Typewriters vs. Computers

I like this (from Ryan Adams, the songwriter/musician).

“Your critical mind is an interrupter of your inspired true self. If you are daydreaming and you are in that zone, you have the 300-mile gaze, stuff is coming through, it’s like a scroll. It’s like dictation, it’s an act of faith, it’s like letting myself feel it. On a typewriter, it’s below chest level; you are looking through and beyond the dimension of the page.

On a computer, you will never not look at the screen. You will always follow the cursor. It’s a trap. You are a cat and your computer is a f—ing laser pointer, and you are just following your own trial.”

Daily Telegraph 4 September 2014 (page 25)

Why water can be good for you


As some of you might know, I’m a fan of clutter (“If a messy desk is the sign of a messy mind, what then can be said of an empty desk?” – Einstein or thereabouts).

However, things have started to get of control, so I’ve been cleaning up my desktop and my actual desk. A sense of inner calm, similar to that achieved when I throw lots of things away, has now returned.

On other news, the emerging technologies map is done and is off to the designer tomorrow and I’ve finished another brainmail issue, which will be up next week.

Two other things. First, a good article in the conversation about ‘Repair Cafes’, especially the Bower Reuse & Repair Centre in Sydney’s inner west. If you don’t already know about these, they are places where local people can drop in and get stuff fixed. You might relate this to economic conditions, but I don’t think that’s quite it. I think it has more to do with the need to touch things and understand how things work (a digital antidote).

The other thing has to with minds rather than making, although, of course, the two are always related. I seem to be spending more time these days thinking about and talking about innovation and creativity and, in particular, my book Future Minds about how digital and physical environments shape the way we feel and think.

Today, for example, I got an email from someone in Bangalore who had just read Future Minds and wanted me to elaborate my point that: “Being by moving water seems to work – it dilutes the effects of the digital era”.

My point here is that when I did some research for the book about where people did their ‘best thinking’, being alone come up quite a bit, but so too did water, especially being in or by moving water. What could this be about? One explanation someone once gave me (and this could be utter nonsense) is that moving water creates negative ions, which aren’t negative at all in the sense of how they make us feel. BTW, that photo above is making me feel very sad indeed – it’s Sydney.

More here if you are interested.

Don’t just do something, sit there

While I’m on the subject of digital detox (previous post), a few of you might have school age kids on holiday at the moment. Chances are you are frantic trying to organise things for the little darlings to do. Don’t. Read this instead.

Boredom is beautiful. Rumination is the prelude to creation. Not only is doing nothing one of life’s few remaining luxuries, it is also a state of mind that allows us to let go of the external world and explore what’s deep inside our head. But you can’t do this if ten people keep sending you messages about what they are eating for lunch or commenting on the cut of your new suit. Reflection creates clarity. It is a “prelude to engagement of the imagination,” according to Dr. Edward Hallowell, author of Crazy Busy. It is a useful human emotion and one that has historically driven deep insight.

Boredom hurts at first, but once you get through the mental anguish you can see things in their proper context or sometimes in a new light. Digital technology, and mobile technology in particular, appears to negate this. If you are trying to solve a problem it is now far too easy to become digitally distracted and move on. But if you persist, you might just find what you’ve been looking for. So don’t just do something after you’ve read this chapter, sit and think for a while.

Faced with nothing, you invent new ways of doing something. This is how most artists think when faced with a blank canvas. Historically, children have operated like this too. They moan and groan that they are bored, but eventually they find something to do—by themselves. Boredom is a catalyst for creative thought. Only these days it mostly isn’t. We don’t allow our children the time or the space to drift and dream. According to the UK Office of National Statistics, 45 percent of children under 16 spend just 2 percent of their time alone. Moreover, the amount of free time available to schoolchildren (after going to school, doing home- work, sleeping, and eating) has declined from 45 to 25 percent. Children are scheduled, organised, and outsourced to the point where they never have what New York University Professor Jerome Wakefield calls a chance to “know themselves.” It’s the same with adults. Our minds are rarely scrubbed and dust builds up to the point where we can’t see things properly.

