On Assignment

Kevin Kelly went to Asia in the early 1970s having never held a pair of chopsticks.

He took a change of clothes and 500 rolls of film in his backpack, because he was, as he puts it, “on assignment” to photograph daily life and traditional culture wherever he went. He stayed for most of the decade.

He was 19 years old and going to visit a friend in Taiwan. He had some experience as a photographer but hadn’t really held much in the way of chopsticks, professionally speaking. But he was on assignment. From himself. Aged 19.

I am going to make a badge and wear it every day:

Driverless Crocodile: On Assignment.

KK was interviewed on Ralph Potts’ Deviate podcast.

Time Travel (2)

The Future is here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.

William Gibson

There’s a second way to look at this. If looking at other places can help us see the future, it can also help us see the past.

One of the things I love about Jakarta is that sometimes it feels like living in Blade Runner (shiny buildings, giant LED screens, life in air conditioned bubbles) and Dickens’ London (dingy alleyways, door-to-door tradesmen, whole families sleeping packed into tiny rooms, pointless death from preventable causes) at the same time.

More on that another time – today I’m interested in how looking ‘back’ can throw our values into sharper relief. I notice:

  • More time, and less rushing – time to pass the day with people. It’s rude to rush.
  • Generosity that’s sometimes hard to get your head around, especially from the poorest. I’ll never forget the generosity of friends who have almost nothing but will give me a snack, a drink, a meal almost every time I visit. I’ve learnt to receive more easily here.
  • People who live so close together often have a better understanding of just how contingent life is. They see more babies born, live and sometimes sleep alongside three or four generations of their family, prepare and bury their own people. Closer to life, closer to death.
  • There’s a DIY ethos here – the men of the neighbourhood butchered their own animals at the feast of the sacrifice. They’re not professionals – but it means a lot more for it.

I hope to come back to this theme – there’s more to say. Each of these values – and others like ‘tradition’, ‘family’, ‘community’ – have their wonderful upsides and their suffocating drawbacks, and we see plenty of both.

Can we keep more of the good parts of our culture as it changes?

Can we reclaim the longed-for things we’ve lost?

What can I do to make your job easier?

I ask each member of my team this question at the end of the ‘Any Other Business’ part of our meeting.

I used to think of it as a management question: what can I do – or stop doing – that will make you better at your job?

And it’s a great management question.

It’s also a really helpful question to bear in mind when you’re working on a product or process, and when talking to customers.

  • How can our skills help you achieve your goals?
  • How can we make our curriculum (product) easier to use? Could we make it fun to use?
  • Can we change our training materials (product, service) so that training is easier to deliver, and teachers learn the most important things better and faster?
  • How can I organise information so that it’s easy for my team to tell customers what they want to know: what we offer, how much it costs, what they get in exchange for their money and time, and when and how they can get it?
  • What can I do to make reporting (process) as easy and as light touch is possible, and generates information that is useful – and actually gets used?

Everyone wins when you ask questions like these, listen, and take action.

Three Things

“You get work, however you get work.

“But people keep working in a freelance world, and more and more of today’s world is freelance, because their work is good, and because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And you don’t even need all three. Two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. People will forgive the lateness of your work if it’s good, and if they like you. And you don’t have to be as good as everyone else if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.’

Neil Gaiman

I love this. Numbers two and three are relatively simple.

Now for the hard bit:

  • Go away, think again about your values. Did you forget kindness the first time round? or fun?).
  • Reconsider your vision in the light of experience. It’s always an MVP.
  • Then define “good work”. Your best work.

Time Travel (1)

The Future is here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.

William Gibson

There are ways in which we can all see the future, And ways we can learn to see possibilities and bring them into being.

One way of seeing the future is to look at those ‘unevenly distributed’ pockets where it’s already arrived. What new technologies – in the broad sense, including both new gadgets and new ways of thinking, organising work or doing things – what new technologies are overcoming old obstacles and enabling change? How might they be relevant you and your organisation?

