People Don’t Change

I’d like to present a record­ing of my lat­est talk, Peo­ple Don’t Change. It’s about the his­to­ry of mod­ern human behav­iour, and tech­nol­o­gy, and how the meet­ing of those two affects soci­ety today. I pre­sent­ed it at Front End Lon­don in August, and I’m real­ly proud of it because I’ve been think­ing about it for a long time—if you’re inter­est­ed to hear it, the sto­ry of how I wrote it is below the video.

The Story Behind the Talk

I’ve nev­er real­ly believed in the neg­a­tive tropes of the way peo­ple inter­act with new tech­nol­o­gy; from ‘the nar­cis­sism of self­ies’ to ‘mobile phones have killed con­ver­sa­tion’, I’m not sure our age is so unique. So a few years ago I start­ed sav­ing notes, links, and images of his­tor­i­cal exam­ples of the way peo­ple use tech­nol­o­gy: book­mark­ing Tweets, and tag­ging arti­cles in Pock­et, and quotes and notes in Keep. I nev­er knew exact­ly what I want­ed them for, I just knew it was inter­est­ing to me and that maybe one day I’d do some­thing with them.

For most of my life I’ve had an inter­est in his­to­ry, espe­cial­ly the moments that let you feel a human con­nec­tion to peo­ple who are sep­a­rat­ed from us by time, cul­ture, geog­ra­phy… and death, of course. One of my favourite mem­o­ries is my vis­it to Pom­peii, see­ing the beau­ti­ful­ly pre­served signs of every­day lives: the graf­fi­ti, the ‘beware of the dog’ sign. So I saved notes and links to any­thing inter­est­ing in this field too—again, with no clear inten­tion behind them.

This col­lec­tion of notes is what author Steven John­son calls his spark file, although he keeps all his notes actu­al­ly in one file where­as I tend to keep mine across mul­ti­ple ser­vices. But although we dif­fer slight­ly in that detail, I also fol­low anoth­er part of his habit more close­ly: to fre­quent­ly go back and re-read my notes, to find new pat­terns and con­nec­tions.

What hap­pens when I re-read the doc­u­ment [is] that I end up see­ing new con­nec­tions that hadn’t occurred to me the first (or fifth) time around: the idea I had in 2008 that made almost no sense in 2008, but that turns out to be incred­i­bly use­ful in 2012, because some­thing has changed in the exter­nal world, or because some oth­er idea has sup­plied the miss­ing piece that turns the hunch into some­thing action­able.

When I read through my notes this time, I realised I had a talk wait­ing for me. A talk with a thread that tied togeth­er some of the things I most care about, and that I real­ly want­ed to tell oth­er peo­ple about. It was just lack­ing a nar­ra­tive, which I could only find by work­ing it up into a pre­sen­ta­tion. 

I didn’t have any talks sched­uled, but I’m lucky that at rehab, the agency where I work, we have a pol­i­cy of giv­ing talks on a Fri­day after­noon; it’s a relax­ing way to wind up the week, and to tell col­leagues a lit­tle more about the things we’re inter­est­ed in. So I put myself down for a talk titled, pro­vi­sion­al­ly, Peo­ple Don’t Change.

That dead­line gave me the moti­va­tion to find the nar­ra­tive for my notes, to look for the miss­ing pieces to make it into a coher­ent sto­ry, and to—with great regret—cut the parts that didn’t work. At the end of all this, I had my talk. But not quite the one you see above—that’s the revised ver­sion deliv­ered at FEL based on my feel­ing of how the first pre­sen­ta­tion went.

It might have tak­en four or five hours to put togeth­er the talk, but it had been bub­bling around in my head for two to three years before that; I just hadn’t made all the con­nec­tions yet.

If you’re host­ing an event and look­ing for speak­ers, per­haps you’d like to take a look at my speak­ing port­fo­lio.


Also pub­lished on Medi­um.