In Praise of Atul Gawande’s “The Checklist Manifesto”

I first smacked my forehead (ouch!) against a wall of decision fatigue when I was the Editor in Chief of iMedia Connection (a daily trade journal covering a different collision between marketing and technology). The best part of editing involves coaxing order from mess, making points pointier and helping writers to say what they want to say. The part that makes the days long is having to make a lot of decisions that matter in the moment but not in the long run: yes, let’s run with that one, the other one, and, oh wait, did that thing we’ve been waiting for come in? Editing — like management — is an endless series of arbitrary decisions, but somebody’s gotta pick and that’s the EIC.

I wouldn’t feel my decision fatigue until lunch. If we were heading out for a group lunch, the editorial staff would look to me. “You’re the boss, so where do you want to go for lunch?” Something in my hungry stomach would sink and I’d chose a place. Eventually, I changed my response. “I’m happy to pay for lunch, but I’ve made dozens of decisions already today.” I’d then point at one of the editors. “You pick the place. Nobody is allowed to complain.”

That was years ago, and in the interim — even though I’m no longer in that job — the scope and number of decisions I have to make each day has grown. Email vexes me in particular: do I check it when I first wake up? If I do, then I risk falling down a rabbit hole for the rest of the day. If I don’t, then I might miss something important. On top of that, the number of things bleeping at me, vibrating and waving their electronic hands like importunate fifth graders who know the answer to a question, keeps increasing year after year. I joined Ello because I was curious, for example, but now it’s another damned thing to check.

Greg McKeown’s remarkable book Essentialism helped me to recognize some of this and to intervene in my own behavior, but with smart phones breaking down all barriers our environment no longer does the work it used to do to help us know who we are at a given moment and what we’re supposed to be doing or not doing.

It’s not just me.

For the past dozen years or more I’ve been reading books tracing the same picture: life is getting evermore complicated. And, even though the human brain is the most sophisticated and powerful comprehension machine in the world, we just can’t keep up with the onslaught of information coming from new gadgets, screens, media and the increase in chatter from the old ones like radio, TV, books and the like. These are books with titles like Chaos, Frontiers of Complexity, Think Twice: Thin Ice, but also other books like Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), Predictably Irrational, and Thinking Fast and Slow.

Like the old saying about how people complain about the weather but nobody does anything about it, most of these books were of the point and exclaim variety rather than being helpful. “Look at how irrational we are!” “Look at how things appear chaotic but actually have hidden patterns of order!” “Look at how you can never make a smart decision, but don’t give up!”

On the other side of the bookstore (when I can find one), the self-help books don’t help much. They’re too involved in a method to which I must enslave myself before seeing any benefit. I can Get Things Done, but only if I start managing endless lists that suck up a ton of time. I can Hack my Life (yuck) but that involves having a gadget or twist tie for everything. Often, when I read these books I feel like I’ve just shelled out twenty bucks for a commercial for the author’s consultancy.

All this is why I’m excited by Atul Gawande’s 2010 book, “The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right,” which I read in a day. Gawande is a globetrotting Harvard Medical School surgeon who works with the World Health Organization and writes for the New Yorker.

Gawande is intimidatingly smart and eloquent with an eye for evocative detail, but he didn’t write a book about himself. Instead, it’s a passionate defense of the simple checklist as a tool for embracing and mastering the complicated tasks in front of us day to day.

Wait, didn’t I just backhand David Allen’s list-oriented Getting Things Done approach a few paragraphs ago? (Answer: yes.) How is Gawande different?

First, The Checklist Manifesto isn’t a self-help book. It doesn’t have a handy appendix that helps you to create your own list, nor does it advertise how there are other books in the series that you can buy, or how you can hire Gawande as an efficiency expert to make your business run better (you can’t, although my sense of the author is that he would probably come up with a referral for you if you asked).

Second and more importantly, The Checklist Manifesto isn’t about self-help at all. It’s not about individuals doing things, it’s about how groups of people working together can work together better, and how empowering the group is more important than empowering an individual… even if the individual is the boss, like a surgeon, editor or CEO.

This is different than crowd-sourcing (another raft of books I’ve read in recent years) where trusting to the mass can reveal information uncloaked by individual or observer bias.

Instead, this is about teams working in environments of massively overlapping subspecialization. We have lots of technologies that help us to track and manage the what of collaboration, but surprisingly few to help us with the who.

That’s where the checklist comes in.

Here’s an example that Gawande articulates from skyscraper construction when he talks with a man named Finn O’Sullivan about two lists in O’Sullivan’s field office. The first list is the microscopically detailed construction schedule:

But the list on O’Sullivan’s other wall revealed an entirely different philosophy about power and what should happen to it when you’re confronted with complex, nonroutine problems– such as what to do when a difficult, potentially dangerous, and unanticipated anomaly suddenly appears on the fourteenth floor of a thirty-two-story skyscraper under construction. The philosophy is that you push the power of decision making out to the periphery and away from the center. You give people the room to adapt, based on their experience and expertise. All you ask is that they talk to one another and take responsibility. That is what works. (pages 72 to 73)

Gawande’s vision of the checklist isn’t merely another device (albeit a simple one) to outsource our increasing cognitive burden somewhere else. Instead, The Checklist Manifesto puts that device into the moments where tasks move from one person to another. It puts interaction at the heart of a project, not at the periphery.

