Things have been quiet ’round here lately. A little… too quiet, if you ask me. So I’ve been thinking about where to take Roblog next.
I thought I’d share my thoughts, partly so you can chip in if you want to, but also so I can get a bit of public accountability for what I’m intending. (Two things I respond well to: a deadline, and the threat of public embarrassment for failing to do something I said I would.)
Those thoughts in short: I want to make Roblog more frequent, more relevant, more specific, and more actionable for the people who read it. (That’s you!)
Let me know what you think by replying to this email. And, as ever, please forward it on to anyone who you think might enjoy it.
See you a little more frequently in the coming weeks and months!
This week’s article
A roadmap for where this place is headed
2023 has, for me at least, been an eventful year. I’ve started a new consultancy, I’ve been dabbling in starting up a consumer brand, I got a dog. I’ve been keeping weeknotes on how those things are going.
Given all that, I suppose it’s no surprise that Roblog has languished a little, and perhaps I shouldn’t beat myself up about it too much. But I also think there’s more to it than that. I think it’s also languished because I haven’t had a clear enough idea of what exactly it is and who exactly it’s for.
What unites everything that I’ve written over the years, especially the nearly three years that I’ve been sending out my newsletter? Summarising it all paints an odd and disparate picture. I’ve written about creativity, knowledge, uncertainty, fraud, organisational cultures, making sense of the world, disasters, decision-making, sustainability, and branding. But what’s the common thread?
My firm belief is that the world is a messy and complex place. There are three ways to respond to that complexity: you can put your fingers in your ears and shout “la la la”, ignoring it entirely; you can pretend it’s not complex, and adopt an overly simplistic, black-and-white, ideological view of the world; or you can figure out how to make sense of it all.
I’m firmly in the last camp. “Making sense of it all” is the thread that runs through everything I write. But there are three problems with that, I think.
The first is that by writing only to scratch my own itches I’ve perhaps lost track of what’s relevant to you lovely lot reading this thing week in week out. The second is that it’s quite a broad brief, which sometimes means I tend towards the abstract. And the third is I’ve always been reluctant to be topical, because if there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s articles like “what the Barbie movie can teach us about HR on the blockchain” – but that means potentially lacking relevance and a connection to what’s actually going on in the world right now.
Having a roadmap for the future means fixing those three things, I think. So, here’s my plan.
Roblog is for people who are a part of or leading organisations that are trying to do novel and interesting things. That means founders, strategists, creatives, designers, writers, and product managers in startups, the creative industries, technology, finance, and academia.
There are two sources of uncertainty there. Groups of human beings inevitably behave unpredictably. And trying to do something new inevitably means grappling with the unknown both inside and outside your organisation. So I want to focus my efforts on those two areas: making sense of communication and coordination within teams; and making sense of creativity and innovation.
Each and every week I’m going to take something that’s happening in the real world, look at it through a sense-making lens, and offer up something useful that you can apply in your everyday life and in the organisation in which you work.
That’s it; that’s my promise. One article a week, a connection to something topical, some sense-making thoughts, and a takeaway. The intention is to make Roblog more frequent, more relevant, more specific, and more actionable. I hope you stick around to read it, and I hope you like the result.
This week’s six interesting links
The Safra family, Brazil’s premier gang of private bankers and secretive mega-billionaires, are in the news at the moment because of a messy succession dispute worthy of… well, Succession.
“‘It’s Alberto against the world,’ says Robinson, adding that the family will be keen to stop the case going before a jury. She says once you reach court ‘the cat is out of the bag… I can’t imagine anyone, especially people of this enormous wealth and legacy, want their business aired like that.’”
Given all that, it’s worth digging into this fascinating story from 2000, about the mysterious death of Alberto’s uncle in Monaco and the much-rumoured family links to money laundering, organised crime and the international drugs trade. #
Dan Davies recently recalled this blog post from 2004, that was particularly famous at the time in what was then called the “blogosphere”. Davies was fantastically prescient about the Iraq War, correctly predicting the shitshow it was to become. He attributes that correctness to three things, things that he actually learned at business school:
“Good ideas do not need lots of lies told about them in order to gain public acceptance.” If someone appears to be telling lots of lies about an idea, or seems at least to be fudging the truth slightly, there’s a good chance that the idea is a bad one. Good ideas stand on their merits.
