Curiouser and curiouser

Channel 4 is due to launch a new £50m public fund, 4IP, this autumn and last night Policy Unplugged’s Steve Moore organised a dinner to brainstorm ideas around funding, innovation and public service.

I got chatting to (ex BBC now) Channel 4 Commissioning Editor, Matt Locke, who had some interesting stuff to say around the subject of leadership. Matt said I could quote him and he seemed reasonably sober at the time so here goes:

  • You have leadership of hope, leadership of fear and then something which you might call curious leadership. Each style has its pros and cons.
  • Greg Dyke came to the BBC in a time when everyone was really down on their heels. He spoke in a language of hope and got people to feel good about themselves again. Even though the outside world was changing and the BBC’s needed to adapt to survive, Greg’s strategy was focused inwards. This was necessary at the time but it wasn’t sustainable.
  • When Mark Thompson arrived [in 2004], he spoke the language of fear. He had to cut 10,000 jobs. He had to deal with a below-inflation licence fee settlement. He had to bring the BBC kicking and screaming into the digital age. Everyone looked to new media as the way out of the rut.
  • At Google, by contrast, they have curious leadership. Everyone who works there is encouraged to develop their own ideas. This is great, and creates a highly innovative culture, but the reality is that a lot of those ideas are completely unworkable. Because there is such a culture of idea-generation, people come up with projects just for the sake of it, projects that in other companies simply wouldn’t see the light of day. So that, in itself, is a problem.

Is Open Source a closed book to business?

It was great to hear Robert Cailliau talk at Media Futures 2008 as part of a panel discussion on openness and innovation.

Cailliau is an ex-employee of CERN and worked with Sir Tim Berners-Lee at the inception of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s.

Here is his take on the use of open source:

  • At that time [when we were creating the web] there were many different people thinking about this idea [the web] and ours was the one that took off. If we’d locked it up [ie: not used open source], those other people would have got in on the act.
  • I likened [the development] to a field of weeds rather than a strong forest. Because of the diversity [of people involved], it wasn’t possible to pick out the good contributions. After a short while you began to see who was competent and who was not competent.
  • A hierarchy of ideas and of people began to develop. This became the Consortium (in 1995) and the Consortium was a way of getting the web standards in place and of keeping them open.
  • How do you actually pay for your open systems? This is a problem. I saw a number of people who were very enthusiastic but then lost interest and became involved in something else. And you lost their ideas. Because there was no rigourous authoritarian structure to keep them.
  • We need a way in which people can make anonymous payments and end this vicious triangle of author/reader/advertiser.

I asked Robert and the rest of the panel how they thought we could encourage businesses in general to use open source – not so much for software (where the case is proven) but for completely different products and services, the Goldcorp Mining example used by Don Tapscott, for instance?

Mark Birkbect (webBackplane): The open source ideas of trust and openness will work in business – but the business mindset is set against that. I believe businesses will open up eventually.

Ian Forrester (BBC Backstage): Read The Cluetrain Manifesto and also Reading The Cluetrain, the blog of Sarah Mines, a marketing woman at the BBC (who I convinced to write a blog about her changing perceptions as she read it).

Matt Webb (Schultz & Webb): The web is in danger of becoming polarised – on the one hand we’ve got people believing in freedom at all costs and on the other there are people who want to close everything down.

Robert: I’ve nothing to add.

Well it was late in the day and I guess everyone had their eye on tea and cake, but I was saddened I didn’t get the chance to corner Robert afterwards and press him on this!


Zen in our midst

Professor Brian Winston (above) could be the walking, talking embodiment of Taoist enlightenment. Smiley and affable, he likes to apply his mantra, “So what?”, to just about any modern day concern.

His take is that we all worry too much, especially about all this new technology marlarky.

A former documentary producer and script-writer, Professor Winston now spends his days in what one can only imagine to be a more relaxed manner, theorising and lecturing in the hallowed halls of the University of Lincoln.

So far, so Zen.

It’s the opening keynote of Media Futures 2008 and Professor Winston is entreating us (an invited audience mostly made up of technological determinists) not to over-estimate the impact of technology.

Some soundbites:

“The sense of ever-increasing speed of change is almost entirely illusionary.”

“The Queen still sits in her palace, the Pope in his. And Jihadis want to bring us all back to the 13th century.”

“We don’t understand the social context affecting us. This social context is the greatest forgotten known of all.”

“We adopt things that fit our pre-existing patterns of behaviour. Unless there is some sort of intervening social necessity (eg, to be entertained), the technology will wither.”

“Be hard nosed. Greet every possibility with the withering interjection, “so what?”. So what-ism’s time has come!”

In many ways, Professor Winston is right. We ARE victims of hyberbole. However much things seem to change during our short lifetimes, in the long term, nothing alters dramatically; all change is incremental.