For anybody working as a member of a team (and this pretty much means everybody), managing a group or leading a company, The Checklist Manifesto will help you to rethink how to collaborate to enhance the work at hand and avoid avoidable mistakes.

It’s also a spritely read with terrific stories.

IOS 8 Correction: I was WRONG (but check Location settings anyway & here’s why)

Sunday morning after updating my iPad to IOS 8, I was horrified to see that just about all my apps were broadcasting my location 24/7/365, and I blamed the update thinking that Apple had toggled the settings from off to on. I wrote a post about it that you can find here, and I asked my network to share the post, which it kindly did.

Here’s the short version of today’s correction: I was wrong. Apple did not toggle the settings from off to on.

I apologize for my mistake, to the folks who shared my mistake because I asked them to do so, and I thank Jules Polonetsky of the Future of Privacy Forum for setting me straight in a Facebook exchange (hat tip to Jackie Stone for bringing his information to my attention).

Further, I ask everybody who shared the initial post please to share this one, too.

But for heaven’s sake please still go to Settings > Privacy > Location Services and check your settings and pay attention when your i-device warns you about that some app that has little to do with where you are is tracking your location 24/7/365.

That’s the short version– if you’ve had enough or if you are now bored with this topic, then please click away and remember: I was wrong, and I apologize.

For those of you still interested…

The longer version: prompted by Jules Polonetsky, I took screenshots of the Location Services settings on my iPhone 5 before I upgraded to IOS 8. Here’s what the top of the loooong screen looked like:

LocationSettings

Sure enough, the settings were the same after the update. Again, I was wrong.

However, this does beg the question of why all the apps in my iPad were toggled to “on” in the first place? The reason is that prior to IOS 8 Apple, following an industry standard practice, made it frictionless and automatic to add apps without really thinking about whether you want to let the app know where you are at all times. Now, IOS 8 warns you… and it was the warning about Google that sent me down this rabbit hole in the first place.

As Jules Polonetsky pointed out via Facebook, Apple has created an improvement to the original settings where some apps (but not all) can now broadcast location “Never,” “Always” or “While Using” the app.

The burden, though, is still on the user to opt out of location sharing, rather than the other way around. This is a widespread problem with digital privacy in the U.S., where opt-out is the standard rather than the opt-in practiced more widely elsewhere in the world.

So check those settings, please.

Here’s what my iPad settings looked like immediately after the update to IOS 8:

iPadPrivacySettingsWhy would Cozi, the family calendar we use — and for which I pay $5/month to be advertising free — need my location at all times? I never decided to grant Cozi that permission: I simply clicked “OK” when I needed to install the app.

Apple’s new warning about location sharing makes all this ever so slightly less insidious, but it’s still creepy.

That’s why I think the Apple blog post I quoted on Sunday is disingenuous. Here’s the relevant snippet again:

Our business model is very straightforward: We sell great products. We don’t build a profile based on your email content or web browsing habits to sell to advertisers. We don’t “monetize” the information you store on your iPhone or in iCloud. And we don’t read your email or your messages to get information to market to you. Our software and services are designed to make our devices better. Plain and simple.

While it may be true that Apple’s revenue model is different than Google’s (which the blog post is describing in detail but not naming), the post doesn’t mention location because Apple does track your location in order to serve iAds to your phone or iPad.

Moreover, just because Apple doesn’t monetize the data stream I throw off over the course of a day’s movements that doesn’t mean that the apps I have downloaded aren’t doing so. They are, and so Apple is providing a platform for that stalky monetization even if they aren’t doing it themselves.

The U.S. is still waiting for it’s Baby Jessica moment when it comes to digital privacy.

Thanks for reading this all the way to the end. If you’re still interested in adjusting your i-device to protect your privacy, Zach Whittaker over at ZDNet has some suggestions here.

 

IOS 8 Warning: Look at your Privacy Settings

Quote

Tuesday Update: I was wrong about Apple changing settings: see full Correction and explanation here.

 

Apple hates Google.  It REALLY hates Google.

I have evidence.

A few days ago I updated my iPad to IOS8. Today, as I was looking at email, a warning flashed across the device that roughly said: “Google is sharing your location in the background: do you want this to continue?” Under the warning was a Cancel button and a Settings button.

I clicked and discovered that it wasn’t only GOOGLE that was sharing my location: the IOS 8 update defaults so that EVERYTHING shares your location… even apps that don’t have anything to do with maps or geography.

Put plainly: if you don’t go in and change this, oh iPhone and iPad enthusiast (I’m one of you!), then you are naked in front of the whole world… a cybernetic version of the “standing in front of the classroom without any clothes on” nightmare, but one that is grim reality.

To fix this, go to Settings > Privacy > Location Services.  There, you can change the default to whatever you want.  HOWEVER, don’t ignore “System Services” at the bottom, which takes you to a bunch of other Apple-specific location-aware settings that you might also want to disable… in particular the “Location-based iAds” setting that will turn your i-device into a Minority-Report-like “Hello, John Anderton… do you want a Lexus?” i-rritating voice in your pocket.

