xrematon

May 17, 2017

Homo Deus

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

June 2, 2015

Japan: the good, the bad and the rather odd

So what came to mind when you read the word ‘Japan’? Perhaps nuclear accidents? Or sushi? Economic has-been?

Japan is worthy of more considered reflection. I have recently had the opportunity myself to go beyond uninformed preconceptions to a more positive perspective. I would like to put Japan forward as an overlooked paradigm – as an example of how things could be. I have done this before with another initially less then prepossessing area: Thanet.

I will begin by acknowledging the peculiarities and deficiencies of Japan (please note this is not meant to be an exhaustive survey). It is facing significant population decline – which in itself is interesting given that most of the discourse around population tends to focus on how there are going to be more of us on the planet. Some forecasts put the extent of this decline at really quite dramatic levels: a population which is two thirds of its current size in 2060.

This leads into another facet of the country. Many other nations, when faced with the fact that there won’t be enough young people to work and support the old (there are limits to what robots can do), would boost the population with immigrants. However, this is not an idea which goes down well in Japan, where it is a point of pride that it remains a very homogenous people. This isn’t just a myth the country tells about itself – the figures back it up: under 2% of the population are foreign, compared to over 14% in the US.

Another approach to stemming the population decline would be to encourage women to have more children, but this rubs up against other distinctive features of Japanese society. The idea of solo living – not even settling down, let alone delivering sprogs – is gaining popularity and social acceptance. In a distinctly conservative and buttoned down country, it’s one way for the younger generations to rebel and make it clear they want to do things their way. Another form of rebellion is dressing up. Have you heard of cosplay? It’s short for ‘costume play’ and what young Japanese do at the weekends.

Cosplay

Time to think again about Japan. Let’s start with a quote from an article comparing the experiences of a traveller arriving in the US versus Japan.

“Arriving in the US can feel like rolling back a decade or more, returning to a time when information was scarce, infrastructure creaky, and basic services like ground transportation chaotic and unreliable. Landing in Tokyo, though, is a breeze. All the travelators and escalators glide silently; the wall-mounted clocks, digital and analogue, tell the right time. When I reach the baggage carousel, my suitcase is already circling. Trains and buses depart punctually. I don’t have to pre-book because they’re scheduled merely minutes apart. I don’t have to think of anything beyond the last book I was reading upon touchdown, fishing out my passport at immigration, and what I might order for dinner that evening once I reach my apartment. Everything seems to be taken care of, and nothing is broken.”

Now I will bring in words from James Hollow, another ex-WPP Fellow, who has been based in Tokyo for well over a decade, which challenge the idea that Japan is a ‘train-wreck’ economy as so often (and lazily) portrayed in Western media.

  • GDP has been stable at more or less the same level it reached in the early 90s after the post war “economic miracle” and it is still the world’s third largest economy.
  • Life expectancy has risen to lead the world (in contrast to the opposite trend in life expectancy in the US and elsewhere) largely through improvements in healthcare provision.
  • Japan regularly tops academic quality-of-life studies that factor in prosperity, access to high quality services including but not only healthcare, diet etc.
  • Japan has retained the relatively small wealth gap so important to a healthy, cohesive and robust society.

Let’s go back to the idea of Japan as a paradigm. One of the more interesting ideas in the aftermath of the global financial crisis (that wasn’t simply about bashing bankers), was the idea that we should move away from an obsession with continuous economic growth and instead aim for prosperity without growth and living within our limits. Well, with its GDP averaging barely more than a couple percentage growth per annum during the past decade or so, as well its relatively small wealth gap (another vexed feature often associated with fast growing societies), I think Japan actually make a pretty good poster child for this idea. Let’s just leave out the manga-inspired outfits!

(The image comes from Flickr / Emil Olsen and is used with thanks.)

 

October 21, 2014

The future as the present with bits missing

Filed under: Futures,Innovation — by xrematon @ 8:13 pm
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By juicing the fruits, you lose all the fibers, and that’s what your body wants. That’s the important part. Otherwise, it’s just all sugar.

So where do you think that quote comes from? A discussion on some chat show? Health advice in a lifestyle magazine? Well, actually it’s from a Golden Globe winning film – Her directed by Spike Jonze – and set at some point in the near future. It is notable for the way in which this depiction of the future is unobtrusive, and as exemplified by this quote, mundane.

