Keep the campfire burning: a thread of whimsy from Baden-Powell to Berners-Lee

Cubs badges

As a child I hated Cubs. All that running around and shouting, the church parades, and camping on a damp field at the edge of Danbury Common.

But in a twist of fate I find myself parent to three boys far more enthusiastic than I ever was; my oldest recently got a badge marking seven years – more than half his lifetime – as a Beaver, Cub or Scout.

That’s seven years of walking him to and from the weekly meetings in the school hall, driving to the scout hut down dark country lanes, dropping off and picking up at obscure Dales campsites that satnav passed by. If the youngest one follows in his muddy footsteps I’ll be doing the same for the next seven years as well.

I remain both surprised and grateful that there are grown-ups who volunteer to take my children camping so I don’t have to.

And just recently I’ve come to wonder at the infrastructure that has grown up around the scouting movement in the 106 years since Robert Baden-Powell ran his first experimental camp at Brownsea Island, Dorset.

Within an hour’s drive of our home there are dozens of scout sites tucked away in valleys, down farm tracks, one on an unpromising gap between a canal and a railway line. The Wakefield District even has its own canal boat.

Then there’s the knowledge and social capital. My boys are fourth-generation scouts – at least four of their eight great-grandparents were active in the movement. Yet their campfires, penknives, funny handshake and woggles would be instantly recognisable to scouts who bob-a-jobbed in last Great Depression.

I like to think that our digital culture will develop like this.

When I reflect on its future, I’m not that interested in whether we’ll experience life through screens, or glasses or holograms or deep brain implants, or whatever. The scout hut now has flushing toilets, not a hole in the ground, but the boys would still pee against a tree if you let them.

What matters to me as a second-generation geek is the culture and shared set of values that emerges in a movement over multiple lifetimes.

I relish the thought of heritage servers and listed fibre optic cables.

How brilliant would it feel to comment on a 50-year-old Basecamp, or push to a 100-year-old Github repository?

Imagine watching the accelerated sights of a webcam that has lain forgotten on someone’s window sill for a century or more. Or sifting through an heirloom dataset.

How will the do-ocracies that power hackspaces and open source projects manage the passing of batons from generation to generation?

Will the elders entreat sceptical youths to eschew the home comforts of AI-generated code for the delights of hand-whittled trinkets in Python?

In 2093, will our great-grandchildren gather to mark 100 years since the first experimental website was put up by Tim Berners-Lee (like Baden-Powell a knight of Britain’s exclusive Order of Merit)? What greetings will they use? What songs will sing?

And how will the network bear the scars of countries that have come to blows, made peace and repaired the damage, as have many of the nations in the worldwide community of scouts?

I picture a world much more complex than ours, more resilient too, yet in some ways instantly recognisable.

The example of scouting makes me optimistic about the decades to come – not because of the things we’ll invent between now and then, but because of the experiences we’ll share; because the future will have more history behind it.



As a parent of a toddler you see the world differently. Everything that’s become everyday on the long slog into grown-up-dom is suddenly fresh again when seen for the first time through a new pair of eyes.

With a small child at your side everything exists to be classified and clarified. Cat, dog, big, red, dangerous, dirty, fragile.

Digger! Look, a digger!

It’s matters not that before becoming a parent, you paid no attention to diggers. The act of pointing-out signals to the child that you are interested in their interests, and that they may be interested in the pointed-out thing. This becomes a cycle of positive reinforcement.

At times in my children’s upbringing this work as life’s tour guide has become so all-consuming that I’ve caught myself pointing things out when unaccompanied by an actual child. To work colleagues and complete strangers: “Look! A digg… err, nothing…”

And then, as quickly as it arrived, that phase of a child’s life is gone. Language assimilated, stabilisers off, the child is equipped to drink in a fill of the world and filter the risks and opportunities for herself, at least in a moment-to-moment way. The work of parenting shifts up a level, to instilling higher-order knowledge and shared values.

Right now, owning a smartphone feels a bit like parenting through those precious first years. Small and bright eyed, it has all these amazing, pure senses and capabilities, and so much world still to discover.

When I see a QR code I feel a parental urge to show it to my phone, like pointing out a digger to a toddler.

It’s not so much that the content at the end of the codeblock will interest me,  just that I have a chance to see something mundane through the device’s eyes. Together we are experiencing the world anew.

