Post-ACCU2014 Thoughts

My thinking has been working overtime since I attended and presented at the ACCU2014 conference in Bristol.

[The delay in producing another post has been due to a lot of rather extensive personal development that has been occurring for me. Add to this some rather surreal experiences with dance – clubbing in Liverpool being one particular – and you might understand the delay. But that will be the subject of a separate post on dancing – I promise!]

But back to thoughts subsequent to my attendance at ACCU2014…

The Myth of Certification

The Bronze Badge. Small but beautiful.
One experience that really got me thinking was a pre-conference talk by Bob Martin reflecting on the path the Agile software development movement has taken since its beginnings. He mentioned an early quote from Kent Beck that Agile was meant to “heal the split between programmers and management”, and that one of the important guiding principles was transparency about the technical process.

But then there was a move to introduce a certification for what are called ‘SCRUM Masters’, key personnel – though not project managers – in an Agile software development approach. The problem is that it is just too simplistic to think that getting a ‘certified’ person involved to ‘manage’ things will sort everything out. This is never how things happen in practice and despite early successes Bob observed that subsequently Agile has not lived up its original expectations.

The transparency that the Agile founders were after has once again been lost. I consider that this happened because the crutch of certification has fostered inappropriately simplistic thinking for a domain that is inherently complex.

My inner response to this was: Well what do you expect?

I very much appreciate and value the principles of Agile, but there is a personal dimension here that we cannot get away from. If the individuals concerned do not change their ideas, and hence their behaviour, then how can we expect collective practices to improve? As I experienced when giving my recent workshop, it is so easy to fall prey to the fascination of the technological details and the seeming certainty of defined processes and certified qualifications.

I remember a conversation with my friend and co-researcher Paul in the early days of embarking upon this research into the personal area of software development. We wanted to identify the essential vision of what we were doing. The idea of maybe producing a training course with certification came up. I immediately balked at the thought of certification because I felt that an anonymising label or certificate would not help. But I could not at the time express why. However it seems that Bob’s experience bears this out and this leaves us with the difficult question:
How do we move any technical discipline forward and encourage personal development in sync with technical competence?

The Need for Dynamic Balance

K13 being winch launched, shown here having just left the ground.
This was another insight as to why I enjoy ACCU conferences so much. There is always the possibility of attending workshops about the technical details of software development and new language features on the one hand, along with other workshops that focus on the more ‘fluffy’ human side of the domain.

I live in two worlds:

  1. When programming I need to be thoroughly grounded and critically attend to detail.
  2. I am also drawn to the philosophy (can’t you tell?) and the processes of our inner life.

Perhaps the latter is to be expected after 30 years of seeing gadgets come and go and the same old messes happen. This perspective gives me a more timeless way of looking at the domain. Today’s gadget becomes tomorrow’s dinosaur – I have some of them in my garage – and you can start to see the ephemeral nature of our technology.

This is what is behind the ancient observation that the external world is Maya. For me the true reality is the path we tread as humans developing ourselves.

Also we need to embrace BOTH worlds, the inner and the outer, in order to keep balance. Indeed Balance is a watchword of mine, but I see it as being a dynamic thing. Life means movement. We cannot fall into the stasis of staying at one point between the worlds, we need to move between them and then they will cross-fertilise in a way that takes you from the parts to the whole.

In our current culture technical work is primarily seen in terms of managing details and staying grounded. But as any of my writings will testify, there is devilry lurking in those details that cannot be handled by a purely technical approach.

Teacher As Master

So John - Do I have to wear the silly hat? Well Bill, only if you want to be a REAL glider pilot.
Another epiphany that I experienced at the conference was a deeper insight into the popular misconception that teachers are not competent practitioners. There is the saying that “Those that can – Do. Those that can’t – Teach”. So there I was in a workshop wondering if that meant that because I was teaching programming, was I automatically not as good at the programming? But then a participant highlighted the fact that this was not so in traditional martial arts disciplines.

Indeed – teaching was seen as a step on the path to becoming a master.

We – hopefully – develop competence which over time tends to become implicit knowledge, but to develop further we need to start teaching. This will force us to make our knowledge explicit and give us many more connections of insight, indeed helping us to see the essential aspects of what we already know. There may be a transitional time where our competence might suffer – a well known phase in learning to teach gliding – as well as being a normal learning process whenever we take our learning to a higher level.

So I think the saying needs changing:
Those that can Do. Those that are masters – Teach.

ACCU2014 Workshop : Imagination in Software Development

A week ago on Saturday 12th April I facilitated a workshop at ACCU2014 on Imagination in Software Development which I am pleased to say – thanks to the participants – went very well.

