Device wormholes

Something important is missing!

We spend hours gripping and staring madly into our personal devices: our smartphones, tablets, ereaders.

But the difference between our collective devices – like a TV or radio – and our personal devices is that it can be impossible for people around us to know what the heck we are doing when we are on/in our personal devices.

This is the wormhole we appear to disappear down to those around us when we use these devices.

I could be ordering the shopping or looking at pRon, chatting with my brother or filing an urgent report to a client, reading a book or dicking around in a casual game.

The context that was native to single format devices like a newspaper is missing in this multipurpose world.

And from a relationships point of view, this really matters.

We sit in collective shared spaces physically, entirely disconnected and ignorant of where the others are, each in their own personal wormhole.

How does that influence our relationships? What is it like to be sat near someone and yet have no idea where they are and what is going on for them? Is that colleague in a meeting replying to something urgent or playing online Scrabble?!

Personally from experience I think this can be a source of friction, a flashpoint and a place where both/ all parties can feel aggrieved.

The context is missing.
These devices have faces but no facial expressions!

It got me wondering what simple design solutions could solve this problem.

Could my iPhone use coloured lights on its reverse cover to give a sense to others of whether I am working, playing, reading?

Could your tablet sing or ding to indicate aurally what kinda activity you were up to?

I wonder.

Growing the 1,000 year company

I’m reading an addictive, all-consuming sci fi book about an institution that has lasted for thousands of years, set in (I think) the future.

And this morning, coming in to work after a wet bike ride in, I was wondering what it would take for NixonMcInnes, the company I helped found, to last for a 1,000 years. [Caveat: It’s a thought experiment, as most of the time our focus is on the weeks and months ahead of us! But you get the idea.]

I spend my working life sharing ideas about the how the world is changing at this very moment, and one of the constant strands in this for the last 5 years has been a shift towards the realtime-ness of life. People answering emails the second they arrive, mobile phones following us around, tweets and videos documenting disasters and delights in the seconds and minutes after things happen.

It feels like the short-term is getting shorter still.

And banks are failing, businesses go bust, swathes of the public sector get cut and pretty soon it feels like everything is in motion – nothing lasts.

These trends get me wondering what would it take for any organisation to last a 1,000 years.

 

What would be necessary to sustain that? And what are role models or benchmarks – how have other organisations lasted so long?

I thought of the Church. And the other religions.

Are their any organisations that have lasted more than 1,000 years that are non-religious? Cities I guess, city-states? Are there any organisations that are not fixed by geography only and are non-religious that have lasted more than 1,000 years?

I suppose it might come back to what do we define as an organisation.

Were the Mayans or the Romans an organisation?! Not by this defintion – I don’t mean a people, or a culture. But I’ve probably underestimated lots of nuance and FACTS here 🙂 But in this line of thinking I’m looking for smaller parts of a whole – components, cells, autonomous thingymajigs inside a bigger people, society, culture, epoch. Things that lasted.

The Knights Hospitaller maybe? That’s more like it, in that it’s recognised as distinct.

Any others?

Are their any commercial organisations that have lasted more than a 1,000 years?

Most importantly, how did they last?

Layers, mosaics, contrails

Three very basic concepts I’ve slung together to help explain to myself some of the things I feel are happening as a result of all of our contributions to the sprawling social web.

Layers

Pic: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sixthlie/4624494638/

The first layer is the world most of us can see with our eyes unaided. The world around us. The ‘real world’ as some like to call it 🙂

Stacked on top of this are all of the ‘other’ layers.

So when I think about Google Streetview I think of it as a wafer thin layer on top of the reality I can see with my eyes unaided – it’s an overlay, an augmentation and an enhancement.

Google streetview with photos

Something like restaurant reviews, location-based social network activity or photos placed by geolocation are further layers, stacked on top.

With the rise of open data we can see more and more information being released into the wild that can be created into still further layers or nuance and contour added to existing layers.

