In Search of Hope Amidst the Fear...

Bluster.
Lies.
Distortions.
Misunderstandings.
Fear.

This has been my impression of much of the horrendously-named 'Brexit' interplay in recent weeks, sadly from both sides of the 'debate'. 

I don't propose to argue this here - the media bias, the appalling lack of facts and the misleading information are all worth discussing, but they miss the central plank of why voting is important, and why we need to disregard the spin from both camps. 

The central question I would ask you is this: Do you want a world moving towards a more peaceful future, or do you want one fragmenting further into chaos? It's a loaded question, and I'll make no bones about it, because it ignores all of the noise and distraction to focus on what I believe is the key historical argument.

When we look backwards in time, throughout human history, we see vested interests pitting person against person. It doesn't matter whether the causes are religion, expansionism, tribalism or conflict over resources, the fact is that much of human history is washed in the blood shed by conflict. Moments of peace are found where humankind is focussed on shared values, shared goals, shared understanding. 

Nothing has changed today. Politicians, dictators, despots and CEOs are frequently responsible for putting their own short-term interests ahead of the people they should be serving, and of humanity as a whole.

So, as our planet faces increasingly significant challenges on a global scale (climate change, availability of water, income inequality and women's rights to name but a few, the list can be daunting), and as the tools available to shed blood in the name of ideology, ego and greed become ever more powerful (and insidious), we must reach a watershed, a point where we begin to grow beyond our tribal roots and start to embrace our fundamental humanity. 

This is the crux of things as I see them. It's not about money (flaws on both sides), it's not about lack of democratic process (until we have a properly implemented form of PR we won't really have that anywhere), it's not about ego (plenty on both sides). It's really about whether you hold so firmly to your idea of 'tribe' that you can't embrace the humanity around you, and come together to help keep us moving towards peace, in however a faltering way we move there. It's about whether your fear of 'other' will stop you reaching out in the darkness, to find other hands also reaching for you.

It's about whether your fear is stronger that your hope.

(Important Note: While I'm clearly pro-Remain, I'm personally appalled by some of the mismanagement by the EU, the treatment of Greece and the handling of the Syrian refugee crisis, amongst other concerns. The current system is a long way from perfect, so it's important to recognise that a vote to remain isn't a vote for the status quo, it's a vote recognising that it's the best foundation that we have to work from, that we need to keep moving forwards, hand in hand, from the darkness into the light.)

None of us...

None of us are perfect.

I suppose, superficially, most of us would accept that, even if we haven't really given the implications a great deal of thought. But I have, or at least more than average. I'll say it again - none of us are perfect. Two highlighted words that I want to explore briefly.

None

It's a simple word. It means no person, no one. There are no exceptions. 100%. A full circle on a Venn Diagram, therefore unity as well. If it helps, we can think of a Möbius strip where nothing becomes everything. In this case it means applying equally, to each of us. Every. Single. Person. Some might have moments of perfection, moments of genius, but flawed beings that we are, we cannot always distinguish these, except, perhaps, in retrospect.

Perfect

The Oxford definition says "...having all the required or desirable elements, qualities, or characteristics; as good as it is possible to be:". By virtue of perfect meaning "as good as it is possible to be", this also means free of unwanted, undesirable or unforeseen consequences. My perception of this is that every act we take is like a pebble cast into a still pool, its consequences cannot be judged across time and space except, again, in retrospect. 

 

What does this mean, and what has prompted me to write about this? Well, from a personal perspective, it means that I believe that the ends never justify the means, because we're unable to determine if the results of our actions will ultimately do more harm than good. I absolutely recognise that our intentions are important, but only in the sense that they inform the motives behind our every action. 

Our personal ethics can therefore be the only tangible measure, in the moment, against which we can evaluate the acceptability of an act, in taking too long a view of our actions we can justify any abrogation of rights or ethics in the name of some wider goal. 

Clearly, as with any idea or principle, this should be considered with a degree of common sense, but the underlying idea remains - that the ends do not justify the means, we cannot foresee all ends stemming from our choices. The future is not set, there is only now, and the choices we make moment to moment.. 

 

"Never do anything against conscience, even if the state demands it." -- Albert Einstein

 

Some thoughts on ADN...

