A book is a souvenir of an idea.Seth Godin – on The Good Life Project
You come in here, and you see something, and you go “Oh yeah!” and then you can go do something.
Whereas who knows where it is on my harddrive?
They’re like old friends.
I think that the magic [of a book] is sort of like how people used to talk about radio, as “Theatre of the Mind.” You would hear things but you’d have to put the pictures on in your head.
Books are even more than that because you don’t even hear it, you have to add the voice, the noise in your head.
What is magic about books… is that it’s the only form of media that can be reliably produced by mostly one person, but that stands the taste of time.
A tweet goes away, a Facebook update goes away, a movie you need like a hundred people.
So this is like that sweet spot inbetween where I can say “Every word in this book I wrote, I thought about it for a year, it’s what I was thinking about at the time. Here.”
And twenty years from now and fifty years from now, you can still read it.
I’ve just spent a thoroughly enjoyable day at the first Jakarta International Literary Festival. I sat in on two Symposiums*: The Southern Common Themes Dilemma, moderated by Nukila Aman and featuring Legodile Seganabeng, Sharlene Teo, Intan Paramaditha, and Nukila Aman; and The Need for a Southern Canon, moderated by Stephanos Stephanides and featuring Ramon Guillermo, Hilmar Farid and Adania Shibli.
The atmosphere was friendly and inclusive, even if the themes were challenging, and the presentations were rich and thought-provoking.
The idea of canon – the body of texts regarded as ‘core’ or ‘important’ – was central to the discussion:
- Is a Southern Canon (in opposition to the Western one) even possible?
- If possible, is it desirable?
- Who shapes the canon?
- Who gains from the canon, and who loses out?
- What does a canon enable?
- What are its dangers, and who might it exclude?
Who sets up the library of world literature?Intan Paramaditha
Canon as emergent network
Ramon Guillermo shared some interesting research about networks of production and reception of South-East Asian literature between major cities, and I think this idea is fruitful with respect to the canon itself: canon as a dynamic network of texts and readers. Books gain prominence (‘become more canonical’) in the network through connection to readers and other books. Readers and writers draw themselves into the conversation by latching onto books, pulling themselves in and re-configuring the network as they go by drawing new connections between books and readers – often by the simple act of saying “you should read this – it’s great.”
No-one makes the canon. We can take a snapshot of it in time, but we can’t freeze it or control it (though people have tried, even succeeded – for a while).
Canon as fence
From the edge of the network, the canon looks like a fence. Connections – or rather, connections involving you – are few and tentative. It’s hard to be heard. There may even be influential voices talking over you, directing attention elsewhere, unpicking your connections.
There isn’t a way to ‘fix’ these voices – the very fact of their being so wrong from where we’re standing means that they don’t matter. The answer to being on the edge of the network is to strengthen the parts of the network that matter to you – your conversations, your books… talk to the people who get it, and not worry about the rest. If your contribution resonates – if it speaks to enough books and people in the net – it will route itself around points of resistance (like packet-switched data), tie you closer into the network and – either quickly, or slowly (it may be that someone else makes the connections for you after you’ve died in obscurity) – you’ll find yourself somewhere in the canon.** Other people may not like you being there, but that’s fine – it’s not for them (and they’re probably not for you).
It’s not for you.Seth Godin***
Canon as trampoline
If the canon is simply the most visible part of the network of readers and books (and writers), its existence is inevitable for as long as we read and talk about books.
Stephanos Stephanides suggested that the advantage of a canon is that it gives us something to point at – a way of seeing the network, of drawing attention to how it operates that allows us to critique and deconstruct it.
He’s right: this is canon as trampoline, a net(of)work we jump on and push against, launching ourselves to places we wouldn’t – couldn’t – go in its absence. The harder we jump – diving head-first into what we love, stomping two-footed on what we object to – the further we fly.
Foundation. Launchpad. Cannon.
*The plural for this may be symposia, but it sounds ridiculous
**It’s worth remembering, though, that the canon excludes almost everyone – including most of those at the center
***Seth Godin has a lot of good stuff to say about getting books and ideas into the world.
A business that does not show a profit at least equal to its cost of capital is irresponsible; it wastes society’s resources. Economic profit performance is the base without which business cannot discharge any other responsibilities, cannot be a good employer, a good citizen, a good neighbor.
But economic performance is not the only responsibility of a business any more than education is the only responsibility of a school or health care the only responsibility of a hospital.
Every organisation must assume responsibility for its impact on employees, the environment, customers, and whoever and whatever it touches.
