Edge Effect

24th July 2017


Has carnival and the grotesque made an unhealthy comeback?

With Prospero-like flourish, he then unleashes a carnivalesque riptide, sending scholastic, dynastic and ecclesiastic seriousness head over heels. The deadweight of social hierarchies and the everyday dread of natural disasters were thrown over, if only for a short time. While this reversal of roles ignites bouts of laughter, it does not lead to enduring change. Turned inside out, the world of carnival paradoxically reminds its practitioners of the rightness of a world up-righted. Rather than spurring rebellion, the practices of carnival amount to little more than the theatrics of rebellion, a safety valve to release social tensions. They do not offer any way to think critically about social conventions, much less new ones. Occasions for misrule are scheduled and scripted, not spontaneous; events inscribed in the calendar, they are eagerly anticipated, then nostalgically recalled when the page of the calendar turns… On 8 November 2016, however, the carnivalesque was transformed: from a sharply limited and defined ritual, it was granted a four-year lease on our political institutions.”

via aeon


The case for expertise

Expertise is necessary, and it’s not going away. Unless we return it to a healthy role in public policy, we’re going to have stupider and less productive arguments every day.”

via the Federalist


Why every tech worker needs a humanities education

Ruefully—and with some embarrassment at my younger self’s condescending attitude toward the humanities—I now wish that I had strived for a proper liberal arts education. That I’d learned how to think critically about the world we live in and how to engage with it. That I’d absorbed lessons about how to identify and interrogate privilege, power structures, structural inequality, and injustice. That I’d had opportunities to debate my peers and develop informed opinions on philosophy and morality. And even more than all of that, I wish I’d even realized that these were worthwhile thoughts to fill my mind with—that all of my engineering work would be contextualized by such subjects.”

via Quartz


How leaders lose mental capacities that were essential to their rise

Power, the research says, primes our brain to screen out peripheral information. .. Less able to make out people’s individuating traits, they rely more heavily on stereotype. And the less they’re able to see, other research suggests, the more they rely on a personal “vision” for navigation.

via The Atlantic


Why business leaders need to read more science fiction

Science fiction isn’t useful because it’s predictive. It’s useful because it reframes our perspective on the world. Like international travel or meditation, it creates space for us to question our assumptions. Assumptions locked top 19th-century minds into believing that cities were doomed to drown in horse manure. Assumptions toppled Kodak despite the fact that its engineers built the first digital camera in 1975. Assumptions are a luxury true leaders can’t afford. But assumptions are notoriously hard to beat back, and for a very good reason: They’re useful. They provide us with cognitive shortcuts for making sense of the world. They make us more efficient and productive. The problem is that they fail to update when that world changes, and they stand in our way when we could change the world. That’s why science fiction is invaluable to the ambitious

via Harvard Business Review


26 things I learnt in India



The last two weeks have been a chai-fuelled research marathon across India, watching almost fifty hours of focus groups. Taking in Mumbai, Indore, and Lucknow, it was an exhausting, inspiring and enlightening journey. It was my first time back in India after almost a decade, and a five-hour layover in Delhi gave me some time to reflect. India does that to you.

The meeting room is the enemy of customer  / consumer / human empathy.

Everyone is guilty of ethnocentrism.  The only variable is how quick we are to realise – and admit – that.

All cultural generalisations evaporate on closer inspection.

Your value system is not shared (or understood or even wanted) by most people.

Coming from a culture dedicated to engineering out all vestige of physical proximity and contact from human interactions makes you a bit of a weirdo.

Faith, belief, religion… call it what you will. It might be in retreat where you come from. But it’s an everyday reality for much of the world. We strive to build our gods (sorry, A.I.). Most people already have theirs.

You’re an employee. Pretty much everybody here is a business owner.

You do not have the monopoly on what you faux-apologetically call ‘First World’ problems.

Everybody here is a hacker of some kind.

A culture is impossible to properly understand without a knowledge and appreciation of its history.

If you want to feel the winds of social, economic, and cultural change, visit a secondary city. It’s where tradition dances and negotiates with modernity.

Your ideas about the primacy of the individual and the nobility and urgency of seeking ‘self-actualisation’ do not wash here, buddy.

You think life has got more precarious? Pfftt. Uncertainty is a way of life for most people.

A cultural cold war is being fought. The battle between patriarchy and female emancipation. You’re included too. It’s global.

Your culture is old and tired. Theirs is ancient and vigorous.

People are aware of the price the West pays for its untrammelled, selfish conception of individuality.  Having seen the consequences, they’re not convinced they want to pay it.

Wherever there is beauty, there’s ugliness and darkness too. It’s important to see both.

In a marketplace this big, every niche is a profit opportunity.

The new office buildings going up are almost all devoid of any vernacular reference. Efficient to build and run you could be in Chicago or London. Let’s not kid ourselves. For all its upsides, globalism also steamrollers over much that is indigenous, unique, owned, sustainable, and precious.

