What will we show our grandchildren?

I remember the days when my parents would show me old photos of themselves in their heyday. It was cool to see mum in her 70s gear, complete with afro, and dad spinning tunes at some hot party. I loved seeing photos of my grandparents, in family photos, looking dapper in their Sunday Best.

The other day I had a thought… What will I show my grandchildren? I don’t print photos anymore. I don’t really know anyone who does. Instead, my photographic memories live on hard drives, in clouds, in my email inbox, on Google and on some social networks. It’s unlikely that I’ll be 70 years old, digging into my current mac (which will be long dead and buried, and probably considered an ancient relic), trying to find photos of my youth.

All of the photos taken on my various smartphones (which I often remind myself to transfer onto my computer) will be long gone and buried. Is there going to be some 2070 version of iphoto that will carry all of my photos from the past few years until the day I die? Perhaps, but I don’t think so… Already I’ve had to move photos from different places in order to make sure that I keep them. They’re important to me.

In the past you’d take your photos, get them processed and put them in an album or in a box, ready to be retrieved as and when needed. There’s something special about coming across a long-forgotten album that takes you back to an earlier age and times that you’d forgotten, holding it in your hands and almost touching that memory again.

I love the digital era, but the same thing that makes it great – that it is digital – is the same thing that makes it not so great. Digital is here today, gone tomorrow. Look at MySpace. It was the hot thing. Now, who really thinks about it?

What happens when all of those social networks and digital services start shutting down, or are sold off and merge with others and change their links. Where do your photos go then?

I have been asking the same thing about my work, my writing. I have lost work online due to hackers. I have had pieces that I put time into moved to new areas of other publications’ sites, and buried somewhere. When I started writing, the aim was to create a paper trail of my life, some way by which future generations could read my work and (hopefully) learn something. Even if I store everything on my computer, I’m not going to be using the same computer forever am I?

The beauty of the writers who were before the digital age is that you go and find their archives, archives that – unless destroyed – remain in physical perpetuity. Not so with digital.

It’s a very interesting time, because the digital era offers so much. Many museums and cultural institutions are going online with their archives now and I believe that much older culture can be brought to a wider audience online. I have been able to find my grandfather’s journalism from the 60s in Google News’ digital archives. However, it is physical archives that are being taken online and digitized, meaning that if a site should one day totally crash and all content is gone forever, the originals still remain.

I believe that in the next few years we will see a return to physical formats. I think that people will realize that they want physical, tangible evidence of their lives, physical objects to touch and hold onto; objects with texture and depth, not just digital footprints which can be scrubbed out as easily as water washes over sand. After a relentless sprint into the future, it may be that some of us will want to return in some ways to the things we liked about the past such as physical photographs. This is really about the preservation of one’s own history and legacy.

In recent years I have noticed a growing number of polaroid photo booths in some shops, restaurants and clubs and I’m always keen to jump in. It’s great to see that polaroid once it has been produced.

We may return to creating physical products first, then moving onto digital, rather than the other way around. This is bearing in mind that there are  actually young people growing up for whom a physical photograph is an alien concept – perhaps they will not feel the same way.

However, I’d certainly like to have physical photographs to show my grandchildren. Hmm…can anyone say Kodak?!

Obama 2007 until today – My view in photos and words

I first saw Barack Obama speak in New York City in the summer of 2007. On that day, surprised by the multi-generational, multi-racial crowd, I realized that something very major was going to happen in the next (2008) election.

    

2008 came… I spent a lot of time writing and doing TV and radio appearances in the lead up to the election.

I also watched, with fascination, the intense public sentiment about the possibility of the first African American president.

Barack Obama’s election took place on November 4th, 2008. My 28th birthday.

     

My piece for The Guardian written shortly after his win was announced talked about Obama’s election crossing racial lines.

I was at President Obama’s historic inauguration in 2009.

      

Despite being one of the coldest days I have ever experienced, I managed to rush back to The Guardian offices to thaw out my fingers and type a piece. In it, I mused that Barack Obama’s ambitions could not be achieved without the help of a supportive public.

