Week 790: Leaving Orange

On Valentine’s Day 1997, I left my job as a newspaper journalist to work with the small, smart team who were building a pioneering news service for the web in a squat, Leeds-look, edge-of-centre office block. “You can always come back,” said my editor, “if this Internet thing doesn’t work out.”

For a long time I was genuinely grateful to know that. It was not that newspapers had got any less interesting, just that the world outside seemed to hold such potential.

The news service morphed from PA NewsCentre to Ananova. We were bought, as a team, by Hans Snook’s Orange. The very next week we moved a little further out of town and up in the world to the top floor of Marshall’s Mill where we surfed the amazing surge of mobile, from the “Matrix slider” to the ubiquitous smartphones. (By chance this also planted the historian in me among the ruins of the Industrial Revolution, the time when our city was part of  true northern renaissance.)

It has been a brilliant ride – several times up, over and round the hype cycle with text-to-speech, the mobile web, mobile apps and most recently near-field communication and mobile payments.

At every turn, Orange has granted me and my colleagues a privileged vantage point as millions of people have their first encounters with the amazing worlds of web and mobile media. Thank you to everyone who has given me those opportunities.

If you clicked this link looking for a bitter expose of life inside big telco, this is not that post. Please make a back gesture on your device now, or try Paul Ford’s brilliant “Why I Am Leaving the People of the Red Valley“.

It is not that operators have got any less interesting, just that the world outside seems to hold such potential.

Simon Wardley draws a business lifecycle from innovation to custom built to productisation, and finally to commoditisation. From his chart I draw two highly relevant conclusions:

  1. Lots of the stuff with which I have been privileged to play over the last decade and a half is approaching, or has already reached, the point of commoditisation.
  2. This is exciting, because it’s in the transition from product to commodity that services are born.

Together those two conclusions point to a Cambrian explosion of useful and engaging new services and business models.

Since handing in my notice at Orange I’ve had conversations with a wide range of people about what those services and business models might be. (Thank you, all of you. You know who you are :) I’ve also become even more convinced that human-centred service design and innovation techniques are the right tools for the job.

Next week I start my first freelance engagement with an amazing agency that is doing great stuff in this space. Longer term I’ll be looking for other clients and partners who are as excited as I am by all these opportunities. Want to know more? I’m at http://mattedgar.com

Guardian Leeds: the regeneration begins

Sign my pledge at PledgeBank

So today is the last day of Guardian Leeds, and this pledge gets a mention in John Baron’s characteristically gracious and professional signing-off post.

Leeds won’t let quality local news slip away without a fuss. There have been two meetings and numerous discussions about what happens next. You can find out more on two new blogs:

And in terms of the pledge, an amazing 14 people have said they’ll commit the price of a Guardian subscription to a citizen-run alternative for the city. For the pledge to succeed in its current form we need to sign up 21 more people in the next four days. Reader, I hope you’ll be one of them.

Small pieces loosely joined: on the way home from the Story

Cornelia Parker got the army to blow up a shed full of stuff and then hung the shards from an art gallery ceiling.

It felt like a metaphor for almost all the talks at Matt Locke‘s brilliant event, The Story: everywhere narratives are fragmenting, and no one seems certain how to put them back together.

  • Adam Curtis‘ experiments with archive video footage demonstrated persuasively how we’ve lost confidence in the veracity and validity of smoothly packaged news bulletins.
  • Mark Stevenson berated us for losing faith in a bright human future.
  • Martin Parr documented the vanished minutiae of a Northern English mill town and analogue studio photography.
  • Karl James gave voice to families thrown off balance, one by childhood leukemia, another by rape; and to children who felt written off by their teachers.
  • Lucy Kimbell dissected her own sense of worth and wellbeing to create ‘Audit’ and the LIX Index.
  • Players armed with toy guns blew apart Mary Hamilton‘s carefully constructed live action role play set pieces (though she didn’t seem to mind so much).
  • Matt Adams reduced teen pregnancy to 100 or so text messages scattered across seven days, while Phil Gyford is dicing 10 years worth of Samuel Pepys’ diaries into Twitter-ready chunks.
  • And with all those cats just a click away it’s no wonder Graham Linehan‘s attention span is so shot through that he hasn’t read a book in six months.

