Friday, 16 December 2016

Prosthetic Head

Amazon Go may represent an event horizon. The idea of a cashier-less supermarket does sound wonderful to some. Though there will be nay-sayers who, I suspect, will suffer the same fate as all who stand in the way of technology’s relentless march. That is to say they will be branded backwards and fearful.

Amazon’s idea should not have been a surprise; I doubt it was for many. The inherent cannibalising nature of cities has enabled, in what really is a very short period of time, the digitisation of the Western world (if not the East also). It is easy to forget that Amazon Go falls apart if consumers do not have an internet capable device and access, whilst on the go, to the internet. Both of these limitations seem like old concerns; alas, looking back on great leaps we might confuse them with barely lifting our feet.

The technology involved in Amazon Go cannot be denied its commercial use. Indeed, it’s already here. Similar advances will come along very soon (I am not foolish enough to put a date on it, equally I am not going to underestimate its timeline). Driverless cars, for example, have the capacity to save the world by reducing personal vehicle ownership and thus emissions.

The issue, of which I cannot be the first to point out, is that such advances impact on peoples’ employment, not merely their convenience. The arguments surrounding barriers to entry are real, though I do believe ultimately futile; it is the cost to human labour that we must remember.

It is easy for us to forget the role people play within systems once they have been removed from the system. For those who benefited – often the majority – the pain of this separation is an acceptable trade-off for the efficient gains. Amazon Go is not the first example of this separation, nor will it be the last, but when that majority become a minority and gains become, in a way, losses, conflicts will arise.

Such conflicts are emerging already. And as much as I take issue with the phrase ‘metropolitan elite’, such a brand exists for a reason; there’s a disconnect between those we call ‘professional’ and those who inhabit the ‘WalMart economy’ (though perhaps that needs a rebrand). Technology has not necessarily caused this divide, but as screens replace faces and faces become redundant, this divide will grow.

Mark Carney of the Bank of England has spoken recently about the risk to jobs from automation. This threat would imbue rage amongst many if only we were not part of the automated paradigm already. We cannot go backwards, and as such we must redefine the economy and the role of people in it. Or, should I say, we must remember there are people in it.

This sounds like a sound bite, in many ways because it is. To substantiate it requires almost existential questioning. Amazon Go, or something similar, will one day rule the high street. The question for our digital world is can we evolve with technology, or can we only adopt and become reduced to ones and zeros?

Sunday, 11 December 2016

The Invention of the Soul

In a YouTube video I recently watched, the creator spoke of how it had been so long since she’d ‘logged out’ of anything. This is an interesting idea, but it becomes even more meta when we consider this video was a vlog – a word presumably derived from the combining of the words video and log – and as such was a snapshot of the content creator’s life at that moment.

There is something of an ironic postmodernist element to broadcasting online the phenomenon of existing offline. Laurence Scott writes in ‘The Four-Dimensional Human’ about the internet existing within a new dimension – the fourth, amazingly – and how human beings are continuing to occupy ever more space within this new frontier. It’s from this angle that the vlogger’s perspective becomes understandable; it is weird to ‘log out’ when part of ourselves occupies the 4D world.

Of course, we cannot be plugged in all the time. At some point there is sleep and showering and lunches that require us to be present in the physical realm. In the days when the internet flowed through telephone wires concepts of the digital world such as Tron or fantasy tropes such as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe offered reasonable parallels to the physical disconnect between ourselves and the online space.

Today such ‘doorways’ do not seem to exist, and the internet in the form of Wi-Fi surrounds us constantly. Maps to the digital Pangea exist as phones in our pockets; the skull and grey matter need not be the cage of a stray thought. It is easy, therefore, to believe we are as much an online entity as we are an offline entity.

However, unlike the words video and log, we cannot combine with our online selves, no matter how similar we believe them to be, as there still exists a sacred disconnect between our physical 3D bodies and the 4D space. When we click that almost defunct ‘log off’ button, we remind ourselves of the doorway we must step through each time we wish to enter the virtual world, a doorway you might think vanished through frequency of use and ease of access.

The nature of the online space is inherently self-centred. That’s not necessarily a problem, as it makes the scale of the internet more manageable and the content available tuned better to us. However, it also engrains a belief that our logging off creates some sort of irrevocable void in the social media streams of our online companions. This sense of self and self-importance is not helped by the extension of account names and passwords to almost every service on the web, which in turn cultivates a sense of ownership.