Before the workshop I thought I had bitten off more than I could chew, having read through a lot of Iain McGilchrist’s book “The Master and His Emissary” and realising that using analytical thinking for such an exercise is very difficult. However thanks to my long suffering team at work giving me the chance to do a dry run, I was able to get feedback about what did and did not work and so ended up making some rather last minute changes. The final workshop format ended up being completely different to the dry run.

Before moving onto the exercises I gave a half-hour talk about the links between phenomenology; software; and brain hemisphere function, most of which in hindsight could have been left until after the exercises. My main objective, however, was to raise self-awareness about the participants’ internal imaginative processes.

I thought it would be good to highlight some of the primary ideas that came from the exercises, both in terms of the workshop’s preparation and its execution.

The need to get away from the software domain

The exercises in the workshop involved:

  • Listening to a story excerpt from a book.
  • Watching a film clip of the same excerpt.
  • Performing a software design exercise individually.

Each exercise was followed by discussions in pairs. It became abundantly clear that if you give a bunch of programmers a technical exercise, it will behave like a strong gravitational field for any ideas and it will be very difficult to get them to focus on process instead of content. Indeed during the workshop I had to interrupt the pair-based discussions to make sure they were talking about their own inner processes instead of the results of the design exercise I had given them! By reading a story and watching a film clip first it did make it easier to highlight this as a learning point since it was much easier to focus on internal process for the story and film clip.

Individual working instead of in small groups

The trial run with my team at work used small 3-4 person groups. I found that the team dynamics completely overshadowed their individual awareness. I therefore changed the format to make the core design exercise an individual process, followed by discussions in pairs. This had the desired effect of bringing their internal processes into sharper focus. The more you know about an area the more difficult it can be to “go meta” about it.

Some great insights from the participants

When listening to the story 3 processes were identified which occurred in parallel:

  • Visual – Picturing.
  • Emotional.
  • Logical – Probing.


  • The film was much more emotionally powerful, to the point of feeling manipulative.
  • But it was felt to be ‘weaker’ due to the imagery being concrete.


  • When performing the design exercise the ideas were experienced as a story, but as a sequential process rather than a parallel one.
  • The logical analysis required thoughts to be made explicit by writing them down otherwise it was hard to hold them in awareness.
  • There was a more conscious awareness of past experience affecting current ideas.
  • The initial analysis was wide-ranging followed by focussing down to the core ideas.

So if any of the participants make it to this page – I would like to say a great big thank you for getting involved.

Slide set follows:


“Peace should never be taken for granted.
The wise never forget this fact.
Frequently the young do – to their cost.
The pain of war passes unheeded through the generations.”

When he first read the next note, he found it difficult to connect to its message. All that changed in the next six hours.

Edwin visited his mother.

His visits were far too infrequent but he had always blamed that on her being Difficult – Capital D – which always sapped his energy. He loved his mother of course but their relationship had always been strained. She was getting on now but still had a big enough collection of marbles. They had a lovely meal and somehow their talk turned to her wartime experiences.

Edwin always liked to hear about these times as he felt it gave him a window on a very different time in history. Little did he know that this story would have a big impact on him.

The subject was the boat trip that her parents, herself and her brother of four years had taken from the Mediterranean back to England in 1942. She had been eight at the time. The ship came under attack from enemy planes and she and her brother were placed in the care of two sailors as the aircraft began to strafe the vessel. As they were climbing up a ladder to another deck her brother and guardian sailor went first followed by Edwin’s mother and her guardian. But as her guardian climbed the steps he was killed by machine gun fire from the aircraft and fell back to the deck below with three red dots on his chest marking the exit wounds from the bullets.

It was at this point that Edwin almost dropped his teacup on the floor as his mother related this fact as if commenting on the weather.

He suddenly realized how such an experience must have affected his mum, only eight at the time, and it was as if a door had been opened onto another room of his mother’s psyche. No wonder she was Difficult. Capital D.

Edwin left his mother’s house filled with a new respect and love for her but with a sense also of loss. Had he ever really known her? Had her experience of an external war somehow unconsciously fomented his internal war?

When he arrived home and re-read the note, his tears fell on the paper as they washed away the scales from his eyes. He now realized how blind he had been to the nuances of one of the most important relationships in his life.

Things would never be the same.

© Charles Tolman 2013.