What upsets me about this is that Apple could have made this more transparent: it could have said, “We’ve changed your location settings” in a window that you have to press after updating to IOS 8.

Instead, it defaulted in the background, buried this in a mass of documentation, and then had the nerve to issue a blog post ostensibly by Tim Cook claiming:

A few years ago, users of Internet services began to realize that when an online service is free, you’re not the customer. You’re the product. But at Apple, we believe a great customer experience shouldn’t come at the expense of your privacy.

Our business model is very straightforward: We sell great products. We don’t build a profile based on your email content or web browsing habits to sell to advertisers. We don’t “monetize” the information you store on your iPhone or in iCloud. And we don’t read your email or your messages to get information to market to you. Our software and services are designed to make our devices better. Plain and simple.

Notice how the post doesn’t mention location?

You don’t have to change the settings, but you should know what Apple is broadcasting about where you are.

Notes from Bergen

Our two most precious currencies are time and attention.  Money, our more conventional currency, helps to focus attention and to make us chary of how we spend our time.

I write this sitting in Chaos Coffee, perched at the edge of the University of Bergen campus and a block from Nygård Skole where W, my 9-year-old son, is in a Norwegian-language immersion program.  Tuesday, the school lets out at noon, so I’ve made Chaos my hangout: they have plentiful wifi and don’t mind if I nurse a drink for a couple of hours while typing at a quiet table between a shelf of books on my right and the bright yellow door that leads into the back kitchen on my left.

ChaosCoffee

Buying my second latte is a reckless extravagance.  Then I throw all fiduciary sanity over my shoulder and add a small piece of dark chocolate cake.

It tastes better than it deserves.  I wouldn’t pay attention if this were happening at a Peet’s in America, but in Norway the cake and latte cost 60 Kroner.  Ten dollars!  And I already spent nearly that on my first latte and an apple.

The cake feels ropy between my tongue and the roof of my mouth, then the chocolate lights up the taste buds at the sides of my tongue as that first mouthful heads south towards my esophagus.

Cognitive dissonance at play: regardless of the cause I’m experiencing this as mighty fine chocolate cake.  The latte’s not bad either.

It’s just us boys for the next couple of days.  Kathi, my wife, is at a conference in Oslo for Fulbright winners.  H, our 13-year-old daughter, and J, our visiting 23-year-old nanny/niece/auxiliary kid, are on the train to join Kathi for the night.  W & I plan to watch “X-Men First Class” on the laptop later, and there is talk of a post-school surgical strike to acquire some McDonald’s fries (a rare treat).

Today is my 13th day in Bergen and my second Tuesday morning at Chaos. Liat, who comes to Bergen from Tel Aviv, runs the café on these days.

Liat

She manages the music with a disk jockey’s care, pouncing on the stereo to manage sound levels and selecting a range of easy listening, orchestral, classic U.S. rock (Springsteen, Tracy Chapman), a smattering of current music (Passenger), Norwegian lounge music and more.  At first, I was the only one here and she mentioned that “Vamp” was a famous Norwegian pop group.  I’ll check them out on Spotify later.

Back to focused attention.  I only vaguely recognize the Passenger tune “Let Her Go” and want to identify it, so I grab my iPhone and hit Shazam, then wince as I feel precious data trickle away.  Oh no!  What have I done?  Until Kathi gets her Norwegian identity card (and, perhaps much later, we get ours) we can’t get bank accounts or mobile phone accounts, so we’re on pay-as-you go SIM cards.  We are non-people living in a cash economy.  Not a big deal in the long term, but I’m used to all-you-can eat data back home in the U.S.

Indeed, I only bought the pay-as-you-go SIM cards yesterday when I realized that the girls would be in different parts of Oslo and would have no way of reaching each other (or me) without them.  The cost-per-TXT is .69 Kroner (about 11 cents), so we all use Skype for real-time communications.

I don’t miss having chronic mobile access and regret having it back now.  Without the magic mirror in my pocket I pay more attention to my Norwegian surroundings, although the millisecond I find myself in a pocket of wifi (stand outside any Burger King and you can log on even without buying something, I learned) I grab the iPhone and peer into my digital other life.  My info addiction is not subtle.

Now, with a SIM card, Skype bleeps whenever family and friends in the U.S. want my attention.  It doesn’t happen often with the time difference (9 hours from the west coast), but I quickly have become accustomed to experiencing only local interruptions.  In the same way that I’ve shed a few stubborn pounds because now I’m a pedestrian I had shed a few distractions by not having a smart phone.  Now they are creeping back, forcing me to choose mindfully to turn off data or resist the urge to Google something, whereas yesterday geography made that choice for me.

Second meetings seem important in Norway.  Liat and I had a pleasant interaction a week ago, but today I learn more about her.  She is Israeli, married and still mourns the loss of her gigantic English mastiff a year ago.

Liat calls me to the front of the store to meet Marlis Bühler, who has just published a beautiful, poetic photography book of people with dolphins called “Dolphin Love.”  Marlis, I think, is leaving Bergen tonight.  She has come to Chaos to give Liat a copy of her book and say goodbye.  That says a lot about the kind of coffee shop this is.  Liat introduces me as “my new customer” to Marlis, which I find a unexpected and welcome compliment.

