On books that started as podcasts (and vice versa)

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Last week I was delighted to be invited into The Mothership to talk about how (and why) podcasts are being turned into books with the delicious Mariella Frostrup on BBC Radio 4’s Open Book. I name-checked three personal favourites - My Dad Wrote a Porno, The Guilty Feminist and Welcome To Night Vale - but I’d love to discover some new ones, so do let me know your own favourites too.

We also talked about the three-part podcast I created with Pan Macmillan around the paperback launch of The Charmed Life of Alex Moore. Now available to download on iTunes, Spotify and Acast, The Success Monologues saw me tour the UK asking amazing women (from an asylum seeker to the Head of Technology for Sky) to share their stories about how they’ve challenged their limiting self-beliefs and redefined what success looks like in their lives.

Yeah, I know, tough gig.

You can catch up on the Open Book episode here - our chat starts 10 minutes in, but the whole show’s a cracker (the stuff about queer nature writing is brilliant).

Happy listening; let me know what you think. 🎙📚🎧💫

Alex Moore's paperback tour

I can’t quite believe I’m typing this, but today sees the launch of the paperback of The Charmed Life of Alex Moore - with a BRAND NEW COVER featuring *sparkly silver bits* ✨ 


To celebrate, PanMacmillan and I are running a UK tour of The Success Monologues, featuring honest and inspiring stories from a diverse group of women in each city about how they’ve overcome their own self-limiting beliefs and redefined the meaning of success. I’d love to see you there, so do check out the locations and speakers below and click on the links to book.

On Monday 25th February in Nottingham I will be joined by:

  • Mirriam Mutanda - an asylum seeker housed by Nottingham Arimathea Trust, Miriam has been seeking asylum for 13 years. More importantly, Mirriam is a poet, an avid reader - and an extraordinarily wise and inspiring person.

  • Lucy Burrow - the president of the Nottingham City Women's Institute, Lucy formed the group early in 2009 with other likeminded twentysomethings eager to share skills, meet new people and have some fun. Since then, City WI has grown into a large and friendly community for women of all ages. 

  • Eleanor Field - a Nottingham-based theatre designer and artist who has worked on a variety of projects for theatre, opera and dance across the UK. Last year, with fellow designer Laura Cordery, she created a living drawing project, ‘A Pageant On Paper’, which celebrated the lives of nearly 200 successful women, past and preset. She also helps to run the female-focused The Party Somewhere Else theatre festival in Nottingham. Twitter: @EleanorMField


On Tuesday 26th February in Manchester I will be joined by:

  • Lauren Coulman - CEO and Social Impact Strategist at Noisy Cricket, Lauren helps build people-powered movements to bring collective voices together to create equality. Writer for Forbes, campaigner for Free to Be Ok platform, and featured on Northern Power Women Future List, Lauren is dedicated to causes that will ensure social impact and change. Twitter: @LaurenCoulman

  • Jo Morfee - Co-Founder of InnovateHer - a extra curriculum programme designed to inspire and empower younger girls, and Director of Liverpool Girl Geeks - supporting those who seek careers in the tech industry. Jo is passionate about changing the status quo in tech sector to create a more balanced and diverse workforce. Twitter: @JoMorfee / Instagram: @jogirlgeek

  • Vimla Appadoo - one of the instigators behind SheSays MCR, a platform helping women in digital and creative industries further their careers, facilitating change through design thinking at FutureGov. Vimla was voted as a Northern Power Woman Top 50 Future Leader. Twitter: @ThatGirlVim

  • Dior Bediako - Founder of Pepper Your Talk and The Junior Network, platforms that support and educate the next generation of fashion creatives. After leaving a lucrative position at Burberry, Dior set about creating a space for young fashion professionals to help them find their feet in an industry renowned for its competitiveness. Twitter: @DiorRnCBediako / Instagram: @diorrichnconnected

  • Charlotte Instone - Founder and CEO of Know The Origin, the Fairtrade, organic fashion label, ranked as EthicalConsumers top ethical fashion brand October 2017. Charlotte is passionate about ensuring transparency in the fashion industry; a true trailblazer and force to be reckoned with. Twitter: @Lottieinstone / Instagram: @charlotteinstone

  • Alice Sparks - Founder at Invisible Manchester, a social enterprise that works with people who have been affected by homelessness and trains them to become walking tour guides. Sharing real stories of homelessness helps to raise awareness about what it actually means to be homeless and encourages people to look at the streets differently. Twitter: @InvisibleMcr / Instagram: @alice_spooks


On Wednesday 27th February in Leeds I will be joined by:

  • Lucy Sheridan - the world’s first and only Comparison Coach, Lucy is a Hay House author and life coach who specialises in helping her clients come to grips and deal with the compare and despair cycle, symptomatic of heightened social media use. Twitter: @lucysheridan / Instagram: @lucysheridan

  • Lou Kirby - blogger and Founder of Woman Ready - an online community to help inspire, support and empower us to be the women we want to be, while also talking about the issues that face women today. Twitter: @WomanReadyBlog / Instagram: WomanReadyBlog

  • Kimberly Robinson - mental health activist, visual artist and founder of Keep Real - a social enterprise supporting better mental health in all communities. Twitter: @kimmykeepreal / Instagram: @kimmykeepreal

  • Natasha Sayce-Zelem - Head of Technology for Digital Service at Sky and Founder of Empowering Women with Tech. Natasha has many strings to her bow and has been instrumental in opening up the opportunities for women in Leeds and nationally, so that they can carve out successful careers in digital, technology and science fields. Twitter: @unharmonic

  • Laura Wellington - designer and entrepreneur behind one of Habitat's most iconic designs of the past 50 years. Co-Founder of creative hub Duke Studios and The Big Disco, Laura has been at the heart of numerous initiatives re-shaping and evolving the design and culture of Leeds. Twitter: @LauraWelli / Instagram: @laurawelli


And on Thursday 28th February in Orkney I will be joined by:

  • Caroline Wickham Jones - archaeologist, consultant and author of a book about submerged landscapes around the British Isles. Caroline says “coming to Orkney has been a good move for me, though I started digging here years ago….It was the internet that allowed me to move here…”. 

  • Lizza Hume - Co-founder of contemporary textiles business Hume Sweet Hume with her sister Jenna. Lizza creates an exclusive range of interior and fashion accessories, inspired by the pristine environment of the remote island of Westray. Twitter @Hume_Sweet_Hume

  • Lena Lewis - once described by a local newspaper as a 'Woman in a Man's World', former Company Director Lena is a keen amateur dramatist and tap dancer. Born in London in 1930, she now lives in Orkney with her African Grey parrot.


If you can’t make any of the dates, never fear - we’re also creating a podcast to accompany the tour, so keep your eyes peeled on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook so you can catch up on all the honest, inspiring, goosebumpy goodness.

Hope to see you there, and in the meantime - keep fighting for your best possible Story x

The Visitation: a short story

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A Thousand Word Photos invites photographers to share a photo with a writer, who is then asked to create a short story of a thousand words inspired by the image they receive.

Selected short stories are then published online, and read to stroke patients at Hospitals across London by actors working with the charity Interact.

I was delighted to be invited to contribute to such an amazing project, and my story, THE VISITATION - inspired by this incredible photo from Dan Sully - is the first in the series to be published. It’s about men, tech and wildness; what happens when the quantifiable self meets unquantifiable mystery.

AH’M A FECKIN’ CYBORG, MATE!’ Mal roared. 

To read the other 993 words, click here.

Exploring the British Library's Macmillan archive with Chris Riddell

I have three things to say about being given the opportunity to delve into five of the British Library’s most amazing bookish treasures (from the original woodcuts from Alice in Wonderland to an early edition of Millicent Garrett Fawcett’s The Education of Women for the Middle and Upper Classes) as part of Pan Macmillan’s 175th birthday celebrations, on camera, with the legendary writer/illustrator/children’s laureate/hero that is Chris Riddell.

One: Books, although.

