Five years…

David Bowie passed away five years ago on the 10th January 2016. His legacy is a portfolio of great music and it was while listening to some of his songs that the Badger mused on some of the things that have happened  since his demise.

The UK Brexit referendum on 23rd June 2016 upended British politics, changed Europe for ever, and caused widespread public frustration with the shenanigans of politicians in handling the exit process. The whole process exposed the dysfunctionality of politics and politicians across the UK and across the EU, more so than ever before.   

In 2016 Donald Trump – a businessman rather than a career politician – was elected the President of the USA. His term in office, including his impending departure, has been a tsunami of controversy. Mr Trump’s election was founded on a ticket that gave voice to millions of voters frustrated with their career politicians. His enemies would, and did, throw everything at him during his term in office. The pendulum has now swung against him, and the USA seems, to an outsider at least, to be exhibiting the polarisation and in-fighting typical of a failing empire, which does not augur well for the future.

During the last five years, the EU struggled with a humanitarian and political crisis caused by the influx of more than a million refugees, Greta Thunberg brought global focus on climate issues, the MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements made a mark, and the Cambridge Analytica affair exposed some truth about social media platforms and their use of your data. And then, of course, there is the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Badger, however, thinks the biggest happening over the last five years pervaded all of the above, namely the fact that the social media platforms have an uncontrollable influence on our lives and democracy. These platforms claim to be a bastion of free speech but they give voice to extremes, fake news, disinformation, the darker side of the human psyche, attention seekers and faceless disrupters of all kinds. So much so that Western democracy is threatened. The tech giants have resisted regulation by politicians for years, but – regardless of your views on Mr Trump – they now appear to be regulating elected politicians!  It appears from the happenings of the last five years that social media giants wield more unaccountable power than is sensible for the preservation of Western democracy, and that our elected leaders need to take these tigers by the tail and regulate them.   Alternative views, of course, exist.   

There is a great Bowie song that is as pertinent today as it was when released in 1972. That song is Five years, a great version of which was recently released by Duran Duran.   The Badger thinks its line ‘Five years, that’s all we’ve got’  sums up how long elected leaders have to sort themselves and the giant tech companies out if  Western democracy is to thrive through the rest of this century.

Change…

What a year it’s been! There can’t be many people across the globe who haven’t been touched in some way by personal, social, or economic impacts from the Covid-19 pandemic.  It would be very easy, as a New Year approaches, to not only indulge in hand-wringing sadness, regret, and despondency about the events of 2020, but also to speculate – with or without optimism – about the future. But there’s enough of that in the traditional media, on the internet, and on social media platforms, so the Badger set himself a challenge over the Christmas holiday to sum up both the last year and the future using just one word!

That word didn’t take long to emerge. It was streaks ahead of the alternatives. The word was ‘change’.   

This year has seen ‘change’ in nearly everything – how we shop, the structure and the nature of industry sectors, the profile of scientists, technologists and health and care professionals, the way we work, travel, and interact with other people, the shape of the economy and our cities, and our awareness of how the world really works. We now all know that rather than bombs and guns, things you cannot see which don’t respect geographic boundaries can wreak real havoc to our lives and threaten our species. We have also all seen just how dependent we are on global supply chains, digital technology, the well-being of the planet, and – indeed – on each other.

Change doesn’t stop, so the word ‘change’ is more than apt to describe the future. The First World War and the Spanish Flu pandemic of 100 years ago were triggers for major personal, societal, and economic change, and so its highly likely we’ll see the same once the Covid-19 pandemic abates but this time much, much faster.  Why? Because the pandemic has made us face the reality that the old ways really were truly unsustainable.

The Badger thinks we have all been reminded of one thing this year, that you can never be certain in life of what’s around the next corner.  Predicting the future is fraught with risk and disappointment, especially with the world continuing to be in a very difficult place. But with ‘change’ inevitable in 2021, the Badger thinks there’s only one New Year resolution for sensible people to make and that’s to  ‘embrace rather than resist the changes ahead’.   Whether we like it or not, change is a perpetual aspect of our lives. History shows that resisting it leads to disadvantage, avoidable anxiety, and ultimately personal, societal, and economic collateral damage that serves no one well. And on that point of philosophical reflection, the Badger wishes you well and that you have a better 2021 than 2020.

Information pollution…

After months of abstinence, the Badger treated himself to fish and chips  while visiting Crawley, a town which has seen sizeable unemployment during the Covid-19 pandemic due to its proximity to Gatwick Airport. The chip shop was open, all the appropriate virus protection measures were in place, and a rumbling stomach made it impossible to resist! 

