John Ngo is the founder of Small Epic. He’s an idealist who believes in publishing, entrepreneurship, user experience, Ruby, and the ‘Greater Fool’.
My Mum is usually the first person that texts me in the morning and the last person to text me everyday. They just moved to a new condo that’s right on the Mississippi river so she usually sends me pictures of the sunrise or the sunset.
— Jack Dorsey, on his last ‘mundane’ communication.
If you were to ask me why I’ve chosen the path I have, it’s simply to have more time for the mundane communications in life.
As the train pulls away from the platform at Carmarthen, I am finally afforded an opportunity to reflect on the remarkable experience of the last five days.
The past six months have been difficult. After years of fulfilling work at the Burnet Institute and an affectionate long term relationship, my sense of comfort and complacency had been displaced by feelings of restlessness, dissatisfaction, and doubt. Symptoms of the change agents that usually signify the beginning of a new chapter of my life.
It was on this precipice of uncertainty that the Do Lectures presented itself.
A coming together unlike any other, the Do Lectures combines five days in the enchanting Fforest landscape with fresh local food, rugged camping, and dramatically torrential weather; to create a community as diverse and unique as the event itself.
It was surrounded by this captivating backdrop that my many conversations began to take place. Conversations that were deeply engaging and fascinating in a way that only a clash of diverse, yet open minds could be. And as the conversations continued deep into the evenings, soon came the realisation that we were not here to exchange business cards, but ideas. That I was no longer alone in my desire to do something of significance. To build something of lasting value. I was no longer alone in the pursuit of something more meaningful.
A transformation began to take place when my introduction as a “web developer at an NGO” began to evolve into the statement that I was the founder of a publishing startup, Small Epic.
And with that affirmation came a sense of urgency. That the question was no longer if or how, but when.
As the train pulls towards the platform at London Paddington, I can feel everything beginning to fall into place, the sensation that my path is beginning to reveal itself, and the comfort that I am not alone on this scary, yet exciting journey into the next chapter of my life.
I came to the Do Lectures for the talks, but found myself surrounded by a family, united in our pursuit of that which makes the world a better place.
And for that, I owe so much to the people who make it happen.
Having recently come across the Freedom HIV/AIDS project, what struck me most about Hilmi Quraishi’s mobile phone games that teach players about AIDS, was how technology that many of us consider obsolete and long ago discarded was being used in such a simple and far reaching way to communicate such an important message.
Which leads me to the title of this post. It is a question that I am frequently asked when talking to people about technology, and one that frustrates me to no end. Not because I loathe new technology, but because of the presumption that what’s only been on the market for less than a year is already considered unfashionable.
Apple’s insistence that their latest iPhone changes everything, again, is so good at creating resentment towards the technology that we currently own, that we’re willing to rush out in droves to contribute to one of the fastest growing waste streams in the world.
It is one of the unfortunate by-products of our disposable culture that technology often becomes outdated much sooner than it should be. It is also the media’s perpetual focus on the next technologically innovative gadget that fuels our obsession for what’s to be released tomorrow rather than what’s available today.
The fact that my Dad is in love with the capabilities of the ‘obsolete’ iPhone 3G that I retired to him last year, that Mark Hurst still uses his decade old Samsung SyncMaster display for the crazy reason that it still works, that iFixit has built a community around keeping electronics out of landfills by keeping them working for longer; are all testament to the fact that even yesterday’s technology is still capable of the delight, wonder, and productivity of tomorrow’s.
So the question we should be asking as consumers is not, “what could technology do for me tomorrow”, but rather, “what can technology do for me today?”
Because the answer to the question that titles this post is simple: there will always be a ‘new’ iPhone.
Imagine on your deathbed you were able to see two films of your life: One showed highlights of what you actually achieved. And then the other showed highlights of what you could have achieved with your ability, your talent, the opportunities that came your way etc.
It would probably bring you to tears to know what else you could have done. The heights you could have climbed. The people you could have met. The races you could have run. The ideas you could have made happen. The change you could have made.
If only when you had come to the edge, you hadn’t taken that step back to safety. If you had just kept going after failing that one time. If only you had believed in that crazy dumb idea enough to tell the world about it.