These things are not stories but snapshots, vignettes from, as Curtis put it, our age of “emotional realism”.

If there was one disappointment today it was that we were denied any straightforward, spellbinding storytelling performances, as delivered by Tim Etchells, Cory Doctorow and David Hepworth at last year’s The Story.

Fortunately, while none had the full prescription, some of the speakers did offer tantalizing hints of how the frayed and shredded fragments of stories that surround us might be woven back together into a genuinely new genre for our age.

I’m not sure what it looks like but I think these are some promising elements:

From our repertoire of emotional realism, I think we can keep and work with the heightened sensations:

  • the arresting visual image of the Maldives Cabinet meeting underwater
  • the excruciating 19 seconds of silence while the father of a sick child composes his thoughts
  • the details you only spot when you study the news from Helmand uncut.

Add to that the data exhaust of a billion mobile phones taking readings and measurements for a super-charged, real time LIX Index. And as for adding a soundtrack to e-books, whatever next, talking pictures?

Adam Curtis’ diagnosis of the need for a frame, for a less starry-eyed appreciation of power in the Internet age is spot on. One can detect this re-framing implicitly in Cornelia Parker’s work too.

But with this frame in place, we can safely build on the wonderful things that happen when storytellers open up the process and let their “audiences” in on the shaping of the story:

  • At least half the wordcount in Blast Theory’s ivy4Evr came from recipients of her texts responding and talking her through the issues as they themselves might experience them.
  • Mary Hamilton’s Zombie LARP “story machine” solidifies stories by institutionalising “froth”, the over-excited re-telling of events that follows inevitably from a successful live action role play happening.
  • Pepys Diary on Twitter has attracted a 14-strong menagerie of other characters spontaneously responding to his tweets.

And now @glinner uses project management software to co-write the IT Crowd with a small group of hand-picked Twitter followers. I loved the idea that he could go away for a week and return to find that “the stories accrete like coral” around the provocations he has sewn on Basecamp.

When I made ‘1794: A Small Story‘, I got an inkling of what happens when you put fragments out there, unfinished, joined to the web. Now I’m inspired to make it more sensation-al, more social and more savvy about the undercurrents of the sea in which it swims.

Also, Monsters! Made of people!

More discussion of The Story 2011 on Twitter.

Who wants to be a story millionaire? Some thoughts on the value of Patient Opinion

So, narrative capital. The social scientist has it like this…

… the power [research participants] have to tell the stories of their lives. This ‘narrative capital’ is then located in the ‘field’ of social science research and Sen’s capability approach is introduced to prompt the question: What real opportunities do research participants have to tell the stories they value and have reason to value? It is argued that ‘narrative capital’ can be too easily squandered by the failure to recognise individual values. -Research Abstract, Michael Watts

… and the novelist like this…

What the writer accrues by setting up situations, tensions, threats and other build-ups. If the author decides on a shocking climax that blows everything wide open, they will be spending the Narrative Capital they’ve saved – having the warring couple suddenly acknowledge their love, for instance. The more capital saved, the better the climax – but you can’t spend the same capital twice, and if you try to have a climax bigger than your capital can buy, the audience feels robbed. – author Kit Whitfield’s lexicon

I invoked the idea of narrative capital on this blog when I wrote about the wanton destruction of Leeds’ historic Clarence Dock: You wouldn’t burn a book, so why destroy a place with so many stories?

And last week at our first ever Service Design Thinks in Leeds I was struck once again by the power of stories, thanks to James Munro of 4IP and Screen Yorkshire-supported Patient Opinion.

Patient Opinion is a simple idea: you can write your account of being a patient in the UK’s National Health Service, read other people’s experiences and, crucially, see what NHS staff and managers are doing to make things better.

Making things better is at the core of the service: it’s founded on the insight that the NHS is well-equipped to deal with adversarial “complaints” demanding specific redress, but less so for “feedback” – negative and positive comments freely given by people who simply want to help improve the service for future patients, some with very specific suggestions, others just to say thank you.

With the help of this social enterprise, health service managers and practitioners can hear their patients’ authentic and surprising voices more clearly, and deliver better care as a result.

