We naturally associate criminal activity with secrecy, with conspiracies hatched in alleyways or back rooms. Today, though, foolish as it may be in practice, street gangs have adopted a level of transparency that might impress even the most fervent Silicon Valley futurist. Every day on Facebook and Twitter, on Instagram and YouTube, you can find unabashed teens flashing hand signs, brandishing guns, splaying out drugs and wads of cash. If we live in an era of openness, no segment of the population is more surprisingly open than 21st-century gang members, as they simultaneously document and roil the streets of America’s toughest neighborhoods.
There’s a term sometimes used for a gangbanger who stirs up trouble online: Facebook driller. He rolls out of bed in the morning, rubs his eyes, picks up his phone. Then he gets on Facebook and starts insulting some person he barely knows, someone in a rival crew. It’s so much easier to do online than face-to-face. Soon someone else takes a screenshot of the post and starts passing it around. It’s one thing to get cursed out in front of four or five guys, but online the whole neighborhood can see it—the whole city, even. So the target has to retaliate just to save face. And at that point, the quarrel might be with not just the Facebook driller a few blocks away but also haters 10 miles north or west who responded to the post. What started as a provocation online winds up with someone getting drilled in real life.
So these gang members really don’t give a second thought to public / private, to secrecy as part of what they do. In a horrible way they are arguably being “radically transparent”. interesting to thing about Clay Shirky’s examples of online social networks defeating organised crime in Here Comes Everybody. So, do we here have organised crime adopting open, loosely coupled networks to pursue their agenda?
Well they are definitely networked, but possibly not that organised in the way we would usually think about criminal organisations…
Harold Pollack, codirector of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, says that in every talk he gives about gangs, someone inevitably asks him about The Wire—wanting to know who is, say, the Stringer Bell of Chicago. But The Wire, based in part on David Simon’s Baltimore crime reporting in the 1980s and ’90s, is now very dated in its depiction of gangs as organized crime syndicates. For one thing, Stringer Bell would never let his underlings advertise their criminal activities, as a Central Florida crew did this spring when it posted on its public Facebook page that two of its members had violated their parole and been arrested for posing with guns on their personal Facebook pages.
Something here connects to a link that Will McInnes tweeted – about “open source warfare“, a post by John Robb, author of Brave New War. These gang factions are becoming less centralised, more open, less geographically defined (as the main gang war in the Wired article escalated, across the mid-West, as social followers of the tweeting, rapping gangsters enacted small proxy battles in their own neighbourhoods).
Conflict and crime, like every other area of human life is being disrupted, re-imagined, is re-emerging in new forms.
There’s always something – usually many things – that I find interesting in a talk from Kevin Kelly. In this talk at LinuxCon he is in “thinking big” mode, placing the evolution of technology within the context of human history and the story of the whole planet – his model of the technium, seeing all technology as a network, effectively a super-organism that is evolving and growing rapidly. He explored this idea in his book, What Technology Wants.
On a more personal level I enjoy his reprise of the theme of “the impossible” happening all of the time, all around us. In his “Next 5,000 days of the Internet” 2007 TED talk, he talked to this idea – that things we would have thought impossible ten years ago – he cited Google Earth and Wikipedia – are now normal, almost mundane.
In this talk he implores…
We have to believe in the impossible, because the impossible is happening all the time.
A really useful thing for everyone to remember, in this age of rolling disruptions.
Large companies can innovate, but to do so they must consciously remain open to new actors or counterintuitively disrupt existing relationships to force the formation of new ones. Neil Perkin
More disruptive innovation, please. That’s what I’m hearing increasingly both in clearly, passionately argued commentaries on blogs and in meetings and conversations with clients and peers.
The rising waters of the Great Disruption of the web, the connected world, is closing in on people, institutions and business models that thought they could get away with a bit of incremental innovation. Some digital this and innovation that, a tinker with the business plan and a Chief Blah Officer to show action and determination.
The smartest people I’m talking to these days are the ones pressing hardest for radical change. Backing their insight with investment, determination and open, can-do strategies. Increasingly, you want them to be the only people you are talking to, otherwise you’ll down with the listing vessels of the incrementalists. There’s no time left for half-measures and dippings of the metaphorical toes.