Right now, my time is chopped up seeing to the kids and the house and maintaining contact with various people and projects back in the U.S., so face-to-face human contact is at a premium.

It’s even harder for H, my daughter.  Norwegian secondary schools are on strike and have been for nine weeks.  The union and the administrators seem to get more sclerotic in their positions with each passing day, so I don’t know when the strike will end.  So while W happily greets his buddies in the schoolyard at Nygård each morning, H doesn’t have a peer group.

Last Sunday, a colleague of Kathi’s with L, his 12-year-old daughter (and two 9-year-old boys for W) came to visit.  Heaven.  H lit up to have another girl to chat with, and they were quickly comparing notes on books, TV shows (who knew that “Gravity Falls” was an international hit?), YouTube videos, Instagram and more.

The moment I knew the visit had gone well came towards the end when we’d all gone out for an evening walk. As we approached our new friends’ car, L announced that she had to go back to our house because she had left her beloved iPad Mini there.  We turned towards the house and I spied L quietly opening her coat to H in a “first one’s free” gesture that revealed the iPad in her pocket.  L didn’t want to leave just yet.  The two girls caught me catching them.  We shared a conspiratorial smile.

We’ll find more girls for her to hang out with while we wait for school to start.

Less than two weeks into our 10-month stay here in Bergen it’s just thinkable for me to write about it.  Until now, I’ve been too busy, too close, able to stick the occasional photo onto Facebook, but not able to do real thinking.

Bergen is a medieval city with a third millennial overlay.  If Oslo, the business capital, is New York then Bergen is San Francisco or Boston.  There is no Los Angeles equivalent in Norway: it isn’t sunny enough.  Modern day hustle bustle squeezes through narrow, crooked and meticulously cobble-stoned streets.  An ancient castle complete with dungeon sits next to a Radisson Blu mini hotel.  There are more hair salons per capita than there are heads, which is odd because it’s not like this is a city of terrific haircuts.  Everything is so expensive here that if I bother doing the Kroner-to-Dollars equation I’m frozen in place: how much for a pack of gum?

And with that, ‘tis time to get the boy from school.

Is Netflix moving away from binge viewing?

American culture’s long nightmare has ended. Breath can release from empurpling faces across this mighty land: we now know Chelsea Handler’s next move. This morning, Variety broke the story: “Netflix Announces Chelsea Handler Talk Show to Debut in 2016: Comedienne to create new talk-show format and specials for streamer, after seven-year run on E!”

How will it work? Can Chelsea Handler retain an audience in an on-demand video environment?

Handler has forged a witty and wicked brand for herself as talk show host, comedian and author, but “Chelsea Lately” isn’t appointment viewing— it’s just always on, in continuous rotation, and reliably snarky and gossipy about the days celebrity news. Her books are the same: I’d never order one on Amazon, but I’m happy to look one over when I’m bored at the airport.

Most engagements with Netflix are in the long tail, with a  short fat head of original content like “Orange is the New Black” and “House of Cards,” and Netflix famously releases an entire season at once to promote binge watching.

Binge watching takes takes advantage of our human love of story and endless desire to see what happens next. That dynamic doesn’t operate in talk shows.

Or does this mean that Netflix is getting into the business of timely watching? Do they want to own 11:00pm Monday through Friday (the current slot for “Chelsea Lately”) with new and original content that will get stale as the hours tick on? 

If so, then why? Is this merely to drive subscriptions with experiences viewers can’t get elsewhere? Are they going to dip a cautious toe into advertising-supported programs… which the talk show format supports perfectly?

Note: This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this idea surface: back in 2010 when Conan O’Brien was fired from “The Tonight Show” he flirted with bringing a new talk show to Xbox Live before landing on TBS.

[Cross-posted on Medium.]

Journey Back, Journey On: Watching my son rediscover a comic book 4 years later

W_SatAM_Reading2

Saturday morning. Mom’s at yoga. Dad’s puttering downstairs. 13-year-old Big Sis is hibernating — those pesky teenagers.

What’s an almost-9-year boy old to do?

That’s my imagination of what W, my son, was thinking after I shushed him for the fifth time when he was playing in the open area right next to where his sister’s puberty-induced coma went on… and on.

Then I remembered that a few days back one of his buddies had asked about the comic book hero “Green Arrow,” whereupon W had turned to the ultimate authority in his life on the topic of superheroes— me.

We’d talked through the legend of Oliver Queen getting marooned on Starfish island, how the character started as Batman with a bow but slowly morphed into something more interesting.

I told him about the “Hard Traveling Heroes” sequence from the 1960s and 1970s when Green Arrow and Green Lantern went on an Easy Rider like journey around the country. “Dad,” he replied. “Why didn’t Green Lantern just create a force bubble to travel in… why did they need a car?

It kept coming up, so when I needed him to find a quieter activity this book came to mind:

SecretOrigins

 By Dennis O’Neil, circa 1976.

I trotted over to his bookshelf and grabbed it, opened it to “Green Arrow,” and walked him back into his room.