Two: Chris Riddell is not just a fountain of talent, modesty, humour, generosity and knowledge - he has a GOLD BLUE PETER BADGE.

Three: Could I not at least have brushed my hair?

Can female science fiction save the world?

Last night I appeared on BBC Radio 4's Front Row with Kirsty Lang and Christina Dalcher, author of the brilliant new novel VOX, to discuss 'feminist sci-fi' and how a rise in female authors, themes and characters in the genre could inspire more girls to enter the notoriously male tech industry.

You can catch up with the conversation on the podcast below - and hang on to the end to get my and Christina's recommendations for our favourite feminist speculative fiction books. Let me know what you think of my choice....

The Future Of Reading In A Digital World

I was recently invited to chat about books with the futurist Mike Walsh.

Mike is one of those people who makes you feel like you could probably Try Harder. He’s a futurist, global speaker and author who travels the world teaching companies like Sony, BBC Worldwide, Deloitte, Cisco and Red Bull about things like “leadership in the age of machine intelligence”.

If that description makes you want to kill him, you should know that he’s also the kind of guy who orders you a flat white (with biscuit) so that it’s there waiting for you, all steaming and velvety, when you show up to record his podcast after a hard day’s graft on a rainy January Wednesday. So: not just an impressive human being, but a good one.

I first met Mike back in my agency days, when we were both doing keynotes at a giant marketing conference in Bogotá, Colombia. People were drinking cocktails and wearing strapless dresses while listening to speakers talk about ‘digital megatrends’ at 10am. It was beyond satire.

This time round, a good five years later and in the much colder but equally beyond-satire environs of a Mayfair hotel, Mike wanted to get my take on the future of publishing. So we talked the importance of libraries, the need to be an entrepreneurial author, the joys of print, the rise of independent presses, and my own debut novel, The Charmed Life of Alex Moore (see what I did there?).

Anyway - let me know what you think.

Your Brain As A Startup

There are many things I hate about startup culture. The sexism. The ageism. The arrogance. The fetishisation of growth regardless of social impact and sustainability. The compulsive sqwording.

But there are also many ways in which Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial ethos puts a rocket up my self-effacing British arse.

The can-do attitude. The impatience with self-pity. The celebration of failure as an essential element of progress. The relentless questioning of how people really behave. The willingness to suck it, see, then keep sucking until it tastes just right.

A fortnight ago I interviewed Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares about their new book Traction, which outlines how businesses can achieve the elusive holy grail of an early, active and loyal consumer base. Then last week I devoured the brilliant latest release from neuroscientist David Eagleman, The Brain: The Story of You.

It produced a slightly weird collision of ideas, and I began to wonder. Could I use startup principles to gain better traction… with my own brain?

A confession. I’m a secret self-development whore. I find it impossible to pass up a shaman or system that promises to turn my fractious monkey brain into a gleaming unicorn. I’ve shacked up with PaulTonySteveEckhart. I’ve done CBT, NLP, MBTI, the Lightning Process, the Naked Voice, psychotherapy, coaching, hypnosis, silent retreats, meditation, mindfulness. I’ve sought out everything from neuroscience to Nutribullet in my quest to evolve into something a little more sophisticated, a little more serene, than a puppet that dances to my synapses’ subconscious tune.

And you know what? That shit works. After spending my twenties in various states of disorder, depression and low-level dissatisfaction, I am now healthy and happy; ridiculously so, most of the time. The exact nature of the shit doesn’t matter that much. Gurus, after all, are just grappling hooks for the lonely clamber of your own mind. But the practice of making a deliberate and consistent daily effort to understand and hack my own habits has been the most powerful and positive work of my life.

So why am I still so embarrassed to admit it? Perhaps it goes back to that Britishness. While embryonic West Coast founder-CEOs wouldn’t hesitate to swap their latest brain-training tips over birch water in the co-working canteen, I can’t help but find picking over the wiring of my inner circuitry as distasteful as discussing the movements of my bowels.

But then that encapsulates my introvert’s ambivalence about startup culture’s aggressive openness. I feel both contempt and longing at the thought of approaching my private self with the same unsentimental, data-driven honesty and public transparency required of a box-fresh brand. And yet, and yet, it’s hard to deny that the behaviours required of successful startups make a damn good blueprint for a flourishing mind.

A willingness to challenge the status quo. Flexibility. A ruthless paring-away of old inefficiencies. Sociability. An aptitude for instilling addictive habits. The practice of seeking out continual feedback, and the courage to swiftly change direction to capitalise on what works.

The consequence is that, over the past few days, I’ve been wondering whether it might not be helpful to adopt an entrepreneurial approach when it comes to the not insignificant business of OurMinds. Burgeoning neuropreneurs might, for example, want to sit down with their recording device of choice (I favour an analogue notebook covered in yoghurt stains) and work through questions like these.

  • Opportunity: What’s my current product-market fit, where my brain is the product and the market is my life?
  • Business plan: What are my development goals? How will I measure them? What would brilliant look like for my brain in six months’ time?
  • Hardware: How can I upgrade my nutrition, my sleep, my exercise?
  • Software: What are the bugs creating pinwheels in my mind? Which one do I most urgently need to root out now?
  • Team: Who around me fuels, and who drains, the health of my mind? Who do I need to spend more time with to feed it exactly what it needs more of, from empathy to curiosity to calm?
  • Investment: Which VCs of the brain do I admire? Might I need to hand over some control and cash to an expert who can help drive my next growth stage?
  • Traction: Which one brain-channel is going to provide rapid early results? 20 minutes of morning meditation? Banning a disempowering word I use all the time? Enrolling in a School of Life course?
  • CRM: How do I keep myself loyal to myself? What surprises, delights and incentives for my own brain do I have in store?
  • Sustainability: Am I maintaining the right balance between revelling in the now, and striving to grow?
  • Future -proofing: How am I going to keep evolving? What can I do, today, that’s entirely new?

Whether you’re a coder or a carer, whether you live in Shoreditch or Slough, whether you dropped out of Harvard or fell into corporate middle management, you can become a world-class wetware developer, starting right now.

And the thing is, with neuropreneurship, no-one else need ever know.

Are We Approaching A Gen Y Identity Crisis?

Last week, a friend of mine posted a telling comment beneath an article I’d linked to on Facebook (a review of a book that urges us to temper the time we spend on social networks with more, and better, face to face contact).

“I’d be off here in a heartbeat if I’d not somehow managed to build a career out of being on it.”

My response?

“And that’s why our entire generation is pretty much fucked.”

An arch throwaway comment. Except it wasn’t. Not really.

I hit puberty during the Western middle-classes’ first flush of love with the World Wide Web. I have been one of its moistest-lipped, dryest-eyed maenads ever since I realised that my father’s vast grey Gateway — when helmed by that grumbling, burping wizard they called AOL — could bear me away to thousands of lush isles, each one harbouring a lawless tribe that thrived on comic books and trashy American sci-fi and generally anything that didn’t go down too well in a mid-nineties Oxfordshire all-girls’ school.

Eager to continue my commitment to cliché, I began my adult life as a failed and anorexic actress in London, honing skills that were to put me in excellent stead for future digital-native-success: a devotion to isolation; an induction into the heady joys of perfectionism and control; disassociation from my body; fetishisation of my mind; and a rigorous training in offering more digestible versions of myself to a vague, omnipotent and tantalisingly glamorous authority.

In 2006, I became a social media marketer, although back then the term was yet to be invented; the job description was for a copywriter, because my boss figured that the future lay in the hands of nerds who were good at using (written, not spoken, obvs) words to woo other nerds. I also became a writer, by starting a Wordpress blog and pitching ideas to editors, who knew a ripe young piece of troll-bait when they saw one.

I grew with the industry. I taught blue-chips how to use ‘emotional triggers’ to develop ‘authentic’ relationships with their ‘communities.’ I became something of an athlete at churning out 6–800 words on Twitter and books, Facebook and fashion, sensuality and Snapchat. I gave speeches around the world on innovation and business; the token double-X chromosome on the stage, dropping the f-bomb from behind my coy smile and good hair.

