Laptops and Looms

I spent a wonderful three days last week in Derbyshire talking about how we could use everything we’ve learned about creating and supporting digital technologies to start a renaissance of making things. Instigator-in-chief was Russell Davies who wrote a little bit about why we were getting together in his Wired column last month:

We need an economy that makes things again. And I’m not alone in thinking this. The generation that built the web is tiring of the immaterial and is turning back to objects: to 3D printing, to laser-cutting, to Arduinos. And maybe they can — as with the web — transform hobbies and eccentricities into industries.

We kept it all a bit Bilderburg as we were worried that hundreds of people would want to come and we had no idea whether it was going to work or not, but on reflection it was rather good so we decided we’d do something a bit bigger and more organised next year. At the end of the three days we all agreed to write down some of our thoughts from this year, so here goes. Ten lessons and questions the discussion raised for me:

  1. It’s easy to romanticise the industry of old but much of it was horrible and remains so in the countries where we now outsource many of our manufacturing needs. If we’re to bring manufacturing back to Britain (which I think will gradually happen over the coming decade) we need to think differently about the economics of consumer goods including the jobs created and how to eliminate the environmental impacts.
  2. There are very good reasons why the manufacturing of consumer goods and electronics shifted East. The skills of people and companies in China and the other manufacturing powerhouses are absolutely incredible and combined with low wages meant the economics made sense to Western brands. That doesn’t mean is was always the best decision though -Â this article on why the US can’t make Amazon’s Kindle is spot on and probably applies even more acutely to Britain.
  3. Craft and making things is fulfilling whether it’s a professional or an amateur pursuit. There was quite a lot of discussion of labels we put on different types of activity and people in this area. It brought back the conversation that The Pro-Am Revolution created about how those boundaries are blurring. It seemed that the boundaries were even more blurred today than five years ago to me.
  4. We talked a lot about ambition for businesses and I think there was a pretty clear split between people who were looking for this to be a world of lifestyle businesses and those who were more ambitious. Personally, while I think they’re great for the people involved, I’m not a big believer in lifestyle businesses being a driver of social change. I’m looking for ways of creating services and products that radically improve lots of peoples’ lives. As Reid Hoffman says “Things that help millions of people and last forever”.
  5. There is massive potential for software and the internet to revolutionise other sectors — including manufacturing. Marc Andeessen’s metaphor of software eating the world is pretty aggressive and I’m not sure entirely accurate but broadly I agree with the power of code to improve the way things and people are organised. There’s huge potential for digital services that stitch together resources and institutions in new ways.
  6. There’s a very important economy in Britain that is hidden from Wired Magazine. It’s a world of railway arches and industrial estates. There were a number of examples of projects that had succeeded by picking up the phone or knocking on doors to see what small businesses did and how open they were to trying new things rather than trying to find people to work with using LinkedIn or Yelp.
  7. Everybody loves owls.
  8. One thing we didn’t talk about was the renaissance of food businesses in the UK and I wonder what’s going on there. I’d like us to get more people involved next year who are finding new ways of creating food using tech enabled processes. I wonder whether people like Square Mile would have been able to grow in the way they have without technology, both in terms of manufacturing and ways of reaching and communicating with their customers.
  9. Dan Hill pushed us to think about what we should tell David Cameron. I’d like to see a huge increase in funding for manufacturing apprenticeships — with financial incentives for people to do them and businesses to take them on. One local government thing would be commercial use restrictions. I think it’s got to the point where it makes little sense to have demarcation within the ‘business’ bracket and I’d get rid of them altogether. I’d also create an empty building tax — doubling business rates on properties that are empty and forcing local authorities to sell all buildings that meet the empty buildings criteria. That way we should have many more spaces where people can start businesses cheaply to see whether or not they are going to work.
  10. All good conferences should end with a spot of cricket at Chatsworth House.

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Outsourcing motivation

I’ve been watching the quantified self movement gather pace for the last year or so with increasing fascination. If you haven’t come across it before, it’s a group of people making the most of technology to measure elements of their life so they can better understand themselves and hopefully improve. There are a number of good talks about the subject, including this introduction by Gary Wolf of Wired Magazine in the form of a short TED talk, and a few good feature articles, the best of which is this one from the FT Magazine which covers the first big conference on the subject held in Silicon Valley in May this year.

There are a number of apps that I’ve had a play with, although I have to admit that I’ve struggled to keep up with all of them because some of them require quite a lot of data entry. The ones I’ve settled on are:

  • MyFitnessPal — noting down what I eat
  • NHS Drinks Tracker — noting down what alcohol I drink
  • iMapMyRun — measuring how much exercise I’m doing
  • TallyZoo — noting down a few other things I like to track such as how many coffees I’m drinking

So far at least, there’s no app that does all the things I want, so I put this data in a Google Spreadsheet that I try to keep up to date. It started out as a way of measuring my productivity including how many of my tasks on Things I managed to do each day, how many emails I sent and how many words I was writing each day, but I’ve expanded it over time to track the health related data.

There is something very geeky about all this. It suits people who love numbers and data and perhaps those hackers who are always looking for ways to do things that avoid hard work. You have to measure the right things which I guess is dependent on what matters to you — there’s little point in measuring things you don’t care about. But I do think it helps with motivation. In many ways it’s like outsourcing your motivation so you don’t need to worry about it yourself. Once you’ve understood your targets you have something that keeps you honest — be that a gadget or a website that gives you feedback from other people.

I’m fascinated by whether you could create much easier ways to help people analyse their nutrition and activity so that they could avoid health problems. I’m sure not everybody would want to but I think more people than we like to admit are a bit obsessive in hidden ways. The number of people on diets or with tiny things they have to do every day to remain happy is huge.