This is obviously particularly exciting as we start to use screens or projectors to place layers on top of one another right in front of our eyes.

Daemon by Daniel Suarez includes some lovely realistic ideas about an augmented reality available through a HUD in the form of some designer glasses.

And the William Gibson book Spook Country which includes dead celebrities visualized geolocatively (is that even a word), visible using a VR helment, was the first thing to really blow my mind about the possibilities of additional information rendered on a physical place.

It might be interesting to ponder what else can be thought of as a layer, or what will soon be created and released that can become a layer.

Some people have talked about works of art, currently limited to scarce space in galleries and so mainly stored hidden away, could be projected across whole cities as an available ‘layer’ to view and engage with.

It would be cool to me to see history applied to the present day as a layer. Imagine if you could ‘switch on’ history as you walked around Amsterdam, Boston or whatever place. That will be cool.

I wonder what else is possible?

Mosaics

Photos of the London Eye

Another simple concept, Mosaics are the whole which is made up of all of the fragments that we each contribute. This is really obvious when you search for heavily trafficked physical places in Flickr, for example:

You get a ton of images of the same or similar thing, each from a slightly different angle, camera, in a different light and so on. Together they make the mosaic.

I think in my simple head that this is a fusion of two things: spending lots of time in Flickr sourcing photos and seeing the effect of many individual contributions that make up a whole, and that mad cool Microsoft technology a few years back that creates a new reality out of lots of photo contributions.

If you want to you can find mosaics in Twitter hashtag streams, TripAdvisor, Gowalla, FourSquare, and probably loads of other places.

The opportunity to with mosaics is to find whole mosaics where at first we can only see the individual pieces, and to help others see them to. To reveal and then tap into something that is bigger than all of us.

Contrails

Contrails

Pic: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ithinkx/302880486/in/photostream/

Contrails is the third of these related simple little terms.

Contrails really hit me when in San Francisco not so long ago, and I’d decided that to log my time there and share it too I’d try using Gowalla which had sort of evaded me until then.

Checking in to places around the city – mainly food joints – I was able to see this trails of the people there before me like the white contrails left behind jets in the sky.

instagram contrails

The people passing through…

These people, their faces, their notes about what to have and where to sit and their photos of the burger, the beer, the ballgame. Like a cookie trail left intentionally for others to follow. But many of them.

We are all leaving contrails behind us on the web – sometimes collected consciously like through Last.fm, Twitter or the snippety Highlights I share from my Kindle, and sometimes unconsciously like through our web browsing and Google searches.

Services that seem to consciously employ our contrails seem to engage with our desires for self-expression and our narcissim and vanity too. Personally, I like services that give me control of my contrail!

But also there is the growing privacy debate, and perhaps a growing awareness that ‘if you’re not paying then you’re probably the product’.

So as individuals an understanding of personal contrails seems to be an important part of web literacy.

As providers of things (rather than as users/consumers), contrails may be an opportunity to help people by providing things that help them by storing their snippets, freezing them in time. Annotating them or sharing them. As Umair Haque said a long time ago, ‘the value isn’t in the data itself, it’s what the data flows through’ (or something).

With the rise of Big Data, the storytelling of our personal cookie trails seems like it will be a growth area.

Perhaps there are also ways to weave multiple contrails to help me as the consumer to understand the interaction between different areas of my life – like how often I run (say Nike+ or RunKeeper app), with how happy I am (Mappiness), with how much I’ve been travelling recently and where to (say one or other of the trip apps) with the new connections I’ve formed (via LinkedIn)… and so on.

So there you go.

Layers. Mosaics. Contrails. That is all.

Liquid, Content Shifting, Longreads, Seven Bees burger night

4 things I’m really enjoying at the moment:

1. Stowe Boyd’s ‘Liquid World’ concept

We are clearly at the tipping point of a new era in computing, and we haven’t got a great name for it. Steve Jobs used a ‘post-’ characterization recently, saying that the iPad represented the gateway to the post-PC world. But we need a term to characterize what this is, not what it isn’t.