App.Net (its popular nomenclature ADN is used hereafter, mostly) has been through a rough old time in the past few weeks, since Dalton Caldwell's State of the Union in May. In keeping with Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs the worries about the future of such a fine service have really shaken the generally relaxed and adult atmosphere on the service. This short blog post is not about this recent behaviour, which has - at times - been lacking in compassion, understanding and moderation. Instead I want to talk about my personal take on ADN itself, why I joined and why I think there is still a place for such a service. I'll also talk about where I think things went wrong, and what could happen next.

My thoughts about ADN, and my experience with it, fall into 5 broad categories, which I'll address in order:

  • Developer respect
  • Ownership
  • Social Graph
  • Quality of Discussion
  • Community

 

Developer Respect

One of the big drivers leading to the creation of ADN, back in the second half of 2012 was the changing business practices and attitudes of Twitter. The company, in seeking to further monetise its user-base (more on this later) was taking steps to disenfranchise those third-party developers who had been largely responsible for its success up to that point, and was very much reducing the ability for new entrants to this space with (in some cases) fairly draconian changes in the terms applying to new versions of its API (Application Programming Interface - how computers communicate with each other).
This atmosphere was a significant factor in the subsequent developer interest in ADN, along with (I'm given to understand) some incredibly sophisticated APIs and underlying functionality. This generated an upswell of well designed and built 'micro-blogging' clients in the first wave, taking their lead from Alpha, a proof of concept delivered by the ADN team. These clients spanned OS and desktop/mobile platforms and can be found in the ADN Directory. There were some 'world class' mobile apps, in particular, developing rapidly alongside a quickly expanding set of APIs, which would go on to include the capability for Private Messaging, Chat Rooms and more.
Following this 'first wave' was a smaller, but arguably more innovative, selection of apps (both web and native) that leveraged the file storage associated with an account, along with the ADN authorisation and authentication functionality (more below). Unfortunately a shrinking regular user-base (in part due to the lack of an overall compelling brand / product), along with the withdrawal of a 'Developer Incentive Program' - which provided a revenue-sharing 'top-up' for the most popular and useful applications - has meant that there is currently little commercial incentive to continue developing for the ADN platform

 

Ownership

As mentioned above, Twitter's business model has moved into the advertising space, using the data held on its many millions of users, along with the content that they choose to share using the network. This has led to Twitter's priorities shifting away from a 'user as customer' model to a 'user as product' model. This can be reasonable, if one is careful to measure the cost/benefit analysis. Does the value we get from the service match the cost, in either attention or the sale of one's data? There is also the matter of ongoing trust - today's business model is not necessarily tomorrow's, and given the recent IPO the fate of Twitter is even less certain than ever before.

 

Social Graph

There are two elements to this, which are related but distinct.
Firstly there is the fundamental problem of authentication, of proving 'who I am'. Today we have 10-100s of username/password combinations, and while we might use the same username on different services to provide the illusion of continuity (please don't use the same passwords too!!) this is still a fragmented solution, and one ripe for a better approach.
The second is the 'social graph' itself - a 'contact list' of people who you have some form of relationship with. This covers both active and passive relationships, and arguably even one-way (Twitter's Lists, for example), and acts as a 'web' of who we know, and who they in turn have some form of relationship with. Make no mistake, this is of huge value to Twitter and other data-driven companies (such as Google or Facebook), but there's a problem. Intra-company fragmentation has rendered Twitter-provided, Facebook driven and Google services broadly useless - and this also relates back to ownership.
This is MY data - MY relationships, MY friendships, MY interests, MY news sources etc. While this data might be stored on Twitter, Facebook or Google's services (and therefore available to help them drive advertising traffic), this is something that is mine, about me as a person, and their unwillingness to make their services universal mean that incomplete, fragmented social graphs litter the internet - a smidge on Instagram, a little on Twitter, more on Facebook. Like a Venn Diagram made up of broken shards of glass.
The hope of ADN, as a paid (me as customer) service is that the support for this social graph is purely down to developers making use of the appropriate APIs, and is therefore freed from much of the intra-company politics that threaten to cripple the internet of today and the future. This means that my social graph on Alpha (the micro-blogging side of ADN) is also available for developers looking at other applications (such as the Private Messaging application Whisper, or the Chat Room service Patter) - and, in principle, any other future applications.
I don't make light of how hard this is. The issues with the ADN business model make this clear, and indeed the typical user of the internet isn't really aware of the problem, but its one that we desperately need to solve in the coming years.

