We need to talk about our universities in a new way – because our current public discussions suck. I say this as someone who has mostly worked in the private sector but has 2 degrees and has been a sessional lecturer at an Australian university for a decade and also a reviewer for a major international academic journal in my field. I sit on the edge of academia – which suits me just fine.

The public debate about universities in Australia splays out over several axes – most of them unhelpful. In this piece I want to tackle the contrasting political and economic views of Australian universities.

There is a political debate about universities in anglophone societies – largely driven by the conservatives. Here in Australian, there is a wide-spread belief among conservatives (including the Liberal Party, the IPA, and writers in the Murdoch press) that universities have been taken over by radical “Post-Modern Neo-Marxists”. This latter phrase has been popularized by Canadian psychology professor, self-help guru, and prodigious beef consumer, Jordan Peterson. According to this view, academics in the social sciences and humanities seek to promulgate communism, relativism, and identity politics at the expensive of science, truth, openness, liberal values, etc. Our universities are nothing more than Maoist re-education camps – with their trigger warnings and safe spaces.

This view does not accord with my experience.

The modern university is really two very different institutions uncomfortably wedged together under one roof. The first is the world of academics. It would be unfair to say that these are people who have never left the education system but not wholly untrue. Yes, some academics have had careers outside academia but many have not. School then undergrad then postgrad then postdoc then a full-time position (if you are lucky). This is a world that is intensely status-driven and hierarchical. Supervisors exert immense, if forgetful, power over their doctoral students. Everybody competes to get their articles in the “best” journals. Everyone complains about the strictures of the academic world and then do their level best to reinforce by winning. Everyone bitches about each other. The fights are bitter even if the stakes are low. The rigours of peer-review can sometimes amount to sanctioned sadism. A socialist commune it is not. Perhaps it more resembles the intrigues of cardinals in Vatican City.

The other institution in the modern university is industrial factory that churns out credentialed students. Until comparatively recently, very few people in Western societies went to university – single percentage figures. The profound hunger for an educated workforce that rumbles in the bellies of our service economies led to a massive increase in funding for higher education. Now a little less than half of young Australians will go to university. The million plus students that attend Australian universities need to taught and assessed. And they pay (or borrow) good money to do so.

For students, a group that universities view as some mix of customers, employees and vagrants, the university is vast, clumsy bureaucracy that is simultaneously sycophantic and humiliating – willing to pander to their desires and ignore their needs. Failing a student is remarkably difficult. But educating a student is also hard, sometimes too hard. But there are bills to pay. This credentialing factory continues to churn – fueled by tax payer grants, student debt and the money of overseas students and their parents. The latter now funds over 20% of Australian universities. And a third of overseas students in Australia come from a single country, China.

Who does the work in this machine? Many academics do not like teaching students, so much of this work gets pushed down to their PhD students or postdocs or assorted casuals. Many academics aren’t that good at teaching so this is not necessarily a bad thing for the students. And the bait and switch is common in other industries. The classic move in professional services is to get your Rockstar consultant/lawyer/accountant to do the sales pitch and then send in a bunch of 22 year old grads to do the actual work. So academia’s business model is not that unusual.

If this mix of monastery and factory seems like an unlikely place for a communist dictatorship then it is. Yes, academics tend to be left-of-centre in their political beliefs. And yet their graduates still go on to work in the temples of capitalism (banks, consulting firms, advertising agencies). All this alleged Marxist indoctrination doesn’t seem to be stemming the tide of inequality in the Western world. Rather a degree is seen as an entry ticket into the world of the haves.

There are hotspots of student and academic radicalism. And the ungainly, mass-market bureaucracy of universities is a poor place to have nuanced discussions of identity. But mostly I think the conservatives mourn a time when universities were their safe space. When bow-tied younger scions of wealthy families would carve out respectable roles for themselves in polite society and learned societies. When universities were unashamedly finishing schools for powerful. Many still are such finishing schools – but they lampshade this in the language of guilt, tokenism and opportunism. The wokeness of universities is a merely mask for their ambition.

It is amusing that some people take this mask seriously. But for some, even the mask is too much.

| Leave a comment


Take or leave us

Only please believe us

 ISO 30401:2018 Knowledge management systems – Requirements was released on 1 November 2018. I want to begin by acknowledging the work that went into it by the committee members and the commentators. The effort to get these things done is considerable. The inherently conservative nature of standards development means that writing one is rather like pushing manure up hill – without the benefit of such new-fangle contraptions as electricity, fire, the wheel or multi-cellular life. Lets not go beyond the consensus safe space of prokaryotes into unknown territory.

