I am sitting next to Louise Casey, on a panel discussing social entrepreneurship and civic society. Aside from how inspired I am by what she has to say, what impresses me more is the fact that this is a leading civil servant speaking with passion about something she believes in, in her own name, on a public platform, watched by journalists from the national press. For someone who was previously the UK Government’s chief advisor on combatting anti-social behaviour, this is decidedly sociable stuff. If only more of the excellent civil servants I meet were inclined or empowered to speak and write their mind, rather than remain nameless.
We are at a magnificent event, ‘We Are Names Not Numbers’ hosted at Portmeirion by the wonderful Julia Hobsbawm of Editorial Intelligence, with partners Arts and Business, Edelman, Cision and Cass Business School. The names are out in force too, from historian Simon Schama, columnists Stefan Stern, Simon Jenkins and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, right through to Rupert Murdoch’s biographer Michael Woolf. Although we are here to discuss creativity and individuality, the casting means that the themes of politics, the media and the web entwine to create three days of engaging conversation. The benefits of a remote location become clear with the noticeable absence of delegates sloping off into local coffee shops and alternative restaurants. When we meet, by the roaring fire, at the castle for drinks, we ALL meet, our arrival occasionally aided by one of a fleet of vehicles from sponsor Jaguar Landrover (and not a personalised number plate in sight).
I arrive in North Wales convinced that being a number is the least civilised of conditions and that names are the future. On reflection, I am left with two dilemmas. The first is that almost all of the organisations I interact with seem, despite their undoubted mining of my information, to treat me like a stranger. Whether it’s learning more about my future from my past health records, receiving a better service from my mobile phone provider or simply being able to join a fresh online community without having to begin again as a nobody, part of me yearns for a higher level of sophistication. You may be freaked out when your hairdresser texts you a week before your birthday offering you a cut price deal. As unfashionable as it may be, I’m beginning to wish a few more people would use my personal information to present valuable and pleasant surprises.
The second dilemma is the pressure we put on people to speak in their own name. At first glance this is all for the good. What ends up happening, nowhere more so than in politics, is that a change of mind is seen as a flip-flop, a back-track or a U-turn. A creative suggestion is ridiculed as something which will ‘never work’ rather than built upon or used to trigger another idea. Individuals who have a public profile shy away from speaking about a topic, lest they be held to account for evermore. So we need to be more supportive of early stage ideas, more accepting of the minority view. In the meantime, I leave Portmeirion pondering the need for nameless spaces, online and on the ground. Names and numbers are more powerful than ever. So is the need, sometimes, to be nobody.