xrematon

January 20, 2018

Sea blindness

This is the term that the chief of the Royal Navy has used to describe our attitude towards the great expanses of water that cover our planet. “We travel by cheap flights, not liners. The sea is the distance to be flown over, a downward backdrop between take-off and landing, a blue expanse that soothes on the moving map as the plane jerks over it. It is for leisure and beaches and fish and chips, not for use or work.”

Not so – this is the driving force behind a recent read Deep Sea and Foreign Going by Rose George, a comprehensive investigation into the world of container shipping. I have long had an unrequited respect and interest in shipping – it is one of the topics which can be endless source of fascination once you actually open your eyes to its importance. At the start of her book, George describes playing a numbers game on the train – you think through what goods will have been transported by sea and the answer is nearly everything : that man’s iPhone and headphones, his book printed in China, the fabric of the seats people are sitting on, the coffee the author is drinking, the fruit they are carrying in the bag and so forth.

The book itself is centred around a journey George made from Felixstowe to Singapore on a huge container ship – if the ship discharged its containers onto lorries, the line of traffic would be 50 miles long. However, the book is more than simply a description of this voyage- the author effectively uses it as a springboard to investigate many other weird and wonderful places, people and phenomena that connect into shipping. This takes her into spending a week on board an EU warship part of the international effort to counteract piracy off the Somali coast, accompanying the chaplain at the Seafarers’ Centre in Immingham, a port on the north-eastern coast of England, and even ringing up one of the ladies who knits the woolly hats that are distributed to sailors.

Despite this breadth of detail, I must confess that I finished the book with my curiosity not completely satisfied. I wanted more depth – to connect with what it really feels like to spend a month on one of these ships. What did she do each day, given that internet connection was sporadic, some of the crew didn’t talk much English and they weren’t really many of them? Come the end of her journey, George seems to be loath to leave the ship but I haven’t got enough of the experience to understand why this can be, given the potential for boredom hinted at earlier, coupled with the fact that she describes how vibrations from the ship’s engine (aside from any weather-related pitching and rolling) make sleep difficult, and she is vegetarian on a boat where the cook seems to struggle to understand what this means and there is very little fresh fruit and veg.

Perhaps what I was after was more poeticism. Just after finishing the book, I read a review of a more recent contribution which describes ten winter days on a Finnish icebreaker. According to the review, Horatio Clare, the author, writes “seeing silence”, and the ship itself seems to him no more than “the tip of a pencil line trailing off into empty space”. He is intoxicated by elemental extremes, dizzied, brought close to laughter. His dead mineral world—all crystalline ice and hard metal—stirs and quickens. Ice “sidles aboard, rinds the rails with icicles…is all but alive”. While down below, in the engine room, there grow “vines of copper piping and sprouting thermometers, the fuel pumps budded with bolts and flowering stopcocks”. There isn’t anything really like this in Deep Sea and Foreign Going. Perhaps just a few more pictures, and of better quality than the almost grainy, soul-dead black and white ones currently included, would have helped.

IMG_20171120_163002

Griping aside – I must make clear that the book is definitely worth reading, incredibly interesting and well written. There are a couple of stand-out bits and pieces.

The first is the little discussed but very real issue of noise pollution. This is discussed in a chapter George devotes to investigating whales and their interaction with all those ships trekking back and forth across the oceans. Rose goes to visit a laboratory in Cape Cod whose scientists aim to better understand how to protect the declining North Atlantic right whale population. We know that whales have been affected by hunting as well as chemical and material pollution. Well, it seems that the additional sounds we humans create will have noxious effects too. This is not just from the incredibly noisy engines of huge ships, but also from laying out cables on the sea bed, firing airguns for seismic surveys, fishermen sending out pings for echolocation to find fish, whilst the military deploy sonar. Sometimes the effect of all this is tangible: forced change of habit to flee the sound, whilst military sonar induces the bends in dolphins and whales so that they arrive on the beach with blood on their brains. Sometimes, it is hard to work out what the impact might be, but one researcher found that a quiet and still sea resulted in much lower levels of stress hormones present in whales compared to days of noise.