You can see the demographics on every street corner. And demographics are fate.

Much of the time when we talk about “everybody” we are in reality only talking about our own tiny corner of the globe.

The most productive research process is designed, managed, and owned by both client and agency. Anything else breeds mistrust.

Hire researchers. Not mere ‘moderators’. There is a difference. And it makes a difference.

Empathy and insight depend on understanding technology through the lens of people. Not people through the lens of technology.

Learn. Adapt. Repeat. If you’re conducting strategic research, iterate your approach and materials as you go if you want to make rapid progress. Anything else is mindlessly ‘testing’.

It is not the unique privilege of creatives to be insulated from the reality of everyday lives (and thus, research). Good creatives want to see, hear, and understand who they are creating for.

Needless to say there’s a bunch of more personal stuff I have learnt along the way. But that’s not for this blog.



The possibility of resistance

Whenever we get swept up in the self-reinforcing momentum and seductive logic of some new technology, we forget to ask what else it might be doing, how else it might be working, and who ultimately benefits from its appearance… Perhaps we could do a better job of pushing back against the rhetoric of transcendence we’re offered. Every time we are presented with the aspiration towards the posthuman, we need to perceive the predictably tawdry and all-too-human drives underlying it, including the desire to profit from the exploitation of others and the sheer will to power and control. It doesn’t take a trained psychologist to detect that these motives are present, and being clearer about them might give us at least a momentary leverage over those pushing so hard for our own eclipse, who in doing so have consecrated their considerable gifts to the task of achieving the smallest, shallowest and most shaming of dreams.”

Adam Greenfield, Radical Technologies

Edge Effect

July 2017


Hero worship in late-capitalist Hollywood

For the most part, seldom do superhero franchises even pay lip service anymore to the idea that the protagonist is defending benign values, protecting a system, or making the world safe for democracy. He’s simply the strong man we root for to defeat the strong man we root against.”

via TheBaffler


Why the language of AI zealots is so oddly religious

The prospect creating an AI invites us to ask about the purpose and meaning of being human: what a human is for in a world where we are not the only workers, not the only thinkers, not the only conscious agents shaping our destiny. So we use the words our ancestors have used before us. Just as the world was shaped by the word in some traditions, the ‘logos’ of Christian thought, we are shaped by the word, whether we think of ourselves as secular or not. We usher in the AI future on the wings of angels, because the heavy lifting of the imagination isn’t possible without their pinion feathers – whether we think of them as artificial or divine.”

via Aeon


Marinated in porn

A growing number of young men are convinced that their sexual responses have been sabotaged because their brains were virtually marinated in porn when they were adolescents. Their generation has consumed explicit content in quantities and varieties never before possible, on devices designed to deliver content swiftly and privately, all at an age when their brains were more plastic–more prone to permanent change–than in later life. These young men feel like unwitting guinea pigs in a largely unmonitored decade-long experiment in sexual conditioning. The results of the experiment, they claim, are literally a downer.”

via Time


The sociology of the smartphone

We need to understand ourselves as nervous systems that are virtually continuous with the world beyond the walls, fused to it through the juncture of our smartphones. And what keeps us twitching at our screens, more even than the satisfaction of any practical need, is the continuously renewed opportunity to bathe in the primal rush of communion.”

via longreads



Edge effect (an occasional foray) 06.17



A brief and occasional escape from the algorithms, orthodoxies, and well-trodden paths – because:

In ecology the term “edge effect” refers to a place where a habitat is changing–where a marsh turns into a pond or a forest turns into a field.  These places tend to be rich in life forms and survival strategies.  We are animals that create mental habitats, such as poetry and science, national and ethnic identity.  Each of us lives in several places other than our geographic locale, several life communities, at once.  Each of us feels both the abrasion and the enticement of the edges where we meet other habitats and see ourselves in counterpoint to what we have failed to see. What I am calling for is an ecology of culture in which we look for and foster our relatedness across disciplinary lines without forgetting our differences.  Maybe if more of us could find ways to practice this kind of ecology we would feel a little less fragmented, a little less harried and uncertain about the efficacy of our respective trades and a little more whole.

Alison Hawthorne Deming, Poetry and Science: A View from the Divide


So while other side projects are leaving me with little time for thinking and writing of my own, these from my first journey to the edge of the terrain…


As robots and AI breath down our necks, it’s perhaps time to ask “why work?”.
via The Baffler.


How the technology that helps modern movements organize high-profile protests can also keep them from developing the staying power to achieve their long-term goals.
via the Washington Post, a review of Tufecki’s latest book.


An interview with novelist Courtney Maum on imagining the near-future.
via Electric Literature


Why in our quest to understand (and presumably replicate) the human mind we’ve overlooked the enormous diversity of minds we find in the natural world.
via the Times Literary Supplement