People & Technology : The Boundary Problem : Home Life

If you have seen my earlier post you will know that I am concerned about our lack of awareness of the subtle effects of computer technology on our lives. My deepest concern is about the effects on young children so in this post I am going to talk about the boundaries my wife and I imposed on computer (and TV) use within the home and some of our experiences.

I have been a computer professional since before the early days of the “Personal Computer” boom when we could hardly contemplate that everyone would have their own computer! Many certainly did not even dream of the phenomenal proliferation of “microprocessors” that would take place. That was the word that was used a lot: microprocessor – which highlighted the fact that it was just a super-chip for the electronic nerds like myself. You hardly hear the word mentioned nowadays, but they are still there, usually called just “processors” although thousands of times faster and more powerful and with more fancy names like Core i7 or Phenom.

I also remember sitting at a screen (which was not integral to the computer) typing in commands well into to the late hours at work. But at that time of day I was using an early computer game called “Adventure”, and if you really got into a pickle you would just keep getting the response: “You are in a maze of twisty passages, all alike.”, regardless of the command you typed. Such things used to happen at work since that was the only place where you had enough tech to run the games program. Remember no Personal Computer – or PC – yet!

So I was aware from the early days about the addictive nature of this particular beast. Not only was the game playing addictive, but the programming was (and is) addictive. 4 hours can pass in the blink of an eye if you get “in the zone”. According to folks like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of the book “Flow”, this is because so much attention is required for the task that we do not have enough attention for noticing the passage of time. This is a central facet of computer technology. It sucks in your attention. No wonder there are social problems. How can you give attention to other people if your computer or phone is taking it all? But I am getting ahead of myself…

Back to home life – my awareness of this addictive nature of technology was shared by my wife and we both decided that it was inappropriate for our young children to use them. I know a lot of the world does not agree with me (yet!), and we knew that we could not stop them playing with computers at their friends’ houses, but we decided on the following rules:

Rule 1: No computers/mobile phones/electronic games AT ALL until the children were 12 or 13.
Thats right – none. Occasionally my work would require me to bring one home, but this was closed away in the box room and the kids were not allowed near it. Especially NO COMPUTER GAMES. Of course when they went to their friends houses they did have games, but in our house it was traditional toys: wooden train sets, building blocks, Lego and so on. [Also, due to our involvement with the local Steiner school we preferred natural materials over plastic. Hence our preference for wooden toys. I currently think plastic toys are ok, but the wooden ones have a nicer feel.]

Well the kids seemed to be ok with not having computers – but the next rule definitely caused complaints…

Rule 2: No TV.
Eventually we would watch DVDs once the children were 10 or so, but NO TV. And no DVD watching in the bedroom. In fact this was when we got the first family computer in the house to watch the films. If we wanted to watch a film we would congregate around it and have our evening sandwiches watching the film as a family. Why only films? Mainly to place a boundary around our viewing – with TV it is too easy to keep on watching just the next programme, and the next, and the next, and so on… We still have no TV despite me working in the business, and my wife and I are quite happy with that state of affairs.

So what about our experiences with this regime?

Certainly there was some complaining from both our daughter and son about how all their friends had these games, or could watch TV. But we were quite firm and simply said something like: “Yes I know my loves, but we don’t agree with that for you at the moment.”

As I said above, the games issue was not a problem, possibly because (a) I was so sure it was a bad idea and was very firm about it, or (b) they really enjoyed their own games that they would make up themselves. They both have wonderful imaginations and we have many happy photos of them playing without a computer in sight.

The “No TV” was more difficult especially as we would go to their grandparents and they would be allowed to watch TV or a video. This was why we introduced watching family films at around 10 years, although with such great imaginations we had to be careful about the content, even though they were age-appropriate films and seemed innocuous to an adult, the children could get quite scared by some scenes. I think adults too easily assume that the consciousness of children is very similar to their own.

There is an important story about our experience related to the “No TV” rule:

One day a friend of the children came around to play and had a shock when he could not find the TV! He was quite bewildered. Meanwhile our children got stuck in and started putting the wooden train set together. He just sat and quietly watched what they were doing, initially without taking part, until my son and daughter pulled him in and started showing him how to play. I was amazed and later found out that at home he was allowed unlimited access to the video player and would keep rewinding and replaying his favourite scenes over and over again. This boy had partially lost the “knowledge” of how to play! In the past this would have been considered a pathological problem, and I am convinced this is becoming more of an issue for the children of today.

If we fast-forward to the present day, both kids are now at university, both have their own laptops, both have them in their own bedrooms, both watch DVDs in their bedrooms. It is now a different phase of their life and they need to be part of the current culture for it is to be their culture. We will see how it develops.

