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Sharing and commenting on things I see that I find important.

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People don't know what to do with their hands

2 min read

Earlier this week, on our regular We Are Open Co-op team call, we were discussing virtual thinkathons. Laura Hilliger shared her experience in running sessions online that require participation and concentration. It's always a bit difficult given that people often have multiple browser tabs open and the temptation to multitask, quickly checking email or social networks, is often too much.

Laura suggested that a good way to solve this problem is quite simple: give people something to do with their hands! Since she said that, I've noticed just how much in normal everyday life we do things to keep our hands occupied. The obvious example is smoking (now increasingly replaced by 'vaping') but a lot of takeaway coffee-drinking and mobile phone usage seems to also come into the 'just give me something to do with my hands' category.

I wonder how we could use this in formal educational settings? When I was a teacher, I used to give kids blu-tac to fiddle with if they found it difficult to concentrate while I was talking. It sounds daft, but it works. This, to my mind, feels similar to the way that we can often remember where we were when we first heard a piece of news or a song for the first time. It's perhaps a kind of embodied cognition?

 

 

Consistency culture vs. Collaboration culture

4 min read

A few weeks ago, I got into a discussion with one of my parents' friends, and it's left pondering the size of the shift we're seeing around working practices. Without knowledge of my own career history, he asserted that people who move jobs often are 'shooting themselves in the foot' because they're seen as 'unreliable'. 

I'm thirty five, and moving between organisations every few years is entirely normal for my generation. The longest place I've ever stayed was for three years, and even during these short time periods, I've had several roles. 

It sounds trite to say that 'the world of work is changing', but that doesn't make it any the less true. That retired friend of my parents left a workplace that valued consistency, loyalty, and hierarchy. Your work was judged over a period of years rather than a period of weeks. These days, successful workplaces are data-driven, integrate technology well, and value speed, agility, and communication. 

I'd suggest that organisations that are having problems are likely to be those somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. On one end is 'consistency culture' which esteems hierarchy and loyalty. Success means working steadily and reliably and can often involve being good at office politics. You can tell if you're in this kind of culture if you spend your days in face-to-face meetings and replying to emails. At the other end of the spectrum is 'collaboration culture' which values speed and communication. You can tell if you're in this kind of culture if you have daily stand-ups instead of long meetings, and your team is using something like Trello or GitHub to manage what to work on next.

One of the reasons I decided to go freelance last year is that there's no longer any such thing as 'job security'. The notion of a job for life is redundant, with things changing so fast that it seems ridiculous advertising a job as 'permanent'. In practice, that means about as much as your local garage giving the brakes on your car a 'lifetime warranty'.

Given that I'm likely to continue to change roles often, I wanted to avoid finding myself stuck in the kind of 'consistency culture' where I've found my unwillingness to play politics has counted against me. These days as a white-collar knowledge worker I get to call myself a 'consultant' and am a member of the newly-defined technical middle class. If I were less fortunate in life, if I had fewer credentials, if I had made different decisions, then I may have become a member of the 'precariat'. 

So, what constitutes a 'career' these days? My answer would be that it is a collection of roles that you craft with a deep sense of personal conviction in order to make an impact on the world. To quote Steve Jobs, what kind of dent are you trying to put in the universe?  

Returning to my parents' friend, I'm guessing that aligning a personal mission to his working life is something he probably never thought about. For me, I'm driven by a desire to help people work more transparently and openly. That's why I co-founded weareopen.coop. I want more holistic ways of representing ourselves to the world. Hence my work around Open Badges. And I think that defining and developing the digital skills we need to work well in ever-shifting landscapes is important work. That's the focus of my consultancy, Dynamic Skillset.

The era of a 'job for life' is over. If you want a meaningful career and overarching story to knit together a series of jobs, you have to provide it yourself. What are you trying to achieve? Can you tell your story forwards as well as backwards

 

From tethered capitalism to tethered communism?

3 min read

Warning! Half-baked thought ahead...


At this point in time, it seems clear that nobody gives a flying toss about privacy so long as they have free access to information and the means to communicate it. Algorithmic newsfeeds are either not understood or seen as unproblematic. Tech companies make billions of dollars off the back of mining user data. Politicians are in bed with huge multinationals and use them to do the dirty work prohibited by the constitution.

What we've got is what I'm beginning to call tethered capitalism.

