November 08, 2013

Thinking Aloud: problems that need fixing

Yesterday I watched a video of British entrepreneur Michael Acton-Smith talking giving advice to startups. The bit that stuck with me: 'just fix one problem'. Too often, he says, startups and projects try to do all manner of things, when instead they should go deep on one single problem. You can expand afterwards, but right at the beginning, just fix one problem. 

Knowing you're trying to fix a real problem is a motivation when you're in the difficult stages of getting a project off the ground. 

Something clicked into my mind and within 30 minutes I had scribbled down a dozen or so problems that need fixing. I put them here, because perhaps one of them will flick a switch in your mind, and you might be the one to solve it, a little ways down the road. 

Problems that need solving

  1. New ideas are not spreading effectively from academia. A PhD student will spend years researching, only to have their thesis read by five people. Academics are known for overly-complicated writing, limiting the distance that idea can spread. How can we fix this?
  2. The digital world has not improved equality. White men still outweigh women and minorities in tech and digital.
  3. Similarly, digital seems only to be homogenising our opinions, not challenging them. We're just as interested in fame and celebrity as we were before. (For more on these last two problems, I recommend David Dunkley-Gyimah's recent article.)
  4. An easy one: feedback on bad wifi is infuriatingly bad. Spotify just stops playing, YouTube pauses and you watch a spinning wheel. There's no information about why your internet connection is so ropey. I suspect that this is because slow broadband is not an issue in Cupertino and the rest of Silicon Valley where these products get designed. Solve that, and you will cure all manner of stress-related ailments. 
  5. We live in a culture that deifies youth. Most likely a side-effect from mid-twentieth-century marketing, we now celebrate youth over wisdom and experience. We honour the get-rich-quick dream of One Direction or Miley Cyrus and forget that real achievement takes many years.
  6. Despite having the library of Alexandria at our fingertips we're not getting smarter. Something is in the way of all the information in the world and our desire or ability to access it. I suspect it is in the presentation of complex ideas. 
  7. Meanwhile, there is little serendipity in learning. I like real libraries because I can explore the shelves and pick up a book (and therefore an idea) that I could not have found otherwise. The closest I have to this online is the barrage of noise from Twitter, and setting my homepage to the Random Wikipedia page generator. 
  8. We're on the verge of the post-industrial age of abundance but the controlling systems haven't caught up yet. I'm talking legal, visa and tax systems. I'm a British guy living in Paris making most of my income from the US. Who do I pay tax to?
  9. As is commonly reported, we're becoming addicted to novelty. This plays out in increased addiction to things like pornography, as well as our inability to concentrate and pursue longer term rewards over short term gains.
  10. Despite the plethora of tech publications out there, who is asking the big, dangerous questions about how technology is changing our behaviour? 
And if you want your melon really twisted, I recommend reading Robin Sloan's latest SnarkMarket post. Like my web video essay from the spring, he's asking some serious questions about how and why we should be making things online. 

Maybe one think-alouder will be inspired to solve one of these problems - or maybe you know someone who can. Please forward these problems on!

In other news...

The fourth (and final) edition of Inside the Story Magazine is now live. It's a thought-provoking collection of essays about the craft of story in the modern world, featuring screenwriters like Bobette Buster, new age filmmakers like Walter Glass and documentary filmmakers Mo Scarpelli. Click here to read.

I'm busy building the next stage of the Inside the Story project: an online course where you can learn the principles of factual storytelling. Its a distillation and refinement of all the knowledge I've gathered producing the book and the magazines. Fingers crossed this will be available January 2014. 

As part of my preparation I shared fifty (yes fifty!) lessons I've learned about the craft of non-fiction storytelling on twitter. BBC journalist Hugo Williams was kind enough to storify them here, albeit with a typo in the title. 

Finally (and you're the first to know) I'm designing a big project to launch in 2014. It's something that I suspect will take five, six, seven years to solve its problem, but I am gambling that the end result will be worth it.  It involves video, smart ideas and a new channel. Intrigued? 

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