Staying Human in the Digital Age

Businesswoman Surrounded by Robots

“47% of all jobs will be replaced by technology in the next 10 years.”

I was sitting listening to Karie Willyerd (Twitter: @angler) talk about the future of HR technology during our annual SAP SuccessConnect conference and, though I was aware that the topic of the talk had moved on, my mind had seized onto that one terrifying statistic and it wasn’t letting go. It hadn’t been three weeks since I’d sat with my 14 year old son looking through grade 9 subject choices with him. What subjects should he choose to set himself up for the right university courses and admittance to those areas that interest him? We’d just attended a Monash University science day and talked with lecturers about careers in science – my son’s passion – and what he should be focusing on if he wanted to pursue those particular disciplines. Based on current learning conventions, over the course of his schooling he’d continue to refine those skills ever more finely and then he’d enter university where he’d undergo an expensive big-bang approach to learning that would set the foundation for his future career – the set of related jobs that would comprise his working adult life. Only … if what I was seeing on the screen was true then this was somewhat akin to gambling. Half of all jobs would be gone by the time he left university and, given the relentless pace of technology, would be replaced by what? The model seems broken to me, the big-bang approach to learning flawed and a relic of a pre-digital era. The pressure on our kids to get it right in an ever increasing competitive and populous world: overwhelming.

It is easy for those of us who work in technology, and love technology for technology’s sake, to gloss over what the digital transformation will mean for ourselves and for our species. It’s easy to get carried away with the marvels of machine learning and robotics, hyper-connected devices, ever smarter smart phones, and a cornucopia of gadgets to delight and to distract. We find ourselves attracted to the easy and emotionally safe components of these conversations – how self-driving cars will be a boon for traffic and road safety and gloss over the effects these changes will have on people. Whole industries will be transformed forever as disruptive technologies like Uber are currently doing with the taxi industry. It’s easy to not think about the livelihoods of taxi drivers or long-haul truckers and the uncertain future they face. For some it’s also easy to be lulled into a false sense of security, that somehow our specialisation and skills make us safe from these changes. Nothing could be further from the truth as analysts predict that highly-skilled jobs like those in finance, or engineering, or medicine could be equally affected by disruptive technology.

New fields of consulting seem to be springing up around us like weeds. “Transform your Business for the Digital Tomorrow” they promise, or “Ensure your Continued Professional Relevance”; the quick-fix feel-good for the future. But I am concerned at the superficial nature of the questions we’re asking as part of the process and the assumptions we’re making without a significant re-evaluation of our circumstances, our motivations, or our mindset. So much of how we’re measured in our daily and professional lives – from instant feedback, to time-tracking, to always-on mobile, to sifting constantly through a daily barrage of digital information for relevance – is arguably dehumanising us in subtle ways. It is the classic boil the frog slowly problem and we’ve bought into this new normal: this always on, always distracted, always connected, and always processing and sifting vast amounts of content. The problem is that neuropsychology shows were not very good at these things as human beings – our biology just hasn’t had the time to catch up with the information age. Computers, they’re exceptionally good at this stuff. As machines get smarter and better at information processing we seem to be trying to keep up with them while at the same time getting further away from those things machines can’t do well: the capacity for love and empathy, the ability to think deeply on topics of importance, the ability to connect in an invested way, to appreciate beauty, to be creative, I’d even argue the importance of being bored once in a while.

Science fiction in the 1950’s and 1960’s promised us a golden future where technology would replace jobs but would give back to us in time and leisure to pursue the more self-actualised aspects of our humanity. Current science fiction, the bellwether of technology trends and progression, is painting a bleaker more dystopian future. So what’s happening?

Professor Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice at the London Business School, argues:

“We’re designing work that takes away the only opportunity humans have to be different from machines … the very technology that makes creativity important is limiting it because of the way we’re choosing to make jobs work.”