Not only is it difficult to become bored, we can’t even keep still long enough to do one thing properly. Multitasking is killing deep thinking. Leo Chalupa, an ophthalmologist and neurobiologist at the University of California (Davis), claims that the demands of multitasking and the barrage of aural and visual information (and disinformation) are producing long-lasting and potentially permanent damage to our brains. A related idea is constant partial attention (CPA). Linda Stone, who has worked at both Apple and Microsoft Research Labs, knows about how high-tech devices influence human behaviour. She coined the term CPA to describe how individuals continually scan the digital environment for opportunities and threats. Keeping up with the latest information becomes addictive and people get bored in its absence.

In a sense this isn’t anything new. We were all doing this 40,000 years ago on the savannah, tucking into freshly killed meat while keeping keeping a look out for predators. But digitisation plus connectivity has increased the amount of information it’s now possible to consume to the extent that out attention is now fragmented all of the time. This isn’t always a bad thing, as Stone points out. It’s merely a strategy to deal with certain kinds of activity or information.

However, our attention is finite and we can’t be in hyper-alert, “fight-or-flight” mode 24/7. Constant alertness is stressful to body and mind and it is important to switch off, or at least reduce, some of the incoming information from time to time. As Carl Honoré, author of In Praise of Slow, says: “Instead of think- ing deeply, or letting an idea simmer in the back of the mind, our instinct is now to reach for the nearest sound bite.” We relax by cramming even more information into our heads.

Chalupa’s radical idea is that every year people should be encouraged to spend a whole day doing absolutely nothing. No human contact whatsoever. No conversation, no telephone calls, no email, no instant messaging, no books, no newspapers, no magazines, no television, no radio, and no music. No contact with people or the products of other human minds, be it written, spoken, or recorded.

Have you ever done nothing for 24 hours? Try it. It will do your head in for a while. Total solitude, silence, or lack of mental distraction destroys your sense of self. Time becomes meaning- less and recent memories start to disappear. There is a feeling of being removed from everything while being deeply connected to everything in the universe. It is fantastic and frightening all at the same time. But don’t worry, you soon feel normal again. Return to sensory overload and deep questions about a unifying principle for the universe soon disappear, to be replaced by important questions about what you’re going to eat for dinner tonight or how you’re going to find that missing Word file.

Consider what Bill Gates used to do. Twice a year for 15 years the world’s then richest man would take himself off to a secret waterfront hideaway for a seven-day stretch of seclusion. The ritual and the agenda of Bill’s think weeks were always the same: to ponder the future and to come up with a few ideas to shake up Microsoft. In his case this involved reading matter but no people. Given that Gates has been instrumental in the design of modern office life, it’s interesting that he felt the need to get away physically; one would expect him to inhabit a virtual world instead.

I once received a brief from the strategy director of a FTSE 100 company who wanted to take his team away to do some thinking. When I suggested that we should do just that—go away for a few days, read some books, think, and then discuss what we’d read— he thought I’d lost my mind. Why? Because there was “no process.” There were no milestones, stage gates, or concrete deliverables against which he could measure his investment.

The point of the exercise is this. Solitude (like boredom) stimulates the mind in ways that you cannot imagine unless you’ve experienced it. Solitude reveals the real you, which is perhaps why so many people are so afraid of it. Empty spaces terrify people, especially those with nothing between their ears.

But being alone and having nothing to think about allows your mind to refresh itself. Why not discover the benefits of boredom for yourself?

Switching off










Seems that the world has finally caught up with the idea that we are becoming too connected and that a little disconnection from time to time would be a good thing. Then again, perhaps it’s just July/August and some people just want to be left alone on holiday.

It’s interesting to note that the current issue of Fast Company is all about switching off. So too is the current issue of Stylist magazine. They interviewed me on the phone about this issue a few weeks ago (so not quite as disconnected as they’ll have you believe in the magazine!).


BTW, here’s a tiny taste of what I was saying in my book Future Minds back in 2010.


A study from the University of California (Irvine) claims that we last, on average, three minutes at work before something interrupts us. Another study from the UK Institute of Psychiatry claims that constant disruption has a greater effect on IQ than smoking marijuana. No wonder, then, that the all-time bestselling reprint from the Harvard Business Review, a management magazine, is an article about time management. But did anyone find the time to actually read it properly?