The second picks up on the harsh and potentially dangerous livelihoods of those who work on container ships. There are the obvious negatives, such as being away from loved ones for long stretches of time, but this is exacerbated by the fact financial pressure often forces these individuals to all too swiftly sign up for another passage. In addition, a large proportion of those who make up crews come from parts of Asia and get their work through middle men whom they don’t want to annoy by refusing jobs. Then you have to factor in the risk of accidents from storms and the bigger worry of piracy, which becomes particularly challenging when it is not clear who has responsibility for looking after the workers when these problems arise. Is it their own country? But their own country would argue it is the company employing them, coming from another country? Or is it the flag under which they are flying, or the territory in whose water the incident took place? It isn’t clear and that’s why it is often takes a long time to get kidnaps resolved. Despite this, and the fact conditions all round can be compared to a sweatshop, the Fair Trade Association’s comment is of one defeat: “Incorporating shipping requirements into our standards and certification processes would add to auditing costs.”

The third and final point is that there is no mention of the possibility that the flows of good might possibly start to change. In the general media, there has been much hype around the potential for 3D manufacturing to make near-shoring a real possibility, whilst a shift to services as well as intangibles (think of streamed media replacing DVDs and CDs) means that less ‘stuff’ needs to be shunted around the world. But given the volumes currently involved, I am not sure a marked shift will happen any time soon. Until then, we need to remember to be less sea blind.

Advertisements

December 19, 2017

No, you don’t see it

IMG_20170706_121226

What do you make of the rather enigmatic image above? Any clues as to what it might represent or where it could have been taken?

Well, it’s a photo I took from a visit to the Perfume exhibition on at Somerset House over the summer – which turned out to be surprisingly interesting and entertaining. Going round the exhibition made me realise how much of a construct perfume is – an insubstantial experience onto which we can overlay our own memories, prejudices, preferences etc. Obviously, this trait is exploited in order to create branded perfumes, where the constructs have been determined by the marketing bods at big commercial perfume houses.

Looking at the packaging used for perfume bottles over the past couple of decades makes clear how perfume is ‘of its time’ – a thing created for ‘then’ . A bottle from the 1950s looks as though it is a prop for one of the early seasons of Mad Men, whilst the ck one bottle appears pale and dated.

IMG_20170706_120812

IMG_20170706_120902

The only bottle on display to stand the test of time is the one below – quite resolutely a timeless classic.

IMG_20170706_120940

The rest of the exhibition was organised through ten rooms, each of which ‘housed’ a scent created by a different modern perfumer, which we were encouraged to ponder over and capture our thoughts on using special little notes postcards.

What was most interesting was how far the set-up / design of the room influenced my interpretation of the smell. Some rooms were almost heavy handed in how they introduced the scent: one had a film of laundry flapping on a washing line against a blue sky with seats draped with white sheets.

IMG_20170706_122018

Others gave more clues but still left you space to create stories. For this scent, there two couches decorated with rather florid fabric. Was this meant to be a psychotherapist’s study? I could easily imagine a Brooklyn lady in her late 50s, with frizzy black/grey hair, big earrings, hundreds of books lining the walls, and her heavy scent in the background.

IMG_20170706_121826

And what would you make of the below?

IMG_20170706_121514

It was all too easy to fear the worst and I hesitated to approach and sniff. It turned out to be fine: a rather sickening, cloying smell, but distinctly more in the realms of perfume as oppose to just bodily odours.

There was one particular scent where the set-up was ambiguous. The friend with whom I visited the exhibition picked up on the black leather pouches and dark wood and thought of a boxing gym, and found the smell deeply masculine and sexy. But it turned out the intimate closed space and heavy sandalwood scent was meant to recall confession boxes!

These different scents were created by what would be described (unavoidably!) as the ‘new generation’ of perfumers – those who are ready to break with convention and take a different and often unorthodox approach to scent. Though I may use a mocking tone, on reflection, it did strike me that perfume and commercial scents are really still very conservative. Gender-neutral perfume actually isn’t really that ground-breaking; read the below blurb introducing a more ‘cutting edge’ perfume.

IMG_20170706_123945

Such perfumes come across as experimental, deliberating courting controversy, perhaps comparable to how art behaved a century ago with artists such as Marcel Duchamp taking a urinal and making it into an artwork called ‘Fountain’. I wonder how the world of perfume will settle down once it has got past this rebellious phase.

In the interim, we can enjoy the inventiveness. Fancy a perfume inspired by Nutella?

Or theme park rides? You can even get the smelly postcard of it.

IMG_20170706_125923

November 19, 2017

By floral design

Can you think of any place or occasion when you have been able to go into a shop and order the same thing that you found there six years ago? Well, this is what I was able to do when I went to Laura Ashley to get some fabric to replace some curtains, once gently glowing and resplendent, but now sadly frayed and tatty.

