Brainmail newsletter (May)

It’s finally up. Here are some of the best bits…

Benefits of sexism
According to Nicholas Kristof, a journalist on the New York Times, the exclusion of women from the workforce during the last century did have one benefit – many of the most brilliant women became school-teachers. So how can we lure more exceptional women (and men) back to school? One answer would be to radically increase pay. In 1970, a graduate teacher in a government school in NTC earned about $2,000 less than a counterpart at a major city law firm. Nowadays the trainee lawyer makes about $115,000 more than the trainee teacher.

Too much information
According to research conducted by the University of Southern California, the average individual receives 174 newspapers’ worth of information every day. We also create and distribute 6 newspapers’ worth of information everyday. Back in 2007 it was 2.5.

Sleep well and live longer
A study of almost 475,000 people in 8 countries tracked across 25 years has found that people that regularly sleep for less than 6 hours per night, or whose sleep is highly disturbed, had a 50% greater chance of developing heart disease and a 15% greater risk of a stroke.

Some numbers…
There are more than a billion Africans, but they use only 4% of the world’s electricity.

20% of UK children aged 4 and under has a television in their bedroom.

Cotton uses 25% of world fertiliser production.

The average US supermarket carries 48,750 lines – a 500% increase since 1975.

Prescriptions for drugs to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in the UK have grown from 3,500 in 1993 to over 610,000 in 2009.


The digitalisation of culture

You’ve no doubt heard of Google Street View. How about the Google Art Project? Google is working with 17 of the world’s leading art galleries and museums to digitalise many of the world’s greatest art masterpieces.

So what’s not to like? You can wander down the virtual corridors of the National Gallery in London, MoMA in New York or the Hermitage in St Petersburg and gawp at anything that tickles your fancy. There are no queues and you can zoom in on any detail at the click of a mouse. And it’s free.

However, the project raises some important questions. First, is viewing art online a decent substitute for looking at art in a physical gallery and will the virtual experience ever be the same – or better – than the real thing? At the moment the answer is no. Looking at an image on a screen, even a very large screen, is no substitute for standing directly in front of the actual object. No doubt the technology will improve over time, but there is still no escaping the fact that the object is more than its image.

In real life a painting or work of art inhabits physical space and this somehow connects to us as physical beings, especially when we are looking at something in the presence of other human beings. The fact that the environments in which these objects are usually displayed are themselves beautiful cannot be discounted either. And then there’s the argument that scarcity creates value in the sense that museum and art gallery visitors have often travelled a great distance to see these objects and the effort is itself part of the experience.

Viewing digital art is therefore reductive, whereas viewing physical art is expansive. There is the point, articulated by Nicholas Serota from the Tate Gallery (a participating gallery), that digital visitors might connect in ways that are not possible in real galleries, but if this simply means the exchange of email chatter then I don’t think this amounts to a hill of beans. I suppose there’s also the argument that says you can look at a Rembrandt in bed at 3.00am, to which there is almost no answer. In theory such digital exposure should act as an advertisement for the museums and galleries supporting the project.

Let’s hope so. If cost and convenience turns out to be more important than emotion they may end up putting themselves out of business – forever.

Information anxiety

Feeling anxious today? The reason could be a surfeit of information and the long-term consequences could include critical errors. A study conducted by Angela Dimoka, director of the Center for Neural Decision Making at Temple University (US) has found that as information flow is increased, so too is activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a region of the rain associated with decision making. Sounds good, but is it? As the flow of information is increased further, activity in this region suddenly falls off.

Why could this be so?

The reason is that part of the brain has essentially left the building. When incoming information reaches a certain point the brain protects itself by shutting down certain of its functions. The result is that decision-making is impaired. Other consequences include a tendency for anxiety and stress levels to soar and for people to abstain from making any kind of decision at all. Even worse is the impact on creative thinking, which research suggests requires periods of incubation and reflection to function well.