….this means a more responsible America, which as a nation has a less arrogant way of dealing with the world and doesn’t take its greatness for granted or misuse its power. It goes without saying that there are many in the world – Obama talked specifically about the Muslim world in his speech – who will have been pleased to hear that and are looking forward to seeing America take that new approach, which is so markedly different from the aggressive ways of George Bush.

This also means a more thoughtful and reflective American individual who will continue to “take in a stranger when the levees break … and who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job.” Obama’s campaign was built on people power and today he made it clear that it is that same power that will help lead America, under his presidency, become an even greater nation.

I also did some partying afterwards! It was a momentous time to see, and be there to celebrate, the first African American president sworn into office.

  

I have been to the White House a few times since then. Here is a recent photo, taken from the White House lawn, as Prime Minister David Cameron and President Obama spoke at a joint press conference.

A lot has happened, and much has changed, in the past 4 years, the global economy being a prominent issue. In 08, race was a big issue. This time around it’s class and socio-economics. The American Dream is in jeopardy.

Politics has become increasingly divisive. It really is right v left. The Tea Party emerged after the last election to claim their place in American history. Sadly, despite the President’s desire for bi-partisanship, American politics continues to be even more highly partisan and highly oppositional. Washington, I believe, is even more broken. I don’t think this is Obama’s fault per se – if anything, I think his election simply drew more attention and added more fuel to the already-existing issues.

In 2012, it is now former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney v Obama. Obama is now the incumbent and clearly a threatening one as super PACS aim to spend plenty of money (one group will spend $1bn) to destroy the incumbent. Despite the Occupy protests and growing discussion about politics for the people, there are some who are clearly not listening.

Romney continues to swing to the right, to his detriment in my view. Romney could have stood strong as a business man and played that card right. I have actually worked at Bain, and I very much enjoyed my time there. I found it an excellent company. Instead, Romney has gone socially conservative, talking about women’s rights, abortion (which, honestly, I think is a woman-only domain) and courting Donald Trump who continues to bang on endlessly about Obama’s country of birth. As if this is what matters.

Obama has both centrist and leftists to factor in, as well as those sorely disillusioned by his 08 promises of hope and change. The grassroots swell has died down, and the Occupy movement has come in to provide the space for those who thought that an Obama presidency would mean radical change in the US. Obama certainly has work to do.

I’d rather this election was just about pragmatism and what is best for the country, but that’s partisan politics for you. Polls in key states are saying that Obama and Romney are close. We shall see.

Four years is not a long time, and not long enough to fulfill a mission for a nation. I hope that Obama gets another shot.

The end of either/or thinking

In the days where you stayed in the same place for your whole life, where everyone was pretty much like you in terms of class, race and socio-economic background, either/or thinking had its place. It was easy then to do the “us” v “them” dance, the black v white jig, or the ‘us’ and ‘other’ jive. You could say that life was this, or life was that.. because let’s face it, unless you travelled and got to see the world, you didn’t know much more beyond your immediate environment and what the media told you about the rest.

Today, however, in this interconnected, digital, global age, it’s not so easy. Or at least, it shouldn’t be. If you want to shatter your own stereotypes and perceptions you can. With ease. Yet, many do not. Many continue to live in a closed universe, when the world is in fact, more open than it has ever been.

I’ve never been to Mongolia. Yet, I can go online and research it. I can see Mongolian people. Watch them speak on youtube, read their own thoughts on their own lives and their own environments. I have no need to make up what I think Mongolia is about. I need not believe my uncle, who has never visited Mongolia in his life and has only got his understanding of it from a select few publications, when he tells me negative things about them. No, I can find out for myself these days.

Even if you’ve never met a black person in your life, you can now. Go online. Read the multiplicity and range, the depth and breadth, of voices, and views and attitudes and thoughts coming from all over the world. The days of black man = rapper and black woman = angry panther can be analyzed for yourself. You can make up your own mind.