As some one who thinks about the future (I did spend over ten years working at a place called The Futures Company), I enjoyed noticing other little facets of everyday life in this depiction of the future:
– Post is still part of everyday existence – letters are written (albeit in an intriguingly novel way) and mail boxes opened with keys.
– Yellow taxis still roam the streets (though there aren’t many other cars – more on this later).
– People still get take-out in those dinky little cardboard boxes.
– There don’t really appear to be many old people around.

Now, as I was rather surprised by the last observation (the ageing population is one of the first statements one tends to trot out when describing what society will be like in the decades to come), it made wonder how realistic/close to the facts this depiction of the future is. I came across the following assessment from futurist Kurzweil.

 I would place some of the elements in Jonze’s depiction at around 2020, give or take a couple of years, such as the diffident and insulting videogame character he interacts with, and the pin-sized cameras that one can place like a freckle on one’s face. Other elements seem more like 2014, such as the flat-panel displays, notebooks and mobile devices … Samantha herself I would place at 2029, when the leap to human-level AI would be reasonably believable. There are some incongruities, however. As I mentioned, a lot of the dramatic tension is provided by the fact that Theodore’s love interest does not have a body. But this is an unrealistic notion. It would be technically trivial in the future to provide her a virtual visual presence to match her virtual auditory presence, using, lens-mounted displays, for example, that display images onto Theodore’s retinas.

Kurzweil appears to suggest that the AI element is the most far out, but it is perhaps worth recalling that some claim the Turing Test has been passed. In June 2014, at an event at the Royal Society in London, a conversation programme running on a computer called Eugene Goostman was able to convince more than a third of the judges that it was human.

What was the thinking of those who actually put the film together? Well, it appears they wanted to avoid giving sci-fi geeks something to get their teeth into, according to production designer K.K. Barrett.

One of the first things I said in designing Her was, ‘I don’t want to show any cars. When you look at any film from any time period and see a car, you can place it right to the year. I didn’t want people in the audience looking at the background and going ‘Oh, look at the cars they’ve designed!’ because that’s a distraction from the story.

Instead, this is a deliberately ambiguous but not unappealing future – comfortable, natural and intuitive. The secret to achieving this?

 When we were making rules for this world we created,we decided that it would be better to take things away rather than add them.When you add things that aren’t of this era, you wind up noticing them and it becomes really distracting,so our rules were more like,there won’t be any denim in this film, there won’t be any baseball hats,there won’t be any ties or belts.Even lapels and collars will almost disappear. I think the absence of those things creates a unique world. (Comment from CaSey Storm designer for the film)

Worth pondering – a twist on the oft-repeated William Gibson riff (The future’s here – just unevenly distributed) – the future is the now with bits missing.

summer rain sunset

February 11, 2013

Half the sky

The Futures Company, where I worked for almost a decade, releases extended articles on a regular basis. I had the good fortune to be involved in the early stage development of Women 2020 released in December 2012.

Now the final polished piece has come out, it’s great to have the opportunity to have a proper read through – which I highly recommend (albeit from a rather biased perspective)! It contains many interesting points and wide-ranging examples. Here are three things that caught my attention:

  1. If one charts the changes in women’s lives over the past half century, it is clear opportunities and experiences have changed radically. More women have got educated, up to higher levels and have entered the workplace. However, in some countries, there is a tension between women’s progress in terms of their role as economic agents, and the social and cultural role they are still expected to maintain. Interestingly, there are examples of where technology can help women play within the rules: in Nigeria, working women can have mobile phone conversations with male business colleagues. It would be otherwise unacceptable to meet these male colleagues alone in a face to face meeting.
  2. There is still much progress to be made before it can be said women have made it to the top.  To quote Sheryl Sandberg as cited in the report: ‘Of the 190 heads of state, nine are women. Of all the people in parliament in the world, 13% are women. In the corporate sector, women at the top, C level jobs and board seats, tops out at 15, 16%.’ However, it’s not just about the numbers – it’s also about corrosive attitudes. The characteristics usually associated with leadership are seen as typically male, and when women exhibit these traits, they make women unlikeable. As described in a recent HBS article, a woman runs the risk of being seen as ‘abrasive instead of assertive, arrogant instead of self-confident, and self-promoting instead of entrepreneurial.’
  3. We need to rethink the model of how careers progress when it comes to women if they have children. Rather than assuming that having a career means a neat straight upwards projectory, it becomes messier stairstepping – or what I would describe as ‘intermittent flatlining’. A woman will put things on hold whilst they are on maternity leave, and take it slower whilst her children are young, and pick up the pace again when they are older. This should mean things get interesting in the forties and fifties as oppose to the thirties.

