Human Beings: The Damage the Internet was Designed to Route Round
If you haven’t heard of the BBC’s Connected Studio initiative, let me explain how — because it’s agile — it’s going to save the notion of a large cultural institution funded by universal public subscription for the benefit of the souls, minds and imaginations of everyone in this country.
Let me also stress my use of the word ‘save’ even though the BBC Connected Studio initiative has (as I write) not had a single product launched in 18 months of activity.
(TL;DR version at the end of the long bit.)
While you’re pondering that ludicrous postulation, I’ll pile it on and ask you to imagine you are either The Universe or The Internet — same difference — a giant system for processing information using the principles of natural selection to refine your ability to process MORE information MORE efficiently until heat death (shut up at the back).
So, Mr. or Ms Universe — as you judge all the systems inside you against your inviolable purpose, your rock-solid rule is this: an inefficient processor of information is a crap system. From systems based on physics (like a human or microprocessor) to systems built on them (like Monday Morning Meetings or whatever makes for a quick server ping time) — efficiency in processing information is what you’re after.
Look — what I’m suggesting with this hopelessly over-egged-pudding-metaphor-thingamy is this: in 2013, inefficient human behaviour and server behaviour are functionally indistinguishable to the systems around you, and natural selection wants you dead.
In other words, if you’re a crap system you’re the damage around which the Internet was designed to re-route and it doesn’t matter if you’re a crap Monday Morning Meeting or a crap modem.
Or a cultural institution.
Now, the BBC Connected Studio is, simply, a programme of rapid development workshops bringing various parts of the BBC together with external technologists to prototype new ideas.
This initiative is one of several similar initiatives cropping up in the UK’s most important cultural institutions. These initiatives tend to describe themselves using some variation of the formula —
(“Open” / “Connected” / “Hack the”) + (Name of Cultural Institution)
— and they typically describe themselves as ‘creating a platform’ for Human Beings to innovate or to express themselves based on combining said Human Being’s own abilities with some set of affordances of the host institution.
I don’t think the public declarations of why these organisations are doing this is in reality the most important thing. Yes, they’re platforms, but … what?
What I think is actually important …
(spoiler: ‘platform’ initiatives are actually indicators of cultural institutions saving their own lives by working the way the internet works, processing information as fast as they can, responding to external events in as agile manner as possible)
… can be seen by considering recent history.
Because it used to be that all large commissioners or producers of ‘stuff’ presented a simple, comforting affordance to the outside world:
Bugger all. A black box.
Money and ideas went in one end; those of us unconnected with the innards of the black box hung around and eventually watched or listened to what came out the other end: a naked production of Shakespeare, the Six O’Clock News, a documentary about Hitler’s Killer Sharks, an exhibition of Rutger Hauer’s artwork.
No doubt what went on inside the box was complex. But the processes were invisible and the box was not connected to the outside world.
There’s no box now — it’s the walls that are invisible, not the innards. Institutions can be seen to be systems: inputs, outputs and processes. Because THE INTERNET.
Draw a circle in the air around the elements of those systems, and many of them are part of larger systems or networks. The elements inside the institution include everyone who works for or with that institution, most business and decision-making processes and every decision-making process.
I’ve already suggested that a crap system (a system that processes information worse than competitive systems) is a doomed system. So it follows anything that can permit a system to process information more efficiently, responding to externalities quickly and economically gives that system competitive advantage.
Let’s be agile, or let’s be extinct, in other words.
The problem is, once you begin to managerially apply principles of agility to organisations you realise it’s really hard. Organisational inertia inside a system as complex as the BBC is Saturn-sized. And the entire system has be agile or anyone in a team trying to “do agile” is going to have a horrible time — in fact they won’t actually be agile no matter how good their Scrum Master, no matter how accurately the Velocity is being tracked, no matter how awesomely open-plan the bullpen.
But you have to start somewhere.
The BBC’s Connected Studio is important because it is uncompromisingly agile and may (I hope) slowly force the bits of the BBC with which it interacts to “just this once” act in reciprocally agile manner — and when you’ve “done agile” you’ve already built a pathway for information and decision making that has less resistance to the pre-existing pathways. Physics does the rest over time.
This is, in turn, important because if the BBC isn’t intrinsically agile it won’t be competitive and natural selection will do the rest. It won’t be able to make output people actually want faster than the competition. Eventually everyone will start asking if the licence fee is good value — which it won’t be. The BBC’s excellence, values and income will eventually be outweighed by solutions honed by natural selection and physics, which will always, always win in the end in changing environments.
Which would be a fucking tragedy.
Similar to Hack the Barbican and other initiatives, I see Connected Studio as a sign of plucky asymmetric warfare from innocent-faced guerillas trying to destroy the village by saving it.
TL;DR: BBC Connected Studio and similar initiatives make organisations agile (not Agile) which is good as otherwise they’re screwed because physics. Tony Ageh for DG.