Physics of the Mind


This is just scary. Me at 5am talking to the CSIRO in Australia. The office temperature was zero degrees and I’m wearing PJ’s and welling boots down under.

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Are we confusing connectivity with communication?



I’d like to talk about talking.

About six years ago I was in a restaurant at Bondi Beach. Just as the menus arrived so did a couple in their twenties. They were seated at the window table opposite and after about fifteen minutes the man brought out a box containing a ring and proposed. There were some tears, some kissing and some conversation, which went on for maybe two minutes.

Then there was a rather awkward silence and each reached for their mobile phone. The next hour or so, until the bill arrived, was spent frantically texting, telling friends and family the happy news, I presume.

I think we can excuse this couple, up to a point, but what really concerns me is the increasing numbers of people – husbands and wives, couples, friends and rooms full of strangers that use mobiles to hide from each other or prevent communication. You can see this everywhere – in cafes, on buses, at the beach, at conferences – and once you see it it’s very hard to stop seeing it.

It’s as though talking to someone, even someone we know very well, has become too difficult without digital filters or perhaps it’s that information about what’s happening elsewhere has created in us a fear of missing out, which means we are never fully present anywhere or with anyone.

In short, we are becoming ill at ease in the physical presence of other human beings and when we do communicate face to face with other people it is only with the tacit acknowledgement that our mobiles are left switched on and that any conversation may be interrupted at any moment.

This is fine on one level, but surely what we are saying here is that any device, or more specifically any information conveyed on that device, is more important than the person we are physically with, which can make us rather insecure.

In other words, while we believe that mobile devices facilitate connection, in reality they are doing the opposite. Modern communications are destroying meaningful communication. They are also isolating us from each other and the world at large. On trains and buses we no longer look out of the windows, but look down at our knees. Prams, which interestingly look outwards nowadays from the child’s perspective, are pushed by parents connected not with their child, who is right there in front of them, but with other people who are not.

I’m sure we are all familiar with the number of people worldwide that now own mobile devices. In the UK, almost 10% of five year olds now own a mobile phone. By age ten it’s 75%. But the word ‘phone’ is rather misleading.

Using a phone to speak to someone is becoming the exception. Globally, communicating via voice is falling through the floor, while communicating via data (text and pictures essentially) is going through the roof. Text became popular because it was cheap, but we soon worked out that text-based communication offered a greater level of control too.
We can choose when to respond to a text message or to totally ignore it.

Does this matter? I think that it does on some levels, because with text it’s very difficult to convey tone and even if you do pick up a phone to talk, it’s impossible to pick up on body language. Using something like Skype or Facetime can improve the situation slightly, but even here we can lose important elements of communication due to poor visual representation. According to some commentators, once we step away from physical face-to-face communication, we can lose as much as 90% of the clues that reveal the unspoken intentions or feelings of the other person.

So yes, we are communicating more than ever before, which is a good thing, but I wonder how much of substance is being said and, critically, how much is really being listened to or understood.

Left unchecked, this situation may result in a growth of major misunderstandings and mistakes. At the extreme, it might mean we all become increasingly fragile, nervous and insecure, partly because large parts of our identities will have been created externally by the affirmation and validation of others and will be subject to the whims of the weak ties found on our online networks.

I share therefore I am. Nobody has ‘liked’ my photographs, therefore I do not exist.

I think there are essentially three broad themes here.

The first, as I’ve said, has to do with how communicating by text in various forms is different to communicating face to face and may be resulting in a decline of empathy, an increase in fragility and the growth of misunderstanding.

Don’t get me wrong. I text. I email. I Skype. All of these technologies are very useful, but in my view, all should only be used to enhance, not replace, face to face communication and relationships.

The second theme has to do with interruption. We have somehow become uncomfortable with ourselves and others to the point where we can never be alone long enough to dig deep into our souls due to various flashes, vibrations, beeps, pings and rings.

Why might this be so? How can it be that a brief two-line text can be more alluring than the person seated opposite in a fancy restaurant in Bondi, the one with whom you plan to share the rest of your life?