As I haven’t yet left my thirties, it gives me hope yet!

Women2020

October 15, 2012

Futurescaping

Filed under: Business,Coaching,Futures — by xrematon @ 8:37 pm
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Last month, I went to my first ever book launch of a good friend and ex-work colleague. This was very exciting in itself, but made even more so by the fact I was quoted in the volume. Tamar Kasriel, founder of Futureal, a consultancy which assists businesses shape their commercial strategies based on an understanding of future change, has written a volume which brings together two areas of expertise close to my own heart: scenario planning and personal planning/ coaching. Futurescaping is described as ‘an engaging guide to make better life decisions by adapting the best elements of business planning for personal success.’

It is a book which has no clear ‘home’: it’s about the tactics companies use, which suggests it should be in the business books section, but its purpose is to help people make better personal decisions, which tips it into the self-help section. It’s an intriguing identity crisis and one which reinforces a key argument of the book – namely that people who are successful in their professional lives rarely apply the same rigour to their personal lives – personal and professional spheres don’t mix very well.

As someone who generally much prefers reading fiction, Futurescaping was far more entertaining than I expected, due to Tamar’s dry humour, her eclectic selection of quotes and masterful command of the diverse topics. Rather than review or summarise the contents, let me make four observations.

  1. I learnt a new word: ‘eustress’ which is a counterpoint to ‘distress’ and a far more elegant way of saying ‘I got a kick out of sorting that mess.’
  2. The idea that we should wish to plan our lives is a rather Western way of thinking; I would be intrigued to see if the strategies and tactics described in Futurescaping could be applied in contexts where thinking is less teleological and structured. I worked in India for a year and it took me a while to get used to the far more fluid way of doing things there.
  3. Tamar recognises that there are limits to the type of decisions for which scenario planning can be used. ‘It is not suitable for questions which are wholly dependent on emotional impulses or philosophical differences.’ It works for decisions which require practical and rational evaluation. This makes me think about the value of fiction as a way of exploring the non-rational. In novels, we can get into someone’s head and it gives us an opportunity to see what it would be like to go through that situation. A recent article in the New York Times described recent neuroscience research which shows that reading evocative descriptions stimulates not just the language-processing areas of our brains, but also those devoted to dealing with senses.
  4. The idea that exploring the future can help you toughen up is very powerful – as articulated in a quote from an interview with Daniel Kahneman, behavioural economist. ‘One of the things that thinking deeply can do, even if it doesn’t lead to better decisions, is inoculate you against regret.’ I like the idea that what I might think of as worrying and turning over an idea endlessly in my mind is actually a good thing – a defence mechanism about any future ‘wimping out’.

Enough of this chat – it’s time for action. I am off to do some futurescaping on myself. I have post-its, big sheets of paper and coloured pens at the ready.

 

July 1, 2012

Project Rebrief – or rehearsing the past

Filed under: Business,Demographics,Futures,Marketing — by xrematon @ 7:11 pm
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I’ve just had an entertaining half hour watching through the four films that are part of a recent initiative from Google: it’s Project Re: brief. This involved reviewing four seminal advertising films from a generation ago and thinking about they could be re-imagined for today, using all the resources Google has in its treasure chest of tools.

A couple of observations from stuck me:

  • Someone in the films talks about ‘concepting’. Can you really turn concept into a verb?
  • The films are a great opportunity for some office voyeurism. I am always fascinated to see what other work places are like, especially somewhere as iconic as Google. Sadly, there is nothing extraordinary on show: they still present to clients using big white screens and something that looks suspiciously like Powerpoint, and though they show off whizzy animations on iPads, pencils and notebooks are reassuringly still present for taking notes during meetings.
  • I don’t want to go into whether the new ads are better or not. The biggest take-out for me from seeing the ads is that the process reinforces the importance of proper planning. By this I mean, making sure there is a big, clear, strong idea which acts as the driving force across creative development media planning and execution.
  • This isn’t just playing for fun – the teams actually go through with their ideas. They show them to the client and then shoot the films, build the apps, install the smart vending machines etc. That’s pretty cool.
  • When I still worked properly (by this I mean working into an office), I used to wonder what happened to people in advertising and marketing when they entered their fifth decade as there seemed to be very few around with that level of life experience. However, this film is, unintentionally, a way of showing that older generations can still take part and contribute in this field. The individuals who were originally involved are now in their 70s (the ads were produced forty to five years ago).
  • I am interested in futures thinking, having worked on many projects in this area, but I find the idea of going ‘back-to-the-future’ very intriguing. And it does make me wonder what whether there could an extension or sequel to the project in which the teams had to think about what the ads would be doing in ten years’ time?