I’m fascinated by work on computer vision like Greg Borenstein‘s forthcoming O’Reilly book about Microsoft Kinect, and Berg’s inquiry into the robot readable world. It feels so much like the start of something.

Of course mobile is already climbing out of the basic, high-contrast cot-toy stage. Google Goggles seems to have a reading age roughly equivalent to that of my youngest, five-year-old, son.

That’s also the age at which we begin to think more critically about the values we’re instilling for the future. Perhaps our task now is to raise a generation of well-balanced smartphones that can make sense of the world in all its wonder, not grumpy, materialistic tweens only interested in mass media and shopping.

And te tide and te time þat tu iboren were, schal beon iblescet

The depths of winter, two weeks off to take stock of where we are and where we’re going, a chance to catch up with family and friends. We travelled through blizzards, cooked and ate good food, lit fires, drank wine, fiddled with MP3 play-lists, time-shifted TV, and made one (thankfully minor) visit to Accident and Emergency. We – friends, family, all – talked about our lives in early Twenteenage Britain: public sector insecurity, the choice of good schools, distant relatives, our new phones and other devices. The confection that follows is made from the left-overs.

Our current preoccupations seem to boil down to two resources, both of which are unequally distributed within families, communities, our nation and world at large. To understand these resources is to see where opportunities and conflicts lie, to look for unlikely allies and unexpected lines of agreement.

The first of the two resources is disposable time – the uncommitted minutes and hours in which we make our own choices.

The clichéd “cash rich, time poor” professional classes are not alone in their want of this resource. The pressure on the “squeezed middle” is as much a temporal crunch as a financial one. As Ed Miliband said: “If you are holding down two jobs, working fourteen hour days, worrying about childcare, anxious about elderly relatives, how can you find the time for anything else? … Until we address the conditions that mean that people’s lives are dominated by long hours, then the big society will always remain a fiction.”

Time wealth ebbs and flows as we move through life-stages, and is at least partially subjective – there are huge variations in people’s estimations of their own and others’ busy-ness. But, whether acknowledged or not, the debate over fairness and equality – over social security, pensions and the division of unpaid labour within families – must be as much about time and energy as it is about money.

The second resource, sometimes a skill, but as often a learned attitude, is tech mastery, a belief that computers, the internet and mobile phones exist to help us achieve our goals, not to enslave or bewilder us.

Tech mastery is the toolkit to take control in the modern world, to “program or be programmed.” Good technology products and services increase the mastery of their users; poor ones sap it. That tech mastery tends to rise and fall with age, and to be more concentrated among men than women, says more about the biases of tech implementation than about the innate abilities or preferences of those demographic groups.

I believe 2011 will be a year when people get angry about bad usability and the failure of the new media to meet the needs of all but a narrow section of society. As the web becomes more mobile and more, genuinely, worldwide, it has to do better at empowering all its users, young and old, rich and poor, not all of whom have the latest device designed in California.

The interactions between disposable time and tech mastery reveal (via sweeping generalisations, I know) some interesting gulfs in understanding to be overcome…

When free tech culture meets the law it’s more than a matter of understanding the “what.” There’s also the “why”.

One person’s innocent checking of their mobile phone is another’s gross intrusion into quality time.

We also find some opportunities…

What services could bridge the gaps between the generations and social groups by drawing on what they have in common?

How could two groups of people make the most of their complementary resources?

To square this circle, we need to pay attention to the different characteristics demanded at each point, and find ways to spread the wealth more equally. Something like…

Right now, at the start of 2011, I have many more questions than answers about disposable time and tech mastery inequalities. But I reckon we’ll see a lot more of these themes before the year is out.

Around the city, joining the dots

I think there’s a coherent narrative to be woven between all of the following, but for now, I offer them to you as a puzzle of jumbled bullet points. Fuller posts on some of them may follow.

1. It’s been a few weeks since my colleagues and I at Orange moved offices from Holbeck to Clarence Dock. I’ve been meaning to share some photos and thoughts on the new locality, ever since I saw Mike Chitty’s blog post and Imran Ali’s interesting response, Ideas for Cities. I know that was February and this in June. I will do so soon. Just call it slow blogging.

2. For Fathers’ Day, we took a family trip on the Leeds sightseeing boat from Granary Wharf to Clarence Dock. For 20 minutes the River Aire was our Canale Grande, only without the gondolas and palazzos. Lots of cities have a river, but I reckon we could do more with ours. If you live in Leeds you should take the boat at least once, just to see the familiar from a different perspective.