Making this purchase gave me the opportunity to experience some more of what Laura Ashley is about. To be honest, I must confess that I am surprised it is able to survive in a world where lots of design is about either minimalist clean-lines Scandi or cosy hygge-inspired Scandi. A quick check online reveals that it is struggling and looking for better opportunities in emerging markets where British floral fancy might have more appeal.

The main part of my time in the store was spent getting through the process required to sign up to the store card. I only consented as it seemed silly to throw away the opportunity to get a 10% discount, but it ended up being rather complicated. How come? Well, I blame the checks and balances put in place to ensure consumers are not being mis-sold. Legal requirements they may be, but from a customer experience perspective, they are not positive. This is why:

  • I had to watch a video which explained my rights and what I was signing up to. But as this was a shop, I effectively had to sit at the desk in the corner where they check orders. It just felt really odd and uncomfortable.
  • Worse still was providing all the personal information needed to apply for a store card. It wasn’t just stating one’s age but also one’s annual household income – all on the shop floor.
  • Doing the above and filling in lots of forms end up taking 30 minutes. I am not sure it is worth spending half an hour to get back £20. It raises the question of what is the balance of saving time vs money…

And obviously, I cancelled the card as soon as I got home. It had not been even explained to me that there were incentives beyond the initial purchase discount.

But all that being said, to go back to my opening question, I was really rather pleased that Laura Ashley are ‘consistent’ in their stock. Fingers crossed my duck egg Villandry will still be there when I need to replace curtains again in the years ahead.

Laura Ashley

October 18, 2017

Domestic time travel

Filed under: Consumer Trends,Marketing,Uncategorized — by xrematon @ 9:05 am
Tags: , , ,

I work from home and thus tend to think rather a lot about domestic spaces. So perhaps it’s no surprise that my latest blog post here will relate my experience of going to a museum which is all about homes through the ages.

A couple of months ago, I finally had the chance to visit the Geffrye Museum. It’s in achingly cool Shoreditch, which in reality means tramping along very busy and grimy roads as the public transport connections are rather limited. The museum itself is situated in restored and refashioned almhouses and an oasis of calm and greenery in the midst of the urban bustle.

IMG_20170505_111037

IMG_20170505_095557

Unlike many museums and exhibitions, which seem to eschew putting things forward in chronological sequence in favour of following themes, the Geffyre Museum solidly set out its rooms in historical order. We travel from the 1600s up to the twentieth century, going through halls, parlours, living rooms and kitchen-dining rooms.  Below are a selection of images from these different eras.

 

IMG_20170505_100940

IMG_20170505_102827

IMG_20170505_104043

As I walked through the rooms, admiring how our tastes in wood, flooring material, upholstery and other such delights have changed over time, a number of observations struck me.

In reality, I doubt whether many houses would have looked as laid out in the museum at the period specified. Furniture tends to hang around for a long time. Speaking from personal experience, I know that I have a table and chairs that belonged to my husband’s grandmother, as well as items that have only appeared within the last year or two. The reality of homes is that they are less aesthetically coherent with a mish mash of items from many different eras.

The impact of changing patterns in work have fed through into how spaces are used and owned within the house. Over the past century or two, as the idea of going to a factory or office for employment (rather than running one’s business or trade from home) has become more common, it means that living rooms have become more ‘feminised’. They became more clearly places where women and children spent most of the time with room for games and instruments, and more ‘cosy’.

IMG_20170505_102952

There is lots of discussion about the growing importance of China on the world stage today – think not just of its economic might as the second largest global economy, but also its growing political leadership, for example in committing to the Paris climate change Accord whilst America has not. It was interesting to see evidence of when China was also influential earlier. However, it was seen more as an exotic place full of interesting and beautiful art, culture and history. In the early eighteenth century, drinking tea from China was a novelty and also a luxury. You would not find the big clunky mugs from which we slurp our ‘builders’, but instead tiny porcelain bowls and saucers to make the precious drink go further. Cupboards were inspired with intricate ‘Oriental’ designs made to look like Japanese lacquer (but actually made in Europe).

16_2006_001

Perhaps what was most distinctive about the museum was the fact its focus was on middle class households. When we admire rooms and furniture from the past, it tends to be within the setting of big posh stately homes and thus reflecting the lifestyles of the very rich and very privileged. Instead, the Geffyre Museum lets us see what those in the middle experienced. Though you don’t get the sumptuous décor and extraordinary attention to personal comforts, as for instance found at Eltham, looking round is more engaging as it is more accessible.

