Archive for the ‘Generational issues’ Category

The AA’s old gold

November 14, 2012

Last week I was sent my annual renewal notice for the AA, which operates principally a motoring breakdown service and is now part of the same venture capital group as Saga, purveyors of travel and insurance services specifically aimed at the over-50 age group.  As a member of some years’ standing, the notice told me, I’m now classed as a ‘gold member’. In the leaflet explaining this, the ‘G’ of gold is represented by a squiggle so that the remaining letters appear to say something about ‘old membership’.  Is this a deliberate joke or a corporate Freudian slip I wonder?

Liquid piracy

May 16, 2012

I was struck by a few issues from this BBC piece about the emergence of the Pirate Party as a political force in Germany,  One is that intellectual property, once seen as an arcane and technical issue, has entered the mainstream of opinion formation.  And, related to this, an organisation that started as a single-issue campaign has somehow morphed into something with aspirations to become a national political force.  The Internet has always provided a good platform for single-issue campaigns because it allows very disparate people who share a common cause to get together.  The principle of communities of practice arguably applies when the ‘shared domain’ (the shared area of interest among the members) is the promotion of a particular viewpoint.  And while the effect that you could agree wholeheartedly with somebody on one issue, and disagree virulently with the same person on another issue, just seems like a characteristic of reasoned debate about almost anything, the Internet could make it easier to rationalise these agreements and disagreements.

I also note the use of the term ‘liquid democracy’ – presumably derived from Zygmunt Bauman’s notion of liquid modernity which is itself a move to rationalise changes in society.

Long wave television

May 16, 2012


I don’t watch very much television – and catch up with a significant proportion of what I do watch on the Internet, but this week brought 56 up, the latest instalment of a programme that started in 1963 charting the progress of 14 children who were 7 at the time.  As Michael Apted, a researcher on the initial programme and director of the follow-ups, has said, the very choice of 10 boys and 4 girls now looks very dated.   Still, the result makes compelling viewing, tracking the long waves of the subjects’ lives over the decades.

It’s hard to judge from 15 minutes devoted to each participant, and from their demeanour in front of a TV camera, but the overall impression from the episode broadcase this week is of people who may have been troubled in the past, but who are now comfortable in themselves and with their lives.  Anybody who has been following the series for five episodes (that’s four seven-year gaps, so 28 years) will remember Neil as a very troubled character in his 20s and 30s, but he now comes across as content and composed.

And it was good to see Peter, who doesn’t particularly stick in my mind from previous programmes because he last appeared 28 years ago. I’m genuinely surprised that his remarks on politics in 1984 generated such a vitriolic response: Margaret Thatcher, like many other political leaders who achieved electoral success, was particularly despised by those who didn’t support her, and rightly or wrongly the sentiments expressed by Peter on that occasion must have been fairly common currency in school staffrooms at the time.

One thing that sticks in my mind from last time round – 49up – is Nick, the physicist who became a professor in the US, and somebody who has done very well professionally, regretting that he wasn’t as well known for his work as for his participation in the series.  Judging from a brief clip of him aged 7 at the end of this week’s programme, he’s remained remarkably close to his childhood ambitions.  We’ll find out more on Monday on ITV1.

On the emerging generation

November 21, 2011

There’s a piece in the Guardian over the weekend about young children’s use of new technology.  It’s well written and based on some solid research so – before I make any critical observations – be aware that there’s a lot that’s good about it.

However, I should say that I’m unconvinced by the strapline about pre-schoolers being more likely to use a smartphone than tie their shoe-laces.  I distinctly remember learning to tie my own shoelaces shortly after starting school.  The need to do this has probably reduced slightly in the years since but improvements in Velcro, not in smarphones, are responsible for this.  In fact the skills that this generation will really never get to learn are using text-based DOS type computers, and setting VHS video recorders.

In any case articles such as this – and more so the sort of responses that they attract on the Internet, need to be mediated through the effect that some adults always tend to see a deterioration in children’s behaviour, and there are well-documented examples of middle-aged people complaining about the low standards of the youth going back to ancient Greek and Roman times.  It’s a safe assumption that these same adults have been blaming these low standards on technological innovations at least since the industrial revolution.

Specifically, some of the discourse about today’s use of the Internet is very similar to the discourse that I remember about my generation’s use of television.  But there’s one important difference.  The moan about television was, and to an extent still is, that it might create a generation of couch potatoes who would simply slump on a sofa passively for hours.  Whereas the moan about smartphones and the Internet is that they could be creating a generation that’s hyperactive, and children so conditioned to everything being interactive that they can’t sit still even to watch an episode of Blue Peter. Sometimes the young can’t win.

Crowdsourcing and pyjamas

March 8, 2011

This piece from the BBC has some nice example of virtual work, along with discussions of crowdsourcing, cloud computing, working from home, vitual office, and even generational issues.