3. Kathryn, Tero and I hosted Leeds’ first ever Service Design Drinks at the Midnight Bell on Tuesday. It went even better than we’d hoped. We had a broad range of interests, some fascinating conversations and new connections made, including some people who travelled a long way to take part. We can see there’s more than enough interest for us to move to the next stage with Service Design Thinks, an evening of three talks followed by an open discussion. More on that soon.

4. Mike was one of our service design drinkers. He floated the concept of an Innovation Lab for Leeds: “a process – not a place.  It usually culminates in an intense workshop to allow key thinkers, influencers, technologists and service users to come together to work intensely and constructively on developing a vision for how things could be…” Turns out Imran had already been thinking about this too. Imagining a place to imagine solutions for our city: I guess that’s meta-imagineering.

5. Finally, back in Holbeck on Thursday night Temple Works was more alive than I’ve ever seen it before, with the Sh! Awards, a prize for the region’s most promising design students run by my friends at Brahm. Having been a judge as a series of amazingly confident young designers presented their work in the edgy surroundings of the Temple Works loading bay, I’m sure the best one won. You should check out Matthew Young‘s work now, before you see it everywhere. In particular, watch his D&AD nominated winning video, The City…

So join the dots! Can tell what it is yet? if you can, please let me know.

Mobile video use case #3

So I’m on the train home after a day in London and my phone beeps.

It’s a video message of Fabian riding his bike without stabilisers.

“I don’t know who I’m most proud of,” I tell Caroline later, “him for riding a bike or you for sending a video message.”

“Don’t patronise me,” says Caroline.

Relax, your photos are in the sky (but I’ve burned a CD just in case)

The conversation in our household goes like this:

Me: I’m clearing the digital camera. Its memory’s nearly full.

My spouse: I don’t like the idea that all our photos are just on the computer.

Me: Well they’re safer there than in tatty envelopes under the bed…

Spouse: Yes, but why can’t we print them all out?

Me: … and I’ve got them all on Flickr. You can print them off the internet any time you like.

Spouse: You know what, that doesn’t make me feel any better…

I wanted to know where my photos would be safer – “in the sky”, or in a shoebox. 30 minutes of Googling later, I have the answer.

According to my local Fire Service, there were 17.2 “calls to accidental dwelling fires per 10,000 dwellings” in 2005-06. That’s odds of 581 to 1 that we’ll suffer a house fire. Obviously, the shoebox could survive unscathed, but then again it’s subject to other risks such as flooding, theft and shredding by toddlers, so I reckon the fire statistic is a pretty good proxy for the risks to photos stored physically in the home.

As for Flickr, well it’s owned by Yahoo! Inc, a multibillion dollar US company with an exclamation mark in its name. Let’s assume they take good care of our pictures unless they run into serious financial difficulties. Yahoo!’s (or is that “Yahoo’s!”?) corporate credit rating is a just-about-investment-grade BBB-. For this grade, the Average Default Rate Within One Year of Rating (1970-2001) is apparently about 0.15%. Satisfyingly, that works out at a 666 to 1 chance of Yahoo! defaulting on its debt and taking my photos down with it.

So actually, the chances are pretty comparable. The sky shades it a little over the shoebox. Better still, I can really keep things safe by doing both. It seems safe to assume the two variables are independent – that is, my house burning down wouldn’t make it any more or less likely that Yahoo! goes! belly! up! In that case there’s only a 387,333 to 1 chance of both catastrophes occuring in the same year. Some back-up dividend!

I’m more likely (370,035 to 1) to die choking on food.

[Scary afterthought: Maybe I’m now destined to be poisoned by fire-raising Yahoo! acolytes enraged by my mockery of their carefree approach to punctuation?]

The logic of online storage seems compelling, but it may not be enough. No matter the hypothetical benefits of having stuff stored in a cloud, people exhibit strong attachments to having personal data in forms they can touch: prints, CDs, DVDs, and so on.

Is this just a hangover of a bygone age, something that will be ironed out as the iPod generation goes totally digital? Or is the need for tangible assets a deeply held one that we need to incorporate into online services to ensure their long-term adoption? What are the chances?

Baby’s first steps

Pascal adeptly demonstrates the archetypal use case for mobile video – I reckon I managed to catch steps three, four, five and six :)