We have developed a culture of instant digital gratification in which there is always something to do—although, ironically, we never seem to be entirely satisfied with what we end up choosing. Think about the way people jump between songs on an iPod, barely able to listen to a single song, let alone a whole album. No wonder companies such as Motorola use phrases like “micro boredom” as an opportunity for product development.

Horrifyingly, a couple in South Korea recently allowed their small baby daughter to starve to death because they became obsessed with raising an “avatar child” in a virtual world called Prius Online. According to police reports, the pair, both unemployed, left their daughter home alone while they spent 12-hour sessions raising a virtual daughter called Anima from an internet café in a suburb of Seoul.

Internet addiction is not yet a globally recognized medical condition, but it is only a matter of time. Already 5–10 per- cent of internet users are “dependent,” according to the Computer Addiction Center at Harvard’s McLean Hospital. This is hardly surprising when you stop to consider what is going on. According to a University of California (San Diego) study, we consumed three times more information in 2008 as we did back in 1960.

Furthermore, according to Clifford Nass, a professor of communications at Stanford University, there is a growing cohort of people for whom the merest hint of new information, or the faintest whiff that something new is going on somewhere else, is irresistible. You can see the effect of connectivity cravings first hand when people rush to switch on their cellphones the second their plane lands, as though whatever information is held inside their phone is so important, or life threatening, that it can’t wait for five or ten minutes until they are inside the air- port terminal. I know. I do it myself.

The thought of leaving home without a cellphone is alarming to most people. So is turning one off at night (many people now don’t) or on holiday. Indeed, dropping out of this hyper-connected world, even for a week, seems like an act of electronic eccentricity or digital defiance.

In one US study, only 3 out of 220 US students were able to turn their cellphones off for 72 hours. Another study, con- ducted by Professor Gayle Porter at Rutgers University, found that 50 percent of BlackBerry users would be “concerned” if they were parted from their digital device and 10 percent would be “devastated.”

It’s more or less the same story with email. Another piece of research, by Tripadvisor.com, found that 28 percent of respondents checked email at least daily when on a long weekend break and 39 percent said they checked email at least once a day when on holiday for a week or more.

A study co-authored by Professor Nada Kakabadse at the University of Nottingham in the UK noted that the day might come when employees will sue employers who insist on 24/7 x 365 connection. Citing the example of the tobacco industry, the researchers noted how the law tends to evolve to “find harm.” So if employers are creating a culture of constant connectedness and immediacy, responsibility for the ensuing societal costs may eventually shift from the individual to the organization. Broken marriage and feral kids? No problem, just sue your employer for the associated long-term costs.

A banker acquaintance of mine once spent a day in a car park above a beach in Cornwall because it was the only spot in which he could make mobile contact with his office. His firm had a big deal on and his virtual presence was required. “Where would I have been without my BlackBerry?” he said to me later. My response was: “On holiday with your family taking a break from work and benefiting from the reflection that distance provides.” He hasn’t spoken to me since we had this conversation, although he does send me emails occasionally. I usually pretend that I’m on a beach and haven’t received them.

It’s happening everywhere. I have a middle-aged female friend (a journalist) who goes to bed with a small electronic device every night. Her husband is fed up and claims it’s ruining their sex life. Her response is that she’s in meetings all day and needs to take a laptop to bed to catch up with her emails. This is a bit extreme, but I know lots of other people who take their cellphones to bed. How long before they’re snuggled up in bed late at night “attending” meetings they missed earlier, having downloaded them onto their iPad or something similar? Talk about having more than two people in a marriage.

Our desire to be constantly connected clearly isn’t limited to work. Twitter is a case in point. In theory, Twitter is a fun way to share information and keep in touch, but I’m starting to wonder whether it’s possible to be too in touch.
I have some friends who are “Twits” and if I wanted to I could find out what they’re doing almost 24/7. One, at least, will be “Eating marmite toast” at 7.08 pm and the other will be “In bed now” at 11.04 pm or “looking forward to the weekend” at 11.34 pm. Do I need to know this?