One issue driving our acceptance of current technology trends is the belief in, and the sense of security we have around, the direction of technology innovation. We have an unconscious bias in believing that technology builds on a series of rational or sound scientific milestones and that somehow positive intent is a given. The reality seems to show something slightly different; that technology follows a more organic pattern and feeds on, and is driven by, many aspects of human nature that are arguably less desirable. In his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins coined the word “meme” to represent an idea or behaviour that spreads between people or within cultures. The informational payload of memes have many aspects of biological propagation and mutation and are subject to selective pressures within the environments they are active. Technology it seems propagates in a very similar way and much of technology is driven by ever increasing consumerism and commoditisation. Some of the most negatively disruptive aspects of technology are driven solely by shareholder primacy and the need to see change on the bottom line at the cost of all other considerations – the increasing prevalence of targeted advertising, both as a general trend and one driving many machine learning initiatives in online retail is a good example.

When Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking issued concerns about artificial intelligence (A.I.) most of the world had a little fun with the Skynet / Terminator analogies and then moved on. On a recent Reddit, Stephen Hawking clarified his position by saying:

“The real risk with artificial intelligence isn’t malice but competence.”

His analogies are simple:

“You’re probably not an evil ant-hater who steps on ants out of malice, but if you’re in charge of a hydroelectric green project and there’s an anthill in the region to be flooded, to bad for the ants.”

With predictions pointing to a critical threshold and then an exponential ramp-up both in capacity and intelligence in A.I. it is not out of the realms of possibility to foresee a time when the collective intelligence of a human being might appear ant-like to a machine. Hawking calls for us to be careful about how we approach machine intelligence and cautions that rather than exploring undirected A.I. we should be focusing on ensuring A.I. research is more targeted to us and the outcomes we need as human beings. Hawking foresees two possible futures: one where most people can live a better, more luxurious life if the resources freed up by machines are shared. In another future most people are “miserably poor” and the rich who own the machines end up consolidating the wealth and the benefit. Given our current situation the worry is the second future is more likely.

We are undoubtedly at an inflection point – one that demands of us the most human of attributes applied correctly to solving the problems of the future in a way that benefits ourselves and the generations to come. The digital revolution is here and we’ve only scratched the surface of the disruption that will reshape our world. We should embrace those aspects that make us truly unique from machines and direct our creative endeavours to solving some of the hurdles that lie before us now. This demands of us a responsibility for the tools and the automation we deploy. It demands that we think deeply about the human story in the fields of disruption and provide solid mechanisms for re-training and learning for those who need new skills. It demands that we proceed with caution and with a strong ethical framework in the fields of machine intelligence.

What good is any technology unless is frees us to explore the better aspects of out nature? The best technology stories always have people at their heart and they, in my humble opinion, always enable a better future for us and allow us to do what we do best: be human.

Goodbye Sir Terry Pratchett

sir terry

The first time I went adventuring with Sir Terry it was as Teppic, a prince of the tiny kingdom of Djelibeybi – a Discworld alternative to Ancient Egypt. I admit, having come from conventional fantasy I was a little bewildered by what I was reading but that feeling only lasted a few minutes before blossoming into huge guffaws of laughter and a feeling of genuine wonder and delight. Pyramids was my first Terry Pratchett novel and it introduced me to concepts that have lodged like splinters in my brain ever since. The theme of the power of belief was one he introduced in Pyramids and was later to explore in Small Gods – this was a tongue-in-cheek look at how Gods only gain their power through the number of followers they have and the collective strength of their belief. Neil Gaiman, a good friend and co-author of Terry Pratchett, came to explore similar themes in his tour de force of a novel American Gods.

From that moment on I greedily hoovered up every word written by Terry Pratchett. I raided the public library until such time as I could afford to collect his books and graphic novels. Three times now I have stood in long snaking lines with an arm full of worn out paperbacks waiting for my moment in the sun, to stand before that wide brimmed black hat and peer into those piercing eyes that see across worlds and for them to see me back, and to open the covers and write a hidden gem of a message inside. “To Stuart – for the worlds inside your head” remains, to this day, the most precious piece of paper I own.

For those who have not read Terry Pratchett it is hard to convey the effect of his combination of fantasy, humour, and satire on a developing mind and world view. His books were layered with a fantastic array of characters and plots but they were about so much more than humorous fantasy. Beneath the jokes and the silly names his stories tackled real weighty social issues like racism, and poverty, and the corruption of power. They weren’t afraid to peel back the thin veneer of civilization and poke the ugly underbelly of the human race with a stick. The ability to explore these weighty social issues through the lens of satire in a fantasy world where no one could get offended was genius. Sir Terry would walk up to the ugliness in all men with a smile on his face, crack a joke, and then kick it firmly in the testicles.

