The future of now

In fact we can provide many examples of verifiable phenomena, such as the particle/wave duality of certain entities, that seem to contradict the manner in which experience tells us the world works. Similarly, with Time the fact that we experience it as a linear procession of events does not mean that’s what Time truly is; or that it even exists for that matter. So let’s posit a possible description of true Time. Basically, imagine a vantage point with respect to Time whereby you can see all events at once. When you observe it from this vantage point, Time is not linear. Instead, from this view, you see that events that exist in spacetime do not really precede or follow each other and therefore probably cannot be said to cause each other either. They exist all at once so to speak.
— Sergio De La Pava, A Naked Singularity

Nothing, nothing mattered and I knew very well why. He also knew why. From the depths of my future, throughout all this absurd life I had lived, a gathering wind swept towards me, stripping bare along its path everything that had been possible in the years gone by, years that seemed just as unreal as the ones that lay ahead.
— Albert Camus, The Outsider

Life is always in between. Life was what happened while you were waiting around for other things to happen. Life was what sprang up in the places you never thought to look. In between.
— James Sallis, Death Will Have Your Eyes

When does the past stop and the future begin? What about that void, that in-between, we know as the present? Author James Sallis observes that every day we reconstruct ourselves out of the salvage of our yesterdays. Past lessons and memories carry us across the in-between. How to blend them with the occasional glance futurewards? How to marry what we know with the potential and opportunities offered by social change and technological advancement? I have to confess that, while agreeing wholeheartedly with the sentiment, I find the phrase the future of work highly problematic. If we are truly building cathedrals of change, then we either need to be laying foundations or constructing on top of existing ones. Action needs to be taking place in the Now, continuing tomorrow and persisting into a vague, hazy and distant future too.

There is a danger that the future of work has already become a vacuous term, in the same way that social business and Enterprise 2.0 have. It is a momentary hit, like fast food, delivered by clever and manipulative marketeers chasing a dollar and an ego massage. There is a need either to reclaim the phrase and properly define what it means or move on. That said, it was interesting for me to be invited this week to speak about the concept at a couple of local creative workspaces in Kent. What does the future of work mean to me, on a personal level, right now? It was an ideal opportunity to both reflect back and look forwards. Ideally timed too, as I find myself in an in-between state, working out the last few days as an employee of a traditionally structured organisation and in the throes of setting up my own company of one. From January, I cycle back to the freelance life after fifteen years in corporate hierarchies.

Where I work and whom I work with have become increasingly important to me. I need diversity. Diversity of projects, diversity of location, diversity of perspectives. I am a generalist, I am curious, I need to learn. Working for a single organisation, in a single office, on a single subject, just does not make sense to me. I feel like I am ossifying. My saving grace has been the advent of social media, learning to navigate and connect in the digital, networked world. The people with whom I have interacted the most over the past year, with whom I have exchanged ideas, argued and debated, given and received validation, and, increasingly, collaborated and cooperated, have not tended to be on the same payroll as me. Often they are not in the same industry. Invariably not in the same country. These are friendships and partnerships that have been formed online and, wherever possible, been cemented by in-person meetings in coffeeshops, restaurants, creative spaces and galleries.

persistenceofmemory
[Picture credit: The Persistence of Memory, Salvador Dalí, 1931]

My most productive days while an employee have occurred when I have worked offsite, either at home, in a café or at a gallery. The most qualitative of learning experiences during this same period have resulted from conversation either online, face-to-face over coffee, or in motion, walking and talking. These learning experiences have resulted from networked connections and communities, never from prescriptive corporate training programmes. This is not to suggest that I have neglected my duties as an employee. Rather, that I have combined my varied interests to add value to the work I am responsible for. As an outsider on the inside, with an internal consultancy mandate, I have sought to bridge out to other organisations, other disciplines, other practitioners, serving as a conduit to other ideas, alternative working practices, different business models.

I have no background or particular interest in the industry I am about to exit. My focus has instead been on people, how they organise themselves, how they acquire and share knowledge, and how they adapt to change. It has also been on the value of generalism in a hyperspecialised industrial context. The need for pattern recognition, curiosity, cross-pollination of ideas, storytelling, horizon scanning and a strategic outlook are all important facets. From the perspective of my in-between state, I have come to realise how important these are for future working practices too. Also how I want to help multiple organisations, rather than a single one, acknowledge the need for such skills. As Peter Morville has recognised, the ideal state for the future is an intertwingled one. Where science and art and business and technology all have value, connect, combine and intermingle. It seemed pertinent somehow this week to be talking about such things in Kent’s creative spaces, discussing lessons drawn from business experience with people making a new start as artists.

In my personal journey, I have advanced to repeat. I started my career as a freelancer, ill-equipped for it, fresh from many years in the ivory towers of academia and naive about business and work. I hope I return to it more knowledgable, better able to add value and assist others. But there is also a sense of simultaneously looping back and progressing in terms of the working practices now available to me and others. The advancement of technology, social structures and workplace expectations has enabled us to revisit and improve upon old traditions. Transportation, telecommunications and mobile computing make a nomadic lifestyle attractive again. The hyperlink erodes spatial and temporal divisions. Asynchronous collaboration across countries and continents is a regular undertaking. Crafts and manual skills also are becoming highly valued again. Workers, previously tied to the industrial conveyor belt, a particular place and time of work, are being freed by automation and algorithms. For some this is a threat, for many others an opportunity.

Long-established notions about time, which have governed working life since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, have become fractured. Different conceptions of time co-exist. There is the linearity of past, present and future, the ticking of the clock, the flicking of calendar dates, the sound of the church bells and the punching of the timecard. There are the natural cyclical rhythms of the seasons, Winter forever giving way to Spring, birth to death, drought to flood. There is also the helical, spiral-like sense of forward movement and repetition, echoes and mirrors of the past intruding on the present, time matching the structure of our DNA and the movement of our planet through space. Then there is a Now that may be long if you are running a 10,000-year clock, somewhat shorter if you are operating on 10-15 year cycles, and minuscule if you are focusing on the movement of the second hand. So just as the location of where we work is becoming less and less fixed, so too is when we work. In a digital, networked world we can be forever on, or we can learn to revisit the patterns of our forebears who worked the fields and find other rhythms more suited to our bodies and personal preferences.

For me, the future of work is one of fragmentation, small pieces loosely joined, diverse locations, networked connections, time both speeded up and slowed down, time chunked and repeated. It is possibly one where the generalist becomes the counterpoint, the counterbalance to the highly specialised machine. It both thrills and terrifies me.

It started yesterday.

The world is infinitely complex, and any attempt to simplify, which means the elimination of contradictory elements, will fail to capture that complexity. One can, however, attempt to compress or condense those elements into a more abbreviated or altered form. That is the role of metaphor.
— Kit White, 101 Things to Learn in Art School

Time in the digital era is no longer linear but disembodied and associative. The past is not something behind us on the timeline but dispersed through the sea of information. Like a digital unconscious, the raw data sits forgotten unless accessed by a program in the future. Everything is recorded, yet almost none of it feels truly accessible.
— Douglas Rushkoff, Present Shock

We want to welcome the future as a good friend that we wish to meet, not as an enemy that we hope to avoid.
— Rolf Jensen & Mika Aaltonen, The Renaissance Society

I am grateful to Lloyd Davis for inviting me to work alongside Brian Condon and himself, talking about the future of work at #workshop34 in Sittingbourne and the POP Creative Space in Chatham on 11 December 2014.

Cross-posted to Medium and LinkedIn on 14 December 2014.