And at the centre of their operating model are stories. Lots of stories. Stories that have value, donated like blood:

100,000 stories per year. After 10 years, you could be a story millionaire!

It would be tempting to throw the Patient Opinion corpus into some kind of massive algorithmic natural language grinder, to present yummy infographics and Chernoff faces showing the relative happiness of different institutions, like Patient Opinion’s 4IP stablemate Schooloscope.

But that would miss the point. Yes, the Patient Opinion stories are cumulatively impressive – 25,017 and counting – but, as James explained, their power is in their uniqueness. Each story is different, nonfungible. Each narrative is differently shaped and demands a personal response from specific people.

Story, narrative capital, content, call it what you will. The value is not in the words themselves, but in the minds and actions of the “audience”: the right people in the right place hearing the right stuff at the right time, and doing something about it.

You can watch James Munro’s talk on the SD Leeds Vimeo channel.

On the way to dConstruct: a social constructionist thought for the day

A desire to put some theoretical acro props under my vague unease with the determinist narrative of so much of our technology discourse has led me to the writing of the French anthropologist Bruno Latour. His work on the social construction of science, an ethnography of the R&D lab, has a special resonance for me, a humanities graduate who finds himself colleague to a legion of French engineers.

I’m stumbling intermittently through Catherine Porter’s translation of Latour’s 1991 work “We have never been modern“, as a prelude to David Edgerton’s “The Shock of the Old“. At times it feels a bit like eating up the broccoli before allowing myself desert, but the rich, buttery morsels like the following make it all worthwhile.

The story so far.

Latour argues that modernity, from Civil War England onwards, managed its contradictions by placing boundaries between nature and society. Thomas Hobbes, writer of the Leviathan, was taken up as a founder of political philosophy while Robert Boyle, he of the air pumps, was channelled as a natural philosopher and pioneer of scientific method. In truth both men speculated on both politics and science, but this inconsistency was whitewashed by their modern successors seeking only the pure narrative of one or the other.

And so we are today in a world still riven by CP Snow’s two cultures, where right-wing bloggers can grab acres of media coverage against climate scientists by finding just the tiniest trace of political “contamination” on the lab’s email servers.

But I wonder if the disconnection and reconnection of nature and society is also a useful way to understand some of the ideas I’m expecting to hear today at dConstruct, a conference at the cutting edge of technology and media convergence.

The 19 years since Latour published “Nous n’avons jamais été moderne” roughly spans my working life so far. I’ve witnessed the amazing things that can happen when you expose the humanities-soaked world of newspapers, books and TV to the attentions of software engineers and computer scientists. The results have been delightful and depressing, often both at the same time. Who knew back then that floaty copywriters would have to cohabit – for better or for worse – with the number-crunchers of search engine optimisation?

This fusing of the worlds of media and technology is only just beginning, and the next step is evident in the hand-held touch-sensitive, context-aware marvel of creation that is the latest smartphone.

Hitherto we have seen the the world of human-created information, the texts of the ancients and the tussles of our own times, through the pure window of the newspaper, the book, the TV, the PC screen. But the smartphone is a game-changer, like Robert Boyle’s air pump. With its bundle of sensors, of location, of proximity, and in the future no doubt heat, light, pressure and humidity it becomes a mini-lab through which we measure our world as we interact with it.

All manner of things could be possible once these facts of nature start to mix with the artifacts of society. My Foursquare checkins form a pattern of places created by me, joined with those of my friends to co-create something bigger and more valuable. My view of reality through the camera of the phone can be augmented with information. We will all be the scientists, as well as the political commentators, of our own lives. This is the role of naturalism in my “Mobile Gothic” meander.

To recycle Latour on Robert Boyle’s account of his air pump experiments:

“Here in Boyle’s text we witness the intervention of a new actor recognised by the new [modern] Constitution: inert bodies, incapable of will and bias but capable of showing, signing, writing and scribbling on laboratory instuments before trustworthy witnesses. These nonhumans, lacking souls but endowed with meaning, are even more reliable than ordinary mortals, to whom will is attributed but who lack the capacity to indicate phenomena in a reliable way. According to the Constitution, in case of doubt, humans are better off appealing to nonhumans. Endowed with their new semiotic powers, the latter contribute to a new form of text, the experimental science article, a hybrid of the age-old style of biblical exegesis – which has previously been applied only to the Scriptures and classical texts – and the new instrument that produces new inscriptions. From this point on, witnesses will pursue their discussions in its enclosed space, discussions about the meaningful behavious or nonhumans. The old hermeneutics will persist, but it will add to its parchments the shaky signature of scientific instruments.”

