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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Life in a quantum world

Life in a quantum world

We live in a Newtonian world. One constructed largely on the basis of an understanding of physics established over three hundred years ago.

There are many exceptions to this generalisation. Living examples of Gibson’s note that the future is unevenly distributed. From the nuclear weapon to the phone in your pocket, we unknowingly bear witness to the rising quantum age on a daily basis.

But, as the song goes, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

I spent a couple of hours on Friday afternoon listening to talks by academics at the National Graphene Institute, where I am taking up a six month informal post as ‘resident futurist’. I plan to spend a half a day there every few weeks, interviewing researchers and writing about the possibilities presented by two dimensional materials.

Friday’s talks were not designed to be easily digestible. I was probably the only person in the room without, at the minimum, a Masters degree in physics. There was at least one Nobel prize winner. I found myself scribbling down terms and acronyms for later research.

Changing reality

Despite my lack of understanding of the terminology and some of the fundamental concepts, I found the talks absolutely fascinating. One thing was absolutely clear: we are rapidly gaining a much greater level of clarity about the fundamental building blocks of matter, how to manipulate them and apply their properties. In the next few years we will be using that understanding in a much broader range of scenarios, transitioning us to a truly quantum age.

What I mean by that is that we will see greater changes in the physical reality of our world, not just in its digital overlays (though the boundary between the two will be increasingly blurred by connected devices and mixed reality). The materials from which we make our world will continue to change, shifting the dimensions of our world and disrupting long-embedded technologies that have served us well for centuries.

Of course, this will not happen overnight. It seems absurd to talk of rapid change in the media of our environment while sat in a 150 year old house, with a cracked and pot-holed road outside revealing its original cobbles. But in those areas of our life with relatively high turnover: clothes, consumables, packaging, even cars, expect to see some new and unexpected shapes, and properties in coming years.

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Blockchain will change the world. Or not.

Blockchain will change the world. Or not.

Twice this week, people have relayed to me incredible promises for the power of blockchain and how it will change the way we do everything. This is quite some feat for a technology that few people understand, even in principle, and even fewer can describe with clarity.

I have a number of issues with this idea. It’s not that I don’t think blockchain has great potential. There’s a clear attraction in the robustness of its distributed nature and the potential for transparency that represents. I can see how it might be valuable for managing contracts and deeds — matters of public record that don’t necessarily have tight privacy concerns around them.

But blockchain is an architectural choice, not a technological solution in its own right. It is one way we might choose to tackle particular problems, and one of many. It is suited to some situations and not to others — like the storage of personal data.

However well encrypted it may be, you cannot store personal data in a blockchain-based system and comply with the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR). The regulations may change, though I’m not totally convinced that they should. Even if they do, it will take a long time.

Why Blockchain is not like IoT or AI

It’s great that people are enthused by the idea of a technology and its potential applications. But blockchain is quite different to other technological buzzwords doing the rounds at the moment, like AI and IoT (internet of things).

These are much broader classifications of groups of technologies (at least in the way that the terms are commonly used — academics might object to broader uses of the term ‘AI’). This leads to criticism that they are nothing more than marketing terms, and sometimes that is fair. These terms don’t define single architectural choices, but rather opportunities to tackle new problems, or address old ones differently. Within these definitions your solution can be endlessly tailored to the challenge at hand.

But say you’re going to apply blockchain technology to a particular problem and you are dramatically narrowing your range of choices — perhaps beyond what is wise.

Blockchain will change some worlds

There will undoubtedly be some industries for which blockchain is a revolutionary technology. Some people will get incredibly rich off the back of it. Ultimately, perhaps it will prove to be a good basis for alternative currencies. But it isn’t some universal technological panacea that will solve everything. While it might changes some worlds, it won’t change every world.

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Adaptable or optimal? You can’t be both

Adaptable or optimal? You can’t be both

No item is more over-used in analogies than the humble Lego brick (I refused to call them ‘Legos’). I acknowledge that as a pre-emptive request for forgiveness for the cliche that follows. Because I have yet to find a better way of explaining the difference between being adaptable, and being optimal, than the comparison between a die cast toy car and a Lego model of the same vehicle.

Before I get to that though, some context. I believe we live in an age of high frequency change. This is distinct from more general accelerated change in that it acknowledges the big technological changes of the last century: the shift from horse and cart to car, the advent of international air travel, and the rise of domestic automation, to name but three. These were massive economic and cultural changes.