The front and back covers of my copy — acquired when I was his age — are long gone and what remains is in tatters, but as the picture at the top of this column indicates, W is lost in that book right now.

I remember my own fall, wondering at the paired Golden Age and late-Silver Age tellings of the stories, feeding my brain with the basics of the superhero rhetoric that would inform decades of comic-book reading.

Although he started with Green Arrow, when I snuck in (to adjust his pillow, make sure he wasn’t starving, and — I confess it!— to snoop) he was deep into the Golden Age account of Wonder Woman’s origin.

I first gave W this book shortly after we’d moved to Oregon, when he and I were busy watching the “Justice League” and “Justice League Unlimited” series. That was his first go-round with superheroes, and his primary interest was in collecting action figures. He looked at the book, made it a little more tattered, but didn’t fall inside.

This morning, he fell.

Books are fixed points in our ever-changing lives. This is the glory of re-reading.

Reopening an old friend reminds us of how far we’ve come, reintroduces us to past selves and sometimes points us onward towards where we want to go.

I remember back when I was finishing my doctoral thesis on Shakespeare a moment when I felt my sympathies slipping from Romeo to Capulet (Juliet’s father), where they have stayed.

The lousy version of this is when you pick up an old friend and find that you’ve moved irrevocably on— I can’t stomach Edgar Rice Burroughs anymore, for example, which I discovered when I tried to re-read “A Princess of Mars” after the mediocre “John Carter” movie a couple summers ago.

I hear thumping upstairs.

Time to make breakfast.

I wonder if he made it to the“Hawkman” origins…

[Editor’s Note: cross-posted on Medium.]

From the Archive: Why does “on demand” feel so… demanding?

A kind tweet today from my friend David Daniel reminded me of this post, first published October 1, 2006. A look through my site found it a casualty of a domain transfer, but the always-useful Wayback Machine at the Internet Archive brought it back from the dead. Original version (with original comments) can be found here, and a subsequent story by CNN can be found here.  I don’t remember where I coined the term “TiVo Guilt,” but this at least is where the thinking comes from…

Having the best of the media world at my fingertips via cable VOD, TiVo, DVD, the internet and the metric ton of videotapes still lying around my garage can be a drag.

A couple nights back I cleared out the episodes of “House” piling up in my TiVo because they had ceased to be a special treat that I was saving for myself and started to feel like a homework assignment I’d forgotten to turn in. Similarly, my wife and I have had the many-many-Emmy-winning “Elizabeth I” in TiVo since April– April! We’ll never watch it, but we can’t bear to raise the white flag.

TiVo works best for short delays… watching something 15 minutes after it starts so I can blaze through without commercials,* or later that night, or the next night, but not much after that. I saw the second episode of “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” on Tuesday night and loved it… almost as much as if I’d seen it on Monday night when it aired.

A short delay preserves that sense of sobytiinost — the “eventness” or connectedness with other people that I’ve talked about before — but eventness doesn’t last long. Like a delicate radioactive isotope, it has a half-life measured in mere hours.

The longer a piece of media lies around unseen, the more my satisfaction index declines. To be more precise, as a piece of media lies around, I find the prospect of watching it less satisfying. If I actually hurdle the barrier of my lack of desire to watch something once it’s no longer new, then I’ll probably enjoy it, although not, I suspect, as much as if I’d watched it when it was newer or live.

This is not just true of media that I can get in my home. With big, tentpole movies that have had expensive marketing campaigns and been drilled into my consciousness, I’d better see them close to the opening weekend or I’m going to wait for it to surface on HBO. If I’m only dimly aware of a movie — or if I’m seeing just about anything with my daughter who brings to the theater her own eventness — then this dynamic doesn’t happen. And as a corollary, with a sleeper like “Keeping Up with the Steins” the expectation — the sense of being about to be in on something that the unwashed multitude hasn’t heard about — brings its own anticipation.

Late at night, beached on the couch with the dog at my feet while the rest of the family sleeps, the last thing I want to do is make a well-informed, thoughtful, right-thinking decision about how I’m going to spend the next hour. That all sounds like such a commitment: I just want to relax. Dredging something from TiVo’s bowels means that I’ll have to make judgments and decisions: Should I have recorded this? Should I cancel the season pass? Is it more important that I watch this thing than that other thing? It’s supposed to be entertainment for heaven’s sake… not a test of my skill as a TiVo user.

The Year Five data from the Center for the Digital Future found that Americans now log onto the internet with no objective… just to spend time having fun. That’s a key distinction between self improvement and self renewal– between an ought to do and a want to do. If I wait too long, TiVo transmogrifies the former into the latter.

Comments, please?

* To all my brand marketer friends out there… yes, I admit it: I use TiVo to skip the commercials. Sorry, y’all.

2 Kinds of Wearables: Info display vs. creation, and how they work with time

Note: I’m keynoting about wearables at the Brand Innovators Fashion Week event on Friday, February 14, 2014.  The kind folks at Brand Innovators have published this piece as a white paper. You can learn more about the event and download the white paper here.

People talk about wearable computers in one lumpy category, but doing this erases a key difference between two overlapping — and often opposing — orientations of wearables: the display of old information and the creation of new information.

