2021iv9, Friday: (Not) getting things done.

Has productivity fallen because we’re all doing things we’re just not that good at? And how tech perverts language.

Short thought: Once upon a time, the BBC had a specialist expenses unit in Cardiff. Unsurprisingly, journalists run up some fairly bizarre expenses from time to time, and the unit could handle all of them. Legend was you could send them a photo of a receipt written in Coptic and scratched in the whitewash on the wall of a house, and someone in the team would dredge up a memory of John Simpson having done something similar in the 80s and find a way to process it.

This, of course, cost money. So it was shut down about 20 years ago, outsourced and standardised, and therefore became entirely useless. The result: a lot of stressed reporters spending foolish amounts of time trying to work out how to file expenses instead of, you know, reporting.

This came to mind when reading a piece from Tim Harford earlier this week. Tim (whose praise I’ve sung before), wonders whether the lack of productivity increases is because all of us “knowledge workers” are doing loads of stuff we’re not actually that good at, rather than the things we’re in fact meant to apply our finely-honed brains to; and because the organisations we work within tend not to have terribly good systems for managing workflow.

One culprit, of course, is email. I shudder when I see someone’s phone screen with a little red spot saying they’ve got 32,483 unread messages. As someone who – while a long way off Inbox Zero – nonetheless reads, acts upon, defers or deletes everything as soon as it comes in, it makes me physically ill. But I understand how it happens: the sheer amount of stuff hitting this single channel can rapidly become unmanageable. And I don’t think things like Slack are an answer: it’s just yet another inbox, for the most part.

If I’m honest, I think the main problem is that there’s an organisational equivalent of the Dunbar number. The Dunbar number is the idea that the practical optimum number of people in a community (whether physical or virtual) is about 150 – the number where there are enough people to have a range of views, skills and experiences, but where you can still know everyone. For work, though, I think it’s a lot smaller: maybe a dozen at most. Yet most people who work in anything but the smallest of business are blizzarded with information about a range of things that simply aren’t really that important to them.

It’s one of the reasons I find the idea of one day going back to a paycheque far less appealing than I thought it would, before I jumped into this world of self-employed advocacy. These days, I’m part of a Chambers which only just goes into 3 digits. But usually I’m working in teams which max out at half a dozen: solicitors, client and maybe one other barrister. Yes, I’ve got several such projects going at any one time; but still, my signal-to-noise ratio across all forms of communication is far, far higher than it used to be.

I’m sure some businesses get this right. Information that people need when they need it goes in intranets or elsewhere, rather than in emails. Announcements are corralled into groups, rather than put out willy-nilly. CC and BCC are ruthlessly suppressed. Meetings – and the vast paper-counts that have to be read first – are pruned.

It’s just that I never worked in one. One reason why I’d hate to go back.


Someone is right on the internet: Thinking about the Dunbar number makes me recall something I read by John Naughton a few weeks ago. Back in the days when I was an investigator, it was always great to discover that a target was promiscuous when it came to Facebook friends. (Of course, these days Facebook isn’t anywhere near as useful a tool for social network mapping, but it still has its place – certainly for people over 25 or so.) The reason being, it was often possible to back into someone’s friend lists via one of their other friends, whose privacy settings might well be less rigorously enforced.

Despite being something of a geek, I’ve long loathed this use of the word “friend”, as I do the word “like”. (I got exceptionally pissed off when Twitter dropped stars in favour of likes. I used to star things as a way of denoting them as worth hanging onto. Much of that I didn’t “like” in any meaningful way.)

But John put it better than me:

Much of the Orwellian language that’s endemic in the tech business reminds me of Heidegger’s definition of ‘technology’ as “The art of arranging the world so that you don’t have to experience it.” Just think how Facebook has perverted the word ‘friend’, or how nearly every company has perverted ‘share’. As Sam Goldwyn might have said, in Silicon Valley if you can fake empathy you’ve got it made.

Spot on.


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2021iii17, Wednesday: A bad bill.

The government’s shameful misuse of the Sarah Everard affair to shore up support for an illiberal bill. And why video shouldn’t supplant the chance to walk and talk.

Short thought: Briefly, because others know more and write better about it: the UK government’s new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is well-described by Joshua Rozenberg and David Allen Green. Both indicate the illiberal nature of the bill’s provisions for controlling protest – and mention the power given to the Home Secretary elsewhere in the Bill to define (as she wills) what “serious disruption”, a trigger for police control of assemblies and for offences if people don’t obey the police in such circumstances, is to mean. I mention this only as an example of what many would see (myself included) as the increasing misuse of secondary legislation to define – in this case – offences incurring significant jail terms without proper parliamentary oversight.

As a sideline, I noted the attempt by the Home Secretary in the House of Commons earlier this week to describe Labour opposition to the bill as being “anti-women”, in the context of the Sarah Everard case and its implications. I don’t normally go this far, but I find this both deeply dishonest and wholly scandalous. The bill increases jail terms for some sexual offences by reducing or abolishing early release, certainly. But it does absolutely nothing – and, to be clear, I’ve heard no indication that this is on the government’s agenda – to fund more investigation, prosecution or the courts such that more cases actually reach a conclusion in a timely fashion. Or, indeed, to examine whether – this recent court case notwithstanding – anything is wrong on a systemic basis with how the police or CPS deal with violence against women.

For shame.


Someone is right on the internet: Till 2015, I’d worked in open-plan spaces for a decade and a half. I hated them. They’re exhausting, loud, inimical to creativity, bug-ridden and only save money if you ignore the immense productivity hit they cause.

So my first day at Bank of Montreal that year was wonderful. I was led to an actual office. With a door that closed. And told it was mine.

