We shape our tools and then our tools shape us...
Hello there :)
Happy Serendipity Day friends! In honour of this glorious day (which is definitely a real thing, it’s on the internet, and we all know the internet doesn’t lie), I’m sending this missive a couple of days early.
Welcome to issue twenty one of Manufacturing Serendipity, a loosely connected, somewhat rambling collection of the unexpected things I’ve recently encountered.
This newsletter is free to receive, but if you’d like to support me in this in this odd little endeavour you can buy me a coffee :)
Speaking of coffee, grab yourself a suitable beverage my loves, let’s do this thing…
Part I: Things I’ve Encountered Online…
This week I came across L. M. Sacasas’ 41 Questions Concerning Technology, that he originally drafted around six years ago in order to help people draw out the moral or ethical implications of the tools they were using, and, where applicable, building.
He originally wrote the list in response to an observation from Om Malik:
“I can safely say that we in tech don’t understand the emotional aspect of our work, just as we don’t understand the moral imperative of what we do. It is not that all players are bad; it is just not part of the thinking process the way, say, ‘minimum viable product’ or ‘growth hacking’ are.”
It’s a list I really like because rather than focusing purely on hypothetical malevolent actors, the onus here is more on the individual and how the use of the tool might cause them to alter their behaviour; and, as Sacasas notes: worst case malevolent uses are not the only kinds of aspects of technology worthy of our consideration.
You can find the list of 41 questions in full below:
What sort of person will the use of this technology make of me?
What habits will the use of this technology instil?
How will the use of this technology affect my experience of time?
How will the use of this technology affect my experience of place?
How will the use of this technology affect how I relate to other people?
How will the use of this technology affect how I relate to the world around me?
What practices will the use of this technology cultivate?
What practices will the use of this technology displace?
What will the use of this technology encourage me to notice?
What will the use of this technology encourage me to ignore?
What was required of other human beings so that I might be able to use this technology?
What was required of other creatures so that I might be able to use this technology?
What was required of the earth so that I might be able to use this technology?
Does the use of this technology bring me joy? [N.B. This was years before I even heard of Marie Kondo!]
Does the use of this technology arouse anxiety?
How does this technology empower me? At whose expense?
What feelings does the use of this technology generate in me toward others?
Can I imagine living without this technology? Why, or why not?
How does this technology encourage me to allocate my time?
Could the resources used to acquire and use this technology be better deployed?
Does this technology automate or outsource labor or responsibilities that are morally essential?
What desires does the use of this technology generate?
What desires does the use of this technology dissipate?
What possibilities for action does this technology present? Is it good that these actions are now possible?
What possibilities for action does this technology foreclose? Is it good that these actions are no longer possible?
How does the use of this technology shape my vision of a good life?
What limits does the use of this technology impose upon me?
What limits does my use of this technology impose upon others?
What does my use of this technology require of others who would (or must) interact with me?
What assumptions about the world does the use of this technology tacitly encourage?
What knowledge has the use of this technology disclosed to me about myself?
What knowledge has the use of this technology disclosed to me about others? Is it good to have this knowledge?
What are the potential harms to myself, others, or the world that might result from my use of this technology?
Upon what systems, technical or human, does my use of this technology depend? Are these systems just?
Does my use of this technology encourage me to view others as a means to an end?
Does using this technology require me to think more or less?
What would the world be like if everyone used this technology exactly as I use it?
What risks will my use of this technology entail for others? Have they consented?
Can the consequences of my use of this technology be undone? Can I live with those consequences?
Does my use of this technology make it easier to live as if I had no responsibilities toward my neighbour?
Can I be held responsible for the actions which this technology empowers? Would I feel better if I couldn’t?
I’m currently in the process of putting together a talk about managing creative teams, and specifically working on a section of the talk about tools and processes (which dear reader, it should be noted, may or may not make the final cut).
Reading this list of questions it struck me that some of them might also be usefully applied to some of the project management tools so many of the creative teams I’ve worked both with, and within, have made use of.
It’s something I think about a lot because whilst we have a tendency to see things like project management tools as benign, (and whilst the tools themselves might, in some instances, arguably be benign) these tools nevertheless frequently either affect or alter our behaviour.
You’ve likely seen this quote before:
“We shape our tools and then the tools shape us*.”
*Dear reader this rather excellent quote is widely mis-attributed to Winston Churchill. He actually said “We shape our buildings and afterward our buildings shape us,” when addressing Parliament on the subject of plans for rebuilding the bombed-out House of Commons in 1943. More on this here.
How do our tools shape us?
I’m going to pick on Slack (yet again). This isn’t because I think Slack is by any means the worst tool out there, but simply because I’ve used Slack in a variety of different workplaces and have seen similar issues in almost all of those places.