 

Quality of Discussion

In the English language (the only one in which I'm fluent), the difference between 140 characters and 256 might seem trivial, but from my personal experience the difference is dramatic - whether making it easier to have a conversation, or to publish one of my haiku poems (never mind the 2048 limit, for Private Messages!). In practice it massively curtails the interactivity on Twitter, leading to something that better resembles people shouting between mountain tops, rather than neighbours talking over a fence.

 

Community

I wasn't around as a Twitter user in the early days (c2007), but I understand that there was a real sense of community amongst the users, one that's been eroded over the years, as the service has continued to grow at pace. Spammers, trolls, bots, stolen accounts, the news (and Twitter streams) are full of the problems - not to mention the vast number of people who use the relative anonymity of the internet to excuse some of the worst behaviour. Death threats, rape threats, they are out there, and are utterly unacceptable.
The beginning of ADN was a wonderful experience: meeting and making new friends, all of who were willing to pay for a service where their data was respected, and where the sense of optimism was infectious. This included establishing the tone of the service, where a wide range of conversations and debates across the political, religious, cultural and technological spectrum could be had, without the usual descent into a partisan spiral of closed minds and open mouths. This lasted, arguably, through until the introduction of free accounts, necessary to extend the use of ADN as the authentication and social graph infrastructure it was destined to be, but which fatally wounded the community and atmosphere of the service.
From a personal perspective, If I take nothing else from my time on ADN I will take a small number of long-term friendships with me, built on shared values of respect, humour, curiosity and integrity...

 

What went wrong?

Technically, very little. Where mistakes have been made (with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight) probably fall into 3 main categories:

  • Branding
  • Compelling Proposition
  • Features & Benefits of Membership Tiers

In summary, the branding of the service wasn't compelling in terms of the wider world - the App.Net brand was too technical, too nebulous given the lack of a mature ecosystem surrounding it. More, perhaps, could have been done to both promote the service more widely, and to directly fund the development of a number of compelling products (think photo management, or journalling, or recipe management etc...) Either way (and I'm sure there are lessons to be learnt that I've not considered here) after a successful launch the service failed to capitalise on the early momentum. There were also a number of wasted opportunities to capitalise on wider privacy concerns, and the exploitation of user data.
Perhaps the final nail in the coffin of the original business model, however, was the roll-out of the Free Membership Tier. At a time when the primary income stream was people using the Alpha micro-blogging service (and supporting third-party apps), this influx contributed to a disruption to the atmosphere of the service, inviting an influx of trolls, spammers and other such undesirable elements. It also enabled some of the service's paying users to make a commercial decision to revert to a free account, while retaining (for them) all their existing functionality. The collective 'shall I renew' posts also served to significantly disrupt the community.
The need for a free account level to support wider use cases (i.e. non micro-blogging) was absolutely essential in support of both those services and the longer-term need to allow ADN to act as a hub for authentication and the social graph. The extension of fundamentally unimpacted micro-blogging access was a significant strategic and tactical error however - one from which ADN may never recover.

 

The Future...?

All is not lost, all is not ended.
I've given this some thought, and while the situation is serious there are some steps that could be taken.

  • Take steps to restrict the micro-blogging abilities of free accounts created after the introduction of 'non-invite' free accounts. This should impact on a limited subset of genuine humans who use the service on a day to day basis.
  • Re-brand, with a focus on authentication and the social graph, and the privacy of the user data. A free first year, and a modest ongoing cost thereafter, could make this sustainable. The additional services that are available, or which could come later, are a layer on top of this core feature.
  • Some consideration is needed as to additional tiers / paid features - this would allow for a modest cost for the core features, and additional 'add-ons' for storage, micro-blogging, etc...
  • Better community engagement. This widens the pool of ongoing ideas, provides an engaged and (still) enthusiastic feedback mechanism, and would reward user advocacy.

It may well be that ADN as it currently exists is past the point where these suggestions could turn the platform around, but any future service would do well to give them consideration...

some thoughts on life and happiness..

I've not posted here in a while - first I was writing some of my novel and haiku, then I was only writing haiku, and then I found myself not writing as often, and it's a slippery slope!

It's been a funny few weeks here, though of course by funny I mean far from funny. A number of events have conspired to give me a very pressing, very real, spiritual kick of awakening.

Firstly I learnt of the death of a friend and colleague, Bill, who knew of his cancer only two weeks before he passed. We'd been planning to meet for lunch for a few months, and the daily grind of work, in addition to my current lack of planning and control, had conspired to keep our conversations to brief "Hellos" as we passed each other in corridors and hallways. The lost opportunities to connect, and the sharp reminder of the transience of life, have prompted me to really re-visit my priorities, and the urgency with which I strive towards the goals I determine.

