On this Christmas Eve in Paris

I contemplate the year past and the year to come and think on how I want my life to be.

What do I want my life to stand for?

Not clamour for power or wealth; not hunger for praise or admiration; not frenzied desire for new and thrilling experiences.

What then is it? I’ve been sitting here in the somewhat chilly lobby of my hotel pondering for a while now.

I want, no aspire, to be civil and just in my words, meanings and acts. I want to meet my fellow human beings with peace in my heart and anger towards none. I want to be real, open, and free of fear.

I suppose that this seems to be all about me. But it seems to me that I am the only thing that I have the power to change.

Interesting to realise how little power I have to change other things and how much power I have to change myself.

Strange ponderings on Christmas Eve.

Wishing one and all a merry Christmas! Peace on earth and goodwill to all.

Flanders mud is pretty bad too

Recently I visited the site in Flanders where John McCrae wrote the famouns pomen In Flanders Fields. It is at the Essex Farm Aid Station only a few kilometres from Ieper (aka Ypres).

I visited on a cold, muddy and miserable day. The concrete bunker where the medicos triaged the wounded was not far from the various battlefields of the Ypres Salient. The site is also a cemetery now – Essex Farm Cemetery – as those who expired were buried in the field next to the aid station.

But the most telling thing for me was the tiny space that so many men fought and died over. The Ypres Salient was about 20 km by 6 km and you can stand on one of the few ridges in the area and see much of the disputed territory that was fought back and forth over between 1914 and 1918.

McCrae’s poem is moving – especially with the backstory of his inspiration at the death of his friend. But the sad truth is that some poetry was a mechanism for supporting the war and encouraging more men to sign up to fight. To become mere names upon a wall (like the Menin Gate) rather than to live, to create and know joy or peace.

I find the final sentiments of his poem not to my taste:

“Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.”

Source: In Flanders Fields

More to my taste – having seen the utter waste and destruction of World War One – is Wilfrid Owen’s pungent poem:

“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori. ”

Source: Dulce et Decorum Est

Simply because the wars we fight now are not on the same grand scale as World War One it does not mean that individual and societal human suffering is any less. Afghanistan, Iraq show us the same futility and waste of humanity, and the pain and suffering will reverberate into future generations in ways of which we cannot yet count the cost.

People are still the best thing about LeWeb

Each year LeWeb conference evolves and improves on the last one, but one thing remains – the amazing diversity of people that you meet. And this is one of the reasons that, in spite of many criticisms that others level at this conference, I like to attend.

Last night this was proven on a number of levels. I joined a diverse, smart and interesting group of people for dinner. The conversation ranged far and wide and it was a privilege to participate. I will not report the substance of the conversations as we were all very frank and it would not be fair.

The restaurant we dined at was wonderful, great traditional French food and wine, and the staff looked after our boisterous group very well. I had the venison and it was delicious. The desserts were amazing as well. I will share the food pr0n pics once I get around to uploading them.

L’Aiguière 37 bis, rue Montreuil 75011 Paris

Closest metro is: FAIDHERBE CHALIGNY – Line 8 (pink) towards the direction of Cretel Prefecture.

I can recommend this as a good place for a convivial meal in Paris.

TEDWomen – might be worth tuning in?

As they say to introduce this latest in the TED stable:

“How are women and girls reshaping the future? The first-ever TEDWomen invites men and women to explore this question in depth. From the developing world, where a single microloan to a single girl can transform a village, to the West, where generations of educated women are transforming entire industries, women are powerful change agents, intellectual innovators, idea champions …”


Success but on whose terms? What about personal brands and character?

There is so much pressure on people these days to be successful.  And I do not think we are encouraged to stop and think what success actually means for each of us and for society in general.  Many of us seem to be on a treadmill.  Go to school, get good grades and get into a good university and then get a good job.  Then get a mortgage on a house in a good area and possibly buy an investment property.  By this stage we are supposed to be successful and thus be happy.

But I’m not sure that this is the correct equation for achieving a happy and successful life.  I see the pattern so often. Many of my friends are on this treadmill.  Some of get to their thirties or forties and realise that they have not achieved as much as they had hoped to.  Perhaps their job isn’t good enough, perhaps they didn’t go to a good enough university. In any case they start to feel defeated and not good enough. They begin the slide down into a gently defeated middle age where they think that because they did not do good enough their life will not really amount to much now.

It seems to me that this is no way to live. Constantly checking yourself out against an ill-defined standard of good. What the hell does good in these contexts mean anyway?  Because the standard of goodness is not defined – and good goes so easily with better and best – there is always a feeling that the good thing might be surpassed by a better thing.