Bridges

Choice and connection

Bridges are a great paradox, they not only use nature against nature, but magically the best examples do not defeat or damage nature but enhance it, and, in ways that are sometimes hard to fathom, achieve a deep harmony with their surroundings.
— Dan Cruickshank, Bridges

In art forms we see frequent attempts to incorporate the past into the present and offer up something for the future. Painters, poets, architects, composers, photographers, novelists, choreographers, comedians, filmmakers and sculptors build on the ideas of others, paying homage even as they create something new. They steal like artists, as Austin Kleon claims. They blur and elide. It is like the photographs that were briefly popular earlier in 2014 as we commemorated the D-Day landings: modern-day images of Normandy beaches blended with wartime shots of the same locations from 1944. It is a Modernist idea, holistic in scope and intention: all time as one time, all space as one space, all people as one person. Ideas co-opted from science and woven into the artistic works of people like Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, T.S. Eliot and Jorge Luis Borges. Cultural hopscotch, the embracing of diversity, the bridging of borders — east-west, conscious-unconscious, public-private, craft-industry — all prompting creativity and innovation.

We are social animals, and one of the ways we have learned throughout human history is by means of imitation, repetition and refinement. We were doing this before we had speech, painting or writing. We copy what we perceive to be necessary to our survival. We copy what we like. We copy what works, making adjustments when we come across something better. But also because we inevitably make mistakes, seek variations and attempt personalisation. Evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel, in his book Wired for Culture, describes this as a form of visual theft, echoing the views of Kleon. It is one of the defining features of human history and the longevity of our species. We bridge back to what went before and innovate for the future. We can see evidence of this in our great cities. London, for example, serving as a palimpsest in bricks and mortar.

With a bridge — both literal and metaphorical — either/or is replaced by and. With a bridge, it is no longer a case of here or there but here and there. Not in or out but in and out. Not us or them but us and them. Not past or present but past and present — and future too. You can see the metaphor applied in professional cycling. A rider bridges the gap when they ride off the front of the peloton and catch up with the breakaway riders. They bridge across through both time and space. When they make their move, they are simultaneously part of the peloton and part of the breakaway. They are in both places and in no place. Standing above the River Thames, I am on both the North Bank and the South Bank and in neither place.

pont-du-gard
[Photo credit: Pont du Gard, Richard Martin, August 2014]

In our moment, in our time, we complete building the bridges from the past to the present even as we begin working on the bridges to the future. We look both backwards and forwards at the same time, learning from our forebears, sense-making and amplifying, while exploring how our knowledge and work can benefit future generations. We advance to repeat. The result is a spiral-like sense of time. This can have both positive and negative implications.

In Reinventing Organizations, Frédéric Laloux draws parallels between our various organisational models and the history of human consciousness. He highlights the accelerated changes of the past couple of centuries. Crucially, though, he draws our attention to the fact that many of these models exist concurrently. That it is not simply a case of linear, evolutionary progression from one model to another. That, in fact, conscious choices can be made to move from an apparently progressive, networked-style of model back to a command-and-control centralised regime. We do not destroy our bridges as we move forwards. The option always remains to move in either direction. If the mood takes us, we can move backwards in time and try again, develop a different pattern or repeat the same one. From city state, to nation state, to union of nations and back again.

Consider this scenario, for example. A financial collapse is followed by an extended period of economic recession. Political extremists make their move, with a notable swing to the right. Scapegoats are sought for the financial woes. Immigration becomes a hot topic. Nationalist rhetoric is prevalent, permeating both media and politics. Anything that departs from the ‘ideal’ promoted by these right-wing extremists is treated with suspicion and disrespect. Trust is eroded. Simmering resentment boils over, manifesting itself in popular uprisings and armed conflict. Is this Europe in the 1930s or the West in the 2010s?

Consider too the spiral like progression from a nomadic existence to one based on settlements. Then back again to global nomadism enabled by technological advancement. With WiFi and mobile technologies, where you work is largely irrelevant. The hyperlink opens up multiple opportunities for working in different times, places and with different business partners. The hyperlink is our digital bridge.

We have choices in which direction we build our bridges. We can proceed in the same direction as the one that arched from the past to our present. Or we can twist the turntable a couple of notches and build in another direction. Indeed, in multiple directions, constructing a network of bridges. A web of potential and multi-way influence.

In his study of bridges, Dan Cruickshank observes that, ‘bridges are, in their way, a form of alchemy — they transform, they bring life.’ For me, they epitomise Lois Kelly’s observation that ‘our work is our art.’ They are the product of hard labour and artistic vision, merging science, engineering, design and aesthetics into incredible structures. The bridge is a symbol both of choice and connection. We determine in which direction we wish to travel. Which connections we wish to establish between people, places and knowledge.

This post reworks and adds to material previously published on the IndaloGenesis blog, In the Flow. It was published on Medium and LinkedIn on 28 November 2014.

Mapping the edges

Navigational skills in the digital era

The wandering and curiosity of the flâneur. The pattern recognition and sense-making capabilities of the detective. These are good habits, useful skills to have as awareness of the digital era develops. People are looking to others to guide them, to help them navigate the complexities of a networked world. The edges between virtual and physical, online and offline, inside and outside, are blurring. All is liminal, fuzzy, ill-defined. Bridge builders are required. Mapmakers too. Explorers who will simplify and translate what they discover, laying out suggested paths for others to follow.

Edges, usually artificial, are drawn up between the known and unknown. The Argentinian author, Jorge Luis Borges, knew this. He lost his eyesight and began to rely more on other senses to understand the world around him. Space became labyrinthine, a constant garden of forking paths. It is he who becomes the blind librarian in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. He who determines which books of knowledge should become forbidden fruit. As Jorge of Burgos, he and a small number of other monks create a mystical land of literature that only a few are permitted to enter or able to navigate. Brother William and the novice Adso are visitors who unravel the mystery of this foreign land. One clue leads to another, like hyperlinks in our virtual spaces.

Throughout the history of humankind, our explorers, scientists, inventors and artists have constantly reshaped the boundaries between the known and the unknown. Whether on the ocean, jungle-bound, in a laboratory, before a canvas or with the first tentative steps on the moon they have erased old edges and drawn in new ones – for others to smudge and redefine in the future. Their endeavours help simplify the chaotic for the rest of us. They overlay new patterns that they have recognised, erect signposts and markers to guide us, beacons to light our way. They enact the cycle of knowledge mastery, seeking, sensing and sharing as they go.

Of course, their maps are ultimately personal. They reflect their own cultural context, ideology, preferences and prejudices. ‘Here be dragons’ is a call to action to venture into the unknown and explore. But it is also an opportunity to impose their own vision, to channel their own beliefs and values and thereby influence others. Mental landscapes become entwined and intermingled with physical ones. James Joyce’s Bloom and Dedalus wander the remembered streets of Dublin, and years later Vladimir Nabokov maps their literary wanderings. Others have taken advantage of Google Maps’ capabilities to do the same both for Ulysses and Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. Reality and fiction merge, if they were ever distinct in the first place. Writing itself becomes a form of mapmaking. So too our digital journeys via the hyperlink.

In Intertwingled, Peter Morville shows us that the way that we organise, shape, categorise and architect information is another form of mapmaking, another process for knowledge mastery. Echoing the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto, he argues that in the digital world ‘We use links to make maps and paths.’ But he is equally quick to warn that ‘all maps are traps’, that ‘We draw edges that don’t exist.’ We see this in our digitally-assisted journeys, new roads not yet visible on maps, GPS devices suggesting that we are driving through the middle of fields. We observe it in our organisational cultures too, context shaping where leadership responsibilities reside, where influence rests, albeit temporarily, in the dynamic flow that characterises life in networks. We have to navigate with care, develop understanding before we proceed, map and compass in hand.