And then, at the grand age of thirty-two, I —

Well, I suppose I grew up.

I grew healthy and strong.

I learned how to love, and allow myself to be loved; that taught me to value not only the rich, irreducible complexity of what it means to be me, but the rich, irreducible complexity of what it means to be someone else.

I wrote a novel (coming soon); that taught me how to disconnect, how to pay attention to things and people for more than ten seconds, and how to think. Intermittently, admittedly; but boy, did it feel good.

I read with sharpening hunger, the words of a growing collection of thinkers who are both fascinated and appalled by our digital age — novelists such as William Gibson and Joshua Ferris; technologists such as Jaron Lanier and Nicholas Carr; psychologists such as Susan Pinker and Sherry Turkle; philosophers such as Matthew Crawford and Alain de Botton.

And I admitted that I am, in fact, not just a person but a woman. That I like being a woman. And that I don’t have to learn to code in order to earn the right to question the design of my world.

Maybe you have a job that involves responding to emails for the majority of the day. Maybe you hate Facebook, love Twitter and don’t understand Snapchat. Maybe you bitch about couples who sit silently behind their phones in restaurants, then spend your evening slumped on the sofa second-screening Game of Thrones.

Maybe you gobble positive psychology and self-development books like The Happiness Hypothesis and The 4 Hour Work Week. Maybe you check your devices first thing in the morning and last thing at night and, when you turn them off on holiday, maybe you get ill.

Maybe you’re convinced that you’re about to become the hero of your own life by finally hitting on that instantly scalable startup, or finishing that conveniently filmic fantasy. Maybe, in the heat of your conviction, you jump up from your chair, have a good stretch, make a coffee, then spend an hour leaning against the kitchen counter, browsing Instagram.

No, hang on, that’s me again.

But I’m pretty sure I’m not alone.

Tossing my hardware into the Thames and pulling a Walden is not a viable option, however lovely my Pinterest board of Orkney bothies has become. That would be an escape, not an answer. I don’t want to be a dinosaur, but nor do I want to be a drone.

I still believe that social technologies can be an incredible force for good, not to mention fun. But I also think it’s time we started looking seriously, and publicly, at the unsustainable assumptions that underpin them, and the toll they take on our identities and our world.

What does a good life, and a good career, look like for a generation of lonely professional networkers, bored social media executives and cyber-shamed digital gurus? A generation whose experiences have been relentlessly curated by corporations, and whose personal lives are barely extricable from their personal brands?

Might there even be a way for such a generation to use the schizophrenic perspective and bizarre skills this era has given them to improve it from within?


Answers on a Twitter card.

How Can Tech Journalism Better Serve Women

I used to write a column for a site dedicated to ‘female readers’. In one of my first articles, I asked whether women novelists write differently to men.

Back then, I found the topic compelling and squirmy in equal measure. I still do. So lets get the disclaimer out of the way now: any attempt to proclaim upon gender is inevitably rife with woolly instinct and clumsy cliché.


When the wonderful Alex Wood asked me to join The Memo (as Associate Editor, with a particular remit for the intersection between innovation and publishing) I was rabidly excited — not just at the opportunity to create a fresh, sustainable model of journalism with some veryvery smart people, but because it would give me the chance to experiment with what sort of content women in leadership, innovation and publishing really want.

A quick confession.

Whenever I hear people complain about how tough it is for women in tech, I think of my sister. Emma is a forester. She launched her own company, Native Forestry, with her husband ten years ago. If you think being shot down in a brogrammer-filled boardroom is challenging, try dropping your one and three year old daughters off at nursery, wrangling with a misogynist landowner, then planting several hundred saplings in the rain.

Another confession.

Although I have, throughout my working life in both social media marketingand tech (ish) journalism, been outnumbered by humans with unmatched chromosomes, I don’t think I’ve been particularly marginalised, patronised or under-remunerated. I have in fact been blessed with a number of incredible mentors and supporters, of both sexes (and occasionally other species).

As an avid reader, watcher and listener of anything to do with innovation, however, it’s a different story.

I’m not a scientist or a programmer (although I am in awe of those distant, rigorous gods of material certainties); I’m not a Wired-style gadget-fetishist (although I’m not averse to a natty bit of hardware); and nor am I interested in how wearables skinned in this season’s chartreuse can help me lose weight (although I am digital editor for a fashion magazine). And no, I don’t particularly want to hear another keynote from Sheryl Sandberg or Angela Ahrendts (amazing as they are).

Here’s what I want more of.

  • Actual innovation (as opposed to tech). There are lots of new tools and platforms — and things being done on them — which aren’t the least bit innovative, and I’m bored of hearing about them. Innovation can be found in attitude, culture and creative approach as much as in code.
  • Context. Less Gollum-like fondling of shiny things, more analysis of what they mean for our lives, brains, bodies, trees, kids, societies.
  • A sense of history. Every generation thinks they’re undergoing unprecedented change. Maybe we could learn from the past with a little more humility, as well as celebrate the undoubted progress we’ve made.
  • A richer perspective. I crave inspiration on how to build innovative careers and companies that embrace physical and emotional health, the environment, family and fun — as well as power and money.
  • Wit. Surely there’s a middle ground between solemnity and snark?
  • Elegance. From beautiful UI to a perfectly turned sentence, aesthetics are not shallow; they form the shape and tenor of our world. But ugliness is easy when you’re in a rush. We’re all in a rush.

I hope that some of you — both men and women — might feel the same way.

I’m not sure that I know what it means to be a woman, let alone what it means to be a woman in leadership or tech or publishing. But I do know that it involves telling stories about the future of forestry as well as Facebook, and I sure as hell look forward to jumping about in the leaves (whether in wellies, brogues, or a towering pair of heels).

The Memo launches early April; you can sign up for our beta newsletter here. And do share your thoughts with me below, on Twitter, or by email.

How To Use Tech To Connect With Nature

Monday night, eight pm. Ten strangers sit in a basement room in Bloomsbury, transfixed by a four-minute home video recorded on a mobile phone. But this is no splashy viral. It is the record of an unspectacular event that happens every dusk across London throughout summer and autumn, across elegant gardens and scrubby backyards alike: the opening of oenothera biennis, or the common evening primrose.

Of course, it is spectacular, as our riveted attention attests. We’re half way through a workshop on How To Connect With Nature at Alain de Botton’s foundation for curious grown-ups, The School of Life, but although there’s a tableful of snacks and our phones are incandescent with alerts, the arrhythmic unfurling of those pale yellow petals suddenly seems more important and nourishing than any glass of red or long-awaited email.

Nature is not a remote idyll we escape to but a web we live within, from Hackney to the Highlands. And rather than railing against the things we see as alienating us from the natural world – our vitamin-D-deficient work schedules, our industrialised landscapes and, most of all, our tech – we should find ways to use them to bring us closer to it.

“On the one hand I live too much of my life in my various digital screens,” says workshop leader Cathy Haynes, a London-based artist, writer and curator who recently acted as the Chisenhale Gallery’s artist in residence in Victoria Park. “I therefore tend to neglect too often the fascinating, vivifying, exuberant life around me. I have to remind myself to stop filtering everything through my tech.

“On the other, wonder abounds on the internet and I use it to find out about the natural world. I had a pretty minimal science education, but now I can research the glorious things I missed out on, from axolotls to exoplanets.

“I can find out what to watch for in the phases of the moon and learn what’s in the deepest ocean. I can get this from print media too, of course, but the range of formats, media and instant data online means I can find out more about the thing I’m looking at while standing in a field. And that deeper understanding can help me feel more connected.”

From National Geographic to the Natural History Museum, the web is a trove of instant, accurate and accessible nature knowledge. But there are also several practical apps that make it easier for busy Londoners to stay connected to nature throughout the day.

We might start the morning with Radio 4’s Tweet of the Day podcast, which features a recording of a birdcall or song, followed by an ornithological story inspired by the sound.

