, solar panels and lasers.

6. Joi Ito, director at MIT Media Lab on innovation at the edges –

Fascinating interview with the director of MIT Media Lab, part a biography of a life well lived and part looking at the role of the lab in the context of the changing world, technology and innovation.

And as an added bonus Joi Ito on the next 100 years of technology and innovation from Technology Review

7. Antifragility and convexity – Nicolas Nassim Taleb (PDF)

Now an excellent book, this article summarises the concept of the antifragile – systems which benefit from uncertainty, and the resulting convex playoffs where the potential upside far outweighs the downside. Crucial new concepts for anyone interested in thinking differently about the right conditions for creativity and innovation.

8. Overthrow Yourself by Umair Haque – Harvard Business Review

The most pissed off economist on Twitter on redefining the role of business and your individual contribution and moving away from a myopic exclusive focus on maximising shareholder value.

9. The dangerous effects of reading – David Tate

Thought provoking blog post on how we are getting better and better at intellectually consuming information and opinion, and how instead how to focus on creating in order to avoid groupthink and the echo chamber.

10. Burial Unedited Transcript – The Wire

Finally, just for fun, a long interview with a favourite music artist and producer of mine, Burial. Rare insight into the creative process of an enigmatic and secretive musical genius.

Enjoy and have a great NYE and a wonderful 2013!

How to shape our digital revolution

Why are we always having a debate about whether technological change is a good or bad thing? Rather than a debate about how to make sure that technological change is change we want?

That’s what I was left thinking after reading a couple of recent interesting posts on the topic of change. Ed Booty’s excellent BBH labs post took a skeptical look at the data behind consumers true adoption of digital technology. He also referenced this great post by Matt Edgar on our perception of the rate of change.

There was much to enjoy and agree with, and in the face of often evangelical enthusiasm for all things digital it is great to hear well reasoned skeptical and enquiring points of view. In particular I found a lot to agree with in Edgar’s view that we are far from unique as a generation to believe our era is experiencing exceptional change compared to the past.

However I can’t help but think this is the just totally the wrong debate to be having. It seems pretty irrelevant to me to argue about whether digital technology is changing our world or how fast. Digital technology already has changed our world and whether the revolution we are experiencing the start of will be fast or slow in coming, it IS coming and quite likely in our lifetime.

Leonardo Da Vinci's designs for an Archimedes screw

So instead I wish there was more debate about how to shape the revolution. How to make sure that we are designing and using technology so that it amplifies the best of human nature. This isn’t just some intellectual exercise either. On a daily basis we have the ability to shape the future of the internet with the products and platforms we recommend building for our clients. Do we build a closed proprietary mobile app with a flawless user experience that reinforces the dominance of a few corporations ecosystems? Or do we try to create something more open and accessible that attempts to fit technology around human behaviour rather than rely on humans changing their behaviour to suit technology? Douglas Rushkoff in his excellent book Program or be Programmed identifies 10 commands for living in the digital age, ways to think about your personal relationship with the world and with digital technology.

So if those are the guiding principles for your personal life, what are the guiding principles for your professional life? How should we build things on the internet? What principles should we live by as we go about our work for clients?

If you stop and think about it for a minute, the dominant position of mobile apps these days is mental. I can’t help but think that if more web publishers had innovated like the Boston Globe or the FT to produce a fantastic user experience on the web, we would feel less compelled to download an app, which requires me to jump through certain hoops (user account, downloading etc) and ultimately narrows my diet of content by keeping me in a walled garden.

So here are some thoughts about the things we could debate, that have been inspired by some recent articles with a variety of interesting points of view.

1. Open

When you write an iPhone app for a brand you are writing for the few and not for the many. On my train line into London you can download an iPhone app – as fine a piece of social exclusion as any I can think of for the thousands who use this public service but don’t have iPhones. In contrast a simple HTML page with the same content would be accessible to pretty much anyone with an internet connection. Of course often it is right to create an app to deliver a specific type of functionality or experience, but the internet’s revolutionary potential is that it can put power in the hands of ordinary people through the open web . And I think it would be a great shame if that potential wasn’t realised because of an obsession with creating slick user experiences and beautiful design.