I was reminded of this as I help my father set up his Spotify account today and then drove back home in my lease car. I'm even getting rid of my home server this week as it makes my life easier just to sync and backup my files to one of the many cloud-based services. 

The more we can do this across many different sectors with lower costs driving down the costs the better it is for all of us. Or so it seems on a surface level. In digital environments, the cost can be driven down to free due to intrusive advertising and user-violating tracking. In other words, we do pay for our tethered life, and it creates huge monopolies. Think Amazon (online shopping), Google (email), Facebook (social networking).

My thought, half-baked at the moment, is that we could actually end up with a version of communism acceptable to everyone by coming out of the other end of tethered (late-stage) capitalism. Communism is one of those things that is abhorrent to many people because the most memorable examples we have led to dictatorships in Russia, China, and Cuba. But, actually, communism is something worth striving for — and tech can help us achieve it:

[Communism is a] socioeconomic order structured upon the common ownership of the means of production and the absence of social classes, money, and the state. (Wikipedia)

What that would mean in practice is that instead of the wealth created by huge tech companies going to a few individuals, we could instead share that wealth. There's many ways we could get there and this short post isn't the place to go into them. The easiest way for tech companies such as Facebook and Twitter to instigate this would be to turn their platform into a giant worker-owned co-op (and by 'workers' I mean 'users of their products').

So tethered communism would be a good thing, I think. It would bind us together more than we are now, and the technological mediation of that binding would be based on co-operation rather than competition. We could collectively own the means of production, particularly in digital environments, remove hierarchies from organisations, create a single (digital) world currency, and move to ever-closer integration with one another, removing the need for nationalistic country borders.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I better get back to my Proudhon... ;)

 

 

New weareopen.coop website now live!

1 min read

weareopen.coop

My consultancy, Dynamic Skillset, is part of a co-operative consortium known as We Are Open. As you can see from the screenshot of our new website above, we work to spread the culture, processes, and benefits of 'open' wherever we can!

Connect with us using the links below:

 

This is not working

5 min read

The Atlantic published a great article recently. Entitled Would a Work-Free World Be So Bad? it asks some important questions about the way we structure society. What I particularly like about it is the way the author, Ilana E. Strauss, situates the topic historically, while pushing back at (a secular version of) the ‘Protestant work ethic’.

Today, the virtue of work may be a bit overblown. “Many jobs are boring, degrading, unhealthy, and a squandering of human potential,” says John Danaher, a lecturer at the National University of Ireland in Galway who has written about a world without work. “Global surveys find that the vast majority of people are unhappy at work.”

I’m coming at this both introspectively and observing what I see in the wider world when I make the following statement: it seems like people don’t know what to do with their time outside of the nine-to-five:

These days, because leisure time is relatively scarce for most workers, people use their free time to counterbalance the intellectual and emotional demands of their jobs. “When I come home from a hard day’s work, I often feel tired,” Danaher says, adding, “In a world in which I don’t have to work, I might feel rather different”—perhaps different enough to throw himself into a hobby or a passion project with the intensity usually reserved for professional matters.

Part of the problem is that we’re increasingly building our social surroundings as making it easier to get to work. The North-East of England, where I’m based, is covered in a rash of more affordable, densely-packed new estates that make it easy to commute to work in a city, but otherwise aren’t designed for anything other than storing a car and a bed.

Public spaces tend to be small islands in seas of private property, and there aren’t many places without entry fees where adults can meet new people or come up with ways to entertain one another.

Although the author points to hunter-gatherer societies and ‘worklessness’ in those kinds of cultures, I’m more interested in more recent examples:

According to Gary Cross’s 1990 book A Social History of Leisure Since 1600, free time in the U.S. looked quite different before the 18th and 19th centuries. Farmers — which was a fair way to describe a huge number of Americans at that time — mixed work and play in their daily lives. There were no managers or overseers, so they would switch fluidly between working, taking breaks, joining in neighborhood games, playing pranks, and spending time with family and friends. Not to mention festivals and other gatherings: France, for instance, had 84 holidays a year in 1700, and weather kept them from farming another 80 or so days a year.

