The Double-Edged Sword of Technology

The generation gap, evident from observing the people on my commuter coach journeys, highlights the rapid pace of technological change occurring during our lifetimes.

The girls sitting ahead of me a few evenings ago spent the entire trip entertaining themselves with their mobile phones, comparing photos and sending texts. I could see the thumbs of one girl working feverishly on the tiny keypad, giving a fair impression of a highly animated crab, its pincers going nineteen to the dozen.

In stark contrast, the old boy who proclaims himself to be a Luddite (a label of which he is evidently proud), once ranted at a lady for using her phone on the coach – something that she is quite at liberty to do. I had to go and shut him up in the end (politely, of course), as his astonishing outpouring of rage caused far more of a disturbance than the unfortunate passenger.

Just how far things have changed in the world was brought home to me by two recent articles on MarketWatch. One was concerned with predicted arrival dates for driverless cars – an idea that would surely have been derided a decade or so ago. The other was a report on the growing legions of canine family members who can now earn up to $10,000 for a single social media post.

It was sobering to discover how many dogs have a far more lucrative and secure career than me. Even if you dressed me up in the cutest of outfits (having first overcome formidable resistance), I doubt whether I could perform at the level required to become a media star. I just don’t know any good tricks. Who says man is the most intelligent animal?

Do I claim to shun technology, like the man on the coach (although, presumably, even he approves of the internal combustion engine)? Not me, and I never will. This very blog is evidence enough of that. I embrace the electronic world in which we live. But I do see technology as a double-edged sword, giving with one hand while often taking something away with the other (to mangle a perfectly good metaphor).

I have a passion for technological innovation, especially where it can be applied to the great challenges faced by humanity relating to health, education, security, shelter, waste and poverty. But I have come to realise just how over-reliant I have become on the Internet. I depend on it completely to earn a living, for example, and it would be good to move away somewhat from that unbalanced position.

The Knot Garden supports technological innovation but urges us to find ways of reducing our dependence on it. This belief has its basis in the idea that creativity, resourcefulness, resilience, persistence, integrity and other such desirable human qualities come from within us and do not require the aid of electronic paraphernalia. This should not prevent us, of course, from applying such attributes to  the development of technological solutions to problems.

The Knot Garden whole-heartedly approves of technology when it is used as a force for good. But it does not need computers or networks any more than you or I need to watch television. Except of course for maintaining its blog. And even that, as important as it may seem right now, will eventually become redundant.

The Nature of Goals

Do we really need to complicate our lives with goals? Some disciples of Zen suggest that we should completely eliminate goals from our lives. I have a couple of issues with this idea. First, and you will no doubt already have spotted the irony, a commitment to do away with goals is, in itself, one gigantic goal. A lifetime one as, once you have shown those tiresome goals the front door, you need to to expend regular effort ensuring that they do not insidiously creep back in through an open window. And, second, how many people do you know who truly achieve anything worthwhile without having goals?

If right now you feel the need to let me know how wrong I am about this, please consider the meaning of the word goal. I have always had my own idea of what constitutes a goal but decided to check the dictionary to just make sure that I was not out of step with commonly accepted usage. A typical definition is “The end toward which effort is directed”.

Here is the point. Goals do not need to be quantitative or time-bound to be constructive and meaningful. A great example from Mirriam-Webster,  which actually coincides with one of The Knot Garden’s core themes, is “the goal of reducing waste”. This is a powerful, high value, fulfilling goal even though it has no associated quantities or deadlines. It is, in fact, all the more potent because it has neither of those frequently arbitrary parameters built into it.

I believe confusion arises over different interpretations of the word goal. The more we emphasise quantitative results and fixed completion times, the less effective – and more transitory – our goals will tend to be. Moreover, whenever we set a strict deadline for delivering a specified amount of something, we run the risk of suffering a series of adverse effects when it becomes clear that we will miss the target. We may, for example:

  • become discouraged and pessimistic
  • lose focus on our higher, more abstract goal
  • lose credibility in the eyes of colleagues, customers and friends
  • waste precious mental energy worrying about our failure

Here is my solution. Set goals that align with your belief system but do not constrain them by quantity or time. Thus:

  • I aim to increase the amount of time that I can devote to creative writing
  • I intend to become an authority on bees
  • I will implement an effective measurement regime so that I always know the state of my health
  • I will improve the quality of my income so that I can use my time more effectively

These goals emphasise the activities that I will work on in order to improve my life. But they also specify a future state that I need to work towards. They all align with my belief system and major purpose in life. Can we set smaller goals that do have quantitative and temporal aspects? Of course we can, to the extent that they are helpful – but we should not publish them or set them in stone.

You might think that “I will make a million pounds in two years” is a good, concrete goal. But I disagree. Even if this goal has a worthwhile purpose sitting behind it, you may find that you only need a hundred thousand pounds. Or perhaps you need five million. Or you need it earlier that you thought you did. Or, because you find a different way of financing your project, you don’t need it at all. You may not even be around in two years. Or technological innovation might make the project redundant.

