Change Happens

Last night, I watched a 1951 British movie, The Man in the White Suit. The plot hinged on everyone’s realization that a new fabric invented by a young chemist (played by Alec Guiness) would put the British textile industry out of business. The fabric never wears out and resists dirt. Both labor and mill owners unite to suppress the discovery.

We know now, of course, that the great British woolen, cotton and silk mills did go the way of the buggy whip, prey not to new synthetic fabrics but to low cost overseas competition. At the time, it was unthinkable that the British mills would become all but extinct. When my great grandparents worked at Lister’s Mill in Bradford, it employed more than 10,000 people. My mother, who grew up “back of the mill,” recalls how the streets were so packed with people at closing time that there was no room for vehicles. By the time I remember visiting with my grandparents on Silk Street in the late 1960s, the mill was still active, but a shadow of its former self. Thirty years later, this monument of a once great industry was turned into shops and luxury apartments.

I think too of how my grandmother, with the prejudices of her time, was alarmed at how the “pakis” were taking over Bradford. How pleasing it was, then, to hear from my friend Imran Ali recently about the evolution of Bradford, a rebirth in which his family from Pakistan made the city their home:

My Grandfather came to the UK in the 50s, settling in Bradford before bringing his brothers and sons here to work and study…he was in the Indian/British Army during WW2, before finding work in various textile mills across the Bradford area.

Coming to Bradford moved us up from that background to our family’s first university graduates and now professional careers

So it’s a place I’m so fond of I can’t bring myself to leave. As much as I love coming to the Bay Area, Mt. San Bruno, Sonoma county, Burlingame and my other favoriite spots aren’t the same as driving over Ilkley Moor on a snowy winter’s day and seeing the Dales unfurl before me.

You might be interested to know a few interesting facts about the city since you may have last visited…

  • The University of Bradford was one of the first two to teach computer science in the UK (Manchester being the other) – though it’s disputed who was first!

  • The university’s school of computing gave the early UK web industry a great talent pool, including some of the founding team for Freeserve, the UK’s largest ISP during the first boom, and also its biggest exit.

  • Based on that we started a non-profit collective of new media companies called bmedi@ in 2001…

  • The National Media Museum is located in Bradford and they just added their photo collections to Flickr.

  • Grant Morrison wrote a graphic novel, Vimanarama, set in Bradford.

  • The city’s currently in the midst of a depression that goes back to the 2001 riots, but civic leaders have tabled an ambitious $3.2bn regeneration plan for the city’s built environment.

There’s actually a lot of interesting tech stuff going on regionally – a bunch of us have kickstarted grassrootsy-stuff like BarCamps, geek dinners and are starting to help a local university model itself on the Media Labs and ITPs of the world.

Meanwhile, Lister Park, a lovely park that I remember visiting with my grandmother, is now called The Mughal Gardens. Imran adds: “There’s a Pakistani cafe near there that serves kebabs made with a sauce that’s extracted from the Earth’s molten core – so spicy, you can briefly see through time itself ;)”

I won’t say that this entry has that much spice, but I hope you can take a moment with me to see through time to allow wonder and delight to replace fear of change.

We’re in the midst of enormous upheaval right now, between the Scylla and Charybdis of economic meltdown and climate change, with the promise of the Singularity visible in the distance like Apollo or Athena might have appeared to Odysseus’ frightened sailors.

This is not new. History is full of optimism and despair, discovery and upheaval, with distant hope inspiring us to the great efforts that alone can save us. And despite all our attempts to prognosticate, it has a way of surprising us. The makers of The Man in the White Suit were fascinated and frightened by the possibilities of industrial chemistry: it had all the magic that today we associate with great advances in computing or synthetic biology. And inventions of new materials did in fact change the world, though not in ways that the film’s creators lampooned.

Coming to terms with change is a basic life skill. If you don’t have it, it’s time to put it on your self-improvement to-do list. I’m reminded of something I wrote nearly 30 years ago in my first book, just out of college, a study of the work of science-fiction writer Frank Herbert:

One of [Herbert’s] central ideas is that human consciousness exists on–and by virtue of–a dangerous edge of crisis, and that the most essential human strength is the ability to dance on that edge. The more man confronts the dangers of the unknown, the more conscious he becomes. All of Herbert’s books portray and test the human ability to consciously adapt….

It is a general principle of ecology that an ecosystem is stable not because it is secure and protected, but because it contains such diversity that some of its many types of organisms are bound to survive despite drastic changes in the environment or other adverse conditions. Herbert adds, however, that the effort of civilization to create and maintain security for its individual members, “necessarily creates the conditions of crisis because it fails to deal with change.”

In short, get with the program! The future isn’t going to be like the past. What’s more, it isn’t going to be like any future we imagine. How wonderful that is, if only we are prepared to accept it.