These orientations have a lot to do with time and whether at a given moment we prioritize present or future.

Being thoughtful about these two orientations can help people use wearables in productive ways that improve their lives, and doing so can also help people seize special moments.  On the flip side, wearables can also add new layers of distraction to our already information-overloaded lives.

When it comes to industry — from media to health and wellness to CPG and beyond — understanding the differences between display and creation can help companies determine the right strategies for using wearables to help build businesses through analytics, advertising and partnership.

Display: here I’m talking about wearable computers that take information coming in from the world and stick it onto new spots on your body.  This is translation in the literal, Latin-root sense of trans locare “to carry across.”

Google Glass perches on a user’s face: the device is a prominent prism in the upper right corner of a user’s glasses, which is a spot nobody paid much attention to before.

Although it has received a ton of press and even a witty new term — “Glasshole” — for people who wear it all the time, Google Glass isn’t the world-changing iPhone of HUD (“heads up display” or “on your face” information), it’s the Apple Newton.

There are other versions of HUD, including an interesting contact lenses plus glasses approach by iOptics and Meta’s “I gotta buy this— wait! it’s $3,000” Iron Man interface.

Display is also the orientation of most Smart Watches, a bit humbler than HUD but with a rich Dick Tracy history.

DickTracy

The Pebble brings text messages and phone calls to your wrist so you don’t have to fumble for your phone, so do the Samsung Galaxy Gear, the Qualcomm Toq, the LG, the Razer Nabu and so on.

Creation starts with the lowly pedometer that counts how many steps you take each day and moves forward to more sophisticated measurements that link a bracelet with sensors and an accelerometer to give a fuller picture of your physical activity.  Some folks call this “m-health.”

The Nike FuelBand and various Fitbit devices (the Flex, the Force) are prominent examples here with Fitbit owning two thirds of the market and enjoying broad compatibility with various smart phone apps to make tracking and analyzing information easier.  The new Force also has an altimeter that is useful for runners.

Creation also embraces all sorts of medical devices, from the much-covered Google Contact Lenses that will help diabetics measure blood sugar to Medtronic’s wireless telemetry that lets its cardiac pacemakers download data from a patient’s pacemaker over wifi to a home network that then sends the data directly to a doctor.

Information creation is at the heart of the Quantified Self movement that turns your body’s activity into accessible and actionable data.  GroupM’s Rob Norman recently quipped on Twitter that this has also created a new genre:

“The Quantified Selfie” definition: sharing the details of your run, walk, or cycle via a wearable device to a social network. Question: why?

Of course, these two information orientations — display and creation — overlap.  The FuelBand and Force creation devices also tell time; the Basis watch has more skin sensors than other fitness wearables.  Google Glass can take pictures and videos— and historically we’ve seen with Facebook and smart phones that photo sharing can drive massive, exponential adoption.

But even if the same device encompasses both orientations, who we are when we use them differs in the moments when we use them for display and creation.

How we think about time

Google CEO Larry Page has said, “Our goal is to reduce the time between intention and action,” but intention, like wearables, is complex.

Deliberate intention expands over the course of time: it is conical.  When we speak, for example, we intend what we say (unless we are lying) but we also mean everything that is implied by what we say even if we haven’t thought out those results in detail.  (In their work on relevance Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson call these “implicatures.”)

Intent and action can mean our best laid plans and the work we do to achieve them, but they can also mean impulse and reaction.  One gets us to the gym to work out and the other says, “screw it” and reminds us about the yummy bag of chips in the pantry.  Intent is the superego.  Impulse is the id.  We’re all ego trapped in the middle.

Information creation wearables orient towards the future: who we want to be.  They are devices of intent.

With these devices we work towards fitness goals, or collaborate with our doctors to manage our medical care.  Although there is a big social component (e.g. people geographically separated sharing runs and achievements), that sharing tends to happen after the activity in question.

Wearable information creation devices, in other words, can help us get where we have decided to go: seven hours of sleep each night with 10,000 steps of activity, for example.  They can help us build towards flow states, Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi’s delectable, ephemeral total immersion that happens with practice and focus.

In contrast, information display wearables orient towards the now: who I am at this moment.  They are impulsive rather than considered intent.

When we strap on a SmartWatch or HUD we are inviting the universe to interrupt us, telling the mere meat space reality where our bodies live in that it and its inhabitants are less important than the invisible, alluring universe of information floating just out of sight.

These interruptions — texts, calls, reminders — are even more urgent and intrusive than email with its 67 trillion messages per year because they slide from the supercomputers in our pockets directly onto our wrists or eyes like pickpockets in reverse.

Where information creation devices give us ample chances to share later, information display devices lure us into sharing right this second without fumbling for a device.  Press a button or murmur “OK Glass” and we can broadcast our passing thoughts at any and every moment.

This is not necessarily a bad thing.  We live, after all, in endless progression of moments that build on the shaky foundation of yesterday and lead in a drunkard’s walk into tomorrow.  And we are social beings, pack animals, who need to connect with each other: information display devices help us connect.