I think the answer has to do with our Stone Age brains.

When we receive messages or mail someone is thinking about us. We feel important, wanted or at least feel as though we exist.We also feel good about ourselves because each tiny communication is accompanied by an attachment in the form of a shot of dopamine, which as you probably know, is a pleasure chemical released by the brain to reward certain kinds of behaviour. And guess what? The dopamine system is most powerfully stimulated when the information coming in is a bit of a tease, modest enough to intrigue, but not large enough to satisfy.

Also, when we receive information through our mobile devices it’s essentially unpredictable, which is again alluring. If we knew the character of a tweet or text in advance, it obviously wouldn’t be interesting. It’s as though every incoming update or message is the sequel to the best TV series we’ve ever seen and we still don’t know how it ends. Hardly surprising, in this context, that a company built on 140 characters or less can be worth $27 billion.

The third theme, and it’s intimately connected with the first two, is thinking.

Clearly we are becoming very good at finding things very fast. To have the world’s information at our fingertips is a wonderful thing. It’s become easier to share things, especially ideas and information. I’m excited about this. The prospects of increasing collaboration, not only in science, but in politics, media and just about everything else is a wonderful development.

But my worry is deep thinking.

Screens, as I’ve said, are great for finding, filtering and evolving things, but I think the price we are paying for this is the erosion of sustained, focused, contextual and reflective thought. In other words, deep thinking.

Part of the problem here is simply finding enough quiet time to really think. Another is finding inputs that are original. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of information around and some is original. But because we are in a constant rush, we end up doing what’s most convenient, which is looking in the same place, which is page one of Google results.

Using an internet search to look up the telephone number of Icebergs restaurant in Bondi is absolutely fine, but if we are trying to increase the sum of all human knowledge then surely we shouldn’t all be looking in the same place. If it’s that easy, don’t do it.


Posted in Digital culture, Thinking | 1 Comment

Why paper is a necessity

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A few weeks ago the Finish Prime Minister suggested that the downgrading of his country’s sovereign debt was in large part caused by the actions of Apple Inc. The iPhone had mortally wounded Nokia while the iPad had inflicted serious damage on the Finnish paper industry.

The fear, I suppose, was the Finnish economy was finished.

Similar stories abound, especially from young technologists and futurologists, many of whom seem to delight in the demise of anything older than they are. We have grown used to hearing about the end of traditional bookselling, the extinction of physical newspapers, the irrelevance of local libraries and even the death of cash.

Such ideas are hardly surprising. Technologies, companies and even sovereign states ebb and flow. Change, as they say, is the only constant and nobody should really mourn the death of 8-track cassette tapes, Letraset or the Finnish Socialist Workers Republic.

Nokia itself started off in 1865 as a paper mill and later became a rubber company. The idea of Nokia as a telecommunications company is a relatively recent invention. But Nokia has no automatic right to exist and neither does an old technology like paper. Time to turn the page.

But wait a minute. I’m not concerned about Nokia. That’s just capitalism red in tooth and claw. The same might be said about paper, but if paper were to disappear I think we would be losing something of tremendous importance.

Paper is one of the most significant inventions of all time. It is the most successful communications platform of the last few thousand years and has had a profound impact on human civilization. Indeed, it’s been argued that paper created human civilization.

Moreover, unlike mobile devices I struggle to think of any negative side effects to paper use and in many instances I’d argue that paper is in fact the superior technology.

Let’s start with whether or not the technology we use to read changes the way we read. Since the 1980s, researchers have been looking at the differences between reading on paper and reading on screens. Before 1992, most studies concluded that people reading using screens remembered less about what they’d read. Since 1992, with a heady proliferation of screens, a fuzzier picture has emerged. 

The most recent research suggests that people prefer to use paper when they need to concentrate, but even this may be changing. In the US, around a quarter of all books sold are now e-books and digital reading devices have developed significantly. However, it does appear that such digital devices stop people from navigating text effectively and inhibit comprehension. Screens drain more than batteries. They drain our mental resources and, again, make it harder to remember what we’ve just read.

