Nothing lasts forever…

Facebook Inc and Mr Zuckerberg, Founder, Chairman, and CEO  and largest shareholder by far,  haven’t had a good few weeks.  The recent outage of its platforms irritated users globally and it seriously embarrassed the company, especially when it emerged that its internal systems were impacted too. A sizeable chunk of 3 billion users were affected leading to much press comment on what happened – see here, for example. In addition, a whistle-blower interviewed on US TV, by the Wall Street Journal, and questioned by a US congressional committee  provided an insight to the company that was both damaging and a reinforcement of the widespread perception that the company’s  overwhelming focus is on capturing users and monetising their data over anything else.

At two o’clock in the morning recently, the Badger found himself cogitating on Facebook’s woes while listening in the dark to an unrelated BBC World Service programme during which a professor frequently made the point that ‘nothing lasts forever’.  The professor’s truism struck a chord that felt relevant to the social media giant whose dominance has grown progressively since it floated publicly in 2012.    Now, just a decade since it floated and with recent events reinforcing concerns about its power, the clamour for regulation and even break-up is gaining real momentum in politicians of all persuasions. It feels like Facebook is now truly facing ‘nothing is forever’ headwinds. As pointed out here, it’s not technology that’s at the root of the company’s problems and negative perceptions, it’s the business model.  

Cogitations in the dark about the outage and whistle-blower claims crystalised into raised eyebrows that Facebook could have internal and external facing systems impacted by the same single point of failure, and ambivalence about the whistle-blower’s assertions given that truth is rarely as purported by one party in an argument.  Thoughts moved on to how the Badger’s use of the company’s social media platforms has significantly waned over the years as a greater appreciation of how the company uses and monetises content developed. Then there was a moment of clarity in the darkness. ‘Nothing lasts forever’ applies directly to Mr Zuckerberg’s roles as Founder, Chairman, and Chief Executive too!

Mr Zuckerberg holds both the Chairman and CEO roles, which many will argue provides a clear line of command through the whole company. However, it places a disproportionate authority in the hands of one individual.  The two roles are different, and the best corporate governance principles hold that they shouldn’t be held by the same individual. Facebook floated almost 10 years ago and so perhaps it’s time for Mr Zuckerberg to realise that ‘nothing lasts forever’ and that the time is right for him to step back and let others navigate the choppy waters of the company’s future?  With this thought in mind, the Badger turned the radio off and went to sleep.  

Welcome to the metaverse…

As the Badger walked to the local High Street to meet friends, the heavens opened dumping lots of rain on anyone without a coat or an umbrella. Luckily, the local train station was just along the road and a quick sprint for its shelter meant a complete soaking was avoided. Sheltering with others in the station’s ticket hall, the Badger messaged his friends to say he’d be late, and then browsed his smartphone’s news feeds until the rain stopped. Everyone in the ticket hall was doing something similar. In fact, the bedraggled crowd looked like something from a zombie apocalypse, but without any blood.  

A news item entitled ‘PC, internet, smartphone: what’s the next big technological epoch?’ caught the Badger’s eye. Its content answered the question by building on a core 2014 suggestion that the tech/IT industry has evolved through three ‘epochs’, each defined by a core technology and a killer app. The three epochs, in time order, were the advent of the PC, the internet, and mobile computing now epitomised by today’s smartphone. If this last epoch is now peaking, then what’s the next epoch technology for the industry? One possibility suggested is metaverses, a term covering a range of virtual realities covering the workplace, entertainment, and community platforms.  Facebook, apparently, wants to become an online metaverse, but that, in itself, is enough to be wary about a metaverse future.   

As the rain eased, the Badger decided it’s unlikely that metaverses, a word that sounds like marketing technobabble, are the next epoch technology. If they are, then we will have to let companies use even more of our data and also accept a further erosion of personal privacy. Many of us will be reticent about doing this given experiences with social media over the last decade. It also seems unlikely that most of us would want to live our personal and professional lives in virtual worlds when, as the pandemic has shown, we crave the touch, smells, textures, physical interactions with friends and colleagues, and the normal rhythms of the real world that we inhabit.   

