Why I am not going to “Francophile” my Facebook status…

Over the past 24 hours or so I have watched the world “Francophile” itself in support and recognition of the awful events in Paris. Monuments have been illuminated in red-white-blue and Facebook profiles now consist of once familiar friends peering out between ribbons of colour.

Story Bridge in Brisbane, illuminated in solidarity.

The Story Bridge in Brisbane tonight, illuminated in solidarity.

I am very fond of France. I have many French friends, wonderful memories and few could argue against Paris being truly one of the iconic cities of the World. Indeed, Paris is one of those incredibly special cities that simply cannot belong to just France, it really belongs to people everywhere. Thus, when such unthinkable acts of terror are committed, they are committed against us all.

The problem is that to give credence to ISIS, to call the Paris atrocity an “act of war”, is to do nothing more than further entrench the notion of ISIS’ caliphate (statehood). Only one sovereign entity’s act of aggression against another can establish an “act of war”. By determining those innocent lives lost to be an “act of war”, we simply give ISIS what they want : legitimacy, and implied sovereignty.

Moreover, despite the awful events in Paris, there was no less tragic loss of life in Lebanon, in Kenya. But we did not stop and mourn for those lives because they did not fit within our mental “Champs- Élysées”, the perfect and idyllic boulevards of our western minds. We did not paint our faces those colours. We have not owned the fact that the turmoil and instability in Syria, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, is the direct result of decades of self-interested meddling, artificial borders drawn across tribal boundaries and covertly-financed (and not so covert) bipartisanship. We probably didn’t create it, but we made it worse. A lot worse. Those innocent people in Paris didn’t deserve to die – but it can also not be said that there is never a consequence to our actions. For example, it cannot be said that when our own youth flock to Syria to join the ranks of ISIS, that we were not responsible for youth disengagement, for unemployment, for lack of opportunity in our own countries.

We should be defiant, be we should also take responsibility.

This even extends to the idea that we would somehow attempt to “demean” our oppressors by calling them “Daesh“, like taunting a bully in the playground. It is a dangerous game. It is one thing to stoically go on with life and refuse to alter our daily lives in response to terrorism (correctly so), but it is another to mock one’s enemy.

The purpose of this commentary is not to attribute recognition to ISIS. Although, in my opinion, to pretend that it is an artifice is a huge mistake. Similarly, to reduce ISIS to merely a violent hybrid of religious fundamentalism and terrorism is also a mistake, a gross simplification. In the 21st century, we are being forced to reconsider what statehood means and how we respond to “acts of war”. It started with 9/11 and it is – tragically – far from over with Paris (#2).

This is why I will not change my Facebook profile to “tricolour”. Defiance and mourning for our freedom should be muted, and devoid of banners. Only terrorists wave banners, and I personally cannot bear to change the hue of my face again tomorrow.


The (now) iconic feature image by Jean Jullien…


Mad Planet

I had some long-haul travel this week and finally in one of those white-noise, time-zone agnostic moments where sleep and relaxation are utterly defeated by an uncomfortable plane seat and dehydration, I decided to write.

I have not written since April. There are a few reasons for this.

Firstly, I partially blame Facebook. I could hardly characterize myself as a social media junkie, I just don’t have time. But over the last couple of years because of various semi-professional activities, particularly in relation to the World Economic Forum, I had found that I had amassed a large number of “friends” most of whom have comparatively interesting lives (to me) and are very active on social media. Lately, I found myself – at idle moments – “dialoging” about things and to be honest I think it took the bandwidth away from me that I would normally have dedicated to writing a blog.

Two things about Facebook that have worn me out. The first is that I am all “news flowed out”. More on this in a second but to summarize, I found that my network of “friends” and the nature of their lives really amplified the events of the world around me. I’m completely burnt out on gender issues, race issues, asylum issues, religious hatred, forays into war zones and human rights. I started to find myself getting irritated and even on a few occasions scrapping with people about things precisely because I got tired of someone’s 28th post on “why all entrepreneurs are male chauvinist pigs” or someone’s well-structured and defiant rant on why “It’s ok for Israel to continue to annex land in Golan Heights.”

