The book that never was

Not all of my books make it. This is the introduction from a book that’s been junked….


“The other day I was thinking, “I just over think things.” And then I thought. “Do I though?” – Demetri Martin, Comedian.

This book is a gentle plea for more thinking. Specifically, it’s an appeal for a calmer, slower, deeper, more reflective, more deliberate and longer-term mind-set in everything from business and politics to holidays and household chores.

I initially thought of calling this book How to Think, but then I instinctively thought that perhaps people don’t want to be told how to think. Surely thinking is an instinctive skill that doesn’t need thinking about. But is this true? Have you ever thought about this?

We aren’t generally taught how to think at school and we don’t think deeply about our thinking very much thereafter. This is a great shame, because our thinking, and especially our imagination, is perhaps the most precious natural resource we’ve got on earth. But it’s being polluted by everything from endless streams of interruption to the unsustainable demands of narrow and numerically-based financial markets. Our liberty to think openly and freely is also being eroded, both by universities supporting ‘no platform’ policies and by the visceral hatred endemic in much of our polarising political culture.

This hasn’t always been the case, and it’s not true everywhere either. But our fixation with doing everything as quickly as possible is making us, our institutions and society infirm. Even weekends and holidays, which were once times for relaxation and reflection, have been invaded by digital devices that demand our constant attention and disconnect us from our true selves. I might be wrong, but the collateral damage of our hyper-connected world might be people that are less connected, both to themselves, and the wider world around them. Our mental focus, like our education systems, is shrinking when it should be expanding. We need to bring back breadth, depth, lifelong wonder and curiosity.

There have been a number of books about the neuroscience of thinking, especially how our sly subconscious gets us into so much trouble. We are surrounded by the debris of this on a daily basis. We rush into roles, responsibilities and relationships without properly thinking, or we think about things in a singular, linear and unconnected manner. We ignore the layered lessons of history, the cyclical nature fashion and the counter-forces that often emerge in response to any significant innovation or event.

Books about creativity and innovation abound too, but these tend to exist within a sterile vacuum divorced from real world pressures, organisational psychologies and institutional pathologies. Have you tried really thinking at work? Without permission? For a whole day? Without getting reprimanded? Or what of the impact of mood on thinking? Why don’t we think about this more often? Why are we so careless with the physical environments in which we expect our co-workers to think and our children to learn? Why is our obsession with external architecture so often to the exclusion of the other sensory elements, for example the architecture of touch, sound and smell?

On all counts, the result is thinking that’s becoming increasingly timid, lazy, sterile and one-dimensional, which is making us open to unmanageable surprises.

I would like to address all these issues and more, but from a positive perspective. I am less concerned about why things go wrong and more interested in how to put them right. How can we manipulate our meddlesome minds to make them more attuned to emerging opportunities and risks? How can we become more sensitive to the faint murmurs that are so often the forerunners of change? How should we embolden individuals and organisations alike to filter out utter nonsense, spot valuable anomalies or realise the significance of an overheard anecdote? How, for instance, might an organisation use smell to increase productivity?

Most importantly, we are possibly on the cusp of a radical revolution in artificial intelligence and advanced machine learning. How might we educate our minds – and those of our children and our children’s children – to be open, adaptive and resilient in disruptive environments? How should we think when machines can do this for us? How can we ensure that one of the major consequences of machines that can think isn’t people that don’t or needn’t? How do we guard against a situation where human complacency or disenfranchisement means we no longer ask questions like these?

I think the answer to this is to become very good at the things these machines are very bad at. In short, we must work tirelessly to unleash our unique ability to think imaginatively, ethically and empathetically and inspire others to do the same. And to do all this, and much more besides, I believe we need a moderate level of disconnection and a significant amount of time. Without this no stable sense of self can emerge. Only when we are firmly anchored in ourselves can we hold conversations from which new ideas and insights will emerge. Only when we achieve a graceful, joyous, lightness of being can we float above our everyday existence and correctly perceive, and solve, the global challenges that lie ahead.

We cannot construct a long-term strategy for human accomplishment, let alone one for the survival of our species, when we are smothered by busyness, distracted by ephemera or constantly running to keep up with the accelerated present.