Rainbow
[Photo credit: Rainbow, Richard Martin, November 2014]

The maps themselves are constantly transforming. We have to keep retuning, exercising our sense-making skills not only to guide others but ourselves too. For, at the edge of our maps, everything remains mist, fog and haze, slipping in and out of focus. A swirling kaleidoscope of shapes and colours – a peloton – that temporarily takes on form then dissolves. It is liminal, caught between two states. We strain to recognise patterns. To make sense. Are we on the verge of fundamental change? Approaching a new level of consciousness? Or is this flux merely representative of the human condition? A primordial smog from which we briefly mould meaning and existence before fading out?

One of the highlights of Antony Gormley’s 2007 exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London was Blind Light. This consisted of a luminous, cube-like glass structure filled with white mist. To enter the cube was to experience sensory deprivation. Unable to see more than a couple of feet in front of you, visitors either stood still or staggered around with arms outstretched. Shadows loomed before you then melted away again as the mist filled the gaps that had briefly taken on human form. From without the cube, too, observers could see a shadow play of briefly visible silhouettes, the occasional hand or leering face suddenly pressed against the glass.

The 2014 Late Turner exhibition at Tate Britain reminded me of this experience. I found myself responding more viscerally to those paintings that denied the viewer clear lines and bold forms. Paintings filled with swirling skies or troubled seascapes. The more impressionistic the style, the greater the sense of emergence of image and form on the canvas, the more profound the response I felt to the art. With such paintings, there was a sense of co-creation between artist and viewer. The canvas itself occupied an in-between state.

In this respect, J.M.W. Turner’s Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – the Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis is particularly powerful. It brings into play ideas about chaos and order, time and space, circles and spirals, writing and creation. At its centre sits the faint figure of Moses. He is writing the biblical tale of Genesis; in effect, drawing a map in words. He imagines the world and humanity into being through stories of divine intervention. He seeks to make sense of the chaotic maelstrom, the swirl of space and time that surrounds him. His only companion at the centre of the frame, joining him from the crowd below, is the serpent that will slither its way into the Eden of his narrative.

Outside the frame, in the painting’s title, looms the figure of writer and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The allusion is to Goethe’s Theory of Colours, in particular his writing on light and darkness, and the notion that every colour combines the two. In other words, every colour bridges between two states; it is both and neither, suspended, liminal. It swirls, creating a mist, refusing to take on permanent form.

This becomes an apt metaphor for human action and thought. Many turn their lives into a quest for meaning and understanding. The process of detection provides a sense of purpose. Patterns are recognised, one clue is linked to another, choices are made, and sense emerges from mists of confusion and obfuscation. For some though, that is not possible. Maude, for example, the geriatric heroine of Emma Healey’s novel Elizabeth is Missing gradually loses her hold on reality as she succumbs to Alzheimer’s disease. Memories become fragmentary. Past narratives intrude on the present. Written notes, intended to jog memory and trigger action, are rendered meaningless. All is fragmented, foggy, just out of reach. Leonard Shelby, troubled hero of Christopher Nolan’s film Memento, is another detective whose faculties fail him. The reminders he has tattooed on his body have catastrophic consequences.

Short-term memory and misguided action often intrude into contexts relating to societal, political and workplace change. The swirling mists clear temporarily, bold action is taken, then new fogs of forgetfulness descend. Spiral-like, we both progress and repeat. Small steps. Net marginal gains. The question that troubles so many of us now is how to effect something more fundamental, lasting and wide-ranging? How to truly shift from one state to another? To stop the kaleidoscope spinning and clear the mist away? How to redraw the maps so that others can follow?

This post reworks material previously published on the IndaloGenesis blog, In the Flow. It was published on Medium and LinkedIn on 19 November 2014.

WWW people

While we need the machinery of Big Science and the specialists that make it possible, we also need the creative polymaths, men and women not bound by labels on degrees and job descriptions.
— Steve Spalding & James Gibson, Rebuilding the Polymath

The future has always been uncertain, but our ability to navigate it has been impaired by an increasing focus on studying bark. The closer you are to the material, the more likely you are to believe it. In psychology jargon, you anchor on your own beliefs and insufficiently adjust from them. In more straightforward language, a man with a hammer is more likely to see nails than one without a hammer. Expertise means being closer to the bark, and less likely to see ways in which your perspective may warrant adjustment. In today’s uncertain environment, breadth of perspective trumps depth of knowledge.
— Vikram Mansharamani, All Hail the Generalist

Our culture of specialization conflicts with something most of us intuitively recognize, but which careers advisers are only beginning to understand: we each have multiple selves.
— Roman Krznaric, How to Find Fulfilling Work

Imagine this. You have just been diagnosed with a brain tumour. One of the top surgeons in the country has been assigned to your case. They are widely admired, often sought out for their opinion by peers and media alike. Their work has been honoured with a number of awards, and they possess a lengthy publishing record. Only, they specialise in sports injuries, particularly those related to knees. Their reputation has been cemented following the rehabilitation of a number of high-profile sports personalities. How would you feel knowing this expert of the patella was going to be operating on your skull, removing cancerous tissue?

Now picture this. You work for a shipping company. Many of your colleagues have worked in the industry since graduating and are now experts in their respective fields. Shipping is the only work experience they have ever had. They are living encyclopaedias of shipping knowledge and history. But change is afoot. The industry is modernising. A new leadership team is restructuring the organisation, and a greater emphasis is being placed on service provision, on the role the company plays in the broader shipping family. A number of posts are being advertised. Several of the candidates do not seem to have any shipping experience at all. In fact some seem to have hopscotched from one industry to another across a range of disciplines. Are you worried about this lack of a shipping background? Or are you intrigued by the new perspectives that such appointments could introduce to your organisation? The potential for constructive challenge and cross-pollination of ideas?

Now reflect on this. Two young students are starting their courses at university. One always did well in geography at school and has selected this as their chosen topic of study. They have not really thought beyond the next three years. A geography degree is just a stepping stone, not a career goal. The other has a long-term plan, aiming to engage in non-profit water sanitation work in eastern Africa after they graduate. In order to specialise in this field, they have opted for a generalised degree. They will be participating in a combined Bachelor of Arts and Sciences programme, which they have designed, together with faculty staff, to cover a breadth of subjects. These include modules in anthropology, psychology, law, economics, politics, geography, geology and languages indigenous to that region of Africa. Who do you think is most likely to be the first to generate value – both social and economic – shortly after graduation? If they were both applying for the same non-profit role, would you be likely to employ the geography specialist or the multi-disciplinarian who wishes to specialise?

books
[Photo credit: Exercising Curiosity, Richard Martin, November 2014]

There are two points to make here. The first is that context is everything. The second is that there is a place for both the specialist and the generalist in the modern organisation. That they can complement and learn from one another. Currently, though, it often feels like the balance is tipped too far towards hyperspecialism. It is evident in how we educate, how we recruit and how we manage. We get squeezed through the specialist funnel at too early an age, normally when we are undergoing the hormonal turmoil of our early teens, when nothing is settled. Educational choices made at school during this formative age immediately narrow the opportunities for both employment and further education. At the pointy end of the funnel labels and pigeonholes await – either, dependent on your mindset, to be embraced or to be evaded at all costs.