It has struck me that setting activity-related goals is somewhat analogous to the principles used in Agile frameworks for developing software, which address the flaws found in older, more rigid, waterfall approaches. And so we can can envisage a sort of “Scrum for Life”.

The Knot Garden recommends the setting of goals that encourage us to spend each day working on our true purpose. And to enjoy our lives in the process. After all, we do not know what tomorrow will bring.

Does Four Into One Go?

Multitasking is best left to computers. Unless, of course, you have more than one brain. I, unfortunately, do not. We don’t need to consult scientific studies to understand that rapidly switching between tasks – a practice that masquerades as human multitasking – wastes time, causes stress and carries a high risk of making mistakes. Anyone who thinks multitasking is a valuable skill is an idiot. Many parents become adept at task switching because they have no choice. But it bears a heavy cost.

At the opposite end of the scale from the myth of multitasking can be found the principle of The One Thing. This postulates that in order to become successful we should devote our entire life to doing one thing really well. Some people have achieved notable success by developing a single skill to a very high level. We need look no further than athletics, and the likes of Usain Bolt, to see this idea in action.

Although I became familiar with the concept of The One Thing before I read Gary Keller’s book of the same title, I gained many valuable insights from his excellent work. One key theme from the book is Keller’s assertion that a balanced life is a lie. I know exactly what he means. We hold inside our heads some perfect model of balance that is unattainable in the real world and constantly fail in our attempts to implement it.

The problem I have is that my own One Thing requires that I maintain a balance between the four important areas of my life. Damn – that is awkward. The Knot Garden tells me that this is non-negotiable. And who am I to contradict The Knot Garden?

The Knot Garden is predicated on the rule of four. It is like a four-legged stool. You take one leg away – or merely make it shorter than the others – and, before you can say “Bless my soul!” (or something less polite), there you are, lying in a heap on the floor. All tangled up, like the rope in the summer house.

So what are we to do about this bothersome One Thing business? Well, what would you do about it? You would no doubt develop a strategy to deal with the whole four-into-one conundrum.

Here is my own plan, for what it is worth. I will pursue my Four Things, as The Knot Garden advocates. But I will be careful to focus on one of them at a time. I will use the simple expedient of timeboxing, familiar to Agile practitioners in the IT world, to prevent the four strands from becoming ensnarled. But, at the same time, I will seek opportunities for mutual reinforcement.

To put it in plain terms, I will focus on the creative quadrant by writing about methods for acquiring wealth, for example, thus contributing to a second quadrant. Or, I will undertake a strenuous walking excursion with friends, simultaneously serving the other two quadrants.

How about combining all four activities into one? Perhaps by discussing creative approaches to building new business ventures while trekking with my companions? That would really be pushing my strategy to its limits. Or would it just be, after all, good old multitasking? You decide.

The Knot Garden

I enter the dilapidated summer house and see, among shards of glass from the broken windows, a dusty old rope sitting in a tangled heap on the floor. Outside, in the overgrown garden, the faint impression of geometric shapes can still be glimpsed beneath the proliferating thistles, chickweed and stinging nettles. The disorderly knot and the neglected garden convey a sense of waste. Missed opportunities, squandered resources, lost time. Perhaps, however, this place is simply a tangible manifestation of the second law of thermodynamics?

Once there was a knot garden here. It existed, not in isolation, but at the centre of a human system, a great estate, surrounded by wild flower meadows buzzing with bees and by ancient woodland, informal gardens and parkland graced with stately cedars. A fine house stood nearby, built centuries ago from honey-coloured stone quarried locally. This place was full of energy, industry and optimism. It must have had many good stories to tell.  I wonder about the plants that grew in the knot garden. What herbs and vegetables thrived inside the neat, orderly compartments and what decorative species?

I am going to build a new knot garden in a location yet to be determined. This might, on the face of it, seem like an odd undertaking for someone who has neither the horticultural qualifications nor the required resources to contemplate a project of this nature. But absence of credentials and lack of means should never stand in the way of an important endeavour. And, if one has the necessary commitment, then what is in short supply at the outset will surely become available in abundance once matters get under way.

In fact, because this project is as much about resourcefulness and creativity as anything else, starting from scratch is pretty much a requirement. It is important, I think, that we should be capable of making something from nothing. This stands, by the way, in direct opposition and stark contrast to the rather unworthy notion of getting something for nothing.

Since I was young, I have had a fascination for numbers and, to this day, always attempt mental arithmetic before reaching for the calculator. The number four has a special significance for me and will find expression in the quatrefoil form of The Knot Garden, its symmetry representing the balance between the principal elements of my life. These areas of activity, inextricably linked together, will be bound to each other by the knot, which will impose a sense of order and harmony.

On a less abstract level, I will explore through The Knot Garden a number of specific themes that are interesting and important to me – and perhaps to others too. On the one hand these themes will be symbolised by aspects of The Knot Garden and on the other hand they will be instrumental in creating it.

Ultimately The Knot Garden is intended to be a concrete representation of a belief system – my belief system. But this blog is not really about me. It is about all people who hold beliefs that genuinely create value and in some significant way improve the world. It is therefore my sincere wish, dear reader, that you will join me on my journey.