For clarity, I don’t think that Slack is the problem per se; however the ways in which I’ve observed Slack being used, and some of the behaviours it engenders are frequently problematic.
I’m going to pick out one question which I think is particularly pertinent (although, many of those questions above are applicable) to help illustrate my point.
How does this technology encourage me to allocate my time?
If you sent me an email you’d probably expect a response from me either within a few hours, or possibly the following day, depending on when the email was sent.
But if you sent me a Slack message, how quickly would you expect me to respond? Are you comfortable with the same timelines as for email? Or do you expect a response sooner?
Many people expect a quicker response on Slack, even if they’ve not explicitly stated that’s the case. What’s worse, is even if a quick response isn’t required, many people still feel that there’s an expectation that they respond quickly.
This expectation is actually pretty weighty. Often people feel like they need to drop whatever it was they were doing and respond to a Slack message right away.
What’s interesting I think, is that people often feel like they have to respond even if the message isn’t strictly work-related, or time-critical. I’ve had people I’ve worked with tell me that they feel they have to respond to all Slack messages quickly (even outside of core working hours) because they fear that if they don’t they’ll be perceived as either slacking off (ha!), or otherwise be seen as disengaged or disinterested.
(Related: you might have noticed that one of the 41 questions above is “Does the use of this technology arouse anxiety?”; in my experience, the answer to that question is HELLS YES SLACK MAKES MANY PEOPLE ANXIOUS; and whilst I’m certain that wasn’t anyone’s intention, nevertheless that’s the result).
There’s an additional salient point too I think. I think this tendency to respond quickly also has to do with the functionality of Slack. If you’re in a busy channel, and you don’t respond right away, you’ll likely need to wade through a bunch of other messages in order to figure out what’s going on right now and respond appropriately. The way Slack functions forces you into a quick response because the later you leave it, the more time it’ll likely take you to respond.
If I recall correctly, Slack promised to kill email. The reality of course is that Slack didn’t kill email, it just moved all those messages and tasks to another application.
From my perspective the trouble is that Slack (and others tools like it), are actually worse than email, because managing your inbox is significantly easier than wrangling multiple channels, threads and DMs.
The effect of which is that Slack often encourages or engenders sub-optimal time management and impedes productivity. For example, you may well have allocated three hours on a particular morning for focused work on a particular task, but constant Slack interruptions eat into that time, and you end up not achieving much.
When it comes to focused work, I’m a strong advocate of shutting down email, Slack (and tools like it) to avoid interruptions like this. But in many companies this is frowned upon.
For clarity this is not just a problem with Slack, it’s a problem with many tools like it; and moreover, it’s arguably not just these tools or their functionality that are the problem - it’s the ways in which we use them.
It’s often the case I think that we bring in tools to help us work, but we don’t really give much thought or guidance around how these tools should be used. Plus, we also fail to explicitly state our expectations around how and when people should use and engage with them.
It’s entirely possible for tools like Slack to help rather than hinder productivity, and possibly even to reduce rather than arouse anxiety. But we have to think hard about how we’re using them.
The companies I’ve worked for and with, where these tools work well, were all companies who’d given a good deal of thought to how those tools should be used. These companies were explicit about their expectations for engagement with these tools. It was clearly communicated that it would be fine to shut down Slack (or similar tools) for periods of time in order to allow for focused work. They talked to people to make sure these tools were being used appropriately and weren’t causing unnecessary stress or anxiety; and, if they found they were, they’d take steps to make the necessary changes.
However, all too often I’ve seen companies where these things haven’t been properly considered, and, as a result those tools often cause more problems than they solve.
Moar serendipitous finds:
The pink colour of the water here is caused by halophile dunaliella salina algae. The area is one of the few places in Europe that flamingos live, and they gain their colour thanks to eating both the algae and shrimp that feed on the algae.
Garnette Cadogan reflects on the realities of being Black in America:
“Walking while Black restricts the experience of walking, renders inaccessible the classic Romantic experience of walking alone. It forces me to be in constant relationship with others, unable to join the New York flâneurs I had read about and hoped to join.
Instead of meandering aimlessly in the footsteps of Whitman, Melville, Kazin, and Vivian Gornick, more often I felt that I was tiptoeing in Baldwin’s—the Baldwin who wrote, way back in 1960, “Rare, indeed, is the Harlem citizen, from the most circumspect church member to the most shiftless adolescent, who does not have a long tale to tell of police incompetence, injustice, or brutality. I myself have witnessed and endured it more than once.”
Walking as a Black man has made me feel simultaneously more removed from the city, in my awareness that I am perceived as suspect, and more closely connected to it, in the full attentiveness demanded by my vigilance. It has made me walk more purposefully in the city, becoming part of its flow, rather than observing, standing apart.
