Here’s one for the Apple fan boys… I went to school with the man who designed the iphone, the ipad and a range of iconic products.
Not only that but I also followed in Jonny Ive’s footsteps and went to the same University too.
Of course, when I say I went to school with, what I really mean is that I was a first year at Walton High School in Stafford when he was in the Sixth form. I’ve a vague recollection of him as being this rather tall student who walked everywhere with an art folder under his arm.
By pure co-incidence I was at Newcastle Polytechnic too years after Ive had left and just before it turned into Northumbria University.
He, I’m quite sure, wouldn’t have even the slightest recollection of me and good thing too.
For some reason I chanced upon a profile of Ive written in the New York Times. It’s that’s the text of the Brian Buirge and Jason Bacher poster on his wall that jumps out.
“Believe in your f*cking self. Stay up all f*cking night. Work outside of your f*cking habits. Know when to f*cking speak up. F*cking collaborate. Don’t f*cking procrastinate. Get over your f*cking self. Keep f*cking learning. Form follows f*cking function. A computer is a Lite-Brite for bad f*cking ideas. Find f*cking inspiration everywhere. F*cking network. Educate your f*cking client. Trust your f*cking gut. Ask for f*cking help. Make it f*cking sustainable. Question f*cking everything. Have a f*cking concept. Learn to take some f*cking criticism. Make me f*cking care. Use f*cking spell check. Do your f*cking research. Sketch more f*cking ideas. The problem contains the f*cking solution. Think about all the f*cking possibilities.”
That’s a really good set of advice that should be taught in schools.
Not only that, but as I get to grips with understand the web, the social web and how it affects digital comms that’s also a set of advice to live by.
It’s not often I’ll re-post someone else’s content. It’s even rarer that I re-post someone re-posting someone else’s content. But this one is something of a belter and it’s entirely within the spirit to do so.
There was an excellent TED talk YouTube on Stephen Waddington’s blog from Tom Standage who is both digital editor at The Economist and an author. The book he’s written is ‘Writing on the Wall’ which shows how far from being a modern blip is actually 2,000 years old. Not only is it rooted in history it’s the last 150-years of print mass media that’s actually the faddish blip.
As a historian that really appeals to me. It appeals even more to the geek in me. And it appeals yet more from someone who helps with the brewcamp meet-ups that actually idea sharing in a coffee shop has been around before. As Standage says, coffee shops in 18th century London were known as ‘Penny Universities’ where people could share listen, talk and meet with social superiors for the price of a brew.
Tom Standage’s three phases of media
New media 1993 – to date
That’s the stuff that’s been around since about 2000. It’s Twitter and it’s Facebook and it’s this blog post.
Old media 1833 – 1993
That’s the stuff that’s powered by a steam powered printing press. It starts with the first penny newspaper and ends with the invention of the internet.
Really old media 51 BC – 1833
That’s the stuff that first emerged in the late Roman period where people like Terentius Neo and his wife write letters to each other. Letters would be shared. Books were scarce. So you wrote one copy and place it in a library. If it was any good it it would be copied and shared. Or in other words, pirated. If it was pirated often enough then publishers would step in and produce more. So you really wanted your wortk to be pirated by as many people as possible because it meant your ideas got spread.
“You say my letter has been widely copied. Well, I don’t care. Indeed, I myself allowed several people to take a copy of it.” – Cicero Rome, 106 BC – 43 BC.
News would get around on wax tablets with the same aspect as the i-pad, Standage says.
Martin Luther’s ideas go viral
Priest Martin Luther sparked a revolution when he started to question with the Roman Catholic church was selling pardons from purgatory. He writes out a list of questions he’d like answering. He pins it to a church door in Latin. It gets copied down in long hand and shared. It gets copied and further shared. It gets printed. It gets printed in German and shared even more widely. Luther is amazed. He never intended the challenge to go viral. So, the next time he gets his message out by going straight to the printer with a German text. The result? The Reformation as the Catholic church splits and Protestantism is formed.