Secondly, a number of events occurred that really brought home how much I've been treading water for the past year. The combined stresses of my own poor health, my growing unease and feeling of entrapment and the ever-present concern brought on by my wife's long-term illness really came home to roost, and made me realise that the status quo is nether sustainable nor is it tolerable.

Thirdly, Iain M Banks, one of my favourite authors, and a real creative inspiration, lost his battle with cancer. This hit me pretty hard, especially coming when I was still in shock at the suddenness of Bill's passing.

Fourthly, I learnt that large numbers of my friends and colleagues might be losing their jobs, but that I have been 'slotted in place' - which means I have the twin anguish of not having the opportunity to take redundancy (which would have gone a long, long way to supporting my dealing with the second area above), and I get to watch friends lose their jobs unwillingly. 

Finally, I learnt this week that a family member might have pancreatic cancer. While this will affect their immediate family far more than I, in practical terms, it's yet another prompt that quality of life must take priority over materialism.

 

What does this mean, beyond the usual bouts of self-pity, and genuine emotional upset..?

I don't yet know - all I do know is that the status quo must change, and I need to find my way to a healthier and happier future. This realisation itself, I believe, I hope, is a significant first step on that journey.

Some additional steps on this journey that I've already decided on include:

- Better management of the time and energy I allow to be consumed by work. I can't afford to quit at the moment but, even more importantly, I cannot afford to allow the trap to continue to be self-reinforcing..

- Re-booting my meditation practice, and attempting to make it part of my daily routine. I've allowed this sustaining and nourishing practice to fall into disrepair, and even more so, to become a source of guilt for not making the time to fit it into my schedule...

- Writing more - this means more work on my writing projects, more haiku and more blogging. I see writing as one of the most viable avenues I can use to forge a happier future for myself - even if it doesn't provide an actual income I hope it will provide spiritual, mental and emotional succour.

- Not over-extending myself. While there are lots of other things I'd like to be doing, such as learning to design and develop mobile apps, and learning to play the piano, and to learn more languages, and to re-start my martial arts practice, and... and... I realise that right now I need deeper changes, rather than just more distractions from my current spiritual malaise...

Memories of I.M.B.

Recently Iain Banks announced that he was suffering from terminal cancer, following which a group of his fans set up a site for people to share their feelings and thoughts. You can find Iain's announcement and the guestbook here: http://friends.banksophilia.com/ 

As Iain had made such an impression on me as both a reader and an aspiring writer, I wanted to say thank you for his work and his life. I've included a version of this below, adjusted to the third-person.

---

Every so often there appears an author who has a singular impact on you. The reasons can vary - it can be a topic that hits home, or characters that you can relate to, or the sheer excellence of the writing. 

For me, that author has been Iain (M) Banks. 

I still remember the first book that I read of Iain's - Consider Phlebas - and the subtlety, care and insight in the writing that struck me in a way that the novels of few other authors have done before, or since. I moved on from that first novel, reading through many of his other works, and I've continued to be struck with the care and insight to his writing that I've never encountered elsewhere - at least never across such a diverse and prolific canon. 

While Iain's literary fiction has always enthralled me with the strength of the characters and mesmerising narratives, Crow Road in particular, his science fiction writing is what has always stuck with me, in particular the focus on The Culture. This does something that I've only seen in genuinely original and insightful science fiction - it imagines a state that, in part at least, we can aspire to, it acts as a beacon of hope that we can imagine our way towards a better future. Without such inspiration our way forward as individuals, and as society, could all too easily end up being charted only by politicians and businesses, and as such we owe Iain, and those like him, a debt of gratitude for sharing their views of a different, better future.

I remember also a visit to the York branch of Waterstones many years ago, where Iain was giving a reading from his latest novel, and a general talk about his life and work. I remember the dry sense of humour, self-deprecation and integrity as a writer. I also remember Iain's kindness to a young man, and aspiring writer, standing at the end of a line of fans, with two carrier bags full of your books to sign, along with a copy of the latest novel. His patience and kind words as he signed those piles of books have long resonated with me, and stand with me still as testimony to his integrity and compassion, both as a writer and as a man.

Iain, you will be missed, but your memory will live on through your work, and the people it inspires to think of what more could be.