  • Great post Tim about the town I grew up in. I used to practically live in the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television as it was lengthily called back then. I look forward to viewing the Flickr stream.

    I am glad things are improving there. I had to move to London and then California to be on the cutting edge of tech the past 10 years.

    Your post triggered so many memories.

    Thanks again.

  • Bradford is currently my home town, having studied at the university there, so I was pleased to see this article. Just a minor clarification though – Lister Park still exists; the Mughal Gardens are just a part of it. The whole park is very well kept and won an award for being one of the best public parks in the UK a couple of years ago.

  • The Man in the White Suit is one of my favourite movies – it captures the geek character so well, and prefigures Clayton Christensen’s Innovators Dilemma by decades.

    The challenge of today is, as ever, to find ways to enable the Sidneys to keep changing the world for the better.

  • N

    Sorry, how can your grand mother’s worries be “prejudice of her time” if it turns out in riots.

    Me not understand you rich white people.

    Are you sure you are not prejudiced by your inability to face unpc reality ?

  • Replace “stable” with “resilient”.

    From “A Handful of Heuristics and Some Propositions for Understanding Resilience in Social-Ecological Systems”:
    In relation to the dynamics and stability of social-ecological systems, it is useful to recognize two kinds of diversity: (1) functional diversity, i.e., the number of functionally different groups, which influences system performance, and (2) response diversity, i.e. the diversity of types of responses to disturbances within a functional group, which influences resilience.

  • Dee

    “In short, get with the program! The future isn’t going to be like the past. […] How wonderful that is, if only we are prepared to accept it.”

    This is the progressive world-view in a nutshell. The small-c conservative world-view could be summed up as “things were better back then”.

    One isn’t more right than the other (obviously, they’re both right some of the time, and we should keep the best of the past while moving forward)… I suspect that which one you subscribe to may come down to basic biology, and you can’t change that basic personality trait any more than you can change an introvert into an extrovert.

    BTW, if you wouldn’t use “the n word” in your writing, I suggest you think carefully about “the p word”. They hit a lot of the same buttons, but the second hasn’t had the “reclaim” makeover.

  • @Tim, thanks for sharing our conversation on Bradford…I really enjoyed that and I’m pleased to see the sentiment extended to provide a metaphor for current anxieties…and positive possibilities :)

    Commonwealth immigrants in the post-WW2 perioddid ‘exist on the dangerous edge of crisis’, but born from their economic and cultural fragility was the beginnings of a multicultural and cosmopolitan Britain.

    Yes, the UK has problems that have flowed from that, but in general the country’s transformed itself into an isle of diversity, integrating those which were formerly her colonial subjects…I’m optimistic that such diversity will be the source of longer term resiliance against the current gloom.

    @Dee Speaking as a British Pakistani, I wouldn’t worry too much about the reclaimation of Paki…most of my generation are over that…and fling it around amongst ourselves too :)

  • Well done, well written, quite enjoyable.

    I am from Louisiana originally. The story there is the same several times over. My mother’s family are “cajuns.” Despised in the late 1800s and and early 1900s, they became success stories during and after WWII.

    The “Mexicans” are now coming into Louisiana to work agriculture, petro-chemical, and rebuild New Orleans. They are despised by many old-family Acadians. No doubt, these Mexicans are building fond memories of a new start for their progeny.

  • Europe has nearly gotten a brand new face in the past one hundred years. From manufactory to industrialization right into warfare.
    “Thanks” to colonization and imperialism Asia and India took over the hard-labor-part and left us just the “clean” high-tech industries which we are now so proud of…

  • vanderleun

    “In short, get with the program! The future isn’t going to be like the past. […] How wonderful that is, if only we are prepared to accept it.”

    Spoken like a man blinded by the torchlight at Nuremberg, but a good man just the same and a man in love with his own goodness. As well he should be.

  • Dee

    @Imran – the power of words… I’m white, British, mid-thirties, just old enough to remember skinheads. Which means it’s a word I’m very hung-up on. If you’re not, then hopefully the little slice of British politics it represents to me has been thoroughly marginalised.

  • Daniele

    Hi Tim,

    congratulations for your writing. I would only add: what has changed? Nothing at all! Change has been around for centuries. If individuals have to get to their late adult life to understand it on their own, it is a shame that states do not learn once for all from history, and still discuss protectionism, anti-immigration and other policies that does not allow flexible and reactive change to happen. What hurts, is not change – it’s the resistance to change.


  • herbert’s idea “”necessarily creates the conditions of crisis because it fails to deal with change.”” is as old as the vedas ….

    it is only the west that doesn’t understand this very well ….

    the hubris of science doesn’t help

  • I had no idea of your connection with Bradford; nor, indeed, of Imran’s connections with California, before I read this piece.

