Fast and slow

Many years ago I worked in publishing – as a commissioning editor for books and journals in research level chemistry. (No, my degree is in geography!). It took about 3-5 years to commission and publish a book – and I’m talking about 25+ years ago here.

I’m currently writing contributions to a book and I’m interested to find that it still seems to take about 3-4 years to commission and publish a book. Which makes me wonder why we still do (don’t get me wrong – I still have a passion for books – witness too many around the house, I read a lot of books, both fiction and non-fiction, and I was delighted to be asked to add my perspective to this one). Perhaps even more interesting, I wonder whether we are clear about what kind of content can stand the longer gestation and what like this post has a much shorter half life (time for content to receive 50% of the total views it ever will).

So I started doing some digging. The half life of a tweet is apparently less than 30 mins – that of a Facebook post about 90 mins. So now I’m thinking what the half life of a book is, and whether something like Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility even has anything like a half life. And whether there is, or should be, a relationship between the half life of, and the time taken to create, content. Or whether that depends on the content – something which is classic may have no relationship. Something which is superseded (back to the research interests) may have a relationship at the time it is created or written but then be completely redundant if the science moves on. (I was always fascinated by the difference between science and maths – it appeared to me that the latter could be improved but never proven wrong . . . . ).

I’m interested in all of this because of the sheer volume of material being created and curated- Mary Meeker’s wonderful annual report on the internet had a slide (number 90)  on the daily photos added which makes this abundantly clear.  Our old ways of publishing had built in obsolescence mechanisms (one of my least favourite aspects of publishing was deciding what to do if a book wasn’t selling as well as we thought it would) but today’s internet doesn’t. And yet . . .  much of the content has a significantly shorter half life than ever and if frequently more personal, less clearly created with any wide audience in mind.

Does it matter? I don’t know – but I worry that, like my memory as I get older, we’re filling up the spaces with stuff that might not be the most relevant for our future – simply the most resonant of our past.

Have I missed something?


I was running a foresight session a few years ago and we were talking about work-life interaction – specifically the use of social media during formal work hours. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the age of the audience there was scepticism (another post perhaps) about the efficiency of this. One of my colleagues said “But things do change – did you think when you started work that you would spend at least 50% of your time each day on email?” Apart from the comment “50%? And the rest!” everyone agreed that email was a nightmare. But . . . email was one channel (although we had face to face, phones as well – having seen off telexes and faxes by then).

Now, let’s see – I’ve got a blog on wordpress, a linkedin page, posts and company page, multiple email accounts, IM, twitter, texts, phone, the odd face to face meeting (!) and now Slack. Along the way I’ve played with Yik Yak, Pinterest and am about to open an Instagram account. And of course various financial sites too. Plus not just powerpoint, but Prezi, Videoscribe and Adobe Voice to help me communicate. And I am well aware that I am not particularly up to date or active in the digital space.

So I am intrigued as to when we stopped moaning about email and embraced so many alternatives. Because on the face of it, it’s more bewildering and difficult to manage these multiple channels than the single email route. (I should perhaps confess that because I had a really long daily commute I never got overwhelmed by email but simple swopped the one evil for the other). Is it really because, as many would have it, we are now in control of all these channels? We can choose whether or not to post, or tweet or to reply? Or have we simply become addicted to digital communication in a way that email never inspired and that control is a delusion? And what are the inevitable consequences of that?

I’m interested because of a parallel track of thinking. When I’m running a foresight session I commonly ask what people think will have disappeared in say 5 years time. There are 2 very common responses – cash and pens. And when we discuss the latter, people begin to think that handwriting might disappear as well. Because in none of the above does snail mail, letter writing appear. And whilst I will confess I do write letters, it is becoming rarer and rarer (and I freely admit my handwriting is getting worse). All of which stems from the ability of almost everyone (but importantly not all) to exchange digital notes. So if we continue down this route what happens to our abilities to communicate? And how do we talk to the ‘have nots’ and ‘choose nots’ of technology?

And what physical consequences are there? Texting thumb is an identified issue as is the hunched neck and shoulder of a mobile addict. It is less these individual consequences that interest me so much as how fast this is all happening. We think of evolution in generations – centuries or millennia, not years or decades. I’m also interested in an updated version of the infinite monkey theorem. If we gave smart phones to monkeys would they develop texting thumb and how fast?

I’m certainly not the first to raise the issue – but I am fascinated by our ability to detest (but become ruled by) one form of digital communication (email) whilst embracing so many others – and interested in the evolutionary experiment we are running!

Language – is it for us or against us?

The lecture I remember from over 30 years ago is the one where our lecturer came in and, with no preamble, said “There are hundreds of hexagons on that blackboard (trans: an arcane precursor to whiteboards) but you can’t see them until I draw round them for you”. Which he proceeded to do. It was a great introduction to the power of images and more importantly mental images. I’ve been thinking about this recently in the context of communication and language around concepts.

The memory came back when reading John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel when I was astounded to discover (arrogantly as I came to realise) that nuances of language are more common the less industrialised the society. In other words that we become less capable of subtlety in language the more technologically advanced we are. And also that in creating a more prescriptive or definitive vocabulary we potentially can lose some associated capabilities. Lera Boroditsky on The EDGE highlights how societies without the concept of right or left and other specific directional terms have an innate spatial awareness of where they are in relation to north.

Then routinely in my job I am asked for a definition of innovation – at least that’s the spoken question. I have come to recognise that the real question here is more like “I have a definition of innovation in my head and it is one that says innovation is not relevant to me so how are you going to persuade me that it is?” And yet if you ask them they probably couldn’t articulate that personal definition. We have become so occupied by day to day actions, by practical activity, that we struggle to communicate or even relate to more conceptual issues especially those that have a flavour of change or unfamiliarity about them.

And yet – complexity, ambiguity, volatility all combine to make simple extrapolation of what we have done thus far less and less likely to succeed. We need to get back to being able to translate new, different ways to work into communicable ideas and to debate them freely. Hence an increasing tendency to use visual imagery, comic or entertaining videos, experiential learning and story telling to conjure mental images which fire imagination or engage the audience. Our visual sense is far more acute and uses much more of our mental capacity than language or speech – and perhaps that’s why a picture or mental image is frequently less controversial, easier to gain real consensus around or simply more powerful.

So perhaps our professional world needs to become more visual, to involve more imagery and story telling – not just in advertising or marketing but in every day communication?