But it also means that I’m still trying to arrive in a city that isn’t quite mine. One definition of home is that it’s somewhere we can most be ourselves. And when are we more ourselves but when walking, that natural state in which we repeat one of the first actions we learned? Walking—the simple, monotonous act of placing one foot before the other to prevent falling—turns out not to be so simple if you’re Black.”
I love Edith Zimmerman’s newsletter, and this edition she talks about her current morning routine of drawing tarot cards, (and actually drawing them). Included is this wonderful quote from a book on tarot that she’s currently reading:
“Hidden within seemingly foolish acts is the experience of life as an adventure.”
I loved this essay by Sara Benincasa:
“I wonder if they’ll believe us when we tell them how bad it got. In my mind, when I imagine us talking about it, it’s dead and gone but we’re still alive — you and me and everybody who is still here. We are old and we are healthy. Can you see it, all of us, creaky in our bones but thriving, dredging up memories at the beach, on the stoop, beside a lazy river in the sun?
I know, of course, that we won’t all live through this, but I still like to play pretend. I like it more now even than when I was a kid.”
Part II: Books I’m Reading Right Now
As mentioned in the previous issue of this newsletter, I’ve been working my way through the Booker Prize longlist. What follows are my notes on the books I’ve read so far.
First up, I read Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead. Here, the stories of aviator Marian Graves, (who we learn early in the novel disappeared in 1950 while attempting to fly around the world longitudinally), and a 21st-century Hollywood star, Hadley Baxter, are told in parallel across time.
For me, Marian’s story is infinitely more compelling than Hadley’s; (perhaps it’s just that Graves is more my kind of woman); but nevertheless, Shipstead shows impressive craft here; interweaving the lives of both women, and drawing parallels between their experiences despite the time and circumstances separating them.
Honestly this really isn’t the sort of book that I’d typically pick up, and so I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this one - I’d recommend it.
A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam, tells the story of a weekend in the life of Krishan, a young man working at an NGO in Colombo. As the novel opens, he finds out that his grandmother’s carer, a woman named Rani, has died in circumstances which Krishan thinks are suspicious - was her death an accident, a suicide, or even a murder? Krishan decides to go to her funeral in the hope of finding out.
A little earlier that same day, he also received an email from his former girlfriend, an activist called Anjum, whom he’s still in love with. As a result, the trip to Rani’s funeral is simultaneously a geographical one, (to the north of Sri Lanka), and a psychological journey into Krishan’s own past.
Whilst I suspect many people will really love this book, sadly, it wasn’t quite for me. It’s a meditative, introspective novel, and it is beautifully written, however, ultimately I finished the book feeling frustrated. Whilst Arudpragasam gave glimpses of extraordinary characters who I really wanted to know better, what I was ultimately left with were the introspective musings of his frankly far less interesting protagonist.
The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris is set in the town of Old Ox, Georgia, at the end of the American Civil War. As the novel opens, emancipation is being enforced by the Union troops, and the town is in turmoil. The majority of the wealthy white residents are angry and resentful about their loss of livelihood, lifestyle, and status; and tensions are running high.
As the novel opens we witness a meeting between two formerly enslaved brothers called Landry and Prentiss, and George Walker, a white landowner. The brothers have been secretly living in the forest on George's property because they lack the resources to move on.
In the days that follow, Landry and Prentiss agree to help George to begin farming his land. They won't accept a new master-slave type arrangement of the kind that's proliferating in the area, which works for George, as he apparently has no desire to be a master. He agrees to pay them the same as he would pay white workers, and the brothers agree to work for George until they’ve saved enough money to move north.
A fair deal you might think, however, it represents a serious breach of the centuries-old social arrangements, and every white person in Old Ox has an opinion on it. From here, Harris spins a complex tale about the postwar South, exploring the relationships of the people in the town.
It is an engaging read, albeit a somewhat problematic one. Whilst stories in which Black people and white people bond in the face of the racism are doubtlessly appealing, I’m not entirely sure they serve any of us well. For me the novel edged dangerously close to a tale focused on “good” white people, and, as a result the Black characters were somewhat marginalised and underdeveloped, and I couldn’t help but feel that it wasn’t really a story about them.
A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson explores the complexities of familial love. Clara is an eight-year-old with a lot going on. Her older sister Rose is missing, and a strange man (Liam Kane), has moved into her elderly neighbour Mrs Orchard’s house. Mrs Orchard is in hospital and desperately wants to make amends for her past before she dies.
The novel gives us chapters from the perspective of each of the three characters, and as it progresses we come to understand both how their present entanglements play out, and how their pasts connect them.
It’s fine if you like this sort of thing, and if you like Anne Tyler’s books I think you’ll probably like this; but as you can probably guess, this one really wasn’t for me. It’s a feel-good novel, where the characters lack complexity, and you can probably guess what happens at the end.