April 15, 2012

Are you part of a stir-fry, marinade or just stewing?

Filed under: Business,Coaching,Futures — by xrematon @ 8:40 pm
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Which competitive advantages have staying power? What skills matter most? How can you weigh up risk and opportunity when the fundamentals of your business may change overnight?

These questions appear in a recent Fast Company article about Generation Flux – ‘The Pioneers Of The New (And Chaotic) Frontier Of Business’. The piece includes snapshot of individuals who fit the this pioneer profile – people such as DJ Patil, 37 who has been all of the following: researcher at Los Alamos; Defense Department fellow; virtual librarian for Iraq; web-security architect for eBay; head of data team at LinkedIn, where his team created People You May Know.

The article then goes on to tell us:

Nuke Nostalgia. If ambiguity is high and adaptability is required, then you simply can’t afford to be sentimental about the past. Future-focus is a signature trait of Generation Flux. It is also an imperative for businesses: Trying to replicate what worked yesterday only leaves you vulnerable.

As someone who worked for the same company for ten years, I must confess I am feeling a little vulnerable. And I am not so keen on this emphasis on constant flitting between jobs – another way of describing this flexibility is to say that it provides only a shallow understanding of what a position requires. And what about the time it takes to build trust between teams?

Though it is undeniable the Pioneers in the article are very talented and high achieving, it is possible to find other models of success. They are based on people who have worked at the same company for years, slowly but surely working their way up to get to grips what the place where they work is really about. An obvious example is Terry Leahy, who joined Tesco in 1979 and spent 14 years as chief executive. In Jim Collins’ ‘Good to Great’, it is leaders who manifest personal humility and who understand their success is contingent on the many but minor accomplishments of others that build companies with the best financial performances.

To take a culinary metaphor, I am thinking of a marinade – a chance to soak up the culture and values of a place. The Pioneer model is more akin to stir-fry  – throwing different people and skills together to create something fresh and different. To be fair, there is a risk inherent in the ‘stuck it and stay’ approach – namely that the employee does not marinade but stews, becoming soggy and without ‘spark as a result.

There is a third way which takes something from both. It’s when people stay within the same company but change roles. It’s something that happened at Nike during Phil Knight’s reign as CEO – apparently he liked to shuffle people around, keeping them on their toes.

As Knight moved executives here and there, someone who was a boss one day could find himself a subordinate to his former charges the next. Rotating titles meant there might be half-a-dozen people in the company who had served in any one position, giving them license to critique the performance of the newcomer. In this setup employees learn quickly that the only way to get things done is to come up with ideas and build alliances. Brashly making demands won’t get you far.

And what of the freelancer – well – I think they are more like an ingredient which is added in and needs to work well in any corporate cuisine – versatility will be critical. Sorry – the first thing that comes to mind is Quorn, which as the website itself says, is ‘many things to many people’.

March 30, 2012

Lit crit or spooky surveillance?

Filed under: Business,Futures,Technology — by xrematon @ 9:38 pm
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Ever written the word ‘confused’, ‘secretive’ or ‘angry’ in a work email? Watch out – as someone might think you are on the cusp of plotting some dastardly scheme according to a recent article in the Economist.

The article describes how certain companies, in particular those at risk of employee fraud, are using specialist software to analyse the email communication of their staff and check for any suspicious activity. Apparently, using some of the above words would suggest an employee who is unhappy and worth keeping an eye on. Other give-aways include ‘call my mobile’ or ‘come by my office’ as they imply a desire to talk without being overheard; likewise be wary of words that suggest a personal relationship between an employee and an outsider (to potentially tip off) such as ‘beer’, ‘Facebook’ or ‘evening’.

All this surveillance sounds rather disturbing, and such concerns are picked up in the reader comments. The one I have included below also makes the point that governments as much as corporates are doing this kind of thing in America.