The internet may prove to be a change on the same order, but perhaps we don’t yet have the perspective to see it. What we can see is a rapid series of shocks that may not drive change on a global scale but that can individually disrupt whole industries. These generally result from the continuing rise in accessibility of new technologies and their subsequent application to new verticals.

In the context of this age of high frequency change, companies need to play the game of business rather differently. The longevity of a product, service, or operating model may be significantly shortened. Investment in optimising for that operation, beyond a certain point, may be wasted. Worse, it may lock the company into that particular operation. I call this ‘polishing the rut’. You may be able to move within that rut with ever less friction, but it will be damned hard to get out of it.

No excuse for friction

This isn’t to say that companies should be deliberately inefficient. I have had a few chats with web design and build agencies recently about licensing the Applied Futurist’s Toolkit. Many of them are being drawn from traditional design and build projects into digital transformation programmes for their SME clients. And they believe the Toolkit may help them. What’s shocking is that the challenges they uncover inside their clients are exactly the same as those I was coming across when I ran a digital agency a decade ago. There is still a massive deficit in the application of technology across UK business. Addressing this could have a dramatic impact on productivity.

But an excessive focus on efficiency, something we have seen in both public and private sectors over recent years, is antithetical to agility. There is such a thing as being too lean, too specialised.

And so companies and their leaders have a choice. Do you want to be hyper-optimised for today’s environment? Or do you want to build be agile so that you can adapt to tomorrow’s? You can’t be both.

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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

A cult of culture

A cult of culture

I have a selection of podcasts that I listen to when I really can’t sleep. In Our Time is my go-to choice. There’s something soothing about Melvyn Bragg’s conversations with a handful of academics about one or other big subject. I usually get through about 20 minutes before dozing off. And I always wake up having learned something.

Last night I was listening to an episode about the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, and one phrase of his really stuck with me: “a cult of culture”. Levi-Strauss coined it to describe the behaviour of secular Jews like himself, saying something along the lines of “when we lose our faith, we create a cult of culture.”

The phrase stuck with me as it seems to fit the current situation so well. For the first time in 2017, more than half the UK population reported that they had no faith. What has replaced it in our lives and minds? A cult of culture.

Jesus and Moses

There have been many tweets about various religiously-named footballers in the Premiership this year. One recently reminded me of a conversation with Simon Oliveira, the managing director of Doyen Global and the man who leads David Beckham’s communications strategy. Simon pointed out that the direct reach of players like Neymar and Beckham outstrips that of even the most influential media. Sporting culture is perhaps one of the greatest examples of the amplification effects and disintermediation of digital media. Football teams have always had their cultish followings, but this has now been amplified on a grand scale. Don’t believe in a god? Believe in three points on Saturday — or in the lifestyle of your favourite players.

Cultural diversity

Football and its players aren’t the only cults of course. We live in an age of unprecedented cultural diversity. I don’t mean we are a diverse nation — we always have been. I mean that the choices presented to us in terms of the content we consume are overwhelmingly broad. This has the effect of dividing us into social tribes that are no longer geographically defined: we can find people around the world who share our love for a particular podcast, game, blog, Tumblr etc etc etc. And each tribe has its own totems and shamans: certain actors, writers, and sometimes influencers with no other apparent qualification.

That last part sounds dismissive, but it shouldn’t. I followed two ‘influencers’ (I don’t know what else to call them) onto a plane yesterday, and observed a few minutes of their craft. They had a genuine process and talent for producing a narrative through their chosen apps (Snapchat and Instagram). We may not know what to call it or how to describe it, but it was impressive to watch.

The moral component

I’m no advocate of faith or religion. I struggle to reconcile faith with science, since one preaches constant inquiry and the other explicitly rejects it. I spend my whole working life preaching accelerated adaptation to a fast-changing world. Religion is bound tightly to teachings that are thousands of years old. Though I also advise a measure of conservatism, to challenge change before acting on it, that’s a little too conservative for me.

Religion has often failed to offer useful moral guidance, being guilty of the opposite on many occasions. But at least moral teaching was a core part of its mission. I wonder in our cult of culture, where does the discourse and teaching around morality happen in a way that has the same reach. In a way that overcomes the limitations that families often face. In a way that takes it beyond the classroom.