The second matter relates to Facebook’s little “behavior modification” studies under the auspices of apparently being allowed to arbitrarily mess with my head under some kind of purported “informed consent” as part of my user agreement. I’m reasonably well versed in the ethics of patient-centric research and I think they overstepped the mark. I don’t know if I was a guinea pig or not – in fact, it doesn’t matter because there has been so much negativity in the world the last few months, my newsfeed was pretty bleak even without Facebook’s meddling. But I object to what they did and it has permanently tempered my trust and willingness to engage with Facebook.

So a few weeks ago, I unfriended everyone that I do not consider to be a true friend (yes, I know, I have done a similar purge in the past but this was not a mere prune). Sure, unfriending people is a socially grey area and not a precise science. I know I offended some people and I actually miss certain people’s thoughts and reflections about the world (you know who you are) but now – thankfully – my news feed is mostly pictures of babies doing cute things, family vacations, interesting recipes for vegan food, selfies and one of my old friend’s slightly amusing tendency to post provocative pictures of herself in different contorted yoga poses.

In short, life has returned to normal in my social media world and as such – I am no longer really all that interested in it. It is pleasingly bland and I only check in once a week. This in turn may have freed my mind and my fingertips to waste time on my blog instead. (note: that doesn’t read very well but you get the drift).

The second vitiating factor in my lack of appetite to blog is just the world itself at the moment. The couple of times I sat down and tried to write a reflective piece I found that I really didn’t have much to say that wasn’t utterly bleak. I’m not a journalist so writing a second-piece about ISIS or Israel or Ukraine doesn’t add much to what you have already heard from the BBC or CNN. I’m not above political commentary but there isn’t much inspiration there at the moment either.

An earlier blog post – In Defence of Mother Russia – seems hopelessly naïve and almost ridiculous given that a mere 10 days later apparently Russia invaded Ukraine. This is in fact something that is deeply dividing in my family at the moment and with my wife’s family in Donetsk Oblast, a reality that we are concerned with every day. Extremely disturbing.

A couple of months ago we had a management retreat at a beautiful resort in Palos Verdes and I remember sitting there watching my news feed and all of sudden getting two simultaneous posts on Israel sending tanks into Gaza and MH17 getting shot down. It completely consumed my attention and the remains of my emotional reservoir that day. That night I think I drank too much, not just to hit the “steam release” from a long and stressful day but because notwithstanding a fine Southern California evening, the world just felt particularly sinister … and not just because Facebook was possibly manipulating my newsfeed.

Lastly, work. Work work work and more work. ImaginAb is going through that teenage phase where you start to see the great promise of adulthood and your “child” shows potential, but there is still a lot of attitude problems, temper tantrums and acne. You get one bit of smooth skin and then a boil appears in the middle of your forehead just before prom night. It’s both inspiring and exhausting – and typical of a company as it transitions through that 40-50 employee barrier. Relationships get replaced by processes, policies replace convention and early members of the team start to hit their Peter Principle. It’s tough.

I have also had to adjust, not just in my personal life and work-life balance but also my own attitudes toward corporate governance and being part of a grown-up management team. I’m reasonably happy with this and in some ways it’s a great evolution to be part of because it means you are really creating something that is capable of proper execution. But it is also a long way away from the years of the relative freedom of being an entrepreneur where you “live and die” by the sword on a daily basis. Interesting times… but all consuming.

Max doesn’t get to see his Daddy so often these days, something that I certainly struggle with.

Anyhow, I can’t promise that all of a sudden I will be saturating the blogosphere with brilliant and insightful writing but to all those who asked me “where are you?” – particularly Jean-Luc, Edna and Sue – thanks for the reminder that I started blogging because I love to write and part of my life has been missing the past few months.

It will also have to wait until Max is in bed.