Andrew Missingham asked me some questions about my running recently. In the interests of sharing and thinking in public – here they are, along with some photos from my running…
1. What’s the most inspiring run you’ve ever been on, in a city? What was it about it that was inspiring? What time of day was it? What could you see, feel, hear, smell?
It was in New York City, one hot summer morning at dawn. I ran from Chelsea out to the Hudson and ran up to the Upper West side, then back into Manhattan, through the southern end of Central Park and back down to where I’d started.
What was inspiring about was the variety of things I saw. The rotting pillars of old freight jetties in the harbour, the early morning workers shuffling along the street and later int he run the full strutting stampede of New Yorkers heading to offices and shops and studios. I saw the city wake up as i ran through it…
It was so hot even though the sun was just up. The various smells of the foreign city – the river, the trash, the traffic, the coffee and breakfasts being made in cafes and street stalls. It was exhilarating, as New York always is – it’s a wonder of the world, the centre of the world, the greatest city ever, organic and alive, decay and growing anew variously. Incredible and captivating – you’re lucky to be there and to run there is to become a part of it, of the morning crowds of quiet runners and cyclists – dotted here and there on the avenues, moving in lumpy herds in Central Park and along the river.
The first part of the run, the dawn part along the river was wonderful. Once I’d made it to the waterside I was on Manhattan’s Greenway – I could run as far as I liked around the island without having to worry about roads, taking in the sights.
There were little parks along the route here and there. Some amazing sculptures of grey figures, eery and wonderful that made me stop to be sure they weren’t actual people dressed up (or something stranger). Those statues were literally inspiring, as I spent the next two or three miles making up a story about a sleeping disease whose sufferers rose like somnambulist zombies to terrorise the wakeful… fun.
2. When you go for a run, what would you wish was available on the run, that would make your run easier (and make you more likely to run?
I am pretty self-sufficient on most runs. Being of a gadget-ish disposition, I carry water and sports drinks (this is my current favourite thing – a Nathan Trail Mix 4 belt). If it is very hot then somewhere to re-fill water-bottles or buy a cold sports drink can be essential.
In cities, wide paths, well lit and public feel safer. Where there are other runners you always feel more secure to settle down into the groove of your run.
What makes runs easier is routes that mean you don’t have to cross roads. In part of New York runners share the wide bike-lanes with cyclists. In Brighton I like to run on the seafront or – even better – on the lonely chalk trails of the South Downs.
3. What tools do you use to inspire you (music, apps, maps etc.)? How do these help you? How might they inspire you more?
Route signs and maps are really helpful in places you don’t know so well. You can become stuck in a rut running the same routes sometimes and it is great to suddenly notice a lane or a park you can run through for variety.
Big maps on signs are useful when I don’t know the area so well as it is easy to get lost, especially if I don’t have my phone.
Signs that make it clear whether it is OK to run in a bike lane for instance are really helpful. If you feel you have the right to run somewhere, like you have permission, it stops you worrying.
I listen to audiobooks and podcasts most while training. I used listen to my favourite podcast – Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s Film Reviews – while commuting. Now I look forward to catching up with it on a 10 mile run at weekend. When things get tough though – the music comes on – I have playlists for endurance and for motivating me to run faster.
4. Taking yourself right back to the beginning of your running journey, what did it feel like to start running? How might the experience of running be made better, or easier for people just starting out?
Starting running is really hard. You have to overcome a lot of doubts about yourself and grow a habit of getting out there regularly. You have to not care that you look ridiculous, and you have to weather the odd nasty experience like being shouted at from cars or uncontrolled dogs chasing you.
What makes it easier?:
Apps: The simple act of clocking up the miles on an app like Nike+ (as I did) or Runkeeper, helps you to see the progress you make. Also free apps for getting cadence right (metronomes), working out pace and best of all Walkjogrun – which shows you routes of every distance that runners have plotted around the world.
Other runners. I got a good set of shoes and some running gear from Run, a shop run by brilliant runners in Hove. Along with your purchases you get encouragement and solid advice. The owner, Karl, is on Twitter and has given me some sage advice via tweets. Once I said that my morning outing had been “less of a run and more of a miserable shuffle through heavy rain”. Karl responded to the effect that “they all count, Antony – especially the duff ones”. From an experienced runner that felt valuable – and its a great way of thinking about rubbish runs – they are the ones where you really had to be tough to get out and finish them.
