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!


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.

Nudge – Choice architecture and marketing

It has been out a while, finally getting round to writing about the paean for public policy makers,Thaler and Sunstein’s book Nudge. The book describes the impact of small influences or “nudges” on one’s choices and behaviour created by environment or circumstance, and seems to me to have has lots of relevance to marketing.

They describe environment or circumstance as having a “choice architecture”. Choice architecture is the way a given system is set up to encourage certain actions over others. For example it makes a big difference if a check box question asks you if you want to opt out of a company pension plan instead of asking you to opt in. Inertia means many people don’t tick the box, and so more people get the benefits of employer contributions if the default choice is to opt in. The authors point out that making an active decision to influence choice architecture impacts behaviour just as much as leaving existing choice architecture alone, so why not choose to encourage a more positive outcome? It is impossible to avoid being a choice architect if you are are public servant and so it is better to encourage desirable actions. Whatever the system, from a voting form or a pension scheme or whatever, the system exerts some sort of influence over actions.

Marketing is all about influencing choice architecture. One only has to think of the science of retail and how the seemingly unimportant positioning of products on shelves can make a huge difference to sales. It is easy to get queasy about this aspect of marketing. It conjures up all sorts of negative connotations of subliminal messaging and overly pushy sales techniques.

But a responsible and sensible consideration of choice architecture by marketers can be of use to consumers faced with choice overload. Barry Schwartz talks about the Paradox of Choice. Most of us have busy lives and are time poor and attention poor. So set in that context it is possible to feel that you can have too much choice. Choice can be paralyzing and distressing. Too much choice is not a good thing.

People need help to make choices, and good marketing helps people make informed choices and feel better about themselves and what they choose. And so I think that the principle of proactively managing choice architecture is just as valid for marketing as for public policy.

Choice architecture can be deceptively simple. One of the examples of a nudge involves an airport administration who painted a small fly on each mens’ bathroom urinal to encourage accuracy (and therefore reduce the cleaning bill).

The point is, details matter.

Failing to think through the details of exactly how systems will impact a consumer and what they might do as a result can be the difference between success and failure. And I think that is particularly true in the hyper-connected complex world we live in.


Just read an interview with Rory Sutherland on the TED blog, and he make many excellent points building on his talk at TEDGLobal that chime with the above post. Thanks to for tweeting the link and reminding me.

How the shared experience of entertainment replaces the church

I have often wondered why we all love the shared experience of entertainment. Nothing beats chatting to your friends or work colleagues about Susan Boyle or meeting another The Wire fanatic. I came across this quote in Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety, and for me it sums up incredibly well that shared experience. Just replace the church description and imagery with that of The X Factor and you will see what I mean…..

“We might imagine joining an unfamiliar congregation within the walls of a cathedral to hear Bach’s Mass in B Minor. Much may separate us: age, income, clothes, and background. We may never have spoken to one another and be wary of letting others catch our gaze. But as the Mass begins, so too does a process of social alchemy. The music gives expression to feelings that had hitherto seemed inchoate and private, and our eyes may fill with tears of relief and gratitude that the composer and musicians have made audible, and hence available to us and others, the movements of our souls. Violins, voices, flutes, double basses, oboes, bassoons and trumpets combine to create sounds that exteriorize the most intimate, elusive areas of our psyches. Furthermore, the public nature of the performance helps us to realize that if others are responding as we are to the music then they cannot be the incomprehensible figures we might previously have imaginged them to be.”

The hidden dangers of choosing the digital over the physical world

In this interesting report of recent research from Mark Vernon’s blog, the limitations of social interaction through digital services alone is made clear – basically it is not enough to keep you sane and healthy.

This is valuable to remember as we pursue all sorts of technological ways of staying in touch with one another, both between people and also between brands and consumers. If I am a fan of Starbucks on Facebook, but my favourite shop smells of bleach, this negative physical relationship I have with them will overrule instantly my digital enthusiasm. The digital world may be important and useful but the physical world is in my face, and I need to see touch taste and feel to live a full life.

However it is also important not to see this as black vs. white, digital vs physical. For most people, the world they inhabit is just that, the world. In their day to day experiences physical and digital co exists as one experience. The natural tendency to ruthlessly select behaviours and tools which are most advantageous to survival means that any behaviour or tool, both digital and physical, can live side by side. Instant messenger lets me have a private conversation in a group meeting, Facebook status lets me tell people how I am really feeling before I go to the pub.

In these examples life is enriched by technology, not diminished.