Yes, if only you hadn’t, well, played so damn small.
If this doesn’t make you question the things that you’re doing now, I don’t know what will.
Anyone who deals with email on a daily basis tends to have a love/hate relationship with it. One on hand, we love that it empowers us to connect instantly with family and friends all over the world; but on the other, we hate the way it places demands on our time, creating work and enslaving us to our inboxes.
The unintended consequence of email and providing everyone with unfettered access to our attention, is that every message we receive adds to the demoralising pile of demands on our time, energy and sanity.
This unfortunate 'tragedy of the commons' means that overcoming the burden of a crowded inbox is not only the responsibility of the recipient, but also the senders of email also.
As with any social problem, we must agree on a set of rules and conventions that governs our use of email. These rules must be focused on reversing the underlying causes and creating a world where it is quicker to process email than to create it.
Which leads me to the Email Charter, an ongoing conversation that started off as a weblog post by TED curator, Chris Anderson:
1. Respect Recipients’ Time
This is the fundamental rule. As the message sender, the onus is on YOU to minimize the time your email will take to process. Even if it means taking more time at your end before sending.
2. Short or Slow is not Rude
Let’s mutually agree to cut each other some slack. Given the email load we’re all facing, it’s OK if replies take a while coming and if they don’t give detailed responses to all your questions. No one wants to come over as brusque, so please don’t take it personally. We just want our lives back!
3. Celebrate Clarity
Start with a subject line that clearly labels the topic, and maybe includes a status category [Info], [Action], [Time Sens] [Low Priority]. Use crisp, muddle-free sentences. If the email has to be longer than five sentences, make sure the first provides the basic reason for writing. Avoid strange fonts and colors.
4. Quash Open-Ended Questions
It is asking a lot to send someone an email with four long paragraphs of turgid text followed by “Thoughts?”. Even well-intended-but-open questions like “How can I help?” may not be that helpful. Email generosity requires simplifying, easy-to-answer questions. “Can I help best by a) calling b) visiting or c) staying right out of it?!”
5. Slash Surplus cc’s
cc’s are like mating bunnies. For every recipient you add, you are dramatically multiplying total response time. Not to be done lightly! When there are multiple recipients, please don’t default to ‘Reply All’. Maybe you only need to cc a couple of people on the original thread. Or none.
6. Tighten the Thread
Some emails depend for their meaning on context. Which means it’s usually right to include the thread being responded to. But it’s rare that a thread should extend to more than 3 emails. Before sending, cut what’s not relevant. Or consider making a phone call instead.
7. Attack Attachments
Don’t use graphics files as logos or signatures that appear as attachments. Time is wasted trying to see if there’s something to open. Even worse is sending text as an attachment when it could have been included in the body of the email.
8. Give these Gifts: EOM NNTR
If your email message can be expressed in half a dozen words, just put it in the subject line, followed by EOM (= End of Message). This saves the recipient having to actually open the message. Ending a note with “No need to respond” or NNTR, is a wonderful act of generosity. Many acronyms confuse as much as help, but these two are golden and deserve wide adoption.
9. Cut Contentless Responses
You don’t need to reply to every email, especially not those that are themselves clear responses. An email saying “Thanks for your note. I’m in.” does not need you to reply “Great.” That just cost someone another 30 seconds.
If we all agreed to spend less time doing email, we’d all get less email! Consider calendaring half-days at work where you can’t go online. Or a commitment to email-free weekends. Or an ‘auto-response’ that references this charter. And don’t forget to smell the roses.
An important website that aims to combine quality journalism with the knowledge and expertise of researchers and academics, just launched today:
The Conversation is an independent source of information, analysis and commentary from the university and research sector – written by acknowledged experts and delivered directly to the public. As professional journalists, we aim to make this wealth of knowledge and expertise accessible to all.
We aim to be a site you can trust. All published work will carry attribution of the authors’ expertise and, where appropriate, will disclose any potential conflicts of interest, and sources of funding. Where errors or misrepresentations occur, we will correct these promptly.
Where to start? Try Peter Doherty’s, 'A better formula for science communication'.