In 2012, what we can all learn is that we are not the same. People are individuals. Even those sharing a racial, cultural, religious or socio-economic background can be  -and are – vastly different. This is one of the more beautiful things about the internet. It can open you up to an understanding and knowledge of the world that you could never have got if the only way to reach it was to get on a plane and find out.

YET… either/or persists. Because it is convenient and it is easy. I believe that the biggest challenge for the generations coming up now is the ability to think in a nuanced, sophisticated way, in a way that is able to cope with ambiguity and differences, and sometimes even contradictions.

Let’s take myself for example. Look at the multiple nature of my identity, one which – if I’m honest – I struggled with for a long time before realizing that I just didn’t fit into any either/or box. I’m black. But I’m also British. But yet not English even though I was born and raised there. The English ask me where I’m from… where I’m really from. Well, I’m African. Nigerian, to be exact, although I have never lived in Nigeria. My parents are Nigerian. I understand Yoruba fluently, but don’t speak it very well. At times, Africa to me is a culture shock. There they ask me if I’m really Nigerian. I have, though, lived in South Africa. As an expat. An expat with an English accent, a surprise to those who would approach me speaking in Xhosa or Zulu.

I’m also female. Also intensely driven, alpha and purpose-orientated. It is my boyfriend, not I, who makes the dinner every night. I was privately educated my entire life, yet lived on a council estate in inner city London for 10 years. I have friends literally from all over the world, pretty much on every continent. I’m both “1%” and “99%”. Where do I, and others like me, fit in the either/or world?  The answer: we don’t. And as the years go by, there will be many more who also do not. They will be hybrid, mixed culture individuals who don’t fit so neatly into either a stereotype or a box.

The fast changing nature of our world has upset the apple cart. All industries are being rapidly disrupted. The real challenge is how people respond. Because in order to make sense of this new order, much thinking is required. The know-it-all days in which we could make easy assumptions and fit people into simplistic categories are gone.

These days we don’t know much. We have no idea which direction the future is going in. And we are being forced to remove our precious little labels. But – and this it the catch – despite having the tools available to us, they will only be useful if we actually use them. Those who will win in the future will be those who do. Those who will remain stuck in Industrial Age thinking will be those who don’t.

Thinking – that is, good thinking, creative thinking, novel thinking, critical thinking – requires curiosity and desire. It requires a willingness to engage. It requires a need to ask hard questions, to ask ‘why’ and ‘how’ and more. It means not just accepting what you have been told, but finding out for yourself.

I recently realized that I was becoming very bored with the internet. Why? Because it is becoming more and more closed. Google wants to tell me what to read, based on my location. Twitter wants to tell me who to connect with based on who I follow and who follows me. Linked in wants to tell me who they think I should know, based on who I have already linked with. The idea is, what I have already known should define what I want to know in the future. For me, at least, they are all wrong.

We can get drawn back into our shells – into the familiar, into what we already know and already like. These networks seems to want us to continue to live in our boxes, to some degree, and to categorize our in-groups and out-groups, our us-es and thems and our either/ors. I’d love to see a network that opens me up to newness.. new people, new ideas, new thinking that takes me beyond who I already am and what I already know. In other words, one that is educational.

We can resist this imposed limitation, for our own self-education and betterment as human beings, and choose for ourselves. We can go and search. Read widely. Search widely. Look at things we haven’t seen before. Type in a random query and see what it returns. Ask your friends to recommend some blogs or books or videos to see so that you see what you haven’t seen before. Shatter your own status quo. Go beyond either it’s this… OR it’s that…

No, today, the world is AND. In fact, it always has been… We just didn’t know it.

Social media, sharing and the erosion of personal boundaries

Early this year, I deactivated my Facebook account. I’d been on the social network before it was the phenomenon that it is now, when it was an invitation-only Ivy-League platform. That was in 2006. Back then I was returning to London from living in South Africa and decided to open an account in order to  keep in touch with the friends and colleagues that I’d made there; friends who lived all over the world. It came in handy when I moved to the US just over a year later.