I wonder what ‘my era’ will look like when it is put up to visit?!

September 18, 2017

A duo of posts on physiological introspection – Part II

In the second part of these two posts on health/science books I have recently read, I will focus on Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee.  I was particularly interested in getting to grips with this book as there is lots of chatter about genes. I have become aware of the fact that it is all too easy to merrily throw on some bullet points about genome testing, personalised health plans and diets etc, but what does this actually mean?

In reading Gene, I was struck by the fact that in order to understand how our thinking about genes has developed over time, we need to go back and look at how science explains differences between and among ourselves and also other living organisms. Perhaps, therefore not surprisingly, we spend some time with Darwin, as well as looking back at Greek philosophers/scientists, whose perspectives were always, surprisingly insightful/provocative, despite they effectively ‘knew’ less than we do now.

There was a section on the interest in eugenics in the US in the 1920s. Reading this made me realise how, when we look back in time, we often make simplistic assumptions about what ideas to associate with particular eras. Eugenics – that was obviously the handiwork of those nasty Nazis – well, not just them it seems. A number of medical professionals and politicians in the US were determined to stop ‘bad heredity’ and to set up ‘eugenic sterilizations of the feeble-minded’. In 1927, the state of Indiana passed a law to sterilize ‘confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles and rapists’ and other states followed with even stricter laws to sterilize men and women judged to be genetically inferior. This preoccupation with the right heredity was reflected in popular culture at the time, for example, by the late 1920’s, premarital genetic-fitness tests were being widely advertised to the American public. However, it is important to remember DNA testing, as we know it, had not yet been uncovered. Instead, they consisted of assessments of family histories to pick up on incidences of mental retardation, epilepsy, deafness, dwarfism, blindness etc.

It was not until the 1950’s that the chemical structure of the gene was uncovered. I find it fascinating that so much had already happened, eg laws instituted, as described above, around a part of ourselves – the genome – which we had not really ‘seen’ as such and did not know really how it worked. As a child of the modern era, I have the naïve and simplistic assumption that we know everything before we decide to ‘use’ it!

Reading Gene made me realise that there in fact is much more uncertainty around the impact genes have than perhaps comes across in popular media and culture. One aspect to this is that there still seems to be much life in the nature versus nurture debate. This is down to the fairly new area within gene studies of epigenetics. As explained here, “Epigenetics is essentially additional information layered on top of the sequence of letters (strings of molecules called A, C, G, and T) that makes up DNA. If you consider a DNA sequence as the text of an instruction manual that explains how to make a human body, epigenetics is as if someone’s taken a pack of highlighters and used different colours to mark up different parts of the text in different ways. For example, someone might use a pink highlighter to mark parts of the text that need to be read the most carefully, and a blue highlighter to mark parts that aren’t as important….But the really interesting thing about epigenetics is that the marks aren’t fixed in the same way the DNA sequence is: some of them can change throughout your lifetime, and in response to outside influences. Some can even be inherited, just like some highlighting still shows up when text is photocopied.” So it seems looking at what it’s in your genome will only tell you so much; the messiness of real life has an important impact.

Another angle is the fact that only about 1 percent of our genome encodes proteins. The rest is DNA dark matter. It is still incompletely understood, but some of it involves regulation of the genome itself. As a reviewer observed, “Ironically, the more we study the genome, the more “the gene” recedes. … Some scientists are even moving away from the gene as a physical thing. They think of it as a “higher-order concept” or a “framework” that shifts with the needs of the cell. The old genome was a linear set of instructions, interspersed with junk; the new genome is a dynamic, three-dimensional body. The gene is not a Platonic ideal. It is a human idea, ever changing and always rooted in time and place.”

It makes me wonder what Gene – An Intimate History would include if it was written a hundred years from now?

IMG_20170803_134816

August 14, 2017

A duo of posts on physiological introspection – Part I

Filed under: Consumer Trends,Uncategorized — by xrematon @ 7:48 pm
Tags: , , ,

Health and wellbeing are topics that you cannot ignore if interested in consumers and societies. At the level of the individual, feeling good in mind and body is now often more than just not being ill but part of a broader aspiration to positive health and a way of showing that we can invest time and money in taking care of ourselves, important both in developed and developing economies. And from a societal perspective, there are important new public health issues rising up the agenda: obesity and the associated conditions, and an ageing population to pick up on two of perhaps the most obvious issues.