But perhaps some concluding thoughts:

Boundaries must be placed around our use of such gadgetry and in writing this post I have come to see that it is all related to Attention.

The Boundary Problem is giving rise to The Attention Problem.

Our social human communications should not take second place to our electronically mediated communications. You can see an earlier post where I talked about some of the problems inherent with the latter.

Attention is a special thing that we give to the world. Currently we are giving too much attention to our machines, when we need to give more of it to our fellow humans.

People & Technology: The Boundary Problem : Bringing Work Home

At last the mainstream computing world is beginning to catch up with my warnings about unbridled technological use. The latest “Communications of the ACM” has an article entitled “Living in the Digital World” about the effect of gadget use on people’s social behaviour.

I have been a member of the ACM since 1986, having managed to get one of the early super short sexy email addresses ct(at)acm(dot)org so beloved of Unix types. Usually I have been severely unimpressed by most articles from the ACM folk about the existence of any problems with technology use, let alone a balanced view on what those problems might be. Most press has been heavily for technological use, even down into Kindergarten, with what they call the K-12 curriculum.

Oh dear me.

As someone who has programmed computers since the mid 70s I can tell you that coding for this stuff definitely does affect your social skills. I am not your usual uncommunicative nerd type – I like to think that I have quite good social skills – well – as long as you don’t get too close! What I have noticed is that the necessary criticality required to do the “day job” can spill over into your close relationships. This was a primary influence that led to the break-up of my first marriage, although of course as ever there were faults on both sides. But bringing my critical nature home definitely adversely affected my first wife, resulting in her developing allergies galore. My favourite anecdote is that apparently most of these allergies disappeared within a month of me leaving.


When I found myself doing the same thing again in my second marriage, even I was not stupid enough to think that it was all the other person’s fault. I have now toned down my critical nature when at home and my kids, now of University age, are not backward in coming forward to tell me to “Chillax”. After having realised the problem existed I was extra watchful of myself during their early years and my wife and I have definitely been “good-enough” parents – or so the kids seem to think – honest!

[A problem with parenting is that it is too easy to try so hard to definitely NOT make the same mistakes our own parents did that we “slot-rattle” to the other end of the spectrum and guess what… the effect on our children can be similar to what we wanted to avoid. It seems to be a psychological law.]

So why do I call this issue of technological use The Boundary Problem?

Lets look at a number of places in my own behaviour where I did not have appropriate boundaries:

Without realising it I brought the thinking techniques from work back to the home.
I now know that the highly critical thinking required for software work must be heavily constrained within a close relationship. Of course we need some critical thought, especially if we are parents, but – as a teacher once said to me – there is value in developing a “Nelson’s Eye” and not chasing every little thing. This is easier said than done, especially when it means trying to respond rather than react to a situation that is pressing your buttons!

I was not aware of the effect of programming on my psyche.
This is a biggie and applies to almost every computer professional. In my early years it never crossed my mind that there could be a problem. Soon after the realisation hit me, I went to a computer conference and ran a session to discuss the personal aspects of being a software developer. You should have heard some of the comments! “Navel gazing” was the least abusive one. It is understandable since most technical types like to play with the toys and gadgets. Nowadays things have changed a small amount and with more “techies” you can see the penny starting to drop. I think this is mainly due to what we call “Agile” software development techniques, where you really need to focus on your programming process as well as your technical knowledge. When recruiting programmers the question “Are they aware of how they learn?” is as important as “How good is their technical knowledge?”. If someone cannot take critical feedback it can be very difficult to have them on a software team.

Of course the drive to earn more money just reinforces the “boundaryless” behaviour. You cannot expect companies to control their call on their employees’ time.

Another interesting observation is that when I was younger the gadgetry was much more enticing to me than it is now. I have spent far too many late nights programming computers into the early hours of the next morning to only see the glamorous side. You may see a nice phone. I see just how many hours coding are required to make it work well.

Well that is a small view from the inside of the industry.

In the next post on this topic I will talk about how we as parents dealt with The Boundary Problem at home: A house without computers or TV!

Promises, Promises…

Hello all
Well once again it has been awhile since I have contributed to this blog.

It has become clear to me that one of the last things I want to do when I get home is to sit in front of a computer and carry on typing after having spent all day in front of one writing software. However I still want to get my thoughts down.

