On Meditation: a tweet drizzle in 11 brief parts

On meditation: a tweet drizzle (1) #mindful

OK, I get it. Morning mediation is important. It creates a shock absorber in my head for the day to come, gives me resources. (2) #mindful

The chattering monkeys and skittering spiders of my thoughts need taming, stilling, calming, tranquilizing (3) #mindful

Inner peace is probably beyond me, but a mind less like a New Delhi street with cars zipping any which way would be nice. (4) #mindful

But why does meditation have to be so damned BORING? My breathing just isn’t that interesting, nor are my aches and pains. (5) #mindful

Listening to music while meditating — even Gyoto Tantric chanting — seems like cheating somehow. (6) #mindful

I listen to the fridge whispering in the kitchen, the sound of my clothes rustling, house settling, birds outside waking. (7) #mindful

And then my mind skulks away from meditation into myriad chores, emails to write, what to make the kids for breakfast. (8) #mindful

Is this the project? A fight to dwell in a brief present amid a siege of thoughts? Does it get easier, effortless, soothing… (9) #mindful

Or is meditation always a struggle on the ground of the present moment between past reflection and future anticipation? (10) #mindful

End of tweet drizzle (so called because by definition something on meditation can hardly amount to a storm). (11) #mindful

Don’t Call Them “Consumers”

What you call people matters.  It tells them what you really think about them.

Here’s an example: years ago my friend Jules shared how her Mom would call for her Dad in a never-changing escalation of urgency and decline of affection: “Sweetheart!” she’d trill, followed by, “Honey?” and then ending with “Bill!!” 

The equation worked this way:

“Sweetheart!” = “Hello, loving husband, it is I, your loving wife, checking in this happy morning.”

“Honey?” = “Where has that man taken himself off to, and is he perhaps forgetting that I’ve asked him to accomplish something this morning?”

“Bill!” = “Move it old man— I’ve got shit to do!!”

In three words Jules’ Mom went from an affectionate to a functional relationship with her husband.  Fortunately, relationships are dynamic and tend to move in both directions.

This matters for marketers and their attendants (agencies, media) because when you talk about those folks who either already buy your stuff or may one day buy your stuff as “consumers” then you have reduced your relationship with these people to a functional one in which their only job is to consume your stuff so that you can make money, then make new stuff, and then sell that stuff to the consumers also.

If you are an old-style marketer who is using one-way pipes like TV and print to firehose impressions at a somewhat resigned population, then you’re probably OK doing this because you’re just talking and not pretending to listen… sort of like Jules’ Dad.  (This may sound like I disapprove of such messaging, but I don’t: it’s honest and practical and sometimes the ads are entertaining.)

However, if you’re a marketer using social media to create so-called “friends” or if you’re content-curious and trying your hand as a publisher, then the moment you use the word “consumer” then you’ve proven that you are a liar.

They aren’t your friends.  You don’t care what the people on the other end of the communication think or how they feel.  They are just consumers, and you’re saying, “shut up and eat.”

Now, for the most part people don’t want to have relationships with brands.  They don’t want to be friends with brands.  They don’t care about the brand behind the products they buy and use except insofar as those brands save them valuable cognitive effort when shopping (so they can go back to playing with their phones) or save them money at checkout.

But that still doesn’t make them consumers.  At zero moments do people welcome marketers efforts to paint them into a corner where they are consumers.

So, if you’re a marketer reading this, then join me in vowing not to call the people who pay your bills “consumers.”  It’s just rude.

BUT WHAT DO I CALL THEM? I hear your plaintive cry.  Much ink has been spilled on this question. 

Marketers don’t want to call people “customers” because they reserve that label for the folks who have already bought something (not that they treat customers any better than consumers.)  This is bullshit but at least it’s logically consistent.

My friend Joe Jaffe and I got into a spat many years ago when we disagreed about whether to call the online version of these folks “users” or not (I thought yes; Joe thought it made them sound like addicts… and this was before Facebook made us all into genuine addicts).  Another friend, Grant McCracken, once suggested calling these people “amplifiers,” but I think this is too hopeful a term as most folks decline to amplify.

When you’re talking about folks who do or might buy your product in a social media or content marketing context, then I suggest using “audience,” since even though they don’t have much of a voice at least we credit audiences with having brains, opinions and feet with which they can vote.

If a marketer is talking about people who are actively doing something, then I suggest “participants,” because that label recognizes their efforts— whether positive or negative.

And if you’re fire hosing messages, then I suggest you talk about the collection of drenched bodies as people— since that’s what we all are.

Just don’t call them consumers.

[Cross-posted with iMedia Connection.]

The FOMO Myth

In my last post I wrote about how Facebook’s business need to have more people doing more things on its platform more of the time is in tension with how human satisfaction works.

In today’s post, I’m going to dig a little deeper into the satisfaction math (for those of you with a “Math, ewww” reflex, it’s just fractions, man, chill) and then use that to argue that there’s really no such thing as FOMO or “Fear of Missing Out” for most people when it comes to social media.

Here again for your convenience is the whiteboard chart sketching out my sense of how the Facebook satisfaction index works:


I’m less concerned with where the hump is on the horizontal axis (50 connections, 150, 200, 500) than with the shape and trajectory where as you have more and more connections your overall satisfaction with any single interaction moment on Facebook (or any other social networking service) approaches zero. 

Most people’s response to this is to jump onto an accelerating hamster wheel where you check in more and more often hoping for that dopamine rush of “she did THAT? cool!” but not getting it because the odds get worse and worse.

This is because most people, myself included, aren’t interesting most of the time. 