The rain stopped, and the Badger resumed his journey, walking briskly and dodging the puddles. Just as the destination came into sight, the heavens opened again.  With mother nature exercising its power with another climate change cloudburst, wondering about the next big epoch in the tech industry felt like an irrelevance. A damp Badger finally arrived and chatted with his friends over coffee. None of them are in the least bit interested in metaverses. One, who’s proud of being ‘a digital native and a digital dinosaur’, pointed out that real life is about much, much, more than bits and bytes manipulated by clever hardware and software. They are so right. It’s very hard to see how metaverses can be an epoch technology that will make real life much better.  

Indelible memories of 9/11…

Saturday is the 20th anniversary of the atrocity that killed thousands of innocent people at the World Trade Centre in New York.  If you weren’t there then it’s almost certain that you watched the harrowing event play out on television screens on that fateful Tuesday, 11th September 2001. It was a heinous crime, horrifying to watch on TV in a different country, and it left people with indelible memories wherever they were in the world on that day. These memories are often specific and deeply personal, and two of the Badger’s, for example, are as follows.

The first is of how the Badger became aware of the tragedy at work in a building outside London, some 3,500 miles from New York. Sitting in his office pouring over project documents relating to a 200-strong development team resident in the same building, the Badger was oblivious to the unfolding horror until his concentration was broken by a telephone call from his teenage son. In a voice dripping with concern, his son’s first words were ‘Where are you? Are you okay and somewhere safe? Have you seen the news?’.  The Badger was surprised by his son’s unexpected, anxiety-laden, words. It quickly transpired that he thought his father was in London and that ‘London would be the next target’. The profound relief of his son when the Badger answered reassuringly has proved unforgettable. After the call, the Badger went to a news website, saw a picture of a blazing tower, and knew that the world would be changing.   

The second is of a meeting the following day in London. It involved two people from the company’s Lexington-based subsidiary, 10 miles from downtown Boston. The pallor, demeanour, and body language of two shocked people who had travelled to London the previous Sunday for a week of business meetings with UK-based leaders was unforgettable.  The Badger’s boss, who chaired the meeting, set the original agenda aside to concentrate on their well-being and needs. They were grateful because all they really wanted to do was get back to Boston as quickly as possible to be with their families.  Their professionalism and patriotism while highly stressed, emotionally vulnerable, stuck in a foreign country due to the grounding of planes, and concerned for their loved ones, was hauntingly memorable.   

We should remember that at the time of 9/11 the internet was pedestrian by today’s standards.  It didn’t dominate our lives then, and the likes of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, iPhones, Android phones, and tablet computers didn’t exist.  If today’s smartphones, social media platforms, and streaming had existed in 2001 then the trauma and immediate personal suffering of those caught up inside the towers would have been horrifyingly at our fingertips in real-time. Today’s tech means life is different to 20 years ago, but we should perhaps be thankful that it didn’t exist at the time of 9/11 because the trauma experienced by everyone everywhere would have been worse by orders of magnitude.    

Never take media content at face value…

The media industry is a powerful force in today’s world, ‘news’ is never quite what it seems, and youngsters should have better awareness of how it works by dipping into the BBC’s Bitesize on Media Studies, a free online resource that helps children in secondary education study for a GCSE in the subject. A key point this resource makes is that ‘organisations in the media industry produce content with the aim of making money from our consumption’.  It also makes the point that media producers are always seeking to grab our attention and to influence the way we think, our opinions, and the way we live our lives. Content, which we now tend to consume individually using computers, tablets, and smartphones, includes news which often triggers instantaneous, ill-considered, social media outcries.   

There’s always been a love-hate relationship between the media and businesses, governments, and politicians.  This latter group use the media when it suits them, and the media often challenges this group when it’s commercially attractive to do so. During his career, the Badger had some training and subsequent experience interfacing with the media, and he learned that there’s always a hunt for an angle and a story in every interaction.  The Badger often giggles when consuming today’s news because it’s easy to see what he was taught in media training played out by others. 

