Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Cooking Yourself a Digital Dish

I felt compelled to post this for the 1.2m young people in the UK currently trying to find work.

I spent 6 years indirectly researching in one form or another, how populations in developed countries, were going to evolve and compete in a global economy. I arrived at the following 6 minute statement:

How do you convince an apple grower that apple pie would be good for their business, if neither farming exists nor indeed knowledge of what a pie is?

Make one

How do you convince a strawberry picker that Jam could be great for their business if they've no idea what Jam is, added to that, glass hasn't yet been invented?

Better Answer:
Give them the tools to play and the technology to experiment with.

To draw an analogy, digital is now at a similar stage to when our ancestors first discovered fire. Before that moment all food was consumed raw. As the idea of passing heat through food took hold, our ancestors would have experimented with different food and discovered what food types worked well and which badly. Raw food eaters would have cited examples of blackened inedible food as proof that fire and raw food should never be combined. Pickers may have protested that fire was useless because it destroyed the delicious fruit they collected.

Gradually however and despite numerous disasters, communities of cooked food eaters would have faired better than picker communities and peddlers of raw food. This combination of play (experimentation) and technology (fire) exposed our ancestors to explore a significant and important part of their world with granular fidelity; resulting in communities a third more energised, evolving over Century’s and extending their repertoire to fire pots, blow glass, forge steel and generate steam.

“Digital is the catalyst for disruptive change now, as fire was for our ancestors then! Fire enabled granular level manipulation of the physical world and exacted a profound change on human existence, the contribution digital will make on the human journey is equally seismic, the effects of which will be equally profound and predicted to last as long.”

It’s here that we now find ourselves. Digital technology is comparable to fire used by our ancestors to cook food. It is the ingredient when added to land, labour, capital, people, ideas and things required to meet un-met demand, create new markets, new products and new jobs.

… a few economic tenets
The underlying governance for businesses in developed countries is driven by a persistent need to reduce costs, increase productivity and minimise risk; it’s not governed by a job creation criterion. Jobs are a bi-product of increased productivity, as this reduces the price of goods, leaving more money in the pockets of you and me, which we are then encouraged to spend on more goods, thus creating more jobs. Regretfully these new jobs are only created if they promise increased efficiency.

These are the same forces which dictate new products, will only be created if there is an un-met demand in the market and if they promise to increase value for the producing firm. Often profit margins are so small on new products, that sometimes profit can only be realised if the cost of workers is kept low. This means labour intensive industries will seek out new ways to keep the cost of employing people as low as possible including automating production altogether.

However for many companies, this often means creating jobs abroad in developing countries, as further job creation in this country is no longer efficient for growth. What this amounts to is very little, or no room for new entrants, at least not until a major firm in the market goes bust. It’s a bit like the comical story of working 50 years for a firm, with little or no chance of promotion, waiting, until 104 year old "Mr Worthing" either retires or dies.

… why industry is as it is
The majority of established UK businesses are based on 300 year old industries. Through decades of invention, innovation and reorganisation they’ve reached the 21st Century as efficient as they can be. They are rooted by physical laws and limitations; primarily based on a process of converting resources of relative abundance into naturally scarce and sometimes artificially made scare goods. I’m going to be bold and suggest that November 2008 was the date when we witnessed the end point of 300 years of how post-industrialised countries have conducted business, in a singularly physical world. The transitions from physical to a predominantly neurological economy began in the 1970’s but I think 2004 to 2008 was the final tipping point.

Established industries that evolved pre-digital carry a "legacy"; derived from years of hard fought relationships combined with complex systems; cemented in acculturation of familiar repertoires and known outcomes. Their “systems” are costly to sustain and are often deliberately expensive in order to minimise competition from new entrants, due to high barriers-of-entry, defined by an elite minority: Similar by degree to raw food communities, legacy industry business models require that “food be consumed raw” to survive at their current size and format! Digital threatens to break how they make money; restructure their “form-factor”, or in other words, alter the size, scope and reach of individual firms; alter who or what represents an “elite” and is set to significantly change several other business assumptions and practices.