The Badger placed his order and the counter assistant, a lady in late middle-age, made conversation while she waited for a fresh batch of chips to complete frying. ‘Will you have the new vaccine?’, she enquired. ‘Yes. What about you?’, the Badger replied. What followed was a torrent of reasons for why she would not have the vaccine.  The lady said the government could not be trusted, the vaccine had been rushed, short-cuts had been taken, pharmaceutical giants were only doing it to make big profits, and that everything she saw in newspapers, on television, on the internet and on social media had made her very wary. Looking at her smartphone as she spoke, the lady went on to say that she wasn’t going to take the risk of getting ill from the vaccine because her elderly mother and her children depended on her.  The Badger listened and inwardly sighed,  but at that point the fresh chips became available and the conversation went no further.

Mulling over the lady’s words while eating the food a few minutes later, the Badger decided  that her view provided an illustration of  how ‘information pollution’ influences many in the modern world. According to widely available statistics, we  look at our smartphones at least  every 10 minutes during waking hours, much of it to watch  attention grabbing, instantaneous social media feeds like Twitter and Facebook. As the thought provoking article here points out, speed of information availability eclipses accuracy, and so misinformation, distortion, selectivism, and falsities easily become the norm pushing fact into the background.

‘Information pollution’ is rife and it is one of the biggest ‘man-made’ challenges for digital-native generations to deal with if we want society to avoid descending into anarchy. Regulation and legislation are necessary and inevitable to ensure media and social media platforms genuinely tackle the issue rather than just pay lip service to it.  Pollution, after all,  comes in many forms. The chemical, oil, manufacturing, farming, and pharmaceutical industries have to comply with laws covering poisons and pollution, so why should  ‘information pollution’ be treated differently?

So, there you have it. A conversation in a fish and chip shop can make you think!  As the Badger finished the last chip, he resolved to maintain the healthy analysis of information to get at the facts that has stood him in good stead in his work and private life for years. Accordingly, even with ‘information pollution’ still rising, having the vaccine is clearly the rational  and common-sense thing to do. Life, after all, is full of dealing with risk of one form or another.

Tech regulation; learn the lessons of the past…

The Badger has just arranged for a headstone to be erected at the grave of a relative who passed-away some years ago. The process started with using Google to research the different types of  headstone, suppliers, pricing, and graveyard regulations. Having done the research, the Badger engaged a provider and arrangements were made using to the providers preferred business methods, namely good old fashioned telephone calls, letters and forms by post, and cheques for payments. Everything went smoothly and the headstone is now in place.

There was only one thing that was an irritant in the whole process – the flood of content, adverts, and unsolicited marketing that appeared in the Badger’s news, email, and social media feeds following the Google search queries!  Receiving unsolicited and unwanted suggestions about funeral plans, care homes, equity release, life insurance, will writing, and donating to charity via a will was just tiresome and a reminder that the big  tech giants track and use our behavioural data. If there was a single, simple, ‘Big Red Button’ that turned all that stuff off, then the Badger would have pushed it!  

Recent news that a Digital Markets Unit is being formed under the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) (see here, here and here) to start limiting the power of big tech firms in the UK seemed like welcome news and a sign that politicians are starting to wake up.  In the USA, of course, Google is already in the cross-hairs of the US government for alleged anticompetitive abuses. At long last, governments around the world seem to be very slowly addressing regulation of the big tech giants which, let’s face it, are enormously powerful as well as being at the heart of the functioning of today’s modern society.

Sceptical about the need for regulation? Read the Financial Times article here. It points out that the 2008 banking crisis showed that careful oversight is needed when the public interest depends on businesses that exist to meet the needs of private capital providers. Before 2008, the approach of regulators to the way banks behaved was ‘principles based’, i.e. deliberately light touch. This relied too much on the banks’ abilities to govern themselves, and it failed. Similarities with the current approach with big tech are striking.  We should learn the lessons from the past! After all, isn’t that what the leaders of all corporations and governmental institutions are forever telling their employees and everyone else to do?

When speaking to the headstone provider, the Badger asked why – apart from a basic website – they hadn’t fully embraced the digital world. Simple, they answered. ‘We’ve stayed in business for over a century because we learn our lessons, one of which has been to always steer a cautious path through periods of innovation and change’. How very refreshing!     

If you can’t stand the heat…

The young Badger’s first assignments in the IT industry involved technical work and software development. Much was learned, and this fuelled an appetite for advancement and greater challenges, one of which was becoming a ‘divisional coordinator’ helping a Divisional Manager run every aspect of their line of business. This role significantly enhanced the Badger’s understanding of human nature, and the motivations and behaviours of those who get things done in an organisation.

