TL;DR: “Type as quickly as you can and always carry a pencil.” — Clive Thompson.
When the late Iain Banks talked about the inevitable “where do you get your ideas?” question that authors are dogged by, he said, “we have exactly the same amount of ideas as everybody else – authors are just better at capturing them”.
Getting thoughts out of one’s head and onto something where they can make use of is an essential practice for everyone who works with their mind.
The moment when the idea or insight occurs is where every great inspiration starts where every new novel, screenplay, strategy and scheme either sparks into life or winks out of possible existence as if it had never occurred to anyone.
When it comes to meetings and listening to presentations I currently prefer a notebook over a tablet or laptop for taking notes. Actually, I’ll use a smartphone if it’s more discreet – say on a crowded restaurant table. I’m always careful to make it clear I’m taking notes, however – if people suspect you are attending to email or other things they can find it distracting and even a little stressful.
For focused note-taking, though, nothing beats the reliability and – it turns out – self-editing and précis skills required of physical note-taking.
This video of a short talk by Clive Thompson, a journalist who writes a great deal about how our minds work with machines, confirmed many of my suspicions about why I like note-taking by hand, as well as why when it comes to developing ideas and getting them down in a document, nothing beats the ability to type quickly.
Since watching this I’ve got the pencils and sharpener he talks about finding as a result of his obsessive search for the best example of each. I can confirm that they are fantastic.
This post comprises notes on a work in progress – a drive to reduce tech-based distractions and learn how to use personal technology help me get things done more effectively and with less distraction and stress.
There is only one red dot on my smartphone now. It is to remind me to do things with things coming out of my mind not out of my email inbox. It’s for an app called Drafts, which effectively has become an inbox for my mind.
If you put in the effort to decide when the dots and pop-ups appear, then you can use them to support your goals, not nibble away at your reserves of willpower, attention and time.
That’s why I like the one red dot I’ve introduced back onto my phone.
At first, I thought Drafts would be a distraction – another text app, a sub-genre of productivity software of which I cannot resist trying out new examples. Then, as I tried to minimise the number of apps on my home screen – down to a maximum of four on the menu bar – I discovered its unique strengths.
The default screen when you open Drafts is a blank page. You write down your thoughts, notes, reminders or whatever and you can then send them to the app they are for or leave them there until you’re ready to process them.
This removes a friction in one’s workflow I’d not noticed before – deciding and finding an app to write in, post in or whatever. When you’re getting a thought out of your head and into an app you’re often on the move, or int he middle fo something else. You don’t want to start using an app and slip out of flow or walking and start doing something else – you just need the thought to be captured.
The notes are in an inbox which you can then process later. That’s where the red dot is useful – to remind me I have some notes that need to be sent to where they will be most useful. An email goes out via the email app using the share function or a list of options in Drafts (it will format it straight into the app with the first line becoming the subject line). An idea for a blog post goes into Ulysses Inbox, the draft of an idea into Slack to share with my team, the list of things to remember into Reminders, the sketched agenda points into Trello.
Image: The operations options for Drafts – these can be changed to the apps you use most.
I’ve been trying this out for a week, and it seems to be very useful. My ways of working don’t often stay the same for long – but this one feels like a small leap forward in personal workflow.
Image: A satisfyingly minimal clear home screen and dock.
I use the Overcast app for podcasts on my iPhone and iPad. It’s really good – straightforward with some useful features like keeping synced between devices and being able to control the speed of playback.
Today it asked me if I wanted to “go anonymous”.
So simple. So much simpler and less queasy an experience to be able to opt out completely of having my data tracked than the post-Cambridge Analytica, pre-GDPR emails and terms and conditions alerts from apps and online services elsewhere. While they are all getting you to click more user agreements you might have a 20% better chance of understanding or even seeing than the old ones, all in the hope of evading a fine or further market cap slips – this approach is so refreshing.
“In or out?,” It says. “We don’t really have to know your date of birth and closest friends and family in order to provide you with an acceptable podcast app.”
How does Apple tell you that you have a new email or message? A red dot on the app. It’s the color choice of both bullfighters and Defcon 5. It incites urgency. “Come back to work,” Slack warns after 5 p.m. “Have you even seen the latest on Trump?” Facebook beckons. Numbers live in those red dots to list the triple digits of your unanswered inbox. And this is not to mention Apple’s worst sin : All those “out of iCloud storage!” notifications that Apple pushes to your home screen in the hope that you’ll spend money on services that other companies offer for free.