    I also know and love both places: California because UCLA was my graduate school; Bradford because I live in Holmfirth a short distance away.

    Let me add to Imran’s list:

    FABRIC a forum for the arts in Bradford

    Bradford KickStart an initiative to provide professional services and other assistance to new businesses

    Bradford IP Clinic monthly pro bono advice sessions on IP and technology – indispensable since no patent or trade mark attorneys in the city

    Salt’s Mill a great cultural treasure including some great Hockney paintings which are another California connection

    Saltaire a world heritage site

    Institute of Pharmaceutical Innovation a great centre for the development of new pharmaceuticals

    Bradford School of Management among the first and still one of the best business schools in the UK

    I could go on about the excellent Indian sub-continent cuisine, the literary connections (the Brontes and J B Priestley, the magnificent town hall and the wonderful wild moorlands but that would require another article.

  • “The future isn’t going to be like the past. What’s more, it isn’t going to be like any future we imagine. How wonderful that is, if only we are prepared to accept it.”

    This contrasts weirdly with another story I liked this week – rather than the inexorable “if only we are prepared to accept it”, it focuses on the ability of people and especially communities to actually choose whether or not to accept it.

    I suspect that much of the resistance to change comes from the sense that is inexorable, making it all the more difficult to accept it.

    I also liked Dee’s comment about “progressive” and “conservative”. It’s funny, because my politics (both real world and technical) usually gets me labeled as a Progressive doing battle with Conservatives – when underneath it all I feel very much a conservative doing battle with progressives.

    I don’t believe in progress, at least not as an inexorably good thing. That has made life interesting for a while, and likely for a while to come.

  • Simon – FWIW, I don’t equate change with progress. Sometimes it’s progress, sometimes it’s not. And whether it is or not often depends on your point of view.

    But regardless, nothing lasts forever, and being prepared to roll with the change is a good skill. I have a feeling we’re all going to need it.

    And part of that resilience is also, as you say, the will to make things happen, not accepting that they are inevitable.

  • My parents grew up in those northern terraces. They moved out as children to the first-ring suburbs, suburban to the extent that they had indoor bathrooms and toilets. The terraces got plumbing, and became home to Asian immigrants whose kids have the same broad accent as my dad.

    I grew up in a third-ring suburb, suburban to the extent that the garden had grass and room for flowers. And I have the perspective to see continuity where my parents saw dislocation — mosques instead of Catholic churches built by the people within earshot — and to see a reprise of older history in the new generation of immigrants from Eastern Europe and beyond.

    That continuity’s not a given. It relies upon an urban fabric that’s rough at the edges, but solid at its core. It can be wiped out by destructive top-down planning and social dysfunction, and the long view sometimes smooths over the bumps. But it’s a way to think with hope about the future.

  • Nice article.

    There was a great programme on here in the UK last night called “The Victorians” presented by Jeremy Paxman. A harsh reminder of what conditions were like in the Mills.

    You can read a reviewe here:

    If you can hack around the BBC iPlayer IP detector you can watch it here:

  • I know Imran quite well, I’m sort of a less active Manchester version of him. :-)

    I think it’s worth pointing out that whilst we may wax lyrical about our great towns (and I love my home town of Manchester very much), the industries emerging seem to be agnostic about location.

    Even the physical community that surrounds BarCamps, GeekUp, etc. now transcends city, county and even regional borders. Tony Wilson’s vision of an “M62 city” is slowly emerging. Damn that man.

    Anyway, it’s good that there is a little more love heading this way: we need more attention. A lot more attention.

    By the way, Manchester University and the areas around it (including the “deprived” Red Bricks of Hulme), was host to the talent behind Freeserve’s main competitors (Connect Free, Telinco, etc.) and the company that is now Tiscali UK – I should know, I was one of them! Manchester is also of course home of The Baby and prides itself on being central to research to this day – there is talk of a lot more activity in that area both commercially and academically in the next 6 years.

    It also strikes me the North is way more creative than the South right now in terms of business models, and we just need to kick up the pace a little. Manchester’s Northern Quarter seems to be host to a lot of design talent worth watching right now as well – watch this space, etc.

    Oh, and P.S., Imran, whilst you might not have a problem using the P word, if I were to use it openly in a restaurant in Rusholme I would put my life expectancy down to minutes, or if I were lucky, I might get arrested within quite a short period of time.

    It’s a horrible word because of who used it historically and to what end. There is no excuse for using it in polite conversation unless directly discussing racism in the last 40 years. Sorry if you disagree, but I know most of my Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Indian friends would agree with me. Whilst Tim’s mother held an opinion held (and still held to this day), by many, I’m sorry that she did – as a white Brit from working-class/lower-middle-class routes, I’m ashamed of my own society when people throw phrases like that around as if they have no consequence or meaning.