The feeling of absenteeism when logging off not only speaks to the self-centeredness of our online systems; it speaks volumes when considering how little is perceived to be of import in the real world. I find myself thinking of the notable disconnect between finance and the ‘real’ economy, but that’s not for debate here.

Because it is our 3D selves logging off, and because we cannot truly be one with our 4D variant, we are inclined to feel the world is cut off from us. Of course it is really we who are cut off from that world - the online one - whilst the 3D world and ourselves remain in the same state as we were moments before clicking that ‘log off’ button. My question is what is our 4D self when three of those dimensions have decided to depart for a while?

A word that has fallen out of fashion on the web is avatar. In the earliest days of online communication, it was not irregular for one to be represented by an avatar – some sort of digital icon that could be used to uniquely represent you. This avatar’s design was limited by the coding of whatever site the avatar was being built on. Still, a sense of self must have made its way into the pixelated figure.

Since the days of the avatar this blurring of lines has become a tearing of pages; the online world functions and encourages us, not avatars, to populate it. Facebook and Twitter are no longer tools for fun or back-up communication; they are a crucial part of our social identity, which very much extends into the ‘real’, physical world.

To be branded as weird for not having Facebook is as much a statement of one’s social ineptitude as it is one’s technological. ‘Logging off’ is even worst; it is to choose to abandon the 4D self, rather than to merely not have 4D replica to begin with. In the days of the avatar this was not an issue, as the avatar was merely a token of you in the online space, with limitations in coding restricting how accurately the avatar could represent the ‘real’ self. When it is ourselves occupying the 4D world abandonment – or logging off – might be considered some kind of self-lobotomy.

The sacred disconnect between the 3D body and the 4D entity is gone. The internet has invented a soul for each of us. The mobile phone has become a vital organ of the human body – is it not a component of you that you carry wherever you go, that is never shut off, that you would hate to lose? As Baudrillard writes, “From a classical (even cybernetic) perspective, technology is an extension of the body.” The only flaw in this argument might be the disposable nature of a mobile phone (and technology) when an upgrade is readily available.

But this flaw adds credence to the 4D self being representative of the 21st century soul, for no matter what phone or computer or tablet you own, those accounts and passwords that grant ownership will still be used to access your Facebook page, your Twitter feed, your 4D self. This self does not leave you in part because of the permanency of data online, but in part because of the social requirement to carry it with you.

Is there a weight to this soul? An argument for ‘logging off’ might be to seek relief from carrying it around constantly. But I think this is unlikely. Firstly, it leads us into dark, Faustian parallels that I think are unjustified. Secondly, this idea suffers from the same lack of understand that a film such as Tron, in hindsight, is guilty of.

The internet is not really a new frontier, but a product of human creation. This creation continues; indeed, the internet might represent the single largest infrastructure project ever undertaken by man. To treat the 4D soul as something that, over time, may become malign, is to forget that the image we craft of ourselves online is as much the image we craft of ourselves in the mirror every day. The reason avatars were effective, but ultimately unsatisfying, is they could not be truly representative, and added to the belief that the internet was an alien world, which it is not.

Like we might withdraw from the world after a day at work or a party, so too might we withdraw from the online space. In recent years, so called down time has revolved around going online, but as the internet evolves and the presence and importance of the 4D self develops into something that is not alien but in many aspects human, ‘logging off’ might become some sort of paradoxical respite from the noise and traffic of the 4D world.

Stepping back from the 4D space need not be rejection of the fourth dimension, but instead an opportunity to check in with the other three dimensions that are just as valuable to the soul. The 4D soul is, after all, simply a projection of ourselves in the 4D space. It has always existed, but where the physical world and our physical selves make the soul hard to see, the online world and our physical selves contrast, and the soul appears.

As such, to ‘log off’ is not to abandon the 4D soul, but to merely consider the entity of self within its other dimensions.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Four Hands - Transcript of presentation given for the Hopper Institute for Good Management

The following is the transcript for the presentation 'Four Hands -Building on the story of The Puritan Gift' produced for presentation to the Hopper Institute for Good Management. Accompanying slides can be found here:

Four Hands – Building on the story of The Puritan Gift

When I was asked to give a presentation on The Puritan Gift I didn’t really know what I should say. That’s not because the book isn’t informative, on the contrary; it’s because by the end of the book you’ve been told a very simple and compelling story that really I couldn’t do justice. So instead I’m going to present something a little bit original, drawing off of ideas and quotes presented in The Puritan Gift to build a model that I think can be applied quite broadly.