I thought this point of view on the role of design in keeping the net open and accessible was an interesting one. Are we really designing for users or to satisfy our own egos as creative people? As a final note obviously the subject of net neutrality has some relevance here, it feels a dangerous slippery slope to me to give a policing role to service providers. Today’s well meaning prohibition can easily become tomorrow’s politically and ideologically motivated censorship.

2. Human centric

A key challenge with digital technologies is that they are new and mean a user has to some extent learn some new skills or adopt new behaviours. However I think we could work much harder to understand underlying human nature and create things that play to the strengths of human nature and amplify the behaviours that society values. Creating products that are ergonomic and delightful for the user to fit into their lives because they are based on real fulfilling needs. So we should stop thinking about what our clients need from consumers and rather think what our customers need from our clients and build accordingly.

3. Diverse

The open, human-centric web should allow people to express themselves freely within the framework of society and without fear of persecution. This was brilliantly argued for in this post by 4chan’s Chris Poole about user identity online. I think it is important for people to be able to express different facets of personality.

We out also be cautious that the way we organise our information sources doesn’t trap us in Eli Pariser’s filter bubble where our preferences and browsing history inform the content served to us dooming us to never see anything surprising challenging or different. Services that simply serve up what we already like exacerbate what F.S. Michael’s calls the monoculture which is further compounded by things like frictionless sharing and limits our ability to think creatively and imaginatively.

So how can we create services that are expansive and diverse and allow people to make new discoveries and develop their own understanding of themesleves?

4. Collaborative

We also need to draw the distinction between participating in a community of like minded people and truly collaborating and cooperating with people different from me with different skills and opinions. The latter is what made possible the explosion in innovation at Bell Labs in the second half of the 20th century. The web makes such collaboration possible across geographies and time zones. But all too often we are drawn into communities of interest; like minded people who reinforce our own world view and give us props and retweets and +1 ‘s but don’t challenge us to develop and defend our opinions or see things differently.

We need an emphasis on good community behaviours like how to engage in debate and rational argument without descending into rhetoric, propaganda and abuse. I found this celebration of the central role of the scientific method (Fourth answer down) to progress a pretty good argument for that.

Could we aim to help our clients take a more active principled based approach to community management? Not just focusing on eradicating the usual top down bad behaviour from brands (deleting posts, boring, broadcast style content etc) but also trying to actively manage the community to encourage authentic debate, sharing and cooperation rather than just empty promotionally-motivated “likes”. This is a specialist skill, rarely found in agencies or client orgs.

5. Value based

It’s really important to create value for all stakeholders rather than just look to create wealth for shareholders. The expectations market dominates our economic system and we have the opportunity to reduce our reliance on it if we create things for our clients that are of value to all those who have a stake. Customers, employees, community and shareholders alike.

To know we are creating true value though we need to make sure we don’t simply rely on vanity metrics to give us the feeling that things are working and are ok. We need to make sure we are measuring the impact of our activities on actual perceptions and behaviour.

6. Expressive

I found this point of view particularly inspiring- In a world where consuming, liking, commenting, retweeting and sharing is getting easier and easier you can quickly fill up your days only doing that and never experience the satisfaction of making or be forced to confront your own point of view if you don’t have to express it through creativity. We are uniquely able to be creative with the tools we have at our finger tips. The only barrier is the age-old one of how we choose to spend our time.

For me brand’s role here is to invite, stimulate and reward true expression and creativity over the usual shallow participation usually thinly veneered over most marketing campaigns. Instead of thinking about what content the brand wants to “co create”, brands could think about what content consumers might find interesting, energising and illuminating to create around a topic relevant to the brands strategy. That way everyone wins, the brand, the creator and the rest of the community.

So there we go there are my five guiding principles for building digital technology to avoid both the Skynet and Mad Max dystopias of BBH Labs SxSWi talk.