  • Paul,

    Just to be clear, it was my grandmother, not my mother, who used the “P” word. I had no idea it was still so loaded, and I’m glad I used it in the context of “discussing racism.”

    On another note, I so admire the way you Brits love your towns. It’s heartwarming, and it’s also a clue to a really important thing. There’s a kind of “patriotism”, here applied to the old city state, that can be a force for renewal. You care, you want to make your city better, you love when it gets attention for its merits, but aren’t afraid to discuss its faults.

    How wonderful that is. If only we could all have that kind of patriotism about our more modern nation states, we’d all be better off.

    Thanks, all, for sharing your love of England with me.

  • @Tim Ironically, my own patriotism to cities has been driven by my experience of America.

    Seeing the importance of ‘place’ (Silicon Valley, Massachussets Bay) in a supposedly flattened topography of knowledge is quite a sobering thought; particularly when the UK is essentially a city-state oriented around London.

    (Interestingly, your Twitters yesterday on Richard Florida’s recent writings allude to the *increasing* important of cities to cultural and economic vibrancy.)

    So the motives for civic patriotism are as much driven by necessity as heritage. For me, it’s really about ensuring that countries like the UK aren’t ‘civically unipolar’, but like the US, there are multiple regions of cultural and economic prosperity.

    Guys like Paul and I see the ‘M62 corridor’ (perhaps quixotically!) as a potential supercity of 15m people that could play an important global role…with a quarter of the British population in the region, it’s pretty essential to the cohesion of the country!

    @Paul – I’m not so sure how loaded ‘Paki’ is anymore…I lived with those labels for a couple decades, but now they have little potency. If anything, the levels of racism within immigrant communities are more worrying now than the somewhat liberalised views of the majority of Brits.

  • lcullen

    The north of England is an amazing place to visit, I highly recommend the museum of science and industry in Manchester – the amount of innovative products to come out of this part of the world is stunning – what I particularly liked was that the museum acknowledged the wretched conditions of the working poor of yesteryear, a huge number of them Irish. A strength of British Society is its ability (although not always smoothly) to incorporate newcomers and overcome challenges.

  • Don Bailey

    Excellent thoughts, Tim. But I still sometimes wish change wouldn’t happen until I say, “Ready!”.

  • Love of one’s home town and region is all very well. I happen to share it being a Mancunian by birth and now a denizen of Yorkshire.

    But regionalism can easily degenerate into provincialism. I happen also to be proud of my capital and its academic, artistic, commercial, cultural and political institutions and, with the greatest possible respect to Paul Robinson, remarks like “the North is way more creative than the South right now” are frankly risible.

    On every economic and cultural measure from the percentage of GDP to the number of patents granted London and the South East even on a per caput basis exceeds the three northern regional development areas by a considerable margin. I acknowledge that the City of London is going through a relatively rough patch right now, but can one seriously argue that the creativity of the businesses in the square mile is exceeded by what s going on in Rawtenstall or Cleckheaton?

    We can be proud of our achievements and build on them. I am and do. But pride in the North does not require either belittling the achievements of our capital or of other regions of our country or exaggerating the importance of our own.

  • Another thought. Why do we need cities in this day and age? There had a justification in the 19th century when travel was expensive and communications were slow (see Asa Briggs “Victorian Cities”). Nowadays we can work perfectly well and communicate anywhere without stirring an inch.

    When the snow disrupted transport 2 weeks ago the country did not grind to a halt as it would have done 20 years ago. Folk simply worked at home.
    I decide domain name disputes in my study without ever seeing the parties. I chat to my friends around the world over Skype as easily as if they were in Leeds.

    With respect, Imram, Britain is not unipolar or even in danger of becoming such. It is part of a multilaterally connected global village. The provenance of the contributions to this page prove that.

  • Another loose connection between ‘the man in the white suit’ and computing is that Manchester University (and possibly other universities) used people from the local textiles industry to help it assemble core memory for it’s early computers (core memory is woven from very small magnetic beads and copper wire). I heard that from some of the older pioneers of the computer from Manchester some years ago.

  • For a similar sentiment about the passage of industries and the ruins they leave behind, see the Warkworth Lime Kilns, a post that came out of the recent Kiwi Foo.

  • lcullen

    Hi Peter Miller,
    That reminds me; wern’t the textile looms also programmed using punch cards? must go google it…

  • Ted Jennings

    Tim – Your comment about Frank Herbert and attempts to freeze an environment (“create security”) reminds me of John Campbell’s thesis in his fine story “Twilight.” Takes me back to our conversation at Boskone in 197?.