It was these thoughts in mind that I decided to read two books which aim to tell their readers more about areas in health where there is a lot of energy and excitement. I started with Gut by Giulia Enders and then launched into Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee. I will discuss my thoughts on each in a pair of posts.

I must confess to not having a great first impression of Gut – thanks to the book cover. As you can see from the image below, in the edition I read, there is a large photo of the attractive young blond German scientist who wrote the book. I cannot recall having come across other science books, or indeed any type of book bar autobiographies, which put their author so prominently on the front.

The impression of youthfulness continues. The inside blurb opens with the following perhaps somewhat patronising sentence (my italics), “In this charming book, young scientist Giulia Enders takes us on a fascinating tour of our insides.” My more objective verdict of youthfulness/immaturity of thought comes from the relatively superficial/narrow scope of discussion: Gut gives us only an overview of the basic science behind the organ and our current understanding of what is going on. Gene is very different – deliberately so – as the latter sets itself up as a history and thus has a very broad scope in terms of chronology, revealing along the way changing cultural attitudes as well as the scientific discoveries linked to the genome. I would have liked to know more what ‘we’ (in a societal/cultural sense) think about how to understand the gut and what it does for us as much knowing the hard facts.

For example, I would have been interested in knowing more about how other cultures ‘engage’ with their gut and how their diets intuitively work with guts better. For example, I know that in Turkey, women will often drink a tiny bit of apple cider vinegar before their meal and kefir, fermented milk drinks, are an important of a region’s traditional cuisine. Both these products will encourage the development of gut flora, but how and why did these customs come about? And what else is there like this?

And we find out that there is scientific validation for relying on ‘gut instinct’ – we are simply reflecting how closely our guts and are brains are entwined. The gut is connected to our main brain via the vagus nerve, a superfast broadband connection along which messages travel in both directions. But it would have been good to know more about how this metaphor arose.

I obtained my copy of Gut from the library but I wonder on what shelf it would be found as its classification is not obvious. The blurb describes it as an ‘entertaining, informative health handbook’ – a bit of a fudge if you ask me.  Is it a popular science book or is a self-help book? For a clearer example of the latter, look no further than the latest tome from Dr Michael Moseley (of 5:2 diet fame).

However, despite the above observations, Gut did inspire me to action. I have been tucking into the below on a regular basis. Not sure I can tell the difference yet!

IMG_20170627_121724

July 14, 2017

On watching birds

I’ve got a confession to make: I’m into bird watching.

Now, what are you thinking?

That I am perhaps a bit weird, a bit of a geek, a fuddy duddy nerd…?

Let me try again. Since the start of this year, I’ve picked up an old interest in earnest and it delivers on some different levels.

It’s good for mental and physical wellbeing.

It makes me get out and about, walking in the fresh air. I have to focus and concentrate, so it keeps me ‘in the moment’, and I naturally end up appreciating tiny little details of the environment around me, so easy to miss otherwise.

It involves learning, goals and targets.

This is important for continued motivation and means that there is more than a one-off high or moment of excitement. This new hobby keeps you coming back as you pick up more expertise and uncover new ways to stretch yourself and discover new horizons (literally) to explore.

There are low barriers to entry: it’s cheap and easy to do.

Apart from upfront investment in some good equipment, I really don’t need much to participate. There are no real membership or access fees, I can travel but don’t need to: just being in the garden can be surprisingly rewarding.

I don’t need to look good and so won’t get distracted with dressing up and fancy clothes. Comfort and practicality are the guiding priorities.

And often being in the middle of woods, on clifftops, tramping through fields or round wetlands means no temptations of artisanal foodie options. Packed lunches are the way forward. I have even dusted down the thermos flask for some expeditions.

It helps build valuable social capital.

This is at several levels. It is one of the rare and precious activities that we all enjoy as a family and thus do together as a family. It is something we all can share and discuss together, adding to the stock of memories and anecdotes of adventures in which we have taken part.

In addition, we often chat with other people on our trips, sharing sightings etc. Many reserves are staffed by volunteers and I have a sneaking suspicion that we might be giving back/volunteering ourselves later.

It’s a planet-positive interest.

My family and I have developed increased respect for nature and have become more willing to invest in conservation and other forms of support. I am sure it will have influenced how my children, the next generation, think about the world around them.