Explanations are complications

We don’t need to know the where or why

 There has been widespread criticism of the standard from many directions. Some have criticized the specific content in terms of the frameworks proposed. Others have criticized the fundamental limits of standards as sources of guidance and supports for behaviour. Still others have criticized the difficulties of taking a short and general document and using it in a prescriptive manner.

Like us, Hate us

But you’ll never change us

 My take is slightly different. I am more interested in the discourse around the standard by knowledge managers and the gap between what I see people talking about and what I think will actually happen. Much of the commentary either states or implies that the standard finally validates knowledge management. KM is, at last, respectable.

Taking chances, bold advances

Don’t care if you think we’re out of line

 As the authors of The KM Cookbook state: “So, is KM ready to move from being a ‘movement’ to establishing itself as a recognised cuisine.. …In many ways, the arrival of an internationally agreed standard and vocabulary provides knowledge managers with a brand-new kitchen, and a moment during which they can pause for a moment and consider the service that they provide to their organisations.”

There is a belief that respectability is awarded through standards and that then the joys of managerial attention and also consulting and auditing fees will flow. After all, isn’t that what happened to Quality Management with ISO 9001?

Conversation is interrogation

Get out of here, we just don’t have the time

 The desire for respectability in the KM community strong because respectability and respect have been sorely lacking for a while now. It dropped off Bain’s Management Tools Survey – the closest thing to a pop chart for managerial trends – between 2011 and 2013. In Australia, the job title of “knowledge manager” is an endangered species found only in the protected wildlife parks that are law firms. This isn’t to say that the challenges that knowledge management developed to deal nor the techniques that it deployed are no longer relevant. Just that knowledge management is not a thing now – as the kids say these days (and by “kids” I mean people in their late 30s).

The standard is a distraction. It is not bad. It may even be helpful in certain circumstances. It is “Mostly Harmless”.  ISO 30401 is not ISO 9001. And the reason is something that knowledge managers like to bang on about endlessly: context. ISO 9001 did not become the standard juggernaut it is today all by itself. Its importance is based on its embedding into commercial relationships. The procurement departments of large buyers of products and services (often but not only governments) decided that ISO 9001 was a good marker of compliance. ISO 27001 – relating to information security – is following a similar path built of commercial necessity paved with the tarmac of least resistance. Part of my job is to review the cyber security capabilities of cloud providers to my employer – and an ISO 27001 certification or SOC 1 / 2 report mean that I have to do less work.

Fascination is our sensation

We like to put ourselves on the line

It is not clear to me that the commercial context will arise to grant ISO 30401 such a role. The current big push for organizations is to use technology to reduce costs and build new channels to their customers. Words such “machines learning”, “robotic process automation”, “omni-channel” and “digital transformation” magically unlock the chastity belt around the procurement chequebook (although it’s probably Apple Pay now). Knowledge management needs to be part of these conversations rather than waving around its standard like a MENSA membership card in a nightclub at 2am.

| 1 Comment

Hey! Teacher! Leave Them Kids Alone!

The Case Against Education

Bryan Caplan claims that most of the public and individual spending on education is wasted. I mostly agree with him. And I say this as someone with undergraduate and postgraduate degrees that teaches at a university as a hobby.

Much of the book is taken up with the technical justification of Caplan’s claim that the bulk of the value from college degrees accrues to the individuals taking them rather than society and that this value is not in the form of actual skills development but rather signaling. Signaling means that possession of a degree signals to employers that you are smart, conscientious, and conformist (characteristics that employers prize). So employers hire people with degrees and therefore those that seek jobs need to get degrees. Those degrees may well be a waste of time and money for the students but nevertheless, they need them.

This seems obvious to me. Where the dialogue gets tougher is in the policy recommendations that follow.