ITV’s  recent report about Amazon destroying unsold stock in one of its UK warehouses and sending things to landfill generated a giggle.  Their report was quickly repeated in, for example, the USA and Australia.  The Badger’s giggle was because Amazon’s response to ITV’s report, which rather predictably involved undercover filming and an ex-Amazon employee, was robust and played with a straight bat. It’s doing nothing illegal.  Its policy and priority is to resell, donate, recycle, or send items to energy recovery, and it says it’s untrue that unused stock is sent to landfill. Who do you believe? ITV, after all, is a commercial organisation with commercial motives, and the instant global spread of their story is likely to have generated income.

The Badger found himself wondering whether ITV – just another commercial organisation seeking profits for shareholders – is a valid scrutineer. He then giggled at the thought of the situation being reversed with Amazon doing undercover filming and investigations within ITV.  It would be fun to see not only social media predictably explode with ill-considered outrage, but also Amazon use the result to produce content distributable to consumers through its own services.  More seriously, however, given the pervasiveness of the media in every facet of life in our digital world, perhaps it’s time to make how the media industry really works a mandatory part of the educational curriculum. Our youngsters might then learn never to take the media content they consume at face value.  

Every generation blames the one before…

Last Sunday was Father’s Day, an occasion for children to acknowledge the contribution of their father to their lives. On Sunday, the Badger spent a few moments in contemplation at his father’s graveside before having lunch with his children and grandson. There were no gifts, just the company of loved ones, lively chat, and an amusing moment when the Badger was described as a ‘Dinosaur Dadasaurous – which is like a normal Dad but more awesome!’

The song ‘The Living Years’ by Mike and the Mechanics sounded out from the playlist providing the background music for the meal. It’s opening line of ‘Every generation blames the one before…’, and the rest of the lyrics seemed not only apt for Father’s Day itself, but also for a world in which the younger generation seems eager to blame the older generation for all of its woes.  This latter point became central to light-hearted discussion over lunch. Everyone had the same view, all be it expressed in different ways, that what’s wrong with today’s world is indeed the fault of an older generation! Why? Because it’s a truism and it’s been that way for millennia! Everyone felt that the question of whether today’s older generation really deserves the blame it currently gets will only really be answered decades hence when it can be seen whether the youngsters have screwed up any less than their predecessors!

Solutions to today’s economic, environmental, technological, and cultural problems will never be found by blaming the past and chastising those who happened to live through those times.  There’s nothing to be gained from inter-generational conflict, especially when there are always winners and losers in the real world. At this point, the Badger emphasises that it really was a light-hearted discussion over the lunch rather than a deeply serious and philosophical debate. Nevertheless, there was, however, unity in  feeling that the mob dynamic so often evident throughout social media is divisive for inter-generational relationships and also one of the world’s current problems that the younger generation need to face up to.  

As lunch finished, the Badger wondered what his own father would have made of a generation born this century who know more about the World of Warcraft or Call of Duty than they do about World War 2 and the austere, non-digital life that his generation endured.  Having lived through the war and its aftermath, he wanted subsequent generations to be free, to have better education than he had, and to face life’s problems with resolve, fortitude, and action rather than complaint because, as he would often say, ‘that’s life’!  A shudder went up the Badger’s spine. The playlist had moved on playing Frank Sinatra singing ‘That’s Life’!  It appears that fathers wield a special power on Father’s Day that transcends today’s technology. If only it could be harnessed to stop inter-generational blame games so that we concentrate on the future and not the past…

Noise…

The subsidiary’s numbers for the month didn’t look good. The decline over six months was continuing, and the CEO had convened a leadership team meeting to take some major decisions. Most attending believed that some market repositioning and restructuring needed to happen. The Human Resources (HR) Director, however, was resistant because staff wouldn’t like it. The CEO, unruffled and calm, simply asked, ‘What exactly is worrying staff at the moment?’ The HR Director said that in one region staff believed they should have a pay rise, in another there was upset that refreshment points often ran out of coffee in the afternoon, and that there was a general feeling that they should have better IT equipment.  The HR Director also said that the CEO was unpopular.  