It’s a future-proofed hobby.

By this, I mean that it is an activity which can see me through into retirement. It doesn’t require an excess of physical exertion – you can take it nice and slow if you want – not like triathlons. And though fading eyesight will take its toll in later years, I’m hoping this will be compensated for by more knowledge and expertise.

And finally, the icing on the cake: though it has always been popular (one survey puts the number of those who regularly go birdwatching at close to 3m), it’s suddenly getting rather cool. I have come across various articles heralding the rise of the hipster, urban or Millennial birder who makes use of the latest tech and apps to bring new energy into spotting.

What do you think now? Not such as a geek or fuddy duddy nerd I hope!

IMG_0646

June 16, 2017

Through the keyhole

Filed under: Consumer Trends,Technology,Uncategorized — by xrematon @ 8:04 pm
Tags: , , ,

Time for another photo essay. This time I have some images from a visit to Eltham Palace. Eltham has a fascinating history: in its original incarnation, it was a place where royalty resided, from Edward III at the start of the 14th century to being where Henry VIII spent his childhood. However, it fell into disrepair during the Civil War and then rumbled on as a farm. Like a phoenix that rises from the ashes, Eltham Palace’s new heyday came when wealthy socialites Stephen and Ginnie Courtauld gave the house and gardens a lot of TLC. The Courtaulds restored the medieval Great Hall and then added in a splash of modernity: Art Deco extensions and cutting edge innovations from that time. It was this angle – the latest technology from eight decades ago – that most intrigued me.

Time for the first photo: an image which shows how the building combines old and new. Here we can see the medieval Great Hall on the left, and then the new extension on the right.

IMG_20170421_123042

And what about these new technologies? Well, there are some similarities in the approach taken to integrating tech then and how it is done today. One is the desire to make technology invisible: lights were put in alcoves out of sight but with their glow would spread out over the ceiling, often made to ‘go further’ with carefully positioned mirrors. Music would float dreamily throughout the room from hidden speakers – obviously not really visible in this picture!

IMG_20170421_114310

Now, how does that compare to these speakers from today disguised as anodyne wall decorations?

Another quirky feature was the centralised vacuum cleaner, powered by a motor in the basement. Better than a robot cleaner surely?

IMG_20170421_115157

And there were plenty of other features, such as electrical clocks built into the walls, phones (very new then), underfloor heating, and more. These features were reflective of owners’ concern to make sure that everything was just right. Apparently Ginnie chose the colour of the leather on the seats in the dining room (a soft pink) as this set off ladies’ evening wear best…

The central hall was the most stunning space – Art Deco with lots of lovely warm wood (for both furniture as well as wall decoration). The design here, as in much of the rest of the Palace, was reminiscent of the décor for luxury liners with furniture integrated into the walls and circular shapes (think port hole windows and curving walls).

IMG_20170421_112210

IMG_20170421_120130

 

I have included a set of final pictures to show another surprising aspect to Eltham Palace. Though the Palace is in London (zone 4), it is surrounded by gardens and fields, and thus walking round outside feels surprisingly green and non-urban.

IMG_20170421_123209

The towers and spires of London can be spied as a distant memory on the horizon.

IMG_20170421_120455

 

May 17, 2017

Homo Deus

Filed under: Business,Futures,Innovation,Technology,Uncategorized — by xrematon @ 9:32 pm
Tags: , ,

IMG_20170325_135112

In an earlier post, I gave some thoughts on Yuval Noah Harari’s first book Sapiens. Though I don’t normally like to read books by the same author, preferring to endlessly taste the new and different, I had the opportunity to get to grips with his follow-up tome, Homo Deus, as I received it as a gift.

As with Sapiens, it is an intoxicating read, with grand sweeping ideas set to make you think differently and challenge your assumptions about how you think things are progressing. In Homo Deus, the Big Idea is that now Man has learnt how to conquer famine and horrible diseases that used to wipe out whole populations, he can think about higher objectives. We can focus on achieving immortality and eternal happiness, making use of the latest technological innovations to reach this goal. Our brains and bodies will be re-engineered by algorithms with those controlling these algorithms becoming the elite and the rest rendered useless from a societal perspective.

Harari puts forward all too convincing evidence and examples of how the steps leading to this are already taking place. Whilst I agree with his prognosis of increasing and insidious inequality spreading beyond basic wealth status to social mental and physical wellbeing, I am not so convinced that the conversion to a technologically determined utopia (for some) will be that straightforward.