Let me tackle those policy recommendations with some commentary:

  • An emphasis on vocational education. I think vocational education is great. The masters degree that I teach on is vocational (and if I had the power, it would be even more so) – as is my own masters degree. I also think that the pipeline that spits school students into universities is unhelpful. I think everyone should work prior to doing a degree (I did not and regret it).
  • The flipside of this is fewer people should be funneled into the world of degrees. This I also agree with. This does not mean that all universities should be shuttered – rather that they should change the mix of what they teach.
  • Employers need to get over the degree criteria and focus on other things. I have never hired anyone based on their academic transcript – but then I have never worked in graduate recruitment.
  • Keeping teenagers in school who have no desire to be there seems to counterproductive. Now I hated school – but I loved the lessons. Many did not. Frankly they would be better off getting a job with the option of returning the education system as and when they chose.

So far, so boring. Where do I disagree with Caplan?

He sees some value in primary education but believes that it should be completely privatized. Now I see a great deal of value in primary education. If the bulk of the money spent on tertiary education was switched to 4-11 year olds, I would have no problem with that. However I remain skeptical about handing it over unreservedly into the hands of the private sector. Evidence from within the charter school system within the US indicates that this only works with strong regulatory oversight. Caplan seems as naive about private charity as he is cynical about public government. Food and beverage companies have been very keen to fund education – provided their products are heavily promoted. Australia’s own experience of pumping public money (and student debt) into a poorly regulated vocational education sector is an example of worst practice.

I also think that Caplan’s curt dismissal of the apprenticeship model (yes it’s good but it is hard to do well) seems overly fatalistic. It can be done. Lots of things in the education world are hard to do. I agree with Caplan that changing people on a fundamental level is hard. But while changing institutions is not easy, it is something that we know we can do.

An aside: Unlike Caplan, I think history is important (and based on a misleading comment of his about the 19th century British education system on p. 217, he’d want to take history more seriously). History is less about memorizing particular facts and more about forming a group identity. The “History Wars” in Australia were, and are, real. The continuing battle over what is in and out of the history curriculum is about more than ideological games – it matters.

There are two further political implications of Caplan’s position that he briefly touches on.

The first is that Western society is increasingly stratified by educational experience. This cuts across traditional left-right divides and we face not simply different political interests but different values and methods of expression.

The second is that the most proffered answer to the social disruptions of technological change is “education”. If education is the answer then we are ill-equipped to offer it in useful and usable forms. If it is not then we had better come up with something else (and UBI will probably be insufficient).

[UPDATE: Caplan is keen on STEM. Some of the research on automation (see here and here) indicates that many of the jobs of the future will be in domains that are hard to automate. Typically these involve interaction with humans – which are often outside the STEM domain]

In short, I think that Caplan is not cynical enough nor do I share his libertarian fatalism (which is a wonderful luxury for the successful). But we are due a change.


Realin’ In The Years

“Far from being an aberrant expression  of some political extreme or a product of gross misinformation, a conspiratorial view of politics is a widespread tendency across the entire ideological spectrum.”
“I take my desires for reality because I believe in the reality of my desires.” 

The Wachowskis have ruined paranoia for me. Although blaming them seems a little unfair. It’s all the idiots who watched their breakthrough movie that really bear the brunt of my displeasure. Thanks to the Blue Pill / Red Pill speech in the Matrix, any discussion of reality and its true nature have been rendered quotidian, even farcical. Any sense of epistemological vertigo has been earthed. On Reddit, the “Red Pill” means hating women – which not only abhorrent but also tediously unimaginative. Clive Palmer has started using Red Pill memes. And when Clive Palmer starts doing something (mining nickel, forming a political party), you know it’s over.

All this is a shame because paranoia is so hip right now.

Mark Pesce discusses the last days of reality in a Meanjin article and a Future Tense interview. For Pesce, as a result of Facebook’s algorithm-driven surveillance capitalism and the growing spread of augmented reality technologies, “we lose our moorings and become entirely post-real”. We become prey to ideological predators such as Cambridge Analytica. States form a pact with Facebook to give it free reign over our personal data while they get to stay in power forever. Feelies with a nice UX. Newspeak with Friends. To counter this, Pesce commends Tim Berners-Lee’s Solid as an initiative that will allow consumers / citizens / data producers / dumb fucks (delete as applicable) control over their own data and thus identity.

Now I share some of Pesce’s concerns but I wish to challenge him on three points: the past, the present, and the future.


The first point to make is that reality has always been soft around the edges. At some base level, human beings are creatures of fantasy. Yes our bodies root us in the world but we don’t experience it unmediated. Our reality is already augmented by the myths, dreams and delusions that enable us to get through the day. We are not passive recipients of sense data but rather active beings who impose our prejudices on the world.

