Tag: Skype

Transitions, pt One

Reflections on these present times.

Want a brilliant idea for tomorrow? Stay in the present!

Dogs do this wonderfully.  I am told that followers of Zen Buddhism discover peace and grace from embracing the present. But is there more to this?  Is there some deeper psychology involved?  Does our species have an intrinsic challenge in terms of staying in the present?

My musings on this arise from a couple of recent conversations.

The first was with Peter McCarthy from the Bristol area of West England.  Peter and I go back a few years (at my age, everything goes back a few years!) and at one stage I did some work for Peter’s company, Telecom Potential.  Just a quick aside, Peter’s company was based in the magnificent Clevedon Hall, a mansion built in 1853 as a family home for Conrad William Finzel, a German-born businessman.  Here’s a picture of one of the rooms,

A room at Clevedon Hall

Peter, like me, is sure that the period in which the world now appears to be, is not some cyclical downturn, not some temporary departure from the national growth and employment ambitions promoted by so many countries.  No! This one is different.

Peter is sure that a major transition is under way, as big as any of the great societal upheavals of the past.  And, for me, a fascinating comment from Peter was his belief that the key attitude required for the next years would be innovation.  Peter reminded me that we tend to think of innovation as applying to things physical, scientific and technical.  But Peter sensed that it would be in the area of social innovation where key changes would arise and, from which, these large societal changes would flow.

Then a day later I was chatting with one of the founders of a brilliant new authentication process, Pin Plus. It is a very smart solution to a major global problem, the weaknesses of traditional password user-authentication systems.

On the face of it, Pin Plus is obviously a better and more secure way of authenticating users, and a number of key test customers have borne this out.  Jonathan C was speaking of the challenges of convincing companies to have faith in this new process.  This is what he said,

More than once, indeed many times, I am told by prospects something along the lines that the IT world has been looking so hard and so long for a password solution that a solution can’t possibly exist.

Let’s ponder that for a moment.  Are we saying that a far-sighted approach to the potential for change is not an easy place for some, probably many, human brains?

Indeed, Jonathan and I mused that here we were, both speaking via Skype, an internet telephony service, both of us looking at different web sites in support of many of the points that we were discussing and totally dependent, in terms of our mentoring relationship, on the technology of the internet, a multi-node packet-switched communications system that was a direct result of the American shock of seeing the Russians launch the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, into low earth orbit on the 4th October, 1957.

Launch of Sputnik 1

At that time, it would have seemed impossible for anyone on the planet to see that the American response to Sputnik 1 would eventually lead to the vast packet-switched network that is now the modern Internet.

But why do we regard the ability to look into the future so utterly out of reach of the common man?  Look at this, the Internet Timeline here.  Look how quickly the response to Sputnik1 gathered pace.  See how Leonard Kleinrock of MIT way back in May, 1961, presented a paper on the theory of packet-switching in large communications networks.

So maybe there’s a blindness with humans.  A blindess that creates the following bizarre characteristics,

  • Whatever is going on in our lives at present we assume will go on forever.  I.e. the boom times will never end, or the period of doom and gloom is endless.
  • Our obsession with how things are now prevents us from reflecting on those signs that indicate changes are under way, even when the likely conclusions are unmistakeable.  The ecological and climatic changes being the most obvious example of this strange blindness that mankind possesses.
  • Yet, unlike animals and some spiritual groups of humans, truly living in the present appears incredibly difficult for man.
  • However, the history of mankind shows that our species is capable of huge change, practically living in constant change for the last few millennia, and that a very small proportion of a society, see yesterday’s article, is all that is required to create a ‘tipping point’.

I want to continue with this theme but conscious that there is still much to be written.  So, dear reader, I shall pause and pick this up tomorrow.

Just stay in the present for twenty-four hours!

The learning curve.

A guest post from Dr John W Lewis.  John and I have known each other for some years now, both of us sharing a group aircraft that was based in Exeter, SW England.  His areas of interest and competence are described here.  But these days when John and I chat about the world in general and nothing in particular we often come back to the topic of innovation.  So bear that in mind as John muses on the rather gloomy nature of a recent post on Learning from Dogs.

John writes:

John Lewis

Having read the recent Post, Group Human Insanity, my first instinct is that I have nothing particular worthwhile to say that has not been said before.  But, of course, the time to apply minds is exactly when the answers don’t readily come to mind, so I will continue!

In a way, it’s probably a case of applying the sentiment on the old wartime poster, “Keep calm and carry on!” or as Winston Churchill said, “I’f you’re going through hell, keep going!”.

That doesn’t mean that we don’t need to change, because we do. It doesn’t mean that we don’t need to put a lot more effort into things that matter, because we do. But, as has been said before, “you can’t connect the dots looking forward, only looking backwards”. In other words, “it is very difficult to make predictions, especially about the future”.

Reading about this kind of thing in books, such as  “Freakonomics” or “Drive” or “Switch” suggests that we don’t really understand the mechanism by which behavioural changes happen in populations, although some of the discoveries of Everett Rogers about the diffusion of innovations is relevant here. To refer to another book, there is probably going to be a lot of “Who moved my cheese?” hemming and hawing behaviour going on too.

All we really know is that when the environment (in the most general sense) is changing rapidly, populations are much better off if they are diverse in their characteristics and behaviour; also I believe (but am not sure) that it’s true to say that increased communication assists populations in adapting to changes in the environment.

So the most important thing to do is to let lots of different people do lots of different things in search of ways forward.  If you like, we need to split up (within the multidimensional behavioural space in which we operate) into smaller groups to dodge the big boulders.

We need to communicate lots of information and lots of ways of interpreting and verifying not only the information itself, but also the operational implications of that information (which may be very different things). Hopefully this will reduce (but it will never eliminate) instances of mass movements (as in stampedes) based on partial information which misdirect substantial resources into activities that turn out to be dead ends.

If we don’t believe that there are any viable ways forward, then we might as well give up and just enjoy what’s left of the good times!

But if there are ways forward, then the way to find them is to have lots of people scouting ahead on lots of fronts and passing information around so that we maximise the chances of finding those ways forward, and having lots of other people striving to find ways to make use of that information and testing out those ways forward.

Whether this is all obvious, or not, I don’t know; but it probably is. One thing we do know is that telling people what to do is emphatically not going to work! Just look at some of the stories on the Breaking The Mould website.

Instead, we are better off when people are asking questions, gathering information and passing it around. I believe that if these behaviours are adopted in a population, as a result of ‘external’ pressures building up, then changes and innovations will inevitably occur, and this is about the best that we can do! Fortunately, I think that is what tends to happen anyway.

So, in a sense, as I referred to above: “Keep calm and carry on”  (By the way, a Google search on that phrase unearths a variety of interesting stuff and variations such as “Get excited and make stuff”)


Dr John W Lewis

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