That is social responsibility. But we also know that society will increasingly look to major organizations, for-profit and non-profit alike, to tackle major social ills. And there we had better be watchful, because good intentions are not always socially responsible. It is irresponsible for an organisation to accept – let alone to pursue – responsibilities that would impede its capacity to perform its main task and mission, or to act where it has no competence.
Peter Drucker – Managing in a time of Great Change
If you’ve ever wondered if you’re looking at (or writing) a forward, preface, introduction or something else, you may find this helpful:
Parts of a Book from iUniverse.
The engine inside a car is complicated. A complicated system is a causal system – meaning that it is subject to cause and effect. Although it may have many parts, they will interact with one another in highly predictable ways. Problems with complicated systems have solutions. This means that, within reason, a complicated system can be fixed with a high degree of confidence… here, experts can detect patterns and provide solutions based on established good practice…
Traffic, on the other hand, is complex. A complex system is not causal, it’s dispositional. We can make informed guesses about what it is likely to do (its disposition), but we can’t be sure. We can make predictions about the weather, but we can’t control it. Unlike complicated problems, complex problems cannot be solved, only managed. They cannot be controlled, only nudged. This is the domain of the butterfly effect, where a small change can lead to something big, and a big change can barely make a dent. Here expertise can be a disadvantage if it becomes dogma or blinds us to the inherent uncertainty present in our situation.
Complex systems are typically made up of a large number of interacting components – people, ants, brain cells, startups – that together exhibit emergent behavior without requiring a leader or central control. As a result, complex systems are more about the relationships and interactions among their components than about the components themselves. And these interactions give rise to unpredictable behavior. If a system surprises you, or has the potential to surprise you, it is likely complex. Software is complicated. Creating a software startup is complex. An airplane is complicated. What happens between people on board is complex. An assault rifle is complicated. Gun control is complex. Building a skyscraper is complicated. Cities are complex.
Aaron Dignan – Brave New Work
Some other complex (adaptive)* systems to bear in mind:
- Your body – and pretty much all of the parts within it
- Your thoughts, perceptions, moods
- Your family
- Your community
- A classroom / school / seminar / conference
- A team or organisation
- An airport / shopping centre / supply chain
- A forest / the climate
Conclusion: Most of the institutions that are important to us are complex adaptive systems that are themselves made up of of complex adaptive systems. The downside of this is that simple cause and effect thinking is far less useful than in a complicated system. The upside is that the right kind of butterfly could cause a wonderful storm…
The book is excellent so far. Thanks to Sharky for the tip.
*More on ‘adaptive’ in a future post
… and my forthcoming post, Machine. Ecosystem. – which has been sitting unwritten since September.
You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.James Clear – Atomic Habits
If you want things to be easier tomorrow, it really helps to have strong systems in place. Most of the important things that you do go a lot better if you have a system for making sure that they happen:
- a regular commitment to eat something delicious with family or friends
- a standing order for the amount you’ve decided to invest every month… and save for maintenance of your house/car/wardrobe… and pay for life insurance (see Barefoot)
- something that will make sure you exercise
- a habit that will help you to learn
- something fun that you’ll get a kick out of doing
You get the idea. Even creative work (perhaps especially creative work) benefits when you make regular time and space for it. What happens in the space might be different every time, but if there’s no space, nothing will happen.
Even if you really can’t stand to make a system for creativity, having systems for other things in your life will make spontaneity possible far more often.
Atomic Habits is a good place to start – check out his interview with James Clear on the Read to Lead Podcast.
My last post got me thinking again about the toolkit for making change and building a good future. What follows started out as the tail of that post but grew too long, so I’ve cut it off and put it here as a springboard to bounce off (or a wave to ride) later.
So here are some tools…
There are a set of practices and principles – many of them falling under the umbrella of normal ‘management’ – that are well-established and effective for running organisations. You will need to tailor them to your context, but understanding and applying them will make an enormous difference to your ability to build and run a sustainable and effective organisation. Drucker and Tom Peters are great places to start for foundational principles. Books like Financial Intelligence and 4DX are great for specifics.
There’s an overlapping set from the world of small business, startups and bootstrapping that will help you build the thing from nothing in the first place, and make it sustainable. The E-myth (which I’ve just discovered is available for a great price on amazon) is great for establishing operations (and overlaps with the previous category), as is Steve Blank‘s Startup Owners Manual (amazon) in combination with Alex Osterwalder‘s Business Model Generation (amazon). I’ll make a post of videos and audio by these people and put a link to it here.
There are resources for thinking about marketing in the deep sense – making something that people want or need and sharing it with them in such a way that they see its value and talk about it to others – is another overlapping area. I’d start with Seth Godin – probably This is Marketing (amazon) or Purple Cow (amazon) – and throw in Bernadette Jiwa’s The Fortune Cookie Principle (amazon) as another good starting point.
