Friday, June 28, 2013

Orwell's searing indictment on how power corrupts

Nineteen Eighty-Four, By George Orwell
Originally published by Harcourt Inc. (1949)

George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four is a disturbing novel on many levels and has rightly earned its place among the literary masterpieces of the 20th century.

It's disturbing because of the nightmare world that Orwell creates, full of random violence, soul-sapping monotony and almost devoid of human qualities such as love, ambition, artistic expression, joy and hope. Orwell's language is shocking and provocative, and it's meant to get under the skin of his readers, and it succeeds.

Nineteen Eighty-Four tells the story of Winston Smith, a mid-level bureaucrat who works for the Ministry of Truth. Smith's possesses a rational mind and is all too aware of the dreary, suffocating environment that he inhabits day after day: everywhere he goes and everything he does is closely monitored by Big Brother, or the State. He is encouraged to obey the party line and work without complaint alongside all of the other cogs in the machinery.

Except that Smith has grown tired and restless with this hum drum existence. In an effort to exercise a measure of free will, he thumbs his nose at Big Brother, first by having an affair with a younger woman (Julie), and then by befriending a man (O'Brien) whom Smith believes is part of a movement intent on subverting Big Brother. Both of these decisions will come back to haunt poor Smith, but you'll have to read the novel to find out how.

What Big Brother wants from its citizens is not their physical labours and brainpower (although those are important). Rather, it wants their unconditional love. Whoever dares to challenge Big Brother's power and authority is swiftly and severely dealt with. Anyone who demonstrates an ounce of humanity, decency or free will is either tortured and or killed. There are no courts, no appeals. Big Brother doesn't just kill dissenters; it 'vaporizes' them, meaning that all evidence of a person's existence is eliminated forever.

The reason Winston Smith is such a compelling character is that he one man fighting against the system, an average citizen caught up in a world that he barely understands, struggling to keep himself sane. Smith's story has parallels to Franz Kafka's "The Trial," a story of a man who is arrested by an authority that is both amorphous and mysterious and spends the entire novel trying to figure out why. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Smith is immersed in a similar world of shadowy figures, abhorrent laws and cruel punishments.

Another disturbing aspect of Nineteen Eighty-Four is how much of Orwell's vision of the future rings true today. This question has become more urgent in light of recent revelations that the American and British governments have been engaged in top-secret mass surveillance programs. Many would argue that some of Orwell's predictions have already come true with issues of privacy and surveillance, and when you read passages like this one, which appears early on in Nineteen Eighty-Four, it would be hard to disagree:
"How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live - did live, from habit that became instinct -- in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized."
But what Orwell didn't get right was the power of the individual in the new world order. Thanks to relatively cheap and accessible technologies, the individual has been empowered as never before. New communications tools and platforms have allowed individuals to express a diverse range of thoughts and opinions, as well as start companies, form communities, raise money, support causes and even topple governments.

The subtle irony of the technological revolution, however, is that computers may have freed us from the chains of big government and opened the doors for unprecedented social change, but in the process we have become slaves to that very technology, unable to tear ourselves away from our smarthones, laptops, tablets and PCs. 

Nineteen Eighty-four may be a disturbing novel on many levels, and it raises many questions about authority and the individual's place within society, but it deserves to be read. 


Monday, June 17, 2013

The higher purpose of a solo journey

Wild, From Lost To Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
By Cheryl Strayed, published by Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, Inc. (2012)

In 1982 (aged 23), I embarked on a solo bike trip through England, France and Spain. What compelled me to take this impulsive adventure I can't say for sure. I was neither an athlete nor a cyclist. I flew from Toronto to London, England, bought a road bike and began my journey. It just seemed like the right thing to do at that time in my life.

Memories of that youthful trip came flooding back to me as I read Cheryl Strayed's "Wild," a non-fiction memoir of her three-month solo hike through the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in 1995, when she was 26. A solo journey is something many young men and women do for deeply personal reasons; for some it’s a spiritual quest, for others a physical challenge and a test of character. Strayed makes no  bones about the fact that she needed this trip to help her heal from the death of her mother, a recent divorce, a heroin addiction and other demons.

In "Wild," Strayed recounts the highs and lows of her long hike: her brushes with wild animals, encounters with fellow hikers and the daily challenges in keeping herself alive. She writes with tremendous conviction and honesty, and her tone is both humbling and lyrical. I particularly enjoyed her many descriptions of the beauty and majesty of the PCT, including this one:
"It had only to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With that it was like to walk for miles for no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way... It was what I knew before I even really did, before I could have known how truly hard and glorious the PCT would be, how profoundly the trail would both shatter and shelter me."
"Wild" moves more or less chronologically from the start of the trip in the Mojave Desert until the end at the Bridge of the Gods at the Oregon-Washington border. But the narration is punctuated by flashbacks from Strayed's past (conversations with friends, family members and acquaintances), which adds depth and poignancy to her tale.