In the past individual hunters may have hand picked the best raw food source and been held in high regard for their knowledge and courage but enter livestock farmers. Pre-fire meant specialists of raw food preparation were critical. Post-fire suggests previously inedible items, could be safely eaten but more importantly, communities were not entirely dependent on a minority of elite hunters for their survival: Neither could raw food preparation specialist easily argue the importance of their role, or credit themselves the outright point of access to the final product.

Legacy industries have been great hunters, how do we persuade them to become great farmers? Isn’t it about having the confidence to "grow" more value then any one company or individual can capture, or convert into a sale: Maximising the area from which to harvest from, even if by doing so, directly benefits your competition? It’s a subject certainly worthy of another blog post.

At best, legacy industries don’t know how to grow a neurological economy, or are reluctant too. At worst they will pursue change through legislation to try and prevent the adoption of “cooked food” and will not stimulate change that threatens to break the methods they’ve adopted to make money, or positions others like the wood chopper, fire-starter, potter, cook, musician, storyteller or dancer between them and the point of consumption, without directly receiving revenue from this new economy

Pickers will not instigate change because they are confident that fruit taste just great as it is; but without the discovery of fire, experimentation, play and subsequent cooked food, apple pie and strawberry tarts would never taste as good.

Just like light from a flame can be used to illuminate raw food but not cook it, evidence suggests that legacy economies, are using digital to reveal their products and services, in new areas, previously too niche, too risky and too “dimly lit” to justify expenditure before now. Offering the smell of cooked food, promises something delicious but this deception may also be used, to simply mask a serving of the same uncooked offering. It seems then that digital outcomes for the 21st century require thinking throughout the entire organisation and as a nation.

… starting from today, a version of “work” for many of us
Individuals and communities independently exploring digital technologies, represent a tool of relatively low involvement for legacy businesses to experiment, explore and play with digital, at minimal risk and cost implications to them. Then it’s up to those individuals and communities to either package and sell the result of their exploration, experimentation and play indirectly to those legacy industries, or look to directly commercially exploit their discoveries themselves.

Both semi-skilled and professional White-Collar workers face sections of their job initially outsourced to parts of the world where labour costs are cheaper, call centres being the most obvious example. Secondly and some may argue of greater concern is, as UK firms pursue greater efficiencies, automation from Machine-to-Machine exchanges will reduce employment even further, think automated supermarket check-outs, automated shelf-stacking, un-manned train station ticket offices, driverless trains, voice recognition enabled word-processing, airport baggage handling etc. Considering that this list is expected to accelerate over the coming years, possibly outpacing our ability to compete directly, suggests we recognise aspects of production that humans excel at and describes an idea better represented in figure1, 2 and 3.




The Luddite Fallacy argues “machines will make human labour obsolete”. Historically however this has not been the case. Technology has enabled fewer people become more productive and cost effective. Thus growing the overall economy and creating new and unique jobs for humans in other industries. But what happens when machines become the "worker"? I wonder how much 18th century industrial Britain would have resembled that described in history books, if technology like the Spinning Jenny or Watt’s Steam Engine within 50 years, had become as smart as the “job(s)” required; whilst getting cheaper every two years but still continuing to improve, with a perceptible and quantifiable increase in quality every four years; possibly halving capital investment every five years?

… we all have to start from where we are
Part of the solution is skilled workers have to know how to create their own little bit of “fire” and learn how to “cook their own food”. It means a future whereby just knowing a craft will not be enough. Traditionally this has been a possession of the Working Class, conducting their daily tasks through direct instruction, exchanging tangible, often manual skills for paid employment. It seems the working class now live in places like China, India, Vietnam and Brazil doesn’t it? So called “Semi-skilled” and “White Collar” workers don’t belong to the working class anymore, they are now part of the “Creative Class” represented by workers; often university graduates, who will need to create work for themselves.