The problem is that we live in a post-Industrial Revolution society which takes it for granted that work and play should be separate:

Factory owners created a more rigidly scheduled environment that clearly divided work from play. Meanwhile, clocks—which were becoming widespread at that time—began to give life a quicker pace, and religious leaders, who traditionally endorsed most festivities, started associating leisure with sin and tried to replace rowdy festivals with sermons.

Our current way of structuring time in society is largely based on competition rather than co-operation; we’ve all got our eyes on the prize of becoming wealthy in a world mediated by the market. The world we inhabit is that which Guy Debord so accurately described in The Society of the Spectacle. There is a collective failure of imagination of how things could be any different than how they are.

When people ponder the nature of a world without work, they often transpose present-day assumptions about labor and leisure onto a future where they might no longer apply; if automation does end up rendering a good portion of human labor unnecessary, such a society might exist on completely different terms than societies do today.

It’s too late for current adult generations, deep-fried and saturated in the fat of the market, to imagine a different kind of world. But it’s not too late for our children and for their education. Of course, to prepare them effectively for a world of dramatically less work means radically altering what and how they learn.

Trumbach [a professor of history], meanwhile, wonders if schooling would become more about teaching children to be leaders, rather than workers, through subjects like philosophy and rhetoric. He also thinks that people might participate in political and public life more, like aristocrats of yore. “If greater numbers of people were using their leisure to run the country, that would give people a sense of purpose,” says Trumbach.

Perhaps I’m being utopian, but a world with Universal Basic Income would be one where volunteering could bloom, where people could pursue their passions, and where human beings could flourish in a true spirit of co-operation. And perhaps, although this seems like a long shot at the moment, we’d have a more informed and engaged citizenry which could hold political leaders to account over their actions in the long term.

 

Loomio Co-op Handbook

2 min read

John Bevan, former Mozilla colleague and co-founder of our co-operative, We Are Open, shared the Loomio Co-op Handbook earlier today.

It includes the above tools, which are pretty much exactly what we've settled on, independently! The whole guide is great, but I particularly liked this section:

Working at Loomio is probably a bit different to other places. We’re a decentralised organisation with a very dynamic structure and no explicit chain-of-command. This only works by operating in a high-communication environment.

Because all contributors have access to pretty much everything, anyone can share their insights and expertise. By swimming in information, we maximise our collective intelligence. Sometimes that high volume of information can be overwhelming and it starts to feel more like drowning than swimming.

We’re continuously improving our systems to strike the right balance and serve diverse needs. There’s a lot of DIY. We’re making it up as we go along. You’re at least as smart as anyone else here, so if you’ve got something you want to offer don’t wait for permission - just get started and pitch in, preferably with a friend to help :)

Well worth checking out, even if you're currently shackled to an email-and-meetings culture!

 

I woke up to a different world this morning

1 min read

I arrived in Denver yesterday to present and run a workshop at a couple of events. That means there's a seven-hour time difference between here and UK time, so I was awake at ~5am BST when the BBC announced that it was mathematically impossible for to win.

Lots of people have shared their thoughts and feelings, but it's sentiment as opposed to facts that got us into this mess. I'm just going to share the following graphic that appeared in my Twitter stream thanks to Sarah Horrocks:

I think the best we can hope for now is:

  1. General election called
  2. Article 50 trigger postponed until results of general election
  3. Labour win
  4. Negotiations with EU
  5. Second referendum

Oh, OK then, one bit of opinion. This comment on the Financial Times website (discovered via this tweet) seems to have got things about right: 

Comment on FT website

I feel like I don't even know my countrymen (including members of my own family) any more. How could they vote for something so backwards, so xenophobic, and so likely to impoverish future generations?

 

Not waving, drowning (in information)

4 min read

[I]f statistics persists, most of you probably won’t make it through this entire article. Don’t worry, I won’t blame you.

Clayton d'Arnault doesn't think I'd finish his article. But I did. Mainly because it was so interesting. If I was being picky, I'd say that most of the reason people have 'short attention spans' is that they quite like people getting to the point. He could have used less words, to be fair.

There's some familiar material in here such as quotations from The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, and statistics to do with how often we look at our mobile devices. That being said, he does point out that our addiction to information and social connection is nothing new:

Infomanics like myself are likely to feel the effects of information overload, a phenomenon caused by overdosing on information, which reportedly developed as early as the 3rd century BC, when writing allowed us to record and preserve information longer than memory. Information overload is a mentally, and physically, taxing condition. Symptoms include sluggish thinking, a flitting mind, and stifled creativity.