The CEO smiled wryly and reminded the HR Director that whereas acting in the best interest of the whole company was in their job description, popularity was not. The CEO then reminded the HR Director to focus on the big picture and the company’s overall needs rather than pockets of noise which had little bearing on the major decisions that needed to be taken. The HR Director said little for the rest of the meeting. If you’ve had a leadership role then you might relate to this tale, because decisions are always taken against a background of noise containing a spectrum of comment, opinion, hearsay, and questionable information.

Noise, a word that first appeared in the 12th Century, has described the hum of daily life’s background information and tittle-tattle for a long time. In today’s world, social media produces much of this noise. The background level is the highest it has ever been because newspapers, online news sites, celebrities, politicians, and many others, feed off social media content to create the stories and content needed to fill airtime and their own objectives.  Today’s noise seems more important than it is, especially for recent generations who are not afraid to say what they think about anything using social media.

What’s the point of contributing your thoughts and feelings on social media platforms when it’s just adding to today’s background noise? Is anyone interested for more than a few seconds? Does adding to life’s noise make any difference when the best leaders make decisions in the interests of whatever entity they are leading, regardless of the background noise?  The Badger chatted to his teenage nephew about these questions, and it was soon clear that the answers depend on your age, your values, and your life experience.  However, the youngster noted that although many of their friends spent more time feeding social media than spending quality time with each other, they did wonder what their life really gained by contributing to the noise of the modern world. Perhaps teenagers have more wisdom than we give them credit for… 

Beware of the downsides of the ‘Bandwagon Effect’…

‘If you act too fast and don’t think things through then your mistakes will be difficulties long into the future’.  This is what the Badger’s father would often say if he thought someone was acting with haste or being overly influenced by a popular bandwagon. Three things caught the eye this week that somewhat obtusely reminded the Badger of these words.

The first was the lecture, reported here and here, by Jeremy Fleming, Director of the UK’s GCHQ. He warned of a tech ‘moment of reckoning’ and the real risk that the West might no longer be able to supply the key technologies on which we rely. He used Smart Cities and their threat to security, privacy, and anonymity, to illustrate his point. He also pointed out that it was decisions taken a decade ago that has meant the West has few companies able to supply the latest key technology components underlying 5G.

The second was English football’s announcement that it will boycott social media over the coming weekend in a protest over online abuse. Social media is pervasive and has been a concern to many about the voice it gives to the many undesirable aspects of human behaviour for a long time.

The third was the ad tracking spat between Apple and Facebook caused by the imminent arrival of Apple’s IOS 14.5 operating system which bakes privacy into its systems and could significantly damage Facebook’s ad network earnings.  This vitriolic locking of horns by two of the digital world’s money-making behemoths shines another light behind the scenes on how they make money from us all.    

So, why did these things remind the Badger of his father’s words? Because in a small way they are all a manifestation of the downside of the ‘bandwagon effect’ which has spurred the digital world on over recent decades.  Social psychology tells us that people tend to align their beliefs and behaviour with those of a group, and this has certainly been evident with the growth of big tech and social media companies over the last 20 years.  When people see others adopt a product, service, or technology, then they think it must be good – or at least acceptable – and so they jump on the bandwagon!  Even IT outsourcing and offshoring have not been immune to the effect. When jumping on a bandwagon, the downsides of doing so emerge much, much later. One way or another, the three items that caught the Badger’s eye illustrate this point and also the dangers of having acted too fast years ago without thinking things through properly.  

Today’s younger generations are not immune to the ‘bandwagon effect’, which is why the Badger takes every opportunity to echo his father’s words. They should learn lessons from the past and especially that it is often perilous to act fast because mistakes will emerge long into the future and not be correctable.     

Think before you write, never write before you think…

Last weekend, Sonja McLaughlan – a reporter for BBC Sport – was hit with a barrage of abuse on Twitter for her interviews following the England-Wales Rugby international – see here and here.  The BBC, and others, rightly defended her and have also pointed out  that ‘abuse for doing your job is not OK’.  This struck a chord with the Badger because last week he was horrified to see many abusive and defamatory comments appear on a social media platform in response to a post applauding Chris Whitty – the UK’s Chief Medical Officer – for his work during the pandemic.  That social media platform was not Facebook.  Nor was it Twitter. It was LinkedIn.

