A Future Without Personal History

Note: In 2011 I wrote this article for ReadWrite, a widely-read blog covering the technology industry, on what would happen if we didn’t make an effort to store our communication history. I lamented how older generations could look back through letters, physical records of their lives with one another, and yet we would seemingly be left with nothing. The article inspired an impassioned response from journalist Paul Carr at the blog TechCrunch and a lively online debate. I ultimately ended up founding a company based on the premise I wrote about.

I thought I’d re-share the article as I rediscovered it. I was sixteen at the time—things have certainly changed, and you’ll have to excuse the writing. And, irony of ironies, I now rather enjoy writing letters.


Remember those pieces of paper with handwritten words on them that you used to post to people? “Letters” I think they’re called. To be honest though, I wouldn’t have a clue, as I’ve neither sent nor received one in my 16-year-old life.

I’m sure the majority of readers here have at least sent a personal letter to friends or family in their lifetime. However, the same cannot be said about my generation. I’ve sent tens of thousands of emails, Facebook messages, SMSs, and IMs – but never a single letter.

More than solely being a form of communication, letters are a very effective historical item. Think about letters sent home to families from the soldiers on the battlefields of both world wars. Letters were kept because they have a perceived value – it took time and effort to send a letter, and therefore people viewed them as much more valuable.

My parents still have letters that they received more than 30 years ago, and when they read them now they say that they detail entire relationships and friendships. They have vast amounts of information about their own history stored inside the letters that they sent and received. It goes even further than that. My grandmother still has letters she received from her grandmother. If it weren’t for those letters, all that information about my own family history would have been lost, or confined to memory (which, as my parents are discovering, fails us all eventually).

And yet, I can’t tell anyone what I was discussing with someone a month ago. That’s testament to the digital age that I, and everyone in my generation, is a native member of. I find myself feeling incredibly guilty that my parents and grandparents went to so much effort to ensure that our family history was kept, and here I am frequently losing information about my life.

The frequency and brevity of messages sent today combined with the numerous mediums used means that this personal information now has a much lower perceived value: Your email storage fills up – you delete all your messages. You get a new mobile phone – all of your SMS’s are lost.

Some people are already worrying about what may happen if we continue to throw away our information. For example, the U.S. Library of Congress announced in April last year that it would be archiving every Twitter message ever sent. Sure it’s a phenomenal undertaking, but in no way is it enough. Think about all the different mediums of communication you use.

For example, today alone I have communicated with people via SMS, email, Facebook messages, Facebook chat, Whatsapp Messenger, Skype chat, and Twitter. Out of those, only my public Twitter updates are being stored. There are other efforts like the Library of Congress’ undertaking, but mass archiving won’t help us store our individual histories in a way that we can access.

What happens if, in three years, I want to go back through all my communications with my girlfriend? I may not be using an iPhone in three years, so all of my messages on Whatsapp Messenger will be gone. I definitely won’t be using the same mobile phone, so all of my SMS’s will be gone. My Gmail storage will have filled up, so I won’t have any of our emails any more. I doubt I’ll even still be using Facebook – there’s all of that communication gone.

All of this information that is so important and so relevant to me personally is just disappearing, and I won’t be able to track the relationships and friendships that I have had.

Personally, I am now backing up my computer daily, and copying and pasting communication from all different formats into different documents stored both on hard drive and in the cloud. While it’s a start, it’s an absolutely horrific task, and doesn’t completely work (I’m not going to be transcribing my SMS’s into a document).

The abundance of technology is severely devaluing information. Do we go on ignoring this fact, and losing the details of our lives? Or do we do the hard work, and attempt to effectively store our communications? I know that I’ll be putting in the hard work – at least until the magicians in Silicon Valley come up with a better solution.

A Vision or a Plan?

The National Party of New Zealand presents on its website a “plan” for the country’s future. “We have a clear plan to make New Zealand a stronger, more prosperous country and it’s a plan that’s working”, they say.

