Euan Semple is one of my all time favourite deep and original thinkers. Branded at times as a social media maven or consultant – terms I know he hates – but really someone who is an educator, Euan has been helping businesses of all kinds to understand what the connected web means now and into the future. This morning he posted this:
I guess my own feeling is that the web will change nothing until we use it for that propose but the way it enables us to do so is new. What matters is that people understand it and use it. Take it seriously to shape the world. Not just see it as another channel to consume.
I go back to the frequent comment that I am unreasonable expecting people to think, and say what they think – that some people prefer not to think. Is this true or is it that we have trained them that it is risky to think?
Does the web move us away from a mass to an ecology of niches and individuals or do we just become a disorganised and chaotic mob? Do we need ideologies or -isms? If we need organising principles who is to say which wins – democracy or authoritarianism? The web can enhance both.
I’ve pinched about 75% of what Euan wrote but it is important as the context for understanding what I believe he is saying. I’ve known Euan a few years and to me he is that wonderful concoction of plain speaker of often self evident truths but without insisting he is right, the person who does not blatantly self promote but puts out ideas to the test against an often appreciative audience. He does the one thing that he is questioning here: encourages people to think. He is also of a similar generation to myself. And that matters – a lot.
Those of us who were brought up as baby boomers were taught values from our parents. We didn’t draw them from TV soaps, the endless promotion of celebrity or that most recent of phenomenon – being famous for being famous and pretty much nothing else. Neither were we brought up with an entitlement mentality or the notion that the world owes us a living. Many of use did believe that we would have jobs for life only to be rudely awoken during the Thatcher years. We adapted and moved on. We created our own opportunities. I’d venture to suggest that most of us were told that no-one will give you a thing, you have to earn it.
Now – without going into a whole sociological neo-Marxist diatribe suitably laced with post-Dr Spock theories of upbringing and larded with Foucault style deconstruction there is one observation I can confidently make: today’s generation is into instant gratification to which it believes it is entitled. When my son looks hurt because I won’t pay for broadband I explain that when he gets off his arse and finds a Saturday job to supplement his university lifestyle then maybe I’ll consider helping him out. When that produces an even more pained expression I simply point out that yes: life’s tough. Get on with it but don’t expect unearned hand outs simply because you’re my son.
Relating this back to Euan’s post, if you agree with my very short form assessment of today’s youth then it is but a short step to understanding that when things are simply put on a plate then you don’t have to think. That has other consequences. In a recent post on ZDNet, I berated the latest crop of so-called and often self styled analysts. I said:
We have Twitter and the relentless pimping of me, me, me. A great example? ‘I wanna be adored.’
The latest iteration of platforms for the self important is Quora. I love it. That’s where I get to find the latest crop of attention seeking anal-ysts, assess the extent of their idiocy so I can ignore, block or otherwise avoid their regurgitory, brown nosing nonsense. Juxtapose that with the blatant vendor biased position of those once great firms. Add the third leg of Silicon Valley attention seeking paid for junk and what do you get? Pap.
It’s a theme to which I occasionally return on Twitter. It always gets a reaction.
In a more recent set of exchanges I argued that if the socially mediated world in which we move has taught us anything, it is that our primary goal should be to get smarter. That means listening to, exchanging with and sometime arguing with those who are smarter than we. We should in other words be educators not analysts, consultants, gurus or whatever other title confers upon us a sense of belonging. One colleague was especially miffed. He argued that just because there are some rotten apples (as there are in any barrel) why should the rest of us abandon our labels?
I take the point but equally argue that when the label starts to become a parody of itself then it is time to move on. It happens in all branches of science so why should we be any different?
How can you do that if you don’t think? How can you do that if you get stuck down ratholes of theory which you hold onto even when the evidence points in another direction? Is it so difficult to say: ‘Yep – I was wrong.’ I rather like being out of touch at times. I rather like the fact I don’t know it all. I rather like to take positions and see if they make sense among those peers I know will provide sane responses. Pretending that none of us have off days is nonsense.
I sense that this dumbing down, this slow motion march to the lowest common denominator is instilling a fear in people. A fear that if they stand up and say what they believe to be right, even though that may fly in the face of perceived wisdom, that somehow they are less worthy. It is safer to keep whatever thoughts are left to private and confidential conversations with like minded people who will not inflict the pain of sharp analysis. I see this daily in some of my mentorship activities. And therein lies the falsehood brought on by the craving to be popular, liked and adored; not ridiculed ignored or unloved.
This is especially true among the thousands of ‘social media experts’ who have sprung up from nowhere. They have created their own false gods in the bizarre belief that personal branding and the latching on to people deemed popular will, somehow, lead to a state of well being and a place to fit. It leads to a mindless parroting of the same drivel that some people seem to have an almost inexhaustible hunger to suck up. It is a delusion and illusion.
In 2004, Hugh MacLeod drew a fabulous cartoon that at once embodies the spirit of where I’d like to see people go but which also carries a dark meaning. It is at the top of this post. I wonder whether today you could almost say: ‘The market to believe in anything is infinite’ as people strive for meaning but without the tools with which to get there. That’s what dumbing down eventually does.
That’s why I continue to make so much noise about how the profession has become dis-eased, complacent, sometimes incapable of getting itself out of the rut of mediocrity while all around the signs are there: commoditization is going to put you out of business. Think what this means. Be prepared for change. Inquire with your peers. Share honestly instead of deluding yourselves into thinking that it wont happen to me. Become what you are to clients but to yourselves: educators that pass on knowledge in the belief it helps add value. That’s what we are supposed to be doing. And yes – in that regard? The web changes everything and nothing.