One major problem is topology. Paper books, newspapers and magazines contain two domains – a right and left hand page – with which readers can orientate themselves. They also offer a sense of physical progression, which allows the reader to know where they are and form a coherent mental picture of the whole text or argument. Digital pages are more ephemeral. They literally vanish once they’ve been read and it is difficult to see a page or a passage in the context of the larger text. This is a problem of architecture and can be partly solved by increasing the size of the screen, which might be why people stick post-it notes around the edge of desktop computers. But we seem to be intent on making screens smaller, not larger, so seeing the bigger picture could become more of a problem in the future.
It has also been suggested that operating a digital device is more mentally taxing than reading a paper book, newspaper or magazine because most screens shine light directly into a reader’s face, causing eyestrain. One US study found that reading a comprehension test on-screen raised levels of stress and tiredness versus people reading the same test on paper. It is also rarely recognised that people bring less mental effort to screens in the first place. When we use screens we tend to be in a rush or we’re attempting to do more than one thing at once, whereas with paper we generally have a more relaxed mind-set.

Another US study found people reading on screens use a lot of shortcuts and spend time browsing or scanning for things not directly linked to the text. In other words, there is more opportunity for distraction with screens than with paper.

Another piece of research (from the UK this time) has emphasised that people reading on a screen rely much more on remembering the text than people reading on paper, who concentrate on understanding what the text means. This subtle distinction between remembering and knowing is especially critical in education.

For example, a study of three to five-year old children reading stories from interactive books found that they spent much of their time being distracted by buttons and easily lost track of the narrative and what it meant. Clearly screens offer considerable advantages. Convenience, capacity, portability and instant access to the world’s information are just a few of the benefits. Ease of sharing or collaborating with others is another key advantage of screens over paper. For older or visually impaired readers, the ability to change the font size is a blessing too, which is why the kindle sells to well to people aged 55+ and why, with an ageing population, I believe there’s a huge opportunity for e-packaging and electronic point-of-sale where the text size can be increased by the customer.

But it is precisely the simplicity and uncomplicated nature of paper that makes it so special. Paper does not draw attention to itself. It does not contain hyperlinks or other forms of distraction. It does not need upgrading, it is easier to keep private, it can convey quality, especially quality imagery, which suits certain kinds of brands and paper clearly doesn’t need batteries – not yet.

Paper is also immensely stable as a format. You can still read a book printed 500 years ago because the hardware hasn’t changed. How about electronic documents? Will these be readable in 500 years time? And what of digital photographs stored in the cloud or on a Facebook page? I can’t even access the photographs I took 15 years ago without a Zip drive and great deal of effort. Paper is also tactile and sensory. It is pleasing to the eye, but also to the hands and even the nose. It’s possibly just me, but surely there is something about old paper too. Digital copies of products are always pristine and identical. Physical copies, by contrast, become unique over time and can tell an individual story.

The reality, most probably, is that newspapers, magazines, books and paper will develop in several different directions. First, some forms of paper-based communication will stay exactly as they are. We are already seeing the development of Slow Journalism and a Slow Reading Movement. A magazine called Delayed Gratification is a good example. Similarly, sales of fountain pens and writing paper are doing well. This is paper as craft, paper as an antidote to the frantic future.

Conversely, I suspect that e-paper will develop to the point where it is fully interactive. Any flat surface or material will thus have the potential to become a screen, which opens up the possibility of things such as video wallpaper, cereal packs that can play ads and packets of flour that can show videos of recipes. Similarly, screens that were once flat and fragile will become scrunchable and rollable – in other words like paper.

Or how about books and newspapers that can be personalised by individual readers, contain audio and video links and potentially even smells – like digital versions of scratch and sniff books. If you want to change the overall mood of a newspaper or magazine or require a specific ending to a book this could be available.

But this could mean the shrinking of context. This is something we’re seeing already with social networks and digital media whereby people consume snippets of information – headlines if you like – independent of the broader context. It is also something we experience when we use various filters to only friend people who are just like ourselves or to filter out news and information that contradicts our views. In this future, human empathy and understanding would decline while know-nothing narcissists with a skill for self-promotion would rule the roost.