You want to know how Android tells you there’s an update waiting? A pale blue or pink or yellow dot. A digital baby blanket. Developers can choose one that coordinates with their icon badge. These washed-out hues are the least urgent colors that I can imagine, and their psychology sinks in quickly. As I use the Pixel, my stomach doesn’t tighten with the guilt of every waiting message or task. “The easy thing to do would have been to put a badge and numbers on our home screen, but that was part of the direction of not being too distracting that we wanted to take,” says Google product manager Allen Huang when we spoke on the topic last month. “There’s no benefit to distracting the user on the way to accomplishing a task.”
I know exactly what he means about iOS – though it’s the same with Macs and Windows on computers.
They all have distraction built into their apps as default.
Whenever I have a fresh install of an OS I turn off all of the default alerts and notifications. When to look at things is not something I want to be dictated by developers’ algorithms.
Over the next few days I turn on notifications for things I would like to know about – usually just in the “history” section, so I can choose to go and see if anyone has emailed or Slacked me for instance, instead of being distracted by messages and sounds every time any message arrives or my running app thinks that now is the perfect moment to badger me to go for a run.
In recent years, a feature that was only available with specialist apps like F.lux has become standard on phone and computer operating systems – night mode. Lowering the amount of blue light means people can get a better night’s sleep.
But how about the daytime? Interruption free mode should come as a standard set up option on new devices. Not just a “do not disturb” mode, but a “never disturb” mode. Users should be able to opt-in to alerts and notifications, not opt-out.
I’m trying out an Android device at the moment – it’s not distraction free, but it is easier to quieten the thing down. This alone wouldn’t be enough to make me switch permanently, but coupled with the superior voice UI of Google, it’s making a strong case. Apple beware.
Stories are wonderful things. What sounds like a heroic quest can often turn out to be a tragedy, as the current unravelling of superstar blood-testing start-up Theranos has become. If you’ve been living under a rock reading those rare business publications un-obsessed with Silicon Valley, the sorry story can is summarised well in BBC article Bad blood: The rise and fall of Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes.
In The Financial Times, Andrew Hill notes the adoration by magazine cover that the company and its storytelling, story-embodying CEO attracted.
After decades of male dominance on the newsstand, Ms Holmes made an irresistible cover story. She was the bright young upstart disrupting an ugly oligopoly of laboratories that were allegedly blocking US citizens’ quest to find out about their own health. This tale, which she told repeatedly at conferences, on television, and in press interviews was one many people, journalists included, wanted to believe.
Hill points out that Inc magazine had a cover calling Holmes “The New Steve Jobs” in the same month that investigative reporters from the Wall Street Journal went public with an analysis of serious problems at the company.
Magazines don’t care if their cover-story coronation of the Next Great CEO, or The New Queen or King of Silicon Valley is prophetic or just plain wrong. The story is king. the story lives in the moment. And with the fall of Theranos, the story is still strong and the descent – as celebrity gossip writers know – is every bit as attractive to readers as the rise. Accuracy, while not irrelevant is secondary to that and as for considered analysis of what might actually happen. Then again, we’re less accurate than monkeys throwing darts at stock market data, aren’t we?
Inc. and its start-up cheering kind aren’t there to look deep into the dark hearts of businesses and tell us what might go wrong. They are bought by entrepreneurs – both actual and aspiring – to give them a shot of optimism.
Then again, maybe too much too much positive attention and media cheerleading could be a useful indicator that a company is doomed. Andrew Hill notes:
A 2007 study of two decades of Businessweek, Fortune and Forbes covers found positive stories presaged a fall in the company’s stock price, and vice versa
What is novel is the speed with which today’s cover stars rise and fall. In their haste to expand, companies cut corners or exaggerate advances. “Fast growth stresses processes, controls and the leadership itself,” says Matt Nixon, author of Pariahs, a book about hubris and organisational crises.
To a degree, she was only following the template for marketing success. “The well-told story erases scepticism by wrapping [its] meaning inside an emotion,” points out Robert McKee, superstar lecturer on the art of the story in filmmaking, in Storynomics, a new book about how to use storytelling skills in a “post-advertising world”.