Why is all of this significant? In A Mind of Its Own, Cordelia Fine makes the point that the brain’s default set- ting is to believe, largely because the brain is lazy and this is the easier, or more economical, position. However, when the brain is especially busy, it takes this to extremes and starts to believe things that it would ordinarily question or distrust. I’m sure you know where I’m going with this but in case you are especially busy—or on Twitter—let me spell it out. Our decision-making abilities are at risk because we are too busy to consider alternatives properly or because our brains trip us up by fast tracking new information. We become unable to exclude what is irrelevant and retain an objective view on our experience, and we start to suffer from what Fredric Jameson, a US cultural and political theorist, calls “culturally induced schizophrenia.”

If we are very busy there is every chance that our brain will not listen to reason and we will end up supporting things that are dangerous or ideas that seek to do us, or others, harm. Fakery, insincerity, and big fat lies all prosper in a world that is too busy or distracted. Put bluntly, if we are all too busy and self-absorbed to notice or challenge things, then evil will win by default. Or, as Milan Kundera put it: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

Crikey. That sounds to me like quite a good reason to unsubscribe from a few email newsletters and turn the cell- phone off once in a while—to become what Hal Crowther terms “blessedly disconnected.”


Space oddity

In my book Future Minds I wrote about how physical spaces can impact our thinking. I used examples ranging from ancient cathedrals to mountains, but the one I like best is about the Earth as seen from the moon. Here’s part of the passage from my book.

In 1968, William Anders, Frank Borman and James Lovell spent three days travelling to the moon and were the first humans in history to glimpse its dark side. On the fourth lunar orbit, on Christmas Eve, the crew of Apollo 8 saw something else that had never been seen before. It was an Earthrise. A fragile blue planet rising optimistically above an inhospitable lunar landscape.

Instinctively recognising that this was a significant event, William Anders grabbed a camera and took some photographs. These pictures effectively started the environmental movement back on Earth in the early 1970s and prove, to me at least, that external stimuli can influence our thinking and that attitudes and behaviours that we assume are fixed can be influenced by what is around us.

This view of the Earth has now been experienced many times by astronauts but its effect is undiminished. In fact there is a now condition called the overview effect that refers to the state of heightened consciousness that astronauts experience when they look back at the Earth from a great distance away. Out in space there is a lot of space and this can change your mind.

So what? Well for one thing the image we associate with this event is incorrect. The image that we all know and love and is currently a page on Wikipedia is a fake. The astronauts never saw this. What they actually saw was this…












Huh? The explanation for this has to do with how our brains deceive us. Our brains like things they’ve seen before. The term ‘cognitive bias’ partly describes this. Once we have formed a view about something, or have an idea in our head, our brains work subconsciously to find evidence to support this view or idea.

Moreover, our brains work subconsciously to filter out any idea, view or data that undermines or contradicts this too. So in the case of the Earthrise, our brains are conditioned to accept sunrises and moonrises that are vertical – that broadly go up and down. We can’t quite cope with a situation where it’s horizontal or right to left. So consciously or subsciouinessly we have edited the image of the Earth rising above the moon so that it more readily reflects our view of ‘reality’

Interesting, don’t you think?


Lecture to the Royal Society of Arts

Here is the full text of my speech to the RSA today. A podcast will be available within a few days and a Youtube video will be up in a couple of weeks.

There was a report in a newspaper recently about a mother whose six-year-old had asked her whether he should put a slice of bread in the toaster “landscape or portrait?” I mentioned this to my ten-year-old and he said “He should have Googled it.”

So why am I here and, more interestingly, why are you?

The answer to the first question is simple. I’m trying to get people interested in my new book, Future Minds, and I’m not on Facebook or Twitter. As to why you’re here that’s a far more interesting question. After all, you could have watched this on Youtube.

I’d like to suggest an answer to the second question at the end of this, but before I do that I should return to the book. What’s it about and why did I write it?

The book is about our relationship with technology, specifically digital technology and screen culture. It’s about how 4 billion mobile phones, 2 billion PCs, 500 million Facebook accounts and a Googlezillion internet searches, texts, and Tweets could, if we’re not careful, lead to the death of deep thinking.