Some examples

Here are some concrete examples: the things I’ve got my eye on for my work in education in Indonesia. None of them are really that new – not even new for Indonesia – but they’re new for education in Indonesia, especially in education for the poorest. My questions are:

  • Is it possible that the amazingly rich children’s book culture of, say, the UK, could flourish here? What would it take to grow a ‘children’s canon’ of locally written and published books that were widely known and loved, and a tribe of children’s authors who were household names? Room to Read and the Asia Foundation’s Let’s Read! Asia program are already doing great work to encourage this, but there’s so much more to do.
  • What possibilities will develop for literacy education and teacher training as internet access becomes ubiquitous, even in the most remote areas? What things that have been scarce up to now – teaching resources, teacher training – will become less scarce, or even abundant?
  • What needs to happen so that high-quality electronic teaching and learning resources of the sort already established on the English-language-and-culture internet are available in Indonesian – and then in local languages?
  • Does the open-source movement in software and hardware offer a useful model for developing the above? If enough people start using resources, some of them might share improved versions back into the system, while also localising resources for their own contexts (e.g. to regional languages and culture, or for the needs of a particular group of people)
  • Would a set of widely accepted open-source standards for specific aspects of education, and for teacher training and curriculum development as a whole, be a helpful scaffold for this process?

Further reading

  • If open source is something you’re interested in, you could start by reading Eric S. Raymond’s classic open-source manifesto, The Cathedral and the Bazaar. It’s free!
  • If you’re interested in open-source education standards and resources – or better still, open-source education and standards for Indonesia, you might be interested in an article (.pdf – see page 6) that I wrote for the HEAD Foundation’s magazine THink.

If you’d like to talk about open-source education and standards, including for Indonesia, please get in touch via the contact page.

*Here’s an attempt to embed the .pdf for direct download:

**It worked!


Note to self: what seems important to you from moment to moment often isn’t what’s most important.

With your family; with friends and neighbours; with colleagues; with strangers – what are you like?

And what will you wish you’d been like when they’re not around anymore?

Smarter? Richer? Funnier? More driven or effective? Probably not.

The word I keep coming back to is “kind”.

I don’t want to find myself wishing I’d been kinder.

Human choices – a tale of two janitors

I’ve just been listening to Tim O’Reilly, who’s in the running for the driverlesscroc thought-leader of the week award.*

*There is no award.**

**More to the point: crikey, what would Zinsser say about that sentence?

O’Reilly was talking about the unequal distribution of wealth from the technological explosion, and said this:

… the idea that companies should basically focus on their core competency and treat all those people really well, and outsource all the rest, and its lead to this incredible divergence in our economy, and I think it’s a really pernicious idea. We have to figure out how to get our hands around that.

Because it isn’t technology that is causing this problem – it’s our choices as a society. It’s our values in our companies.

Tim O’Reilly at SXSW2018 (full video below)

Values question: What are you doing to help the people who work with you – or for you – to grow? It makes sense to be generous to scarce, highly skilled people, because of course you want to keep them. It means more to be generous to lower-skilled workers and help them learn what they need to know so that they can make a bigger contribution to your organisation, or to someone else’s (it’s not just your future that you’re building, after all). It’s the right thing to do.

(O’Reilly refers to ‘A Tale of Two Janitors’ in the New York Times – it’s worth a read.)

WTF? Technology and you

WTF: What’s the Future?

Tim O’Reilly
Gyroscopic ‘deflector’ gunsights like this Ferranti Mark IID helped WW2 pilots to aim ahead of enemy planes to where the target would be by the time their bullets arrived.
(Imperial War Museum)

If you’re doing meaningful work, you’re trying to hit a moving target, and your job isn’t made any easier by how fast the world is changing.

These resources should help you calibrate your ‘deflector gunsight’ by giving you a sense of where technology seems to be going, hopefully giving you a better task of hitting what you’re aiming for. This is one that I’ll update periodically, adding texture or new resources.

The Kevin Kelly Section

Kevin Kelly – co-founder of Wired magazine, omnivorous techno-hippy – gets his own section. He’s funny and humane, and good at identifying trends and tendencies in tech and extrapolating these into the future. One of the many helpful ideas I’ve taken from KK is the realisation that we’re actually only at the beginning of the computer revolution. It feels like something that’s already happened – ‘if only I’d made a website in 1993’ – but Kelly argues that a hundred years from now people people will look back on this time as a golden age and say, ‘I wish I’d started then.’