...and:

[A]ccording to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, there are five stages of needs that motivate humans. Two of these stages, social connection and self-actualization (specifically the pursuit of knowledge) make it clear why we’re addicted to the Internet. The Internet more than satisfies these needs by providing an unlimited connection to family and friends, lovers and life partners, thoughts, ideas, theories, opinions, data, and other invaluable resources. It’s the perfect solution — social connection and endless knowledge on demand.

I do take issue with his rationale (echoing Carr) about our concentration spans diminishing because of technology:

As a kid, I was able read the Harry Potter series front to back. Now, it’s just as Carr asserts: “The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.” It seems that my infomania has taken a toll on my sense of concentration. I can’t focus on an article for more than a few minutes at a time without checking my phone or opening a new Chrome tab and disappearing into a click hole of links. I have to consciously force myself to finish reading a piece longer than 500 words. I have a habit of scrolling to the end of an article to determine how much more reading I have left, and ultimately to decide if I plan on finishing the article, skimming it, or just moving on.

I'm of the opinion that it's equally as likely to be because of the sheer number of options we have, both as a result of a more 'free' and open society — but also because, well, when you become an adult, you can kind of do anything you want. So long as what you're doing is legal, there's no constraints.

The reason I'm sharing this article here is because of two pieces of advice the author gives us. First, recognise the power of the 'Zeigarnik effect' and attempt to close any open loops in your life:

I’ve found, to my relief, that this feeling of self-induced amnesia is grounded in the Zeigarnik effect — the tendency to experience subconscious, nagging mental reminders to tie up loose ends. Bluma Zeigarnik, the psychologist whom this phenomenon was named after, successfully demonstrated that people are more inclined to recall uncompleted tasks; therefore, completed tasks are lost among the uncompleted.

Second, recognise that it's not digital detoxes themselves that are important, but the re-prioritisation they afford:

The key is not disconnecting, but understanding why we need to disconnect: to appreciate the constant of life as it is without technology. I believe that understanding this while filtering out the unnecessary can lead to a more satisfying type of inspiration and insight, than you could ever find beneath the online information treasure trove we call the internet.

A worthwhile article from a Medium publication I've only just started following. Recommended.

 

Never mind #Brexit, let's get rid of our royal family

2 min read

The past six years of Tory government in the UK has really irritated me. They stand for everything that I loathe: the self-interest an 'elite' Old Boys' network co-ordinating attacks on the poor and most vulnerable in our society under the banner of 'austerity'. However, I suppose that, using the First Past The Post system we've got in England, they were at least democratically elected.

Next week, the UK votes in the EU Referendum. I've already cast my postal vote in favour of remaining in the EU as, to me, the benefits of co-operation couldn't be clearer. Even the fibre broadband connection that allows me to post this is because of EU investment. Without it, we'd be on the equivalent of dial-up.

If we really want to get rid of unaccountable, outdated, reactionary bureaucracy that is holding this country back, then let's get rid of our royal family. Without being ultra-nationalist, I support and am proud of my country, but find singing our national anthem problematic. I don't want Elizabeth Windsor to be victorious, and I certainly don't want her, or any member of her family, to 'reign over us'.

The best excuses people seem to give for the royal family to be left alone is that they're 'good for tourism' or that 'there's just something comforting about having them'. Well, here's a blanket, and let's put on more events like London 2012. Never mind feuds from Eton spilling out into potential economy-sabotaging decisions. Let's get rid of the royal family, get a written constitution, reform the voting system to proportional representation, stay in the EU, and have more democracy, not less.

 

Digital detox

1 min read

Sam Altman quitting Twitter

I don't follow Sam Altman, but this mini 'tweetstorm' was on the front page of Hacker News this morning. Inevitably — and ironically given his reasons for temporarily quitting Twitter — there's been snarky comments:

Why is this newsworthy? It seems like the exact same points have been made hundreds of times.

Seems like if you're done you should just be done.

The binaries we use (on/off, using/not using) drown out the shades of grey that make us human. We all need time to be different versions of ourselves.

For example, I take time off every year away from blogging, personal email, and social networks. I always take December off, and last year I took August off as well (instead of November). I'll be doing the same this year, spending the majority of August under canvas with my family.