At least that’s what the book ended up being about.

The reason I wrote the book is that I had an idea. An idea that occurred to me one morning when I was slowly sipping coffee, staring into space from the rooftop of a hotel overlooking Sydney harbour. But then I thought to myself – would I be having this thought if I were on the phone, looking at a computer screen, in a basement in London? I thought then – and I still think now – that the answer is no. Modern life is changing how we think, but perhaps the clarity to see this only comes with a certain distance or detachment.

The Overview Effect is the state of heightened consciousness that astronauts experience when they look back at the Earth from a great distance away. It’s what William Anders, Frank Borman and James Lovell, the crew of Apollo 8, experienced on Christmas Eve 1968, when they saw something nobody had ever seen before.

It was an Earthrise. A fragile blue planet rising optimistically above an inhospitable lunar landscape. Recognising that this was significant, Anders grabbed a camera and took some photographs, which effectively started the environmental movement back on Earth in the early 1970s.

This story proves, to me at least, that external stimuli influence our thinking and that attitudes and behaviours that we often assume are fixed are constantly being influenced by the objects and environments we come into contact with.

My original idea was to write a book about how physical spaces influence thinking. A book about architecture and office design essentially.However, my publisher pointed out that such a book would probably sell about 3 copies, so I broadened the remit to include virtual spaces, digital devices and eventually screen culture. It thus became a book about the future of thinking with a set of social and technological trends as the unifying force.

Ultimately, though, it’s about something else. It’s about our addiction to digital technology and the way this is changing our relationships with each other.

The book is split into three parts.

The first part is about how attitudes and behaviours are changing. It looks at teens and pre-teens and considers, amongst other things, connectivity addiction, the multitasking myth, risk-averse parenting, electronic games, the fate of physical books and whether IQ tests could be making kids stupid.

The second part of the book is about why this matters. This section looks at how our minds are different to machines, considers where ideas come from and contains a rant about paperless offices and a gentle plea for organised chaos.

The third and final section is then about what we, as individuals and institutions, can do about a world choked with too much information and too much distraction and offers some practical suggestions.

I’d like to look briefly at each of the three sections.

1. How are attitudes and behaviours (and brains) changing?

We are constantly connected nowadays. This is largely due to digital technology. A decade ago there were fewer than 500 million mobile phone subscribers worldwide. Now there are 4.6 Billion. In the UK 50% of children aged between 5 and 9 now own a mobile phone.

One consequence of all this connectivity is that we are continually distracted. As a result we never get a chance to really be by ourselves, which means we never get a chance to really know ourselves. We never get the opportunity to sit quietly and think deeply about who we are and where we are going.

Ironically, this connectivity also means that we tend to be alone even when we are together. You can see this when couples go out to dinner and spend most of their time texting – or when kids get together for play-dates and end up sitting next to each other on separate gaming consoles for hours on end. This is what I call Digital Isolation.

What worries me most though is the quality of our thinking, which I believe is becoming shallow, narrow, cursory, hurried, fractured and thin. This is problematic because originality largely depends on thinking that is deep. Serious creativity, whether it be in business, science or the arts, is largely dependent on thinking that is calm, concentrated, focussed, attentive and above all reflective.

Another implication of constant connectivity and distraction is that it can lead to mistakes, some of which can be fatal. This is what I call Constant Partial Stupidity.

We tend not to fully concentrate on one thing nowadays. Instead, we continually scan the digital environment for new information. And we start to believe that we can do more than one thing at once. But we end up getting distracted again and forget about what we are supposed to be doing. According to a 2009 US study, multi-tasking is becoming the normal state. However, the same study found that the people that multi-task the most are in fact the worst at it.

Heavy multi-taskers are poor at analysis and forward planning. They also lose the ability to ignore irrelevant data. They are suckers for distraction and become bored when they are not constantly and instantly stimulated.

Now it’s quite true that you can always turn the technology off, but most of us don’t because there is cultural pressure to be constantly available and to instantly respond. For example, I know a 13-year old girl that’s on Facebook. She would rather not be but all her friends are and the pressure to remain on is immense.

