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“TV bad”, TV says.

December 29, 2014 4 comments

When we watch “Beavis and Butthead” we mirror the characters. We sit in front of a screen and watch two young men staring at a screen. This mirroring is unique: many books feature characters reading and songs will often reference music and its power to influence. The “ars poetica” is a form of poetry specifically focused on the art of poetry writing. Meta-thinking is reflective on the act of thinking.

In some forms of this “meta-art”, the art comments on itself. A dystopian television show like the UK’S “Black Mirror” warns us of technology’s development despite being the product of a complicated network of technology devices. Film and television often feature dystopian narratives that warn us of our interactions with film and television. Such “finger wagging” warnings urge we caution further development by casting narratives that suggest the dangers of “what could be”.

Are such critiques limited to film and TV? Do books exist that warn the reader of reading? Have songs been heard that warn the user of listening to music? One struggles to find examples. Film and TV are unique in their use of the medium to criticize the medium.

The Misuse is the Feature: Cognitive Tech & Action

December 29, 2014 1 comment

Technology can be categorized into two distinct categories: “cognitive” and “non-cognitive”. In the “cognitive” camp I place items like Facebook and Twitter, which prompt the user to interact with its features. A user of these sites is asked to share their thoughts. One is capable of sharing every thought, desire and idea on the site and it works to encourage the user to do so. The user must choose the level of interaction and one could very easily (and many often do) over-share or over-interact with the site. One could very easily destroy a reputation by publishing every thought on Facebook. To fully interact with the site means to respond to its prompting to share fully. Every half-thought idea, emotional impulse and desire becomes fodder for its prompting and if shared material for public consumption.

In the other category, which I call “non-cognitive”, I group items like cars, cooking equipment and material we often see as tools. These items do not prompt us for their use. The microwave does not display a text encouraging you to use it and the car doesn’t honk to encourage you to travel. Among these devices is an in-built limitation that leaves the user to determine interaction. Though one can very easily do damage to a reputation with these tools (for example a car driven dangerously) the level of hazard is lower than the items in the “cognitive” tools category because the user is less influenced by the actual technology.

My suggestion is that the “cognitive” tools are dangerous because their development outpaces our psychological ability to understand the correct way to use them. One must learn to use Facebook correctly. This learning includes an increased awareness of the material suitable for public consumption and the boundaries therein. One should not share secrets or security information like passwords, bank codes, etc.. on these mediums. We learn just what to share.

Such learning though is not automatic and many do not develop these skills or choose not to use them. Commenters make rash and vile commentaries on the internet but in public maintain a calm, cool demeanor. Would these commenters act the same if viewing the video in a public theater? The user chooses the level of interaction. Wisdom comes in learning how to use the technology and gaining the skills for correct use. Many will not gain this info or will choose to disregard these skills.

This disregard for proper use is common with all technology. An ancient technology like alcohol or sugar continues to be misused despite centuries of use and consideration. One can incorrectly drive and destroy a home with the technology of fire. This challenge of learning proper use is common to all technologies. The distinction remains; however, with the “cognitive” versus “non-cognitive” technology: prompted by “cognitive” technology we are forced to develop skills in spite of its asking. This technology form doesn’t want us to filter our interactions. Perhaps the evidence of our struggles with this form are in the constant slew of comment boards and “over-sharing” where a user misuses the technology. Cognitive technology is dangerous because it battles our development of skills.

Veruca writ large

December 15, 2014 Leave a comment

Conservative talk-show host Jim Bohannon often jokes that Americans “are the only society in history that can stand in front of a microwave oven yelling ‘hurry up’.” We’re an impatient bunch, it seems, but regardless of our tiny skills at patience we’re doomed in our developments.

With each technological development we’re quick to move the goal posts back. The car has GPS, but what about satellite radio? So the seats have warmers but what about the steering wheel? “Blessed” by a constancy of technological development we’re never satisfied and ever-wondering on the next greatest feature.

And yet perhaps this is less a detriment and more an engine of development. Is our impatience actually a virtue? Necessity, says the English proverb, is the mother of invention but how many of our inventions come directly from our needs? Viagra and artificial sweeteners are just two examples of items found on accident. One’s desires for solution often leads one to another perk for profit.

Often we admonish lack of patience as a sign of being spoiled. Always wanting more or being disappointed smacks quite often as a denial of the benefits at work. The tablet’s running slowly but just months ago its benefits were desires. How quickly we can move from wanting something to receiving it and wanting more. The goal is ever-moving and perhaps will never rest. Impatient as we are one wonders whether virtue hides inside this trait. Veruca wants it all and so do we. Are we better in our wanting? Do desires spur development? Spoiled on and on.

A Paradox of Resources

November 15, 2014 Leave a comment

In The Four Hour Work Week, Tim Ferriss observes a paradox of resources:

It is possible to have too much of a good thing, in excess most endeavors and possessions take on the characteristics of their opposite. Thus, pacifists become militants, freedom fighters become tyrants, blessings become curses, help becomes hindrance, more becomes less. Too much, too many, and too often of what you want becomes what you don’t want. This is true of possessions and even time.