Which is not to say that we are insane. We know are our immediate environments very well. But most of us have to take on trust everything else that happens in the world. This is why those who seek power have sought to control the flow of information – by banning books and printing, restricting travel or more subtly by monopolizing mass media channels. Certain institutions have been very effective over the centuries at controlling the flows of social information. The Catholic Church did not require machine learning and neuromarketing to control the hopes and dreams of millions of people – and make their flocks love the priests for doing so.

The Catholic Church is a prime example of a truth about our knowledge of the world, our connection to reality – it is social and communal. Our knowledge of world is co-created with others. It recreated through our collective action. We go mad when we go inside our own heads alone. Whereas the Facebook model of influence is both social and isolating. Facebook’s rhetoric is all about community but its advertising model is hyper-targeted niche marketing focused on the individual. The defining unit of Facebook is the individual account – which may be a member of multiple groups. It doesn’t sell to communities, it sells to individuals. The American Dream of 1-to-1 Marketing. With its bifurcating obsession with individual identity and group belonging, Facebook is a very American company (a nation whom Fukuyama labelled “Rugged Conformists”).

With all the bright, shiny apps, we risk losing sight of more traditional means of control. Old style mass media still matter. Putin in Russia and Orban in Hungary have put significant effort into controlling the mainstream media in those states. The first move of ZDF forces in the November 2017 Zimbabwe coup was to seize control of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation. People still watch a lot of TV. While everyone is losing their mind about Cambridge Analytica, fewer comment that Donald Trump built his reputation from 14 years of playing a business tycoon on reality TV and then heavy coverage from Fox.


Pesce references Orwell and Huxley as dystopian visionaries. However the 20th century provides another dystopian model through with to understand our predicament. Huxley’s is a world of control through technocracy and hedonism (a world where Travis Kalanick would feel comfortable partying). Orwell offers the 2 minute hate and the dull tang of Victory gin. But our world is a broken one. We spend hours on hold in call centre phone queues. We deal with labyrinthine tech company T&Cs and bank PDS documents. We are passed around functionaries who only know that they cannot help us – as much as they might personally want to. It is a world of petty prejudices rather than totalitarian. Our world is that of Franz Kafka.

In a Kafka-esque world, Cambridge Analytica’s much-vaunted algorithm… isn’t very good. The first mass market attempt at augmented reality – Google Glass – was a dismal failure. For all the hype around Magic Leap, it has yet to magically leap anywhere. Gartner flagged up virtual reality has a technology just sliding down from its peak of inflated expectations – in 1995. Facebook’s sky-high stockmarket valuation may not be justified by its actual business potential. Neuromarketing is fMRI theatre.

I do not want to play the role of curmudgeon for too long. Technology does change who we are, how we relate to the world, how we relate to each other. It does offer new opportunities for both freedom and control. The machine learning algorithms that Pesce describes are having a negative impact – but that seems to be because they are too like us. They black box our bigotry and narrow-mindedness. They are Kafka’s bureaucrats, not Big Brother. I am aware that the narrative of World Facebook Domination probably appeared on slide 3 of their VC funding deck circa 2006 and I do not wish to be pulled into that narrative uncritically.


The solution that Pesce pins his hopes on is a technical one. I have my doubts about Solid. Tim Berners-Lee is the father of the World Wide Web and he has been sorely disappointed in his child since its birth. He has scolded it for its lack of structure – creating The Semantic Web to fix this. Despite some traction, The Semantic Web largely remains a set of standards rather than a core element of web infrastructure.

But more than the Semantic Web, Solid reminds me of Doc “Cluetrain” Searls Vendor Relationship Management (VRM) movement, based just across the way from MIT in Harvard. The goal of VRM (as opposed to CRM  / Customer Relationship Management) was to put the control of individuals’ data into their own hands. It has not had a significant impact. People just aren’t that interested in controlling their data. Personally, I think that absent a real disaster or significant money-making opportunity for someone, this is not going to happen. The EU’s GDPR regime is a welcome update of its data protection legislation but it certainly does not rein in Facebook and its data empire ambitions.

So where do I see a way forward? Well, I want to go back to danah boyd’s recent SXSW talk. As I have stated, I believe that the solution that boyd points to is not primarily technical but political. Our knowledge of world is communal. If we wish to hold onto reality, then we will do it together rather than apart. And the challenges to this are beyond technical. Divisions in the US are more physical than virtual. A viable future is one where we keep each other sane.