Strayed's PCT hike was undertaken almost on a whim, but as her story progresses, there almost seems to be a higher power at work - guiding her, testing her and protecting her. Throughout her many trials and tribulations, she never loses faith. Readers of any age will feel moved, inspired and elevated by her story.

If you've never experienced an extended solo journey, the idea might seems odd, exotic, or pointless. But for those who have undertaken such a journey, the exercise is far from pointless. For many (including myself), it provides a kind of necessary escape and a rebirth. It offers closure, perspective, adventure, and a reaffirmation of life. 

Some personal journeys are fascinating, educational and entertaining in and of themselves. Others manage to transcend those defined boundaries to become something more resonant and lasting. "Wild" easily falls into the latter category, a life-affirming story that will live in my memory and imagination for years to come, a story that I'm pleased to recommend to anyone who has ever taken (or contemplated) a solo journey.



Thursday, June 6, 2013

Mitch Joel connects the digital dots in Control Alt Delete

Control Alt Delete: Reboot Your Business. Reboot Your Life. Your Future Depends on It.
By Mitch Joel

Published by Grand Central Publishing - Hachette Book Group (2013)

Two years ago, a 15 year-old Brit named Nick D'Aloisio developed a mobile news app called Summly. This past March, his story made headlines when he sold his startup to Yahoo for a reported $30 million.

After reading that story, words like 'fast,' 'bright,' 'nimble,' and 'simplify' popped into my head. These are the same words that appear throughout Mitch Joel's instructive new book, entitled Control Alt Delete: Reboot Your Business. Reboot Your Life. Your Future Depends on It.

These are words that could also describe many of today's hottest new technologies, businesses and movements. In Control Alt Delete, Mitch delivers a passionate plea for businesses and individuals to re-think how they are using digital tools and platforms. He argues that many companies exist in a digital Purgatory: they may claim to have thousands of followers on social media, but if they aren't actively engaging those followers with good, useful content, opportunities are being squandered.

For savvy businesses like Zappos, Apple and Salesforce.com, it's all about being authentic, transparent, and adding value. When companies focus on providing a great user experience, they will be rewarded with increased attention and relevance. Companies that continue to 'push' stale messages into the marketplace using traditional (or new) media will not connect with their customers, and they will lose business.

In learning how to connect with customers, Mitch uses the apt term 'utilitarianism' as it applies to the end user:
"What is 'utilitarianism marketing? It's not about advertising, it's not about messaging, and it's not about immediate conversions. It's about providing a true value and utilizing something consumers not only would want to use - constantly and consistently - but would derive so much value from it that is would be given front-and-centre attention in their lives."
Control Alt Delete is divided into two parts: the first part examines how businesses are utilizing new technologies to leverage their messages and brands; the second part focuses on the power of the individual to connect with the wider online community. The book reads quickly, but it contains treasure trove of anecdotes, ideas, and advice on harnessing new digital tools and technologies.

Today, it's never been easier to start a business or to deliver a message. If you've got a great idea, and the skills to bring that idea to market, there are countless resources available online that can help you to fund, develop, promote and distribute your products/services not just locally, but globally. Mitch talks about the so-called gatekeepers (talent scouts, agents, publishing  houses, et. all) who once controlled the destinations of aspiring artists and businesspeople.

Nowadays business owners and artists of all stripes don't need gatekeepers to achieve success. They can launch their own products and careers using digital platforms (many of which are free). They research new ideas and explore new markets with relative ease and for nominal costs. Indeed, the phrase 'fail quick and fail often' has become something of a catchphrase for a new generation of risk takers and entrepreneurs in today's digital universe.  

Mitch's tone is personal and disarming (meaning it's free of digibabble). Control Alt Delete is a handy guide that will appeal to anyone who is interested in learning how to better understand and use digital tools and platforms to increase their reach and relevance. That  means large corporations, small and medium sized businesses, solopreneurs, artists, philanthropists, students, administrators, working professionals - in short, anyone who wants to gain a foothold and an advantage in the online world.

In addition to reading Control Alt Delete, readers would be wise to check out Mitch's Twist Image blog and his weekly Twist Image podcast. Mitch is a thought leader who continues to inspire and dazzle audiences with his insights, observations, and his incredible knack for connecting the digital dots.