Open, human centric, collaborative, diverse, value based and expressive.

What do you think? Are these the right kinds of things to be debating and discussing? Do you feel that we have the chance to shape things? I would love to have that conversation.

Elegance in creative ideas

Working in a creative industry we often talk about how we should judge ideas. In “Made to Stick” Chip and Dan Heath came up with a great framework for understanding which ideas are most likely to be memorable. They identified 6 criteria :

• Simple — find the core of any idea
• Unexpected — grab people’s attention by surprising them
• Concrete — make sure an idea can be grasped and remembered later
• Credible — give an idea believability
• Emotional — help people see the importance of an idea
• Stories — empower people to use an idea through narrative

I think this is a pretty damm good list. And I often think I should use it more in reviews and when discussing the merits of one idea over another.

But I think there is one crucial thing that the best ideas have that is missing from this list. And that is elegance.

Of course I don’t mean elegance like a Roland Mouret dress is elegant. I mean elegant like Mathematics can be elegant as described by Bertrand Russell means elegant in The Study of Mathematics:

“Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty — a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show. The true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than Man, which is the touchstone of the highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as poetry.”

Elegance can take other forms too.

Hogarth developed the notion of the line of beauty in art. The elegant Ogee s- shape that enlived art and drew the attention of the viewer….

….The golden ratio has long been admired in Geometry and architecture as fundamental form of elegance….

When we look at conceptual ideas we are looking for something similar. An elegance that is instantly appealing, that you want to revisit again and again and share with others. The sort of elegant idea that when you stumble upon one a sense of calm fear falls upon you.

Calm because your gut tells you intuitively it is fresh, exciting and has a simple beauty.

But accompanied by a fear that it is an idea without precedent and that maybe others won’t see the idea’s elegance the way you do.

By now you are thinking, come off it Will, we are trying to advertise insurance, or motor oil or beer. Elegance has nothing to do with it.

Well obviously I am not talking about the content of the idea but it’s innate structure. And advertising idea for a humble a Lager Beer, has one of the most elegant structures. Stella Artois’ Reassuringly Expensive.

It is a beautifully simple and economical phrase, the idea is immediate and accessible, it has a levity and wit it says so little but tells you so much. It is an idea that is born out of a truth.

“‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know“
Ode to a Grecian Urn. John Keats.

It’s an elegant idea and I can’t wait to find the next one……

Towards technological humanism- lifestreams and the empathic civilisation

Video – The Empathic Civilisation – Jeremy Rifkin – RSA Animate

Another weekend just gone and another article in the papers about a supposed backlash against Social Networking, this time from The Observer.

Which is strange given the continued rise in numbers of people using things like Facebook and Twitter. But anyway that aside it seems to me that the mainstream public discourse around new technologies and in particular social networking is asking the wrong question. The question we should be asking isn’t “are these new technologies good or bad?” Rather we should be asking ourselves how do we make sure technology is used to express and enable the good in human nature rather than the bad?

We have to constantly question what parts of human nature we want to celebrate and what parts to challenge and refine. There is no need to allow the direction we first set off in influence the rest of the journey like a bullet leaving a gun. Rather we need to shape iteratively the technology we are creating and how it serves us.

One of the most exciting questions I think we have to answer is – How are we going to manage all the data we have flooding towards us in a way that elevates our humanity rather than smothers it?

Right now we are in the position where the amount of information available to us is rapidly moving beyond what we can reasonably stay on top of but we still think we can. The addictive nature of this phenomenon is wonderfully described here by Jim Stodgill . Soon it will far exceed what we can stay on top of and then people will actually probably be able to relax. David Gelernter talks brilliantly about this future scenario and the technology that will emerge to allow us to experience information in “lifestreams” that we dip into as suits us.

This is exactly the type of thing we should be thinking about- recognising the positive benefits and thinking about how to improve the negatives of technology rather than naively positioning our choices as yes or no to social technologies that are here to stay.