There is little room in this pattern for joy, inspiration, non-traditional approaches, or unexpected roads to fulfilment.

Coupled with this treadmill is the relatively new notion of ‘personal branding’.  Chris Penn wrote a nice piece on personal branding recently which is worth a read (HT: @maverickwoman for the link).

When the idea of a personal brand is tied to the treadmill of a good career it puts even more pressure on people to measure up to these ill-defined standards.

When we look back to history many of the people we most admire did not follow the generally accepted standards of the day with regards to good education, jobs, etc.

It’s time for us all to think and feel and reason about what is success.  How does that link to character (not personal brand)? What kind of person do we want to be?  And what kind of actions do we need to undertake based on that? By thinking about these things we can determine what to do to achieve success on our own terms and not upon the ill-defined terms that seem to be generally accepted in our society.

Social media: blurring the boundaries

In the past we used to be able to separate the public from the private and business from the personal quite easily. But this was an aberration.

Privacy was a tiny blip in the long history of human existence. Going back only as far as our great grandparent’s generation privacy was relatively rare. And in the generations before that privacy was considered almost absurd, even for the very rich.

Most people lived in small cramped houses and shared their space with many others. In those days even conjugal relations were not private for most people.

Most people lived in villages too, where just about everyone knew each other’s business. But for a very short period, during the mid to late twentieth century, privacy was possible in the western world due to a new standard of housing.

It was the post World War 2 housing – where each nuclear family had its own house – that made privacy possible. Finally Mum and Dad had personal space and sometimes even the kids had their own rooms. For a brief period in the twentieth century privacy became the norm.

But with the Digital Revolution in the early twenty first century we have made a return to the village. And this time the village is virtual.

This digital village means that the boundaries between public and private, business and personal are becoming increasingly blurred. I’ve taken to drawing them as a Venn diagram.

As we adopt the various social computing platforms in our personal lives – such as Facebook, Digg, Slideshare, YouTube, or Twitter – we blur the boundaries between public and private by our own making. Then, as companies and other organisations adopt the same technologies for business purposes and ask us to drive them, we begin the blur the boundaries between business and personal.

As a result we are turning into:

“ambient broadcasters who disclose a great deal of personal information in order to stay connected and take advantage of social, economic, and political opportunities.”

Source: Mike Sachoff webpronews.com

And, by means of this broadcasting of our information, we are paying the social media platform providers through our data. These providers are not making their platforms available to us for free. They are doing it because our data is the goldmine of the twenty first century. We are paying them by giving away data about our lives, which are increasingly exposed online in the virtual village.
web21-300x197This view of data as critical to the new internet (often called Web 2.0) was explained by Tim O’Reilly back in 2005 and is summarised nicely in this diagram by Ajit Jaokar.

And this new interactive and easier to use web is compelling to many of us. It enables us to do many things including:

  • Build friendships
  • Find and form communities
  • Seek or share help and expertise
  • Build reputations
  • Find out who is trustworthy and reputable
  • Do business and make money
  • Find jobs
  • Have fun

But let’s put all of this aside for a moment to consider human nature. And to start let’s consider an old saying:

“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. ”
Source: Ecclesiastes 1:9-14

Thus one thing we need to keep in mind about this digital village we’re living in now is that no human behaviour happens online that does not already happen offline. What is different, however, is the the amplification effects of the web and the way that the medium facilitates amplified responses.

We’ve all seen the poor secretary somewhere who writes an email only have it go global almost overnight and then lose their job. That’s the amplification effect of the web. In the past that conversation might have got out to a small group of people via word of mouth. But now it truly can go global in a matter of hours.

And, while this digital village gives rise to an enormous number of benefits and opportunities, it also gives rise to some risks.

The three key risks I see are:

  • Reputation. The amplification effects of the web mean that news moves fast and bad news moves faster.  Thus while it has become easier and faster to build a reputation online, it is also easier for unflattering images and commentary to proliferate.After all how many times have you gone out with friends only to find the pictures are already up on Facebook or Flickr by the time you arrive home? Here is a great example of this phenomenon (no it’s not me in that picture 😉 ).
  • Job. The blurring between business and personal currently gives rise to a number of conflicts in the workplace.  Some employers frown upon online participation by their staff, others demand it of unwilling staff.In any case, we are still working out the boundaries for social media and social networking in business and the workplace. And, until we settle on the new norms, there are going to be some casualties.  I know several people who have lost jobs due to their online activity.
  • Personal safety. This risk is especially linked to the ease with which disputes can be amplified in the absence of physical interaction.There is much more effort involved to escalate a dispute if you have to walk over to someone’s house, knock on their door, ask their parents or partner if they are home, and then have a fight. But if there has been insults flung back and forth in the equivalent of a digital village square then physical action can seem to be a logical next step.An example of this is the tragic case of teens who escalated an argument online (effectively in public in the digital village). The result was one was killed due to a perceived loss of face.