And don’t forget that once a book, newspaper or magazine is connected to the internet it can read you as well as you it. This could be a good thing. Publishers will have a better idea of what gets read, where, when and how. Similarly, teachers using digital texts would be able to see who is struggling in class or instantly download a student’s entire reading history. But given our culture of immediacy and short-term returns, I worry about whether
anything that’s difficult, or anyone that’s slow, would be given much of a chance. And don’t forget the privacy concerns. At the moment it’s easy for people to see which books you buy. How about a future where a government can see what and where you read (and re-read)?

Personally, I suspect that the world will eventually work out that there is something significant about paper. In other words, we will re-discover that the medium is still the message. As books and newspapers become less of an everyday occurrence in peoples’ lives, replaced by various digital formats, the virtues of paper will be more recognised for what they are. Much as photography and cinema only increased our appreciation of painting and theatre, so digital books, newspapers and magazines will replace only the trashy and unimportant.

Finally, consider stationery.

I wrote a book a few years ago called Future Minds, and one of the questions I asked people whilst researching the book was where they did their best thinking. Not a single person mentioned digital technology. Indeed, it was the absence of digital devices that really stood out. Not just for 40 and 50-somethings, but across the board.

But this wasn’t the only interesting thing that happened.

Initially I sent emails asking where people did their best thinking. I got zero response. So I posted some typed letters instead. This got a great response so I decided to push the envelope even further so to speak. What would happen if instead of sending typed letters I sent handwritten letters on really nice paper? This was a good idea for about five minutes. Then it dawned on me that you cannot really outsource handwritten letters. I’m sure there was someone sitting in Mumbai that would have been happy to help, but to be honest getting someone else to write a personal letter is rather inauthentic. I was going to have to handwrite all the letters (and the envelopes) myself.

What happened next was fascinating. As I said, the response rate on the emails was pathetic. Some cold phone calls were no better. The response rate of the typed letters was 38%. Pretty good, but this pales into insignificance compared to the handwritten letters. The response to ink on bits of dead tree was a staggering 74%.

So what happened here?

I think the answer was a mixture of economics and psychology. The emails were presumably lost in a sea of digital dross. They were consigned to the digital dustbin, either because when people are in email mode they are focused on urgent issues or because it looked like I hadn’t bothered to make much of an effort (which I hadn’t). So if you want to interrupt someone that’s busy sending and receiving emails, sending them another email is probably not the best way to go.

The typed letters performed much better, but I suspect that they didn’t look individual enough either. They still looked as though I’d mail merged some bought in names and addresses and shot out a few hundred letters in a matter of minutes. Which, of course, is exactly what I’d done. But the handwritten letters were quite different.

The letters took a great deal of effort, but this shone through. It was almost as though people felt obliged to read the letters and I strongly suspect that most of the letters also found their way directly onto the desks of the intended recipients and were not interrupted by the army of assistants that are employed to guard against unsolicited emails, junk mail and phone calls. But here’s the most interesting thing of all.

Writing a handwritten letter is powerful because you have to think while you write. If you make a mistake writing a handwritten letter you cannot simply delete it … you think. And because you are thinking (slowly and deeply) you end up personalising each letter too. No two letters were the same and I think this showed.

So where does all this leave us?

Firstly, I think it would be very brave or very foolish to predict with absolute certainty what will happen to paper. We just don’t know. Most of the alternatives are very new and we will have to wait for a form of Darwinian evolution to sort the good ideas from the bad.

What does seem relatively certain is that the future is unlikely to be either/or.
It will not be screens or paper rather it will be screens and paper, each playing to their particular strengths and weaknesses.

It’s taken a few thousand years, but I suspect that soon we will know exactly what paper does to us and for us and will then know exactly what to do with it.

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We need to talk – but we no longer do

Last century the invention of the telephone created a revolution in how people communicated with each other, although it was initially marketed as being exclusively a business tool. Fast-forward to the present day and people are starting to hang up. The use of telephones (landlines, mobiles and smart-phones) to make or receive phone calls is trending rapidly downwards, both at home and at work.