Five years on and Facebook had become something that I’d come to detest. I found it increasingly intrusive, and it seemed that there was an growing, and for me uncomfortable, blurring of the boundaries between private and public. I also found that rather than bringing me closer to people, it created a lazy, effort-free pseudo-intimacy in which one feels as if they know what is going on with someone just because you are seeing their (highly edited and highly selected) photos and updates. Real friendships were in some cases starting to become Facebook friendships, and friends expected you to know their news from their Facebook wall.

In the new social era, we are being conditioned to believe that human beings have an innate need and desire to share everything about themselves. This belief has become widespread. However, I wonder where exactly this idea came from, if not only from those who are benefitting handsomely from our sharing and who have their own agenda for making us believe that it is in our DNA to tell everyone everything, including intimate details of our lives that would previously only our closest confidantes would have been privy to.

Being on Facebook and other social networks  has taught me a great deal about myself and about people. One thing I have learned is that while there may be people with whom I am happy to catch up with once every few years, I don’t feel any particular need to stay permanently attached to them. At first, it was great to reconnect with old school mates and colleagues, to hear their news and to see that they were doing well. But after a while, it became irritating to have to see some of them appearing regularly in my feed. I have never had a problem with building and maintaining good relationships pre-Facebook and I came to the conclusion that if we’d really wanted to remain in constant contact, we would have already done so.

Secondly, I was surprised by the voyeuristic nature of the platform. Often, I felt as though I was getting TMI, seeing photos and updates that I didn’t really want to see or hear. It continues to amaze me that people will boast very personal photographs on Facebook for the world to see. Likewise, I felt that some people had an unhealthy interest in my photos and updates. I am interested in human nature, yes. What I am not so interested in the minutiae of other people’s lives. Nor, frankly, do I believe anyone else should be all that interested in mine. I remember a phrase that was popular in primary school: MYOB, or Mind Your Own Business. I still think that holds.

Talking of photos, I also realized that I did not like having a permanent past stored online. I wanted to be able to remove things at will, just as in my ordinary life I will periodically get rid of, or pack away, unnecessary items, consigning them either to the wastebin or to memory, to be retrieved at some later time when I felt like reminiscing in the latter case. While I was able to take down albums of my own, which I did, I was not able to take down the hundreds of photos taken over the years by other people which I had been tagged in.

To deal with this, I set up filters… But even that became a headache as I had to figure out what I wanted different people to see and then manage ensuring that different people were on the right lists so that they would only see what I wanted them to see. At first, Facebook had been for close friends. Then family started joining. Then people I didn’t know who’d read my work or seen me on TV, or heard me on the radio started adding me. Then people in my professional network started friending me too. In the real world, each of these different groups would be encountered in different spaces; spaces appropriate to my relationship and interaction with them. On Facebook where everyone is a “friend”, the sense of an appropriate space relative to the type of relationship one has with different individuals is gone.

By the end I was attempting to work out who was what type of “friend” and what type of relationship I had with that “friend”. Did I want X former colleague to see shots of me in my bikini on holiday?

Then I started de-friending people. It wasn’t because I didn’t like them, just that I realized that by my definition of ‘friend’, we really weren’t friends at all. Acquaintances, passers-by, perhaps… but not friends. Therefore, they should not have access to my inner world and personal information in the way that a real friend would. But in Facebook world, what is a ‘friend’ anyway?

Another thing that was becoming more apparent was the lack of filter that people have online. I have been aware through my professional writing that when people make comments online, they often say things that they would not in person. In the early days of Facebook, I’d set up an anonymous honesty box which was supposed to be a fun thing whereby I’d ask a silly question such as “would you kiss me?” and then get answers posted anonymously. It was all harmless in the beginning, but a few years later, I started receiving nasty and abusive anonymous messages. This meant that people who were apparently “friends” thought that it was appropriate to message me anonymously and insult me, and my work in particular, on Facebook. Since I didn’t know who these people were, that further added to a sense of being intruded on and as well as making me feel suspicious.