Disregarding its excess of commas, the statement is a powerful idea. To have too much is, it seems, a dangerous condition. Are we vulnerable with too much stuff? Can freedom or happiness somehow transform from treasures to cherish to hazards to avoid? For Ferriss, this is just the message and in reading his quotation note both warning and suggestion: find balance in your life.

In considering this paradox one can develop an extensive list where the idea rings true. All emotions fit the bill and one need only watch thirty minutes of television to see the desperate search for emotional control on display. Too much fat and too much gray; the calamities are endless. One wonders if with each repair appears another hole to patch.

Likewise with our objects which acquired with desire become objects meshed with leash. We link ourselves with cell phones and stress ourselves with an abstract sense of “connection”. One is “up on things” when each headline has been considered and each message sliced with reply. The “Inbox Zero” concept is some desperate need for clarity. Can we clear the air from all this stuff? Does our data run the day?

One wonders how our data is existence. We are measured in all contexts be it place or time or context. Imagine a dinner party where from market to dessert we are spilling forth our data. From the market where our discount card’s bar code connects our purchase with our demographics to the dinner where some wayward guest posts photos to Facebook. The internet knows where we are…and were…and often where we’re going.

Perils of Purchase

May 22, 2014 Leave a comment

A magical thing happens when we own something. Having made the purchase using our own money we’ve personalized the experience. This is why the computer from the employer is “junk” and why the dinner from a different cook just doesn’t taste the same. When we do it ourselves we place our skin in the game: we personalize the experience or item by connecting to who we are. Our purchases are extensions of who we are: they demonstrate a decision we have made or a preference that reflects who we are. Marketers know we do this and utilize brands as extensions of personality. Are you a Pepsi or a Coke person? Is it Apple or PC, Android or iOS?

Falling victim to the game of branding creates a paradox of experience. Though trying to express our individuality in our purchases we end up subscribing to massively popular brands. We work to select the item that best reflects our personality or that most closely matches our perspectives on life. A certain type of character is connected to brands. Technology companies are particularly skilled at creating cultural connections for its users. Are you an “Apple person”, the ad might seem to suggest. Ultimately our attempts to be unique leave us blandly like the rest. The only way to truly be unique is to build it all ourselves. Program your own operating system and manufacture the hardware in the basement. Work to escape the brands and perhaps you can be unique. Of course this is impossible. Brands are popular because they’re easy to engage with and embrace.

Ready Player One

April 30, 2014 Leave a comment

In this 2013 podcast, Douglas Rushkoff makes a poignant observation on how media companies curate content and present stories. He suggests that “comic relief” stories are presented to maintain a “cultural wave” of interest. He suggests that sad stories like natural disasters or other mass casualty events create a need for lighter fare. Do we follow plane crash stories with the comments of racist farmer avoiding taxes? Might a secret recording of a racist NBA team owner satiate a public drained from foreign diplomacy or missing boats?

Rushkoff suggests there is a “cultural wave” of attention that must be contained. The visual suggested is a mass of moving water that the media stirs and quells to maintain power. Maintain the water’s height and our attention is kept piqued. Bore us and the water falls and the ocean wave is smooth as silk: peaceful yes, but a bored public is a public not interested in viewing. For the media company to maintain our attention we must be engaged: emotion is attention.

This seems to suggest our society can be unified by media. Do we unite in sharing the news? How do news stories function to create a sense of shared suffering and experience. Though only a select group of people directly experienced the Boston Marathon bombings, millions of others watched the video, considered media analysis and worked to track down suspects.

Rushkoff is a keen observer of the media and our relationship with it. He urges us to be “less consumers” and more educated users of technology. He argues that we must recognize the utility of technology and steer clear of hazardous uses. His sense of consumer use of technology is one in which the user acts as brainless cog in the machine. One wonders how these skills will be developed in future generations. As newer generations use technology their relationship with these plastic tools will be very different from generations of the past. Might we worry less in the future when less experienced users of technology are fewer?

No matter our experience, one’s list of essential skills for an educated citizen has to include digital literacy. In a world where technology plays a major role in daily life it is essential that each user understands a healthy way of using tech and the significant implications that arise with every keystroke. Though the media works to keep us interested, we are individuals with choices. To understand the system is to be an intelligent user. True power is the ability to both see the games at play and make a considered choice: Do I want to play their game or is something better out there?

Commerical Box of Soap

December 13, 2013 Leave a comment

The image of a speaker on a soap box is one of the most profound images of democracy. The rugged individual, determined to be heard, climbs a box and uses it to better address the crowd. This image of a “platform” now expands to include social media sites like Facebook where individuals use the site to share ideas. Create a game on Facebook’s platform and one has access to a user base of billions. Many see this as a definite benefit: it’s where the users are and the most efficient way to reach an audience. And while this is true, it is important to distinguish Facebook’s platform from the classic image from which the term “platform” derived.