But we need to make thoughtful choices about our information diets just like we do with our food diets.  Given my druthers, I’ll always pick the mini-can of Pringles rather than a handful of salted hazelnuts.  But my bigger druther is not to look like Fat Bastard from the Austin Powers movies.  So I only choose the Pringles sometimes.

An entire fitness industry exists to help people mediate between our present urges and future plans, but we don’t have that for our information diets.  Wearables, paradoxically, can accelerate both our discipline and our dissipation.

devil_angel_animal_house_forumVoice Recognition software like Apple’s Siri, Intel’s “Jarvis” prototype, and the compelling Samantha character in the Spike Jonze movie “Her” can also speed up our flow states or distraction.

These services are not wearables in the strict sense (although with Blue Tooth headsets and headphones they do extend onto our bodies), but the voice in our ear can help us find information supporting whatever task we have at hand without having to drop everything and go looking for it.

 

On the other hand, the revenue models for voice recognition software include interruption by advertisers.  The user may be taking a thoughtful walk in the park to help himself think through an idea only to have a friendly voice chirp directly into his ear that the sneakers he was eyeing the other day are on sale at the Foot Locker store just steps away.  Bye bye, idea.  Hello, new kicks.

What all this means for business

As businesses think about building their own wearables, acquiring companies in the space or partnering with wearable companies it will help to think about the two different orientations— information display and information creation.

A fatty snacks company, for example, should orient towards information display when thinking about wearables since people make impulse purchases when they are in the moment rather than contemplating growing waistlines.  The right advertisement on the wrist or displayed directly onto the eyes at the right instant can be powerful and profitable.

Wearables can also intervene in impulsive behavior, as demonstrated by the prototype mood bra from Microsoft that helps dieting women avoid eating driven by emotion rather than nutrition.  Like I said before, these categories bump into each other.

A food company interested in health and wellness might focus on information creation, partnering with a Fitbit-like data platform to create applications that helps people use their data to achieve their goals, acting as a partner to the user and, with luck, later reaping the rewards created by the user’s loyalty.

Gigantic CPG companies with both healthy and fatty snacks could use both approaches for different products.

These different orientations don’t just work for CPG: an auto manufacturer might invite a prospective customer into a dealership with the right test drive promotion displayed on Google Glass as the prospect drives by in her old car (information display).

A maker of bed linens might connect to a body temperature sensor worn at night (information creation) to pump up the temperature in an electric blanket to keep a sleeper warm, or then to lower it when it’s time to get out of bed in the morning.

Conclusion

In “Song of Myself” (1855) the poet Walt Whitman wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself.  I am large, I contain multitudes.”  In the 160 years since, social scientists like Dan Ariely and Erving Goffman have shown us the twisty complications of our intentions and identities.

Although we feel like unified beings with coherent identities that transcend all the different hours in the day, we also know that we are different with our children than with our coworkers and that each new situations calls forth a different aspect of ourselves.

We are wide.  We contain multitudes.

For most of us, just 10 or at most 15 years ago our first personal computing experiences were via desktop computer in the disused guest room over a mind-numbingly slow dial-up connection.  Moments of instantaneous computation now spread into every corner of our lives, onto every surface in our homes and even on top of and inside our bodies.

Wearables are new sources of discipline and temptation.  Thoughtful consideration about their orientations towards information and time — rather than as one category — can help us achieve our goals as individuals and businesses.

So long as we don’t get distracted along the way.

 

Sources & Links 

Image of the Dick Tracy stamp found on “MarketingLand.com

Image from “National Lampoon’s Animal House” (1978) found on “TheDissolve.com

http://oldcomputers.net/apple-newton.html

http://www.unevenlydistributed.com/article/details/first-glasses-now-contact-lenses#.Ut1dwGTTl8Y

http://www.theverge.com/2014/1/11/5297162/meta-developing-iron-man-interface-augmented-reality-glasses

http://www.medtronic.com/for-healthcare-professionals/products-therapies/cardiac-rhythm/therapies/unique-features/conexus-wireless-telemetry/

http://www.economist.com/news/business/21595461-those-pouring-money-health-related-mobile-gadgets-and-apps-believe-they-can-work

http://thenextweb.com/google/2014/01/17/forget-glass-googlex-testing-smart-contact-lens-diabetics/

https://twitter.com/robnorman

http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/irvinem/theory/Starner-Project-Glass-IEEE.pdf

http://www.amazon.com/Relevance-Communication-Cognition-Dan-Sperber/dp/0631198784

http://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_on_flow.html

http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/01/19/disruptions-looking-for-relief-from-a-flood-of-email/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fat_Bastard_(character)

http://qz.com/170668/intels-voice-recognition-will-blow-siri-out-of-the-water-because-it-doesnt-use-the-cloud/

http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2013-12/06/microsoft-smart-bra

 

Short post about “My Facebook Movie” — from Charming to Cloying in 21 hours

The first person I saw share “My Facebook Movie” was Terry Kawaja, 23 hours ago as I write this short post.  I clicked.  I smiled.

I shared mine a few minutes later.

Then I looked at those of two friends and stopped.

This morning I saw that my wife had shared hers, so of COURSE I clicked.  Then one more from a friend.  I stopped.  The same cadence. The same music.  The same progression.  Meh.