Coffee Houses and social media
There were no barriers to class in a coffee house and in London they led to an explosion of ideas and debate. Lloyd’s of London the insurance brokers began in a coffee house as did The Stock Exchange. So did the Royal Society.
“(The coffee house) admits of no distinction of persons, but gentlemen, mechanic, lord and scoundrel mix and are all of a piece.” – Samuel Butler, London, 1668.
Deliciously, Standage points to the parallels with social media and coffee houses and points to how people thought that people in coffee houses were just messing about.
“Why doth solid and serious learning decline, and few or none now follow it now in the University? Because of coffee houses. Where they spend all their time.” – Anthony Wood, Oxford, 1670s.
What the history lesson is for today
“Is social media a fad? If anything was a fad it was the old media mass media period that was a historical anomaly. Now we’ve gone to a more social model super-charged by the internet.” – Tom Standage, Oxford, 2013.
All of that rather appeals. It means that the brewcamps, teacamps and for that matter unconferences we think of as new ideas are actually rooted deeply in something that has gone before. It’s also something that has a track record of innovation. You put people into a room with a cup of coffee – and maybe some cake – and you start to get some good results. That’s tremendously re-assuring and tremendously exciting.
A few years ago when all this digital stuff was new to me I sat in the pub with Michael Grimes who is @citizensheep on Twitter. We were complaining that people were thinking that social media was just people wasting their time. And that people had once complained about telephones. And railways in the Victorian era. And every other invention.
Tom Standage’s book is called ‘The Writing on the Wall: Social Media the First 2,000 Years’ and you can buy it from shops and the internet very soon. You can watch the TED talk here…
As I watched a tear run down my grandpa’s face I realised the First World War hadn’t ended.
This proud man with clipped military moustache and silver hair sat in a chair across from front of me.
This was 20 years ago. I was a teenager and had been ushered in slightly reluctantly to talk to him on one of his visits.
We chatted awkwardly for a while. I’m not sure how it came up but he started to recall what happened in 1916 when his father died 70 years before.
There was just me and him in the room, a ticking clock and rain on the windows.
He cleared his throat and paused. He straightened his tie and he looked above me at the clock on the mantlepiece as he composed what he was going to tell me.
He was three, he told me, when his father left him. A Liverpool docker his dad was called up to become Sapper Peter Molyneux in the Royal Engineers.
Like his brothers he was six foot, the life and soul of the party his bulk towering over others.
His dad was sent to Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq, to help protect oil supplies.
History tells that the British expected easy victory but were cursed in this inglorious backwater by disease.
A last letter home scribbled in pencil was cheerful but his weakened handwriting gave the truth away. Sapper Molyneux died of dysentry three days later on May 22 1916.
“But that was war,” my grandpa said. “That was what happened.”
Looking back, I can remember every tick of the clock and inflection in his voice as he told me the story. As he finished a tear came to his eye and he reached into his pocket for the pressed handkerchief he always carried. He wiped it away. And I sat unsure what to say. So I said nothing. The conversation unfinished and I knew with crystal certainty it would never take place again.
Months later on Remembrance Sunday alone with a radio and the Last Post his tear came to me unexpectedly and I buried my head and sobbed and sobbed and sobbed.
But my Grandpa, protective of his mother, didn’t tell me what happened next. This emerged at a family funeral years later.
My grandfather’s mother could not cope. Shattered by grief and care worn by feeding five children she married again too soon to a man too fond of drink.
One thing isn’t clear. Did he persuade her to leave her children behind? Or did she die of pernicious anemia the product of a poor diet? We’re not sure. What is sure is that for three months the remaining children kept up the pretence of family life rooting for food in bins until their shame was exposed.
This was pain on top of pain on top of pain on top of pain.
I try hard not to, but even as a man with two children all I can see is life’s hard unseen hand slapping the small boy that grew-up to be my grandpa. A boy who looks strikingly like my own son.