Every fortnight the Divisional Manager and the Badger attended fortnightly operational reviews with the former’s boss, the Group Manager responsible for multiple Divisions.  These were uncompromisingly direct meeting! As a youngster, the Badger found sitting next to his boss as they were verbally chastised and interrogated about every minor issue an uncomfortable experience, even though the Badger’s boss took it in their stride.  

After one particularly vociferous and harsh session that involved raised voices,  the Divisional Manager took the young Badger to a local tea-room for a debrief.  Over tea and cake, the Badger asked why his boss stayed so calm in the face of these verbal whippings. He smiled, said it was because he understood his boss, and went on to make the following points:

  1. Leaders and managers are paid to make things happen. They had to be demanding or nothing would happen. Running any enterprise requires tough and demanding people to achieve real outcomes. Remember, a business is not a democracy.  
  2. Humans are not exempt from ‘the survival of the fittest’ inDarwin’s theory of evolution. People have different personalities and temperaments, but everyone has a hurtful streak. Successful leaders learn about  human behaviour and how to handle those they interface with using techniques appropriate to their strengths, weaknesses, and temperament. Sometimes it’s necessary to be ruthlessly brutal because some people require that to get the message!
  3. Remember the ‘Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me’ mantra from school days because if you let being called names hurt you then whoever is calling you the names wins! Leaders never dwell on this. Instead, they stay focused on their job.  

The Badger was reminded of the above while watching a popular UK television series that has the public voting for a member of a group of minor celebrities to undergo an ordeal. The public had consistently voted for the same frightened individual and in doing so neatly illustrated the innate human capacity to pick on the perceived weakest in any group. Interestingly, it also illustrated that if the picked-on individual faced up to their demons then they won out and public attention focused elsewhere!   

Human nature hasn’t really changed over the decades. It’s as true today as it’s ever been that you need to toughen up to succeed in any environment.  President Harry S. Truman’s words from 75 years ago are still apt…’If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen’.

Dubious data or dubious analysis leads to dubious decisions and distrust…

Data makes the modern world function. It’s at the heart of decision making by companies, governments, politicians, advisers, and experts of all kinds – and if it isn’t, then it should be!  Data, a valuable global resource, attracts a swarm of interest from those wishing to use it for purposes ranging from commercial gain to disinformation and propaganda. Whenever it’s presented to us, therefore, we should always wonder if the data itself is dubious, if the analysis of it is dubious, and if decisions based on these items are themselves dubious. Why? Because if we feel decisions are dubious, then disillusionment and distrust sets in and this is a really difficult trend to turn around.

A friend with a knack for uncovering ‘dodgy data’,  ‘dodgy analysis’, and hence ‘dodgy decisions’  on IT projects emailed recently lamenting how politicians and the scientists at their side could present some erroneous data in explaining the decision for England to enter a 2nd COVID lockdown.  They questioned whether the data, and the analysis of its consequences, ever got independently challenged or verified before being presented to the public? One would hope so, but it doesn’t feel like it, so we can hardly blame the media for making hay on the topic, or the public for becoming increasingly sceptical and distrustful.    

Dubious data, dubious analysis and dubious decisions are manifest everywhere in our modern, globally connected world.  The item here about a COVID-relevant study regarding Hydroxychloroquine just emphasises that ‘verification and assurance’ isn’t as strong as it should be with a last sentence saying ‘Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of it all is that the WHO and two entire countries halted trials of a potentially life-saving drug following the results of a single study that they failed to independently verify’.

Of course, honest mistakes happen, but the Badger senses that ‘verification and assurance’ is getting ever weaker, which is worrisome when every institution or corporation is becoming more creative in using data to push their own agenda, ideology, or bias.  Whenever information is presented to the general public making the case for an important decision, therefore, it has to be right that we can trust its efficacy and that it has been subjected to challenge using robust independent processes before being presented. 