What sets Galloway apart from most tech commentators is that he does his homework, brings fresh insights and lays out his thinking in an engaging but above all provocative style. This year’s theme of his annual DLD talk was close to the bone for many of the attendees – the break up of big tech.
Galloway repeated and build on the themes in his book about “the four” – Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple – essentially that they are now so big that they are destroying more value than they are creating. Amazon and Facebook seemed to take the most flak in the talk.
Here are some themes and highlights, depending on your point of view:
Facebook is a media company and disingenuous in pretending it isn’t: “[Facebook says] We can’t be arbiters of the truth and you don’t want us to be.’ No, we’d like you to try.”
The four treat fines from breaking the law as costs of doing business. In proportion to the size of deals they are getting “$25 parking tickets”.
While Amazon dwarfs all other retailers it pays hardly any tax (see below).
What happens when the most successful companies in the world don’t pay taxes? Simple, the less successful companies pay more taxes. We have opted for a regressive corporate tax system.
The four will destroy almost 200,000 jobs in the advertising industry.
These have been fantastic vessels for the transfer of wealth from the rest of the world to the United States and from the middle of the United States to the coasts.
He also used “the shitshow” of Amazon’s HQ2 location selection process. US cities effectively bid against one other to be the one that waived its tax and other. Laws the most to attract the company to settle there.
At one point he suggested that the Chinese response to big tech had been effective from a national security point of view – ban the US company, support local versions of e-commerce, search and social and effectively lock them out. “There haven’t been any concerns about Russian hackers interfering with elections in China.” The fact it is a totalitarian regime probably helps too, though, right?
At times, then, you could think that Galloway was completely in tune with the protectionists of the hard left and right. In fact, he showed a clip of him being introduced on a Fox News show as a socialist – although one suspects that Fox’s owners would love to Google and Facebook hobbled or broken up by governments. But Galloway insists that his call for the four big tech giants to be broken up is driven by capitalist logic. Like Microsoft in the 90s, he says, the big tech companies are shutting down challenger companies – think Facebook’s assimilation of Snap’s features – and need to be constrained to allow the next generation of tech innovators to emerge. Without the anti-trust suits against Microsoft, Google and Facebook might never have emerged.
This claim was categorically denied by The Second Machine Age author, Andrew McAfee on a later panel that morning. Microsoft was beaten in some markets by the Four because it failed to execute fast enough or well enough in search or mobile, says McAfee, and the responsibility to deal with their excesses is down to citizens and consumers.
Will it happen? If it does it will be the EU leading the charge, since US regulators seem to have no interest in hampering companies that hoover up the world’s cash and data so efficiently. Also, Galloway’s says: “The break up of big tech will not be easy because Jeff Bezos is smarter than all of us.”
You can watch the whole session here:
Lastly here are Galloway’s predictions for 2018. He started the session by showing all of the things he called wrong last year – but he still has a pretty good hit rate.
People struggle when they move up a leadership level – they find all sorts of reasons to do their old job and avoid the new one. It’s a subject that London Business School professor Herminia Ibarra has been studying for some time – and one she expands on usefully in her brilliant book Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, which was deeply useful to me personally as a CEO.
This week I had the privilege of being able to meet Professor Ibarra and hear her speak at DLD18 this week in Munich.
One of the problems we struggle with, she says, is wanting to be authentic, but making the mistake of thinking this means acting the same way we have always done.
“People say they have to be true to themselves to be authentic. But which self? Being authentic is about self-determination, having agency, being willing to try new things, new ways of being.”
This reminds me of my favourite definition of the duty of leaders, laid out by the Warren Bennis in the 90s:
”It is the individual, operating at the peak of his or her powers, who will revive our organisations, by reinventing both self and them.”
You have to brave enough to explore who you could be, the selves you might need to draw on in order to be the leader your company needs.
Ibarra also invoked the concept of growth mindsets (I can learn and change) and fixed mindsets (I am good at some things and will never be good at others) as explored by Carol Dweck in Mindset.
She expanded on the importance of this willingness to try out different ways of being for leaders:
“It’s about being playful with your sense of self, a kind of design thinking with the self.”