Cadenza learning

February 17, 2011

Educationalists love jazz bands.  They don’t necessarily enjoy listening to them (although I do) but they are fascinated by the interplay of the musicians, the way that they work as a team with very informal leadership structures, the way that they can share tacit understanding of each others’ actions, and the way that they can often improvise at will, playing something quite spontaneously.  Wolfgang Stark, a professor of organisational and community psychology and, as it happens, a keynote speaker in the meeting that I attended in Berlin a couple of months back, has worked with a jazz musician, Christopher Dell, on what jazz bands can tell us about organisations.

But not everybody is as creative, or innovative, or original as a jazz musician.  And not every task needs creative or original thought on every occasion.  So maybe we should look at other musical styles to give us ideas about learning.  Classical music, in general is very precise and formal, with every detail laid out in the score, and with clear instructions and procedures to follow.  So if we look to jazz bands to understand how to develop original ideas, maybe we should look to classical musicians for ideas on how to follow instructions clearly and competently, but also to do so with style and panache.

Incidentally, it’s tempting to assume that most music from mediaeval days until the 20th century was classical, but that’s clearly untrue.  There were thriving cultures of folk music, in parallel with classical music, for many years.  And while classical music generally depends on music being written, folk traditions are aural in that musicians learn tunes purely by listening to them.  As evidence of the existence of parallel traditions, I’d draw on the work of none other than Elvis Presley.  His greatest hits included wooden heart – originally a German folk song, so non-classical – and I can’t help falling in love with you – based on an eighteenth French song, plaisir d’amour, written very much in the formal, classical tradition.  And I’m sure that the folk traditions would have included plenty of improvisation.

While a symphony orchestra operates on a command and control principle with a conductor at the front, other groups of musicians are more democratic.  A string quartet should be a partnership of equals – if anything, more so than a jazz band – but one aiming for precision in following a score, not improvisation. 

But there is one place that classical musicians can get close to improvisation, and that’s in the cadenza within a concerto, where the soloist demonstrates his or her own virtuosity.  Traditionally, while a composer might write  cadenzas, soloists would also often write their own.  Interestingly, the violinist Nigel Kennedy, who spends time working on both classical music and jazz, has written his own cadenzas.

So maybe the cadenza is a metaphor that we should look at for learning.  It offers a choice to the performer – to use the composer’s cadenza and make the best of it, or to write their own, or even to pick up another cadenza and possibly adapt it.  It allows for originality within a disciplined whole.  And it offers a chance for individuals to show other their strengths.

It’s particularly relevant because of the dichotomy that I’ve observed in higher education, that students are keen (and increasingly so) to carry out their own research, but they need and expect a lot of scaffolding to do so.  And that this dichotomy is particularly marked with the current generation.  Moreover, the cadenza idea fits well with the current generation’s interest in individuality and identity.  So we shouldn’t necessarily expect students to go off and improvise jazz, unless they are really comfortable with the idea.  But we could ask them to do the equivalent of writing a cadenza, a short piece which fits into a larger whole, and which can be adapted to make best use of a particular student’s individual strengths.

I should, of course, point out that I’m not the first person to have thought about this.  There’s a business coaching company in Newcastle called Cadenza Associates, and in 2009 Rebecca Front wrote a piece in the Guardian, which applies the cadenza metaphor to her own memories of schooldays.  And those were both revealed by a quick Google search without even looking outside the UK.  But I still think it’s a powerful analogy, and in the spirit of encouraging comment and dialogue I would be interested in hearing from anybody who would like to pursue it further, particularly in connection with higher education.

On Eric Schmidt

February 3, 2011

Two linked articles in Fast Company are related to Eric Schmidt’s imminent departure as CEO of Google.  One focuses on his vision of the future, which could extend to ‘augmented humanity’ while the other focuses on Google’s approach to inter-generational management.  Amusingly, Schmidt has remarked, using Twitter, that his role, as a baby boomer (he’s 55) was to provide ‘adult supervision’ to Google’s young founders: presumably they can now be relied on to clean their teeth regularly and to go to bed at a sensible time.  In practice, I guess, his role appears to have been closer to that of a mentor, who could use his detailed knowledge of the IT world to help his colleagues exploit their bright ideas.  I’m unconvinced that the recognising the value of somebody with experience is really much of a novelty.

A hat tip, to use the conventions of the blogosphere, goes to Spryros from my part-time MSc group, who drew my attention to the augmented reality piece.  His reaction was that this was an example of convergence of real and virtual life (much more a millennial generation way of thinking than a typical baby boomer’s approach) and that it increasingly doen’t make sense to discuss people’s virtual presences on the Internet independently from their real lives.

Nicholas Carr, and the decline, or not, of literacy

January 12, 2011

There’s a tenuous connection between the reference, in the previous post, to Swindon as a railway town, and this post.  Here I’m looking at the work of Nicholas Carr, an influential thinker and blogger, and particularly the author of an interesting Harvard Business Review piece from 2003, on whether IT still mattered to business.  Why the Swindon connection?  Because part of Carr’s argument was that for many businesses IT was becoming a commodity, as power supplies and railways had become in the past.  Whereas I would argue that, whether you are looking at the impact of the rail industry on Swindon in the 19th century, or the importance of the Crossrail construction taking place in the 21st century, very close to where I work, there are plenty of places where rail networks aren’t purely a commodity. 