And what is it? It’s a convergence of a number of trends, some of which are more-or-less independent, but all are coming together in a class of new devices and the tools and practices that are popping up around them.

…..

What is over the near horizon is a liquid world, in which social nets, ubiquitous connectivity, mobility, and web are all givens, forming the cornerstones of a vastly different world of user experience, participation, and utility. This is the new liquid world, just a few degrees away.

Mo’ here: http://www.stoweboyd.com/post/5041138579/liquid-the-mobile-social-connected-webbed-world

2. Fred Wilson’s ‘Content Shifting’ concept

This is an excellent recognition of something that’s been bugging me but it hadn’t got close enough to the surface for me to notice.

Once you use a service like Instapaper or Boxee Watch Later, this kind of thing becomes muscle memory. You want to be able to content shift everywhere and onto every device.

…….

You get the idea. With the proliferation of devices and content types, all connected to each other via the Internet, content shifting is becoming a huge deal and a real pain point.

Some content shifting is pretty hard. Getting a song from Sirius XMU to fredwilson.fm is not straightforward. Getting Soundcloud playing on Sonos is not straighforward either…

Mo’ here: http://www.avc.com/a_vc/2011/01/content-shifting.html

3. ‘Longreads’ Twitter account

YES! Curation of the first order.

@longreads New York
The best long-form stories on the web. Great with Instapaper, Flipboard, Read It Later. Use the #longreads tag to share your favorite stories.

Mo’ here: http://twitter.com/#!/longreads/

4. Seven Bees burger night

My favourite English breakfast serving and award-winning Seven Bees Cafe in Brighton run by the masterful and passionate Iain Chambers is prototyping an invite-only burger night, and I’ve heard that Iain has been reading up on In-n-Out Burger amongst others.

Holy shit I’m excited.

If anyone can nail this in my hometown it’s Seven Bees. SO EXCITED.

There is no link but there will be photos after 🙂

Making relevancy relevant

Clearly with the world awash in information, relevancy continues to grow in importance. Because otherwise we’re just drowning in one another’s crap 🙂

As I see it, Google were the masters of relevancy and approached the concept from an engineering mindset. They are all about the science of relevance. The reverse engineering of our behaviour, the interpretation of and cross-matching within massive datasets, other clever shit I don’t or won’t ever understand.

Then my co-owner Jenni did this wonderful talk for a while to our clients about The Shift from Relevance to Resonance which celebrated the possibility that Twitter, who made noises back then about putting Resonance at the heart of their advertising platform (and therefore, right in the core of their DNA).

For Jenni the rise of Resonance was the possibility of a re-emergence of storytelling and humanity and goodness and stuff.

Resonance as an idea is not so much predictive and based on computation, but dynamic and based on human behaviour right there and then – if lots of people were retweeting a tweet, for example, it was a sign of resonance (I simplify, probably, but hopefully you get the idea if you didn’t already!).

But for me the problem isn’t solved yet. At all.

In Facebook I get tired of only seeing the same old (lovely, friendly, trusted) faces – it concerns the greedy infovore in me that I might be missing looser ties and edgier less-obvious connections to interesting information or opportunities. I feel stuck in self-reinforcing feedback loop thing that sees me happily stuck in a tiny sub-set of a much bigger network.

In Twitter I get concerned that my attention gravitates towards those who happen to be around at the same time, or who tweet more frequently – something my trip to SF really showed up (Twitter was super-quiet out there – my network of people in non-GMT time zones is somewhat lacking!).

In my opinion there’s a filtering problem here that still remains a huge, untapped opportunity.

With that thought in mind I tweeted this morning:

How long before Twitter or a 3rd party create an Edgerank overlay for Twitter to filter in and out ‘relevant’ tweets?

(To understand what Edgerank is, read this).

I got two interesting replies.