It’s a kind of seeking mindset then, in which the individual doesn’t just believe that they can change but is actively engaged in exploring different ways of being.
It’s a crucial difference and one that matters deeply to leaders in the digital age. When organisations need to adapt constantly, so do the leaders – so, in fact, do most of its employees, but you have to start somewhere. We need to train our people, prepare them for a world of constant disruption and change – and the skills training organisations often default to is insufficient.
”[Preparing for digital transformation] is somewhat about technical skills, but it is more about emotional skills. Dealing with fear of change, of obsolescence.”
Fear makes people conservative, revert to old versions of themselves, old behaviours that are less likely to work in the face of radical change. So fear doesn’t just bolster inertia in organisations, it corrodes the ability of its people to even consider changing their own behaviours, a necessary prerequisite for adapting.
This connects with our work at Brilliant Noise around leadership in the digital age and our digital mindset model. Actually, it adds questions and ideas that I am keen to explore with our clients.
DLC18 has helpfully posted videos of all of its sessions – so here’s Herminina Ibarra’s if you’d like to hear more.
Yesterday at DLD began with Facebook’s VP Communications and Public Policy, Elliot Schrage, defending the company’s critics. What is Facebook going to do about Facebook was his theme, where everyone else is asking what are we going to do about Facebook — and Amazon and Google and – maybe not so much – Apple.
There were two lines of attack from questions in the crowd – Facebook is to blame for fake news skewing elections and Facebook had the media industry help build it as a publishing channel and now is going to screw them.
The fake news question – Kara Swisher asked if underinvestment in prevention was a management issue – was responded to along the lines of hands up, sorry, but the government, the CIA and FBI missed it too. A US questioner, responder and company involved explains the US-centric response there, even if he was on stage in Munich. Similar questions hang over Facebook ads and algorithms and influence over Brexit, the Catalonian revolution. Still, when you’re being blamed for Trump getting elected in your own country, I can see why those other elections might seem peripheral.
Image: Kara Swisher in Sarah Connor mode at DLD18 – glasses doubtless to shield against the ferocious brightness of the enormous LED displays on stage.
On publishing, Schrage also acknowledged the criticism but stressed that the company was interested – in fact Zuckerberg himself was especiallly in doing right by users:
“Mark is committed… to helping promote strong communities and an informed public. Trusted publications will benefit.”
“As a trained documentary filmmaker, I can tell you a credible source is not defined by popularity.”
Andrew Keen, long time critic of Silicon Valley and the tech sector’s power, was on stage following Facebook in conversation with Paul-Bernhard Kallen, CEO of Germany’s Herbert Burda Media.
Immediately invoking the concept of surveillance capitalism, Keen asked why the big US tech companies won’t accept their responsibilities as media platforms, something Kallen attributed to legal liability loopholes during the Clinton administrations laying of the benign legislative landscape that made possible the growth of the GAFA (Google Amazon Facebook Apple) or the Stacks, as Bruce Sterling named them when he spotted their developing dominance about six years ago.
In Kallen’s analysis the next generation of online services would be far more responsible in how they understood and managed their influence on society. Whether that generation of services came from the incumbent tech giants or new players, he couldn’t predict. Disrupting models like the blockchain and decentralised web forces could make these future companies very different to the ones we see today – take a look at platform co-ops and ownerless blockchain powered corporations for hints of what might come to pass.
Image: Hito Steyerl
In the session that featured Hito Steyerl, whom I mentioned earlier in this post, there was some expansive and edge thinking from both her and Evgeny Morozov, well chaired by the Serpentine Gallery’s Hans Ulbrich Obrist. This session seemed to suffer from small migrations of executives leaving – bored, confused or just hungry (it was running into lunchtime at this point). It was one of the least crowded of the sessions int he main hall, which was a shame as the ideas were deeply relevant, if very challenging.
Here are some of the threads from Morozov and Steyerl that I want to pick up for more research and thinking later on:
The digital intermediation of everything: this is the title of an essay by Morozov looking at how the economics and power of big tech companies owning your data will play out.
Techno-religiosity: Something that Yuval Noah Harari explored in Homo Deus and a Google talk which Steyerl referred to. Steyerl says: “The more advanced the technology, the more likely people begin to discuss it in religious or spiritual terms” – think AI, especially.