Facebook is a commercial medium. It exists to make money for its creators and strives constantly to expand its use to as-yet unknown streams of revenue. New apps are new opportunities: both for creators and for Facebook who use its giant network to distribute and collect. Herein lies the power imbalance at the heart of the relationship. For while Facebook provides access to the user base, maintains its existence and popularity, the user engaged on Facebook retains minimal rights in his or her creation. Agree to distribute your ideas on Facebook and you engaged in a trade: significant details of ownership for access to a massive user base.

When one publishes on Facebook, or any social media sites, he or she forfeits significant rights of ownership. What do these platforms say for potential intellectual endeavors? If great creations must utilize corporate platforms to gain access is something lost? In essence we have a system where, in another domain, a chef must launch his own restaurant inside McDonald’s. Yes, he’ll have access to a massive user-base and a popular platform to launch, but what is lost for what is gained?

Learning Leaders Learning

November 25, 2013 Leave a comment

At its very least, effective leadership is a clarity of communication. Great leaders simply express their ideas clearly. It’s a matter of presenting distinct possibilities when they exist. Rare are the situations that possess such distinct choices; though, and it is also the role of the leader to both perceive and take advantage of them. Take, for example, the statement often linked to Benjamin Franklin: “Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.” Whether he actually said this or was capable of such poor use of grammatical parallelism is debatable, but my issue here is this application of distinct choice. Though the situation was complicated, Franklin curated the moment to possess these two choices. “It’s either privacy or security, people. So which one do you want?”

One such moment now arrives in contemporary society. Recent revelations of privacy violations by government agencies has led many to question whether “too much” spying is taking place. What was once thought (and claimed) as an action focused on terrorists and criminals has now been revealed to include trusted allies, celebrities and even the Pope. John Q. Public’s records have also been revealed as material worth saving, but with this collection further excuses regarding the anonymity of supposed metadata work to quash some concerns.

Would you rather trade your personal security for your right to privacy? Are you more comfortable facing the possibility of a terrorist attack than having the data of your private life collected and saved? Ultimately this is the question of our time. As shocking as it may seem, some people would rather have their data kept private and take the risk of being killed in a terrorist attack. We’ve reached this point in a post 9/11 world where our initial actions were inspired in part by our emotional reaction to the attacks. We’re older now, more removed from the initial shock, and capable of re-assessing just how much protection we want.

A great leader will recognize this critical question and pose it to the public. Though posed, we’ll also need extensive time to consider a response. Great leadership plays a role here as well: facilitating communication and creating a community of thinkers will be essential in reaching a response. Perhaps our sense of “great leadership” has changed in our contemporary society. Has technology altered what we need from leaders? Tech has certainly changed our day-to-day existence so why might its effects also extend to those we choose to lead? Perhaps our future is one where our leadership is less a figurehead and more a conduit of thinking. Maybe leadership is less the “out in front” and more the “learning side by side”.

Impossible to Luddite

November 12, 2013 Leave a comment

Technological change comes fast. Consider the number of phone numbers you held in your memory a decade ago. Was it more? How has GPS affected your ability to give directions. Many often respond with “Do you have GPS?” when asked to give directions. Technology changes who we are and how we live.

But what of those who loathe technology and instead desire “good old days”? Is anyone capable of existing in a world divorced of technology? Technology is everywhere and impossible to avoid. From grocery stores to libraries every location in society has been affected by technology. One cannot be a Luddite now.

Perhaps most profound about technological change is this inability to avoid it. We need not own technology to be affected. Pew reported in 2013 that just 56% of Americans have smart phones. What of that 44%- are they floundering alone and lost in their world without a data plan and killer apps? Does the user of the “dumb phone” flounder in a world without GPS and data plans? Of course not. Technological change is inherent and profound.

When In Abscence

October 1, 2013 Leave a comment

A daily norm of behavior brings one into a routine of appearance and performance. You arrive at your job, do your work and leave for home. This cycle of function works to justify one’s existence. Don’t appear and the cycle is broken.  Suddenly one’s absence provides an opportunity to think again. Don’t appear and a new paradigm opens in your absence. “If he’s never here then do we need him?”

Adjustments take hold and suddenly the adjustments made to accommodate one’s absence become routine. A great hazard comes in simply not showing up. It’s often claimed that “showing up is half the battle” and indeed we can learn quite a bit from this simple phrase. People put a lot of value in the physical appearance of another. While one might be completely useless or even damaging to a situation, the sheer fact that one appears has a power to it. The act of “making an appearance” is one of the most useless, but viable evaluation on our society.

We might consider the very construction of this “making an appearance” phrase. Unpack it to see this verb of “making”. What are we creating when we appear? It is merely a physical existence in an organization? Is it merely a presence or actor playing a role that is developed.

Don’t appear and we learn to question your value. If you go away for a day we learn to work without you. Time’s progression creates a snowball of conundrum when one is not around. Oddly one’s best defense against dismissal is to simply show up. Even if one’s work is completely trivial the mere physical presence allows one to appear to be important. One may be an unused gear or even a detrimental part the machine but simply being part of the engine provides a basis to exist.

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