A few months ago, a lovely chap called Kavi Guptta asked me how I stay informed. I wrote way too much and he had to edit it down aggressively. For anyone who is interested, here are my full, unedited responses…
Describe your daily reading habit:
My reading habits have changed a lot over the years. I did postgrad work in the humanities, so I read a huge amount of academic literature in my mid-twenties — to the extent that it almost started to feel like I was bombarded by words everywhere I went. And yet I liked writing and reading — they feel like scaffolds for thinking about things—so I kept up that tradition of over-consumption when I abandoned academia and ran away to join the Internet.
This was sort of the mid-nineties, and I was still doing it by the earliest days of weblogs in 1999 to 2005-ish. I had a ritual of waking up around 8am, spending about an hour on the web reading and writing on plasticbag.orgbefore heading into work—which thankfully was a pretty short trip—and then keeping up with various discussions and news sites throughout the day. This escalated even more when RSS readers started to become popular. I’d be trying to keep up with several hundred sites — mostly interesting individuals talking about technology and the web—but I’d also be a member of several online communities where I could stretch my legs in various other areas.
Probably three things changed my reading practices. Firstly, my work got much more involving and creative. By the time I was running a little R&D team at the BBC I found myself attacking increasingly meaty and interesting problems on a daily basis, and that pushed me into a very different mode. General reading started to fade away and started to be replaced with much more directed exploration around the things that we were building. That’s stayed with me. A lot of the time I stumble upon really odd new areas simply because one of the projects I’m working on involves me knowing about it. And because I really like the transition point where new technology starts to pushes into the mainstream, I’ve followed all kinds of areas from social software, media distribution, the web of data, location services through to today the Internet of Things.
Secondly, I started to realize that the conversations moving around the internet on a daily basis were starting to repeat themselves. My first exposure to the ‘are bloggers journalists’ discussion is now twelve years old — but it would reappear every three or four years as a topic of discussion again. For the people involved in them, they’re no doubt interesting and new but I started to realize that the larger trends in technology don’t actually change on a daily basis and that once you’re up to speed with the area you’re currently focused on, you barely need to keep half an eye on the daily chatter.
Finally, the ways that I could engage in conversations with my friends or follow complete strangers changed a lot. I pick up a lot from just being in a room with interesting people and letting that inspire me to wander off in strange directions. Today, things like Twitter mean that I can pretty easily absorb the general zeitgeist by dipping in and out of what interesting people are discovering or pointing at in the background of my day.
Now, a normal day for me probably starts with checking Twitter to see what my friends are up to, and then I’ll probably have it on in the background pretty much all day. I dip in and out when I’m bored or when something interesting appears to be happening and I probably stumble on most of my news that way. On my way to work I listen to podcasts from the UK like In Our Time. I glance at The Guardian every day, read MacRumourscompulsively because I find Apple fascinating, and spend a lot of time on iO9 to satisfy my nerd needs.
Beyond that I’m now subscribed to a few RSS feeds again, but they’re very different from ten years ago — they’re either weird fragments of the future, like BLDG BLOG or Future Drama or they’re deep design blogs where I can get exposed to beautiful things and extreme craftsmanship of various kinds. As I get older, I get more and more interested in the complexities and depths of craft — ink traps in typography, printing methods, modernist design and stuff like that. I love that dedication to detail and the way that your appreciation of something deepens when you understand why it is the way that it is. Otherwise I mostly focus on reading and research for particular weird product problems I’m having when I’m trying to assemble things in my head, although I do read a fair number of non-fiction books on my iPad and a lot of shiny, ostentatious, brightly-coloured comic books full of big weird ideas.
How do you learn?
The short answer is I learn too slowly. The longer answer is that it’s mostly pretty directed — I like collecting new skills, but I mostly collect them because I have something I want to do with them. As I said, I started off planning to be a humanities academic before I discovered the web and when I had discovered it—like many people of my generation—I sort of had to do everything. I had to get my head around the code side, the design side and what would now be called the ‘product’ side. I spent a lot of time writing for the web, designing sites, building them, and while I’ve had to specialize a lot over the years, I try really hard to be able to talk intelligently to designers, engineers, business people and product people as well as critics and thinkers outside my specific area.