Come lunchtime, we could use the London Parks & Gardens app to find the green spaces on our urban doorstep, including “myriad smaller and lesser known gardens, squares, secret green boltholes, cemeteries, commons, and urban farms” – the majority of which are free.

To prevent our brains from circulating to-do lists while our bodies stride through the grass, we can download Leafsnap UK. Developed by the Natural History Museum in association with Columbia University, the University of Maryland and the Smithsonian Institution in the US, the app applies facial recognition technology to leaves, helping users to identify 156 tree species across the UK.

Or how about iBird UK & Irleand? Its illustrations and photographs, plus identification, behaviour, habitat and ecology information will help us tune our ears to different kinds of tweets.

Even if we’re stuck behind a desk all afternoon, we can find ways to keep nature front of mind.

Mountain Bluebird male

New Chrome plugin Momentum creates a clean personal dashboard with an inspirational fullscreen nature image crowdsourced from Creative Commons. Join The Woodland Trust’s Facebook page for a regular stream of stunning forest-themed photography amongst all the Huff Post crap. And I couldn’t live without my RainyMood app, a customisable white-noise audio stream with – wait for it – more than 100 unique thunder claps.

Finally, on the way home from work, we can restore some perspective by pausing to parse the sky with the help of The Lunar Ephemeris, a Twitter feed that broadcasts the phase of the moon.

All technology originates from and is inspired by nature, from bird-inspired unmanned aircraft to Qmonos, a next-gen fabric based on spiders’ silk.

Whether they like it or not, technologists are naturalists; so what could and should they be learning right now from the natural world?

“How to cut waste and destruction from productive processes, so that all parts of a system support each other,” Haynes says. “The World Wildlife Fund reports that Earth has lost 40% of its wildlife during my lifetime. The issue couldn’t be more urgent.”

In other words, if we relegate nature to remote moors and craggy cliffs, we don’t just shrink our relationship with her. We shirk our responsibilities.

This article originally appeared on TCN.

Please, Tech Wizards, Pimp My Flight

shutterstock_97381709 Last weekend I travelled to Portugal for the annual digital marketing conference Upload Lisboa.

The event was great but the usual delayed trudge to and from Heathrow left me longing for London’s tech entrepreneurs to stop inventing ways to help me borrow a dog (if I see one more winsome cocker spaniel on Facebook…) and start inventing ways to improve air travel.

Although my carbon footprint has by now no doubt stamped a polar bear or two into icy oblivion, I still haven’t lost the sense of awe I felt on my first flight, aged six, to Gambia. From the dawn drive to Gatwick to the blue giraffe in the BA goody bag, every detail of the trip sparkled with strange magic.

Nowadays, when I hear a fellow passenger bitching about the onboard internet I can’t help but think of Louis CK’s brilliant “everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy” rant.

Nonetheless, the air travel user experience undoubtedly sucks.

In any industry where even the service providers have minimal influence over most of the factors that determine their success – weather, fuel prices, terrorists, politicians, ebola – the customers are bound to feel agonisingly disempowered, particularly when they’ve become so used to being wooed.

Once we step through those sliding doors, whether we’re precessing barefoot along a security queue or being herded through the Kafaesque convolutions of duty free, we keenly feel our transformation from valued data-jewel into raw economic meat.

The upside for startups is that, in this atmosphere, any tool that gives us the smallest illusion of control becomes a treasured talisman.

Apple’s Passbook is little more than a fancy oyster card, but every time I march past the masses fiddling with boarding cards and scan my phone I feel like a futuristic pioneer.

I’ve dabbled with TripIt, an all-in-one journey planner; its sync-with-email function may have seriously dubious privacy implications but its autofilled itineraries complete with real-time flight alerts and crowdsourced local recommendations are very nifty.

Two apps. Two apps which are essentially just ever-so-slightly less frustrating versions of the old paper-and-human system. Is this really the best you wizards can do?

Believe me, I’ve searched around. I have used the ugly and slow Priority Pass to find lounges, but it often takes so long for the ancient card machines to process my booking that I barely have time to swipe a complimentary snooty magazine before boarding starts. I’ve tried the airports’ and airlines’ own apps but they are both unreliable and aesthetically criminal.

Social media can help a bit; many times I’ve found airline and airport service teams to be better informed and more responsive on Twitter than in person, and KLM in particular are famously good at making their customers feel loved.

Unfortunately, such activity is hard to sustain at scale, so you’re unlikely to get a response unless your Klout score is high; and frankly, a world that rewards the sort of people who have high Klout scores is a world of pain.

There are a few more ambitious ideas out there, such as ‘social seating’, which allows fliers to view other passengers’ Facebook or LinkedIn profile details to help them choose their seat. KLM has pioneered this with its Meet and Seat scheme, and company Seat ID has a couple of case studies.

But it is hard to see what problem this ‘solution’ solves. Who wishes they were obliged to talk to the random in the next seat? Who wants to flirt for seven hours over rubbery chicken? Who thinks it is a good idea to connect with a potential client, then dribble on their shoulder?

Certain that I must be missing a trick, I talked to Kevin May, Co-founder and Editor of travel tech empire Tnooz. He agreed that there is more hype than help in this space, and says that most airports need to get their basics down pat before they can even think of anything more exciting.

“I am still amazed at the complete inability of airports to realise that wifi shouldn’t be treated as some kind of luxury item, for only a few passengers who can either a afford it or have lounge access,” he explained. “Mobile boarding passes are an obvious evolution and travellers are beginning to manage their itineraries and mobile payments in new ways. But although sexy tech like Google Glass is lovely for nerds and hipsters, it’s pointless for your every-day traveller.”

What about the future? “Airports such as London City are embracing the so-called Internet Of Things in a major way, using cutting-edge technology to manage passenger flow around the terminals and just generally make the traveller experience a better one. Although this is nowhere near the scale required for a facility such as London Heathrow, the understanding that travellers are always connected in some way is an important step and one from which other airports should learn.”

When we’re in an airport, our location is defined, our emotions high, our actions predictable, our movements trackable; and our expectations rock-bottom. You’d think it would be an innovator’s and a marketer’s dream.

Could we be ripe for an air travel hackathon? Over to you…

This article originally appeared on TCN.

7 Ways To Keep Your Social Media Balance

Social-media-addiction What didn’t you do this summer?

As a schoolgirl, I used to dread the annual what-I-did-on-holiday French essay, mainly because my vocabulary reliably reduced three magical months of adventure into a series of visits to and from train stations. A girl never forgets la gare.

However, this year I feel that asking myself (a tweaked version of) the new-term staple could be genuinely educational, because this summer I didn’t do a lot of really good things.

I didn’t have insomnia. I didn’t buy anything online. I didn’t feel the need to express opinions about subjects on which I know nothing. I didn’t care what I looked like, who I was with or what I was doing next. I didn’t think somewhere else was better than here. I didn’t run out of time.

In short, I didn’t do social media (okay, okay, so I liked a couple of photos of sunsets on Facebook and had a brief Twitter back-and-forth with an author whose novel I was reading, but nobody’s perfect).

Boy, did I feel like a nest of thrashing snakes had been plucked out of my mind. And boy, did it take no more than forty seconds after touchdown at Gatwick – the time my phone needed to boot up and find signal – for those snakes to slither back in.

Of course, you might be one of those people who spent your holiday taking, cropping, filtering and uploading photos, tracking your boat trips with navigation tools, making time-lapse videos with romantic soundtracks and chatting to your friends back in London on WhatsApp. To you, I have nothing to say.

Nor do I address those of you who believe social media is a total waste of time, who don’t rely on it for news, ideas and inspiration, who have never used it to find a lifelong friend, develop a career, or forge a collaboration. Or squee at baby foxes. You are also dead to me.

But to those of you who find social media both hugely valuable and regularly maddening; for those of you who long to strike a sustainable everyday balance between overload and off-grid; to you, I would like to humbly suggest seven small snake-handling strategies that might help you retain a little of your holiday zen this autumn.

Vive la revolution.