In a world where misunderstanding, despondency, disillusionment, and distrust develops in seconds, we deserve to know that decisions conveyed by leaders are underpinned by sound data and analysis.  If excellent ‘verification and assurance’ functions are not embedded or truly effective in our institutions and corporations then distrust, disillusionment, and cynicism will become the baseline for our day to day lives. Surely we don’t want that? Perhaps it’s time that ‘verification and assurance functions’ got more attention from the media before, rather than after, key announcements?  Oh dear, perhaps bias has crept in here, after all the Badger turned from being an expert poacher into an expert ‘verification and assurance’ gamekeeper a number of times in his career…

Millennials; 100 years ago and today…

When the Badger entered the graveyard of the pretty, 13th century, English village church to put flowers on his mother’s grave, he was intending to write about the financial results of the tech giants. By the time he left, however, this intention had been consigned to the bin. Why? Because of thoughts triggered by seeing 318 white headstones of WW1 Canadian soldiers amidst the graveyard’s maple trees and acers in autumn colour. Most of these soldiers had  survived the Great War but were victims of the 1918-1920 Spanish Flu pandemic while waiting in a local military camp to be repatriated back to Canada.  Reading their inscriptions is always poignant, especially as most were aged between 18 and 30 when they succumbed so far away from home.  Their graves in this quiet corner of England are wonderfully maintained. If you’re interested, you can find who from the Great War is buried in a graveyard near you here.

The spectacular autumn colours, the rows of white headstones, and the fact that the Badger’s grandfathers served in and survived the Great War and the flu pandemic, triggered thoughts about just how different life was a 100 years ago. There were no anti-viral drugs and no antibiotics. There was no National Health Service, no television, no radio, no telephones for the masses, no electricity in the vast majority of homes, and – in the UK – the vote for all men over the age of  21 had only just been granted through an Act of Parliament in 1918. Life was tough, much tougher than most today have endured, but people got through it even though > 200,000 people died in the UK alone during the 4 pandemic waves between 1918 and 1920.

Today we are in the midst of another global pandemic but with tools and capabilities at our disposal that would have been pure science fiction 100 years ago.  Yet Western democracies are struggling to cope, politicians are arguing and scoring points off each other rather than standing shoulder to shoulder, broadcast and social media is full of scaremongering, selectivism, and naysayers spreading gloom and confusion, and economies are crumbling. Behaviour underpinned by the modern digital capabilities available through our smartphones, tablets and laptops has contributed to polarisation and disruption!  Yes, today’s tech gives everyone a voice, but what use is that if rationality and common sense is in the minority and society can be seen to be progressively fraying?  The Badger’s in a strange mood. Perhaps he’s being unfair.

Staring at the grave of a 20 year old soldier from Ontario, a millennial of the last century, the Badger wondered what the soldier would think about his counterparts today and the world they live in. Hmm. However, as the Badger left, a small group of millennial cyclists stopped to look at the graves. They started chatting about this very thing. From what the Badger overheard, there’s hope for us all yet…  

In remembrance…and extended service contracts…

The Badger recently met his cousin, her husband, and their 8-year old daughter at the D-Day Museum on the seafront in Portsmouth – and yes, virus protocols were observed! We met outside by  LCT 7074, the newly installed landing craft that put 10 tanks on the Normandy beaches in 1944. It’s an awe-inspiring sight. We then visited the museum and ended with a cream tea in the museum’s café.

For us adults, the visit was a sobering reminder of why honouring the fallen on Remembrance Day is important. The 8-year old was mesmerised by what she saw and particularly liked the panto-like show the museum put on to give kids a taste of life during the Blitz.  When Mr Churchill asked them ‘will we ever surrender?’ all the kids jumped up and screamed ‘No’ at the top of their voices!  Every adult present glowed with pride.   

Afterwards, over a cream tea, the Badger’s cousin helped her daughter fill in a competition form, and her husband, who works in Service Delivery for a major outsource service provider, chatted about some of his work frustrations. He bemoaned how difficult it was to deliver a service without direct control over resources, perpetually having to apologise for something, and incessant pressure from his management to mitigate financial challenges. He was frustrated with the client for always taking credit when things went well but quickly pillorying the service provider when they didn’t. Apparently, his line management want to extend the duration of the contract to help mitigate financial stress, but the client isn’t keen. He said he felt permanently stressed!

The Badger commiserated and playfully said how pleased he was to have stepped off the corporate hamster wheel. The husband enquired about the Badger’s first reaction whenever he saw media announcements that an outsource or service contract had been extended.  The Badger replied that his reaction is always the same. First, to treat any press release with caution because none of the people making the announcement will be there for the duration! Second, if the extension is before having reached 50% of the original contract duration then the extension is probably some kind of ‘dispute resolution’. Third, the client and service provider are ‘kicking the can down the road’ to create additional time to fix some kind of underlying problem definitively.  The husband grinned and said cynical suspicion was always a good starting point!  

