Strategist, Speaker, Designer, Instigator

The hero with a thousand faces (thanks, Joe Campbell)

[I’ve recently been re-reading some of the work of my hero Joseph Campbell, which inspired my talk on Monday at Next Service Design in Berlin, which you can watch here. Below is (more or less) what I talked about…]

What is the soundtrack to your life?

Even if you don’t have an answer, you understand the question – because every one of us sees our lives in narrative terms. It’s a deeply ingrained part of the human condition. Whether it’s sketch comedy or epic poetry is a different question; we all think of our lives as stories.

The stories we tell are important for lots of reasons. One is that they help us cope with the fact that we all die someday – our stories are the piece of us that lives on. I think this is the real reason why we’re all so addicted to Twitter, Instagram, Facebook – they’re all ways to tell little stories to one another, every day. That’s why it feels so great when someone we admire retweets something of ours – whatever story we told in those 140 characters resonated with them so much that they wanted to pass it on to everyone they knew. It may be ephemeral, but we feel a thrill, a tiny little sliver of immortality.

Another reason we need stories is to explain ourselves and our world – who we were, what happened and what’s happening, who we are, and who we want to be. We have parables and fairy tales, histories and novels, religious and mythological texts that have defined entire societies. Stories shape our identities and our aspirations.

The stories we cherish the most are those we feel belong to us. And what could belong to us more than stories of ourselves? This is where technology comes into play. We’ve talked about how social networks like Twitter and Facebook enable us to tell stories to one another, but there’s something that can do exponentially more. That something is our data.

As of the beginning of 2012, there were 2.3 billion connected people on the planet, and over 5 billion connected objects. Depending on whom you ask, there will be between 20 and 50 billion connected objects in the next decade. What does this mean? It could mean much, much more meaning for us as individuals and as members of our society – if we can harness it.

When we know ourselves better – and I’m talking beyond biometrics here – we can use that information to make better decisions within our own lives. We can also share that information with one another, deliberately and selectively, to help us collectively learn and do better. Connected objects can gather data about us and our movements, our homes and our cities, our possessions and the things that we make.

Data about us is already being collected in lots of places. Various apps, service providers and retailers that we interact with gather detailed information on where we go and what we do, what we read and listen to, what we buy and when we buy it. Devices like Nike Fuel Band and Jawbone Up gather data on how much we exercise, how well we sleep. And there’s no shortage of apps that will help you track what you eat and drink.

So what are we doing with all this data? Unfortunately, as individuals, not a whole lot. That’s because it’s not really accessible to us in any straightforward way. Businesses are using what they have on us to help them target their products, services and advertising. Governments are using aggregated data to help them improve infrastructure like roads and public transportation. But what if we could use it ourselves, for betterment and for profit?

What if each of us could choose who knows about our behaviour, trading bits of information for something that benefits us – a discount, voucher, or simply an improved service? Or what if we could understand ourselves better and thus live richer, happier lives?

One of the great sustainability problems in the developed world is that we’re living longer. Or rather, that more of us are living longer and will eventually require medical care that we’ve not budgeted for. Now, the Fuel band and Jawbone Up are trying to tackle a part of this challenge by giving us benchmark- and competition-driven wellness goals. But one man’s benchmark is another’s nightmare. What if we could learn better what makes our individual bodies healthier, and share *that* information? We could open up a whole new world of possibility and choice for anyone who wants to live better, and also give a great deal of insight to the medical community.

In the developing world, one of the great sustainability challenges is education. There are millions of children without access to schools or teachers, and there’s no money to provide that kind of infrastructure. What if we, as parents and students, as adult learners and professional educators, could share the ways that we’ve learnt best – and the materials we learnt from – using technology? We can only do this if we understand it, and data about ourselves can help us to gain that understanding.

This represents, as I’ve said before, an unprecedented challenge for Design, Business and Technology. But I think we must rise to it. If you’ll forgive me, I’d like to reference an ancient Hindu myth that Campbell references in his marvellous talk, “The Impact of Science on Myth”.

As the story goes, at the very beginning of the universe, the gods and anti-gods were at war. They decided they weren’t getting anywhere, and called a truce. They decided to work together to churn the butter of immortality.

So they took the Cosmic Mountain and upended it into the Milky Ocean, and they wrapped the Cosmic Serpent around it. And the gods at the head-end and the anti-gods at the tail end pulled back and forth to make the mountain turn.

After they’d been churning for 1000 years, a terrible, toxic smoke came out of the ocean, and the work stopped. They had uncovered an unimagined source of power, but they knew they needed to keep going. Still, they had to do something about this smoke. So Shiva (the god of yoga) took the smoke into his beggars bowl and drank it down. Using yoga – his special expertise – he held it in his throat. This made his throat turn blue, and he has been called blue-throat ever since.

After Shiva did this, the work went on, and eventually from the sea rose the moon, and the sun, and some of the sacred medecines, and eventually the ambrosia of immortality.

Campbell encourages us to read this “as a parable for our world today, as an exhortation to press on with the work, beyond fear.” I’d like to add that we should not be afraid to engage with some of the more ‘dangerous’ or ‘out there’ aspects of what we do in this domain – but rather that we apply all our skill to continue to push toward an outcome where people truly benefit.

[source: Myths to Live By (The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell) [Kindle Edition], 2011, Joseph Campbell (Author), David Kudler (Editor), Johnson E. Fairchild (Foreword)]