1. Keep a social media diary. 

The first step towards change is self-awareness. I dare you, just for one day, to keep the social media equivalent of a dieter’s food diary.

Make a note every time you check a social network: time, length of visit and your emotional state. In his new book Happiness By Design, behavioural scientist Paul Dolan argues that our attention is a limited resource, so we have to design our time to get more of the activities that genuinely enhance our life – and less of the filler.

Chances are, you’ll be shocked not just by the frequency of your social shoot-ups but how hollow and aimless they make you feel. Acknowledging this dissatisfaction will boost your motivation to change.

2. Revise your social media goals

Sure, you don’t want to turn friendships into project plans, but jotting down the reasons why you use each platform reminds you that they’re tools, not ends in themselves.

Are you really using Facebook to stay in touch or are you falling prey to click bait? Would you be better off substituting some daily Wall action for a weekly Skype call or, God forbid, a face to face coffee? Have you read any of those articles saved to Pocket? How many of those sexy Pinterest recipes have you made?

Daydreaming is great, but make sure you’re dayliving, too.

3. Do a cull

There are two ways you need to cut back. First, unsubscribe from all those sites you signed up to in a flush of FOMO (fear of missing out) but hardly ever use. When was the last time you checked in with Foursquare? Are you really going to create your own Vine? Next, tighten up your networks.

Use justunfollow.com to get rid of Twitter bots and zombies, then organise followers into lists that give you easy access to relevant conversations. Ditch all those frenemies on Facebook. Disconnect from random conference attendees on LinkedIn. Feel authenticity creep in.

4. Turn off push notifications

This is one of the most simple but effective methods I have found to break out of the Pavlovian update-checking cycle.

Multitasking is a myth; don’t waste brain juice, and don’t kid yourself that casually checking who has repinned your photo won’t turn into a full-blown sweaty-palmed twenty minute shoe-porn-surfing session.

5. Designate anti-social devices Keep your ereader’s wifi turned off, unless you’re downloading books. Put your tablet in airplane mode when you’re reading a magazine. Delete all the social media bookmarks on your laptop.

Confine social activity to one device – your phone is the most obvious – so that your brain can shift into more in-depth or insular modes when other sorts of creativity or content consumption are required.

6. Set a curfew Get your partner or housemates involved and turn off your router at 8pm. Your family and friends can manage with texts; if you want to watch Netflix, you have to put your devices in drawers. Stop pretending it’s acceptable to check your phone at dinner; it’s not.

And get a proper alarm clock – the Lumie Bodyclock with dawn simulation is pleasingly nerdy – rather than using your phone. Not only will you sleep better, you might start your day seeing your lover’s face or the trees through the window rather than a stranger’s breakfast on Instagram.

7. State your intentions Announce your curfews and weekend blackouts on your social channels. Everyone will admire you, it will manage expectations about when you’ll be playing in the sandpit and, most importantly, it will hold you accountable.

Once you’ve posted your chirpy ‘over and out’ Friday evening tweet, you’ll be exposed for the dirty addict you are if you cave within the hour.

This article originally appeared on TCN.

Fashion And Social Media Aren't Always A Good Fit

Phone-model-fashion It is hard to believe that, little over a decade ago, London Fashion Week was still a privileged trade show.

Produced for select roomfuls of buyers and editors, the collections only reached the public on a twenty-four hour delay via the lenses of accredited photographers and glossy supplements.

The clothes would take weeks to reach the designers’ own shops, and it would be months before the trends trickled down to the high street.

All hail the revolution.

For every po-faced fashion editor sitting in this year’s FROW, there will be millions watching the shows remotely from across the globe on the British Fashion Council’s livestream. Bloggers and celebrities will upload Vines of the best looks the second they appear while the models provide a catwalk-eye’s-view via Google Glass or HD micro-cameras fitted onto their clothes.

We will be able to buy direct from the catwalk; we may have even have helped design some of the clothes or crowdsourced the show. And the likes of Cara Delevingne (1.8M Twitter followers, 6.7M on Instagram) and Karlie Kloss (447K;1.2M) will sneak us all backstage.

It’s exhilarating. It’s addictive. It’s ‘the democratisation of fashion’ in action.

And part of me – Digital Editor of a fashion magazine, lifelong porer over September issues, teenage cutter-outer of coveted outfits and hoarder of designer interviews – hates it.

The super-social, access-all-areas approach works brilliantly for fast fashion brands such as Asos and Topshop, where the USP is quick turnover of ephemeral trends and the aesthetic is sweet shop meets jumble sale.

But for many of the fashion labels who I have spoken to over recent years, from established designers to young graduates trying to establish their name, the perception that they should be building a social media empire has become a constant anxiety.

They are struggling to reconcile the commercial imperative to be always-on content-machines with the time, focus and care required to create wearable art.

This isn’t just about protecting the fragile flower of genius; it taps into a wider clash between social marketing and luxury brands.

In a world where consumers can find (often brilliant) cheap knock-offs of almost any product online, and with a wobbly economy still keeping purse strings tight, luxury must feel more special than ever before.

The reputations of British names such as Alexander McQueen, Aquascutum and Mulberry – not to mention other luxury brands such as hotel groups, car manufacturers and restaurants – are based on the principles of scarcity, exclusivity and craftsmanship; principles that are hard to reflect in the emotionally incontinent, throwaway content that tends to perform well on social channels.

In other words, it’s hard to be timeless in real time.

Burberry is so successful in this space precisely because it doesn’t play by the normal social media rules. Its presences are a stream of polished product shots, celebrity collaborations and slick on-brand broadcasts – the sort of PR-retrofitted-to-Twitter stuff that would turn any community manager worth their salt green. Burberry doesn’t do social marketing so much as digital marketing played out through social channels, not to mention the very best tech that a £2.33bn company can buy.

But the distance is the point. The moment Christopher Bailey replies to one of my tweets is the moment I start to doubt that his Sandringham Mid-Length Heritage Trench Coat is worth a grand. We want our luxury brands to be the superior cool kids we gaze at across the school playground, not our bezzy mates.

Word of mouth is not the same as social media. Luxury brands would do well to question whether they would be better off creating extraordinarily conversational products and experiences for their customers rather than mouthing off themselves. Apple is proof that you don’t need social content to drive conversation; its carefully – some might say anally – controlled flow of information is absolutely key to the cult.

Of course, some designers were made for social, and their brand is inextricable from their extrovert, magpie personality; see Marc Jacobs or Diane von Furstenberg.

But others, especially those without the time or resources to truly compete with the big boys, might be better off becoming less noisy – and dare I say it, more low tech – then ever before.

For Spring 2012 Tom Ford banned photographers from his catwalk show. Hedi Slimane insisted that only bone fide buyers were invited to his YSL debut. The result? A storm of press and speculation, with invites reaching nineties gold-dust status.

To consumers who increasingly mediate their every moment through a device, the ultimate luxury is a real-world experience that is understated, sensuous, actively exclusive and only recorded in the collective memory of the participants. And the ultimate act of superiority and brand balls is silence.

To survive, luxury businesses need to be seen as taste leaders. Being a leader involves holding true to your brand as much as it means increasing your follower count.

This article originally appeared in TCN.

Customer Service In The Data Economy

mark-zuckerberg Tech customer service attained a whole new level of weird over the past couple of weeks.

As Facebook rolled out its Android Messenger app, users realised that they needed to grant over 30 security permissions to access their inbox, including access to audio recordings, photos, videos, phone numbers, text messages and contacts. They responded with hyperventilating blog posts, how-to-uninstall guides and lists of alternative messaging apps. 611,815 people have so far signed an online petition commanding Zuckerberg to desist.

According to the Google Play store, the app has now been downloaded over 500 million times.

Barely a month goes by without Facebook’s users biting the hand that feeds them. See the furore over its ‘emotional contagion’ experiment back in June, or the perennial accusations of shadowy security-setting tweaks. Of course, none of those outraged users ditched the network either. How else would they share the next petition?