The Badger’s cousin intervened to change the subject and her daughter innocently asked if her Grandad had an iPad while growing up the 1940s. We all laughed. Her mother replied ‘No, he didn’t need one because, as you saw in the show, life is about more than just the internet and gadgets’.  Quite.  The little girl then asked what outsourcing was and if it explained why her Grandad was always grumpy like her father! None of us had an answer…

Everyone seems offended by everything all of the time!

One of the things we all learn as we go through life is that everyone is different. Some people are brutal and selfish, some are supportive and caring, some are extrovert and some are not, some are hand wavers and some are into detail, some are structured and cautious and some are impulsive and carefree, and so on.  Finding our own way of dealing with people who are different to ourselves is one of life’s journeys.

Last week the Badger met a young graduate who has just started their first job since leaving University. They are finding the people they work with ‘difficult’, describing all their work colleagues as strong personalities who are focused solely on getting their work done on time and to budget. They admitted to finding it tough, not unusual for youngsters who leave University with an expectation of the work environment only to find the reality quite different. They also mentioned that they were offended by many of the attitudes, opinions, and behaviours of their work colleagues.  The Badger listened carefully, gave some general advice, and then told them something his father had said fifty years ago when the Badger came home from school one day offended by a teacher’s unflattering comments on an essay submitted as homework.   

His words, which have stayed with the Badger ever since, were:

‘Life is full of offence, but you can choose to be offended, or you can choose not to be offended. The better person will choose not to be offended because the alternative is to accept a path to permanent resentment and hatred’.

The youngster reacted by saying that unlike five decades ago ‘Everyone in the world today is offended by everything all of the time’. The Badger agreed that the evidence for this is tangible and suggested that it is one of the downsides of the dramatic evolution of the internet, social media, and mobile tech in the last twenty years. Playfully, the Badger also said that it wouldn’t be that way if people didn’t spend all their time glued to their smartphones and social media. Oh dear! That was a bad move.

The youngster thought, wrongly, that the Badger was having a dig at a generation that doesn’t know a time before the internet and social media. ‘I’m offended that you should say that’, they said. The Badger, slightly taken-aback, simply rolled his eyes and said, ‘Don’t be’.  The conversation ended and the youngster walked off in a huff tapping something into their smartphone.

That was last week. This morning, the Badger found out that they will be leaving their employer before their probationary period is up because ‘they don’t fit in and their performance is below expectation’.  Not surprised, the Badger thought. Perhaps now they will appreciate that the world is not your oyster if you are offended by everything all the time…   

The truth is always elusive…

Any company that provides IT services has some contracts that have difficulties of one kind or another.  No organisation is perfect. The Badger’s lost track of how many times over the years he’s been asked by an irate CEO to independently ‘get to the truth’ of why a contract difficulty had exploded out of nowhere. Having lifted the lid on many such situations, the Badger has learned that the truth is always elusive.  Why is that? Because the way people behave, what they assert as fact, who they blame, poor record keeping, and internal politics normally make it impossible to get to a definitive and irrefutable truth, especially when time and money is a constraint.   

Last week the Badger received an unexpected call from a CEO. They wanted the Badger to independently establish the ‘absolute truth’ behind the conflicting messages they were getting from line management about difficulties on a sizeable project. The Badger politely declined the invitation. The CEO, not unexpectedly, was interested in why. The Badger merely told the CEO that ‘the truth is always elusive’ and if they didn’t have someone trusted to be independent and objective in their own organisation then they had bigger problems than just this project!  The CEO chuckled, took the point on board, and emailed later to say that someone from their inner team was investigating ‘to establish in what direction the pendulum of truth was pointing’.   

Shortly afterwards, the Badger – who has been keeping abreast of the US Presidential campaign via the media and the web – watched the Biden/Trump debate.  The Badger was both amused and horrified! The whole debacle seemed to personify the shrill, modern, antagonistic virtual world played out on the web in real-time, every hour or every day!  It was a depressing spectacle with getting to the truth definitely elusive, at least that’s how the Badger felt as just a normal citizen in a different nation with no axe to grind on how the USA appoints its leaders.

Afterwards, perhaps influence by despair, the Badger decided two things. First, that the internet/social media revolution of the last twenty years has made getting to the truth even more elusive than it always was. There is no truth on the internet. We must teach our children to think more deeply for themselves about everything they see or hear in their daily lives.  Second, the vitriolic debate provided enough evidence for the masses around the globe to wonder if the USA’s ‘leadership of the free world’ is still credible.

The Badger thought that China, in particular, would be having a giggle. Perhaps the song ‘Go West’ should be reissued as ‘Go East’? Hmm. That’s perhaps taking the rise of China too far, but even though the truth is always elusive there seems little doubt that things are rising in the East and setting in the West…