As for mistakes these can be serious. I don’t know whether you’ll remember Mr de Silva but this was the man that famously used his laptop to get instructions on how to avoid a traffic jam on the M6 motorway. Unfortunately, he was driving a lorry at the time and smashed into a line of cars killing six people.

He is not alone in outsourcing his thinking to a machine. For example, if you can Google any piece of information more or less instantly why bother learning anything? If a Sat Nav can always tell you where you are why worry about situational awareness or bother to learn how to read a map?

Twenty years ago Mr de Silva would have planned ahead. He would have plotted out his journey and would have known roughly where he was due to an elementary knowledge of geography. Nowadays we make everything up on the run and delegate geography to a blind trust in technology.

It seems to me that we need context as well as text. We need to understand principles before we move on to applications. We need breadth and depth not superficial facts. Unless we know how things relate to one another we will just have information. For knowledge we need to understand connections. For wisdom we need to understand consequences.

Second, if everyone is using the same sources what of originality? You might think I’m exaggerating about this but I’m not. Far from creating an intellectual paradise, digitalisation appears to be narrowing our thinking. For example, 99% of Google searches never proceed beyond page 1 of results and academic papers are now citing fewer studies not more.

Third, what if one day the technology doesn’t work? What then? We assume, for instance, that the internet will always work. But what if it doesn’t. What if one day the volume of data becomes so great that it becomes blocked? What if energy shortages disrupt access? What if cyber-attacks become such a problem that things of importance are moved offline? What then?

How many individual or institutions have a plan in case mobiles, email, Sat Nav, Google or the entire internet become unusable?

Part 2

Why does any of this matter? Who cares if our brains are changing? We’ve always invented new things. We’ve always worried about new things and we’ve always moaned about younger generations. Surely most of what I’m saying is conjecture mashed up with middle-aged technology angst?

I think the answer to this is that it’s a little different this time. These things are becoming ubiquitous. They are becoming addictive. They are becoming prescribed.

At the moment we have a choice. We can choose paper over pixels. We can choose to talk to a human being rather than a customer service avatar. But what if one day there is no choice. What if all books become e-books? What if all doctors and teachers are replaced by screens or machines? Perhaps we will start to see technology as instructor, which is not that far from viewing technology as master.

This probably sounds fanciful. But it’s all happening already. Governments and businesses alike are moving everything they can online for the sake of cost or convenience. But I am concerned that while the quantity of communications is increasing exponentially, the quality of our communications may be going backwards. This is damaging our thinking and our relationships. Ideas, for example, are inherently social. They need physical interactions if they are to flourish.

Secondly, and more importantly, people need people too. It seems that one by-product of the digital age is that our relationships are becoming more superficial. Thanks to text messages, e-greetings and social networks we know more people but we know them less well. We have replaced intimacy with familiarity.

It is interesting to note that 10 years ago 1 in 10 Americans said they had nobody to confide in. 10 years on and this figure has jumped to 1 in 4. There are over 300,000 applications for the iPhone but apparently not a single app for loneliness.

I’m sure I will be accused of exaggerating this point but it seems to me that empathy and tolerance of others could be two if the casualties of instant digital culture. If we are constantly looking down, in iPod oblivion as it were, we are less aware of others, some of whom may need our help.

Equally, if we are able to personalise our experience of reality via RSS feeds, Google alerts and friendship requests, it is less likely that we will be confronted with ideas or people that challenge the way we think.

Part 3

The internet is a wonderful invention. I couldn’t do much of what I do today without it. Moreover, I am not declaring war on digital devices. Many of them are extremely useful. Neither am I saying that Google is evil or that Apple is rotten. They are not. I’m just arguing for some level of analogue/digital balance, much in the same way that people argue for work/life balance.

I’m saying that we should think further ahead and question some of our assumptions. Also that technology should be used in combination with human judgement not as a replacement. That we use technology to enhance relationships not to negate them

So what can we do?

The first thing we need to do is think. We need to think about the relative merits of different analogue and digital technologies and pick the very best tools for the job. For example, evidence is emerging that pixels are quite different to paper. When we use screens our minds are set on seek and acquire. This is great for the fast accumulation or distribution of facts.

