Us Now: fave quotes

“Any system that tries to apply rules to human behavior leaves itself open to being gamed. It’s scarey. Not everyone can cope with it. But I think if you show trust, then what tends to happen is that you reduce the incentive to game the system substantially, so just by being open and showing trust you can actually protect yourself.”
– Lee Bryant, Headshift

“It’s just the beginning of this fantastic phenomenon. It’s really a very powerful force for good – the potential for people to connect in this way.”
– MT Rainey, Horse’s Mouth

“There are lots of challenges in doing something like this. There’ll be sabouters, there’ll be some people who won’t have access to the web, there’s the whole complexity of millions of ideas and how these can aggregate together and the good ones come to the core. But these are all in the category of implementation challenges, they’re not in the category of reasons not to do it.”
– Don Tapscott


Us Now launches online

Us Now from Banyak Films on Vimeo.

Ivo Gormley’s new (ish) film, backed by The RSA and ThinkPublic, is a timely look at how social media is impacting on political power. For anyone who couldn’t make or didn’t get to know about last year’s London premier, it’s great news that the entire film is (as of yesterday) available to view online – thanks to some hard coding work from Chris Thorpe at Jaggeree.

Case studies include travellers’ accommodation swap network Couch Surfing, peer to peer telephone exchange The People Speak, people’s bank Zopa, music financing engine Slice The Pie and fan-owned football team, Ebbsfleet United.

I love the score (originally composed by Orlando Robertson), the time-lapse photography (courtesy of Guy Gormley) and the overall optimistic message: I like the way the music gets scarey and the tone becomes dark as back-packer Eric looks up his couch-surfing host in a dimly-lit back street – only to be confronted by a smiley bloke cooking pasta.

Not surprisingly, Clay Shirky dominates the talking heads (the film opens and closes with his quotes) but there’s a rich seam of interviewees ranging from Shirky and Don Tapscott through our own home-grown experts Lee Bryant and MT Rainey to the less familiar faces of “ethical hacker” Shane Kelly and Mumsnet user Lorayn Brown. But it’s a shame JP Rangaswami didn’t make the final cut: he would have been a welcome non-white voice in an otherwise monotone selection.

Overall, a great film. There’s only one thing I’d disagree with: the claim (by Alan Cox) that some programmers had used Linux to hack their car speedometres to play Ride of the Valkyries as “a reminder to slow down” when they’d gone over the speed limit. Yeah, right.


“We don’t need help. We are not invalids.”

I’ve been doing a bit more digging around and come up with some more ‘interesting’ facts about the social media presence at this year’s Davos:

  • For the second year running, there was a YouTube Corner. Heads of state, CEOs of multinational corporations and various world dignitaries and could stop by to give their response to questions posted on the video sharing network. Kofi Annan, Ed Milliband, Paolo Coelho, The President of Rwanda and The Chairman of Intel Craig Barrett all shared their views.
  • Prior to Davos, both YouTube and MySpace ran competitions for one lucky subscriber to get all expenses paid press accreditation at Davos. Pablo Camacho (YouTube) and Rebecca McQuigg (MySpace) became “Citizen Reporters” – interviewing everyone from Bill Gates to the president of Columbia between them.
  • Facebook ran live online polls during 12 of the key sessions. During one session, Advice to the US President on Competitiveness, Facebook users were asked if Barack Obama’s proposed stimulus package was on target. According to Techcrunch, 120,000 responses were recorded in twenty minutes: 59 per cent said “no” and 15 per cent said “yes”. These results were played out directly over the heads of the panelists (including Rupert Murdoch, CEO News Corp, and Ellen Kullman, CEO DuPont) who only minutes beforehand had generally backed the package. Nonetheless, World Economic Forum officials were apparently “delighted” with the polls.
  • While 2007 appeared to be the year the bloggers first arrived ‘en masse’ at Davos, 2009 saw plenty more faces from the social media/tech scene: journalists Michael Arrington (Techcrunch), Robert Scoble (Fast Company TV), Jeff Jarvis (Buzz Machine) are becoming veterans, alongside Web 2.0 entrepreneurs such as Tim O’Reilly (O’Reilly Media), Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Chad Hurley (YouTube) and Tariq Krim (Netvibes).
  • For anyone in any doubt that Davos is social media savvy, the World Economic Forum now has a Twitter feed, a fan page and group on Facebook, and a dedicated photostream on Flickr.