I don’t yet know where I stand in this picture. Am I the experimenter, his audience, or the chick in the jar?

An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1768

A desire to put some theoretical acroprops under my vague unease with the determinist narrative of so much of our technologydiscourse has led me to the work of the French anthropologist Bruno Latour. His work on the social construction of science, anethnography of the R&D lab, has a special resonance for me, a humanities graduate who finds himself colleague to a legion of 

French engineers.

I’m stumbling intermittently through Catherine Porter’s translation of Latour’s 1991 work “We have never been modern”, as a

prelude to David Edgerton’s “The Shock of the Old”. At times it feels a bit like eating up the broccoli before allowing myself

desert, but the rich, buttery morsels like the following make it all worthwhile.

The story so far.

Latour argues that modernity, from Civil War England onwards, managed its contradictions by placing boundaries between

naure and society. Thomas Hobbes, writer of the Leviathan, was taken up as a founder of political philosophy while Robert

Boyle, he of the chicks in air pumps, was channelled as a natural philosopher and pioneer of scientific method. In truth both

men speculated on both politics and science, but this inconsintency was whitewashed by their modern successors seeking only

the pure narrative of one or the other.

And so we are today in a world still riven by CP Snow’s two cultures, where right-wing bloggers can grab acres of media

coverage against climate scientists by finding just the tiniest trace of political “contamination” on the lab’s email servers.

But I wonder if the disconnection and reconnection of nature and society is also a useful way to understand some of the ideas

I’m expecting to hear today at dConstruct, a conference at the cutting edge of technology and media convergence.

The 19 years since Latour published “Nous n’avons jamais été moderne” roughly spans a working life in which I’ve witnessed

the amazing things that can happen when you expose the humanities-soaked world of newspapers, books and TV to the

attentions of software engineers and computer scientists. The results have been delightful and depressing, often both at the

same time. Who knew back then that floaty copywriters would have to cohabit – for better or for worse – with the

number-crunchers of search engine optimisation?

This fusing of the worlds of technology and media is only just beginning, and the next step is evident in the hand-held

touch-sensitive, context-aware marvel of creation that is the latest smartphone.

Hitherto we have seen the the world of human-created information, the texts of the ancients and the tussles of our own times,

through the pure window of the newspaper, the book, the TV, the PC screen. But the smartphone is a game-changer, like

Robert Boyle’s air pump. With its bundle of sensors, of location, of proximity, and in the future no doubt heat, light, pressure

and humidity it becomes a mini-lab through which we measure our world as we interact with it.

All manner of things could be possible once these facts of nature start to mix with the artifacts of society. My Foursquare

checkins form a pattern of places created by me, joined with those of my friends to co-create something bigger and more

valuable. My view of reality through the camera of the phone can be augmented with information. We will all be the scientists,

as well as the poticial commentators, of our own lives. This is the role of naturalism in my “Mobile Gothic” meander.

To recycle Latour on Robert Boyle’s account of his air pump experiments:
“Here in Boyle text we witness the intervention of a new actor recognised by the new [modern] Constitution: inert bodies,

incapable of will and bias but capable of showing, signing, writing and scribbling on laboratory instuments before trustworthy

witnesses. These nonhumans, lacking souls but endowed with meaning, are even more reliable than ordinary mortals, to whom

will is attrributed but who lack the capacity to indicate phenomena in a reliable way. According to the Constitution, in case of

doubt, humans are better off appealing to nonhumans. Endowed with their new semiotic powers, the latter contribute to a new

form of text, the experimental science article, a hybrid of the age-old style of biblical exegesis – which has previously been

applied only to the Scriptures and classical texts – and the new instrument that produces new inscriptions. From this point on,

witnesses will pursue their discussions in its enclosed space, discussions about the meaningful behavious or nonhumans. The

old hermeneutics will persist, but it will add to its parchments the shaky signature of scientific instruments.”