Why I believe in Singularity

The short explanation is because I have already experienced it in a rudimentary form. For those who don’t know what Singularity is, you can read about it here.

The longer explanation is… well… longer, and it starts with a sad story.

A friend of mine, I will refer to him as “Ollie” (people who knew him will recognize his nickname and for everyone else, it’s respectfully anonymous) was a lovely guy. Just one of those people everyone liked. Smart, witty. Late 30s, devoted father and a much-loved husband.

I caught up with Ollie for a beer and a chat about life a few weeks before his second kid was born, a little girl I think. He was loving life, excited about the baby coming and we parted company that afternoon promising to catch up in a few weeks. We had been close friends in university, but like many relationships that kind of get side-tracked by life, we had only sporadically caught up over the years. It was very nice to see him and I felt truly happy to have reconnected with an old friend who was obviously at a contented point in his life.

A couple of weeks later as part of a health kick, feeling self-conscious about a few extra desk-induced kilos (he was a software engineer) and wanting to be healthier for his kids, Ollie started running around the track at a nearby park. On one of those jogs, he had a massive heart-attack and died.

Just a few days after his baby was born. Tragic and awful.

We were all shocked and saddened but something bizarre happened. A few weeks after Ollie passed away, I saw a LinkedIn newsfeed that perfunctorily reported “Ollie has new connections.” I supposed he must have sent a LinkedIn invite to someone who posthumously accepted, maybe they didn’t even know what had happened. I found it slightly creepy. Then a few weeks ago I was doing a LinkedIn search and I guess a few keywords in my search once again pulled up his profile. It’s been amended to indicate that he’s no longer with us, but just the same, it got me thinking.

I realized that we all have an internet persona to some extent. In some cases it’s extensive. Google will already trawl through our email and work out what interests us. Our preferences are dotted all over the virtual planet, from what kind of music we like on iTunes to our seating preferences on United Airlines. It takes a very cursory level of analysis to investigate and understand detailed things about people who have a comprehensive on-line presence. It therefore seems utterly reasonable to me that, in time, algorithms could start to build a pretty good idea of who we are. I reckon an undergraduate computer scientist with access to the 120,000 emails in my Gmail account could probably build a simple bit of code to impersonate my email writing style (at least identify my favorite expletives and the more colorful turns of phrase).

You don’t have to conceptually stretch too much further than this to get to the point where software could know us well enough to think like us, to act like us, to make decisions just as we would … in short, to be us.

Kurzweil and Vinge think it’s still a couple of decades off before it happens, but I think when something is close enough to robustly visualize it, it’s already here. The plain fact of the matter is, Ollie’s LinkedIn and Facebook “avatar” persisted after his death. It continued to echo of his desires and actions in life through the propagation of signals and behaviours after death. I suggest that it is a kind of primitive “Singularity” and certainly more significant than some kind of digital epitaph. Do a mental exercise and put yourself back 200 years in time and try explaining to someone that a deceased individual sent you a message, without actually having written the message before that person passed away. Try explaining that the person truly sent you a message after they had died. You would have characterized that as a “message from the afterlife” – it would be a supramortal event.

Truly worthy of being burnt at the stake.

I actually believe humans will achieve immortality, but not in the biological domain. Our bodies were probably not meant to live forever and even when we solve cancer and heart disease, etc. (which we will) in the limit, the biology of our brains will let us down. It’s also my personal opinion that human beings were not meant to live forever and that our social and ecological existence is based on the promise, inevitability and necessity of death.

I think what will happen is that we will end up living our biological lives in order to create the data points and inputs to our digital lives. In the future, from the day we are born, personalized devices will monitor and capture every moment of our life, our biosignals, our words, our actions, our interactions with people and objects. Massively distributed technologies will chronicle our lives for us and then, when we die, our perfectly captured soul will simply propagate forever. Death will merely be the shedding of a biological core and a nanosecond transition to a synthetic digital being that will continue “life” forward, fully aware that the organic self is no longer.