From my colleague Caz Yetman:

isn’t relevancy like beauty? – In the ‘eye of the beholder’ (Fuck yes! And how on earth can that be algorithmized?!)

From Duncan Birch:

interesting point but how would the relevancy be measured? via RT’s , interactions, clicks? (Yes, that’s right – the same jaded old basket of characteristics from which ‘relevance’ seems so often to be currently derived.).

I’d also watched this great TED talk by Eli Pariser on ‘Beward online filter bubbles’ yesterday, and I totally agree that we’ve got to be careful what filtering is happening that we don’t know about and cannot influence.

Finally it’s worth mentioning Google’s Priority Inbox, which I know some people are really rating, where the filtering mixes both the engineered and the human ‘training’. But it didn’t work for me – maybe I didn’t trust enough, lean in enough – I just couldn’t trust it to capture the diversity and unpredictability of what is important for me.

So I’m interested to see what emerges in this space.

What filtering patterns or tools will emerge, and – to Pariser’s points – who will they really work for? How will algorithms mix today’s relevance with serendipity, wildcards, opportunities from the edges of our interests and networks?

The challenge is capturing that sense of the bold curator, sommelier, stylist or other handpicker and recommender – and one that doesn’t just follow the path but knows when to chuck in the random play, the radical alternative. Then I’ll rest easy.

Will algorithms make life better?

The idea of algorithms has been knocking around my head lately.

The first was this tweet from Tim Dyson, CEO of NextFifteen, which I can no longer find which said something like:

‘Will algorithms make better decisions for us than we do or can?’.

And I thought: hmmm, that’s interesting.

The second stimulus for these thoughts is the excellent talk by Kevin Slavin on ‘Those algorithms that govern our lives’ which is absolutely required viewing for all.

So with then I’m accepting that algorithms are already hugely influential in my life, and starting to wonder about what life would be like as they become more present, more influential.

And when it comes to our behaviour, I often think about the things we do that we shouldn’t – they’re the interesting bits.

There’s the mundane stuff, like I eat too much, some people might smoke or drive when they could walk (I sometimes do both of these too!) or stare at attractive people, eat noisily etc etc.

And then there’s the big stuff we do that isn’t good for us – the partners we choose, the financial decisions we make, the workplaces and job crap we accept, the roles we play and the behaviours and habits we allow to lead us.

There’s a lot going on that could in theory be improved, if only we could help ourselves, right?

So we could do with some help, in theory at least. This idea that we could somehow Nike+ life in general, optimise LIFE itself is quite a promise (unless you’re healthily sceptical, which I’m getting to a bit later).

Then if I think about how algorithms – in a form to be described e.g. floating voices that follow us around or robot monkeys or computerised jewelery or whatever – started to ‘help’ us make better decisions, what would that be like?

Would they inform us of the full range of options? ‘Will, I see you’re about to order your seventh burger – have you considered the other options…?’

Would they interrupt and take charge? ‘Excuse me sir, but we’d like to cancel that seventh burger – Will’s cholesterol count is perilous’

Would they act ‘non-invasively’, insidiously influencing us FOR OUR OWN GOOD? Me: ‘Weird, I haven’t fancied a burger in ages. Just don’t even like the idea of eating a burger at the moment. Yuck. Got any apples?’.

Perhaps, being on-trend, they’d somehow combine visualization and gamification (add Transmedia for the full bonus point multiplier) and use these powerful levers combined to inform and influence our behaviour? ‘Calories consumed today – 2,587, 7% more than your daily intake, 45% more than other 33 year old males in your neighbourhood’ etc etc

So there’s the whole ‘even if they did exist, how would they manifest themselves’ that I’m sure will be figured out pretty easily.

But the thing that really interests me is then what would life be like in world where this happens universally?

If everything, every edge of our personality, every burr and rough quirk, was evened out like some kind of valium-for-behaviour, thanks to algorithms, what would society be like?

Would algorithms and then perfecting brilliance make life really better?

Would life really be more rich, more deeply satisfying?