During the recent BP disaster, Coastguard Admiral Thad Allen, who was the incident commander at the time, received between 300 and 400 pages of emails, texts and reports every day during the oil rig blow out. Nobody is making a direct connection between this data deluge and subsequent actions but the possibility certainly exists.

The takeaway here is that Dimoka’s research suggests that being exposed to too much information is changing how we think and we should think carefully about restricting the flow of incoming (and outgoing) information and also pre-pan periods of quiet down time and reflection.

Scenarios for the Future of Africa

A few months ago I did a talk and developed some rough scenarios for the future of fund-raising for a leadership team at Save the Children. Towards the end of the session, the subject of Africa came up and I had to admit that my knowledge and thinking in this area was rather poor. As a result, I was invited back to run a small scenarios workshop with members of the senior leadership team recently, all of whom had deep experience of either living in or working in Africa. The result was some outline scenarios for what the continent might look like in the year 2030.

I am writing up the output from the workshop over the next few weeks and once done this will be discussed by members of the team. Once we have agreement on the scenario matrix I will put some narrative around each and start thinking about the internal scenario logic.

This is a pro-bono project, so if anyone would like to contribute some Africa (or scenario) expertise please get in touch by posting a comment here. Once they are done the scenarios will be public domain and will be published  – certainly here.

Creativity and mood

I met a head teacher from a primary school in Clevedon (Bristol) a while ago and we got talking about one of my favourite subjects, namely where people do their best thinking. I mentioned some of the usual suspects that I featured in my new book Future Minds – cathedrals, airplane windows, beaches, mountains, baths, showers, bed and so on.

I said that I felt that places such as these change how people think. Wrong he said. They change how people feel, which in turn changes how they think.

At the time I thought that this was an argument about semantics, but listening to a Ben Folds song this morning I’ve changed my mind. He is totally right.

Certain physical or aural environments (music is very good) do indeed change our mood, which in turn changes how we think or, more specifically, what we think about. The best word I can think of is elevate. Our thinking us pushed upwards to matters of importance.

Of course, one of the key questions, if you are trying to think about important things, is whether you should tap into positive or negative moods? I remember some research a while ago that said that people in good moods have good ideas. Personally, it’s the other way around. I don’t mean that depression feeds creativity (although in some people it does) but that a melancholy mood can spark some interesting ideas .

There are plenty of people talking about process when it comes to sparking creativity in organizations. A few people talk about environments too. Who is talking about the linkage between mood and creativity or innovation?

Libraries and librarians

I’m not in the habit of cut and pasting things, but I’m going to make this an exception in this case. It’s from Seth Godin and I have his permission to do this. URL to the original (and something else worth reading) at end.

What is a public library for?

First, how we got here:
Before Gutenberg, a book cost about as much as a small house. As a result, only kings and bishops could afford to own a book of their own.This naturally led to the creation of shared books, of libraries where scholars (everyone else was too busy not starving) could come to read books that they didn’t have to own. The library as warehouse for books worth sharing.
Only after that did we invent the librarian.

The librarian isn’t a clerk who happens to work at a library. A librarian is a data hound, a guide, a sherpa and a teacher. The librarian is the interface between reams of data and the untrained but motivated user. After Gutenberg, books  got a lot cheaper. More individuals built their own collections. At the same time, though, the number of titles exploded, and the demand for libraries did as well. We definitely needed a warehouse to store all this bounty, and more than ever we needed a librarian to help us find what we needed. The library is a house for the librarian.

Industrialists (particularly Andrew Carnegie) funded the modern American library. The idea was that in a pre-electronic media age, the working man needed to be both entertained and slightly educated. Work all day and become a more civilized member of society by reading at night. And your kids? Your kids need a place with shared encyclopedias and plenty of fun books, hopefully inculcating a lifelong love of reading, because reading makes all of us more thoughtful, better informed and more productive members of a civil society.Which was all great, until now.