Without a state to intervene the Molyneaux children were distributed to kind relatives.
As time went on, the boy grew up, married and was called up himself and sent in his father’s footsteps to Mesopotamia. This time it was World War Two.
On a lull in his duties in the desert near Basra he searched without success for his father’s grave.
That he could not find that grave was a sadness I felt.
Years later and long after my grandpa’s death I took up the search online. It took five minutes on the Commonwealth War Graves site.
It was as easy as googling and it felt wrong he was not there to see it.
Sapper Peter Molyneux is buried at grave XXI row F20 in the Kut-al-Amara graveyard near Basra along with 4,620 others.
When he died, my grandpa left me a wooden desk with a secret draw. In it I found a creased envelope and things from the Second World War.
Inside the envelope was a handful of sand.
I like to think of my grandfather in the Second World War stopping and picking up that handful of sand in Mesopotamia and carefully storing it when his search for his dad’s grave failed.
It’s a conversation and a story unfinished. It feels unresolved and I’m just not sure how to resolve it.
It’s what I think of on Remembrance Sunday.
But maybe that’s the Liverpudlian in me. They’re sentimental like that, are Scousers.
But it’s not all sad. My grandpa died achieving one of his aims in life. He became the oldest person to achieve an Open University degree aged 83 in the year he graduated.He also had three grandsons who have had seven grandchildren.Sapper Molyneaux’s great grandson – my son Joe Slee – bought a poppy for the first time this year.
He trooped into school with his 20p and came back with it on his jumper.
This is a good thing.
When he is older he may learn more about how war affected his family years before he was born.
So why is this story on a blog about digital?
Because the power of the connections that the internet makes cannot be over estimated.
It’s good to remind yourself of that – and other things.
2014 EDIT: My son is now 10 and for a school project we’re looking at Sapper Molyneux as being someone who died in the First World War. We’re researching him, his background and what life would have been life in Liverpool for him. We’ve already made some amazing discoveries and I’ll blog them later this year.
Open data cutting edge? Like top hats, Christmas trees and giant factories the Victorians got there first.
They may not have built a chimney sweep Google death map. But their approach was similar. Collect the data. Publish it. Draw conclusions. Argue for change.
Don’t believe me?
Look at Florence Nightingale in her funny lace bonnet. Historian Dr Stephen Holliday in BBC History Magazine August 2010 writes about how she used statistics to
revolutionise the care of soldiers in the Crimean War.
By using statistics – data – she painted a picture to show a revolution in care was needed.
“When she reached Scutari the base for casualties from the Crimea,” Halliday writes, “Florence calculated that deaths from disease were seven times those arising in battle and used the campaign to campaign for better food, hygeine and clothing for the troops.”
Battered by the force of Florence’s figures and cutting edge reporting that forged the reputation of The Times the British government was forced into changes.
After the war Nightingale used her Royal connections coupled with arguments based on charts and tables to press for better standards for soldiers who even in peacetime had death rates double that of civilians.
The result? Death rates fell by 75 per cent.
Florence herself said that statistics were “the cipher by way we may read the hand of God.”
We may have lost that religious zeal but it’s an argument Tim Berners-Lee would recognise as a modern-day Florence Nightingale with a passion for data.
Did she get it right all the time?
No. Here’s the warning from history.
By misreading available data Florence Nightingale later helped kill thousands of people.
She used statistics to wrongly argue cholera was an airborne disease. It wasn’t.
It took London GP Dr John Snow to collect his own data on death rates in his patch to argue they were caused by a contaminated water supplies.
So what’s the message to today’s open data pioneers?
That first data visualisation you have in front of you may not be the whole picture.
There may be more to it.
Remember the phrase ‘lies, damn lies and official statistics?’
Statistics were once hailed as the magic cure-all that revealed a hidden truth.
It’s been said that all data in some form or other is political. Let’s not see open data similarly tainted.