Books and Bookshops


Digital Vs. Human launches today in the UK. Free downloads and more here.

Meanwhile, here’s a little something I wrote on the future of bookshops for the Bookseller called Do bookshops have a shelf life?

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The Rise of AI

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Very good 9-minute film from PBS. Made in 2013. Link here.

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Why the future needs more people in it

Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 10.29.38Last year Facebook launched a virtual assistant. It was called Moneypenny after the secretary in the James Bond books. Yet again, a vision of the future was shaped by the past, possibly with a nod to Walt Disney’s Tomorrow Land in the 1950s. Is this sexist or just a natural outcome of the fact that more than two thirds of Facebook’s employees are men? Whatever the reason, the future is generally shaped by white, middle-aged, male Americans. The majority of the World Future Society’s members are white men aged 55 to 65 years of age and when it comes to the media’s go-to guys for discussing the future they’re men too. What this means is that visions of the future are overwhelmingly created by – and to some extent shaped for – a tiny slice of society, one that’s usually in some way employed in science or technology and has not had to struggle too much.

This is perhaps why technological advances usually define the future and why portrayals of the future are almost always optimistic scenarios in which technology will solve all of mankind’s problems. In the future, for example, we’ll all live far longer, which is fine if you have enough money, but less fine if you are already struggling to survive in the present.

Is this a problem? You bet it is. For one thing a lack of diversity in terms of the people imaging the future means that we are missing out on vast networks and frameworks of perspectives, experience and imagination. Second, by focussing on technology we are missing out on the social and emotional side, not to mention the politics of futurism. Scientists and technologists are essential to explore what’s possible in the future, but as Alvin and Heidi Toffler pointed out in their book Future Shock in the 1970s, we also need people from the arts and humanities to explore what’s preferable. We need ethical code alongside computer code. At the moment a tiny minority of people has hijacked the future – less than 0.1 per cent of the world’s population perhaps. What the remaining 99.9 per cent urgently need to do is reclaim it and especially add a softer and more human perspective to the discussion.

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Loving this!

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Might suit a map on the future of gardening!

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A real scenario?

I was going to add this as book of the month in brainmail, but I figured it was a little depressing. Here is fine, of course! One for the scenario thinkers at the Ministry of Defence and MI5 perhaps?

A State of Fear: Britain after a Dirty Bomb by Joseph Clyde.

Joseph Clyde is a pseudonym of George Walden btw, a former diplomat and government minister. The book is a novel

Amazon link here.

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Quote of the Week

Apologies, holidays and a book launch, not to mention brainmail issue number 99 to be dealing with. Here’s a little gem I found in the newspapers last weekend.

“Sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, dancing; all the things we like doing are about surrender. Religion is the formalised social version of that.” Brian Eno.

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Man Vs. Machine: Gandhi

Don’t know how I managed to miss the thoughts of Gandhi on man versus machine, but I did…

“The supreme consideration is man. The machine should not tend to make atrophied the limbs of man.”

“What I object to is the craze for machinery, not machinery as such. The craze is for what they call labour-saving money. Men go on ‘saving labour’ till thousands are without work and thrown on the open streets to die of starvation. I want to save time and labour, not for a fraction of mankind, but for all.”

“I can have no consideration for machinery which is meant either to enrich the few at the expense of the many, of without cause to displace the useful labour of many.”

“My opposition to machinery is much misunderstood. I am not opposed to machinery as such. I am opposed to machinery which displaces labour and leaves it idle.”

“I want the concentration of wealth, not in the hands of a few, but in the hands of all. Today machinery merely helps a few to ride on the backs of millions. The impetus behind it all is not the philanthropy to save labour, but greed. It is against this constitution of things that I am fighting with all my might….”

“Ours has been described as the machine age because the machine dominates our economy. ‘Now, what is machine?’ one may ask. In a sense, man is the most wonderful machine in creation. It can neither be duplicated nor copied. I have, however, used the word not in its wider sense, but in the sense of an appliance that tends to displace human or animal labour instead of supplementing it or merely increasing its efficiency. This is the first differential characteristic of the machine. The second characteristic is that there is no limit to its growth or evolution. This cannot be said of human labour. There is a limit beyond which its capacity or mechanical efficiency cannot go. Out of this circumstance arises the characteristic of the machine.”

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Are libraries kennels for underdogs?

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I just has a flash of inspiration. Maybe. I’m supposed to be thinking about bookshops, but I keep getting drawn back to public libraries and a line has jumped into my head.

“Libraries are kennels for underdogs.”

BTW, book light above from here.

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The Future of Bookshops

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I’m trying to write something for the Bookseller about the future of bookshops. It’s not going especially well. However, I have been doing some research into good bookshops and there are some cracking ideas out there, most of which, incidentally, could easily be borrowed by other bookshops or indeed libraries. BTW, why don’t more libraries have bookshops in them? Conflict or compliment?