So to overcome this I decided to invest, partly as a test and partly out of interest, in a new toy. The toy in question is a copy of the speech recognition software called Dragon Naturally Speaking. As ever with any piece of technology it may take some adjustment but at the moment I am being pleasantly surprised about how effective it is. It does seem to need a computer with a fair amount of power and memory but I am finding it nicer to use than sitting typing. Of course there is always the chance that it is just a new toy 🙂 but if it helps me get my thoughts down here that is all to the good.

So the process I have used for this post is to speak most of the text into the computer and then to edit it by hand thereafter.

Having re-read the last post I realise that I have managed to find a rather good antidote to the problems of the enquiring mind. The answer is quite simple: Exercise, cycling to be exact.

Anyway – down to business.

I would like to connect some of the thoughts of one of my favourite thinkers that I highlighted in that last post, David Bohm, to some recent viewing I have been doing. His writings and comments related to a rather surprising subject (for me) that I normally do not deal with here. So I would like to warn you that I am going to deal with a politically loaded subject. Yet still strongly connected to how people can get stuck into patterns of thought thus leading to behaviour.

We recently bought the DVD of the Channel 4 series “The Promise” and I have to say that this is not viewing you would want to watch just before going to bed. After every episode I would find my mind turning the issues over and over, each time coming back to certain thoughts which would invariably interfere with sleeping. Given also that recently I have read the book “Mornings in Jenin” by Susan Abulhawa which detailed the experiences of families from Ein Hod, there were quite a number of parallels as you would imagine.

Let me say that I am well aware that these are works of fiction, but this doesn’t in any way reduce the value of the thinking one can do, and particularly the imagination of what life might be like for people caught in those conflicts.

My impressions about this whole subject? I was mainly struck by how psychological damage rattles down through the generations. Although I am not so familiar with the details of what started World War 1, it was the reparations from that war that set the context for World War II. And it seems that that in turn set the context of the current crisis being played out in the Middle East. This stream of thought was driven by asking myself the question: How is it that the same mistakes keep getting made over and over again?

So after World War I it was the Germans that were traumatised leading to their dire economic state. After World War II it was the Jews who were traumatised, thus leading to a violent birth of the state of Israel. If one allows oneself the luxury of standing right back from the details of the individual conflicts you can see this tragic progression of traumatisation from one group to another. It was at this point that I remembered David Bohm writing about thought as a system. It is as if the human race in conflict is being driven along like leaves in a storm, but of its own creating. I can well imagine that if one got caught up in the conflict in the Middle East now, one’s view would be affected by the particular experience one had, which in turn would dictate one’s sympathies, be it pro-Arab or pro-Israeli.

The hard thing would be to hold oneself neutral and see the recurring behaviours. My goodness. Could I do that?

So I wonder – would it be fair to think that we are being driven by our own unconscious thought processes. I don’t underestimate how strong the feelings may be for the individual but if the cycle of violence is not to be perpetuated the human race as a group has got to be able to step outside of certain trains of thought and strength of feeling.

Or is that thinking all too detached? In my defence I can only say that my wish is to understand how to stop it happening again. Of course I have not been involved directly in the conflicts I have mentioned so who am I to comment upon them? But make no mistake : it is the weight of popular opinion that will be the strongest force in stopping a conflict. This has already happened in Northern Ireland among other places.

To me – popular opinion is based upon the experience of families. In each example of conflict, the real tragedy is the effect that it has on family life and how people are catapulted out of a very loving environment into a horrible and violent situation. Thus the hurt children of one age become the soldiers of a subsequent one. If only those in power would, when making their decisions, consider in an imaginative way just what effect their deliberating will have on family life, then maybe there would be more reason to hope.

Once again it is a case of thinking being too abstract rather than being imaginatively grounded in reality.

I have experience of a situation where doting grandparents did not see their grandchildren for 10 years due to the fear and instability fostered by the prevailing political climate in the grandparent’s own country. It is so easy to spend time worrying about high level political changes going on but for me the reality of this aspect of the world can be seen in any airport arrivals terminal when you see the love and joy of families being reunited after long absences.

Next time will be on a more upbeat note. Promise!

Till the next time…

Problems of the Inquiring (or Technological) Mind

Well it has been a long while since I last posted here, and for that please accept my apologies, but there have been good reasons. I have been re-assessing life somewhat. I am hesitant to call it a mid-life crisis, since it feels like it has been happening for most of my life!

One of the problems of having an inquiring mind, a curious mind, an analytical mind, is that you tend to deconstruct everything, i.e. you pull it apart. Sometimes there need to be boundaries as to what you will and what you will not pull apart. I must confess I have had problems with where to place those boundaries. And I think I am not alone in this. As I have mentioned before, the puzzle becomes the thing ,and if you have an analytical bent, you can easily forget why you wanted to solve the puzzle in the first place, or maybe sometimes you don’t even know, which means you are usually doing it just for fun.