This is a truth so universal it demands to be shared:
Once you overload the user, you train them not to pay attention. More clutter isn’t free. In fact, more clutter is a permanent shift, a desensitization to all the information, not just the last bit.
And it’s hard to go backward.
More is not always better. In fact, more is almost never better.
The battle against clutter is one worth fighting for, not only because of the obvious implications with regards to our material belongings, but because of the debilitating effects it can have on our ability to be productive or communicate with others.
Whilst browsing my Twitter feed this morning, I serendipitously stumbled across today’s ‘food for thought’ when I clicked through to a video by Pixar animation studios. This rather moving video lead to the It Gets Better Project, aimed at showing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth the levels of happiness, potential, and positivity their lives will reach — if they can just get through their teen years.
In September 2010, syndicated columnist and author Dan Savage created a YouTube video with his partner Terry to inspire hope for young people facing harassment. In response to a number of students taking their own lives after being bullied in school, they wanted to create a personal way for supporters everywhere to tell LGBT youth that, yes, it does indeed get better.
Two months later, the It Gets Better Project (TM) has turned into a worldwide movement, inspiring over 5000 user-created videos and over 15 million views. To date, the project has received submissions from celebrities, organizations, activists, politicians and media personalities, including President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Adam Lambert, Anne Hathaway, Colin Farrell, Matthew Morrison of “Glee”, Joe Jonas, Joel Madden, Ke$ha, Sarah Silverman, Tim Gunn, Ellen DeGeneres, Suze Orman, the staffs of The Gap, Google and Facebook, the Broadway community, and many more. For us, every video changes a life. It doesn’t matter who makes it.
Where to start? Try Pixar’s 'It Gets Better' video.
When we’re often too busy figuring out issues with our e-mail, or trying to make a call on our so called ‘smart’ phones; it’s easy to forget that technology really does have the potential to make dramatic and positive differences to our lives.
"…you know what happens when you give teachers computers that actually work? They use them. A lot."
The iPad Project: Day One
As someone who makes a living making technology more accessible to people, these words really struck a chord with me. When technology fails, we feel as though we have failed technology when in reality the fault rarely lies with end users, but rather the people who create technology without any empathy for those who will be using it.
Nobody understands this more than Fraser Speirs, who teaches computing at the Cedars School of Excellence and has taken on the ambitious task of deploying iPads for every student and writing about it.
The project is only six weeks in, but he’s already noticing dramatic educational impacts:
We’re seeing the iPad completely change the way that certain subjects are taught. Our best example so far is Art. I will write and share more about what we’re doing in Art over time but it’s fair to say that it is already far beyond anything I expected in the first year, let alone the first month.
At this point, all I can give you are some practical anecdotes which, I hope, will give you a flavour of the change.
- I picked up a ream of printer paper yesterday. It had dust on top of it.
- Primary 2 pupils have now memorised their passwords. That’s not something that happens when they get 40 minutes a week on computers.
- Last week, we couldn’t get the Primary 3 pupils to stop doing maths and go for lunch.
- My daughter April asked me if I could install the educational apps from school on my iPad so she could use them at home.
- We’re seeing a reduction in the amount of homework forgotten or not done.
- "Forgetting your folder" for a subject is now a thing of the past.
I’ve noticed that when you break down great ideas, they’re often just a simple combination of doing something you love and doing something good.
Having said that, today’s Food for Thought is an idea so awesome that I just had to share it.
Whilst travelling through Africa, Simon Griffiths came up with the idea of combining two passions, investigating aid projects by day and sampling local brews by night:
What if beer could be made even better? What if by drinking a beer, you could do something incredible for someone else? That’s what Shebeen is all about… it’s a bar in Melbourne that will allow you to grab a drink and give something back.
How? Well, Shebeen is a non-profit bar. It’s really very simple. Exotic beers and wines from the developing world are sold at Shebeen. Profits from each drink sale support a development project in that drink’s country of origin.
So, buying an Ethiopian beer guarantees a microfinance loan for someone in Ethiopia. Buying a Vietnamese beer provides a street kid in Hanoi with hospitality training.
Unfortunately, Shebeen isn’t open yet as the Shebeen Social Investment Fund is still looking to raise $250,000.00 by the end of October to establish the first Shebeen venue.