“The things that pass for knowledge
I can’t understand”

The End

We have always been a bit shaky at distinguishing reality from fiction – and that’s a feature not a bug. “Making the world a better place” and “global domination” are just flipsides of the same techno-supremacist story that currently circulates elite conversations. Authoritarianism is a real thing but it relies more on older mass media as newer social platforms. The way forward will probably happen more off- than on-line. The revolution will not be Liked.

| Leave a comment


Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

I’ve spent the last 10 months making a series of notes, arguments and rants about politics. I feel like I’m done with that now. It’s not that I’ve solved the world’s problems nor have I fully mapped out everything about our predicament. There will be future posts – books reviews and analysis. But for now I am spent. I feel the satisfaction of a man who has completed a particularly rigorous bowel movement.

I am conscious that my posts can be read as fatalistic. I tend to focus on economic and social forces that act over decades as a contrast to the surface noise of personality politics. I mostly end with an injunction somewhere between Cassandra and Private Frazer. So it’s worth saying that I don’t think we are helpless. These social and economic trends consist of a myriad of individual choices and actions by people. We make our own worlds through action or inaction. This is not absolute. We have limited power over others. We have less power over ourselves than we proclaim.


Interesting times offer opportunities. the unthinkable becomes commonplace. The Overton Window fractures into a swarm of glass and steel shards. Never let a good crisis go to waste. I see a fecund vision of future fuck-ups some of which might actually work. Some of these will be big. And some will be small.

Some things I think are worth paying attention to:

  • The Parkland students in the US may or not change gun laws in the US but I am immensely heartened by their actions.
  • The work of the Open Australia Foundation.
  • The #MeToo movement.

I’m more interested in experiments now. And these experiments will be local – because all politics is local. I may blog about them.

| Leave a comment


There are three ancient Chinese curses.

  1. May you live in interesting times.
  2. May you be recognized by people in high places.
  3. May you get what you wish for.

Of course, these are not ancient. Or Chinese. But they are curses. And it seems that the curses have been cast. We do live in interesting times. That’s what this blog is mostly about. Why we live in times of political turmoil. Why our democracies are increasingly unstable. Why the solutions proffered by experts seem hopelessly inadequate. In understanding the reasons for our interesting times, it is worth contemplating the other two – esp. the third.

Most of human history has been brutal. Subsistence agriculture with its risks of famine and disease. Predation from other species – and your own. Skirmishes. Wars. Battles. Warlords and the extraction of wealth from those weaker or less fortunate than themselves. People dreamed of peace. Dreamed of food and fat bellies. For life to be pleasant. To be nice. To be boring. There were consolations. Those of religious belief. The protection of fellow believers. Religions offer a complex mix of gifts but the offer of a supernatural guardian above vouchsafed by communal protection in the here and now should not be underrated.

And then human beings invented machines and flocked to the cities that housed these machines. Living standards plummeted even further in harsh, exploitative environments. New forms of communal identity emerged. Labour unions offered workers protection from those who would use them. The 19th and early 20th centuries culminated in a global economic depression and two Industrial Wars in the US, European and their colonies. Millions of dead. And then, unexpectedly, all our wishes were granted.


In 1947, US real GDP per capita was $13,513. By 2017, it had quadrupled to $52,879. The USA in 1947 roughly equates to Serbia or Algeria or China today. Ordinary inhabitants of Western nations are wealthy beyond the dreams of our ancestors. We have running water and electricity and sanitation and ovens and TV and iPhones. Mass industrial employment after World War 2 offered lots of jobs. Economies grew through increased productivity, increased labour force participation as women joined the workforce and populations boomed. The welfare states established in many nations offered a better distribution of wealth than ever before. Let the good times roll.

The old institutions came into the new world. The mainstream political parties in the newly rebuilt Western Europe were linked to either the Churches (Christian democrats) or the Labour Unions (social democrats and communists). The membership of these parties was still a mass phenomenon with millions of members – an engagement that mostly peaked in the 1950s.