This morning I woke to find that Terry Pratchett had passed away I immediately wanted to crawl into a small dark hole. While coming in to work, in a state of deep melancholy, I was listening to a song by Passenger called All the Little Lights (video below). Michael Rosenberg, a folk-rock singer, explores how we’re all born with a finite number of little lights inside of us and how major life events steal them from us one by one until there are none left and we pass from this world. One of the great cruelties of ageing is having just enough time to nurture those little lights, to understand what they really mean to you, and then having them taken away. Those lights are epitomised by people you respect or idolise; whether they’re great poets or artists, or singers, or in my case – authors. People who can paint worlds on a canvas and invite you along to be part of that, who through their characters can reach out and shape your thinking and show you a world of richness and colour even if that world travels on the back of a giant turtle. Many lights have passed for me recently. Back in June last year when Ian M. Banks passed away from cancer I wrote about my sorrow at not being able to ever travel in the Culture again, or marvel at a galaxy traversed by enormous sentient starships. Other giants have fallen: Robin Williams where we lost so much more than a comedian, and this month Leonard Nimoy who was (and always will be) Spock and so much more.

There seems to be a lot of tip-toeing in the media about how Terry Pratchett died and I respect that and the request for privacy from his loved ones. Though I understand the use of the term “passed away” at this time, I hope when the grieving is done that we come together to talk about the elephant in the room – the ability to die with dignity. Terry was a passionate proponent of being able to meet your end with dignity and your eyes open and I hope we continue to fiercely debate a much needed change in perception on this topic. I think we owe it to his memory not to skirt it and sweep it under the rug of convenience or discomfort.

Terry was not destined to fade away with a whimper. A man who could so perfectly pen the character of DEATH with a wry smile on his face did not deserve such a fate. He was brave and fierce – he forged his own sword for God’s sake! When he was knighted he dug up 81kg of ore , smelting it in a makeshift kiln of clay and hay and he threw in several pieces of meteorite for good measure before having it shaped into a sword by a local blacksmith. He had to store the gorgeous finished sword, inlaid with silver, in a secret location though. In true Pratchett style he said: “It annoys me that knights aren’t allowed to carry their swords, that would be knife crime.”
His mind was sharp as a whip as he jabbed his words and his humour like a sword into the soft underbelly of the griminess of the human condition. He was a giant who made you laugh all the while forcing you to look at the world completely differently.

Neil Gaiman wrote about how Terry Pratchett is not jolly, he’s angry. Well I’m angry too. Angry that underfunded research has allowed Terry to be taken from us in his prime while we continue to spend trillions of dollars trying to blow each other up. I’m sad and angry I won’t ever read another Discworld novel or be stirred to thoughtful contemplation through his use of satire, his love of the human condition, and his imagination.

Gaiman wrote:

He will rage, as he leaves, against so many things: stupidity, injustice, human foolishness and short-sightedness, not just the dying of the light. And, hand in hand with the anger, like an angel and a demon walking into the sunset, there is love: for human beings, in all our fallibility; for treasured objects; for stories; and ultimately and in all things, love for human dignity.

One of the first things we do when one of our lights takes DEATH’s hand and walks into the night is look for words to sum up a lifetime, a pithy statement, a quote from one of his books perhaps? I find myself completely at a loss in the face of those last three tweets.

Against his understanding of what it means to be human, of the worlds he was able to conjure from the threads of his imagination, my words fail and seem meaningless.

So thank you Sir Terry for all the little lights you have given me and for the lasting impact you’ll continue to have on generations who have yet to discover your magic.

On Notebooks


But our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable “I.” We are not talking here about the kind of notebook that is patently for public consumption, a structural conceit for binding together a series of graceful pensées; we are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.

Joan Didion

The Crimson Edition of The Graveyard Book

The pale blue of the The Graveyard Book gleamed like polished opal in the light of the full moon. The night air was humid and expectant; the lull in the breeze the breath of anticipation. I watched small dark shapes flit and twitter against the charcoal trees then gazed upwards at the pale disk in the sky; at familiar shadows I’d known all my life, friends really, across nights largely defined by insomnia. Would this work? Neil walks that shadowy line between the superficial patina of our reality and what really lies beneath but this was something else entirely.