The various liking and comment features on Facebook encourage this idea that we have the right to, and should, add our opinions to everybody’s personal affairs. Yet, is it healthy for people to comment on your life in this way? On Facebook, we start to to measure our own personal lives in terms of other people’s opinions. Do you “like” my photo? Do you like my comment? Do you like my update? The real question is does it really matter what anybody else thinks? I think there’s a difference between seeking comments and feedback on my work, which is designed to provoke conversation and discussion and more opinion, and getting comments on my personal information.

I started using Facebook more as a business tool, posting links to my work and so on. Then some friends started complaining that I was talking too much about business and that they felt I was being too self-promotional!!

In the end, I concluded that what does and has always worked for me are close intimate, genuine relationships with a few people. True friendships. And those could be conducted in a much simpler fashion, using email and the telephone, and yes even writing letters. It’s certainly less of a headache. Professional relationships also need not exist on Facebook and not being on the network has not made an iota of difference for me professionally.

I’m 31 years old and was using the internet long before share, share, share became its mantra. However there are many young people who are being raised to believe that what’s private should is public. Determining how and in which way one shares oneself and one’s personal information should, in my view, require a certain amount of emotional and social intelligence as one works out  how best to communicate and what one wants to be received and how one wants to be understood and perceived in the world. Self-regulation is a core component of emotional development and maturity. I believe wholeheartedly in freedom, yet I also believe that freedom comes with responsibility. Maybe the mantra should be “share, but share responsibly”.

I use Twitter more now which I prefer, although I have my own reservations about that too (but for very different reasons which I will write about another time although I also continue to be shocked at what some people, especially younger ones, feel is appropriate to post on Twitter). For those close to me, I use good old email and the telephone. I’ve grown closer to people this way since those tools require genuine conversation and more substantive interaction.

In the bare-all culture of this generation, I like having boundaries. I do not think that everyone needs to know everything, nor that I need to share that much. Personally, I’m not driven to bare all. I cannot see the necessity, nor the efficacy, in it. The ones really benefitting are  the collectors of our data.

I’m not a Luddite – I believe that the internet is one of the greatest inventions to date; it has fundamentally and undeniably changed the world. My interest is in not just using the tools that are available, but doing so in ways that are truly beneficial.

It has been about 6 months now since I deactivated my Facebook account and it is actually one of the best things that I have done this year.

Social Media & Magpie culture

The Magpie bird is known for its love of bright, shiny objects. Magpies instinctively flock and flutter, as fast as they can, towards shiny objects. They have an insatiable need to grab hold of and possess (they often steal) that gleaming thing. (They are also, by the way, considered to be bad omens.)

As I watch the proliferation of social media, and the widespread adoption of it by consumers and businesses, it strikes me that human beings are acting in similar magpie fashion. Look, it’s social media! It’s shiny! It’s new! Ooh Facebook! Ooh Linked In! Ooh Twitter! Ooh Google+ ! Ooh Pinterest! Ooh next-hot-social-media platform! Hordes of people run to the next startup, desperate to settle into that next place where they can join their friends, family and colleagues in sharing, liking, plussing, pinning, tweeting and doing whatever else people do online these days.

In all honesty – and I say this as someone who comes from a tech-obsessed family, who started using the internet in 1995 when I only had one other friend with an email address, and was building websites and blogs (not with WordPress may I add) wayyy before they were even fashionable – I am beginning to find the whole thing a little bit perturbing.

It’s not just the unquestioning mass movement. It’s also the fear that seems to come with it: this notion that if you’re not a social media hotshot,  you’re going to get left behind in life. The idea seems to have been implanted in us that we just have to use social media. We have to. We need it. Life cannot be lived properly without it facebooking or tweeting or pinteresting.

Apparently it’s not possible to enjoy a social function anymore without “checking in” and telling the whole world where you are. Every photo you take must be done with a social media upload in mind. Businesses are being led to believe that they cannot thrive without adopting these tools. And hence we flock from pillar to post, jumping on the next moving social media train.

Of course, for the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world, these types of beliefs are fantastic. If people believe they can’t live without you, you are set. Tell everyone they need what you are offering, get them hooked on your drug and make it hard for them to quit. Just check out the recent Facebook IPO. Even more telling is its subsequent fall out.

