Philippa Thomas Online

Occasional thoughts about life, books and news.


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The Square and the Tower #network #power

Hierarchies rule but networks innovate.

 

Historian Niall Ferguson’s new book “The Square and the Tower” looks at how these two forms of power have co-existed through the ages.

 

His point?  In recent years we’ve celebrated the ‘network’ in many different guises. The first few examples that spring to mind for me are the Cathedral and the Bazaar – the ideal of the “netizen” – the easiness of eBay – the dawn of the Arab Spring. You’ll have others. We all do.

 

Ferguson asks some hard questions about what network power is actually doing for us, or to us?  What are the historic implications of living in the age of Facebook, Weibo, computer malware and the distributed IS terror network ?

 

First, the theory.  Hierarchies are the stuff of official history – it’s their world that fills our conventional archives – and forms the structure of our government. But think about Google or Netflix or Alibaba – it’s the networks which now spill into the smallest corners of our daily lives.

 

Ferguson gallops through the centuries. He tells us the first “networked era” followed the introduction of the printing press to Europe in the late fifteenth century and lasted until the end of the eighteenth century. The second – our own time – dates from the 1970s.  

 

This book is his attempt to give due attention to the buzz of the networks, the public square: because we’re in a phase of history where we can really see their power – for good or for ill.

 

In Western terms, he sums up some of the new network powers as FANG – we’re talking about Facebook, Amazon (and Apple), Netflix and Google. The internet age was heralded in idealistic terms. It could / should have been about openness, transparency, democracy, freedom.  But Ferguson focusses on data gathering, commercial power, and the huge income inequalities between the owners and users of the Silicon valley networks.

 

“The global social network is itself owned by an exclusive network of Silicon Valley insiders”.

 

It’s worth thinking again about the question, who profits? And does it have to be that way?

 

He contrasts EU attempts to tax and to regulate (but not really innovate) and then looks east to the Chinese version of the big networks –  BAT – Baidu, Alibaba, TenCent. He told me today on BBC World TV that “the Chinese got the internet right” : he sees the Chinese authorities embracing successful network formulas (as opposed to accepting the actual Googles and Facebooks on their own terms), building their own versions, and using the data they bring – not least for the surveillance of dissent.  He adds that we underrate Chinese political power structures. They work laterally more than we realise, utilising the leverage of “mentoring” relationships, not just centralised hierarchical structures.

 

****

There’s a lot more. These are just a few of the points I’ve underlined in a 48 hour reading marathon.

 

The backlash against the big social networks. AS NF puts it, Facebook or Fakebook, Twitter or Twister?  EU states are saying Google and Facebook should censor the unacceptable. Should they?

 

Just how fragile networks can be.  The international financial network was nearly brought down by the failure of one investment bank in 2008. The global computer system was badly hacked by the WannaCry ransomware this May.

 

The networking of terrorism. ISIS learned from Al Qaeda, not to let itself be decapitated or throttled as happened with the US-led Anaconda Strategy in Iraq. Go viral, be networked, go from top-down control to cells to calling for ‘lone wolf’ rampages.  

 

And he touches – but not much more – upon the advance of AI. From carbon-based neural networks to cerebral silicon power? That’s a whole other story, being written by a whole lot of others right now.

 

*****

To me, it makes for gloomy reading.

 

Other books that have impressed me on the power of networks, celebrate their potential, or their proven worth as human safety nets. I’m thinking, for example, about Robert Putnam mourning the decline of community networks in “Bowling Alone” and “Our Kids” or Clay Shirky celebrating the revolutionary impact of online networks in “Here Comes Everybody”.  

 

Is there still a place for idealism? Ferguson quotes the question, ‘can the “good actors” join together in a new kind of geopolitical network, pitting their ‘webcraft’ against the bad actors?’. Some current thinkers like Anne Marie Slaughter hope the US will gradually “find the golden mean of network power”. He thinks that’s unlikely. 

 

When I interviewed Niall Ferguson today on BBC World TV, I put it to him that I feel he finishes in praise of hierarchy  – having warned us the networks are just as controlling, just as dangerous, and perhaps less accountable. Here’s another of his lines:

 

“The world today frequently resembles a giant network on the verge of a cataclysmic outage”.

 

But perhaps the quote that will stay with me longest from ‘The Square and the Tower’ is this, the three rules of computer security he tells us were devised by the NSA cryptographer Robert Morris Sr:

 

“RULE ONE: Do Not Own a Computer.