Why is simple. Teens discovered some time ago that communicating by text is far cheaper than making voice calls. But it’s less awkward as well. Text based communications can be controlled more easily and can be ignored too. Voice calls, in contrast, can be awkward and intrusive. Text is therefore perfectly suited to a society where everyone is in a rush and wants to communicate instantly, but nobody has the time to listen attentively to what anyone else is saying.

Voice suits meaningful conversation whereas text facilitates superficial connection. I should immediately point out that I am aware that you are reading this as text, but my response is that it’s not text per se that’s the issue. Rather it’s the fact that text is becoming so dominant and that the ways in which it is now delivered encourages an instant response rather than thoughtful questioning, analysis or reflection.

As to where things will go next it’s anyone’s call. For example, how do you convey tone with text and how do you pass on important information when your message gets caught up with things that are trivial and mundane? It’s difficult, which partly explains why text communication tends to be so focussed and why people increasingly text to ask if it’s ‘OK to call?’

The reality is that we will do more and more by text or email, but I suspect that we will soon start to realise that we need to offset some of the negative consequences. One solution could be text-based.

One of the biggest issues surrounding our use of digital devices is that our conversations are becoming mediated and meaning is therefore becoming diluted. Text tends not to reveal our true feelings, whereas social networks tempt us to massage our identities. Neither is reality. 

A recent study revealed that the happiest people tend to be those that engage in deep conversation, so perhaps it’s time for us to stop telling the world how and where we are and to start asking the world, who are you?

Perhaps we can do this by text, but I suspect that it would be done much better by voice, and ideally, in person. If we used our mobiles less, we’d talk more.

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Kindle Fire


This is what happens when you ask an eleven-year-old to light a fire nowadays. Got to admire the lateral thinking.

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What the f**K is all this about? I took these pictures in a clothes shop of all places. Not sure what, if anything, it means.

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The Future of Oil (and Predictions)

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Back in 2009 Deutsche Bank predicted that oil would reach $175 by 2016. Yesterday the price stood at $85.68, down 25% in five months. Goldman Sachs say that the price of oil may fall to $80 next year. But the only thing we can say with any precision about the price of oil in the future is that it will go up and down.

Hysteria about Peak Oil has now been replaced with complacency. But while the price of oil will always reflect demand and the supply of alternatives such as gas, the amount of oil that’s left will always depend on its price. If the price is high there’s an incentive to look for more oil and to develop new technologies to extract it.

Perhaps all this highlights a few things about predictions. First, predictions are generally extrapolations of recent past experience or data. Second, predictions ignore feedback loops. Third, predictions are blind to new technologies or inventions. Fourth, predictions they assume constant behaviour (which can be influenced by, among other things, regulation and pricing). Fifth, predictions contain at least one key assumption, which in the case of peak oil might be that we’ll need oil in the distant future.

Finally, there’s Ballard’s law of forecasting, which says that if enough people predict something it won’t happen.

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Brainmail is up and I’m down (must be the weather).

Here’s the issue link.

Also just back from Hong Kong. More on this in a few days, but I just can’t see those protests going anywhere.  There just doesn’t seem to be a groundswell of support, but I could be wrong.

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Did you know?

Been talking with some asset managers about where the world is heading and a Danish dairy company about food trends. Also back from doing an after dinner speech at the Malvern Festival of Innovation. Who knew Malvern was a) so pretty and b) a cyber-hub?

Currently working on a talk for Hong Kong on global thematics. In between this reading a pile of articles for the next issue of What’s Next. One thing that caught my eye today (Economist 27 September, page 69) was this.

30% of CEOs of Fortune 500 Companies are 6 feet 2 inches or taller compared with 3.9% of the American population.

Was also visually assaulted by this particular gem from same issue (page 65)

“None of the ten board members (of Tesco) has direct experience of managing a retailer.” OMG!!!

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Fab fact of the week

If you borrowed £400 from Wonga (a UK payday loans company) at its standard rate for 7 years, you would end up owing them more than the UKs national debt (£900 billion last time I looked).

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