Orbis theory: The theory that in the 1600s the mass colonisation of the Americas caused a lowering of CO2 levels globally, as 50 million indigenous people died and forests reclaimed their farmland and the trees processed more carbon.
Owning your own data: The importance of this is huge when looked at it in the economic and political context. I recall the vendor relationship management movement that began ten years ago and similar efforts, but now GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) in Europe is creating a legal push for it. Morozov also alluded to the idea of states nationalising data to protect its citizens from corporations.
Access to people’s data was about better advertising, now it is also about fuelling AI:The big tech companies are using the data they get from people in return for free services (search, social networks, convenient ecommerce) to develop their machine learning abilities.
Benevolence can turn to indifference – and it would hurt us: Services from Google and Facebook feel like, and for now are, a social good – so many people wouldn’t be able to afford what the tech giants give us for free. But if they no longer need the data from users, that benevolence would likely turn to indifference. Effectively Morozov is saying, what if advertising wasn’t the main revenue stream for these companies and they got their money from B2B services? What would happen to the services they provide?
The coming machine learning monopoly: Morozov said that if he were in business he would be worried about the growing power of the four giants as the sole providers of machine learning. Once they are the best, they will dictate terms of access to others.
At the end of the first day of DLD 18 there was blood in the water and no one was sure whether it’s theirs or Facebook and Google’s… or both.
Visiting a new conference is always slightly unnerving at first – frankly, will this be useful or will it be waste of my time. But DLD 18 Munich has hit all the right notes in the first morning. My energy is up, my notebook is filling and I’m looking forward to more.
Day one started with volley couple of fascinating sessions, the public policy head for Facebook standing his ground in the face of political and publishing industry ire, Andrew Keen talking with one of Germany’s biggest media companies about the future of the internet, and a panel kicking around whether apps or agents will be more important in the coming years.
Then came Paul Daugherty, CTO of Accenture to talk AI. He is one of those fast-talking guys who wants to tell you everything and who you almost wish could talk even faster and download it all in 25 minutes on stage. As it, what he covered in terms of insights and questions was provocative and compelling. I’ll just list them out here for now:
AI is the fastest growing business:He’s never seen anything grow so fast.
Job skills are more of a problem than job destruction: Something like 6 million people are unemployed in the US and there about the same number of jobs vacant.
We need to train many more people in AI: Estimates that there are only 10,000 people worldwide with the right level of skills and knowledge in AI are probably correct – we’re going to need a lot more.
Tech can help people work better: If we look at how work happens we can implement tech to help people work better. He cited a major US manufacturer that is using augmented reality (AR) headsets to help employees operate machinery better (I imagine a bit like the virtual hands teaching piano learners how to hit the right notes).
Business processes are the main issue for AI: Daugherty calls the AI wave of innovation in this area – Business Process 3.0.
New jobs are being created in training AI: AI needs to be trained and supervised – for instance to make sure that customer service bots and interfaces are reflecting the tone and values of the company in their interactions and decisions.
Leadership is a key issue: CEOs and board level people need to learn about AI. Echoing our own digital leadership mindset work at Brilliant Noise, Daugherty also said that it was more than just AI they needed to learn about: “People need to invest in skills for leaders to move through [successive] generations of technology.” 85% of leaders say AI is something they will be investing in but only 3% are investing in training.
Silo-busting is a must: AI is most effective when it is at the core of new business processes, not added to the periphery.
Chief Artificial Intelligence Officers (CIAOs) are a good idea: The CIAO should own the three areas key to making AI successful in an organisation: 1. Data, 2. Talent, 3. Responsible use.
Responsible use of data and AI: There needs to be oversight in this area to watch out for the unintended consequences of AI and automation. There will alway be hidden biases in algorithms.
“Data is fuel for AI”: Companies that will find it difficult to succeed with AI are those with unstructured and disconnected data sets. AI needs data to be effective.
Absorbative capacity: A useful term from economics, absorbative capacity refers to how quickly an economy can take advantage of innovation.
Productivity needs better measurement: If we can measure it better we can figure out where to boost it.
Paul Daugherty has a book – Human + Machine – on this topic coming out in March – it’s going to be top of my reading list as soon as I can get a copy.