My intention is not to sound like a Luddite. I love watching human beings progress, and technology has helped, and is helping us do that. But I don’t believe in adopting things for adoption’s sake.

When the early social media platforms – MySpace, even Facebook – were coming up, they were new and we had not seen them before, so of course there was a natural curiosity and interest and a desire to see how these things worked and whether or not they could improve our lives. But we have got past that stage, and now it seems as though we have entered into a phase of mass consumption of any and everything social media related.

Rarely are we stopping to ask whether we do we really do need these things? What they are for and what purpose do they serve in our lives? Some say that Facebook helps you to communicate better with friends. I personally have not found that Facebook has brought me closer to or helped me to communicate better with my friends, and in fact, I deactivated my account earlier this year because I actually want to have more meaningful, deeper and more substantive engagement with people in my life.

After all, there is only so much one is going to put on a Facebook wall post or in a Tweet. I found that photos, posts, and my ‘sharing’ was becoming more and more selective and even censored as I strove to take into account all of the different people who might be looking at my personal information: not just friends but family, colleagues and those who knew me from having read my work or seen me on TV. I wasn’t being fully myself, I was becoming a marketed version of myself…to my friends? Surely that is not what real friendship is about?

Last year I also conducted a business experiment. I’d self-published a book and I used social media to see how well each platform would far as a promotional tool, and for driving sales. Facebook yielded low returns. Surprisingly low actually. Twitter fared better. But I found that the most rewarding form of communication was simple email. The personal touch. General Motors which has pulled their $10m ad spend from Facebook has also seems to have realized that advertising on Facebook isn’t producing the kinds of returns that it had hoped for. I was reading a social media marketing guide just yesterday and was shocked by the frenetic, almost schizophrenic, way in which some companies are encouraging businesses to spread themselves thinly across whatever platform they can in order to reach consumers. This to me is not good business strategy.

As a disclaimer, I’ve never been a huge fan of crowds or large group activity – the collective mind and group think that takes over individual thought when people are together in numbers has always bothered me – and I literally get nervous when I see large numbers of people moving, often unthinkingly, towards something, anything really. It is usually my cue to get out, or at the very least to stop, look, observe and ask myself some questions.

I think the the internet has fundamentally changed the world, in many ways, good and not so good. I use Twitter regularly and it provides direct access to people who I may not have been able to access directly before. But I know that my life doesn’t depend on it.

All that glitters is not gold; that just because something is new and sparkly and promises to change my life/help me change the world/connect me with the rest of the world and so on, this does not necessarily make it beneficial to my life.

As we get deeper into the internet age, it is worth asking some questions… Do we really need to be like human magpies, or are there some other, deeper, more human, ways in which we can get our needs met?

US Elections 2012 – The battle begins in earnest

On Tuesday November 6th, 2012, the American people will take to the polls to decide who will become the 45th president of the United States of America.

The world will watch on in anticipation to see whether or not the incumbent Democratic President Barack Obama, America’s first African American president who rose to power in an unprecedented manner in 2008, will be re-elected for a second term.

Or, will President Obama be a one-term president, to be ousted by a Republican? With Newt Gingrich suspending his bid for the presidency today, it is looking increasingly likely that the Republican contender will be Mitt Romney whose style and values are vastly different from Obama’s.

I was in the US, watching and writing about the 2008 election. It was a fascinating and exhilarating time to be in the country. Much has happened over the past 4 years – including a recession which has hit America and the world hard, global uprisings, widespread questions about the nature and indeed future of capitalism and public anger about corporate behaviour and failings of leadership. Class and economic inequality have become much-debated and discussed topics in the US, while the Occupy and the Tea Party movements have become high profile features on the social and political landscape.

I believe that at the heart of all of this is a shift in American values. America is grappling with what this country is really about and what it really stands for now and going forward. Over the next 187 days we will chart the course of the US Presidential Election 2012 looking at the key issues and topics and analysing and observing the trends and direction in which voters are leaning. I’ll also be looking back over the past 4 years under the first African American president. Watch this space.