In general, my answer to Nicholas Carr’s question of ‘does IT matter?’ would be ‘it depends’: of course there are numerous information systems in businesses, particularly back-office systems, which have become commoditised, as the basic components of computer memory and Internet bandwidth have become ever cheaper,  But there continue to be businesses that are exploiting completely new markets that have only been made possible by IT, and the emergence of completely new business approaches (notably apps for mobile devices) in recent years serves as a reminder that these new markets haven’t been exhausted yet.

Carr’s more recent work is best represented by his piece from the Atlantic entitled, rather provocatively, is Google making us stupid?  It’s a well written and considered criticism of the Internet from somebody who uses it a lot – it certainly isn’t a rant against the whole concept of the Internet in the style of Andrew Keen (I’m tempted to suggest that you google him if you want to know more but you could also look back in my blog).  Carr has picked on some important points, notably that the net makes it easy to skip from finding out about one piece of information to another, and that following hyperlinks means that you can instantly pursue any digressions that might pique your interest.  Implicit in this effect is that, to navigate the Internet effectively, we need to have some new skills to manage those digressions and to come back to where you started.  But he also expresses a concern that we are losing something in the ability to read things at length, that we are so innured to the web-browsing approach where we jump around information that we have lost sight of the value of narrative, of the ability to read a long, coherent, piece of text that tells a story.

These are legitimate concerns, discussed at much greater length in the shallows, but I wonder if they are still misplaced, and the article is too pessimistic.  Storytelling is an idea that’s deeply embedded in the way that humans make sense of ideas, and areas of knowledge management such as that promoted by cognitive edge take advantage of this.

Wikipedia suggests that Nicholas Carr was born in 1959, which places him a year younger than both Madonna and Sir Fred Goodwin (now there’s a group of three names that you might not have expected to see in the same blog post).  So  one reading could be that, now he’s in his fifties, he’s a bit more cynical about new tecnology than he might have been a few years ago.  But he’s also a member of the first generations to have grown up with television around as an everyday artefact.  In many ways it would be very different from the television of today: fewer channels, no home video recording, no 24 hour broadcasting, very little colour television when he was a young child.  Still, it had a profound effect on the way that people occupied their lives – if anything simple 1960s television afforded more opportunities simply to slump on a sofa for hours in front of a screen than today’s multi-channel, interactive, equivalent.  Moreover, the advent of television didn’t lead to the end of literacy among Nicholas Carr’s generation, and I wouldn’t expect the Internet to destroy literacy either.

It’s possible, of course, that Amazon’s Kindle is a bit of a special case.  But with its screen, monochrome and not backlit, cleverly designed to mimic the effect of reading off paper, and even its range of literary screen-savers, this is one gadget that sits on the Internet that very specifically encourages reading.  And not just reading fragments of text: the very model that the Kindle sets out to emulate is that of sitting down to read a book from cover to cover.

Andrew McAfee and the narcissists

November 8, 2010

Andrew McAfee is the creator of the term enterprise 2.0 and an influential thinker about how different generations use technology at work.  He has an interesting and provocative contribution to the Harvard Business Review’s blogs at

Reading McAfee’s post and the comments that it prompted, I am struck by quite how slippery some of the definitions are. McAfee clearly sees narcissism as a negative form of self-absorption stemming from a lack of confidence, rather analogous to the traditional assumption that playground bullies at school use aggressive behaviour to cover up a lack of confidence. But I’m also interested in the different forms that a self-centred perspective can take. There’s a world of difference between expecting to be able to tailor the technology you use at work, or the hours that you work, to your circumstances (as members of generation Y tend to do) and the sort of hubris that McAfee observes in some of his MBAs. Come to that, narcissists might share the trait of being self-centred with people who have Aspergers Syndrome, but the two conditions manifest themselves in very different ways.

And I have to say that the comments are very hard on the baby boomers, a category that I think includes Andrew McAfee although a quick look around the Internet doesn’t reveal any indication of his age. Not only is there the suggestion that the boomers, with their desire to change the world, had plenty of narcissistic tendencies of their own, but there are some possibly troubling posts from self-confessed narcissts in generation Y, who are eager to blame their own failings on their boomer parents.

Nonliners with iPads

October 15, 2010

My interest in generational issues and technologies extends to the older, as well as the younger, generations and I was interested in the observation at that touch screens are popular with the older generation.  Perhaps there’s a pattern that the generation X-ers and baby boomers are most attracted to their keyboards, and those who are younger or older are happiest with touch screens.  In any case I do like the observation that the iPad, trendy as it sets out to be, could appeal to older ‘nonliners’ who are deterred from using the Internet because they are reluctant to use a computer,