Sit down, turn off your phone, switch on your attention and come with me for a gentle stroll down some hidden paths of perception and possibility.

Could we walk away from the internet or give up our devices?

I’ve thought about putting this thought into the ether before, but I’m all too aware of confirmation bias and the fact that what I’m about to say might be the future I want rather than the future that is unfolding. I’m also far too aware of the words of the writer Douglas Adams, who said that: “anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.”

So, I’m being cautious. Nevertheless, I’m becoming aware of a rising tide of discontent regarding Big Tech, social media and smartphone use. A number of people I’ve met recently are also starting to articulate a future with no internet in it or at the very least a future where we have a significantly altered and re-balanced relationship with the internet and our devices.

Exhibit 1. A London lawyer in his twenties that I met last week could foresee a time when people become so disillusioned with the internet, smart phones and social media that they drift away from it. Key issues for him were data security, individual privacy and a lack of censorship with regard to unacceptable material (e.g. easy access of pornography by young kids with smartphones at school).

Exhibit 2. I forecast a Big Tech Backlash two years ago and it appears on my map of megatrends published back in May. I was in Silicon Valley a few weeks ago and while I’m used to reading articles about Facebook being the anti-Christ there was a fairly hostile opinion piece about Google in the US edition of Wired magazine of all places. There was also an article about throwing technology out of younger years education in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Exhibit 3: I’m starting to see words like ‘addition’ being used on an almost daily basis in relation to digital technology.

Exhibit 4: The attitudes and behaviour of Uber recently/generally.

Exhibit 5: The fact that owning the latest smart phone isn’t cool in parts of Silicon Valley. (see also the popularity of ‘dumb phones’).

Exhibit: 6: UK schools starting to end their ‘do as you want/anything goes’ policy regarding the use of technology on school premises. One school I know personally has gone as far as banning pupils from using mobiles during the day. iPad hysteria in educational circles also seems to have died down.

Exhibit 7: Remember e-cards? Exactly. They were the future a decade ago, but it eventually dawned on us that digital can be sterile and characterless while analogue can be sensory. People are sending me handwritten cards again. Also witness the re-birth of vinyl records, paper books and fountains pens. Sending someone an e-card for Xmas might be convenient or cheap, but it can signify that you too are cheap and can’t be bothered to invest time or effort in a relationship. Can deep human needs and desires trump convenience or price?

It should be noted here (because it rarely is) that digital and physical are different on many levels. It’s not so much embracing the one and rejecting the other (a rather binary outlook) but rather working out which is better in a particular context or circumstance.

Exhibit 8: If digital tech is so great why do so many senior people working for companies like Apple and Google send their kids to schools like the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, where there’s virtually no computer to be found? Schools such as this one are increasingly arguing that computers and learning don’t mix well, diminishing attention, inhibiting creativity, and weakening human relationships. This might please Eric Schmidt at Google, who once said, ‘I still believe that sitting down and reading a book is the best way to really learn something.’ (See exhibit 6).

Exhibit 9: The behaviour of teens. Filters on Instagram are becoming passe. Facebook is dead in the water in developed markets and back in schools smart kids are revising using paper cards because, as one explained to me: “you remember things better.”

Exhibit 10: Not an exhibit, but an idea. There are surely events that could radically reshape the digital landscape. What if Google or Facebook were redefined as publishers rather than technology platforms, for example? What if they were regulated in exacatly the same way as a newspaper or TV station? What if they were viewed as monopolies and broken up? Or what if Google simply decided to charge a cent for every search? The biggest vulnerability beyond all this, it seems to me, is simply that the ad model breaks down. Take advertising away and a significant chunk of the internet simply ceases to exist.

These are minor and largely anecdotal examples, but worth watching all the same.

BTW, one thing that isn’t being commonly discussed, surprisingly, is the idea that the data that many tech companies create value from is our data, stolen from us largely without our explicit consent. (oh please, you think people really read those terms and conditions?)

Edinburgh International Book Festival

I’m off to Edinburgh on Friday to speak at the Edinburgh festival (12.30 Saturday, Garden Theatre). I’m inclined to somehow weave in the following quote.

“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end,… We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”

Henry David Thoreau

Interesting thoughts relating to this here.