But with paper it’s different. Our minds are more relaxed, we tend to see context. Our thinking is more curious and questioning.

For example, there’s evidence that people are more reckless with money when it’s digital. It’s as though it belongs to someone else and we spend it impulsively. It’s the same, in my experience, with digital statements and bills. We see them, we scan them with our eyes and we forget them. Paper bills and statements, in contrast, seem to have more weight. We take them more seriously and we are on the look out for things that don’t add up.

There are ten suggestions in the book about how to get find the right balance.

Here are three of them.

First, we should restrict the flow of information. In the US, people consumed 300% more information in 2008 than they did in 1960, so one could argue that it is now attention, not information that is power nowadays.

We should learn how to control the flow of information. We should learn that not all information is useful or trustworthy. And we should remember that, despite the digital revolution, the medium still influences the message. Let me give you an example.

When I was writing the book it occurred to me that I needed some more information about where and when people did their best thinking (“best thinking” being deepest, or most useful etc). I decided I needed 1,000 responses to the question. But then it hit me. If I wanted 1,000 responses I’d need to mail about 50,000 to 100,000 people.

But then I had an idea (in the bath as it happens). If people are busy and don’t know me, asking them to stop and think for a few minutes is a lot to ask. But what if my interruption was unusual? What if, as well as emails and phone calls. I sent typed and handwritten letters?

It worked. I got close to my target of 1,000 responses and got replies from, amongst others, Howard Gardner, Susan Greenfield, James Dyson and Nick Mason from Pink Floyd. I even got an indirect response from the Prince of Wales.

What does this prove? I think it shows that that scarcity still creates value and that if something is easy you should resist it. To paraphrase Jack White, from The White Stripes “Convenience is the disease that you have to fight in any creative field.”

The Second thing you can do is disconnect from time to time. Our brains need to relax. If they don’t they can’t function properly. Without rest our memories are not properly stabilised. Moreover, a lack of sleep can inhibit the formation of new brain cells and can lead to depression and hostility.

So switch your mobile off after 6.30pm each night. It’s interesting to me that we try to set boundaries around screen use for our kids, yet we do not restrict our own usage. So resist the urge to take your BlackBerry on holiday. Don’t answer texts in restaurants and don’t send emails when you are spending time with your kids.

This is important, especially if you have small kids. Much of the concern surrounding the use of mobiles, Facebook and Twitter has been focussed on teens – but adults are a major part of the story.

According to Sherry Turkle at MIT, parental use of digital technology is making kids feel hurt. I’ve seen this myself. Last year I attended a school assembly for Fathers Day. There were about 100 kids aged 5-8 and about 50 dads. About half the dads spent the entire time on BlackBerrys. They were connected but not with their kids.

You can see mums doing similar things. When I was growing up prams faced inwards towards the parent. Mobile phones didn’t exist and there was little choice but for the parent to engage with the child. Next time you see a mother (or father) pushing a pram, look at which way the pram is facing and watch what the parent is doing. Then consider what this lack of engagement might be doing to the child’s development.

Most of all, create the time and space to think. When, for instance, was the last time that you told someone that you were going off “to do a bit of thinking.”

Go for a walk. Build something with your hands. Do something that is superficially mundane, that allows your mind to wander. Allow yourself to become bored once in a while too because boredom is a catalyst for creation.Or, instead of having solitary sandwiches at your desk go out for a lunch with some of your colleagues. You could even invite Dionysus along.

Third, Go to places where ideas can find you. As I mentioned, my research asked people where and when they did their best thinking. So what did people say?

Here’s the top ten in order:

1. When I’m alone
2. Last thing at night or in bed
3. In the shower
4. First thing in the morning
5. In the car
6. Reading a book, newspaper or magazine
7. In the bath
8. Outside
9. Anywhere
10. Running

Interestingly, not a single person mentioned digital technology. Nobody said, “On the phone”, “On Facebook”, “Twitter” or “Google”. Technology, it seems, is good for spreading and developing ideas, but not much use for hatching them.

What I also found fascinating was that only one person said in the office, and they said very early in the morning – in other words, when the building wasn’t really functioning as an office at all.