At this moment in history it feels to me like a lot of things that were separate and silo’d have been put in the same territory (the internet) sometimes for the first time ever. And so it feels like the greatest creative potential can come from trying to see how those things or ideas can connect to each other to make something new. That’s sort of how I understand things right now — that the more things you know, the more connections between them you can generate and the more amazing stuff happens.
By way of an example, a while ago when I was first getting into thinking about the Internet of Things I had to recognize that I didn’t really know how to manufacture physical products. My business partner is good with electronics and soldering irons and stuff like that, but that seemed like a mountain of work for me to get into at this stage. So I followed the lead of a few of my friends and started exploring how you could mock-up videos of objects apparently in people’s homes using 3D software and After Effects. To give myself a goal, I decided I’d try and do three or four very short videos that I could use in a talk I was going to give. It was enormously painful and the videos are not very good, but they communicated the idea.
But interestingly, we also started working on a different project around that time focused on interactive graphics for TV. My week of fiddling with After Effects was enormously helpful in thinking about what the possibilities might be for a live 3D graphics compositing + a TV programme and we explored all kinds of fun ways of integrating live data into TV shows using the right color palettes, vanishing points, while being sensitive to edits and all kinds of other stuff. That little bit of exploration in one area just triggered all kinds of fun ideas (plus we got to work with Greg Borensteinwho wrote the book on hacking the Kinect, which helped). Short directed forays with specific goals into weird areas end up being really really useful.
Where do you go for inspiration outside
of your day-to-day expertise?
One thing that has been very clear to me throughout my years in tech has been how useful my abortive PhD was. It had absolutely nothing to do with tech in any way whatsoever — I was writing about identity politics, film theory and Ancient Greek tragedy. But it gave me a whole range of mental tools and ways of looking at the world — new ways of understanding that things haven’t always been the way they are today. I genuinely believe that you pick up weird mental or creative strategies throughout your life and that a widely read person who is keen to employ some of what they learn will always do more interesting (if not always more valuable) work than someone who is super deep in only one or two areas.
So I guess if I had to point to non-tech specific areas that give me some perspective or inspiration, they’d probably include history or literature or graphic design a lot, as well as fantastic TV shows, books and comics. I mentioned In Our Time earlier, but I can’t recommend it enough — forty five minutes each week of a completely different subject, from the arrival of trains into Britain, or Ancient Alexandrian Librarians all the way through to Dark Matter. Matt Webb introduced me to it years and years ago. I suppose the truth is that you never really know what might trigger an idea for you, so exposing yourself to a lot of different things is probably the best strategy.
One particular thing that I do find very good for inspiration though is Pinterest. I know that for many people Pinterest is all about collecting hairstyles or recipes, but there are millions of people on it, each of whom cares about something different. I follow people interested in typography, visual design, illustration, information visualization, maps, network-connected devices and many other things. It’s such a great way to trigger bits of your brain into doing something useful but unexpected. I use it every day…
What’s one piece of advice for someone who wants to do what you do?
I’m not entirely sure I know precisely what it is that I do, but I think more generally my advice would be to play a lot, explore lots of things, sketch lots of ideas, learn weird bits of software that interest you and do something with them — to fundamentally try and work out what it is that you actually enjoy doing and then to do more of it. For me it gradually became clear to me that what I liked more than anything else was making things that I could show to other people or that other people could play with or use. The internet taught me how much fun that could be, and since then that element of my daily work has stuck with me as the fundamental goal — at times I’ve gone astray from it (taking the money instead of doing work I can be proud of) and all that did is make me hate my job and start to hate my discipline. But when I get back to making something that I actually care about with people that I like, there’s genuinely nothing better, occasionally harder but definitely more rewarding.
Other than that, I’d say that if you can find a passion that’s fulfills you that actually pays the bills then you’re incredibly lucky. Not everyone gets to find that in their lives. Don’t hold back, jump right in and do it as much as you can.
If you’d like to see what effect a good editor can have on my writing, the original article is here: http://www.forbes.com/sites/kaviguppta/2014/04/25/how-im-informed-with-tom-coates-of-product-club/