During this International Working Out Loud Week (#wolweek), I am reflecting on the reasons why I want to co-author a book on generalism with my friend Kenneth Mikkelsen. It is difficult not to start with a personal journey, covering both the highlights and frustrations. Nevertheless, it is important too to broaden this out, to look at it from a corporate perspective. How to convince a business leader that a generalist absolutely has a place in their organisation crammed full of specialists? How to make them understand the value of multi-disciplinarity? How to help them comprehend that a generalist can add to the creativity of the company? How to illuminate the dot-joining, sense-making, horizon-scanning, strategic insights that a generalist can bring to bear on an organisation? How to demonstrate the facility with which a generalist can move from macro to micro and back again, developing compelling corporate narratives, framing them from multiple perspectives? How to illustrate that a generalist can move fluidly from leadership to following others to supplying expertise across a range of subjects?

Generalists are WWW people. By this I mean that they possess both a breadth and depth of skills, knowledge and experience. These are most definitely not jack of all trades, masters of none. Rather, they are people who have the potential, the attitude and the aptitude to specialise in more than one discipline. This goes against prevailing wisdom regarding T-shaped skills. In that model a specialist gradually progresses through their career, tiptoeing up the corporate ladder until they attain a management position that requires them to exercise a broader range of shallower skills, as well as their deep specialism. Everything plateaus at that point. Instead the generalist gets to enjoy the freedom, the highs and lows, the thrills and spills of a mountain range of interests.

Modern generalists are WWW people in another way too. They are adept at navigating the digital, networked world we now inhabit. Their broad and deep interests are buttressed by multiple networked communities, many of which overlap. This enables them to continuously exercise their curiosity, their thirst for knowledge and practical experience. They bridge from their own organisations to the outside world via these digital networks, using them to co-create, to test out ideas, to acquire and share information, to learn. The social web both maps and enables their polymathic tendencies. The smartphone in their pocket is as much a conduit to knowledge and validation as the person sat at the desk next to them. The generalist is ever curious, painting pictures, telling stories, mixing, sampling, experimenting, trying to redraw the edges of the map. It is what keeps us restless and energised. Even the quiet ones.

The days of compartmentalisation are passing. We are at the dawn of a new age where we must look for unity in diversity, the big picture in small parts, macrocosm in microcosm, large vision in little details and holonomics in economics.
— Satish Kumar, Foreword to Holonomics by Simon Robinson & Maria Moraes Robinson

I’ve come to believe that the potential to transition from a competent specialist to being a voracious generalist again is one of the most important inflection points in life.
— Saul Kaplan, Hourglass Theory Of Life

Specialisation is hard on polymaths. Every moment devoted to one area is a moment less to give over to something else.
— Edward Carr, The Last Days of the Polymath

I am grateful to Rotana Ty for his recent exercise in curation on the topic of generalism and specialism.

Cross-posted to Medium and LinkedIn on 18 November 2014.

Cathedrals

On the emergence of change

Let us bring to life in our imaginations this joyful spectacle. Let us stop a moment to read these lines and put clearly before our eyes the white cathedrals against the blue or gray background of the sky. We must get that image into our hearts. And then we shall be able to continue our reflections […] Eyes that see, persons with knowledge, they must be allowed to construct the new world. When the first white cathedrals of the new world are standing, it will be seen and known that they are something true, that something has really begun. With what enthusiasm, what fervor, what relief, the about-face will be made! The proof will be there. Fearful, the world first wants proof.
— Le Corbusier, When the Cathedrals Were White

La Grotte des Demoiselles can be found near Saint Bauzille de Putois in the Languedoc region of France. It is a testament to the passage of time and gradual transformation. A place of erosion, as water has hollowed out sections of limestone, collapse and growth. The Grotte is a living museum of stalactites and stalagmites that have developed over a period of 9-10 million years. It is estimated that some of the enormous stalactites, for example, have gained 10cm in length every one hundred years. That is incremental growth in action over an incredible expanse of time.

The result, especially in the central cavern known as the Cathédrale des Abîmes, is breathtaking. The Cathédrale is filled with columns and pillars, as well as structures that look like stone forests and shoals of jellyfish. There is even a stalagmite towards the bottom of the Cathédrale that could be a man-made statue of the Virgin and Child. The chamber is a natural wonder, so magnificent and surreal in structure and artistry, that it seems unreal, not of this world. It resembles a set lifted from cinematic fantasy, straight from the mind of a film magician like George Méliès.

Whatever we aspire to, whatever we hope to innovate or create, nature has anticipated us. It either supplies us with a template to copy – the vines of trees, and the structures they support, teaching us how to design suspension bridges, for example – or it provides us with the raw materials and sources of energy that we harness in our endeavours. It provides succour and education, supporting the fragile vessels of our lives and illustrating, constantly, that everything is subject to change, evolution, transformation and growth.

Many of the structures contained in the cavernous depths of the Grotte can also be seen replicated in man-made structures that reach for the heavens. Medieval places of worship, as well as the Gothic reworkings of later centuries, echo and mirror the ornamentation and natural artistry of the Cathédrale. Both have required an investment of time to take on their current form. In the case of Chartes Cathedral, for example, it is thought that five different cathedrals have occupied this same location. Work on the building that stands today began in 1194 when a fire damaged the 12th-century cathedral. The new edifice was completed in 1250 some 56 years later. This was an era when life expectancy was significantly shorter than it is today. It follows, therefore, that a huge number of builders and artisans that contributed to the construction and ornamentation of the cathedral never saw the final fruits of their labour.

My own view is that effective change – societal, political, workplace, institutional – requires a similar expanse of time to take root and be fully realised. Our work as advocates of the new, the alternative, is likely to result in transformative change that we will not ourselves enjoy. But our children may. Our grandchildren almost certainly. Religion and mythology teach us that the prophets do not get to enjoy the promised land. We are sowing the seeds and cultivating the landscape. Future generations are the ones who will reap the harvest.

It falls to us to engage in a form of organic leadership, helping create the conditions in which others can flourish, making manifest things about which we can only dream. This brings into play notions relating to servant leadership and stewardship. Everything we do in our efforts to rethink and change the workplace and other aspects of our society is for the benefit of others. We have a vision of what the outcome will be many years hence but, accepting that we might not enjoy that ourselves, our focus has to shift to the process and to the activity of fostering, catalysing and realising change.

Interestingly, this echoes a school of thought in the sporting arena, where you often hear athletes and coaches talking about how they focus on the process rather than the desired goal. Get the process right, people like Clive Woodward and Dave Brailsford argue, and the results will follow. This is not process in the constraining sense that we associate with corporate rulebooks, meaningless metrics and management bottlenecks. It is more an adaptive, collaborative endeavour. One that rarely stands still but is subject to continuous refinement and evolution. It is shaped by both human input and human action.

This idea of the humanisation of process is attractive to me. I have always been put off by the term ‘best practice’, probably because of its suggestion of an idealised state, a pinnacle that has been attained and upon which a flag has been planted, a camp set up. I cannot accept that the quest for improvement will have an end date. That there is anything that we cannot make better in however marginal a way. That our innate creativity and potential to innovate will have run its course. So, for me, the practices of others are educational. They are sources of learning and inspiration, scaffolding for my own work. But they are not something simply to be duplicated without constructive challenge and inquiry. You have to make them your own. Remodel and repurpose them if necessary.

Picasso said, every act of creation is first an act of destruction. In Revolutionary France of the early 1790s the people embarked on a process of de-Christianisation transforming Roman Catholic cathedrals like Notre Dame into Temples of Reason. They removed, defaced, modified and transformed artworks that represented the old hierarchy of Church and Nobility, reclaiming these great edifices, and the network of streets that led to them, for the people. For liberty, equality and fraternity. For philosophy and reason. In the Industrial Revolution that followed, people sought to build new cathedrals in the forms of factories, railway terminals, bridges and power stations. Testaments to humanity’s ingenuity and engineering capability.