It’s good for us to be reminded of this (there’s a great programme on BBC Radio 4, The Long View, which does just that, taking today’s issues and holding them up against a similar time, often hundreds of years ago).

The Professor’s long-termist stance is refreshing: for example, when asked if he would deny the impact of digital downloads on the music industry, he responds that this is simply causing a revival in the value of live performance (ie: if you take the long-term view, the industry built around the recording, copying and re-distrubution of music was in itself something of a blip).

A later session at today’s conference will address what the media is for. Well, one key function of the media is as a business – and whipping up public hysteria at every given opportunity is a necessary side-effect of this business (I’m not saying this is right or wrong – it’s just a fact – until someone develops a better way of selling papers/ winning in the overnights/ securing eyeballs).

And therein lies the rub. As Professor Winston would no doubt agree, we are brutish beings – barely evolved from the prehistoric Neanderthals who ‘blogged’ about hunting on the walls of their caves (thanks to Nick Durrant of Plot for that analogy). And we still depend on every day excitement to brighten our otherwise humdrum existences.

Professor Winston is preaching a detached, enlightened view of the world that can possibly only be achieved after a full life, an illustrious journalistic career and one or two Emmy Awards. How do you reconcile this with basic human nature and the nasty, brutish shortness of our lives?

The hard fact is that the majority of us still yearn for instant gratification.


Whatever would Noel Coward have said?

Dominic Campbell of Futuregov lives what he calls a ‘declarative lifestyle’.

With multiple web presences on sites such as Flickr (photo sharing), Twitter (microblogging), LinkedIn (professional networking), Facebook (social networking), YouTube (video sharing), (musical taste) and Upcoming (events diary), he’s the first to admit he holds little mystery.

This doesn’t bother him. Why should it? He doesn’t see the need for any distinction between his public and private, personal and professional identities.

On this steamy summer’s evening at the Royal Society of Arts, Dominic has been invited to defend his ‘lifestyle’ in front of a ‘Moral Maze’ style panel and public audience under the topic Private Lives – A Thing of The Past?

The panellists, Claire Fox, Matthew Taylor, Iain Dale and Stephen Whittle are all at least a decade older than Dominic and waste no time in setting about (very nearly) dismantling his argument.

The conversation goes something like this:

Stephen: In a previous life you might have been described as an exhibitionist….why don’t you care?

Dominic: There are major benefits through revealing yourself online like this. I’m the kind of person who tries to live a really honest lifestyle. I’m trying to break down the barriers. Everyone goes to work and ‘acts’, but I don’t feel I have to be a different person at work to the one I am at home.

Matthew: You’re young, idealistic and pure – can you not see any moment in your life when you won’t want to be like this?

Dominic: I can see that once you’ve started on this path, you’re effectively trapped and there’s no way out later. I guess it’s very unlikely that I’ll ever get to be a politician.

Claire: One of the great advantage of our modern cities is that we’ve moved away from the ‘curtain-twitching’ of the village. You seem to be doing your best to replicate village life – with yourself as the village idiot. Do you really have to grow up in front of the rest of us?

Dominic: No-one has to look at this stuff if they don’t want to. I’m talking to my friends. No-one else needs to care. Tweets [microblogging on Twitter] are inane and pointless.

Ian: If they’re pointless, what’s the point?

Claire: Don’t you see that this is demeaning to yourself?!

Dominic: I probably don’t have an answer to that. In many ways it’s about being a micro-celebrity – and that’s the celebrity of the modern world.

With comments from the floor falling into line with what we’ve heard so far (young bloke: “I guess I represent Generation Y – I’m searching for an identity, for love and affirmation”; older gentleman: “We’ve crossed the boundary between public and private in such a way that we’re heading for calamity,” etc), the generation gap is palpable.

An important point from the floor raised by John Lloyd, was that all this online activity pre-supposes a benign state. Dominic is assuming that no harm will come to him. We don’t have a Robespierre or a Stalin in charge at the moment – but that’s possible.

Dangerous fanatics aside, I’m all for a bit of online soul-bearing. So what if Dominic wants to detail his private life on Twitter or show his friend’s stag party photos on Flickr? Personally, I’m up for it. But then, like Dominic, I earn my living as a consultant. And most consultants would favour the old adage, “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”.

Let’s hope history doesn’t prove us wrong!


Turn on, tune in, blog out

A bit like your stubborn friend who won’t use Facebook, or that other one who refuses – ever – to buy a mobile phone, I’ve been holding out on the blog front for way too long.

From now on, things are going to be different. I’m going to blog without reserve, with panache, with feeling. I’m going to blog like nobody has ever blogged before. I believe in Blog. I’m going to blogging blog all of you into kingdom blog. Blogs R Us. Blog-tastic. Blog-arama.

Right. Starting Monday, then.