While economic growth continued, the collective institutions that had offered protection for decades and centuries did not. Participation in organized religion in the Western world declined from the 60s onward. This is sometimes positioned as Religion losing the Battle of Ideas to Science. This strikes me as unconvincing. Yes, literacy and education continued grow – esp. in the domain of higher education. But the decline of religion has not led to a rationalist mass movement. While 20-30% of Australians do not identify with a religion, the number of Australians who actively participate in organized religion on a regular basis is nearer 20%. Most the population live in the “Valley of Meh” – religion is at best a source of culture identity or entertainment. However, the number of self-identified atheists is very small – much less than 1%. Those living in the Valley of Meh have filled their lives with all sorts of beliefs but they see no value in committing to organized religion. The welfare state can offer the same protections as religious charities. As for the afterlife, there are many sources of consolation – and some of us now live long enough to see death as a welcome release rather than an unwanted interruption. We have no need of visions of paradise. It is notable to me that the Western country where religion has stood strongest is also the country with an unusually dysfunctional and fragmented welfare state (Although I think the relationship between religion and social order in the US is more complex than uni-directional causal and effect). As much as some might decry this state of affairs, if we needed the Churches then we would have them.

Meanwhile, union participation decreased. Now to some extent this is the result of anti-union policies deployed by conservative governments in the 1980s. The unions were already in decline. At their cores were men working in factories. The machines that had promoted the creation of factories in the first place continued to automate that work. Some of that work was outsourced overseas (but not as much as some people think). And the service sectors of Western economies expanded massively. Above all, the unions had won. Working people had a decent wages and social benefits. Now there are still very successful unions out there, but they are for middle class people and prefer to be called “professional associations”. As much as some might decry this state of affairs, if we needed the Unions then we would have them.

Political parties lie at the heart of representative democracy. Their influence runs in two directions. Firstly, they are conduits for popular desires and concerns into the structure of government. But they can also communicate the decisions and actions of government back to their members. They hold the political system together. However, they too are in decline. Their memberships have fallen 100-fold, from millions to tens of thousands. They have become associations for yet another profession – in this case, politicians. You can go from a degree in politics or law to a role as a researcher or a staffer to that of elected member without ever needing to work outside the political system. As with any insular coterie, they are bitchy and self-obsessed (along with the journalists who cover them and the lobbyists who try to influence them – each group validating the other). But despite the constant complaints, the system seems to kinda sorta work. Life goes on. Most of us make a dollar. As much as some might decry this state of affairs, if we needed engaged Political Parties then we would have them.

Breaking Point

We appear to have the same institutions that we had back in 1945 but we they are nothing like the churches and unions and political parties that we had. They are far smaller and far more withered. Those who manage them must shoulder some of the blame for this. They have often been selfish and short-sighted. But we must also acknowledge our role – or rather, our lack of one. Our apathy and complacency has led to this. But does any of this matter? Let the good times roll?

Provided our society was under no stresses then this mismanagement and complacency would be irrelevant. However, there are divisions opening up in our society that we can only solve with politics. And if our democratic systems are busted then we might have to solve them in more unrepresentative or even violent ways. The forces that will tear our corroded systems apart vary from society to society but the big four are:

  1. Inequality in Western societies dropped between World War 2 and the early 1970s. Then it started to rise again. Recently it has taken the form of a concern about economic opportunity. Basically, do most citizens expect their lives to get better or not? Or do they fear that others will benefit at their expense?
  2. National Identity. We do not live in a period of unparalleled migration. The ethnic cleansing that occurred at the end of World War 2 was ferocious. Global, inter-state migration peaked in the late 1980s. But we do live in a period of where continued migration into Western countries is causing anxiety among some existing citizens. Demagogues would protect
  3. The Generation Gap. Thanks to the developments of medicine and the welfare state, Western citizens now live longer than ever. And the elderly have moved from being a poor element in society to holding a disproportionate level of wealth. Bigger and richer, they wish to shape society to their desires (which may include security and nostalgia for a simpler time that never really existed). Meanwhile the young face a society in which they have limited influence and resources.
  4. The Education Gap. Higher education in Western societies exploded after World War 2. Holding a degree went from being an elite marker to something perfectly normal. And while university graduates do not make up the majority in Western societies, they are significant minority that control power and resources. Their aspirations and values may be different to those who have followed other educational paths. While they cannot dominate elections, they have significant economic advantages and tend to skew younger due to the timeframe of higher education explosion.

Obviously these four forces are interlinked. Obviously, they emerge in politics in different ways. They don’t always align neatly to existing political party divides (one can be an ethnic nationalist and favour either private markets or public ownership). There are oncoming forces that I don’t list here – environmental and technological change being the two most important that are obviously missing. These will create political stresses but they do not (as yet) form coherent political identities.