Is there a room for a moral core in our cult of culture, and do we need it?

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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Paint a target on yourself: Facebook & Cambridge Analytica revisited

Paint a target on yourself: Facebook & Cambridge Analytica revisited
Mark Zuckerberg on stage at Facebook’s F8 conference. Image by Maurizio Pesce —

I spent much of Sunday morning scoring entries to the the Prolific North marketing awards. The best entries in the categories I was judging had a few things in common. One of them was how well they used data to target their audience.

Then I got a call to speak to TalkRadio this morning about the latest updates on the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica story. And again it was clear that really, I would be talking about marketing. The type of marketing that most consumer-facing organisations, of any scale, have been doing for years.

Data intelligence is bad

The brands and agencies entering the awards used a whole range of methods to better understand the beliefs, needs and desires of their audience: surveys, testing, focus groups, analysis of existing data sets. They then used this intelligence to shape the stories they told to maximise their effect.

These stories were told across a variety of media: television, Facebook posts, digital and print ads, PR campaigns. This is where they differ to Cambridge Analytica (CA): in all of the stories I’ve read so far, the data was only used to target advertising. This seems unlikely.

It appears that CA, and its alleged affiliate, AggregateIQ, fed back to clients about the personality types and hot issues affecting its audience’s decisions. We know that there has been a mass influx of fake news into Facebook and the Web in general: biased and often patently untrue stories designed to discredit people and ideas and reinforce existing — often wrong — beliefs. Given the apparent level of moral reasoning taking place inside CA, and inside the campaigns that it supported, it seems unlikely that its arsenal would have been limited to advertising. Though, as I say, no report I have read offers concrete examples of any materials produced off the back of the data and profiling that CA or AIQ developed.

…or is it?

You choice in marketing is to shout at people about how great you think your product, service, or candidate is, or to listen to what is important to them and respond to those needs. To understand their worldview and tailor your messages accordingly. Since few of us like being shouted at, and most of us have developed a level of filter to ignore such base marketing, it’s unsurprising that the latter approach is more effective.

For all the horror that this might engender in people, it’s still a relatively unsophisticated process, even in the most advanced campaigns. It doesn’t appear either CA or AIQ’s work fits that category. Nonetheless, it is effective enough to deliver an incredible return on investment, certainly for the brands whose award entries I’ve been examining. One pound spent on marketing might turn into two, five or ten pounds in revenue.

When I say it’s not sophisticated, what I mean is that the targeting is still far from precise. I’ve lost count of how many people have asked me about (or more often complained to me about) irrelevant advertisements pursuing them around the web. Or completely off-base recommendations for products based on other things they have bought.

But when it works, this targeting is incredibly effective. Why do ads pursue you around the web? Because retargeting (the official name for this) is incredibly effective — somewhere between 40 and 100% more effective than ads seen cold, depending on which study you look at.

Likewise recommendations: brands recommend things they think you might like because it works, boosting the size of your basket at checkout by maybe 20%.

Imagine how it will be when they are actually really good at this? Yes, you might feel like you’re being manipulated. But actually you will also feel like the brand is working to your agenda. Who doesn’t want a personalised experience when shopping? A site that does the searching for you and finds what you want with minimal clicks?

The answer, is very few people. All evidence suggests we love brands that personalise our experience and minimise the friction in our shopping process.

As for products, so for politics?

The question is, do we feel the same about politics? The furore around CA, AIQ and FB doesn’t seem to be about the data breach — if you can call it that: the data CA used was collected entirely legally and the way that it was then sold on used to be entirely commonplace, if still against both data protection laws and FB’s terms and conditions. We have another story about a large scale data breach each week, and it seems to slide off the back of the public, contributing only to a slightly heightened background level of technological fear.

No, the furore around this story is around the prospect that our decisions on something more vital than our next box of cereal or holiday destination may have been manipulated. Some don’t want to believe that they were manipulated. Some really want to believe that others were, as a way to explain decisions that they find incomprehensible.

Personally, I’m sceptical about the effect either CA or AIQ had on the Trump or Brexit campaigns. Their methodology is suspect and most analyses suggest they weren’t approaching the sophistication of the best brands.

What to do

How do we stop this happening again in the future, should we want to? There are two options.