I call it Four Hands, and I’m going to use it to demonstrate a few things. I’m going to look at individuals and what motivates them as well as innovation and how it can create communities; we’re going to think about the collective purpose of communities, and how the community works with The Individual. Finally, I’m going to bring in some political economy, Adam Smith, and a Founding Father.

So what is Four Hands? Well it’s a model – not a scientific one – of how individuals and organisations interact to achieve goals.

Of course every model needs a starting point, which I tentatively call the hand that feeds. It’s a bit of a forced name, but it articulates the key premise behind the first hand.

The hand that feeds is the starting point of our model and on the most basic level it assumes this – the goal of a person is to survive. It is a criticism of economics that it assumes people are rational, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say desire for continued existence is a reasonable expectation of your average person.

In a ‘trapped on a desert island’ scenario the hand that feeds is literally concerned with survival – there’s no point thinking about how great your future beachside mansion is going to be if you’re dead. In the more realistic scenario it can be about corporate survival or financial survival – are you under threat of losing your job or falling behind on your bills?

It’s helpful to consider the hand that feeds as the ‘struggle’ which inspires enterprise. From a business perspective, the hand that feeds could simply be a gap that an entrepreneur spots in the market.

If the hand that feeds is the starting point of the model, the divine hand is the end. Drawing directly on The Puritan Gift, we’re now considering what the Puritan’s goal – ‘to establish a Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.’ – means.

You could take this literally, in which case I think the Puritan’s were setting their sights pretty high, or less literally – to establish a more efficient, possibly pious society? Either way, what we’re looking at here is a long-term communal goal. This is the divine hand at play.

To give you an example; firstly, the Puritan’s establish a community with the intention to survive and colonise the new world. This is the hand that feeds. Provided this is met, their goals then shift to fulfil their debts on Earth – their debts to England – and ultimately to build the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. It’s important to note that all of these goals – to survive, to profit, to prosper – could not have been achieved by an individual alone.

If we look at Adam Smith’s line, ‘glow over the horizon’ we can see this sentiment being reinforced – that some goals transcend the individual and only become attainable as a collective.

It’s interesting to consider Eliot’s quote, ‘things are not so ill with you and me… is half owing to those who lived… a hidden life’, essentially saying the community, you and me, benefit from the efforts of those that came before us. This reinforces the idea of the Divine Hand being communal but also, ‘hidden lives’ – this is a long-term goal which is again bigger than the individual.

Here’s another example just to illustrate that this idea. I’m not really into football but sports teams are great examples to look at. In the team there are 11 players who are actually doing the day to day work, making the many short-term decisions that have to be made. We could think of them as the individuals whose enterprise is inspired from their struggle – though I hesitate to say ‘footballer’ and ‘struggle’ in the same sentence. They’re the entrepreneurs, the innovators, the desperate island dwellers.

Then we have the football club. This is the company that is built around the efforts of the individuals. We might want to think of them as the institutions first established by the settling Puritan’s – farmers, fisherman, builders etc. They’re entities that exist with the individuals and have short-term goals, but also set long-term goals, i.e. fulfil contracts, make a profit, win the league.

Finally, we have the football fans – the community – who don’t necessarily play on the football pitch nor work for the football club but they benefit from and contribute towards the long-term goal of the club indirectly. They attend games and provide moral support; similarly think of a carpenter constructing a boat for a fishing company. Though the carpenter doesn’t directly profit from the long-term goal of the fisherman, which may be to make profit, the carpenter indirectly profits from there being an ample, cheap supply of food. Equally, though the fans aren’t actually on the pitch playing the game, they benefit from the long-term success of the team they support.

It is important to remember individuals do exist however. The subtitle of The Puritan Gift is after all ‘reclaiming the American Dream…,’ and there are a lot of parallels to be found between the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth and the American Dream, mainly that they both talk about achieving better things through hard work.

So let’s consider Smiles, who equates the pursuit of heavenly ideals to the self-concerned individual, i.e. the Kingdom of Heaven becomes individualistically the American Dream. This is important because we can kind of consider the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth as the aggregate of individual pursuits, which brings us nicely onto Adam Smith whose famous invisible hand equates the American Dream, i.e. individual pursuit, as having ‘a net benefit for all’, bringing us back to the communal goal, the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.

Finally, before I move on some questions that are interesting to consider. MacCulloch’s take on pluralism said that capitalism is made up of many things that already existed within society and therefore is a by-product of social structure, the most crucial one he argued is religion. This leads to the question does there have to be a conscious structure in place for a societal goal to exist?