I spoke the lines of the cantrip in a practiced and polished tongue; perfectly rehearsed. The moon stained suddenly – red and rich as though dipped in a bowl of velvet Shiraz – and I knew I had recited perfectly. It worked, it actually worked! How had Neil pulled this off?

Looking down at the beautiful first edition in my hand I saw the blue of the cover melt away to a deep crimson. I fumbled opened the pages and saw the illustrations form in lines of shimmering quicksilver. There was Bod and Silas standing together at the door of the crypt discussing Jack no doubt and all the awful implications of that fateful night. Each thick line spread across the page into finer and finer traceries, filling in the details of expression and intent. There was a kindness and a deep weariness for Silas – those eyes told the story of centuries of un-life – contrasting with the impatience and energy of youth for Bod. I turned page after page watching the illustrations leak onto each directly from my mind.

I had acquired the Crimson Edition of The Graveyard Book; perhaps the only one of its kind in the world.

I have written before about how I hate dreams that are pedestrian; pale reflections of our worries and the drollery of the day to day. Last night was different and coloured no doubt by reading the amazing graphic novel version of The Graveyard Book, one of my favourites, directly before bed.

How did the dream turn out? Well, in truth, not so well. I tried to transform another copy of The Graveyard Book the following night but misspoke the cantrip. This, it turns out, does not have a great outcome. The curse stole and swapped out sections of the book in my hand with all the wonderful first editions in my library. I was left holding a book that was an eclectic collection of verse, story and illustrations and the story of Bod was distributed throughout my collection. All of my precious books with pages and paragraphs replaced with the story of a little boy who grew up in a graveyard.

Therein lies the price of greed. Neil was not very sympathetic when I told him of my woes the next day. He looked at me impatiently from beneath his curly mop of hair and said that we were each only meant to have one copy of the Crimson Edition.

I still count myself lucky.

Where the Wild Things are.


Here are fairy stories as they were meant to be told before they pandered to pleasant untroubled dreams. Behold, the complete tales of the brothers Grimm. In a mad push to prevent a cultural dilution by the French during the Napoleonic wars, Wilhelm and his brother Jacob scoured the countryside for local stories and fairy tales. These were stories as told true and untainted by the human heart. Dark tales, scary tales. Tales where really bad things could happen if you wondered too far into the woods. Tales where people did unspeakable things and witches were made to dance to their deaths in burning iron shoes. These are not safe tales. Beware if you enter unprepared.

Story Generator update

The first of my planned updates to my story generator is complete. I have made the output simpler to understand, have improved the content that feeds into the generator and have done a fair bit or re-coding to allow me to re-use elements on other projects. The output from the generator is just what I’d always wanted from such a tool which is probably why I decided to write my own in the first place.

I moved away from clunky text lists into much more elegant JSON containers and have started adding more sophisticated elements for me to maintain and update the back-end. I’ve also added in 5 wildcards from a lists file I maintain and add to regularly. The list file is predominantly a list of nouns, of things that came to mind that I may – at some point – like to include in a story or make into a story. The wildcards are elements which could be included in your story just to mix things up a bit.

I realise the page looks a bit bland. I’m exploring ways to add a visual component to the experience but that’s for later. For now I hope you like the changes!

Ursula K. Le Guin and the labels that define us.

I came across an article on Ursula K. Le Guin on BrainPickings, quite possibly my favourite website on the Internet. The site had a selection of her beautiful thoughts and mental ruminations on the topic of growing old and of fitting into preconceived societal stereotypes; gender and age being the ones in focus. I love language in much the same way Stephen Fry loves language – the sounds words make, the feel they evoke, the memories they stir – and I think Ursula has an unusual mastery of the words she chooses and the way she puts them together. I won’t steal all Brainpicking’s thunder – they work hard to generate the amazing content they put up day after day – but just listen to what is being said, and what is not being said:

And another thing. Ernst Hemingway would have died rather than get old. And he did. He shot himself. A short sentence. Anything rather than a long sentence, a life sentence. Death sentences are short and very, very manly. Life sentences aren’t. The go on and on, all full of syntax and qualifying clauses and confusing references and getting old. And that brings up the real proof of what a mess I have made of being a man: I am not even young. Just about the time they finally started inventing women, I started getting old. And I went right on doing it. Shamelessly. I have allowed myself to get old and haven’t done one single thing about it, with a gun or anything.

