Archives for the month of: December, 2014

What connects Ebola, SONY, Facebook, and coffee houses in 2015?

Civilisation and networks. How networks operate and behave define modern society. Networks on which we live, travel, connect, create, communicate and share are now embedded in every aspect of how we live, everywhere in the world.

In 1615 the precocious teenage painter Anthony Van Dyck painted ‘Portrait of a Seventy Year Old Man’ just as the culture of civilisation flourished in the new coffee houses of Europe: In 2015 we still will want to talk, share, exchange ideas, be culturally rich and diverse.

Except that this teenage century has unprecedented levels of technology which create epic levels of choice, volume, and a landscape which needs constant navigation and curation in order to simply understand.

A healthy person and society enjoys good physical health. Good psychological health. And good social health. Lonely? You don’t have good social health. Unable to get offline and meet people face-to-face? You are out of balance. Limited in your ability to filter information and know what is good and bad intelligence? Another kind of poverty.

All of this is what I call Social Health. Nearly fifty years ago the World Health Organisation identified health as being the triptych of Physical, Psychological and Social Health I believe that it is time we understood what ‘social wellbeing’ means in the context of modern networks, social networks, and a mobile world.


Networks wind around us more tightly than ever before. As I said in the series of short programmes I made for BBC Radio 4 in 2014, ‘Networking Nation’ networks are everywhere.


We can see the patterns in how we live, work, socialise in network science, no more so than science itself. The spread of Ebola conforms to network science behaviour of the so-called ‘spreading rate’ and the exponential increase in hosts behaves just like an internet virus on another ‘free scale network’

I gave a short presentation about Ebola and the spread of information and disease at WPP Stream in Greece which you can see here: Stream Global 2014 // Editorial Intelligence’s Julia …

Ebola is largely confined to Western Africa, where communities have had to adapt to a huge changes in behaviour in order to stop the spread: They have had to stop and limit physical contact.

The social impact on society in West African countries affected by Ebola – the devastation to the surviving communities – is far less publicised than the medical implications for the developed economies whose media focus on spreading fear of contagion.


The cognitive psychologist Professor Matthew Lieberman puts it so well in his stunning book, Social: Why We are Wired to Connect – The human brain is fundamentally geared, anthropologically, to focus on connection and social relationships. If you diminish or kill the ability to make relationships you cause huge damage.

Humans build networks of relationships which all mimic the family, the closest human network bond. It turns out – research famously conducted by Professor Robin Dunbar – that far from human networks being as vast as social networks would suggest, they are in fact small: a nucleus of between 7 and 11 connections, rising to a maximum of 150.

So we need to rethink how we connect ands how we manage and absorb our networks in our increasingly blended work and home lives, if we are to successfully have good social health around these networks.

Part of this will mean letting go of the fantasy that having hundreds and thousands of friends, followers and connections is ‘better’ than having a few. What matters is reconnecting to the quality of relationships, not the quantity.


To my surprise I found myself gravitating back to Facebook at the end of 2014, having spent three years happily tweeting on Twitter several times a day.

Something about Facebook attracted me. The postings were made by people I know, whose faces and voices I could recall. Being face to face in a Facebook world is something I have talked about before. I realise it matters when you use social media that you can summon up the person you are communicating with more often than not.

Mobile and technology social networks do mimic face to face connection well: Robin Dunbar’s research shows that people find Skype a good proxy when you are geographically far apart.

And I hear my youngest son on his headphones on the Xbox not just playing with someone he has never met but having a friendship with him: He recently asked if I could organise a meeting with this kid (to which I replied: “Only when I speak to his mother!”

But we know the dependence on networks, the alternative reality which intrudes: When hackers recently took down Playstation and Xbox causing ‘denial of service’ to millions of users connected to their networks it exposed a new reality in our lives: We are so dependent on networks that we mimic them: When they ‘go down’ we go down, unable to function or socialise easily.


But network inflitration also causes problems, as SONY discovered, not so long after Edward Snowden revealed that the rest of us are monitored daily in ways we still cannot completely imagine.

I was just as keen as anyone else to pore over leaked emails showing just how venal and crass movie executives are when they think they are not being ‘overheard’ electronically. But of course what the intrusion of privacy represents is complicated and not at all straightforward.

In 2014 we understood that the price we pay for internet access and ‘freedom’ to connect on social media or use mobile phones is also intense surveillance. Getting that balance of personal privacy versus state security and commercial viability right will affect our discussions about networks and how much we want to be on them – or asked to be on them.


We have a productivity crisis in Britain at work. This is partly due to to pure economics but it is also affected by behavioural economics. How people at work behave and absorb the tremendous changes and challenges of technology and the Social Age – and with it their Social Health – will affect the bottom line and with it workplace wellbeing.