The impulse to re-assess has come from a number of directions and has a lot to do with a dawning realisation about just how damaging this sort of mind can be.

Firstly has been my attendance at a Science conference in Stourbridge on a rainy weekend in late February (see footnote 1); secondly I have recently started reading what I am finding an inspiring management book called “Theory U” by Otto Scharmer (see footnote 2); and thirdly an article recommended by a friend about a breathtaking display of technological hubris by neurology professor, Henry Markram at the Ecole Polytechnique in Lausanne (see footnote 3).

So what on earth is it that pulls all these threads together and is giving me such a hard time? Well… deep breath… I have been finding it harder and harder not to worry about various environmental concerns and bury my head in the technological sand, saying that we will be able to find solutions to the issues coming our way. A tipping point was when I watched a TV program about James Lovelock originally broadcast in April 2010 (Episode 2 of the “Beautiful Minds” series). Here is a man who is a great polymath and a scientist who is quite happy to be on the outside of the mainstream, pointing out the inherent problems of working within mainstream science at this time.

These different threads have led me to the point where I feel very strongly that there are not just limits implicit in the current mode of thought we have, but that there is a fundamental flaw that is causing wide scale havoc with our environment.

Favourite Metaphors, Quotes and Insights
Thanks to the minds of various giants I like to think I am able to stand on their shoulders and have assembled here some of my favourite thoughts from them that, together, encapsulate some of what I am going on about.

J.W. Goethe: Life is a Conversation. Ah yes, the wonderful idea of Delicate Empiricism.

David Bohm: Thought as a System which creates the world and then says “I didn’t do it!”. So our collective thought is creating organisations which are prisons, and then we can blame the “system” for all the problems, which, remember, we have created.

Rudolf Steiner: The problems of Dualism and the terrific difficulty of getting to Monism (which I link to a holistic way of seeing), though Henri Bortoft helps…

Henri Bortoft: We cannot know the whole in the same way as we know a thing.
This is worth more words here: The whole is not a thing. The way to the whole is through the parts. It is not to be encountered by stepping back and taking an overview. The whole is to be encountered by stepping into, and passing through, the parts.

Couple these ideas with the realisation from my own experience of how difficult it is to recruit competent, thoughtful, software developers and perhaps you can see why I am going through a rather angst-ridden period.

So I have now come to realise that we must must must change the way we collectively think. Obviously this requires us to individually be more clear in our own thought, but there are issues of social technique that we need to learn, which I believe are key to how we turn this around. Now here is a kicker, there is a major link with the whole Risk Averse rant I usually bore friends with. The trouble with all this tech is that there is a risk of letting it do the thinking for us.

My favourite example is the use of a satnav. I hate using a satnav that is telling me which way to turn. I once tested one and found its route choice to be flawed at best. No. I will choose the route thank you very much, and I will use the machine as a very useful map follower which traces where I am on the map. This is exactly what pilots are recommended to do when flying with a GPS. This is a prime of example of how to consciously use the technology.

So… the link to risk aversion. Well if you do not consciously use the technology, you stop thinking. This is comfortable, but in the end, dangerous. It is also very convenient for any government. Since to have a population who are quite willing to follow orders is just fine by them. Risk aversion also puts you in a comfort zone. Again this means you stop thinking. Which is of course tied up with existence :-), as Descartes realised:

I think therefore I am…

And thats enough for now.
See you soon.
Thanks for reading.

1: This was Science from an anthroposophical perspective (the Steiner lot if you don’t know what the word means). I co-presented one session about the “Conscious use of technology”. The conference in general was a positive experience that has started me tentatively re-approaching some of Rudolf Steiner’s ideas. In preparation I read Paul Emberson’s book called “From Gondishapur to Silicon Valley” which I found a difficult read as I felt it was rather too evangelical about just how nasty our present computer technology is. In recent days I have come to have a better view of this, but more about that in a later post.

I have found that, so far, the book called “Theory U” by Otto Scharmer is an inspiring read. It is early days as yet since I am about one third of the way through, but his insights from a personal perspective stop it being a dry book, for me at least, and I can relate to a lot of what is being said. His drive is to get to understand why we carry on doing things that are so destructive, and don’t seem to be able to change the results.

A close friend sent me a link to an article in the Daily Mail about Prof Henry Markram trying to make a conscious computer system. As far as I can see this is all an effort to get some more funding and investment. His approach is breathtakingly short sighted and is yet another instance, to me, of someone playing with their toys.