Why no mention of the core market for surveillance that has undoubtedly funded all this technology? Are corporate surveillance techniques not dwarfed by the American government’s own capabilities to mine all emails and phone calls along with a much deeper trove of personal, financial, and medical data? If our civil rights can be abrogated with impunity, a dictator can define his own “crooks,” much like a corporate titan can, to include any threat to his rule. The opinions of lawyers are malleable, as shown by Obama’s promise-breaking continuation of Bush and Cheney’s flouting of the constitution.

However, what intrigued me most in the article was the fact that the software must learn to adapt to the particular style of communication within a given sector.

For example, when software gurus at E&Y looked at e-mails among financial traders, their first impression was that “these guys’ hair is on fire,” recalls Vincent Walden, a fraudbuster at the firm. The e-mails were packed solid with swear-words. But this is how traders normally talk. It is when they go quiet that the software must prick up its electronic ears.

Imagine applying this software for another purpose – to evaluate the different literary styles across organisations and industries. The above suggests prose from financial traders would need to be x-rated; I wonder what would come up if we looked at doctors – perhaps not much better – or teachers – or saintly and demure librarians?!

February 27, 2012

Making a mark on books

Filed under: Futures,Innovation,Technology — by xrematon @ 8:05 pm
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One of my favourite ‘treats’ to myself is browsing in charity shops for books. It is very easy and cost-efficient to buy books on Amazon, but ultimately a functional experience; it is very lovely to smell new books in a bookshop, but I get distracted by the amount of tempting choice on offer and end up being unhappily overwhelmed, often walking out empty ended.

But in charity shops, who knows what you will find? To be fair, most of the books are pretty easy to dismiss: chick lit, Mills & Boon, Wilbur Smith, Dan Brown etc. You also tend to find more high brow books, which have clearly hit public consciousness and are guaranteed to appear in most charity shop shelves, often in multiple quantities. How often I have sighed to find yet another  ‘Curious Incident of a Dog’, ‘Atonement’, ‘Captain Corelli’, ‘White Teeth’, ‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum’ etc.

What I like best is to find something which I have sort of heard of but never got round to buying or getting from the library; or even better, something which intrigues me – an unexpected opportunity to be challenged and stretched.

Last week, I got a double-whammy of unexpected pleasures: I found a book which seemed unusual but interesting and, as I looked inside to get a better feel for the writing, I found the volume to be signed by the author (see picture below for proof!).

Looking at this signature made me wonder – how do you get signed copies of eBooks?

To be fair, some real books have less than real signatures – I am thinking of Margaret Atwood and her ingenious LongPen which enables her to sign a volume without actually being present in the room.

In doing some more research, I did come across a way in which it is possible for authors to make their mark on a virtual book. Using Kindlegraph as a platform, authors can send personalised inscriptions and signatures directly to the electronic reading devices of their fans.

But how about this for something even better? Stephen King gave people the opportunity to personalise a book with themselves. For the UK edition of ‘The Wind through the Keyhole’, you could upload your photo through the appropriate facebook page and there is a chance that you could appear on the back cover.

Nifty but I think I would prefer a signed copy!

December 30, 2011

New ways of seeing

Filed under: Futures,Innovation — by xrematon @ 10:02 pm
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It’s a time of year when things are sometimes rather magical and all very distracting. Well, that’s my excuse for this blog post about an initiative which isn’t very closely associated to marketing trends or consumer insight. No, it’s about a new way of recording and seeing images which can make us feel one moment like a giant looking over the world from a far and then another, let us quickly zoom in to spy what an insect might.

How can you see this? Because it’s a Gigapan. As described on the site

Gigapans are gigapixel panoramas, digital images with billions of pixels. GigaPan EPIC robotic mounts empower cameras to take hundreds, even thousands of photos, which are combined to create one highly detailed image with amazing depth and clarity.

It’s worth taking a look at some of the examples that have been created. There are some which remind me a bit of how people first respond to being on TV – ‘Hey, look it’s me. I’m here!’  To be fair, this is pretty cool way to tag oneself in a photo. Beats blurry shots loaded up on facebook.

There are others which make good use of the medium – I’m thinking of those of stained glass windows. Normally you stare up at them, craning your neck, hoping to see the painstakingly-created beauty. Now you can – and it is rather wonderful.

However, my favourite is a bit more frivolous. It’s an image of Saint Paul’s cathedral in which people are hiding and holding up placards which show the final sentence of a recent Stephen King novel.  I think I like as it reminds me of the Mike Wilks Ultimate Alphabet Book which I used to spend hours pouring over as a child.

Must go and find – more distractions!

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