Or would we be like GAP advert cut-outs, wandering through clean streets (this is making me think of Malmö in Sweden – a truly lovely place to visit), pastel-coloured pullovers drawn over our shoulders, sipping healthy volumes of mineral water and smiling like lunatics?

To me, that’s repulsive, shallow, uniform, repugnant. Just awful.

The last bit of this thought about algorithms brings me eventually to art.

In my philistine and fairly primitive mind I end up thinking, ‘what is the opposite of consistent and optimised and right-first-time?’. And I’ve probably got the wrong end of the stick but I end up thinking that maybe art is the last bastion of humanity – maybe this is what art is, the mess, the edge.

And then, just as I think I’ve figured it out – that algorithms will make life better (shallow), but not BETTER (deep) – I remember the art that Matt Pearson aka Zen Bullets creates or at least oversees. It may be worth noting that Matt also does not see this as art, but we disagree on this.

And so there it is, in all of its glory: art created by fucking algorithms!

And at this point I give up. I submit to the all-pervading algorithms. Will algorithms make life better? Shit, I hope so. I guess our only help is in influencing the definition of ‘better’ 🙂

My TEDx talk on ‘Radicalising Business’ through Happiness, Openness and Participation

I was lucky enough to be able to talk at the excellent inaugural TEDx Brighton, the theme of which was ‘Reasons to be Cheerful’.

What I wanted to do was to help spread some ideas that are already gaining their own momentum, but also to group them together in a package that I feel is hugely important, beneficial and practical for businesses.

The ideas are simply around harnessing Happiness, Openness and Participation in business.

Having watched it again there are things I’d deliver differently, but I’m still excited by the message and the opportunity that the world has to make this big ol’ business thing fundamentally better for all.

The video – 12 minutes 54 seconds

If you enjoyed, please find a way to spread the ideas – buy the books, tell a friend, share the video with a few people, implement the Happy Balls Blueprint at your workplace. This is too important to let go.

Thank you.

Applied

I am absolutely loving the word Applied at the moment. Or not so much the word alone, but the idea – the word is my symbol, the trigger.

Over the weekend I read the excellent nuggety plain wisdom that is ‘A Technique for Producing Ideas’ by James Webb Young. This simple sentence really struck me:

So the idea of Applied is what gets me – or *my* idea of what Applied means.

For me it’s the promise of something done, something next, that brilliant possibility but actually made real.

I think it was Steve who first recently reinvigorated the idea of Applied for me, when we were chatting about the name for his practice – Applied Technology was the result, and it was Steve who reached for and produced the nub of Applied in this sense. Thanks Steve 🙂

It’s not the technology or the idea alone, but the practical implementation of it, the rubber on the road.

(As a related aside, using the word ‘practical’ here makes me think of Practical Action, who we’ve done some work with – an apt name for a genuinely inspiring organisation).

When I hear the frustrated growls and howls in conversations, at conferences, on Twitter and elsewhere, about the social media echochamber and the cycles of mindless drivelling about how excellent the same old cheerleader brands are, it makes me think about a lack of Appliedness.

When I feel angry or confused about the gap between what is in the world for most people and what could be in the world for most people, it makes me think about the need for Appliedness.

(Another related aside – Hexayurt is positively dancing with Applied and is just to me incredibly exciting.)

When I see the energy for maker spaces and Arduino and hackdays and MAKING STUFF I feel my personal bonfire for the idea of Applied get a boost of oxygen.

The future contains more Applied.

More digging for victory, more grow your own, more DIY, more Makers and reworkers and ‘necessity is the mother of invention’-ness.

At my grandad’s funeral, my dad told an incredible touching story about his father – a Scot, who was an engineer in the war and a printer for the rest of his life – who would always be fixing. Always Be Fixing! A new mantra for a new dawn? Maybe ours was the disposable generation and the next goes back?

Would it be over-dramatic to say that what the world needs most right now is more Appliedness? Probably. But that’s what I feel.