Marvelous! There is so much subtext and irony sitting behind that simple paragraph it’s close to bursting with meaning. I’d recommend you head over to the Brainpickings for the original article; her views on sex and horse-riding are hilarious and nothing like what you may be thinking.

But it got me thinking, I mean really thinking about stereotyping and what, beyond a loose accumulation of labels, makes us who we are. My mind pulled up old facts from days at med school about foetal development and the developmental stages where boys become boys, because for a long time you can’t tell the difference, and there’s an argument to be made we all start off as women anyway before the ‘ol Y chromosome starts doing it’s thing. I’ve been reflecting for a while now on how the cruel irony of ageing is the way your physical age starts to rapidly outpace your mental age and society expects you to display age-appropriate behaviour – and worse treats you differently. Like Ursula, to be young of mind, vivacious in your ideas, brimming with enthusiasm and creativity and be stuck in a old body. Well, therein lies the rub.

It wasn’t a huge leap from what was rattling around in my head to, in one burst of creative energy, pen a story about a man who goes to sleep and wakes up a woman. I’m not talking magic – physically he/she was still male. I’m talking about all the little neurons firing off in the brain and waking up knowing you’re a she. What would that be like? What would it be like if your world view got turned upside down and something you thought you knew was suddenly completely different? How would you/society deal with it? What would the disconnect be like between what you were physically and a completely new mental framework? Reading some of Ursula’s thoughts got me wanting to play with the psychology/stereotypes/ideas behind the labels man and woman rather than a speculative fiction piece about a magic sex change – those have been done to death in their often superficially juvenile way.

If nothing else, as a writing exercise, it was fun. It was (continues to be?) quite challenging – I can’t put the thoughts down which means there’s still more in my head and I will need to keep at it until my brain lets it go. I recall an interview with Stephen King about how badly he got Carrie wrong in his first drafts until his wife called him up on it and said, very nicely, something along the lines of “Dear, that’s really not how girls work.”

Anyway, first draft is here but much work remains to test if I’m anywhere close to getting it right. To my female friends, you may soon be getting a call for help.

4 February, 2015 11:21

One of the greatest boons to travelling for work is the quiet. The blissful lack of noise in the evenings. A rejuvenating time filled with books, reading, good wine, and writing. This is in direct contrast to the norm of arguing children, the infernal television, dirty dishes, and school lunches. Not to in any way discount the exhausting latter, but I do so enjoy the former from time to time.

Not to Write is To Die

Not to write, for many of us is to die. We must take arms each and every day, perhaps knowing that the battle cannot be entirely won, but fight we must, if only a gentle bout. The smallest effort to win means, at the end of the day, a sort of victory. Remember that pianist who said that if he did not practice every day he would know, if he did not practice for two days, the critics would know, after three days, his audience would know.

A variation of this is true for writers. Not that your style, whatever that is, would melt out of shape in those few days.

But what would happen is that the world would catch up with and try to sicken you. If you did not write every day, the poisons would accumulate and you would begin to die, or act crazy, or both.

You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.

~ Ray Bradbury (Introduction to Zen in the Art of Writing)

Online Story Generator now available

I like using story generators for my writing practice because you just never know what you’re going to end up with. This is a great thing because it forces you to adapt, to try writing about something that’s not in your zone of comfort, that’s different enough to make you feel incomfortable and when I’m uncomfortable is usually when I’m growing. I couldn’t find an online story generator I liked (no disrespect to the vast number of far more comprehensive ones out there) so I threw one together in php to suit my needs.

It’s fairly rudimentary but I’m continually updating the topic lists as I go and, to date, it’s served me pretty well. Feel free to try it and let me know how you go. Suggestions for future iterations are welcome.

You will find the link in the right panel now or follow the following link: Story Gen