The first is that we try to legislate against this type of behaviour around elections. But that for me is like trying to reseal Pandora’s box. We know there are bad actors with a desire to influence voting. Are they going to hold to the laws? Will the laws we establish be able to adapt to new techniques and technologies? Unlikely.

Instead, I think we have to make the process much more transparent. Everyone needs to know when and how their data is being used, and how they are being targeted.

This can’t be achieved by forcing the likes of Facebook to do a better job of releasing data they hold. Let’s be honest, who has the time to plough through all that? I haven’t even bothered downloading mine. There are no surprises in there for me.

If we want to avoid situations like this in the future, we must change the way our data is held and how we are rewarded for sharing our personal information. If we want to keep track of where it goes and how it is used, then we should be in control of it, and we should place a value on it being shared.

We clearly can’t do this on a case-by-case basis: just think how many times your data (in a very low-level, anonymised way) is accessed each day by brands targeting you with advertising. We need a policy system wrapped around our data that allows it to be accessed by others on demand, according to the policies we select. A level of machine learning would allow it to adapt based on our responses over time.

This won’t prevent us being targeted by campaigns looking to change our behaviour. But at least we will be in control of what we receive, and rewarded for sharing our data with those with commercial interests in our attention. At least it will be transparent: we will know who was targeting us, with what, and when.

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Fighting friction: 5G & getting paid

Fighting friction: 5G & getting paid

I am a bit obsessed with friction. I don’t mean it in the literal sense, but rather those failures of systems and processes in life that slow us down, cause us irritation, and force us to think about the mechanism rather than the experience.

Low-friction connections

Speaking to TalkRadio this morning about 5G, I tried to explain that a large part of the proposition for this new network technology is that it eliminates friction. We shouldn’t have to think about how and whether we are connected any more. We should just be able to focus on the experience: browsing the web, sending an email, streaming a video or playing a game — wherever we are. Yes, there will be enhancements to speed, latency and coverage, but the applications for these may take a couple more years to appear. In the meantime we’re paying for convenience, and I for one am more than happy with that.

Because I abhor friction. I don’t want to waste minutes logging on to a Wi-Fi network when I could be enjoying the latest comics on my digital subscription, or streaming the latest episode of Black Lightning on Netflix.

Enterprise friction

The type of friction that genuinely makes me lose my mind is unnecessary administration. I have outsourced everything I can to get away from having to deal with as much of this as possible, but sometimes it is unavoidable. Re-mortgaging last year was a particular low point, with both the mortgage provider and their legal intermediary apparently having failed to keep up with the last twenty years of technological progress, or to have paid any attention to the massive waste in their own systems design. The only conclusion I could reach was that one or both of them must benefit from the systems being so utterly unfriendly to the customer.

But this is rarely the case. Friction in a business context, just like friction in physics, requires two bodies. And under friction, both suffer.

Getting paid

Take the example of a client of mine currently. I have now been waiting 71 days for them to pay a not insignificant amount of money. It took 58 days for the finance team to respond to my invoices and tell me they wouldn’t honour my normal payment terms and that they pay at 60 days. They also couldn’t pay until I was on their supplier database. This took the filling out of two forms, which themselves required research on my part to complete. Then, to check the status of my payments I had to log in to their supplier management system, an utterly terrible piece of webware. Only to find they had processed the same invoice twice, rejecting one of them, and failing to process the second.

Throughout this process, as you can imagine, I have been chasing the client, constantly. Like most of my clients, it’s a large organisation. My contacts are both geographically and hierarchically well-separated from the people causing the friction. Not only has the whole process consumed a huge amount of my time, effort, and good nature, it has consumed time from both my direct contacts and the finance team.

The result? However much the company may have saved by extending payment terms, both formally and artificially through its hideously complex processes, it has almost certainly wasted more in the lost time — and lost good will — of its own employees. The only difference is in the visibility of the two types of costs.

Find the friction in your organisation

Friction breeds frustration, which has the advantage of making it easy to find. One of the first things I do when I begin consulting with clients is ask people at all levels of the organisation, and their customers, is what frustrates them. What makes their day actively worse? What wastes time and stops them doing their best work?

The answers to these questions are usually great guides to what competitors will do better to beat them. If you want to know how to improve your business, how to eliminate friction, go ask your staff, your partners, and your customers: what winds you up? Frank answers will only help you.

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Tom Cheesewright