Then I saw my friend Bettina’s post: “Here’s my Facebook mov… Nah. Nevermind.”  She posted that two hours ago.

Why did this happen?  Why did this cute algorithmically powered story jump off a satisfaction cliff so quickly?

If I’m right and my response is typical, then I wonder if Facebook agrees?  If their only metric is “who views the movie and shares it” then they are probably happy, as it is popping up like a game of Whack a Mole everywhere.

But a better metric would be: 1. View; 2. Share; 3. Watch other people’s movies.  If 3 continues beyond 48 hours, then that would be real success.

Perhaps the biggest problem with “My Facebook Movie” is that it is surprisingly not social.  It’s almost Apple-like in it’s egocentricism.  Sure, I can comment about my video or another person’s, but it’s not about my relationship with another person I designate, nor is it about my interaction with a coherent group— it’s about my interactions with the universe.  Interesting enough when it’s about me, but not when I’m watching a show about somebody else.

Am I just being a sourpuss?

Postscript: I just remembered two interesting articles about how Facebook can make people feel bad about themselves because in general we post about Awesome Life Moments. One was from The Conversation last week, and the other was from The Economist back in August.

UP, UP and away… How a wearable computer changed my brain

Yikes_wrist_photo_smOld dogs can learn new tricks.  So can people young and old.  Behavior is metamorphic, although we seldom recognize that plasticity in the moment.  Instead, we think the world changes while we stay the same, that our children are less responsible than we were at their age but that we threw crazier parties.  We think TV today isn’t as good as the programs we watched when we were younger, forgetting how many nights we spent on “Night Court.”

Sometimes, though, the planets align and we see our own behavior as it changes in the moment.

Here is one such story.

The Jawbone UP has decorated my wrist and recorded my physical activity since mid-March of 2013, but I did not reckon with how I depended on its steady flow of information and quiet alerts until it stopped working.  Ironically, this happened last week when I was guiding tours for Story-Tech at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, where wearable computers were a key technology with massive year-over-year growth, and I could no longer demonstrate how it worked to my tourists.

But the real impact of my UP’s absence didn’t hit until both my wife Kathi and I returned home from overlapping business trips, mine to CES and hers to the Modern Language Association.

Kathi is a night owl working late and I’m an early bird (it’s a mixed marriage), so the unheralded killer feature of the Jawbone UP and its kindred gadgets (Nike FuelBand, Fitbit Force) is the silent alarm that vibrates on my wrist when I get up before dawn to work while the world is silent and all the thoughts are mine to think.

Before the UP, a clock radio or smart phone would chime, blare or buzz, disturbing Kathi and sometimes failing to wake me (the first five or six times).  It took time getting used to sleeping with a bracelet, but I came to depend on that quiet buzz to get me up and let me lurch from the bedroom and pad towards the coffee machine like a sneaky zombie.

The UP’s death didn’t much affect me in Vegas because the Aria let me program the windows to open and the TV to pop on at a designated time.  Before Kathi got back from the MLA I simply used my old nightstand clock radio to wake myself.  But since her return I find myself waking up every couple of hours because I am so anxious about my iPhone’s coming bleep.

So I haven’t slept well, feel my stress level rising, and await the arrival of a replacement UP with less than graceful patience.  This is now the third time I’ve had to write to Jawbone for a replacement in less than one year, and so I find myself wondering if I should give the Fitbit Force a try just because I don’t want to go through this again.

This put me in mind of a fascinating article in December’s Scientific American: “How Google is Changing Your Brain” (preview link here but subscription required and recommended).  The internet’s infinite laundry pen memory has eroded our need to rely on other people to remember things and erodes the difference between information we store in our heads and the information we know is waiting in the cloud.

We’ve always perceived of our possessions as parts of ourselves.  The comic book visionary Scott McCloud observed in his brilliant book “Understanding Comics” that when another car bumps your car from behind we don’t cry out “his car hit my car!” but “hey! he hit me!” The difference is that with computers and particularly with wearables the devices on our bodies talk back to us in new ways.

As I’ve written elsewhere, I have outsourced most of my remembering tasks to Evernote and Instapaper, but my morning wakeup routine isn’t information— it’s action.  And so it’s only a minor exaggeration to say that the UP band has become a part of myself, so much so that when it’s gone I have to adjust in surprising ways.

“Never trust anybody over 30,” a cliché of the mid-1960s free speech movement, mistook an perceived mental inflexibility in the generation of the protesters’ parents with an age-related unwillingness to think and behave in new ways.  This is a common mistake and we make it in both directions, substituting life stage behaviors for generational ones and vice versa.

So, the pundits who claim that Millennials will never care about their privacy and will always overshare on Facebook are wrong: the Millennials just didn’t need to think about why not to overshare until they were on the job market and had to cleanse their profiles of the sexy selfies with the bong in the background.  Behaviors can change.

As a youth I would not have expected my behaviors to change so quickly when I had hit middle age, but they did with the UP band.

According to the UPS tracker my replacement UP should arrive today.  If it doesn’t, I think I’m buying the Fitbit Force.

[Cross-posted with Medium.]