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.