We are learning a lot about human nature as research allows us to understand more and more about the Primate brain. We are discovering that the fundamental wiring of the brain isn’t as self-centered as we first thought and is actually highly empathetic and social in nature. It’s incredibly excitingly described by Jeremy Rifkin of the Foundation on Economic Trends in the video above from the fantastic RSA Animate series. Rifkin concludes by discussing the role of technology in empowering our underlying empathetic nature to create what he calls the empathic civilisation.

Take a look at the video, it certainly inspired me with the opportunity we have to create a future around a new idea of human nature.

The internet doesn’t cause depression. A rejection of technological determinism.

Have you ever noticed that the mainstream press loves a good “technology is evil” story? This BBC story this morning reports that there is “a strong link between heavy internet use and depression”. The implied cause and effect sounds bad huh? Using the internet is going to make you depressed. But look a little closer. The research found simply that 18 people or 1.2% of the total sample were depressed and that they were also heavy internet users, with the researchers being at pains to point out that there was no evidence of cause and effect. So it could equally be that if you are depressed you might just like to use the internet a lot to cheer yourself up. So why didn’t the BBC report “that there is a link between depression and heavy internet use”? Perhaps it is because they are Technological Determinists.

Thomas L. Friedman, who’s excellent “The World is Flat” I have just finished reading, openly admits he is a Technological determinist. He sums it up….

“I believe that capabilities create intentions. If we create an Internet where people can open an online store and have global suppliers, global customers, and global competitors, they will open that online store or bank or bookshop…if we creat cell phones with cameras in them, people will use them of all sorts of tasks, from cheating on tests to calling Grandma in her nursing home on her ninetieth birthday…But while I am a technological determinist, I am not a historical determinist. There is absolutely no guarantee that everyone will use these new technologies, or the triple convergence, for the benefit of themselves, their countries or humanity. These are just technologies.”

In a nutshell the determinist view is that if a technology is created, then the behaviour that is enabled by that technology is also created. And this process is an immutable feature of any technological innovation. It is kind of a seductive line of thinking. Just think about the impact of different technology, when a technology is created behaviour follows that you can’t control. Gutenberg invented the printing press, then people started reading. Henry Ford invented the Model T, then people started driving. Zuckerberg invented Facebook, then people started Poking each other. Kalshnikov invented the AK-47, then people started shooting each other…you see, dangerous thing technology isn’t it?

You often you hear reactionary types who aren’t happy about change moan about the “dangers” we are facing from a determinist position. In this recent article in The Observer , Dr Aleks Krotoski apparently worries about the web having become “intrusive and threatening” and it being “democratic, but dangerous too”. Now, neither of those statements come from the body of her article which is actually pretty balanced, so I wonder if really it is the editorial team at The Observer that are the reactionary Technological Determinists and not her. But anyway she does claim that when the internet is used to:

“…radicalise new recruits to fundamentalist causes…or promote propaganda within authoritarian states, the web becomes something to condemn”.

But why condemn the web? The reason the web is singled out is because it is a new technology. We no longer condemn books because of the printing of radical literature. It is human nature that that fuels fundamentalism. We should be condemning the elements of human nature that we despise instead.

I am definitely not a Technological Determinist. For me technology follows human nature. Behaviour is a product of both human nature and the tools we have to express that nature. Technological innovation seeks to satisfy our natures, our innate needs. Technology is an enabler. Technology means I can Poke you, or use an Ak-47. But the thing is I am a social animal so I always wanted to Poke you, it is just that now I have the means. I am also a territorial and tribal animal so I always wanted to kill you, and now I have the means to do so with ease.

I agree with Friedman, that you can’t always predict how people will use a technology in advance, and in a sense technology’s role is neutral without a human agent. But rather than focus on the merits of this or that technology, it is more constructive for us to look beyond the technology to the human nature that technology seeks to satisfy. Let’s not forget that technology is also the enabler that has allowed billions to escape subsistence lifestyles, and will hopefully allow the remaining billions to do the same.