Communication Shadows

This post is a call to the computer professionals among us to be more aware about computer mediated communication issues:

Have you ever thought why email communication so easily descends into conflict? Is it something we should just accept and get on with? Or can we be rather more in control of the situation?

These questions have bothered me for quite a while now. I believe that we could become better masters of the situation. I present a working hypothesis in this article about what happens during a conversation. I first presented this as a “Lightning Talk” at ACCU2009 and was encouraged by the response which, along with some other subsequent insights, has prompted me to put pen to paper, or rather, fingers to keyboard. Some of the conclusions turn out to be fairly surprising.

Why Should We Care?
I start from the position that as technologists we should be more aware of how electronic communication media can affect human discourse. This becomes more of an issue because we are likely to be a reference for lay-people who have problems with such communication. The trouble is that although we are technologists, the questions raised are primarily psychological.

During a conversation, here defined as occurring between a number of people, (I don’t believe machines can converse, but that is another story) I suggest it is a very rare occurrence for us to talk directly to the “real” other person. We form an image of the other person and communicate with that image. It is then the reduction in the congruence of this image with reality that can cause problems.

It is this image that I call the “Communication Shadow” and it is formed by a combination of our own psychological projections and the various miscommunications and errors made by the other speaker. The greater the discrepancy between this Shadow and the “real” other person, the more chance there is that the conversation will descend into conflict.

The Available Media
So what does this have to do with computing? I have experienced that the various types of electronic communication media will affect human conversation differently. So lets look at some differing modes of communication:

1. Face to face
The best mode of communication we can experience, where we can continually pick up subtle cues: body language, facial expression, as well as the timbre of the voice. Of course it can still be difficult. Something I experience in married life! Even after many years I can still fall into some of the old traps, usually culminating in having the last words, namely: “Yes dear”. I am sure there will always be a job for counsellors. With face to face conversation the Shadow we are creating is (or should be) getting continually updated and modified to match the other person. Conversations in the bar can be hilarious just because we can laugh about how different the shadow image is from the real person, although usually the alcohol will help things move along smoothly.

2. Video and Audio
I have in mind the current set of video conferencing systems which are so useful for long distance communication. Although problems with the video/audio synchronisation can make for a stilted conversation, this mode of communication works very well. There will, however, still be missed cues. Though the image of the other person is important I think that what and how the other person speaks is a greater help in adjusting the Shadow image we have of them. But I would advise caution if you think that there are absolutely no problems with this medium. I have worked in the TV business for many years and know that many celebrities are very adept at promoting just the image they wish by video. The reality invariably turns out to be quite different.

3. Audio only
Usually telephone conversation, which has even more absent cues. Again, since we can hear the other person, it still can work well because we can adjust our Shadow image to make the communication work. I believe it is here where we can start to realise that we are creating a Shadow of the other person, especially if we have not met them face to face. Just remember how surprising it can be to see the person in the flesh after we had been forming a totally different image of them having only conversed by telephone.

4. Text only
The worst form of communication in terms of its ability to foster massively discordant Shadows. In ye olden days, people would take time over letter writing and would therefore ponder, peruse and pause in their thinking. But now we have the chance to “chat” instantly and isn’t that bound to be an improvement? Well, yes and no. Being faster can mean more mis-communication errors are made. On the positive side, the speed of interaction means that we can correct the error by further clarification, before the other person has a chance to ruminate and get too upset.

The Conflict Process
Lets look at a typical sequence that can occur during a textual communication:

  • Person A types some text and is just not quite careful enough, writing something which is ambiguous and just happens to “push the buttons” of a recipient. Needless to say person A is totally unaware of how their message is going to be received.
  • Person B sees what has been written and due to their temperament, and the ambiguity inherent in the message immediately gets offended and starts making all sorts of assumptions about person A. Person A, they think, is a complete and utter twit and needs to be told so in no uncertain terms right now. “How can they think of writing something so preposterous?”
  • So person B fires off a flaming response, usually starting the latest flame-war.
  • So what just happened? It is here where the idea of a Communication Shadow can be useful. What has happened is that person B very quickly created an image of person A, projecting all sorts of personality traits onto them, and then proceeded to communicate with that Shadow. From then on it may all be downhill as person A is likely to do the same with person B.

    Thus we end up with a conversation with 4 people in it! Person A is going at Shadow B and Person B is going at Shadow A. Anybody who can successfully manage and calm this conflict will usually do so by getting both people to step outside of the immediate arena, psychologically speaking, and see what is happening from a distance. If successful this can immediately help them realise that assumptions have been made. Unfortunately in my experience this rarely happens and the protagonists go their separate ways, convinced of the idiocy of the other person.