Today, a more subtle form of revolution and reformation is underway. It is to be seen in how we repurpose and renovate the monuments of the industrial age. We are transforming buildings and institutions previously associated with the captains of industry. A new generation of workers are claiming lofts as art studios, power stations as galleries, railway buildings as food markets and restaurants, and factory spaces as hives of start-up business endeavour more in keeping with the era of knowledgeable networkers.

Enabled by technological advances, we are also building on the foundations laid by the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto. Our embryonic change communities span time and place, they foster diversity and recognise the potential of the individual. We have created digital Temples of Reason, inhabited by people who commune in both virtual and physical spaces. These are communities and movements that have been built through the hyperlink. The connection of people and knowledge facilitated by fluctuating networks. Our new cathedrals are digital spaces and human communities.

There is a need for us to be constantly nurturing ideas – our own and those of other people – pushing at the edges, stretching boundaries. We have a duty to help create the right conditions in which others can extend human achievement and creativity, whether in the arts, the sciences, our social institutions or the world of work. We have a responsibility to see ideas get put into action, ensuring that learning feeds in to the refinement of process, so that one day the product of transformative change can truly be enjoyed by those that follow us.

Water, minerals and time were the raw ingredients that went into the construction of the Grotte. Human endeavour and artistry were what shaped medieval structures like Chartes Cathedral. Our curiosity and thirst for knowledge continue to fuel the different ages of Enlightenment. Time is the ingredient we share. Time to experiment and learn, time to create and build. The changes we aspire to are evolutionary and do not happen overnight. We are building our own cathedrals, thinking of the future – adding a few centimetres, seeking marginal gains – as each small step leads us to a bigger goal for the benefit of future generations.

This post distils and repackages content from material previously published on this site relating to the topic of #buildingcathedrals.

Cross-posted to Medium and LinkedIn on 12 November 2014.

Shadow dance

All night long, like memory, the fog
has deepened. I reach it
again and find you are still there.
Ships of all sizes fumble
towards the harbor. Table lamps
set out everywhere on their decks,
hundreds of them gleam dully.
Again the world is wondrous
— James Sallis, Beside You

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
— T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

I was at the first of things,
I will be at the last.
I am the primal mist
And no man passes me;
My long impalpable arms
Bar them all.
— Carl Sandburg, The Mist

Everything is mist, fog and haze, slipping in and out of focus. A swirling kaleidoscope of shapes and colours – a peloton – that temporarily takes on form then dissolves. All is liminal, caught between two states. We strain to recognise patterns. To make sense. Are we on the verge of fundamental change? Approaching a new level of consciousness? Or is this flux merely representative of the human condition? A primordial smog from which we briefly mould meaning and existence before fading out?

One of the highlights of Antony Gormley’s 2007 exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London was Blind Light. This consisted of a luminous, cube-like glass structure filled with white mist. To enter the cube was to experience sensory deprivation. Unable to see more than a couple of feet in front of you, visitors either stood still or staggered around with arms outstretched. Shadows loomed before you then melted away again as the mist filled the gaps that had briefly taken on human form. From without the cube, too, observers could see a shadow play of briefly visible silhouettes, the occasional hand or leering face suddenly pressed against the glass.

I was reminded of this experience last week when I visited the Late Turner exhibition at Tate Britain in the company of Andy Swann. It seemed that both of us responded more viscerally to those paintings that denied the viewer clear lines and bold forms. Paintings filled with swirling skies or troubled seascapes. The more impressionistic the style, the greater the sense of emergence (rather than completion) of image and form on the canvas, the more profound the response I felt to the art. With such paintings, there was a sense of co-creation between artist and viewer. The canvas itself occupied an in-between state.

image

In this respect, J.M.W. Turner’s Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – the Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis is particularly powerful. It brings into play ideas about chaos and order, time and space, circles and spirals, writing and creation. At its centre sits the faint figure of Moses. He is writing the biblical tale of Genesis. He imagines the world and humanity into being through stories of divine intervention. He seeks to make sense of the chaotic maelstrom, the swirl of space and time that surrounds him. His only companion at the centre of the frame, joining him from the crowd below, is the serpent that will slither its way into the Eden of his narrative.

Outside the frame, in the painting’s title, looms the figure of writer and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The allusion is to Goethe’s Theory of Colours, in particular his writing on light and darkness, and the notion that every colour combines the two. In other words, every colour bridges between two states; it is both and neither, suspended, liminal. It swirls, creating a mist, refusing to take on permanent form.

This becomes an apt metaphor for human action and thought. Many turn their lives into a quest for meaning and understanding. The process of detection provides a sense of purpose. Patterns are recognised, one clue is linked to another, choices are made, and sense emerges from mists of confusion and obfuscation. For some though, that is not possible. Maude, for example, the geriatric heroine of Emma Healey’s novel Elizabeth is Missing gradually loses her hold on reality as she succumbs to Alzheimer’s disease. Memories become fragmentary. Past narratives intrude on the present. Written notes, intended to jog memory and trigger action, are rendered meaningless. All is fragmented, foggy, just out of reach. Leonard Shelby, troubled hero of Christopher Nolan’s film Memento, is another detective whose faculties fail him. The reminders he has tattooed on his body have catastrophic consequences.

Short-term memory and misguided action often intrude into contexts relating to societal, political and workplace change. The swirling mists clear temporarily, bold action is taken, then new fogs of forgetfulness descend. Spiral-like, we both progress and repeat. Small steps. Net marginal gains. The question that troubles so many of us now is how to effect something more fundamental, lasting and wide-ranging? How to truly shift from one state to another? To stop the kaleidoscope spinning and clear the mist away?

Liminal thinking is the art of finding, creating and using thresholds to effect change. It is a way of approaching situations with the system in mind rather than individual interactions. It is a kind of mindfulness that can be applied to the social systems we live and work in. Liminal thinking is the art of finding, creating and unlocking potential.
— Dave Gray, Liminal Thinking

Liminality is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs during periods of transition. It’s the ugly duckling stage of life, the “in between” in a rite of passage, and the barely perceptible threshold in a change of mind.
— Peter Morville, Intertwingled

Organizations must also periodically go through such wrenching times of transition, and it is during such liminal times that leaders have their greatest impact. They must manage to both craft the new world with smart strategy, often in the wake of disruption, and cause the organization to embrace the required change.
— Dan Pontefract, Leadership in Liminal Times

Humans form original ideas by subconsciously weaving fragments of stored ideas and memories with awareness drawn from real time observation. While a bit abstract, this notion of conceptual blending seems important for learning professionals and others keen on constructing tools and techniques to help organizations meet the challenges of liminality.
— David Holzmer, Knowledge and Our New Era of Pervasive Liminality

An extended version of this post, Mapping the edges, was published on Medium and LinkedIn on 19 November 2014.

Peloton formations in verse

We are all artists. On the bike we express emotion.
— Michael Barry, Shadows on the Road

The bicycle is one of mankind’s greatest inventions – it’s up there with the printing press, the electric motor, the telephone, penicillin and the World Wide Web.
— Robert Penn, It’s All About the Bike

This is Kaizen in action: it hands responsibility to everyone within an organisation; from the cleaner to the CEO, everyone is encouraged to participate in the organisation’s activities, and to think about and improve their performance. It doesn’t have to be a big improvement; just marginal ones.
— Richard Moore, Sky’s the Limit

In previous posts, Open work and Work in progress, and in the spirit of working out loud, I shared my ideas as I developed a Pecha Kucha. This was delivered as part of Workstock, a highly creative and inventive pop-up event incorporated into the Workplace Trends 2014 conference. Eleven speakers participated. Each challenged preconceptions about what business, organisational models, working practices and locations actually mean today. To do so they drew on personal stories, art, music, poetry, sport, conversational lessons and theory made practice. It was a privilege to be a part of such an event. I am very grateful to Neil Usher for inviting me to be one of the Pecha Kucha presenters.