This leads into the question of how we can mitigate these risks.

  • Use commonsense – if you wouldn’t disclose offline why do it online?
  • Trust your gut – if you are not comfortable doing something why do it?
  • Ask your friends
  • It’s just like the ‘real world’ so look for patterns
  • Be conscious of the power of amplification online and use that power wisely

The main thing is to:

Accept the changed landscape and plan accordingly

The human race has survived the advent of many revolutionary technologies – including the printing press, the telegraph, telephone, radio and television. Each was predicted to cause disaster to our kind and, miraculously, we appear to have survived. But, rather than the doom predicted, each of these technologies has opened up remarkable vistas of opportunity, wealth and social good for humankind.

I predict that we will adapt to the digital revolution and be as unable to imagine life without it as we can imagine life without the telephone.

Note: This post is based on a presentation at Social Media Women on 13 July 2010. The slides are up on Slideshare.

What constitutes a well-lived life?

As I sat today during the funeral of a friend’s mother I pondered this question.

Is it simply achieving great age?

Is it leaving behind many who loved you?

What about the joy and love and laughter you shared?

What about the things you built – from great to small?

What does the work you did count in this assessment?

What about contributions to the common good?

And what of those who quietly live and die quietly?

No simple answers readily come to mind. Still pondering what constitutes a well lived life.

What do you work for?

Had an interesting conversation with some friends recently and it got me thinking about what we work for.

In Western societies many of us work, in addition to money and sustenance, for self-actualisation (in a Maslowian sense).

Many of us pick work that is meaningful to us and which meets our aspirations. But many also toil away in work that has no significance beyond a steady paycheck.

In the past, for most of us, our toil was over by the time we had reached 40 years of age. As Hobbes said of life in his day: “the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.

But for many of us life is no longer like that. Instead we face long lives of comfort and ease. And this very longevity calls us to a different approach to life. As C. S. Lewis noted: “How incessant and great are the ills with which a prolonged old age is replete.”

Since mere survival is not the only thing we face in modern society, it is worth questioning what we work for over the course of our life.

What regrets will we ponder as, in old age, we face the end of this life? What things should we do now to minimise those regrets?

Will it be too much work that we regret? Will it be that we made too much money? Or will it be the human experiences of joy and sorrow that we missed, the relationships that slipped through our fingers while we toiled?

Racism, Sexism and Privilege

Just came across two fairly old articles that are really worth reading:

The Male Privilege Checklist by B. Deutsch
This is a summary of the unconscious privilege to which able bodied white men are generally subject. This is not a criticism of white men – really it is just how they experience the world unless something intervenes to reveal their own privileged situation.

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh
This is the 1990 article that sparked the Male Privilege Checklist – it looked at the unconscious privilege to which white people are generally subject. Peggy McIntosh says, “I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group”.

This is all very interesting because the other day I was listening to Jackie Huggins talk about her life and her family. It was a long drive so there was nothing to distract me. As I listened it became clear to me how hard it must be to become a successful aboriginal woman. So many unconscious freedoms that I take for granted were and remain blocked to non-whites in Australia.

I’ve studied sociology, philosophy and anthropology so I’ve known intellectually about these phenomena. But it was listening the Jackie talk on the radio that humanised the whole thing.

It behoves us as a nation to bring to an end this unconscious privilege and the associated unconscious discrimination. And it behoves me as an individual to think about what I can do. This post is the first step.

What Do You Believe That You Cannot Prove?

There is some really thought provoking stuff over at esr.ibiblio.org – Armed & Dangerous – (esr.ibiblio.org/index.php?p=184 full story here), an excerpt follows below:

“I believe, but don?’t know how to prove, a much stronger version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis than is currently fashionable. That is, I believe the way humans think is shaped in important ways by the linguistic categories they have available; thinking outside those categories is possible but more difficult, has higher friction costs. Accordingly, I believe that some derivation of Alfred Korzybski?’s discipline of General Semantics will eventually emerge as an essential tool of the first mature human civilizations.”