National Party has a plan

The Labour Party, by contrast, presents on their homepage a “vision” for the country: “New Zealanders don’t ask a lot, but there are some things that make us who we are and define our place in the world. We call it the Kiwi dream.”

Labour Party has a VisionThese approaches, at least in the political realm, are often mutually exclusive. The Nats makes no mention of a vision for where their plan will take them, and Labour does not describe a plan for achieving their vision.

In politics that might simply be a function of where each party expects to gain support. For the governing party, a plan is really all that matters; they’ve been elected on a vision, and now all people are about is whether they have a plan to govern effectively. Results are now what count. By contrast, the opposition requires a sweeping vision for an alternative future for those who believe the incumbent’s plan is not working. They need not worry about a plan until elected, when the narratives might be expected to switch between the parties.

In the non-zero-sum worlds that are our lives, a vision is only worth describing if backed by a plan; and a plan is only relevant if one has a vision for where that plan might take them. Visions and plans are not mutually exclusive, but too often—whether in a hangover of the political world, where we encounter them most often, or in some failure of nature—people seem still to swing one way or the other. Too often it is vision without a plan or a plan without a vision.

This can explain the failure of many startups. Some have brilliant execution, but no one cares because they don’t inspire. Others have a grand vision to mobilise people, but then can’t back that up with a plan to achieve anything.

And it can explain the failure of many people to achieve aims and goals they’ve set for themselves, even those that deal with lives as a whole. We often oscillate between the extremes of visions and plans without finding the middle ground where they meet, which is the only place that truly matters.

Political narratives can box our minds in, encouraging us subconsciously to mimic in our lives the approaches taken on the campaign trail. But when it comes to visions and plans, the difference between the zero-sum world of politics and the positive nature of our lives means we need to be aware of those narratives and take pains to grasp at both sides of the picture.

There’s only point having a vision if backed by a plan, and a plan is only worthwhile if it serves some vision. Perhaps, ultimately, what politics really needs is a party willing to risk putting the two together—at the same time.

The Future of Social Networks

Note: I wrote this article in 2011, looking at how social networks could more accurately mimic real life societies. It ended up being the single most-read and most-commented-on piece on my blog. I was sixteen at the time, so excuse the writing. Interesting to see both how the numbers have changed since 2011 (600 million users! One and a half years!), as well as how Facebook has and has not moved closer to the vision I outlined.


So Facebook has 600 million users. Many people are saying that Facebook will now be here for ever, and the entire planet will eventually be on Facebook. The same people are saying it will grow to be the biggest company in history, and that it’ll make a killing for investors. I disagree. This article explains why I disagree, and discusses what social networks should look like to succeed.

Social networks are still in early days. I don’t think they’ve really matured in any way, because they are still built on false assumptions that were made beginning with the first few mainstream social networks. The system of “friending” is completely broken, and yet many people don’t realize it because they don’t stop to ask why it is that way.

Facebook says that all my friends and contacts are of equal importance to me. They know this isn’t true, but there is no way for me to distinguish between friends I am truly close with or contacts that I met at a conference and felt obliged to accept on Facebook. In real life, we rank our connections in order of how important they are to us and how close we are with them. But on Facebook, this system has gone out the window because that functionality is not built into the social network.

But there is more about Facebook that is broken. Facebook is a “one-size-fits-all” social network. In other words, it thinks that everyone will find use in Facebook as long as they are on it with their friends. They believe that the higher the number of users they have, the more likely it is that people will keep joining. But this view goes against societal laws.

We live in societies in real life because we surround ourselves with people who share similar values, beliefs, and interests. Sure, the fact that I support one political party over another says that I have slightly different values to the person next to me, but fundamentally our values and beliefs are very similar. And living in a society allows me to know that anybody I meet will have fundamentally the same mindset as me. People who share similar religions live in the same societies, because they understand each other. This means that I can meet new people, and be social with a group outside of my existing close friends, with the knowledge that anybody I meet will be essentially similar to me.