To add to the energy and creativity that fuelled Workstock, each performance was preceded by the narration of a short story commissioned from Cara Long. Cara has very generously agreed to let me reproduce here the story used to introduce me. Stories for the other participants can be found on the Workplace Trends website.

Nothing in Isolation
Mr. Boyle says, We have a mixture of goals at this company and we stress partnership, collaboration, and cooperation to achieve these goals. Phil shifts in his chair, says, I understand. But he doesn’t, not quite. Mr. Boyle continues, Should you be offered a position here, we would expect you to be as comfortable leading a team as you would be working as a member of that team. Roles change, projects change, but purpose unites us. Mr. Boyle uncrosses his legs. And we prefer not to assign roles, but for employees to assume roles based on their own strengths and weaknesses. Phil asks if Mr. Boyle would like him to talk about his strengths and weaknesses. No, Mr. Boyle says, I want you to talk about how your strengths and weaknesses connect. Phil draws in a breath. That’s a somewhat new question, he says. Indeed, Mr. Boyle says, but they have always connected – nothing can be treated in isolation. Phil’s mind flashes back to his last cycling race – he remembers the rush he felt at the start, seeing the other riders, the spectators, the vendors. He remembers feeling both his strengths and his weaknesses well up inside him. He decides to talk about that.

Peloton formations: a poem

Reflecting back from middle age, I now make a confession:
from small seeds it seems cycling became an obsession.

It started with some country jaunts – man, nature and machine.
The Tour de France, and several books, then made me very keen.

The peloton I began to see as a metaphor
for fluidity, responsiveness – and many things more.

Like shoals of fish and flocks of birds, the cyclists ebb and flow;
They move with common purpose in a united show.

The cyclists ride far and wide following each other’s leads.
But every man has personal goals and very different needs.

Ambitious men chase jerseys bright in hue.
Yellow the highest honour, is worn by only a few.

Like a business in the world of work, the peloton is rife
with the rivalries and partnerships of a co-creative life.

Across team boundaries links are swiftly made
as riders collaborate and favours freely trade.

Within the cycling team there is a common goal;
the victorious rider wins alone – serving the greater whole.

The breakaway is where competition takes its hold.
It is a place for the driven, experimental and bold.

In games of cat and mouse, the pack seeks to reel them in.
And short partnerships dissolve as escapees go for the win.

This skunk works operation tastes many a failure,
but reflective riders learn from their intensive labour.

The baroudeur gurns and shuns the usual show;
he challenges, questions, overturns the status quo.

Unloved by his companions for the pain he causes them,
he leads riders to the unknown, attacking over and again.

Disruption and animation are his pedigree.
He innovates in the peloton. Then he sets them free.

The sprinter unfurls his arms, riding in first place
to reveal sponsors’ names and a smile across his face.

His teammates he unites in a shared mission.
He inspires and motivates with Technicolour vision.

Consummate he is in communication;
and just as effective his facilitation.

His colleagues he coaxes to form a long sprint train,
riding as one in a narrow cycling lane.

Leadership revolves, as they chase and protect.
Fluid and agile, they one-by-one eject.

The day-long project builds to the very time
when the sprinter is launched to the finish line.

Time and again they repeat their success;
continuously improving, refining their process.

They respond to context with their whirring chains,
adapting to the need for several marginal gains.

Every team member longs to be able to say,
“We got it right on the Élysées!”

The plan in cycling is a slippery beast;
there’s just as much famine as there is feast.

Autonomous decisions inform the key event;
the riders respond to what they can’t prevent.

Loose frameworks allow for the unexpected.
Both knowledge and action are often reflected.

Sometimes teams adopt a long-term perspective:
their project forms around a distant objective.

Rainbow was about conquering the world,
managing a race until the sprint unfurled.

A squad formed around Mark Cavendish,
and the GB team delivered on their ultimate wish.

A wirearchy is suggested by networked formation,
although leadership roles imply a certain station.

But individuals shift from one role to the next.
The duties they perform are governed by context.

From leading to following to subject expertise,
they adapt to their colleagues’ momentary needs.

While skill and mastery certainly earn your keep,
humility is the crop most successful riders reap.

Service of others can inspire and motivate,
establishing values from which none will deviate.

To ride at the front is to lead and protect,
showing other riders both trust and respect.

Some teams make decisions that exceed bold;
asking their Champions to put their goals on hold.

Yellow was the target for the 2012 race,
and Cavendish’s teamwork proved more than ace.

Ferrying water bottles from the team car,
Cav helped raise the servant leader bar.

But the tale of selfless giving does not stop there.
Wiggins in Yellow wanted to do what was fair.

With victory all but assured in the great event,
he led out his teammate when others were spent.

With trust and humility they showed their respect,
and on the race’s outcome had a huge effect.

When the road points upwards, new leaders appear:
The climber is a visionary who knows no fear.

The mountains are their canvas. The work is their art.
Dancing on pedals, they blow the race apart.

With feats of myth and fable they map the great unknown,
then inspire their companions with what they have just shown.

The time trial is known as the race of truth.
Numbers and measures as a form of proof.

When ridden solo, there is no hiding place:
all-out effort is demanded by the race.

Riding with teammates, all rests on five;
the fifth man over keeps your hopes alive.

The rouleur makes time trials a personal preserve,
then serves his companions with strength in reserve.

Leading the peloton, controlling the breaks,
he’ll guide and influence; anything it takes.

The link to the team car, he acts as road captain.
He unites his mates, allowing for no faction.

The riders on their bikes engage in the race
but right behind them are others keeping pace.

Directors and coaches, fresh from past success,
mechanics and chefs helping with the rest.

Every team needs some infrastructure.
United they form a healthy, winning culture.

Around the race swirls many different systems,
from cloud-laden skies to train engine pistons.

The media flit and dart in amongst the bikes,
while crashes are caused by en route blights.

Crowds fill the roads of the longest climbs,
and organisers try to keep everything on time.

From the union of human, tech and machine,
we learn the essence of agility and lean.

The fluidity of roles on every day’s stage,
teaches us to break from hierarchy’s cage.

Power shifts as the peloton flows and bends,
– and with that lesson learned, this poem ends.

Hopscotch

It was about that time that I realized that searching was my symbol, the emblem of those who go out at night with nothing in mind, the motives of a destroyer of compasses.
— Julio Cortázar, Hopscotch

Like nations, individuals come to be ruled by their self-narratives, narratives that accrue from failures as much as from success, and that harden over time into images the individual believes unassailable. Identity and symbology fuse. And threats when they come aren’t merely physical, they’re ontological, challenging the narrative itself, suggesting that it may be false. They strike at the individual’s very identity. The narrative has become an objective in its own right – one that must be reclaimed at all costs.
— James Sallis, Salt River

Our sense of ourselves feels constant but our identity is an ongoing performance that is changed and adapted by our experiences and circumstances. We feel like we are the same person we were years before, but we are not.
— Grayson Perry, Who Are You? exhibition notes

The hyperlink. It is the bridge that builds connections. The symbol of choice and decision making. The glue that binds networks of information. The hyperlink represents a path that connects a breadcrumb trail of clues. It invites investigation and detection. As with Dr Who or Bill and Ted, the hyperlink enables us to travel through space and time. Or, like Sherlock Holmes, to skip and jump through the mind palace of accumulated memories and knowledge.