Facebook’s standard response is to release a terse Help Center (sic) blog - at a push, one of their team might defend themselves in a public post - and then wait for the fuss to die down and forge on oblivious with their next move. They’re not alone. Customer service in the data economy is notoriously poor. It may look promising to begin with - Hey, they’re so quirky on Twitter! We can see pictures of their puppy crèche on Instagram! - but if you have a practical problem or a serious concern, they're all impenetrable FAQs and links to all-purpose online forms. Suddenly, the ‘one big collaborative community’ branding feels a little thin.

When it comes to free tech, we’re not customers. Money is still considered the quid pro quo for customer service, so willingness to be data-farmed doesn’t automatically bring us consumer rights. But this isn’t just about money; it’s goes much deeper, to the essential way that these businesses perceive us and how we perceive ourselves in relation to them. In this space, we’re no longer even consumers. We're users — and our new status brings a host of implications in terms of privacy, reciprocity, loyalty and power.


The more consumers consume, the less they have. The more users use, the more they have. Sounds brilliant, right? We are more powerful than traditional, commercial consumers, because we generate our own value; it is our content, connections and interactions that drive our satisfying experience.

However, it is also a dangerously easy way for companies to justify poor design, frustrating 'upgrades' and unwelcome features. Can a service provider be blamed if our life and behaviour just isn’t awesome enough to put flesh on their framework’s bones?

The user is the end product in the data economy. We are what we make of ourselves through these networks and apps, whether they’re helping us collate our perfect wardrobe from online boutiques or fulfilling our potential by parking more efficiently. We are, we keep being told, ‘at the centre of the experience’ like never before.

This means that it’s always personal. Consumers are not always the end users of what they buy and they can share and compare the same product or service, like for like. But in a world of customisation, algorithms and plugged-in personal graphs, each of us is isolated in our own bubble of experience. By becoming data-trading users, we not only abandon our consumer rights but our benchmarks and our solidarity.

And yet, ironically, users are often more sensitive and vocal about their perceived rights. Social media is the natural home of the customer whinge. We have never felt the power of our voice more keenly but the sensation of power is very different from the real thing.

If we don’t like a paid product or service, we don’t buy it. But, locked in by the network effect and high on the drug of self-representation, we just can't bring ourselves to pull our profiles.

So can we really blame platforms if they are both opaque and fundamentally unbothered by our grievances? There is no such thing as a free Pinterest lunch recipe. The problem lies in our naive expectations and hypocritical soapboxing as much as their ethics.

Complaint is, at the end of the day, just more content for the mill.

This article originally appeared on TCN.

Prepare For The Rebranding Of Money

Burning-Money For most people, myself included, both money and technology sit in the mental category of ‘functional magic’.

The details of how these things work are a little hazy although we’re damn glad they do, despite the inkling that they’ve snared us, ignorant and insatiate, in some nefarious spell. We’re vociferous about their failings, but we hesitate to dabble in the dark arts ourselves. We might have to sell our soul to the devil. We might have to do maths.

So I was relieved when yesterday’s Activate London summit from the Guardian - which, being focused on the predatory-sounding world of #fintech, promised to serve up a double shot of jargon and hype - proved to be both accessible and relevant. Beneath the “inspiring case studies” (read: pitches) and the failed attempts to explain what in Jobs’s good earth is Bitcoin, the speakers slowly gravitated towards three elemental questions.

What is money? What is the problem with money? And what do we need to do to make it better?

Billy Alvarado, the founder of the hugely successful cross-platform payment system Stripe, got to the heart of the issue when he reminded us that that money is not a single blunt instrument but a keen multi-function tool: a token of barter; a storage unit; a facilitator of personal ambition; a means to understand your own worth within your society; a method for comparing the value of countries across the world.

One of the problems with Bitcoin, he suggested, is that we expect its genuinely innovative but still very raw protocol to serve purposes - such as offering a stable method for mainstream consumer exchange - that it simply isn’t well-designed for.

The result is a proliferation of platforms, apps and systems which must define as well as answer the problem they perceive to be limiting our economic ecosystem the most.


Jemima Kiss in conversation with Billy Alvarado. Photograph: Anna Gordon

One camp of innovators considers that money should be a enabler of collaboration. Their scripture declares that our drive to ownership will make us extinct, but that the technology of a sharing economy will save our souls.

“Money is not a thing,” declared Jem Bendell, Director of the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability. “It's a way of keeping score between people doing useful things for each other.”

Benita Matofska of Compare and Share, a centralised marketplace for peer-to-peer accommodation and travel, and Aurore Hochard of Taskhub, a platform which connects people to the indie businesses and service providers in their area, sang along.

For others the ownership economy is still the main game, but dogged by clunky tech and cross-border friction; hence startups such as Mobino, OpenMarket, GoCardless and TransferWise, which aim to make the mobile payment experience as easy and global as possible.

Yet others focus on money as a wealth generation tool. Many believe that the barrier to sustainable growth is an opaque and unethical banking system. Positive Money’s Ben Dyson explained how his team are attempting to wrest control from high street banks, creating debt-free new money that can be channelled into the real economy rather than property bubbles.

The CEO of Nutmeg, Nick Hungerford, described how his company’s emphasis on liquidity, transparency around performance and clear communication aims to game-change a sector built on the principle that “we take something really simple, make it complicated, and charge you to translate it back again.”

For those more concerned with the inaccessibility of investment opportunities, there were FundersClub and Funding Circle, evangelising how their platforms provide a low-cost, user-friendly way in.

Then there are the innovators who believe that money should benefit the individual and their society at the same time.

Fundrise, a startup that allows people to invest in local real estate projects for as little as $200, is already making waves in the States. Toby Eccles of Social Finance wowed the audience with his Social Impact Bonds, outcomes-based contracts in which public sector commissioners commit to pay for social outcomes (such as a reduction in offending rates) - effectively allowing people grow their personal pot and fund real change simultaneously.

Activate London 17/7/14 St Luke's Old Street  Toby Eccles, Social Finance

Toby Eccles. Photograph: Anna Gordon

But the single theme that united all these disparate tech visions was the importance of trust and the power of branding. For all their disruptive potential, alternative financial models will only convert the mainstream when they offer the consumer a sense of equal, or greater, security than state-endorsed systems and currencies - at least, in the west.

As Index Ventures’ Ophelia Brown pointed out, emerging markets with mistrusted and domineering governments will remain at the forefront of financial innovation, because they have much less to lose - it is unsurprising that China has seen more Bitcoin downloads than any other country in the past year, around 20 percent.

The winners in the fintech race won’t just be the ones with the best solutions but with the strongest and most authoritative brands, and when Jean-François Groff of Mobino suggested the Bank of Coca-Cola as a decent candidate, he sounded like he was only half joking.

Overall, Activate was a little heavy on the PR (the ‘fireside chats’ with founders were bland at best, sycophantic at worst) and a little light on challenging insight.

The most obvious and pressing problem in finance - endemic inequality - was the one that was least well explored, and rhe best question of the day - which saw Big Invest’s Nigel Kershaw challenge the collaborative consumption panel to name technologies focused on shifting large-scale poverty rather than generating bigger margins - emerged three minutes before the bell and got swallowed by the rush to the wine.

But the event did convey a distinct sense that we devolve responsibility for understanding and experimenting with these models, however flawed and nascent they may be, at our peril.

Crowdtilt cofounder James Beshara’s parallel between today’s crowdfunding platforms and the early noughties’ Wordpress sites felt particularly apposite. If a web log can evolve from midwestern cat ladies to CNN.com in a decade, where might fintech be in 2024?

Certainly, it’s time for more of us to get out our wands.

This article originally appeared in TCN.

The Children Of The Digital Revolution

The moment I stepped into Digital Revolution, “an immersive exhibition of art, design, film, music and videogames" which opened at the Barbican this week, I got an eerie foretaste of the experience to come. As I entered the first of six dark and cacophonous rooms - chunks of Elastoplast-coloured hardware splayed in cabinets before me like archaeological relics from a pre-Ive era, the Linn LM-1 baseline of Don’t You Want Me Baby thumping deep in my bones - my hands started to pixellate and flash.