RULE TWO: Do Not Power it On.

RULE THREE: Do not use it.”’

 

I’d rather not be defeatist. But this book doesn’t help!  

 

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Walking the talk on #Diversity at Work

“Walk the talk”. “Turn the dial”. “We need to hardwire diversity”.

 

And – “You can’t improve on what you can’t measure”. “People can’t shy away from the data”.

 

These are some of my takeaways from the BBC Diversity and Inclusion in Media event I hosted on 15th September in the stately venue of the Old Broadcasting House council chamber. Essential ingredients : some inspiring talkers, audience interaction, and a networking session with cream tea laid on.

 

Anne Bulford Deputy Director General said she was committed to “a truly open BBC at all levels”. By 2020, she said, “if we get this right, we will have a workforce at least as diverse as any in the industry”.  Managers must “visibly lead by example”.

 

“Diversity” for our speakers was about gender, about disability, about ethnicity and about LGBT inclusion too. A question from the audience about enabling people who are economically disadvantaged also prompted quite a few nods. (I commented that “class still matters” but I don’t think that was the PC term for me to use.)

 

Toby Mildon, Diversity Lead for the BBC Design and Engineering division, gave us the tag line “Diversity includes everyone”. Later in the session Frances Duffy of Capgemini said that has to include the white middle aged man as well.  Toby strongly underlined one of the session’s key points for me: there’s a lot of talk about D&I (i.e. Diversity and Inclusion) but one doesn’t necessarily lead to the other. It’s a warning I’ve also heard brilliantly made by the writer and corporate activist Margaret Heffernan. But I’m not sure it is taken to heart by managers who appoint staff – you need to pull together a diverse workforce as step one – And ALSO make individuals feel valued and encouraged to speak out, to collaborate, and to strive to raise the game of the workforce.

 

Toby said it’s sometimes overlooked that the BBC is a technical organisation – it needs to reach out to remind potential recruits in design and engineering and tech just how big an employer it is. He talked about BBC experimentation with blind skills recruiting. He said it gets results. Candidates from ethnic minority backgrounds are three times as likely to be shortlisted. And he revealed that tweaking the wording in job descriptions has led to more women applying.

 

A good number of the panellists and organisations represented in the room are already signed up to the Ten Steps programme of WISE – Women in Science and Engineering. Suzy Firkin described it as “sort of a pledge programme but more – we give you the tools and techniques to make a difference”. More than 150 organisations are now signed up and subscribing to WISE. Suzy revealed their feedback on the easiest and toughest steps to take. The hardest, once again this year, is “educate leaders”.

 

One of the companies in the room that’s already an enthusiastic supporter of WISE is Virgin Media. Jo Dutton is now director of Strategy, Insight and Data for the Customer Division. She talked about new efforts to recruit and to retain diverse talent. Among those, getting genuinely diverse interview panels. Was there resistance to that shift, I asked her? No – she’s been overwhelmed with volunteers.

 

Rachel Higham is MD, CIO, BT group – working in what’s traditionally an overwhelmingly male environment. She has a great PowerPoint on her TechWomen initiative – what’s been done and what still needs doing. The women in the programme have four points of help – a buddy, a mentor, a coach AND a sponsor. These are all different roles. But it’s a two way street: the programme requires that you “Drive Your Development”.  She says they are aiming for 30% women executives by 2020. Too many are still “stuck in middle management treacle”!  She advocates a “full life cycle” approach – all the way up to getting frank feedback in departure interviews, and aiming to make those who leave into either advocates or rejoiners.

 

“We want to mainstream diversity” said Nina Bhagwat, Off Screen Diversity Executive for Channel Four. She talked about the creative AND business case for doing so. Following the channel’s coverage of the 2012 Paralympics, this year she said “two thirds of our presenting team is disabled”. Offscreen targets include 50% apprenticeships and 30% work placements.

 

Aleya Karim talked about the significant changes made at McKinsey, as part of the 30% club aimed at getting a minimum of 30% women on FTSE-100 boards. She noted the importance of gender diversity targets being included in board updates. Aleya’s presentation also followed up on Nina’s point about efficacy: “Diverse leadership teams perform better financially.”