The Uncast Curse

So, we got what we wished for. And we live in interesting times. What of the middle curse? This remains, frustratingly, uncast. Many people in high places are aware of some or all of the things that I have mentioned here. They are not stupid. But it does not feel as if they are paying attention. Yet. We are still going through the motions with the institutions. We are still pretending that our existing political structures can absorb these new sources of tension. We are still painting over the cracks caused by our shifting foundations.

Things will go on. Until they cannot.


Kitchens of Extinction

Digital Darwinism by Tom Goodwin

I agree with a lot that’s in this book. But I left feeling uneasy by the extent to which I agree with it so I want to strike a contrarian note – where I hopefully succeed in offending everyone.

First of all, what do I agree with:

  • The author decries the “innovation theatre” that occurs in large organizations – where an innovation lab is founded, post-it notes are stuck to walls and bugger all changes.
  • He argues for a human-centered approach to design.
  • He calls for large organizations to both take more risks and to be more long term in their thinking and doing.
  • He looks back historically at previous technology transitions (e.g. electricity) to identify parallels with current digital trends.

That’s a gross oversimplification but if you want more then just read the damn thing. It’s affordable, well-written and it doesn’t overstay its welcome.

So what is the source of my unease?

I see a lot of claims that we are living through a period of unprecedented change or that the rate of change will only increase from today onwards. And those claims are true. It certainly feels like everything is speeding up – with new technologies being introduced ever more rapidly.

At the same time, some things feel like they are slowing down. Cultural critics like Simon Reynolds and the late Mark Fisher talk about the sense of stasis and retromania characterizing music, film, and TV. New business creation in the US actually decreased after the 2008 recession for longer than expected. Productivity has been stagnant since the turn of the millennium. All that new technology has not had the impact of electricity. Goodwin is not alone in looking to electricity (Mcafee and Brynjolfsson do something similar in Machine Platform Crowd).

Change is all around us but it’s happening at multiple speeds. And things go forward. And in reverse. And stand still. It bears more resemblance to rain storm than a Hyperloop. Going back to theories of evolution, species may change slowly over a period of time (gradualism) or in sudden spurts with lengthy periods of nothing much (punctuated equilibrium).

While is psychologically healthy to focus on what you can control, most corporations operate within broader structures that limit their effective course of action. The biggest limit is the stock market. The tech behemoths have circumvented this with ownership structures that mean they are effectively privately-controlled companies with access to a stock market valuation that makes it easier to acquire and hire. But for companies not structured in this way, profitability and predictability are prized. This situation is probably stable for now. But eventually the context (economic, social, regulatory, technology) will change this and it will no longer be stable. The calm passes and the storm comes. The apex predator dies and a new ecosystem emerges. We live in the Shareholder Value Period (just as Tyrannosaurus Rex and Velociraptors lived in the Cretaceous Period). This period began on August 12 1981 (but its roots go back far further). Nothing lasts forever.

There are three main beefs I have the book.

Goodwin deploys his metaphors too shallowly. The book is called Digital Darwinism but the term “natural selection” does not appear in it. “Evolution” appears a grand total of 7 times. He uses the metaphor of a skyscraper and refers to shearing layers briefly but then moves quickly on. We never stop and think through what it means to view an industry as a species under selective pressure. Or how time can move at different velocities and accelerations over the same site. The metaphors feel like platinum class airport lounges – a stopgap between connecting flights of fancy. The electricity chapter shows that he is capable of doing this. Such a book would be stranger and probably sell less but it would be more interesting and distinctive.

Chapter 7 implores us to “celebrate failure”. I don’t have a problem with that exhortation (although we should always be seeking new failures rather than familiar ones). But the book only features failure sporadically. If you increase the risks you take then you increase the number of failures that you experience. It feels like it could do with a big dose of Phil Rosenzweig – the grumpy management anti-guru. What does it look like when a firm tries to reinvent itself and it fails? And what can the rest of us learn from that?

The cliché is “write what you know”. If you spend your life at conferences and on planes, there is a risk that you turn into Thomas L Friedman. That’s fine if you are writing for those who live a similar lifestyle but it does not resonate with those who don’t.

Anyway. Things don’t change. Until they do. Stay alert.

| Leave a comment