The hyperlink allows us to edit and narrate both our own stories and those of other people too. It offers both conformity, following predetermined routes, and innovation. We can restructure a novel, as Julio Cortázar demonstrated in Hopscotch. We are able to re-programme the sequence of scenes in a film or the soundtrack we hear on a DVD or Blu-ray. We might choose our own trail through a woodland or art gallery, mapping out our own garden of forking paths, constructing our own labyrinths. Or we can use that corporate process more as guidance, a starting point, rather than as instructions to be slavishly followed.

The hyperlink opens up opportunities for us to play our own metaphoric games of hopscotch. To cross borders, bridge differences, blur edges, exercise curiosity, mash-up, create and explore. The hyperlink is ubiquitous and subversive. It lends itself well to the polymathic tendency, allowing individuals to hop, skip and jump from one interest or discipline to another in games of combinatory play. In this respect, one of the great modern practitioners is Grayson Perry. In his artwork exhibitions, television series, Reith Lectures and books, Perry glides from one label to another, exploring both his own identity and those of the subjects for his pottery, tapestries and paintings.

Grayson-Perry-Map-of-Days
[Picture credit: A Map of Days by Grayson Perry. Currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery as part of the Who Are You? exhibition]

In his 2012 series for Channel 4, In the Best Possible Taste, Perry explores class, taste and tribes. He is fascinated by what it means to both belong to and to escape from a tribe. His own autobiography blends with the narratives of his subjects. What emerges in his work and his commentary about it is a sense of tolerance. For someone with a Humanities background, there can be no right answer just multiple possibilities. In his book, Playing to the Gallery, and the Reith Lectures from which it is derived, he argues that we may be entering the age of pluralism. Extrapolating what he has learned from artistic exploration, he challenges: ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to believe that the pluralistic art world of the historical present was a harbinger for a political thing to come?

This tolerance and pluralism is also evident in his latest 2014 Channel 4 series, Who are You?, and the accompanying exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Questions of identity are also central to this series, with Perry choosing as his portrait subjects individuals who are at a crossroads in their lives, whose sense of self has become fragmented, or who are building new identities for themselves. He describes his own role as ‘part psychologist, part detective’ as he converses with his subjects, photographs and sketches them, grows to understand them, then captures their essence in works of art. The blurring of boundaries, the redrawing of maps, the crossing of borders proliferate. From Perry’s own cross-dressing identity and shift from working-class roots to middle-class, art-world prestige to tales of religious self-discovery, gender change, celebrity personas and memory loss.

The exhibition itself is a masterpiece of hyperlinking. Rather than housing the fourteen portraits – a mixture of ceramic urns, tapestries, etchings, sculptures and paintings – in one room, they are scattered through several rooms. They nestle alongside portraits of modernist writers and scholars, Victorian statesmen, military leaders and monarchs. They link to the past – and they subvert it too. A giant tapestry, Comfort Blanket, questions what it means to be British in this age of pluralism. A nice counterpoint to the nationalistic rhetoric and fear of otherness that currently prevails in our society. Maps, too, are much in evidence. Visitors are able to follow a clearly plotted route through the various rooms where items in the collection are on display, or simply follow their own feet and curiosity.

At the foot of the stairs, though, that leads up to the bulk of the collection is the first exhibit, A Map of Days. It is a brilliantly-conceived self-portrait of the artist as a fortified town. One that offers endless opportunities for games of hopscotch.

Come sail your ships around me
And burn your bridges down
We make a little history, baby
Every time you come around
Come loose your dogs upon me
And let your hair hang down
You are a little mystery to me
Every time you come around
— Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, The Ship Song

He’s stronger than the walls
You tried to build around him
To dumb and dumbfound him
For two thousand years I waited for your call
Screaming from the windows
Screaming bloody murder
— Babyshambles, UnBiloTitled

Doping

I don’t know just where I’m going
But I’m gonna try for the kingdom, if I can
‘Cause it makes me feel like I’m a man
When I put a spike into my vein
And I’ll tell ya, things aren’t quite the same
When I’m rushing on my run
And I feel just like Jesus’s son
And I guess that I just don’t know
And I guess that I just don’t know
— The Velvet Underground, Heroin

Keep your silly ways or throw them out the window
The wisdom of your ways, I’ve been there and I know
Lots of other ways, what a jolly bad show
If all you ever do is business you don’t like
— Ian Drury & The Blockheads, Sex & Drugs & Rock ‘n’ Roll

Now the drugs don’t work
They just make you worse
— The Verve, The Drugs Don’t Work

The death this week of Ben Bradlee, former editor of The Washington Post, stirs up memories of all the research I did into the Watergate scandal. Investigating the evolution of film noir, I argued that the changes evident in the genre reflected more than just the fundamental shifts in the industry and the emergence of new filmmaking technology. Indeed, at the heart of my argument was the view that films, like other art forms, tend to tap into and critique the zeitgeist and prevailing ideology of their times. They take the temperature of, hold up a mirror to, the sociopolitical and cultural context in which they were made. The cinema of the early-to-mid 1970s, for example, suggested a failure of the establishment, and highlighted deeply entrenched corruption within it. Incompetence and impotence were dominant motifs. Detectives failed to solve their cases unlike their ratiocinative and hardboiled forebears. Scoundrels got away with their crimes. Psychopaths were everywhere. This played out to a backdrop of economic malaise, the on-going conflict in Vietnam, countless investigations and enquiries that failed to satisfy public need, and, in Watergate, a criminal act that implicated the US President.

We have always had a complex relationship with cheats. Dependent on the context, as well as the extent to which we are ourselves affected, we either celebrate or vilify those who game the system. If we dislike the system ourselves, then we are inclined to champion and celebrate those who challenge it. Outlaws become heroes in this context, from Robin Hood to Neo and Morpheus in The Matrix. The study of mythology and folk tales suggest that we are drawn to the archetypal character of the trickster. We celebrate Prometheus for stealing fire from the gods, for example. We admire the combined intellectual and physical efforts of Ariadne and Theseus for solving the puzzle of the labyrinth and overcoming the Minotaur. We write eulogies to the archers of Agincourt, who shifted the rules of warfare. Yet, when we encounter those who have defied our trust in them, public outcry ensues. We bay for blood when politicians fiddle their expenses, when spies are unearthed in positions of authority, or a when a national leader is found to be complicit in a break-in at his political opponent’s headquarters.

This tendency to game the system involves the blurring of moral, ethical and legal boundaries. Sometimes the results may be positive, the consequence of change agency and constructive challenge. Sometimes the system needs overturning, either with incremental steps or, less often, with a radical shift. The events of the late 1980s, leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall, are a case in point. Often, though, too many of us have too much invested in the system. Revelations about business malpractice at companies like Enron, unauthorised trading at Barings Bank, or incompetent management at our financial institutions do not garner public sympathy. Particularly when the innocent are hurt by such activities. More complicated is the psychological damage people experience when their sporting heroes are revealed as cheats. Usually there is no direct harm inflicted, but an invisible bond is snapped, an investment of goodwill suddenly devalued. Just ask any Canadian who witnessed Ben Johnson’s rise and fall in the wake of the Seoul Olympics.

The history of professional cycling is rife with stories of cheating, from riders hitching lifts in cars and trains in the early editions of the Tour de France to the more sinister interventions of medical practitioners in the sport. It is not necessarily the case that cycling is a more corrupt sport than any other, but that with its extensive testing programme it has been more effective at capturing and outing the cheats. The effect, though, in this era of 24-hour news coverage, is that from the period of the 1998 Tour de France, when soigneur Willy Voet was caught at the Franco-Belgian border with a car full of performance enhancing drugs, to the aftermath of the Lance Armstrong affair, professional cycling seems to have been constantly in the news for all the wrong reasons.

