Ant Colonies, Infotopia in waiting and Barack Obama

Okay – here I go. A few thoughts have been swirling in my mind the last few days after numerous conversations with people whose one thoughts I trust and greatly appreciate/admire, mainly the fellows at Uber, Ross and Pat. So, let me lay it out…

1) Ant Colonies. Ross planted this seed. We chatted extensively the other day about ant colonies and the way they ‘grow up.’ Again, I’m not going to promise this is correct but you’ll get the gist. Ants colonies grow at different times – like teenagers, a colony that is one to two years old behaves erratically whilst an older colony behaves very conservatively. Colonies live to be about 10 years old. The important point, is that the ants only live for one year. So how does a colony ‘grow’ when the ants that make up that colony die every year? 

The ants manage and grow by taking their leads from the messages the other ants send out. These messages are incredibly simple and basic – more like the communication of base instincts. Early on in the colonies life, the messages might be “we need to fight’ or “there is food here.” This ties into theory in a book Ross read called Emergence by Steve Johnson. The theory goes (apparently, I’m yet to read the book) that we all do things for a reason. Sometimes, we know why and it is a conscious choice – others it is more like the ants. We pick up on base instincts either communicated to us or drawn from our own being and act on them.

This communicated instinct has begun to change in recent times – especially for people of the younger generations with less ‘happy egg.’ The bulk of people that age (me included) are now drawing a large amount of their self esteem from their peers, rather than from their own sense of self worth. What their peer’s think of them, in many way, matters more than what their own thoughts about themselves are. This is obviously an interesting shift and ties in interestingly to the whole thought process around emergence. What messages are we picking up on as a species? How far into the colony life are we? Are we going backwards or forwards? Are these perhaps our teenage years, where we are entirely self centred, concerned more about what the girl in our maths class think rather than the important lessons taking place at the front of the class? But, it also ties into the new idea (to me) of Infotopia.

2) Infotopia – was brought to my attention for the first time late last night by Pat. His blog post on the book serves as a great 5 minute brief on its main ideas. I haven’t read the book, but after talking to Pat and then reading his post about its main ideas, I feel there is a large amount of relevance to this conversation. So, I’m gonna make some connections without the full knowledge of what I’m talking about – here goes.

The ideas around infotopia seem to revolve around the shared knowledge and ‘group think’ that can occur when people shut out ideas from a different source than they are used to hearing. This is happening continuously more nowadays than ever before. Today, if you don’t like the news you’re watching, the restaurant you’re dining in or even the community you’re living in you can now locate a group of people more inclined to share your views through the internet and other ICT available and then move there cheaply and easily. Don’t like where you live? Go for a drive to the place of your choice and chill there for a bit. Don’t like the way your friends think anymore? Find new friends that do on MySpace/Facebook/web forum etc etc.

In Pats post, he mentions that when people feel their thoughts and opinions are not being heard aptly they choose, instead of communicating it anyway, to not share this information as openly. I think that, more often now; we are seeing people move to find communities that do value their information, all the time, because of the similarities of the people in that community. It’s like the ants choosing which group to broadcast their message to. If they felt their fellow ants weren’t respecting the call to “come here because there is food” then the ant might go off and find a different group of ants (maybe another colony?) and let them know.

As such, I feel we are moving from a place where information is spread diffusely through a complex social system where we do run into people we don’t like/love/know well, to a new place where we are always only hearing what we want to. The social pressure that is mounting is reducing, because we are more and more able to find people like ourselves. This, finally, links with some thoughts on the current Barack Obama campaign which is sweeping the US at the moment, as well as the tactics used by Kevin07/K.Rudd in the recent Australian Federal election.

3) Barack Obama – His current campaign and it’s following has been likened to a religous experience. But what is really happening here? I’m not going to even fathom how he has created such a swell of momentum behind his run at the White House. In my mind, he has done such a great job because he has refused to join the normal skull-duggary associated with Presidential elections and politicians in general. He has campaigned for ‘change’ and has, like K-Rudd, provided little depth and information about specific policy ideas. This has, funnily enough, only  benefitted him. By constantly asking for change, and positioning himself as the candidate to bring this fundamental change about, he has begun talking to people’s aspirations rather than their conscious logic or hip pocket.

As stated before, people (young people especially) are currently struggling to find self-esteem and self worth. They constantly seek peer approval, and so are missing out on a larger story of community and meta-narrative which was table stakes only fifty years ago. The politics run by Clinton, McCain et al are essentially still moves from that old game. They figure ‘Let people know what you are going to do,’ the assumption being that they already know their place in the world, understand where they have come from and are secure in their own thoughts and ideas about the future. Essentially, people never needed ‘change’ or ‘dreams’ before because they could do this themselves.

Fast Forward to a world where most young people (now becoming older and of voting age) lack an understanding of what it means to dream and live in a community, and you can understand why Obama, K-Rudd et al are winning the war for hearts and minds. For the first time in many of these younger people’s lives, someone is painting a picture of what their dreams could be. Obama is asking people to imagine what the country could be like. They are, for the first time, dreaming of a larger world. They are thinking about how they could live in a country that is a community once again. They are considering, perhaps for the first time, what it means to contribute to a society, to be an active citizen, to help others grow.

They are being allowed to think this because, instead of a politician telling them things such as “Vote for me and I’ll spend this much more on you/I like the way you live so here have some more money/It’s not your fault that you are poor so have some money etc etc,” 

Obama is giving them permission to dream about what could be. This is why voter turn out has been much higher in the democratic primaries for Obama than for Clinton. So, in closing, I think we as a population are becoming much more likely to follow base messages that come to us directly from sources we trust, as we continue to factor out the people in our life that don’t necessarily need to be there anymore. As we move away from this more diverse community and join more like minded friends for more time, we suddenly place much more importance on what those friends think of us. If they are all we have, then their acceptance suddenly means one heck of a lot more. Our self esteem become more and more tied into their thinking to the point that we suddenly draw all our self respect from the thoughts of others.

Obama and K-Rudd have picked up on this, and have realised that to improve the world and create a better life for more, we need to break down some of these walls and be a more diverse community once again. People are crying out for more meaning in their lives, as they struggle to rest easy when that ease is only maintained when other people think the right way about them. The ‘we can change’ and ‘dream about what our country could be/do’ tenant propagates like wild fire through people because they finally, maybe for the first time, feel like a participant in an important discussion about something much larger than themselves.  


Break my happy egg and call me cooked…

The whole Generation Y issue is getting to me. As you may or may not know, I work in the World Vision Australia youth marketing department. Part of what we do, better than anyone else in that organisation (and, we like to hope someday, better than anybody in any market) is ‘get’ and understand young people. We recently had some ‘consultant type’ people in, from a small trend-company called Uber. They provided some fantastic insights into what makes the youth of today tick, and how we as an organisation can attempt to tap into those trends to take our message to them. (Yes, how we can market to them). It made for some interesting conversation about how the youth of today (which includes me!) are going currently and what they face in the future. A few random facts, which I think I recorded correctly.

1) The average score on anxiety tests by youth today is the same as those recorded by people submitted to mental health clinics in the 50’s.

2) Generation Y has grown up almost entirely during a period of amazing economic prosperity. Most have never experienced a recession, and even if they we’re alive during one, they do not remember it.

3) The Generation Y is one of the more ‘wanted’ generation of children. I’m gonna take some license here, as this wasn’t fully discussed. But essentially, contraception techniques, as well as social values, we’re so advanced by the time this generation of people we’re born that, for the most part, parents made the conscious choice to have a child when they wanted. As such, they have been far more lauded and cared for by their parents. This may go some way to explaining why Gen Y’s feel much more ‘special’ than their older brothers and sisters. I heard today on the radio that adoption rates have dropped to about 600 per year in Australia, down from 10,000 in the 1970’s. That in itself, is a hugely scary stat that points to a hell of a lot more lovin’ and caring going on – and a lot more ‘special’ children being raised.

This has created an environment where today’s youth do not have a significant world view, beyond their own world. They primarily feel only responsible and loyal to their family and friends. As such, they can be (and are) delusional about the world that they live in, as well as incredibly vacant when it comes to some events. Mass deaths in the middle-east don’t seem to stir any response anymore, largely because this news doesn’t concern anyone in their family or friendship circle.

So why is it getting me down? Because I can see a lot of that in myself. Because I think it’s a very hard and tough journey for most young people to make to become more mindful about their own actions and the larger story that we all play a part of. It can be quite disturbing when this ‘Happy Egg’ that they live in (their own protected environments, where the only thing that matters is their friends and family) is shattered. Mine has been crumbling for a while now. I’m going to keep on breaking it down and see what happens.

Mindfullness in Opportunity Evaluation

I was given this fantastic article by dad today – It’s a Harvard Business Review piece written by Paul Saffo about how to make effective forecasts. The article reads fantastically well (you know how much I appreciate good writing) and is easy to remember and learn from due to the nature of Saffo’s explanations. Very made to stick.

The article is broken down into 6 very relevant ‘Rules’ for effective forecasting. It’s golden stuff for anyone dealing in the opportunity evaluation space and is a great tool for any innovator. But, the point I’d like to highlight here is his first rule – Define a Cone of Uncertainty.

Cone of Uncertainty?

Saffo talks about how defining his ‘Cone of Uncertainty’ prior to forecasting something is the most crucial of all tools he uses. The reason being, that by defining what factors are most at play in a given situation he can better judge the outcome of events yet to take place. It’s very similar to a PEST analysis, but much more rooted in historic indicators backing up those factors highlighted as important currently.

 “The art of defining the cone’s edge lies in carefully distinguishing between the highly improbable and the wildly impossible. Outliers – variously, wild cards or surprises, are what defines this edge”

This has a lot of similarities to the mindfulness techniques that I am studying now. Whilst I’m not Buddhist, the idea of being much more ‘in the moment’ is becoming a very valuable tool for me in remaining sane in this fast paced world. It helps focus on what is important at any one time, rather than let the internal commentary of my mind (and often others!) get in the way.

The idea of the cone of silence is similar, in that it focuses the forecasters (or entrepreneurs!) thinking on the parameters of what is possible, rather than what is improbable. It takes these events into account, measures them, and then either places them within the cone or at its edge, allowing the forecaster freedom to focus their thinking. Those events firmly within the cone, or towards its centre, are much more likely to occur and thus much more likely to impact any resulting strategy.

There are also many synergies between this method, and the De Bono Lateral Thinking methods, mainly to do with the use of a Thinking Purpose to lead the mind purposefully in its action. It’s an interesting topic of discussion, and one I think only helps improve our thinking abilities. The ability to remain creative in problem solving and yet critical in idea evaluation is a key ingredient to good innovation. At least I think so 🙂  

Microsoft vs Google on my laptop

I just downladed Skype as my laptop hasn’t had it on since it was wipped. In doing so, I was asked if I wanted (read, forced to) upload the Google toolbar to my Internet Explorer. Well, for those of you familar with the Vista opperating system…and the famous Allow, Allow, Allow Microsoft vs Mac ads, you will know what is happening. Everytime the google toolbar want to do something, Microsoft ie7 responds by not allowing it.

Which leads to this constant face-off between Microsoft and Google, on a micro scale, on my laptop every 5 minutes.

 Talk about market competition!!!