Good gear – and plenty of it: One thing I did early on that paid off was to make sure I had a enough gear – tights, tops, socks, gloves, hats – so that I could always find something to wear for a run in any weather. Eliminating excuses not to go for a run one by one, is something that’s a good habit to keep.
Expert help. I kept getting a bad back having to stop running for months – then it would be hard to start all over again. Chiropracty just postponed the problem each time I went – it kept flaring up. When I went to see a professional sports physiotherapist I got the problem properly diagnosed (tight hamstrings) and sorted it out quickly – but basically as part of the process I learnt to run again. From scratch. Analysing my gait (running technique) on a treadmill he showed me how to run more efficiently, with a higher cadence and landing on my mid-foot. The effect was transformative and within a year I’d completed my fast race and was rapidly getting fitter – a trajectory which continues today. (If you live near Brighton – he’s Kevin Hall: highly recommended!)
Supportive friends and family. My wife was so pleased I was running it really helped me get started and still helps me carry on as I run marathons and half-marathons fairly regularly. A couple of years ago she also took up running, which helps a lot. Praise means a lot from those you love – and often from other people too. (The flip-side is weird people who feel they have to warn you about the perils of running – with no apparent expertise on their side. You have to learn to ignore their “helpful” concerns.)
Advice and acceptance. Runners are incredibly inclusive for the most part, and generous with advice on how to get better. Right at the start I recall a Mum of one of our kids’ friends passing on the nugget that “it takes three weeks of running and then you are completely addicted”. Her advice was spot on, and that helped me get through the first three tough weeks of starting to run. Continuing in that vein, the simple three-step advice I give to people wanting to start is:
Get a good pair of trainers from a running shop – they will cost about £60-80.
Run every other day for 20 minutes or two miles, walking whenever you need to – record it on app like Nike+.
Keep it up for three weeks. See how you feel then – and start setting goals – longer runs, enter a race and follow a race plan from Runner’s World. Find a Park Run near you to join in… and that’s it. You’re a runner.
Despite having at least four other devices with Kindle apps on them at any given moment at home or work, my reading weapon of choice is the Kindle Paperwhite.
I rip through books on it, lose myself in them fast and deeply. Two reasons: first, there is less pull from the web and apps; second, the little “time left in book” statistic in the bottom-left corner seems to help me focus. The effect of the latter is a little like using the Pomodoro technique – it gives a sense of manageable scale and progress through the text. There may also be that effect some drivers report of their satnav’s estimated time of arrival at a destination – the temptation to beat the computer’s prediction.
For my money, there’s a far more immediate danger to the quality of our in-brain memory: that old op-ed page demon, distraction. If you want to internalize a piece of knowledge, you’ve got to linger over it. You can’t flit back and forth; you have to focus for a reasonable amount of time, with mental peace. But today’s digital environment rarely leaves you any such peace.
A few months ago I heard Ed Catmull, president of Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar, give a talk about leading creative organisations.
Apart from his obvious experience and track record of success, what was clear was that he had thought very deeply about some crucial questions about leadership.
These are some notes about what he said and thoughts that he provoked. To be clear – they are not direct quotes – they are my recollections and thoughts based on my notes of his talk (what I learned rather than what I heard).
Be prepared for near death experiences on projects. All Pixar movies “suck” at first. They are radically altered again and again until they work. Every Pixar film except one – Toy Story 3 – has gone through a phase of intense crisis during its development.
Most people want to avoid the “near death” part of the creative experience, but it is very often essential in order to get to something really good. (This reminded me once again of the valley of creative despair that is the liminal state.)
A leader’s job is to maintain a balance of power. In a studio – just like an agency – there are business functions like finance, production, creative, marketing, technology etc. Organisations fail when one of these functions “wins” and dominates the others with its agenda.
For instance, in studios where production wins, films are produced on time and on budget, but creatives become demoralised and produce lower quality work and talent leaves. A CEO or President needs to make sure that no part of the organisation becomes dominant and skews resources with its particular agenda.
Business books are curiously free of content. Very often business books state obvious truths and avoid more difficult questions.