Why don’t people have good ideas at work? The main reason is that they’re too busy. You need to stop thinking and loose your mind before you can have a good idea.

Did any of the answers I received from people about their thinking spaces have anything in common? I think they did. Scale seems to be important. You need to feel small. That’s probably why so many people mentioned beaches, mountains and churches. In such situations our minds seem to expand to fill the available space. Seeing a distant horizon also appears to help in that our thinking is projected forward.

Movement (especially planes, trains and automobiles) is good, as are environments that are slightly restricted or beyond our control (i.e. a long-haul plane trip where you can’t go anywhere). I imagine prisons are quite good too.

I’ve run out of time so I’ll leave you with one final thought. Technology is not destiny. The human brain is, as far as we know, the most complex structure in the universe. But it has one very simple feature. It is not fixed. It is malleable. It is impressionable to the point where it records every single thing that happens to it.

You might think that text messages, internet searches and Sat Nav’s don’t affect you but you’d be wrong. They already have. The question is therefore not whether they will influence your thinking but how. The real question, though, is whether or not we have the time to change things if we want some things to stay the same.

Now I said at the beginning that I was curious about why you were here. Of course, the answer could be that you aren’t on Facebook or Twitter either. But I don’t think that’s it. I think the reason you are here is because you share similar concerns.

A concern that the global is starting to destabilise the local.

A concern that the virtual is starting to weaken the physical.

A concern that the cold logic of computers is taking the warmth out of human relationships and that digital culture is not a wholly positive development.

Most of all though, I suspect you are here because everyone else is, which is much the same as saying that despite the dexterity of our digital devices, machines are currently incapable of providing three things that people value very highly, namely curiosity, questions and physical connection.

Thank you very much.

Future Minds on Moncole Weekly

How can anyone have anything remotely interesting to say every single day? OK, it’s called being a journalist, but they have a bit of help. Nothing whatsoever to report today other than say I had a really fun time being interviewed by the folks over at Monocle recently (Monocle Weekly issue 73) and that I’m off to talk to the National Association of Pension Funds. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

Future Minds Map (final version)

Here it is at last. The story here is that my UK publisher wanted a map for my new book (Future Minds). I said he couldn’t have one. I had exhausted the subway map genre and couldn’t think how else you’d do it.

I did about 4-5 maps over the next 12-months (just to show it didn’t really work) but then stumbled upon old maps. I like that very old maps have bits missing. The territory is not fully explored. Moreover, people are often looking for something of value. I also remembered making treasure maps by hand as a kid, especially the ones where you’d burn the edges with a candle or stain them with cold tea to make them look old.

This one took a week I’d guess. The first hand-drawn versions weren’t quite right. Then I tried doing it on a computer but that seemed to go against the grain of my main argument, which is that digital technology is eroding deep thinking and human relationships. We are in a constant rush and distracted the whole time. I should take my time.

The map also looked rather cool hand-drawn. Of course, I kept making silly mistakes, which meant starting over each time. This final version also contains a mistake, but the mistake makes a point.

I’d gone into the garage to get some peace and quiet and had done 90% of the map when I started to write Skype. Then my mobile rang (I think it was Ian Jedlin from KPMG – I’d forgotten to switch it off). I said I couldn’t talk right now because I was doing something that needed concentration (too embarrassing to admit what someone on the wrong side of forty was actually doing) so I said I’d call him back later and I went back to writing Skype (bottom right of frame) but proceeded to write “Sype” Instead. Oh bugger.

This map is largely for fun (and makes a nice counter-point to the digital style book cover) but there are some ideas (or at least conversation starters) buried in it. Here are a few of them…

Mountains of interruptions
Peak of attention
Plains of boredom
Sea of infinite content
Constant partial stupidity (i.e. “sype”)
Sleep debt
Locational privacy
Marshland of ideas
Social media shoals
Islands of group think
Digital isolation
Digital nomads
Digital diets

The question, of course, is where are we on the map right now and where are we heading or where do we want to go? BTW, the map is published under a Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike License, which means anyone can do more or less whatever they like with it.

URL for map here: