Time and Space the key to self organising

I was driving to hockey training at some stage this last month and was taken by the billboard you see below. It is on the corner of Nepean Highway and North Road, in Melbourne, Victoria (Australia – for the international readers)


It stunned me.The first thing that got me about the billboard, which made me think this wasn’t any ordinary billboard, was that it is advertising a church service. Wow. When was the last time that the church (who I assume have a fair bit of cash) was buying advertising space on a huge, prominent billboard?  Probably since the town crier was a favourable professions for kids to consider when leaving uni.
But the thing that got me most about the billboard was what it was telling me to do. It simply says ‘Sunday at St Michaels’ and then just gives me a time (10am on Sundays) and a space (St Michaels, 120 Collins St). And that, is it. No website to remember to look up. No phone number to ring. No special deal to remember or deadline to beat. No price to compare and no competition to rate. It was just a simple time and space. It presented me with a simple proposition. What was I doing on Sunday, at 10am? And, if the answer to that question was nothing, then why not come to 120 Collins St?
Naomi Klein, in No Logo, talks about how we are subjected to thousands of advertising messages a day and the impact that has on our world.  I want to take this to the next logical conclusion. If we are subjected to thousands of messages a day, we are also subjected to hundreds of possible ‘things’ to remember. I’ve riffed about mental illness and anxiety before, but one of the key things which seem to cause it is a large amount of thoughts flowing unabated through one’s mind. Now, if you only abosorb 1% of all the messages that you are exposed to that equates to about 30 things a day you are trying to remember. I’d imagine it would be tough at the best of times. Let alone if things are busy and you’re struggling to find time to scratch yourself anyway.
The church has created something quite special in the world of advertising and provided a lesson for the rest of us to learn when it comes to self organising ourselves into communities of practice and expertise. Earlier in the year, Pat Allan, Melina Chan and I organised an event called Trampoline. It was a great lesson for the three of us in creating a time and space for people to congregate around to share their experiences and ideas. The greatest take out of this for me was that successfully creating a space for people to be themselves and providing a time for them to do it is a powerful tool in the modern era. Here in Melbourne, we have seen this power a number of times now, with Melbourne Jelly now established on every 2nd Friday at Kisla Interactive HQ in Fitzroy (thanks in large part to the great work of Pieter Peach and Maxim Shklyar) and Social Media Breakfast ticking along every Friday morning at Mr Tulk (again, thanks to the work of Kate Kendalland Lucio Ribeiro).
In the world increasingly becoming a mixture of self organising systems and traditional hierarchy, the ability for people to organise a time and space where people can meet and connect is beginning to show real pay off when it comes to taking action and getting things done in small, quickly organised cell groups. Who said the world couldn’t function without hierarchy? The billboard reiterates, we’ve been doing it for a fair while now. The church had it right thousands of years ago.

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.

Corrupted Computer

Well, the unthinkable has happened. My laptop has recently come unstuck…my 4 month old, Twinhead laptop (a beautiful machine, really) has some memory issues. Mainly, it lost it all. 😦

The culprit (scape-goat?)…

My USB Stickscape-goat

…My USB Stick, which I removed from my VISTA machine without properly ejecting it (yes, a word of warning…Vista doesn’t like it when you remove it without letting it know).

Sigh – I could be without for week+, which seems unthinkable to me after only 4 months. More news, as it happens.

Stress and the untamed mind…and email

Mother Dearest, aka Mum, recently attended a mental health night (she works for a mental health provider in Melbourne’s South East) and heard a guy (don’t have name at the moment…i’ll post later today) speak about busyness and unfocused thinking, and the immense stress it places on a persons mental health. This guy is a frontier scientist from Monash Uni, a Sandstone Institution here in oz that is prestigious world wide.


I found this particularly interesting, as I am always buzzing around – checking emails, twittering, jumping from msn, to skype, to Facebook, to the web and then back to the thing I was actually supposed to be focusing on. And if I have trouble, spare a thought for my brothers generation…who know nothing else but homework with the ‘aid’ of MSN.

I realized when reading some of this guys work that it overlaps a bit with De Bono’s thoughts on Lateral Thinking – especially setting a firm Thinking Purpose when setting about working. I have thus concluded that, email and the other tools I use, whilst immensely useful, are disruptive to my productivity, and my creative thinking.

From now on, I’m going to practice a bit of mental application. I’ll set a thinking purpose (what do I wanna get out of this hour?), shut down the blessed email, make my last twitter for the hour, and then burn into some productive and focused thinking.

Follow me here for the results…more on this as I go

(Note…this post was completed whilst I should have been focusing on transcribing lateral thoughts from the Creative Thought session I facilitated the other day…good start!)