Retrospective thoughts on Smart Shift

Smart Shift, a book about the impact of technology on society, is now published online. Here’s my thoughts on its multi-year gestation. 

About seven years ago, I decided to write about everything I thought I’d learned, on the impact of technology on society as a whole. Having been down in the weeds of infrastructure (either as a job, or as an analyst), I wanted to express myself, to let some ideas free that had been buzzing in my head for some time. I know, I thought, why not write it as a book. That’ll be simple.

I already had some form, concerning the notion of getting into print. Biographies of a couple of popular bands, a technology-related book and various mini-publications gave me experience, some contacts and, I believed, an approach which was, one way or another, going to work.

Fast forward a few years and many lessons, and we have a book. While I took advice and had interest at beginning, middle and end, while I worked through the process of proposals, of creating a narrative that fitted both what people wanted to read and how they wanted to read it, of having reviews and honing the result, it was never published.

And, perhaps, it was never going to be, nor was it supposed to be, for reasons I didn’t fully understand. The first, so wonderfully exposed recently by screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, is the lottery nature of many areas of the arts: writing, film and music.

The crucial point is that the lottery is symptom, not cause: a mathematically inevitable consequence of the imbalance between a gloriously rich seam of talent-infused material, and a set of corporate channels that have limited bandwidth, flexibility and indeed, creativity, all of which is navigating a distracting ocean of flotsam and jetsam. While the background is open to debate, the consequences are the same: just “doing the thing” right doesn’t inevitably lead to what the industry defines as success.

Much to unpick: a different thread, of course, could be that my own book is either flotsam or jetsam. A better line of thinking still, is to recognise a number of factors that are spawned from the above, not least, what is it all for?

Before answering this broader question (broadest of all questions?) it’s worth pointing out the nature of this particular beast. Let me put it this way: any treatise that starts with the notion that things are changing (e.g. anything about technology) is signing its own best-before warrant. The window of opportunity, and therefore one’s ability to deliver, is constrained by the time period about which one is covering, and the rate of change therein. 

In other words, over the period of writing, I was always out of date. No sooner had I written one thing than the facts, the data points, the anecdotes started to wilt, to wither on the vine I had created for them. It isn’t by accident that I ended up delving into the history of tech, as I had already captured several zeitgeists only to see them die and desiccate before my eyes. 

On the upside, I now have a book which could (still) be revised: each chapter is structured on the principle of starting with something old, and using that as a foundation to describe the new. Canny, eh?

Returning to “what is it for”, one point spawns from this: there’s a place for history in the now. I know, that’s not blindingly insightful, but the link between the two is often shunned in technological circles which prefer to major on revolutions than deeper-rooted truths.

Meanwhile, and speaking of the now, one needs to accept the singular consequence of both lottery culture and rapid change, simply put: if you’re a technologist, the chances of getting your message out there in book form are miniscule, if you rely on a relatively slow-moving industry. Which very much begs the question, what is the point? If the answer is to be published, then you may be asking the wrong question but, as Christopher intimates, good luck to you. 

At this point, I’d like to bring in another lesson from my experiences with singing in a band, or in particular, what happens when only a handful of people shows up. It happens, but it doesn’t have to be a disaster: what I have learned is, if one person in the room is enjoying themselves, they become the audience. It’s humbling, uplifting and incredibly freeing to give just one or two people a great time through music. 

Put everything together and the most significant lesson from Smart Shift is this: my job, and my passion is to capture, then share an understanding. The job, then, is to balance reach with timing: better that a handful of people get something at the moment that it matters, than a thousand receive old news. 

The bottom line is just do it, get it out there. Grow your audience by all means, build a list of people who want to hear what you have to say, and have something to give back in response. But start with the right ones, with the person at the back of the room that claps along. Not because of any narcissistic ideal but because, if the job is to communicate, an active audience of one is infinitely more powerful than not being heard at all. 

 


Also published on Medium.

Retrospective thoughts on Smart Shift

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