A very quick list of good bookshops

The Society Club in London – quite possibly the bookshop model of the future
Wild Rumpus Books in the US with its kid-sized front door
Herne Hill Books, the bookshop embedded in the local community
Reading ‘Spa’ at Mr B’s Book Emporium in Bath
Selexyz Books in Masstrict.
Plural Bookstore in Bratislava
Cook and Book in Brussels
Librería El Ateneo Grand Splendid in Buenos Aires
Atlantis Books in Santorini
The Tiny Bookstore in Rye

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Why Companies Die

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Why is it that the average lifespan of an S&P 500 company in the US has fallen from 67 years in the 1920s to just 15 years today? And why might 75% of firms in the S&P 500 now be gone or going by the year 2027 or thereabouts?

These figures come from a study by Richard Foster at the Yale School of Management and echo another from the Santa Fe Institute that found that public companies die at similar rates regardless of age or industry sector. In this second study the average lifespan of American companies was cited at just 10 years. The reason given for most of these companies dying or disappearing is a merger or acquisition.* A third US study** of S&P companies reports an average company age of 61 in 1958, 25 in 1980 and around 18 today, but the trend toward shorter lives remains regardless of which study you read.

In the UK it’s a similar story. Of the 100 companies in the FTSE 100 in 1984, only 24 were still breathing in 2012, although average corporate lifespans in the UK were somewhat longer. However, with start-ups it’s back to bleak, with almost 50% of SMEs failing to celebrate their 5th birthday. The reasons UK start-ups fail are said to include cash flow issues, a lack of bank lending, too much red tape, high business rates and competition.

With larger enterprises in the UK and elsewhere the situation can be somewhat different. The main reason that big companies die – beyond being consumed by larger or more aggressive companies – is that they fail to anticipate or react to new technology, new customer demands or new competition, all of which can be linked to each other causing considerable disruption.

This is Darwinian evolution applied to capitalism and the only solution is to keep your eyes and ears wide open for predators and to continually evolve what you do through a process of constant adaption and occasionally accelerated mutation.

The list of corporate casualties is certainly long. Most people are aware of how things developed at Kodak, but the list of companies killed off or seriously injured by new technologies, new competitors or new customer behaviours includes a roll call of previously proud British names including Ferranti, Psion, Acorn Computers, De Havilland, Marconi, Swan Hunter, Armstrong Siddeley, GEC and ICL.

Interestingly, in most cases the writing was on the wall long before many of these companies went bankrupt, but if there’s one thing that you can rely on with big companies it’s that, like super-tankers, they can take a long time to change direction and the view from the bridge is often obscured or contested.

Putting to one side new technologies, new competition and new customer demands, a key point is geriatric corporate cultures. Bill Gates once said that “success is a lousy teacher, it seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.” In other words, nothing recedes quite like success and large companies can become delusional about their fitness, their intellect or the speed with which young ideas and inventions can move.

If arrogance is one silent killer, another is that as companies grow management can become distanced from both insight and innovation. Peter Drucker made this point decades ago, although he used the word entrepreneurship. Managing and innovating are different dimensions of the same task, but most large companies regard them as separate to the point of putting them in different departments or locations. As the urgency to stay alive financially evaporates the focus shifts away from urgent opportunities and threats to lethargic internal issues and a kind of corporate immune system develops whereby new ideas tend to be rejected by the corporate body the minute they form.

If you drop down the organisation chart to departments such as customer complaints this isn’t always the case. People working in customer relations, IT, sales or even accounts can be extremely close to customers, and hence to the inception of new ideas, but senior management often writes off these departments as cost centres rather than hotbeds of insight and innovation. With R&D it’s often much the same story with scientists and engineers being regarded as grey suited bureaucrats offering up ponderous improvements rather than white-coated warriors fighting for discoveries that could transform the company.

The culture of organisations contributes to failure in other ways too. The dominant culture of most very large companies is highly conservative and quite rightly so. Publically quoted firms primarily exist to provide a regular return to shareholders and to keep workers in regular employment. But to do both these things they must also deliver constantly evolving products that create value for customers.

This is like a tightrope that’s not only swaying in the wind, but is being constantly moved and adjusted at one end while you’re still walking along it. Interestingly, Mark Vergano, an executive VP at Du Pont once made a similar point with regard to R&D saying that: “Research and development is always a delicate balance between maintaining a long-term view and remaining sensitive to short-term financial objectives.”

To sum up, if companies wish to remain healthy and grow old they need to do two things. Firstly, they need to remain young at heart. They need to remain mentally agile, constantly learn new things and question their own identity. This means repeatedly asking what business they’re really in and how best they can serve both current and future customers using current and future technologies, channels and business models.

Secondly, companies must look at innovation from a whole business perspective and make innovation truly cross-functional. If innovation exists purely at a departmental, product or service level it’s unlikely to proceed beyond incremental refinement. Continuous improvement is essential, but it’s merely a ticket to stay in the game. To win the game companies must consider more radical developments including the ground up reinvention of everything they do.

* A merger or acquisition isn’t necessarily a business failure, but it is often a sign of weakness or long-term illness.
**Innosight study (US).

If you’re wondering, the world’s oldest limited liability corporation is Enso Stora, a Finnish paper and pulp manufacturer that started out as a mining company in 1288.

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