A projection of The Game of Life swept over my body, its glowing squares swarming over my skin. Predating and creating in a ruthless cycle of algorithmic evolution, these cells are the protagonists of a zero-player game invented by British mathematician John Horton Conway in 1970, and they represent one of our earliest examples of a self-perpetuating and self-organising computer system.

The moment was a neat microcosm of a theme that emerged to link Pac-Man to music videos, Twitter miniskirts to CGI: the tension between tech as liberator, and tech as engulfing force.

Unlike its agricultural and industrial predecessors, the digital revolution has always been driven from the bottom up. The Barbican's show tells a story that belongs to ostracised artists, frustrated teenagers and misunderstood misfits; from Matthew Smith, the British game designer who at the age of seventeen inserted penguins, eggs and toilets into the outstandingly successful Manic Miner, to Markus Persson, the Swedish founder of Minecraft whose high-school careers advisor told him that making a living out of computer games simply wasn’t on.

Even the most commercial installations, such as will.i.am and Yuri Suzuki’s “rhythmic and sonic robotic experiment” Pyramidi (2014), which features golden robotic instruments in octahedron-shaped cases playing along to a newly commissioned song beneath a 3D Systems sculpture of the musician’s head, have a whiff of anarchic silliness beneath the shine.


As I flapped my arms in front of Chris Milk’s extraordinary piece of digital shadow theatre The Treachery of Sanctuary (2012) and saw my silhouetted arms whoosh into wings, or watched Tim Schafer, the creator of the Kickstarter-funded point-and-click adventure Broken Age (2014) talk about his nostalgia for the emotional storytelling and wit of 1980s games, I came to realise that tech has always offered its underdog supplicants (myself included) the chance to articulate what they feel they have lost in the physical world, or indeed what they never had.

Power; epic purpose; community. Wholeness.

This is most movingly reflected in the section Our Digital Futures, which focuses on wearable tech. A pair of thick-rimmed glasses with sensors taped onto the side might look cobbled together, but the accompanying video unveils them as a hack by The Not Impossible Foundation that allowed LA graffiti artist TemptOne to paint for the first time since being paralysed by a neuromuscular disease. The man with headphones clamped on beside me had tears in his eyes.

But amongst all the exhilarating innovation, these makers retain a palpable need to remind us of the essential disconnect between the digital and the real worlds. The arrival of the Internet saw a proliferation of digital art works such as wwwwwwwww.jodi.org (1994) and Form Art (1997), which frustrate as much as they inspire, highlighting the illusory nature of user control and exposing the contrast between slick UIs and the messy, secretive and sometimes dangerous underbelly of the Web.

Similarly, although this shadowy, noisy exhibition offers womb-like anonymity, it also demands that we engage our physical bodies with the exhibits, often collaboratively, whether that involves grabbing Game & Watch controls for a bout of two-player Boxing or gyrating in front of Les Metamorphoses de Mr Kalia, the Kinect-powered installation that won the first Google-Barbican sponsored prize for DevArt.

Those who complain that tech makes people into anti-social robots should compare it with the lines of passive, po-faced automatons whispering their way through the average London 'culture' show. For once, an exhibition justifies the adjective “immersive”; as a site for both transcendence, and embodiment.

This is a beautifully curated and accessible exhibition, aptly held in what is London’s most solid yet magical space (the Barbican Centre may be a massive block of concrete but it somehow manages to disappear, with Platform 9 3/4 coyness, every time you try to navigate your way there). It will be a great shame if it is only frequented by gaming and sci-fi fanboys; Digital Revolution isn’t about machines so much as the humans that harness them; fragile, funny, flawed anti-heroes who deserve a mainstream spotlight.

 Digital Revolution is open until 14 Sep 2014 at the Barbican Centre, Silk St, London EC2Y 8DS. 

This article originally appeared in TCN.

How Publishing Can Disrupt Technology

  What is the most exciting technology currently disrupting the publishing industry?

bookThat was the question I found myself pondering last weekend as I sat amongst a bunch of aspiring and established authors, traditional and indie publishers, founders of literary startups, agents, editors, technologists and a few fellow hybrids of the above at The Literary Consultancy’s annual Writing In A Digital Age conference.

(That and: where can I find a velvet housecoat like the one Dorian Grey wears in Penny Dreadful? But that’s a whole other article.)

Ask the average bibliophile on the street, and they’d probably namecheck their Kindle. But although e-readers have forever changed the way we consume our books - in the opening panel, Steve Bohme from Nielsen BookData revealed that in 2013 Brits bought 10% fewer print books and 20% more ebooks than the year before - new and exciting they are not. 

The basic ability to transport thousands of tomes on one device is indisputably amazing, but the software and hardware still have a way to go. Formatting remains dodgy, ‘communal highlights’ irritate and exporting notes is a chore. A reading-specific device means yet another bit of tech in your bag, but having your novel interrupted by Twitter alerts feels deeply wrong. My compromise is an iPad Mini bristling with multi-format apps, but the lack of heft, give and texture of even the prettiest electronic slab inevitably degrades the reading experience.

There are rumours that Sony and Kobo are collaborating on a snazzy new reader using e Ink Mobius on a six inch display, but until I actually see devices that deliver on both functionality and tactility, I won’t be giving them my vote.

Self-publishing platforms, on the other hand, are a much more solid candidate. Established services such as Amazon KDP, Kobo Writing Life and Completely Novel have not only liberated authors from risk-averse, glacier-slow commercial gatekeepers and connected them directly to their readers, they’ve given designers and editors a whole new freelance marketplace. According to Bohme, self-publishing's share of the UK market grew by 79% in 2013, amounting to the purchase of 18m books.

But, although a long-tail of startups such as Softcover and Archer continue to diversify the space, self-publishing frustrates as often as it inspires. The unscrupulous exploitation of Digital Rights Management by the big boys (kicking off the conference, Cory Doctorow< delivered a rousing anti-DRM keynote) and dodgy deals offered by author-assisted services (Orna Ross, founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors, exhorted writers to read the small print) persist. Moreover, self-publishing platforms are only as exciting as the content they host, and it can be all too tempting to birth a self-published book before it has reached creative full term. There is a lot of chaff out there, and too few tools with creative rather than commercial agendas to help us harvest the wheat.

What about social media? It certainly deserves an honourable mention for services to literary word of mouth, and for providing a playground where indie collaborators, authors and readers can meet. But it is the people on the platforms, not the platforms themselves, that disrupt. The best book blogs and forums favour the simplest designs, and eight-year-old Twitter remains the most popular writers’ space. Unbound, the crowd-funding site for books, offers uniquely rewarding collaborations between the Unbound team and its authors, and those authors and their readerships; but it's pretty much a social media dinosaur by now, having been founded in 2010. 

Finally, you could make a case that digital production tools, which are facilitating the creation of transmedia storytelling projects such as Sherlock: The Network or The Live Writing Series, have game-changed our idea of what reading and writing can be. But they are still the preserve of a minority of both makers and audiences, and feel more like the emergence of a new genre than a disruption of the existing market.

So, as I sat there with my seventh cup of coffee cooling in my hands, I decided that I needed to reframe the question. 

The most exciting technology in publishing has remained consistent for centuries. It’s called the human brain. Brilliant stories - whether served up across on and offline platforms in fragmented bites or slurped in a single sitting from between the sweet-smelling covers of a hardback - have the potential to shape our world in the way that no piece of code can match. They give us the words, images and analogies that allow us to build visions of the future in our heads before we ever translate them to the dev lab.

From TS Eliot to George R R Martin, Arthur C Clarke to Hilary Mantel, authors - and the people who help nurture, polish, distribute and sell their stories - have always shaped our collective imaginations, and our collective future, as powerfully as they’ve been shaped by it.