Actually, the quiet and seclusion was only part of the reason for rejoicing. Just as important, for me, was that I could finally walk and talk without bothering anyone.

I know I’m not alone in this. When I’m on the phone, I wander. Even if the space is tiny – my office at home is less than 2m wide, so walking is essentially three steps, turn, three steps back – I find it an immense aid to thought. And when the weather’s nice and there’s no-one around, I’m very happy to have an in-depth, technical conversation in the park, or the country, or the seaside. Anywhere where I can put one foot in front of the other.

So while I love videoconferencing, I also hate it. Because it’s become, for some, the norm. Why talk on the phone when you can Zoom, or Teams?

As this piece notes, because video imposes additional cognitive load. It’s unnatural: the brain expects wideband when it sees someone (body language, a sense of space, etc) and instead has to focus solely on a face. And equally, forcing all one’s expression solely through the face, with that awkward sense of how one looks in the tiny thumbnail in the corner of the screen, is also a stressor.

So, please. By all means, let’s turn the cameras on when they’re needed.

But when they’re not, let’s take advantage of the options that a more remote work style allows.

And let me wander.


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2021iii15, Monday: Enlightened laziness

A message of hope for procrastinators everywhere. And a depressing but unsurprising long read about Facebook’s damaging take on AI ethics.

Photo of the Cam below King’s College, by Giacomo Ferroni on Unsplash

Short thought: Most of us, on occasion at least, struggle with procrastination. I know I do. Sometimes it’s simply having too many plates spinning. Sometimes it’s what I’ve come to call the “paint colour” problem: that when you’ve got a wicked problem and a more straightforward one, the temptation is to solve the latter and procrastinate the former. (“Paint colour” because if an hour-long meeting has two items on the agenda, one of which is existential and the other of which is what colour to paint the office, you can bet that 55 minutes will be spent on the paint.) And sometimes it’s simply that you’re tired, and focus and flow are elusive.

I don’t know of any magic bullets for this. But mindset can help. Whether it’s a form of self-induced CBT or not I don’t know; but I’ve found that a re-framing of my motives has been of assistance. I call it “enlightened laziness”.

This dates back to my college days. I was studying Japanese, which meant a first year spent sweating grammar and vocab for hours a day while friends were drinking around their weekly essay crises. But as it came to exams, I realised that I was spending less time revising than they were. Not because I’d consciously been doing more work; just because the pattern of my work meant I was constantly and consistently reinforcing things.

The upshot? While they sweated their way through a beautiful May in stuffy rooms and libraries, I lay on the banks of the Cam with a bottle of something.

That’s the laziness bit. I like to work. I like to learn. But I also like to live. And so I told myself: if I can translate this into a practice, I can keep lazing on the riverbank when the time is right to do so.

And thus was born enlightened laziness. If I manage my time, and get to things early enough, I get to laze around when I want to. That’s the motivation: not good behaviour, or efficiency. But making space for laziness.

It’s worked for me. Usually. I admit that life at the Bar has given it a knock; especially right now, with multiple clashing client deadlines. But as a general principle, one that says “spread the work out, don’t leave it till the last minute, so that you can laze about instead”, it remains a touchstone.

Now, of course, I’m trying to convince my 14-year-old daughter of the same principle. Don’t leave schoolwork till the last minute: less stress, and more lazing, to get to it earlier. I’m not conspicuously succeeding. Perhaps I never will.

But it might be worth a try, for those like me who’ve struggled with procrastination. I’ve heard worse incentives than to protect your lazing time. Give it a go.


Someone is right on the internet: There’s an excellent long read from the MIT Technology Review on work within Facebook on AI ethics. It’s well-reported, fascinating, and entirely depressing.

I loathe Facebook; I have an account solely for doing stuff I can’t do without it (like managing our relationship with my daughter’s Tae Kwon Do club), and always open it in a private tab to mitigate the risk of it infecting everything else I do. I regard it as parasitic, unpleasant, and sociopathic to a degree. And I fear deeply the fact that a single, exceptionally odd (and although from me that’s usually a compliment, this time it isn’t) and unfeasibly rich young white man can essentially dictate the terms of communication for large chunks of the world.

This piece does nothing to change those feelings. If anything, it accentuates them:

By the time thousands of rioters stormed the US Capitol in January, organized in part on Facebook and fueled by the lies about a stolen election that had fanned out across the platform, it was clear from my conversations that the Responsible AI team had failed to make headway against misinformation and hate speech because it had never made those problems its main focus. More important, I realized, if it tried to, it would be set up for failure.

The reason is simple. Everything the company does and chooses not to do flows from a single motivation: Zuckerberg’s relentless desire for growth. Quiñonero’s AI expertise supercharged that growth. His team got pigeonholed into targeting AI bias, as I learned in my reporting, because preventing such bias helps the company avoid proposed regulation that might, if passed, hamper that growth. Facebook leadership has also repeatedly weakened or halted many initiatives meant to clean up misinformation on the platform because doing so would undermine that growth.

In other words, the Responsible AI team’s work—whatever its merits on the specific problem of tackling AI bias—is essentially irrelevant to fixing the bigger problems of misinformation, extremism, and political polarization. And it’s all of us who pay the price.

“When you’re in the business of maximizing engagement, you’re not interested in truth. You’re not interested in harm, divisiveness, conspiracy. In fact, those are your friends,” says Hany Farid, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley who collaborates with Facebook to understand image- and video-based misinformation on the platform.

There’s something important in this notion of how a focus not on risk but on compliance – obeying law or regulation, and in the process minimising its effects on one’s business model – can be sheer poison for how a business manages its effect on the world, and the externalities it creates. I’ll try to get to it soon – apologies that it’s still brewing.

Till then, this is well worth your time.


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