Smart people make stupid decisions. This is a puzzle that more business books could do with taking on – rather than succumbing to narrative bias, or focusing on successes. There should be more books about failure, more conversations about why we do stupid things.
Leaders can’t see the things that are going wrong. When an organisation is bound for failure What are the forces that I can’t see, is the question a leader needs to constantly ask themselves. People will be behaving badly at times – but they will never do it in front of you.
You need to make the information flow separate from the organisational structure. This reminded me of Churchill, who set up the Office for National Statistics so he could hear what was really going on – rather than allowing each department to gather data and report in their own way, influenced by their various agendas.
You need people to be candid, not just honest. Politeness, respect, embarrassment, fear, blinkered-visions/solipsism, and other things can stop people from being candid. His job as CEO is to spot those things and stop them. Often leaders will prevent candour with their presence in a room, unless they build trust and make it clear what behaviours are acceptable.
Protect new ideas. New ideas are vulnerable, delicate things. If they are good ideas they need to be protected, allowed to develop in a safe space. Success at Pixar and other creative companies is about creating safe spaces for creatives and ideas to flourish.
We are always operating in a fuzzy space. We have to be comfortable doing that. Again, invoking the liminal state for me, Dr Catmull talked about the need for creative leaders and creatives to work in and with uncertainty. We cannot deliver genius on schedule, we need to be comfortable with that. We do not know what the final iteration of the story will look like, we have to be comfortable with that. We don’t know what the technology or media landscape will look like more than about six months from now, but we have to make plans for the next six years – and know they may look as different in the final version as Up looked from the first idea for that story (a castle floating in the clouds full of people at war with the people on the ground, apparently)…
A year or so before he died, some time before he knew that cancer was killing him, Iain Banks held a reading event at the Ropetackle Arts Centre in Shoreham, just along the coast from Brighton.
There are few people I would call a hero. As a reader and a writer, he was my hero. An inspiration.
Myself and one of my best friends, Jon went along. We had both been fans of Iain’s work since we were teenagers, especially his science fiction novels.
He was a lovely man – his personality bounced around the room as he bounded around the stage talking quickly, with wit, self-deprecation, honesty and insight. If you’d met him socially, you know he would be an absolute bloody delight to spend time with. Ideas, wild avenues of thought, enthusiasm, delight in being alive – all these things were abundant in his conversation, or bursts of monologue, I suppose, with us, his readers.
I didn’t blog about it at the time – but I’ve been meaning to ever since. He said some really interesting things. After a reading from his then just-published novel Stonemouth, Iain answered questions from the audience – with the strict condition that there were no questions about “where do you get your ideas?”. Inevitably, and as he’d predicted, variations on this question made their appearance anyway.
These are some things he said that stayed with me, that I want to remember and share… They come with the caveat that I didn’t take notes or record it, so they more my interpretation of what I heard, rather than direct quotes.
1. The three elements of success
There are, Iain, said three things that can make you successful as an author – and most likely in any other creative pursuit.
Luck – you’re in the right place at the right time. You bump into the right agent or publisher, your crazy idea for a story happens to be the next big thing the public are thirsting for…
Talent – you’re bloody brilliant and people can’t get enough of it. A natural! A genius!
Perseverance – you write and write and write and will not give up no matter what they say. You take the knocks, get back up again and write some more.
Successful authors, he said, need at least two of these things. You can be talented, but unlucky and give up. You can be lucky, but not have the talent or the tenacity to exploit it. You can be determined and dogged, but without the talent or some luck, you will just be producing a lot of words.
2. Writers don’t have more or better ideas than other people…
…they are just more diligent about capturing them and doing something with those ideas. It’s about discipline in the end – the trade, graft and craft of turning ideas into stories, into reams of copy. Note them down, let them brew.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, as one of my holiday and spare time pursuits has been working on a novel – still very much at the outline stage. By the way, Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print, by another author-hero of mine, Lawrence Block has great advice on this processing and percolating of ideas for fiction.
3. Science fiction is a legitimate art form
It was clear that on balance, Iain Banks preferred writing science fiction and was damning of the literary snobbery that it suffers. He said it was more free, as there were no rules, his imagination could run free, off the leash…