It will require workers, investing time to organise themselves and build heterarchical not hierarchical connections and professional networks; developing entrepreneurship and lastly knowing how to code: For not knowing how to program in the 21st century, will be like not knowing how to read and write in the 20th. Just as our ancestors produced cave paintings, then speech and later writing, programming is the next evolution in the human journey and expresses our compulsion to exchange ideas and communicate enabled by cheap, easily accessible and readily available tools. Knowing how to program however is more profound than just another chapter in the history of human communication.

The act of programming is actually about accessing a raw resource and manipulating that resource to produce something with value added. Comparable to how a furniture maker manipulates wood to make a chair or a seamstress manipulates cotton to manufacture a dress. A programming language is imbued with the fundamental properties required to make derivative goods and programming is the discipline necessary to manipulate those properties... "Programming is the new Crude Oil of developed nations!"

Departing further from our fire analogy for just a moment longer, remaining in the physical world of tangible goods, if an equivalent entity to programming existed in the physical world, with enough skill, our furniture maker would be able to manufacture the timber frame of a house, sculpt a wooden statue or build a boat, not to mention other types of wood derivatives, with the same efficacy as any producer with a capital investment dedicated to any of the markets specific to this list. Unburdened by physical limits such as a boat yard, or precision tools, timber availability and subsequent price fluctuations, our furniture maker already well rehearsed in the code to make wooden goods, could if he so wished, learn the programming language for cotton, ceramic or metals relatively quickly.

… it’s all about weaving together a physical and neurological “fabric”
What will make programming so remarkable is when humans learn to weave the neurological world consisting of sensors, actuators, photonics, Internet protocols, and virtual products currently experienced in web space as apps, games, video and documents via devices like personal computers, games consoles, television and smartphones in the main, directly in to the fabric of the physical world. Not everyone will be able, inclined or competent enough to program to the same standard as a Google software engineer, just as I’m not convinced that everyone has the innate ability to write as well as any leading author of novels or poetry, all of the time or even some of the time.

That’s not to say that a hair-dresser in Bolton shouldn’t strive to learn how to program, despite maybe never possessing the aptitude to programme professionally, in the same way not everyone who learns to read and write needs to become a professional writer. I'm convinced that our reliance on 300 year old industries cannot continue. Although I humbly admit that these are also the same 300 year old industries, who own the vast majority of intellectual property rights required for new growth. I am also convinced for growth in developed nations to occur, there needs to be a cessation of a tendency for industry separateness combined with access to intellectual property held by a few, made available to many, considering that a great idea, that magnificent thing, could come from just about anywhere.

Might not a hairdresser from Bolton who programs albeit not as well as a Microsoft software engineer, code a pair of scissors that not only cuts hair beautifully but produces analysis about her customer’s mineral deficiencies, cholesterol levels and who incidentally may have just popped in for a perm, is spiking data that she’s pregnant…with twins. Now that’s what I call something for the weekend madam!

Despite the possibilities for Programmers from non-traditional sources participating in a neurological world, learning how to program in its current form is not easy and often feels like one is rubbing two sticks together for an awfully long time before things begin to smoke let alone ignite. So if you agree with the assumptions made in this post, the big challenge facing developed nations has to be how to teach programming and make it relevant to the majority.

It’s not because UK industry needs it; free-market economics will seek out efficiencies regardless, whether here, overseas, people, machines or total automation. No, we have to find a way for actors, archaeologists, historians, sales assistants, writers, artist, mathematicians, beauty therapist, philosophers, journalists, engineers, musicians, economists, hairdressers and builders play a part in a future dominated by digital and help individuals become producers and not just digital consumers serve up there own example of a digital dish.

The original Channel 4 thread can be found here.

The cause was championed and vigorously lobbied by Ian Livingston, Alex Hope and NESTA

In January 2012 Michael Gove, Minister for Education rose to the challenge

Now go and watch "The Matrix" again!

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