“Fibbers’ forecasts are worthless.” If someone has demonstrated that they’re a liar, you shouldn’t trust anything they have to say. You shouldn’t attempt to “shade downwards” their predictions towards reality; you should reject them wholesale.
“The Vital Importance of Audit.” A public that fails to audit the accuracy of its pundits and its politicians, and gives known liars the benefit of the doubt, gets what is coming to it.
“The secret to every analysis I’ve ever done of contemporary politics has been, more or less, my expensive business school education (I would write a book entitled “Everything I Know I Learned At A Very Expensive University”, but I doubt it would sell). About half of what they say about business schools and their graduates is probably true, and they do often feel like the most colossal waste of time and money, but they occasionally teach you the odd thing which is very useful indeed.”
If you’ve ever been to Brick Lane in London, you’ve probably noticed the two bagel shops (or, more accurately, “beigel” shops; the word is spelled and pronounced the cockney way, bye-g’l rather than bay-g’l). Legend has it that the second was started by the brother of the guy who ran the first, who wanted to prove he could make a better bagel.
Both have flourished; there’s room for two bagel shops in the East End it seems, even after the demographics of the area have shifted, its Jewish population having moved on, replaced by a more South Asian one. They’re particularly popular late at night with the drunken party crowd craving something more kosher than a kebab.
This short documentary from 1992 interviews the people behind the scenes and the late-night revellers in Beigel Bake, the newer of the two shops, and is an incredible glimpse at a bygone London. #
Cory Doctorow famously coined the term “enshittification”, to describe the process by which online platforms – from a combination of apathy and cynicism – tended to start out useful and then eventually become cesspools of awfulness.
Gary Marcus observes the way that the muckspreaders that are LLMs have gone from covering the internet in a light spray to a gushing torrent. Search engines, social platforms, digital goods; all are becoming less and less useful as they digest and regurgitate incorrect, AI-generated information.
“Cesspools of automatically-generated fake websites, rather than ChatGPT search, may ultimately come to be the single biggest threat that Google ever faces. After all, if users are left sifting through sewers full of useless misinformation, the value of search would go to zero – potentially killing the company.
“For the company that invented Transformers – the major technical advance underlying the large language model revolution – that would be a strange irony indeed.”
Related: Maggie Harrison’s recent “When AI is trained on AI-generated data, strange things start to happen”. #
A fun puzzle from Tim Urban at Wait But Why, the solution to which illustrates how simple solving a problem can be if you just find the right framing. (No spoilers here, obviously.) #
The singer Lizzo is in the news at the moment, for less-than-savoury reasons. Every time I see her mentioned I’m reminded of this great post from 2019, by Matthew Perpetua who was then at BuzzFeed.
His thesis is that content that goes viral is often content that fulfils a specific need in its audience’s lives. Sometimes that’s a happy accident, a pleasant side-effect of authentic content made with integrity. But sometimes, when people become aware of the mechanisms of this virality, it’s a more cynical creation, the result of “cultural cartography”, a process of mapping out people’s needs and desires and working backwards from there:
“Lizzo’s music is perfectly engineered for all of this, to the point that it can seem like it’s already gone through extensive A/B testing and optimization. It’s glossy and immediately accessible, but signals some degree of authenticity and soulfulness. It’s aggressively sincere and every song is clearly about a particular statement or relatable situation. It’s all geared towards feelings of empowerment, and given how many ads, shows, and movies want to sell that feeling, her songs are extremely effective and valuable…
“I can’t hear Lizzo’s music without recognizing her cultural cartography savvy. A lot of music can achieve these goals without contrivance, often just as a natural side effect of an artist intuitively making resonant work, but Lizzo’s songs all sound very calculated to me… Lizzo has a good voice, and her songs range from ‘pretty good’ to ‘undeniable banger’ but I have mixed feelings about all of it because I know the game being played rather well, and because I’m uncomfortable with this self-consciously audience-pleasing approach to content creation becoming the primary mode of pop culture. I appreciate the value of empowering art… but fear mainstream culture further devolving into nothing but shallow exclamations of self-affirmation. We’re more than halfway there already.”