KK Books

New Rules for the New Economy: Radical Strategies for a Connected World
Kevin Kelly wrote this in 1995, predicting almost everything that happened with the internet between then and now, and it still feels incredibly relevant. And it’s free on his blog. Read and re-read in installments

What Technology Wants
It gets slow in places, but looking at technology as a new zoological ‘kingdom’ gives a whole new set of fascinating – and at times scary – insights.

The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces that will Shape our Future
This is on my ‘to read’ list. I guess it’s an update and extension of ‘New Rules’, and I’m looking forward to find out

KK in Podcasts

Tim Ferriss show Ep 25: Kevin Kelly – WIRED Co-Founder, Polymath, Most Interesting Man In The World
A decent introduction and a fun listen

Tim Ferris Show #166: Kevin Kelly – AI, Virtual Reality, and The Inevitable
Unpacking ‘The Inevitable’ and a lot of other stuff

Econtalk, June 20 2016: The Inevitable
More free audio, with the great Russ Roberts poking around KK’s ideas and their implications for the economy.

Other Resources

The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution
Walter Isaacson’s fantastic story of the digital revolution runs from the mid-1800s to very-nearly now. The audiobook is great. A key theme is how technology accumulates incrementally, as well as in great leaps forward – and the importance of teams and culture (as opposed to great individuals), and of private and government-sponsored contributions to technological advance.

The Second Machine Age – Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies
Erik Brynjolfsson – on the list. Features in an econtalk episode.

Tim Ferris Show #297 – Bob Metcalfe — The Man (and Lessons) Behind Ethernet, Metcalfe’s Law, and More
Another fascinating Silicon Valley story

Econtalk, August 28 2017 – Benedict Evans on the Future of Cars
One of my favourite Econtalk episodes. Evans’ discussion of the evolution of cars is fascinating, and there’s a lot to learn from the way he thinks about the future.

WTF?: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us
Tim O’Reilly – it’s on the ‘to read’ list.

Econtalk October 5th 2015: Tim O’Reilly on Technology and Work
Econtalk October 9th 2017 – Tim O’Reilly on What’s the Future
I’m flagging these as much for myself as for anyone else here – I think they were good?

There’s a lot by Seth Godin that could end up in here too…

To be continued…

Marketing the internet

Often, we market products or services that solve problems that people already know they have. We offer a better app, or a better screwdriver, or a better way of doing something, and our job is to convince people that it is better – ‘better-enough’ that people are prepared to pay the cost of switching. 

That’s one way to sell.

There’s another, more fun way, that I was reminded of on an episode of Econtalk, where Russ Roberts interviews Tim O’Reilly. O’Reilly talks about writing and selling the ‘first popular book about the internet’, The Whole Internet Users Guide and Catalogue. When the book came out, there were only about 200 websites world wide.

A key moment came when Brian Irwin, his VP of marketing told him:

Nobody cares about your book. What we ought to do is go out and market the internet.

Brian Irwin / Tim O’Reilly

So they started talking to people and holding their own conferences and events, and sure enough, when people wanted books about the internet – how to use it, how to code and run websites – they bought from O’Reilly Media.

O’Reilly says that in those days, people would talk about his company’s books as “the books that built the internet” – and that it was true. Future web billionaires built their empires using O’Reilly’s 30 dollar books, which led them to coin their slogan:

We create more value than we capture.

Tim O’Reilly / O’Reilly Media

A broken promise

I was on the receiving end of a broken promise a couple of weeks ago: a cancelled flight. The airline gave me a refund, but nothing for out of pocket expenses or lost time.

They won’t reimburse me me because I didn’t accept their offer of a recovery flight, despite the proposed flight getting to my destination several hours after my return flight would have left.

I don’t mind the cancelled flight as much as I mind the ridiculous reasoning that we would all somehow have been better off if I’d arrived in another country after midnight with no onward flight, no accommodation, and no chance of doing what I went there to do.

This is their chance to make good their promise as a good company – to do the right thing, apologise, and fix something broken.

So far, policy is trumping that promise. It’s depressing, and it’s a reminder to me in my own work that care, doing the right thing, and taking responsibility for my actions, should win out over policy every time.