The ancient and inherently anti-social discipline of reading a mono-media, full-length novel has more potential to disrupt the tech industry than the tech industry has to disrupt the book. An eclectic and healthy appetite for fiction should be considered a seriously desirable, if not compulsory, entry on every tech founder, CEO, VC, creative and developer's LinkedIn. 

The shorter our attention spans and the more data-led our insights, the more vital it is that we build tech companies, products and services that are steeped in humanity, empathy, real-life social wisdom and the unexpected neural connections that great stories create.

Close your browser. Go read made-up stuff.

This article originally appeared on TCN.


Resisting The Lure Of Social Media Singularity

In times of stress, I get monolithic. Shades of grey skitter to the edges of my mind like iron filings, exposing a chilly monochrome cave. As adrenaline dissolves ambiguity, decisions get stuck. I dont want one thing or another, I want one thing: one definitively right thing, because then I know what Im dealing with. Then, I might be able to control it - and control myself.

Collectively, weve been stressed about social media ever since it stopped being the amorphous, happily contradictory diaspora where you could publish fan fiction and chat with strangers, and became Social Media, the slick city where couture-clad teenagers forge careers and brands hang out in the bus stop, proffering bags of sweets.

Early on, we succeeded in turning the plural noun into a singular concept, but still we vacillated about the nature of the beast. Should we file it under personal or professional? Celebrate it as empowering or despise it as soul-sucking? Palm it off on the techies or condemn it to the marketing team or force it upon the CEO?

As the scrappy self-made GeoCities pages of 1994 gave way to the identity-by-tick-box homogeneity of Facebook 2014, we began to grope for the whatof social media, rather than the what if.

The social media industry has reflected this stress - and pandered to our craving for singularity - in several ways.

One involves the proliferation of aggregation tools such as HootSuite, Flavors.me and RebelMouse, which offer both organisations and individuals a hub where they can view, manage and share their content across multiple networks in one place. Another involves the expansion of established platforms, which continually develop new features (the now-defunct Twitter #Music, LinkedIns recent foray into blogging) and incorporate disruptive upstarts (Facebook buying Instagram, YouTubes move to acquire Twitch) in an attempt to keep their users snug in their sandpit.

Both of these approaches, like most human beings under pressure, have an inherent element of weird.

Undoubtedly, aggregation tools can benefit busy community managers when used with sensitivity and context, but on the whole they have become inefficient and irritating content-creation machines. We have a dispersed long-tail of social networks precisely because each one offers a unique experience, fulfils a unique need and adheres to a unique style of communication and content. If you dont have the time, budget or inclination to dive into each of them on their own terms, would it not be better to focus on participating brilliantly on the one or two that you truly understand, value and enjoy?

But the shortcomings of social automation are nothing compared to the dystopian dream of the one platform to rule them all. A couple of years ago, it looked like our eclectic early pantheon of networks had indeed boiled down to five big deities: Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Then, as VCs turned fairy godmother and the app economy discovered fire, the likes of Vine, Instagram and Snapchat pushed forward; but were, all too quickly, swallowed up.

In his flawed but brilliant manifesto You Are Not A Gadget, Jaron Lanier asserts that first-order expression is when someone presents a whole, a work that integrates its own worldview and aesthetic. It is something genuinely new in the world. Second-order expression is made of fragmentary reactions to first-order expression.

The individual, not the network, is the first-order expression. Social tools are there to serve our granular needs, ideas and whims rather than force them into the homogenous, pre-ordained structure of one grand ur-platform.


And there are promising signs that were fighting our instincts to align. Take VSCO Grid, the minimalist mobile image-sharing community that has quietly reached cult status over the past fifteen months. In the Grid, you cant leave comments on photos; you cant even likethem. You can follow other users, but recommendations get served by the VSCO team themselves, not an algorithm. The emphasis is on curating quality content, not playing status games; there are no trashy memes or wobbly selfies, and founders Joel Flory and Greg Lutze claim that the platform will never focus on numbers or adopt the bolt-ons of a traditional social network. VSCO Grid feels like a return to the authentic spirit of early social networks, with all that weve learned since about user experience and mobile design layered on top.

Of course, we all have to make a living, but I sincerely hope that more startups continue to carve out their own, independent piece of quirky social real estate. And I hope that we, as users, continue to search for and embrace them.

Multiplicity is scary. So is change. If only social tools would stop emerging and imploding, fracturing and fragmenting, brands could devise immutable, eternally effective strategies, and the rest of us could settle into SauronBook, safe from content overload and FOMO. But when it works best, social is like nature, bewildering, absorbing and beautiful; not art, not science, but a mixture of both, with the inherent mutability of life thrown in.

Sure, Im as stressed as the next first-world worrier, but Im going to try to stay curious; to move away from certainty and back towards nascent communities and exciting outliers.

Assuming, that is, I can remember all my bloody passwords.

This article originally appeared in Tech City News

Counting Farts: In Pursuit Of The Quantified Self

Every time I see someone running down the street with a sexy little Jawbone strapped to their wrist, I can’t help but think of farts.

In Samuel Beckett’s 1951 novel Molloy, the eponymous hero - a former vagrant now living with his mother - recalls the day when, wrapped in copies of The Times Literary Supplement, he decided to count his farts.“Three hundred and fifteen farts in nineteen hours” Molly relates, “or an average of over sixteen farts an hour. After all it's not excessive. Four farts every fifteen minutes. It's nothing. Not even one fart every four minutes. It's unbelievable. Damn it, I hardly fart at all.”

Now don’t get me wrong. I find the dream of the fully ‘quantified self’ as compelling as it is eerie. I am the kind of kale-eating, therapy-jargon-spouting narcissist for whom wearable tech was made. A keen sponsor of the $11 billion self-help industry, I am fascinated by the life-pimping potential of our new breed of navel-gazing tech. From SuperBetter, the latest site from crusading game designer Jane McGonigal which aims to gamily our personal health goals, to Dream: ON, the app from British psychologist Richard Wiseman which allows us to track, share and even influence the content of our dreams, I spend far too much time browsing body-hacking porn.

The application of big data to our most mundane bodily functions provides a thrill that larger and more abstract projects, however worthy, cannot match. Sure, we understand the importance of businesses harnessing big data to transform their sustainability or governments manipulating it to better manage public transport. But much like our craving to reduce the mystery of the universe to a beardy bloke in Birkenstocks, most of us can only learn to love technology when it is turned into story about us. Craft that story from the syllables of our heartbeat, the imagery of our dreams and the commas of our breath, and you’ve got an instant bestseller; Fifty Shades of Decay?

Yet although I continually dissect and tweak my social media persona like the finest Facebook Frankenstein, I still can’t quite bring myself to fork out a couple of hundred quid for a Fitbit or a Gruve. At the moment I can still, after an hour spent on Twitter, force myself to disconnect; to walk unmediated into the city streets, get a coffee with a friend and re-establish the boundary - however fuzzy - between my curated and experiencing self. I’m afraid of what would happen to that boundary if I bought a device that would turn that sweet, dark shot of Colombian and that tearful heart-to-heart into a graphable dataset. Frankly, I’m afraid of how much I might like it.

Of course, self-tracking might well be a powerful tool in helping people chart, acknowledge and change their behaviour. But I suspect, like most technology, it is mostly used by those who need it the least, the wealthy worried well; and in this context, it seems to combine the worst sort of female self-objectification with the worst sort of male autistic obsessiveness. Again, I can understand the urge; when you’ve lost the knack of living inside your body, ‘getting the measure of it’ seems next best. But isn’t self-consciousness the one skill that Gen Y has already nailed? Might we be better off honing our sensitivity to our environment and community rather than our own resting heart rate?

Last year Zeo, one of the early quantified-self pioneers, quietly folded. Last month, Nike announced that it was no longer investing in the development of newFuelBand hardware. Of course, there are a host of startups jostling to take their place, and perhaps the iWatch will redefine the genre; God knows, Apple have game-changed industries before.

But I can’t help but wonder, once we’ve cannibalised every experience and logged every twitch of our skin: will we will know ourselves better, or worse?


This article originally appeared in Tech City News.