My final point isn’t about social media specifically, but about the importance of accommodating diverse viewpoints – especially important if you prefer not to be humiliated in public: illustrated in the story of the exchange between poor old Dell CEO, Michael Dell, and the pithy Russian President, Vladimir Putin.

As if any further proof was needed of fading Western dominance – Putin’s put-down of Dell’s founder summed up the new world order. Peter Gumbel of Fortune magazine reports how Michael Dell was first up to ask a question after Putin’s 40 minute speech:

“[Dell] praised Russia’s technical and scientific prowess, and then asked: “How can we help” you to expand IT in Russia. Big mistake. Russia has been allergic to offers of aid from the West ever since hundreds of overpaid consultants arrived in Moscow after the collapse of Communism, in 1991, and proceeded to hand out an array of advice that proved, at times, useless or dangerous. Putin’s withering reply to Dell: “We don’t need help. We are not invalids. We don’t have limited mental capacity. The slapdown took many of the people in the audience by surprise.”

Putin’s remarks are good to bear in mind as we think about our (definitely subjective, probably patronising) attitudes to other cultures in shaping the “economic forums” – and corporate boardrooms – of the future.

As Davos is no doubt learning, it’s great to use social media to gather diverse viewpoints, but it’s our reaction to these views, and our accommodation of them, that we need to really think about.


Re-use, repair…recycle?

Why are we obsessed with business longevity?

Okay, so mobile phone giant Ericsson started out as a timber merchant and advertising multinational WPP as a maker of shopping baskets – but they’re the exceptions in a climate where only the minority can succeed in reinventing themselves.

Organisational psychologist David Jennings says even the most innovative companies are beginning to question the reuse, repair mantra – maybe it’s time to simply recycle?

David Jennings

“I’ve a friend working at Shell and he says there’s a growing belief there that maybe it’s okay for a company to have a shelf-life? When the oil runs out, then maybe it’s time to close up shop. And Shell can become a sort of rich compost for the companies of the future.”

“Look at the burst of activity around Cambridge Business Park [in the UK]. A lot of the start-ups and small businesses were able to draw on a highly skilled pool of labour when a large employer – I can’t remember for sure, but it might have been Thorn — had made people redundant.

“The same thing could be said of San Francisco’s Bay Area. In its early days in the 1950s, Hewlett-Packard was able to put the silicon into Silicon Valley in part because they could feed off the ‘compost’ of lay-offs from the military, aerospace and radio industries that had previously occupied the area.”

Indeed, why aspire to be a Madonna when you have the temperament of a Britney? The important thing is to know what, exactly, you’re good at, and why. And then recognise when it’s time to let go.


Whose side are you on?

When Clay Shirky arrived in the UK in Feb 2008 to promote his book, Here Comes Everybody, he drew a great deal of interest – nearly all favourable. How could anyone argue with such ‘motherhood and apple pie’ concepts as empowerment, collaboration and improved communication?

Of course, like the small print on a financial services poster, there’s an underlying message running through his thesis –- social change can be good or bad (the value of your investment can go down as well as up).

We all like to think that the new social media tools will help us in a positive way, but then, we never know what rogue operators may lurk around the corner, ready to hijack our new tool-kit for selfish, destructive ends.

For all the talk of universal moral codes, it seems there’s always someone who’s prepared to abuse trust and delight in the chaos that results (Heath Ledger’s Joker, anyone?)

One point made by Nicolas Carr in The Big Switch really resonated with me: namely that, when faced by something it doesn’t understand, human nature tends to plump for an overly optimistic view (it’s easier to imagine warm, fuzzy outcomes than harsh brutal ones).

Social media – villain or saviour? What do you think?

I’m off to design a Cosmo/ FHM -style quiz for readers to find out. Watch this space.


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.