    The Point
    Now here is the key point of this article:

    The problem is not that this Communication Shadow exists…

    …it is the fact that we are unaware that it exists.

    If we are truly to enter into a more enlightened communications or digital age, call it what you will, then we must become more aware of the processes in which we are involved rather than solely the content of our communications.

    From my experience I can see that programmers may have more trouble communicating than non-programmers. I am not pointing this out as a bad thing, rather it is a side effect of the sort of work in which we are engaged. If you have to think complex structures or processes through in your head, stringing together a number of thoughts, you must reduce your communication overhead while doing so in order to maintain flow. Once you have reached a point where you have enough coherency within those thoughts, you can then communicate them to others.

    We therefore have to live in the two worlds, the inner world of thoughts, the very thoughts from which we create the software, and the outer world of our interactions with other humans, because you need a team to produce a finished product.

    So I hope that you feel that the idea of a Communication Shadow has some merit and may help you to be more reflective about future conversations. Just remember that using text or email is a lot like using powerful Unix commands when logged in as root, you need to check them 3 times at least before hitting the return key.

    [Note for non-programmers: A Unix command allows you to do most things through a textual interface. You don’t need a window based operating system. “root” is the system administrator username on a Unix system]

    The Path of Technological Development – A quick overview of recent history

    Lets start with some overview of the love affair that the human race seems to have with technology.

    In the 30 or so years I have been working in the profession, computers have moved from being the province of nerds to now being a fashion item. And, yes, I was a spotty faced geek with glasses spending all hours in front of a keyboard playing some of the early computer games like Dungeons and Dragons – “Get in bucket. Drop bottle. Pick up matches” – usually eliciting the response from the game – “You are in a maze of twisty passages, all alike”. Those games did not need much computing power. Now if you have a Smartphone, it has more power than many desktop PCs of the 90s.

    But the question that has puzzled me is why there has been an inordinate amount of time, money but above all, human energy invested in developing computer software. Where I work, for example, there have been over 2 person centuries of effort expended in writing the software, which now stands at over 16 million lines of software, if not more. This is not out of the ordinary in industry.

    Information technology is just the latest result of a continuum of technological development stretching from thousands of years ago. However it has a special attribute which I will come to later.

    As with the movie character Shrek, even though he didn’t like being compared to an onion, there are a number of levels here:

    The Development of Craftsmanship
    Humans are consummate toolmakers and the computer is the latest in a long line of inventions that have given us more power to predict and control our environment. However, every tool has two sides, just like the proverbial two-edged sword. On the plus side a good tool amplifies our capacities. The down side that is usually forgotten is that any tool will place obstacles in our path which we must overcome by training ourselves to use it properly. Eventually, with effort, we develop more skill and a good tool becomes transparent to us as we use it. This has resulted in the development of craftsmanship and the professions.

    The Development of Automation
    If we look at the beginning of the 20th century, Henry Ford introduced the assembly line to help speed the construction of the Model T car. This was a major change in the way work was carried out and was met by strong opposition. He doubled the pay of his employees, segregated the work, yet stayed profitable because he was able to triple the running speed of the assembly line (see Shop Class as Soulcraft reference). This was the beginning of a massive development towards more automation in the workplace. Automation is about defining sets of rules to follow, and this can be done with some non-physical work, culminating in the current so called Expert Systems. For example I would expect the legal profession to see quite a few changes in this area in the years ahead.

    The Development of Software
    And so we come to software development. Why do I consider it to have a separate place from the automation of other work? With software programming the rules of work are almost impossible to pin down. Software is always written in an unambiguous machine-friendly language, and requires a lot of human effort create, since we have to use the ambiguous human languages to define what we want done. Now to automate software development, which uses a language, you have to… you guessed it… use another language. This means that to improve software development you have to do even more software development! With computing this has been the story so far with many new languages appearing every year, and it does not look like slowing down.

    And so…
    In terms of tool use and development, we have reached the top of a pyramid, moving up from physical work to thought work. We can automate repetitive physical work by using our thinking. But to automate repetitive thinking, we can only do more thinking, but at a higher-level. Of course we need to recognise that we are talking about the more utilitarian mode of thought here, but of course, as you might expect, the view of the path starts to get murky.

    More to follow…

    “Shop Class as Soulcraft – An Inquiry into the Value of Work” by Matthew B Crawford, Penguin.