Want to watch a movie? Netflix is a better librarian, with a better library, than any library in the country. The Netflix librarian knows about every movie, knows what you’ve seen and what you’re likely to want to see. If the goal is to connect viewers with movies, Netflix wins.

This goes further than a mere sideline that most librarians resented anyway. Wikipedia and the huge databanks of information have basically eliminated the library as the best resource for anyone doing amateur research (grade school, middle school, even undergrad). Is there any doubt that online resources will get better and cheaper as the years go by? Kids don’t shlep to the library to use an out of date encyclopedia to do a report on FDR. You might want them to, but they won’t unless coerced.
They need a librarian more than ever (to figure out creative ways to find and use data). They need a library not at all.

When kids go to the mall instead of the library, it’s not that the mall won, it’s that the library lost. And then we need to consider the rise of the Kindle. An ebook costs about $1.60 in 1962 dollars. A thousand ebooks can fit on one device, easily. Easy to store, easy to sort, easy to hand to your neighbor. Five years from now, readers will be as expensive as Gillette razors, and ebooks will cost less than the blades.

Librarians that are arguing and lobbying for clever ebook lending solutions are completely missing the point. They are defending library as warehouse as opposed to fighting for the future, which is librarian as producer, concierge, connector, teacher and impresario.
Post-Gutenberg, books are finally abundant, hardly scarce, hardly expensive, hardly worth warehousing. Post-Gutenberg, the scarce resource is knowledge and insight, not access to data.

The library is no longer a warehouse for dead books. Just in time for the information economy, the library ought to be the local nerve center for information. (Please don’t say I’m anti-book! I think through my actions and career choices, I’ve demonstrated my pro-book chops. I’m not saying I want paper to go away, I’m merely describing what’s inevitably occurring). We all love the vision of the underprivileged kid bootstrapping himself out of poverty with books, but now (most of the time), the insight and leverage is going to come from being fast and smart with online resources, not from hiding in the stacks.

The next library is a place, still. A place where people come together to do co-working and coordinate and invent projects worth working on together. Aided by a librarian who understands the Mesh, a librarian who can bring domain knowledge and people knowledge and access to information to bear.

The next library is a house for the librarian with the guts to invite kids in to teach them how to get better grades while doing less grunt work. And to teach them how to use a soldering iron or take apart something with no user serviceable parts inside. And even to challenge them to teach classes on their passions, merely because it’s fun. This librarian takes responsibility/blame for any kid who manages to graduate from school without being a first-rate data shark.

The next library is filled with so many web terminals there’s always at least one empty. And the people who run this library don’t view the combination of access to data and connections to peers as a sidelight–it’s the entire point.

Wouldn’t you want to live and work and pay taxes in a town that had a library like that? The vibe of the best Brooklyn coffee shop combined with a passionate raconteur of information? There are one thousand things that could be done in a place like this, all built around one mission: take the world of data, combine it with the people in this community and create value.

We need librarians more than we ever did. What we don’t need are mere clerks who guard dead paper. Librarians are too important to be a dwindling voice in our culture. For the right librarian, this is the chance of a lifetime.

Also see

The lost boys

I’m not sure whether this is a purely UK phenomenon but it appears that, in Britain, society has created a lost generation of dissatisfied, disengaged and disaffected young men. Perhaps through parental neglect or stupidity, or external pressure from the media, government and other institutions, we have bred a group with misplaced ambition and no motivation.

Asked by pollsters what hopes they had for the future, 11% of 16-19 year olds in one recent survey answered, “waiting to be discovered” (by a reality TV show). A further 26% thought a well-paid career in sport or entertainment was a good option. Many of these young men seem to believe they are somehow owed a celebrity lifestyle without having to put in any real effort. They have a strong sense of entitlement and this has been indulged until recently by relatively affluent parents (and governments). Sitting around doing next to nothing, waiting to be discovered, has become a career option.