Among the most potent methods for cheating during the period were the use of EPO (Erythropoietin) and blood transfusions to improve oxygen delivery to muscles, enhance the endurance capacity of the athlete and aid recovery. The risks taken by such cheats were not insignificant, not only in terms of likely detection by the drug testers, potential imprisonment in some countries and loss of livelihood, but also in terms of the health risks that such cheating entailed. The insight provided by the testimony in the Armstrong USADA case, by an in-depth interview with Floyd Landis, and in books by former dopers such as Tyler Hamilton, David Millar and Michael Barry are horrifying. What emerges is the story of a toxic culture where there was an expectation that riders would do what was necessary to game the system. But Millar and Barry also point to a more positive picture. The arrival of a new generation, intolerant of cheats and cheating, and impatient with those who have practised a code of silence for too long.

Professional cycling appears to be undergoing a period of regeneration. Both cyclists and administrators are keen to excise a culture in which individuals felt it was necessary to cheat. To learn lessons from the past. To engage with those who did previously game the system in a process of truth and reconciliation. To re-establish a contract of trust between the sportsmen, the governing bodies and, most importantly, the fans of the sport. In effect, to overhaul the system while respecting and building on past traditions.

As always, other walks of life, other systems, including business and government, would do well to observe, adopt and adapt lessons from the world of sport.

I no longer hear the music
Oh, no, no, no, no
Well, I no longer hear the music when the lights go out
Love goes cold in the shades of doubt
The strange fate in my mind is all too clear
— The Libertines, Music When the Lights Go Out

The powers that be
That force us to live like we do
Bring me to my knees
When I see what they’ve done to you
But I’ll die as I stand here today
Knowing that deep in my heart
They’ll fall to ruin one day
For making us part
— The Pretenders, Back on the Chain Gang

Correspondence and conversation

The culture is again half-spoken, half-written.
— Esko Kilpi, From Productivity to Social Innovations

Conversations aren’t trivial. Culture is reinforced by shared conversations and understanding.
— Euan Semple, Organizations Don’t Tweet, People Do

Interconnected access to information, knowledge and instantaneous communications provides the modern equivalent to the dynamics created by the invention of the printing press – information distributed (much) more widely throughout society. Today it is also the case that the information is exchanged almost instantly; certainly at speeds that allow the back-and-forth rhythm of a conversation but in ways that leave a pragmatic actionable record of that conversation.
— Jon Husband, A New Chapter of the Internet’s Impact on Human Society

As a postgraduate student of film history during the early-to-mid 1990s, I used to experience the occasional frisson of excitement when connecting with someone from the industry itself or the academic world who had added to my understanding and appreciation of the medium. The communication methods available to me then were mainly letter or fax. While I did have an AOL account and a modem, generously supplied by a friend in Silicon Valley, this was before AOL had a toehold in the UK. Before there were a wide array of internet service providers. A period when Mosaic was the browser of choice. I therefore had to make international calls to the USA to connect. When I did so, there were few people I knew to converse and share with. Few friends, and certainly nobody from the film community who might be able to contribute or add value to my research project.

Instead, I had to rely on a ridiculously priced and hefty tome filled with the addresses of agents and production companies. I was firing out correspondence into the void. This was supplemented by the occasional visits to the British Film Institute’s cinema complex by celebrated filmmakers, who provided insights into the production process in on-stage interviews, then sold their latest books to the crowds of admirers. These included luminaries that spanned the generations: Robert Altman, Budd Boetticher, Quentin Tarantino, André de Toth. John Boorman, director of the neo-noir Point Blank, was one of the first to respond to me in a kind and generous hand-written note. Thelma Schoonmaker Powell, the brilliant editor who has worked alongside Martin Scorsese for many years, was another who took the time out to correspond. One of the great thrills was receiving a fax from Joseph H. Lewis, director of classic noir films like Gun Crazy and The Big Combo, when he was himself well into his eighties.

This was slow-going, though. The laborious assembly of a network of very weak connections. Film noir linked to neo-noir, through both generic tradition and film practitioners. Boorman as the driving force behind an early experiment with new wave filmmaking techniques applied to an American genre. Altman as another to subvert and interrogate generic expectations. Scorsese as an innovative film director who would be one of the key figures in the neo-noir period. Connections from him and Schoonmaker to her late husband, the maverick British filmmaker Michael Powell, and beyond to the academic Ian Christie. Then others related to the Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger partnership, including the latter’s grandson, Kevin Macdonald. The gaps between my initial attempts to connect and response from correspondents were often huge. In some cases, I am still waiting, twenty years later.

Following graduate school, while working as a freelance writer and editor, my interest in the noir genre broadened, embracing not only the films but the literature of the period. I became particularly interested in the writing of James Sallis, whose crime fiction was unlike anything else that I had come across in the genre. This was a master of both prose and poetry, whose novels transcended generic boundaries and were as ‘literary’ as anything produced by the likes of Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon. Email allowed me to establish a friendship with Jim. An article and a website followed, as did in-person meetings which served to cement the bond. Mostly, though, our interactions were asynchronous, across time zones and the cultural differences that prevail between Kent, UK, and Arizona, USA.

What a difference, then, from our modern, hyper-connected world. We live in a time in which broadband and WiFi are viewed as necessary utilities, smartphones proliferate, email is already an old-world technology, and conversations are taking place in real time across global boundaries and oceans on a host of services and platforms enabled by the social web. Not for the first time, I was reflecting back on this change yesterday as I travelled home from the Workplace Trends conference. At the event, as was the case earlier in the year when I attended the E2.0 Summit in Paris, I met a number of people in person for the first time, having previously only had an online relationship with them through Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn. Bonds that already existed were strengthened through sharing the same space, shaking hands, hugging, chatting about both trivial and meaningful subjects. As we have done online, we were able to converse, exchange views and ideas, challenge, agree and laugh.

This has been a revelatory and repetitive experience for me over the past twelve months. Last October I made a conscious decision to blog publicly and be more active on social platforms like Twitter. Some of the connections made online since then, and amplified through face-to-face time spent over coffee or food, have resulted in strong friendships that are both cherished and highly valued. In people like Anne Marie McEwan and Jon Husband, for example, I have found individuals who influence and challenge my thinking, and with whom I interact several times a week. With Kenneth Mikkelsen, I have formed a friendship and a writing partnership, shaped by a relationship with someone with whom I have a number of overlapping and interacting interests. The list goes on and on. People like Julian Stodd, Doug Shaw, John Wenger, Anne McCrossan and Luis Suarez have given me the courage to take the next step and try the freelance life again. To put my convictions into practice.

The important factor here is human connection. While all these relationships started online, the digital technologies themselves are something of a red herring. They are nothing more than an enabling layer. Just like the dining table and the coffee shop are. Regardless of whether you are talking to people face-to-face, through a browser interface or on a mobile app, this is all about communication and humanity. The great technology in play are the words, the ideas they convey, transported from the mouth or screen to the brain of another person. Through conversation we connect, we communicate, we influence and we learn. It is that which I appreciate above all else since making a stronger commitment to the social web and the friendships that have followed.

What this means is that knowledge is becoming more connected, socially complex and culturally diverse as people learn to communicate across multiple professional, organisational, technical, geographical and demographic boundaries.
— Anne Marie McEwan, Calling All Instigators!

But perhaps we have become too connected. There’s less sense of community in the peloton and less solidarity amongst teammates and riders. Self-aware narcissism is the unhealthy side effect. The connectedness of the digital world has made us less connected with those around us in the present.
— Michael Barry, Shadows on the Road

Just that one man is empty
and done with listening to others; and another
finally found a way to speak, to say
all the things he wanted, dumb for years.
— James Sallis, Nine Below Zero