Think about the term social network for a moment. When we hear it, we think of online social networks, like Facebook, with a system of “friending” and where we only communicate with our existing contacts. But social network is a broad term. Actually, it kind of describes how we relate to our contacts in real life. We have our own social network in real life, and you know what? It works. It’s called our society, and it’s been around for decades, if not centuries.

My question is: why aren’t online social networks built like physical societies?

Imagine this model as three circles, one inside of the other. The inner circle has your core group of friends and family – you share everything with them. There may only be 25 people in there, but these are the people who you would call to tell them something important that has just happened. They mean a lot to you. You’ll connect with these people by “friending” them – ie. mutual designation.

The next circle, which is quite a few times larger than the inner circle, is made up of your connections. These are the people who you’ve met at conferences, or know from school – you’re not close with them, but you’d talk to them if you saw them on the street. To connect with these people, you just have to specify them as a connection. It’s more like “following” them, only they will see that you have specified them as a connection and they can specify you back.

The third and final circle is made up of outer society. People you don’t know, but who you may meet someday. You cross paths with these people every day, but just haven’t yet taken the time to stop and talk to them. This final circle is huge – many, many times bigger than the previous two – and you have no direct link to them unless you choose to.

What this model allows is for us to differentiate between true “friends”, and mere “connections”. You can have a clear distinction between the two, allowing you to know more clearly who what you are sharing will reach. It gives you the ability to share more with those you really care about, without annoying connections. And, likewise, it allows you to share things with connections that you wouldn’t share with your family. And what about “outer society”? Well, you can interact with them as much or as little as you want.

The beauty of this model is that it allows us to choose how we want to use our social network. If we want to use it like Facebook, we can do that – the choice is entirely up to us.

But there will not be just one social network that looks like this. There will be tens, if not hundreds of them – each with millions of users. The social network that you are a part of will be a representation of who you are as a person. It will signify your values, beliefs, and interests.

When will this shift in model of social networks occur? I believe it will start in a year and a half, and reach the mainstream in about three years from now. That’s time for these new social networks to be built and perfected.

In any case, the battle of the social networks is far from over. Facebook hasn’t won, and there are plenty of genius programmers at colleges around the world. Good luck.

“What’s It To Me?”: Connecting The Dots Between Brexit And Jobs

Note: This post originally appeared on the Asian Trade Centre’s Talking Trade blog

Brexit has been described as an “act of self-harm” by commentators from the President of the European Commission to the Financial Times. The adverbs sometimes differ—grievous, in some instances, unnecessary or gratuitous in others—but economists and trade experts are nearly unanimous that British citizens will be worse off following a withdrawal from the European Union.

But ask those who voted for it, and Brexit seems nothing close to that. Indeed, the very people who would seem most at risk from Brexit are those who, even following the referendum result, are most insistent that their lives will be much improved. Why is it that those probably most insulated from Brexit’s risks are most concerned about it, while those on the “front lines” maintain a wholly positive view?

Sunderland, in north-east England, is one of those cities where residents might not have buffers that could protect workers from the effects of Brexit. With the second lowest GDP per capita of any city in the UK, and having only recently recovered from the 1988 shutdown of the last shipyard, Sunderland is in many ways a testament to economic decline and change.

The 61% pro-Brexit vote in Sunderland is what happens when cities fail to recognise the ways in which the global economy has changed, and when they fail to connect the dots between the global economy and individual livelihoods at home. Though proud residents might like to spin a narrative of independence, the reality is that workers here are literally standing on the front lines of an interconnected global economy.

Ask those in Sunderland, however, and you would think Brexit was far less important than Britain losing to Iceland in the Euro Cup. The New York Times carried an article featuring a variety of perspectives from Sunderland, summarised best, perhaps, by Ken Walker, a retired construction worker.