One of society’s key roles should be to debate what elements of human nature we really want to encourage, and which corresponding behaviours are acceptable and which aren’t. Overstating the role of technology as the cause of those unacceptable behaviours confuses the debate. When we ban mobile phones in train carriages, what we should really be banning is loud antisocial conversations. When we bemoan our children’s use of Google to answer questions, we should be encouraging them to see the value in thinking for themselves.

So what to call the counter point to Technological Determinism? I am not sure, but when thinking about technology I think we should start with human nature in mind. Perhaps Technological Humanism? My definition would be – “The belief that technology exists to statisfy the fundamental needs of human nature, by supplementing human abilities, empowering individuals and enabling new behaviours”. I am an optimistic realist, so keeping in mind that technology can be used for ill as well as good, it feels right to me to focus on the tremendous force for good that that exists with the creative and innovative application of technology to the world’s problems.

Yet another top ten – philosophical, thought provoking books…

So my best mate, Toby, wanted some book recommendations to help him fulfill one of his New Year’s resolutions – to start reading more philosophy.

So in the spirit of the top ten lists that have been flying around here are my top 10 philosophical and thought provoking reads. I haven’t tried to provide a comprehensive list that covers key works and all areas of enquiry, and haven’t included any original philosophical classics. Rather I have chosen the books that have interested me the most, and the ones that I would love to re -read at some point in the future, plus a couple that I haven’t read yet but are sat on my bookshelf waiting….

1. The Problems of Philosophy – Bertrand Russell

This deceptively concise introduction to the key questions about what we can really know is a great place to start.

2. Irrational Man – William Barrett

One of my favourite books of all time, this analysis of Existentialism is both clear and understandable but also rich and deep in ideas. Existentialism is the most compelling schools of thought I have come across, and I have always found it relevant and helpful to my understanding of what life is all about and the human condition.

3. Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl survived the Holocaust and in this short book talks about his experience, how he coped and what it taught him about what life means. Inspirational stuff that helps put difficult situations in life into perspective.

4. Straw Dogs – John Gray

Full of caustic rhetoric, but one of the most provocative and interesting reads of recent years. Gray lays waste to the liberal humanism on which so much of our assumptions about humanity are based and questions much that we take for gospel about our place in the world. Worth a read simply because you don’t hear that point of view so expertly laid out very often.

5. The Meaning of Things – A. C. Grayling

I hesitated to include this book, as compared to some of the others it is slightly dry. But it is a great introduction to many of the themes and concepts in everyday life that philosophy tries to tackle.

6. The Black Swan – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Is this really philosophy? Maybe not but in the context of the last couple of years very valuable reading. Taleb explores the dangers of accepting to readily, the principle of induction (that tomorrow will be like today) and the heuristics that arise from it on which we all rely. He argues passionately that to do so lays you open to the destructive impact of a black swan, an event that no one could have forseen.

7. Status Anxiety – Alain de Botton

I really warmed to De Botton after seeing him talk at TED Global last summer, and read this book shortly afterwards. A hugely relevant look at the way we live our lives and the dangerous role status plays in giving our lives meaning and as a source of happiness.

8. All I really need to know I learned in Kindergarten – Robert Fulghum

Cheesy, touchy feely and a bit saccharine, and although I haven’t read it for years I still remember enjoying the simple truths in these straight forward honest stories about everyday life.

And finally a couple I haven’t read yet but are on my “next book” pile…..

9. The Life you can save – Peter Singer

Peter Singer is the preeminent Ethicist of our generation. His most recent book looks at the moral duty we have to help others in need if we have the means to do so regardless of our physical closeness to them. He proposes a far greater proportion of income in the western world should be given away to help others, once our immediate material needs are taken care of.

10. The Kingdom of Infinite Space- A fantastical journey around your head – Raymond Tallis

Kind of two recommendations in one really- This book was recommended by Mark Vernon, who’s excellent blog is always enlightening and stimulating. The book itself looks fascinating, I have always enjoyed understanding more about the mind/body relationship and the sense of wonder that a scientific explanation of the world can create (and and a third…. Richard Dawkin’s excellent Unweaving the Rainbow).