Thursday, December 14, 2017

Fully Connected by Julia Hobsbawn – I wish I hadn’t

Having seen Julia get torn to pieces by an audience in Berlin, I decided to give the book a go. But first Berlin. After an excruciating anecdote about her being in the company of Royalty in St James Palace and meeting Zak Goldsmith (it made no sense, other than name dropping), she laid out the ideas in her book describing networks as including Facebook, Ebola and Zika –all basically the same thing, a ridiculous conflation of ideas.All this social media is turning us into sheep” she bleated. Then asked “How many of you feel unhappy in your jobs?” Zero hands went up. Oh dear, try again. How many of you feel overloaded?” Three hands in a packed room. Ooops that punctured the proposition.... She then made a quick retreat into some ridiculous generalisations about her being the first to really look at networks, that Trump should be thrown off Twitter (strong anti-freedom of expression line here.... bit worrying). Basically playing the therapeutic contrarian. The audience were having none of it, many of them experts in this field.
Then came the blowback. Stephen Downes, who knows more than most on the subject of networks, was blunt “Everything you’ve said is just wrong” Wow. He then explained that there’s a large literature on networks and that the subject has been studied in depth and that she was low on knowledge and research. He was right. Andrew Keen on Stephen Downes accusation that Hobsbawn was flakey on assumptions and research "Good - glad to see someone with a hard hitting point..." Claire Fox then joined the fray.... pointing out that this contrarian stuff smacks of hysteria – it’s all a bit preachy and mumsy.
So, fast forward, I’m back from Berlin and bought the book – Fully Connected. To be fair I wanted to read the work for myself. Turns out the audience was right. 
Fully Connected
The Preface opens up with a tale about Ebola, setting the whole ‘networks are diseased and I have the cure’ tone of the book. “Culture, diseases, ideas: they’re all about networks” says Hobsbawn. Wow – she’s serious and really does want to conflate these things just to set up the self-help advice. What follows is a series of well-worn stuff about Moore’s Law, Stanley Milgram, Six Degrees of Separation, Taleb’s Black Swan, Tom Peters, Peter Drucker… punctuated by anecdotes about her and her family. It’s a curious mixture of dull, middle-class anecdotes and old school stuff without any real analysis or insights.
Ah, but here comes her insight – her new term ‘social health’. All is revealed. Her vision is pathalogocal, the usual deficit view of the modern world. All of you out there are wrapped up in evil spiders’ webs, diseased, and I have the cure. Her two big ideas are The Way to Wellbeing and The Blended Self. All of this is wrapped up in the pseudo-medical nonsense; Information obesity, Time starvation, Techno-spread, Organisational bloat. It’s like a bad diet book where you’re fed a diet of bad metaphors. Her ‘Hexagon’ of social health is the diagnosis and cure, as she puts herself forward as the next Abraham Maslow – replacing the pyramid with a hexagon – we’re networked geddit?
Part two is even worse. The usual bromides around Disconnecting, Techno-shabbats, Designing your honeycomb, The knowledge dashboard. Only then do you realise that this is a really bad, self-help book based on a few personal anecdotes and no research whatsoever.

The postscript says it all, a rambling piece about the Forth Road Bridge. I grew up in the town beneath that bridge and saw it built – but even I couldn’t see what she was on about. There are some serious writers in this area, like Andrew Keen, Nicholas Carr and others, Julia is not one of them.

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