Personalised preventative medicine, if we can make it work, should be a lot cheaper than personalised medicine where treatment is needed. The savings for the NHS could be enormous. One idea I have is to give people an app that formats data in a way that is useful to them but also to GPs. The app itself is free and if you keep it up to date, you get free prescriptions. The idea would be that over time it would save GP surgeries money because patients wouldn’t be claiming prescriptions as often because they would be getting feedback on their nutrition and lifestyle that would improve their health. Taking on the extra cost of the prescription would be negligible for the GP surgery and the problem of older people not being able to use the technology wouldn’t matter because they currently get free prescriptions anyway.

I’ve decided I’ll head over to the European Quantified Self Conference in Amsterdam at the end of November to find out more. In the meantime I’ll keep collecting the data about my own health and productivity. Maybe by the time we come to the event I’ll have something to share.
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Weak signals

I had a little preview of the violence we’ve seen over the last few days as I walked home on Thursday last week. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a cyclist going faster than normal and then I saw four more. Five kids, teenagers at least, came streaming down the road towards the traffic lights. One of them turned left and the others tried to follow but they were going too fast and the road was slippery from the rain. The final cyclist skidded as he rounded the bend and fell against the bonnet of a stationery car waiting at the traffic lights. He was fine. It was a slow crash.

But then the shouting started. The driver gestured at the kid. The kid let the bike fall to the ground and shouted at the driver through the closed car window. The traffic light was still red. The other kids had circled round and dropped their bikes in the road and were walking up to the car. The kid knew he had backup. He went to open the door of the car but the driver slammed the car into reverse to get away. The door was open but swung shut as the car accelerated away from the kid. Backwards. Car horns started blaring and pedestrians around the junction stopped to see what was going on.

The kids were shouting but shocked that the car had moved. Then to driver accelerated forwards. Quickly. The kid had to jump out of the way. His bike was flattened and then dragged along underneath the car, sparks and smoke streaming out. Then the driver reversed again. This time taking two more of the bikes that were lying in the other lane with him. Three crumpled bikes. The kids now tried to jump onto the car as it couldn’t go any further back — there was a transit van in the way. The driver did reverse though and there was a crunch as the rear bumper of the car crumpled against the transit van. The driver then found first gear and drove out over the lights, turning left and accelerating noisily away.

People were out of their houses and the shops now. Nobody quite knew what had happened. As the car had gone round the corner I tried to get out my phone to take a photo of the number plate but fumbled and he was gone (it was a he — I did see his face as he drove over the lights). I tried to remember the registration plate of the car but i knew that adrenaline was affecting my memory and now I can remember very little. I know it had a T and 4 in it and the car was grey. Possibly it was Peugeot saloon car but I can’t be sure. It’s not that I didn’t see it, it’s that my memory wouldn’t work properly because of the chemicals my body was pumping through it. This was all taking place around 20 metres away from me.

The kids were all unhurt but didn’t know what to think. They picked up the remainders of their bikes and ran into the back streets nearby. All that was left a minute after all this happened was some broken plastic in the road and some astonished onlookers who didn’t know what to think or do.

I can’t help thinking that while something sparked the events we’ve seen over the last few days, the conditions for this to happen have been present for much longer.

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

I haven’t been reading the newspapers for a while so it took me a couple of months to notice that Jon Ronson had a new book out. I’ve been a fan since his Guardian Weekend feature articles of the late 1990s — it was actually his writing that got me thinking about writing myself. I loved the way he combined difficult subjects with humour. When Ronson interviewed Ian Paisley or  Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed they came out sounding scary but also very silly, and that was better than them just being scary.

For me ‘Them’ is one of the best non-fiction books ever written — I don’t think I’ll ever forget the chapters about the Bilderberg Group. ‘The Men Who Stare At Goats’ is also excellent. I have no idea how it came to be made into a terrible film with George Clooney but anyway, in general anything involving Jon Ronson is worth a look. So when I found myself reading the Guardian website during the phone hacking scandal and noticed an ad for Jon’s new book, I had it downloaded in a minute and read it in a couple of sittings.

The style hasn’t changed. Ronson is as honest about how he’s feeling about what he’s writing as you can be. It starts with a random encounter with a friend of a friend who has been sent a strange book in the post but this eventually leads Ronson on to explore what defines a psychopath. One study claims that while just under 1% of the population is a psychopath, the figure rises to over 3% in senior business and political roles. I didn’t know about the history of the definition and diagnosis and how it’s changed in the past 20 or so years with huge consequences for our criminal justice system. I was unaware of how the system changed in the 1990s to try and make sure that psychopaths never left custody in the UK.

The ‘test’ in the title is the so-called Hare checklist which Ronson is trained how to use. By meeting people he’s interviewed previously he suspects might be high on the scale, he shows how genuinely difficult it is to be clear but also shows how high the stakes are through the horrendous stories what has happened when psychopaths slip through the net.

Just as an aside, Ronson is friends with film-maker Adam Curtis who I have to admit I’m less of a fan of. There’s an interesting passage where Ronson is being told by Curtis that he’s reading more into the stories than is really there:

“We all do it, all journalists. We create stories out of fragments. We travel all over the world, propelled onwards by something, we sit in people’s houses, our notepads in our hands, and we wait for the gems. And the gems invariably turn out to be the madness…”

I think that’s my problem with Curtis. He does just stitch together interesting bits and bobs rather than trying to take a broader look at what’s going on.

Anyway, The Psychopath Test is brilliant and well worth a read. I just hope they don’t make it into a movie.
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