“I don’t have any money in the stock market,” Mr. Walker, 59, said as he drank a pint of beer in a pub. “So what’s it to me?”

It came as a blessing when in 1986—two years before Sunderland’s last shipyard was closed—a Japanese car maker came to the city to set up a production plant. Nissan, a giant of the car making world, has operated a successful plant ever since, employing just shy of 7000 in Sunderland alone, and up to a thousand more in two other offices in the UK. The Nissan plant in Sunderland also supports 27,000 jobs across the UK in its supply chain.

The plant regularly produces in excess of 500,000 vehicles per year. And given that many other vehicle manufacturers operate in Britain, it should be obvious that those 500,000 cars are not purchased by Britons alone. Depending on the year, between 80 and 85 percent of cars produced by Nissan in Sunderland are sent abroad.

Those vehicles are not all being exported to booming countries in Asia. Instead, almost 60% of these exports are sent to the European Union.  It is precisely because the UK receives preferential access to the EU markets that Nissan originally set up production in Sunderland.

It is figures like this that translate trade—a broad, often loaded term that invites misinformation and scaremongering—into effects on people’s lives. For when the UK does leave the EU, Nissan will face tariffs on all those exports to Europe, and will lose access to any EU-negotiated trade deals with the rest of the world.

One possible scenario is that in the event of Brexit, the UK will (at least in the short term) have to fall back on WTO trading rules and Most Favoured Nation (MFN) tariff rates into EU markets. For cars, these rates currently stand at 10%, and for trucks at 22%. Taxes and VAT rates in other countries can also be restrictive, dampening demand further even if Nissan is to gain from a reduced Pound.

Brexit is therefore not an abstract effect on businesses. For Nissan, it means under one likely optimistic scenario, an additional 10% cost to production of cars. In an industry already on the knife’s edge between profitability and loss, many firms operating in the UK will move in order to stay competitive.

And all that is if Nissan decides to put up with the uncertainty—on its own incredibly damaging to business—that will ensue perhaps for many years until the UK does formally leave. Why shouldn’t the company be proactive to protect its interests and begin shifting production to the continent—or to Asia?

Therein lies the irony. The surest way to “send jobs to China,” as the phrase goes, is not to open one’s borders, but to close them.

Nissan has already warned about the possible ramifications for its business post-Brexit. Carlos Ghosn, Nissan Chief Executive and Chairman, was quoted as saying “Our preference as a business is, of course, that the UK stays within Europe – it makes the most sense for jobs, trade and costs. For us, a position of stability is more positive than a collection of unknowns.”  The company has declined to comment since the election, but rumors are swirling on the production lines.

This follows similar warnings from other car manufacturers in the UK, including Toyota and Ford, which in 2012 closed two UK plants causing the loss of thousands of jobs. The industry was already reeling, facing slowing exports to China and Russia. In fact, it was a surge in demand from EU countries that allowed Nissan to weather recent economic storms. Whether it will continue to be able to manage slowing demand in Asia without free access to the EU is very much an open question.

For other pro-Brexiters in Sunderland, “The E.U. is a mystery…” “We’ve never heard about it up here”, the Times again quotes a resident as saying. Even those who seem aware of potential job losses were confident: “No, I can’t see them cutting off ties”, one resident was quoted as saying of Nissan. For yet another, “Give Brexit a chance. It can’t get worse than what’s been going on already.”

But it can. And of all places, Sunderland should know that it can. Its economic fortunes were in many ways saved in 1986 by a Japanese company that only exists in Sunderland to produce products to deliver offshore. By failing, once again, to connect the dots between the global economy and individual lives, Sunderland risks repeating the past. One hopes for those who commented to the Times that Mr. Cameron’s successor will not need to make a fated journey to the Nissan plant to announce its closure, as Mrs. Thatcher did at Sunderland shipyards three decades ago.

***This Talking Trade blog post was written by Michael Moore-Jones and Dr. Deborah Elms, Asian Trade Centre, Singapore***