 

Our final panellist Frances Duffy works for tech consultants Capgemini as VP and Regional HR director, North and West Europe and UK Country Director. She talked frankly about how hard it is to shift the dial. She said the message has to be – to the middle aged white guy too – one of “active inclusion”. Capgemini started its new programme to that end only six months ago. But already in a diversity survey of the entire company population, she said there was 50% response and a lot of suggestions for change.

 

Hayley Sudbury then brought us a demo – of her new Werkin smartphone app designed to gather data, talent and enthusiasm within an organization to trouble-shoot all sorts of challenges – large and small.

 

She talked about using your “sparks” better – HR speak that’s new to me – and that’s my final takeaway from a session with a lot of fresh thinking to offer.

 


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The End of Big – a wake-up call #EOB

“Here Comes Everybody” wrote Clay Shirky, tech evangelist, five years ago. He’s a cheerleader for the radical empowerment offered by the internet  – new voices, direct access, more ideas, a swirl of intellectual and political ferment. 

Here comes another book on the impact of the internet which takes the next step.  Nicco Mele’s “The End of Big” pithily summarises the impact of what he terms “radical connectivity – our breathtaking ability to send vast amounts of data instantly, constantly and globally.”

But from the preview extracts I’ve read, it poses sobering questions about what happens next, when Big Institutions get undercut. You know the drill. Free blogs undercut paid news. Online protest, old-fashioned politics. Music sharing, record labels.  You Tube uploads, the film studios. 3D printing, traditional supply chains. And so on.  As Nicco Mele puts it, “radical connectivity is toxic to conventional power structures”.

But if and when the big guys have gone…  Mele asks us to look harder at what we will lose.  “We can’t fetishize technology and say ‘to hell with our institutions’ without suffering terrible consequences.”  Continue reading


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Send the BBC your views today on “Technology – the pace of change”

Hi there – I’m very excited to be a first time presenter on the fantastic World Service radio programme “World Have Your Say” at 1800BST today. It’s a programme that belongs to the audience, and I’m asking YOU to give me insights that I can read on air.

Here’s the idea. Can you imagine living in a world without the iPod? Using a computer without Google? Sorting out your social life without Facebook? Or your news without Twitter?
Or imagine a world where you didn’t have to hear about them all the time?

Well it’s not long ago that none of us had heard these names. Today marks a number of BIRTHDAYS – ten years since the iPod was unveiled, thirteen years since the launch of Google. And it seems every day brings us a new product launch – Amazon’s Kindlefire? – or a social media makeover – like the new look Facebook.

SO I’m using the moment to ask how this whirl of invention has changed YOUR life. What does it make you think about the way we communicate, the way we share, how our behaviour has changed

Are you excited about living in a world where it seems every day brings us a new product launch or a social media makeover?
Is it a lifestyle you aspire to?
Or is the world of Apple and Google and Amazon unreal and irrelevant – or one that makes you excluded and frustrated?

You can comment here – or tweet to @PhilippaNews or @BBC_WHYS – I’ll try to get as many of your thoughts as we can into our hour on air.


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The Internet’s Unholy Marriage to Capitalism?

This is my take on a fascinating article from John Bellamy Foster and Robert W McChesney, just published in Monthly Review. It argues that the internet should be treated as a public utility but is instead becoming the territory of capitalist robber barons, while the U.S. government is failing its citizens by standing aside. It’s quite rare to read a Marxist economic take on US communications policy, and I recommend the experience. We’ve just had a lively debate in our Kennedy School “2020 Vision” class about the assumptions made within this article; here are the points that stood out for me. Continue reading


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“Why the West Rules – for Now”

I just finished 620 densely written pages that propelled me through history from the Ice Age to the Atomic Age – filled with dramatic stories of war and sex and famine and migration and discovery – and suddenly realised that this is the best history book I have ever read.

Ian Morris began in the fields of ancient history & archeology. His book, published four months ago, reads like a life’s work. It aims to chart the entire course of human history “East and West”, tell us which trends matter, explain which factors had most impact and why, and extrapolate our probable future – or extinction – as a species. I’d be interested to hear any other readers’ thoughts on how he does it. Or what I should read next!

“Why the West Rules – for Now” is a book that made me think about why we need to study history, and why I want my little boy to enjoy it. If he grows up disconnected from the past, he’ll lack vital resources for shaping his future – and that of others. Especially now we feel as if we’re hurtling down the path of history thanks to the pace of technological advance – as if time itself is speeding up. My eight year old is going to get so much more out of life if he can adopt adaptation as a lifestyle. Continue reading