In this scenario, the life goal would be to maximize the biological experience in order to “richly” propagate the digital soul to eternity. As such, we might think of life rather differently. We might only care about the experiential dimension of life and worry less about things that aren’t important, interesting or exciting. We might deliberate decisions and value relationships more because we’d have to live with them forever. We could take very long views on careers because you would end up being a lawyer/doctor/engineer for the rest of eternity – alternatively, we might want to capture as much knowledge as possible so that when we leave the biological epoch, we are able to enjoy unlimited intellectual diversity. We would crave sophisticated and multi-dimensional personalities, capable of continued evolution in a virtual world.

We would also live our lives with tangible evidence that there is indeed an afterlife … in the form of terabytes stored on a server farm in Palo Alto, but an afterlife no less…

I think this is a very realistic scenario. I just hope whoever is running the IT infrastructure has got site redundancy and good backup power.


The Year of the Great Unfriending…

I’m intrigued by social media and some of the technologies and data-driven applications that are starting to appear are truly amazing. At the same time, I struggle to understand how to carve up a social media personality into the distinct buckets of life – career, personal life, your own little soapbox and … er… eating toast and washing the car. I have a couple of thousand LinkedIn connections and pride myself on the fact that 95% of them are people I have actually met and interacted with biologically, not just electronically … and even know. Crazy talk, eh?!

What I appreciate most about LinkedIn is that everything is defined as a “connection”- connections don’t have emotional strings attached. It keeps everything a bit perfunctory and business-like.

Facebook is an entirely different matter. I have to admit, I am constantly wowed to see a few hundred thousand people throw themselves at a topic. I even occassionally toss a “like” out there or make a comment if an issue sufficiently eggs me on. Sometimes I get a warm fuzzy feeling – like when 50,000 people get together and say “merry Christmas” to a teen cancer survivor with a picture standing under the tree holding a placard saying “I am cancer-free” – awwww how could you not not click “like”? Sometimes I am very uncomfortable, for example 25,000 fellow Australians abusing a Muslim woman who had a bit of a silly run-in with the police, or a mother letting millions of people know her 7 (seven!) year old son is apparently gay.

Pretty much ALL seven year-old boys hate girls – by that metric I was gay until I was about 17. It’s disrespectful to both the kid and to the LGB community and I must admit, it irritated me. Facebook really needs to add a “dislike” button… or maybe it is hidden somewhere and I missed it.

I used to have about 130 friends on Facebook. Most of my Facebook “connections” are family and a few close friends. One or two people I met along the way that I liked or found interesting are also on the list. A few are people that I have kept in touch with because they represent links to non-virtual social groups that I want to be able reach out to from time-to-time (like old school friends – everyone knows that person who keeps in touch with everyone from college).

This year, for the first time, I actually enjoyed looking at Facebook over the Christmas vacation. It started with my wife posting some pictures of our family on holiday and then I realized ‘hey… lots of my friends are doing fun things with their kids – isn’t that nice…’ It gave me a strange sense of community and genuinely made me happy to see people I care about with family, eating turkey, skiing, playing at the beach, whatever. I guess I am getting old and sentimental.

But what I also realized was that a few people were dominating my news feed with just a lot of idle thoughts. I enjoyed the live updates and photo albums, I hated the “just ate a piece of toast” or “it’s warm today” or “I am awesome” updates. Some people have this idea that we want to receive a constant twitter-blog without actually subscribing or signing up for it (says this hypocrite with a blog feed to LinkedIn – but hey, it’s just a link, you can ignore it).

What I also realized is that I have some shirt-tail friends that I am less interested in hearing from on a regular basis. I also had some Facebook Friends who were really not friends any more. Yes folks, even the electronic incarnations of our social networks have stagnant fringes and need pruning from time-to-time. So I unfriended about 30 people. Don’t be offended – I just wasn’t interested in you any more. If you want to get back in touch, call me and we’ll have a coffee. I’ll even pick up the tab by way of recompense.

As for Twitter? If you’re not Lady Gaga, Fuhgeddaboutit…