I’ve also asked is the zeitgeist of a community the same/similar to a societal goal, the implication being if it is can we change a societal goal? That maybe has some interesting implications in political theory?

Next we have the aforementioned invisible hand of Adam Smith. This is really where we’re beginning to see the model forming with the hand that feeds being the starting point, the divine hand being the end and the invisible hand linking the two.

This idea comes about from two places; firstly, Smith’s net benefit for all hypothesis, i.e. the end point of individualistic pursuit should benefit everyone somewhat, which is what I earlier talked about with football fans indirectly benefiting from team success.

Secondly we have Cotton with a great quote, ‘it is a disgrace to a good workman not to look at his work,’ saying that good work should receive acknowledgement, i.e. should receive some benefit. Again, individualism moves us towards the divine hand.

Also consider the message upon Benjamin Franklin’s epitaph, saying – in much fancier words – that nothing is perfect and we must always allow others to improve on things. I take this to mean be an individual and certainly be innovative, but do not ignore the contribution of the community.

The final hand is the visible hand; what Chandler described as the ‘substitution of “administrative co-ordination” for “market co-ordination”’, which solves the aforementioned problem by saying individuals who work together operate more efficiently – coordinate the market – and therefore will be more successful in achieving their goals. It’s also debatable this will make their short-term goals more aligned.

Ultimately this coalescence of individuals will distribute resources more efficiently and will work towards the divine hand much more successfully. They will not just be ‘individually coordinated’, they will be communally coordinated.

To conclude, Four Hands demonstrates the importance of allowing individuals to exist within communities. I think this is crucial in a business structure as it should allow greater innovation and communication of ideas throughout the organisation.

Secondly Four Hands allows managers to see the perspective of their staff better, i.e. they can see the survival point their staff occupy and the place their staff want to go. The implication of this is closer and more meaningful management of staff.

Finally, Four Hands illustrates the inefficiency of inter-community fighting and the benefits of community coordination. Therefore, Four Hands should encourage clear communication of long-term goals throughout an organisation. Individuals can then coordinate their efforts and skills rather than pursue individual goals and be less efficient.

These ideas I’ve just discussed relate directly back to key concepts discussed in the Puritan Gift; knowing who is in charge and what the organisation does, respecting and valuing the domain knowledge of individuals; and having effective lines of communication throughout the whole organisation.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

A badly staged pantomime.

The battle raging in the supreme court regarding who has the authority to trigger Article 50 is more interesting as a pantomime than as a serious legal battle. Fitting, for December.

To be clear, the decision means little beyond political point scoring. If the decision were to go against the government, logic would suggest Mrs. May – and possibly Mr. Johnson – would look to hide a veiled smile. That is, of course, assuming the decision could stop Brexit… which it won’t.

In reality this case is about authority and seeming to be in control. Mrs. May – who has not won a General Election – has ascended to a cursed throne. Cursed for many reasons, but perhaps most notably because nobody expected Brexit, and by extension nobody seems to have planned for it.

Why else would May use such a meaningless statement – Brexit means Brexit – as the slogan of her new regime? It’s very utterance (the slogan) occurs only when a question should not or cannot be answered.

Let us assume the opposite for a moment – that there is a plan. Would the new Prime Minister keep it to herself and her cabinet, slyly avoiding questions and reiterating meaningless slogans? Or would she boldly deliver her plan, reassuring thee public of capability of Whitehall and proudly, confidently putting herself before any challenge?

This case is an attempt – partly – to expose the emperor’s lack of clothing. There are more nuances to it than that (it is hard to ignore the investment manager at the centre of all of this) but ultimately this is why Mrs. May will continue to fight. Set aside claims of negotiating position; May must appear strong in a time of crisis.

She must take a commanding position, rally the troops and all the rest of it. She must also recognise she may occupy the office of Prime Minister for what is – relatively – a short period of time. Brexit may well be Mrs. May’s only legacy, and as such failure is not an option.

Will this supreme court case lead to failure? Not in itself, but it may force the government to reveal their hand, or lack thereof, and provide us with a standard by which to judge success or failure. Mrs. May could fail to secure anything she wanted in the Brexit negotiations, but this failure could be disguised as a success provided the starting point remains unknown.

This is the long-term risk for Mrs. May. The short-term risk is the potential revelation that even she does not know the starting point. It would undermine her authority and her government, and would linger over her premiership perhaps indefinitely.

This case is a pantomime, but no one is shouting, “he’s behind you!” Instead, we might soon realise no one, not even the performers on stage, have any idea where ‘he’ is.

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