As I wrote recently in HR Magazine, management attitudes to health and fitness need to change and absorb the latest thinking on social health and the ability to manage networks and knowledge and time effectively and efficiently

In 2015 we need to rebalance our use of networks and how we live on them.
Human behaviour, not technology, is often the central key to change. We need to look at our social health – our use of networks and our behaviour on them – as much as we do our physical and our psychological health.

In the meantime my recommendation is this: Get face to face with somebody and go and see some wonderful art. Be friends on Facebook with someone whose face and voice you recognise or get to know them. Focus on developing strategies for your social health as you head out, new year’s resolutions in hand, to that other place of health: The gym.




A few days before Christmas, the doorbell would ring. A tall slightly stooped figure wearing jeans, a beanie hat, some kind of checked shirt, and looking earnest and intense would be on the doorstep. My brother Joss would embrace me in a surprisingly strong bear hug before striding purposefully through to the kitchen.

He never stayed long. He was social, booked elsewhere, but also dutiful to family and even though we were relatively new family – I knew him for just over half his life and just under half of mine – he made time for me and our other brother and especially our children.

We would exchange fast updates as I brewed the strong coffee we both liked on the stovepot, getting to the heart of things by the time we heard the familiar bubble and hiss. What did this or that behaviour in a fellow beloved relative mean? We were great cod psychoanalysts, he and I. We loved dissecting anxiety, motive, the murky depths of psyche.

Shortly after he would be off, planting three carefully chosen presents wrapped and labelled in his trademark spidery handwriting. Birthday and Christmas rituals were conducted absolutely punctually by “Uncle Joss”.

The absence of his presents under the tree, like the absence of his actual presence, remains a slow doubletake of surprise: I took the idea of his permanence entirely for granted. I think I still do. But he died just under a month ago. I thought I had all the time in the world to get to fully know him.

Why did I only meet him twenty years ago? It’s a story familiar to many: We shared the same father but not the same mother. Everyone makes their own arrangements in love and life. It was more minor intrigue than drama when his existence was revealed to me when I was thirty. I don’t know why, maybe because the minute I met him in a pub in Soho in the mid 1980’s he was strikingly familiar: he looked absolutely identical to our father, even more so than my other older brother, Andy.

Despite his wry sense of humour he radiated intensity and angst. He was a worrier. A perfectionist. A planner. He was restless. He had a big moral code. He liked the trivial and the deep, equally. He did not believe injustice, bigotry or social inequality should be tolerated. He wanted to change things. He believed in the power of literature and theatre and creativity to help make change.

He devoted his life to directing theatre, writing about drama teaching, and to a theatre company he founded called Present Moment. He brought to blazing contemporary light ancient and abandoned plays, musicals, breathing new life into classics. He used theatre to bring the present moment alive.

He kept up a relentless pace in his life. He was always off in Birmingham directing, writing to deadline, buying rights to a forgotten play to produce or off to Key West or New York. He read voraciously. He liked Patti Smith, being upgraded at airports, shopping at John Lewis, cycling out and about in Crouch End, and a nice big gulp of good wine at our local Italian. If I was stressed he would provide his trademark reassurance by phone: “Keep breathing deeply”.

He is gone but he was here and made his mark and I’m grateful for that. I’m grateful to have known him for what turns out to have been too short a time. I’m grateful to have watched him grow in stature in his field, and to watch his children and grandchildren flourish under his tender loving care.

He was not, in some of his last words to me, “ready to go yet”. But fate had other plans. The last few weeks were hideous and painful and wrong and like a runaway train, but they were also full of love and closeness. The family was there. In the present as it slipped into the past.


The clock ticks towards the calendar end of the year. Time dominates the waking thoughts of working people: Not having enough of it, spending it productively. In fact, the American consumer – about as good a bellweather as any – is reported to have spent a 119% increase on productivity apps in just a year – you know: PocketList, Wunderlist etc.

Time hurtles forwards and yet goes backwards: New research shows that the more time we spend online (billed as the great time-saver it has often become the great time waster) the less fulfilled we feel.

And time stops: Each year we mourn the passing of those we love whose lives end suddenly, or predictably, or brutally, or slowly. But no amount of futurism can extend life beyond a certain point.

So we live with the promise and expectation of infinity but we cope with limit: The twenty four hour day is, stripped of time to sleep and eat and do living things which cannot easily be combined with multi-tasking the 168 hour week shrinks to around 60 hours of *productivity* at a push.

So I say this as the year winds down to a close and the offices around the world and the schools all contemplate a tiny bit of time which is “off” for the holidays: Spend your time wisely. Use your time to feel engaged, energised, helpful, hopeful, and productive: Because time marches on. And then it ends.


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