Perhaps young men have simultaneously lost both their sense of fear and their sense of ambition. Global connectivity (Facebook, Twitter et al) has become an accelerant for a kind of fear, which is loss of face. Ten or twenty years ago, individuals could try new things and fail without anyone noticing. Nowadays, loss of face can be instantly amplified by network effects, and the internet will never forget. Best, therefore, to simply keep your head down and do nothing.

On Meetings (and dogs)

Thought for the day: Never go to a meeting wearing a light coloured linen jacket, especially if the night before you’ve put the jacket on the back of a chair and your dog has stolen a whole roast chicken and gets diarrhea, covers himself in poo, which is then sprayed across the back of the jacket when he shakes himself dry.

This isn’t necessarily a problem, unless you fail to notice the small brown marks spread across the back of the jacket. Even this isn’t too bad, unless you go to a meeting wearing the jacket and some helpful person points out to you that there’s mud (“or perhaps it’s cappuccino powder”) sprayed across  your jacket – and smells it to see which it is.

On the plus side I totally forget about my broken front tooth or the four presentations that I’m supposed to have written by Thursday night.

Statistic for the day: Americans represent 4.5% of the world’s population, but buy 33% of the worlds insurance (Atlantic Monthly).

The Future of Money (in a phone near you soon).

In Australia you can buy a shirt with a built-in sun protection factor of SPF 30+
In the US Burton is selling a snowboarding jacket with a built in MP3 player (removable for easy washing), whilst in Singapore researchers have developed a smart T-shirt that can monitor whether you’re fallen over or not (useful for people concerned about elderly relatives who live alone perhaps). There’s even a shirt called the smart-shirt in development that monitors your heartbeat and displays a reading on the outside.

What’s this all got to do with money and banking?  Simple. As money becomes increasingly digitised it will become easier and cheaper to embed value into all manner of physical objects leading to a growth in pre-pay and private currencies. So when you buy a new watch, a pair of shoes or a T-shirt, the sales assistant might ask whether you’d like any money built in (a bit like Tesco asking if you want cash-back, but digitised). In other words physical money is eventually going to vanish, which will create a number of associated problems and opportunities.

Why on earth would some people want this to happen? Several reasons. One reason is that people like intelligent products. People (men in particular) can’t seem to get enough of fancy gadgets and the latest whiz bang technology. Second, all this technology (iPads, mobile phones etc) is filling up our pockets. Hence the term ‘pocket pressure’. Even the older generations are not immune. A recent study claimed that business people are now carrying around 10 pounds more in weight on their person than they did 20 years ago. So getting rid of heavy coins, cheque books and perhaps credit cards could be a good idea.

Convergence is another reason. Put simply, mobile products will soon be able to do or be almost anything you want. Add to this a need for speed and convenience and perhaps a cashless society doesn’t sound too far-fetched?

If this sounds a bit too wacky perhaps you haven’t stretched your imagination far enough. A couple of years ago a scientist in the UK successfully implanted a chip in his arm, which carried a password and remotely opened doors. Dogs and cats are already carry ‘chips’ in case they get lost so why not the rest of us? What if we were all walking around with digital passports, wallets, driving licences and cash implanted in our forearms?

The opportunities this opens up are intriguing. First of all it creates a conversation about business definitions. What business will retail banks be in 15 years hence? Could they become primary technology providers or – more likely – will their importance decline to mere backroom operators servicing the needs of companies like Facebook or Apple Bank?

More practically, such ideas spark off a number of new product ideas. For example, could credit cards be fitted with RFID tracking devices to enable banks to ‘fast track’ high value customers? (Finnair has done something similar with frequent flyers). Or how about finger print or iris recognition software to provide access to ATM ‘lounges’for gold card customers?

Of course you could just ignore all this. In Australia you can already buy a can of Coke in a vending machine with a Coke mobile phone. Coke have also launched a range of clothing. Maybe one day a Coke or Pepsi Bank will sell T-shirts with $50 of embedded value to spend on anything you like from a bottle of sun tan oil to the latest ring tones (downloaded from one of their own vending machines of course).