The Badger, who is always careful about what he contributes on social media platforms, decided to conduct an experiment. He posted a comment to the LinkedIn Chris Whitty thread simply pointing out that it was a sad day for society and LinkedIn itself when abusive and defamatory comments are made about a man who is just doing his job!  The comment triggered a response suggesting that the vast majority agreed, but it also triggered a higher ‘rant return’ than the Badger expected!  ‘Welcome to your professional community’ is the strapline on the landing page to login to LinkedIn on the web. The word ‘professional’ implies a community that upholds standards and respect. We should remember this when contributing on this platform if we want to preserve its value.    

Everyone, of course, is entitled to air their opinions, but the Badger this should be done respectfully and never in an abusive or defamatory manner. Social media platforms in general have become part of the personal critical infrastructure of many people, but they cause enormous problems in the realms of proliferating hate, manipulation, misinformation, and so on.   Trolling is everywhere, and, as the Center for Countering Digital Hate has neatly summarised, society faces many challenges in the online world.  Simon Jenkins  recent Guardian article entitled ‘Chris Whitty’s abuse is a symptom of social media out of control’  also makes many points about social media that are hard to disagree with. When it is not okay to abuse footballers on the football field, to abuse a colleague in the workplace, to be discriminatory, to write salacious things that are unlawful in newspapers, why do we tolerate the opposite on social media platforms?  The answer is simple; we shouldn’t.  Free speech – which existed in Western democracies way before the advent of social media platforms – is not an argument for the rampant abuse and the defamation of anyone.

The key word in LinkedIn’s ‘Welcome to your professional community’  is professional. If you cannot express your contributions and opinions respectfully then it rather suggests that you, and possibly the company you represent, are part of the problem. Think before you write, never write before you think!   

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.

‘Blue Christmas’ and Alvin and the Chipmunks…

A senior client at a large engineering firm asked the Badger to be an observer at a  meeting about a major programme that was off the rails. It was a whole day affair involving the client, the programme manager, and the key people from the IT, engineering maintenance, engineering operations, finance, resourcing, and stores and logistics departments. Throughout the day, individuals and departments blamed each other for  difficulties, belittled the programme manager and their decisions, and even questioned the company’s  strategic decision to embark on the programme. The Badger realised that everyone had lost sight of the big picture, were dwelling on the past, and engaging in internal politics and point scoring. At the heart of the  programme’s predicament was the wrong attitude, approach and behaviour of every one of those present.

At the end of the meeting, the client asked the Badger if he had an observation to share. The Badger just said ‘Today everyone has blamed someone else, dwelt on the negatives, and engaged in factionalised points scoring.  This programme is failing and so each of you is already tarred with failure. If you want to be associated with success then each of you needs to stop bickering and blaming others, unite around strategic objectives, and take personal responsibility for doing the right thing’.  There was silence. The client grinned and closed the meeting.  

The Badger was reminded of this last night while sitting by the Christmas tree cogitating on television, online and social media coverage of new restrictions to curb the virus that impact everyone’s Christmas plans. The interminable hand-wringing, hysteria, political point scoring, shrill cries of unfairness and woe,  and blaming others for disrupting Christmas is very similar but unfortunate reality of today’s instant attention-grabbing world. The reality is that every one of us, without exception, has a responsibility involving uncomfortable choices and decisions if this devious virus is to be beaten. Just like for the wayward programme noted above, our individual attitude, common sense,  behaviour, and collaboration is what will determine success. Yes, recent restrictions make Christmas even more difficult for everyone, including the Badger, but we are a highly adaptable species and so we’ll cope.  

This year Elvis Presley’s ‘Blue Christmas’ from 1957 will be apt for many of us. This  Christmas will be difficult but also a rich source of memories and stories to be passed down the generations for years to come and so it deserves something to put a smile on your face.   Let’s make Christmas ‘glass half full’ rather than ‘glass half empty’  and listen to Alvin and the Chipmunks as we focus on absent family and friends! It might help to alleviate the gloom and put a smile on your face for a couple of minutes. And on that note, the Badger wishes you all a safe Christmas with as much happiness as it’s possible to muster in these turbulent times…