I don’t yet know where I stand in this picture. Am I the man in the white coat or the chick in the belljar?

You’re in the future now, Konvergenz Boy

To my middle, most media-savvy son, the record player is the stuff of legend. Could a needle bouncing through wiggly grooves on a disc of black plastic truly recreate music as faithfully as the bits and bytes that play the part today?

On a rainy July Saturday afternoon I stagger from the loft with my old turntable and a box of vinyl dating back to the mid-1980s. For my first trick I play music the boys already know, the stuff we have as MP3s. Somehow transparency of operation makes the old technology seem more miraculous than the new.

Then we dig a little deeper into my teenage listening habits, into the stuff so embarrassing or forgettable that it never made the cut when formats flipped to CD and then over to digital. That’s where I find this forgotten future.

A follow-up to Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s “Love Missile F1-11,” “21st Century Boy” is all space hotels and acid rain. It features the news from 13th July 2011. Back in 1986 it hit number 20 in the UK singles chart, apparently. I have no memory of how it came to be in my attic.

But look closely at 21st Century Boy (Modelled, I guess, by Tony James et al.?) He is:

  • Compu-Boy
  • Phone-Boy
  • Video-Boy
  • Disc-Boy
  • TV-Boy
  • (and, um, Rocket Baby. Best not go there.)

He is clutching all the technologies that we now see clamped together in the disruptive embrace of communications, information, entertainment and education convergence.

He is old enough to be my 21st century boy’s granddad. He is Device Man, and he wasn’t far wrong.

And that’s just Side 1. Side 2 is “Buy EMI“.

When too much perspective can be a bad thing

An article by my former colleague and TEDx Leeds speaker Norman Lewis reminds me of an ingenious device imagined by Douglas Adams in the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Yes, I know you all like a good Douglas Adams quote.

First, though, listen to Norman, writing about ‘Millennials’ and Enterprise2.0 on his Futures Diagnosis blog:

The Millennial issue in the workplace has become symptomatic of the uncertainty of the ‘information age’ which exaggerates the novelty of the present at the expense of the past. This generational shift is regarded as unprecedented and a unique feature of our times. The workplace (and indeed, the world) is now divided into two periods: the past where everything remained the same with little change and the current moment with its constant change where change and disruption are incessant.

This rhetoric of unprecedented change is precisely that, rhetoric. What about the generational shift that occurred in the 1960s? The rise of the teenager in the post-War period was indeed unprecedented and had a huge impact on Western society. But did this result in the end of the enterprise as we know it? No, the exact opposite. It helped to forge the enterprise as we know it.

This is spot on. As I’ve argued before, what has changed in the last decade is the enterprise’s level awareness of stuff that has previously gone on behind its back.

Throughout the so-called “mass media” era, managers were encouraged to delude themselves that they had the attention of their employees and customers, who were in reality talking amongst themselves all along.

The web puts an end to the delusion. It acts like Douglas Adams’ Total Perspective Vortex:

… allegedly the most horrible torture device to which a sentient being can be subjected.

When you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little mark, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says, “You are here.”

Why is the web like this? Because of the convergence of communications, entertainment and commerce into a single seamless mass.

Once upon a time, television appeared to be an uncontested safe harbour for entertainment and commerce, the corporate-networked desktop PC a clearly bounded productivity tool. Sociability and communication happened out of sight and out of mind.

Now those things are collapsing in on each other. When commercial messages have to compete with pictures of your kids, cute kittens and plans for nights out, there is no contest. When employees openly use the same tools to converse with their peers as to conduct business it becomes clear at once that bonds of friendship are stronger than those of salaried fealty. When even the biggest brand is reduced to a fraction of one percent of searches on the web, it becomes just another microscopic dot on a microscopic dot.

These truths are not new, but the tools to discover them are.

Executives stepping out of the Vortex for the first time are understandably mind-blown. Realising quite how insignificant their businesses and products are in the lives of their consumers, they become easy prey to social media’s snake-oil salesforce, who promise to swell the ranks of their Twitter followers and guarantee instant Google gratification.

Maybe they’d do better to remember that they were young once, and that, as Adams wrote: “In an infinite universe, the one thing sentient life cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.”