These ideas make sense when taking a macro, more ‘godlike’ top down perspective, but less so when going bottom up and thinking about how individuals think and act. For a start, people have become more wary about how their personal data is used. 84% of US consumers are worried about the security of their personally identifiable information.

And there are signs that people simply can’t bothered to keep collecting personal data if it is left up to them. Research among those who have invested in wearables, still very much at the early adopter stage, reveals that barely a third of them continue to gather information about personal performance. This is surprising low for what would otherwise be assumed to be the keenest part of the market.

In addition, I am not sure that people will necessarily be that keen on options which have been designed as perfect for them. Instead, realistically, they are more likely to go to opt for what is most satisfying. Food is the most obvious example here. Though vitamin pills have been around for a long time, we still bother to prepare food. Soylent is still has pretty niche appeal, despite its recent efforts to go mainstream. And I haven’t even touched upon resistance to genetically modified and other forms of manipulated food.

My final quick challenge is about something completely different and only an aside, albeit an interesting one. In chapter one, Harari uses lawns as a way to illustrate how many of our preferences and aspirations connect back to earlier dynamics in society, though we are often now oblivious. Lawns were the preserve of the rich and thus associated with political power.

But I would argue that the ‘smart set’ are now increasingly opting for astro turf.  In fact, this is actually another demonstration of how the elite are using better technology to improve their lives. But it could be done better: surely the super elite would have grass personalised to match their wellbeing needs, being in the right shade and right texture to deliver optimal stress release. Perhaps I should try that on Kickstarter…..

April 18, 2017

When something goes wrong at work, what happens?

The answer to this question is explored in Matthew Syed’s book, Black Box Thinking, which proposes that we could benefit from embracing our mistakes and learning from them in order to improve our performance. As with many of these books, the ideas they put forward are, on the surface, very compelling. Who could argue with the need for pompous senior health care professionals to accept they make errors, that hierarchy can be challenged, and the system reformed to ensure that people do not die from what are avoidable mistakes? The airline industry has shown that it is possible.

This is all well and good, but there is more to say about the process behind which we make decisions. Just pick up something by Malcolm Gladwell for instance. In Blink, as well as Outliers, we are introduced to people who are altogether brilliant at knowing what to do: they can make amazing snap decisions better than others who might spend hours on analysis and evaluation; and it’s often because they have in fact spent thousands of hours becoming expert in the area. That to me sounds a bit like what you want from a senior surgeon. So, it seems that it’s acceptable to work something out super quickly and trust your instincts, except for when it goes wrong. The key learning that comes out sounds surprisingly moral: avoid complacency and hubris.

But let’s go back to question in the title to this post: what happens if things go wrong at work. In my area of consumer trends and insight, I am not sure! This is both in terms of knowing whether things do go wrong or not, and if they do, what the implications are. Unlike in surgery or aviation, when a mistake can lead to the loss of human life, in marketing, the consequences are less clear cut.

Though it might be possible to argue that product sales or the loss of a client account are indicative, the more significant issue is that there is a lack of a clearly agreed metric or consensus over how such evaluations are to take place, let alone an obvious path or process for acknowledging these situations and actively learning from them. To be fair, I have known some agencies that carry out review sessions after big pitches or projects in order dissect what worked well and what didn’t. However, this is rarely consistently done, even within the same place, more often than not it is at the whim of how agency culture and priorities ebb and flow over time.

But the space where there is some energy and debate as to what is the right thing to do in marketing is not quite around learning from mistakes, but another form of improvement/trying to make things better: innovation. In a piece on Branding Strategy Insider, Geoffrey Colon argues that the challenge in marketing lies not so much in accepting that mistakes represent learning opportunities, but in being ready to have an open mind as to whether ideas might come from.

Teams of “experts and insiders” can be marketing’s worst enemy. Because they believe there is only one approach to finding a solution, they tend not to accept outlying ideas. When marketing teams represent a cross section of disciplines, the problems are quickly solved and the solutions are often applicable to other areas of business as well. One reason industries are being overthrown is that they don’t allow outsiders into their inner circle to provide new ways of thinking.

It seems the challenge for marketers lies not so much in removing the boundaries of hierarchy, but those of subject matter and discipline. But, at the end of the day, it is still about humility and being ready to accept that you don’t have all the answers – even if we can’t be too sure when it’s not right!

IMG_20160729_140321

Next Page »

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.