Sidenote grumble: I feel like the Booker judges often include a book like this in the mix, but I really don’t understand why: in my view there’s nothing new, challenging, or interesting about books like this; and from my perspective, this isn’t really what the Booker Prize is supposed to be about. Ugh.
By far my favourite read in the past two weeks was An Island by Karen Jennings. A refugee washes up unconscious on the beach of a tiny island inhabited only by an old lighthouse keeper called Samuel. Deeply unsettled by this man, who he perceives to be a threat, Samuel remembers his life on the mainland; a life that saw his country suffer under colonisers, then fight for independence, only to fall under the rule of a cruel dictator.
It’s a novel about guilt and fear, friendship and rejection; and the meaning of home.
In this article, Jennings talks about the novel’s difficult route to publication, and her thoughts on cultural appropriation (Jennings is a white woman), she says:
“It’s no secret that I’m white, and I am claiming to be African, and I think a lot of people will have a problem with that. As a white person, what are the stories that I am allowed to tell? How will people respond to it if I’m not just telling the story of a white woman?
I do worry very much about appropriation. The one thing I have tried to do in my writing is to be very sensitive to who it is that I give voice to.
I don’t really have an answer, I can only say that it’s never my intention to take away anyone’s voice. Rather, I’m trying to understand South Africa, understand Africa, understand what my place in it is.”
Part III: Things I’ve Been Watching
Thanks to the joys of weird hotel TV, whilst we were away, Laura and I fell asleep each night to various true crime documentaries. Plus I became weirdly fascinated with Alaska: The Last Frontier a show which documents the extended Kilcher family, descendants of Swiss immigrants and Alaskan pioneers. In one episode they dyed a white cow with henna so she wouldn’t get attacked by bears, which I think is about as far removed from my day-to-day life as it’s possible to get.
Now I’m back home I’ve just started watching season 4 of The Handmaid’s Tale, Channel 4, (yes, I know I’m late to the party), but it’s ace and if you haven’t watched it already, you should.
Part IV: Things I’m Doing
Dear reader I had a wonderful time on my hols in Tenerife. I finally got to spend some time with my friend Laura in real life rather than on Zoom (Laura moved to Berlin right before the pandemic hit) which was an absolute delight.
Whilst we were away, we took an amazing stargazing trip which I’d highly recommend. We saw the sun set above the clouds, more stars than I’ve ever seen in my life, plus we got to view various planets, stars, and deep sky objects through the telescope which were amazing. I can report that Jupiter is beautiful, as is Saturn (it looks exactly as you’d expect it to - glowy and gorgeous and remarkably close to those glow in the dark stick on stars that people used to stick on their ceilings in the 1980s).
The photos don’t really do it justice, but here’s one to give you an idea of what we saw:
On the 26th August (that’s next week friends!) I’ll be speaking at The Business of Content, a virtual conference.
The line up looks ace, and includes Alice Chandrasekaran, Nick Eubanks, Rand Fishkin, Kameron Jenkins, Joel Klettke, Daisy-ree Quaker, & more.
The first 1,000 tickets are free - register here to attend.
I’m doing an in-person thing! On September 8th I’ll be running a training course in Brighton, we’ll be following all the appropriate guidelines to ensure everyone is safe, and it is all very exciting indeed.
Here’s a primer to help you figure out if this course might be right for you:
You’ve been tasked with gaining linked coverage on top tier sites like the BBC, the Guardian, USA Today & more; but how on earth do you do that?
Perhaps you’ve seen the success of others, and are wondering why your campaigns languishing, unlinked to and unloved. Or maybe you’ve seen some success but it all seems to be a bit hit and miss, and now you’re now under pressure to deliver results more consistently.
If you’re struggling to figure out what to do next, this is the course for you.
In this course you’ll learn:
What makes a good story from a journalists’ perspective
How to identify compelling topics and gain a deeper understanding of the media landscape
How to come up with ideas
How to figure out whether or not an idea is likely to generate coverage
Whether or not it’s a good idea to remake that campaign that got a bunch of coverage a few years ago
When and how to go about “saving” a struggling campaign, and when it might be best to just move on
& much, much more 🙂
Attendees will leave the course:
With a renewed confidence in their own skills
In a happier and more productive mindset
Feeling rejuvenated and excited about their work
You can find more details on the course, and book your spot here.
That’s all from me for now :)
As mentioned in the previous edition of this newsletter I’m keen to start including an AMA section in this newsletter. I’m happy to have a bash at answering any questions you might have, be they work-related or otherwise. Please do hit reply to this email, and ask me a question (any question at all!); and I will answer it in a future edition of this newsletter.
Finally, if you enjoyed this newsletter, please consider sharing it, and if you would like to support me in this odd little endeavour you can buy me a coffee.
PS Wanna find out more about me and my work? Head over to Worderist.com