And there’s a whole load of writing about personal growth and effectiveness that really helps you to get these things done…
And I’ve clearly gone down a rabbit hole, so I’ll stop here.
I love Tim Harford‘s stuff, and I’m surprised he hasn’t featured here before.
50 Things that Made the Modern Economy is a delightful romp through economic history from cuneiform to mobile money transfers by way of clocks and the Haber-Bosch process. For a more detailed review try this one by a chap called Ian Mann, who finishes off by describing it as ‘an intellectual smorgasbord’. He’s right… and it’s free on the podcasting app of your choice.
It’s a long time since I read The Undercover Economist, and I mainly remember the discussion of the positioning of coffee shops in the great opening chapter, and a story about a library with a leaky roof towards the end (?) where it tailed off…
I was going to recommend Messy, but it turns out that the book I was thinking was actually Adapt, which was, as I recall, quite good. One of these books contains a good riff on how a large pile of papers on your desk is actually quite a good filing system – as long as you put the last piece of paper you touched on top.
T.H. is rather prolific, but I came here to recommend a recent TED talk, A Powerful Way to Unleash your Natural Creativity, in which he casts multitasking not as the villain but as the unlikely hero of creativity, intellectual enrichment, and general greatness… as long as it’s multitasking of the slow-motion variety, which he describes as intellectual CrossFit. I can only assume he’s read Hinterland and my posts on networks and hybrids.
Computers have been on a steady march toward us. At first, computers were housed in distant air-conditioned basements, then they moved to nearby small rooms, then they crept closer to us perched on our desks, then they hopped onto our laps, and recently they snuck into our pockets. The next obvious step for computers is to lay against our skin. We call those wearables. … You may have seen this coming, but the only way to get closer than wearables over our skin is to go under our skin.
In the coming decades we’ll keep expanding what we interact with. The expansion follows three thrusts:
1. More Senses
… Of course, everything will get eyes (vision is almost free), and hearing, but one by one we can add superhuman senses such as GPS location sensing, heat detection, X-ray vision, diverse molecule sensitivity, or smell. These permit our creations to respond do us, to interact with us, and to adapt themselves to our uses. Interactivity, by definition, is two way, so this sensing elevates our interactions with technology.
2. More intimacy
The zone of interaction will continue to march closer to us. Technology will get closer to us than a watch and pocket phone. … Intimate technology is a wide-open frontier. We think technology has saturated our private space, but we will look back in 20 years and realize it was still far away in 2016.
3. More immersion
Maximum interaction demands that we leap into the technology itself. That’s what VR allows us to do. Computation so close that we are inside it.** From within a technologically created world, we interact with each other in new ways (virtual reality) or interact with the physical world in a new way (augmented reality). Technology becomes a second skin.**Kevin Kelly – The Inevitable
** Think about this – computers outside and a long way away from us, then closer and closer, then inside us – and then we’re inside it. Does this in fact happen with more technologies – and is it true of our environment as a whole?
*** Of course, technology has been a second skin for millennia – that’s what clothes are.****
**** Starting with animal hide – literally, a second skin.
Here’s a DC-related hitlist for the first part of 2019… images link to Amazon UK.
The Invisible Killer: The Rising Global Threat of Air Pollution – and How We can Fight Back – Garry Fuller
A gift from Sharky. Necessary reading for someone living in Jakarta. Or anywhere.
The Inevitable – Kevin Kelly
This is Marketing – Seth Godin
Seth has written and produced so much helpful stuff centred (increasingly) around doing ‘work that matters for people who care.’ This is his first book for five years or so, and he describes it as a distillation of the most important things he knows about marketing.
Execution: The Discipline of Getting things Done – Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan
Apparently a classic which will help me get things done.
The 4 Disciplines of Execution – Chris McChesney, Sean Covey and Jim Huling
Recommended by a good friend who does business growth for a living. This is also going to help me get things done.
Leveraged Learning – Danny Iny
A jumping off point for thinking about the challenges and opportunities in education today.
Forgotten Wars – The End of Britain’s Asian Empire – Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper
More for the Hinterland… I found the prequel to this hugely enriching to my understanding of SE Asia. This was a Christmas present a year ago, and I owe it time this year.
Defeat Into Victory – William Slim
Slim played an important part in the history described above – he’s an interesting guy and a great case study. This is a book to enrich (i.e. network with) Forgotten Wars – and vice-versa.
The Daily Drucker – Peter Drucker
Drucker is excellent. I’ll be dipping in and out of this throughout the year.