As a rule of thumb, let’s follow Theodore Sturgeon’s Law which argues that 90% of all human effort is crap, and you spend your whole life looking for that decent 10%.*

By this logic, your Facebook friends will post something interesting about 10% of the time— with some people you love this is a comedic exaggeration because a lot of the time we don’t love people because they are interesting: they are interesting because we love them.

Now let’s say you have 150 Facebook friends, which is both close to the average number of Facebook connections and also happens to be psychologist Robin Dunbar’s Number (how many people with whom you can reasonably have relationships).

Next, let’s say you glance at Facebook once per day and see only one thing that a connection has posted with attendant comments. (BTW, I just opened Facebook full screen on my desktop computer and, to my mild surprise, I only see one complete post.)

If we combo-platter Sturgeon’s law with Dunbar’s number then the odds aren’t great that you’ll find the post interesting: 10% of 1/150, or a 1/1,500 chance.

Wait, let’s be generous because we all find different things worthy of our attention at different moments (we are wide, we contain multitudes), and let’s say that in general you’ll find a post interesting for one several reasons:

The poster says or shares something genuinely interesting

You haven’t connected with the poster in a while

The poster says or shares something funny

You think the poster is hot so you’ll be interested in what she or he says regardless of content due to ulterior motives

You just connected with the poster on Facebook (or Twitter, et cetera) recently, so anything she or he says will be novel and therefore interesting

So that’s now a five-fold increase in the ways that we can find a single post interesting, but the odds still aren’t great: 5/1500 which reduces down to 1/300. 

That’s just one post: if you keep on scrolling and take in 30 posts, which you can do in a minute or so, then you’re at 30/300 or a one-in-ten chance that you’ll find something interesting.  (These still ain’t great odds, by the way: a 90% chance of failure.) 

At this point, cognitive dissonance comes into play and you change your metrics rather than convict yourself of wasting time, deciding to find something not-terribly-interesting kinda-sorta interesting after all.

Remember, though, that I’m deriving this satisfaction index from a base of 150 friends: as your number of connections increases — and remember that Facebook has to grow your number of connections to grow its business — to 1,500 (close to my number, social media slut that I am) then your odds of finding something interesting in 30 posts goes down to 1/100 or a 99% failure rate.

Multiply this across Twitter, Instagram, Google+, LinkedIn, Vine, Tumblr and every other social networking service and you have an fraction with an ever-expanding denominator and a numerator that can never catch up.

Or, to translate this into less-fractional lingo, even if you spent all day, every day on social media the days aren’t getting longer but your social network is getting larger, so the likelihood of your finding social media interactions to be satisfying inexorably decreases over time.**

This is different than FOMO.  Sure, pathological fear of missing out exists: people who check the mailbox seventeen times per day, who can never put their smart phones down for fear of missing an email, who pop up at the water cooler to listen to a conversation. 

But with social media it’s not FOMO, it’s DROP: Diminishing Returns On Platform.

Most importantly, there’s a conspiracy-theory-paranoiac interpretation of how people talk about FOMO when it comes to social media: if you attribute checking Facebook too much to FOMO, then it’s a problem with the user, not with Facebook.  The user needs to develop more discipline and stop checking Facebook. 

As I discussed in my last post, this pernicious argument is similar to how Coca-Cola — which needs to have the 50% of the population that drinks soda drink more soda to have business growth — dodges the question of whether it is partly responsible for the U.S. obesity epidemic by saying that people just need to exercise more.

Facebook could create better filters for its users with ease, making a Dunbar filter of 150 that the home display defaults to and letting users toss people into that filter, and remove them easily later.  This is what Path was trying to do, but there’s no business model in it for a startup like Path.  With Facebook’s dominance in social media, it could and should value user satisfaction more than it does.

Right now, though, the only ways to increase your satisfaction with Facebook are either to reduce your number of friends or to reduce your time on platform.

* The Third Millennial Berens Corollary to Sturgeon’s Law is that only 1/10 of 1% is truly excellent but that our signal to noise ratio makes it almost impossible to find excellence.

** This line of thinking is similar to the opportunity costs that Barry Schwartz discusses in his excellent 2004 book “The Paradox of Choice.”

The Problem with More: Coca-Cola, Electric Cars, Email, Facebook and Satisfaction

I Pac-Man chomp my way through many articles each week, digesting most with a tiny burp and leaving them to the brass-knuckled mercies of memory.  Yet two recent pieces have stuck with me: Matt Richtel’s October 10th piece in the New York Times, “In California, Electric Cars Outpace Plugs, and Sparks Fly” and Roberto A. Ferdman’s October 5th piece in the Washington Post, “How Coca-Cola has tricked everyone into drinking so much of it.

Both articles deserve close reading, but in the interests of your time, dear reader, the quick summaries are 1) in California there are now orders of magnitude more electric cars than there are charging stations, which is provoking people to behave selfishly when they need to power up their cars, and 2) an interview with the ironically-named Marion Nestle (author of a book called “Soda Politics”) charts the “valiant and deplorable” lengths to which Coca-Cola has gone to habituate people to drinking evermore of its unhealthy product over many decades and compares the company’s efforts to those of Big Tobacco.

The collision of these two articles in my mind led me to a mild, week-long experiment, which is that I don’t check Facebook or email until after 10:00am each day.  This piece is my attempt to unpack the “how the heck did I get to there from that?” of this experiment.

On the electric car dilemma, this is a crystalline example of how technology and behavior evolve in a complex dance: Darwin’s finches got nothing on Tesla, Leaf and Volt.  Since electric cars are getting on the road at a slower pace than people sign up for yet another social media service, we can get a clear look at how behavior changes over a longer period of time: oversupply of electric cars plus undersupply of charging stations equals conflict. 

<Digression> Before I go any further, confession time: if there were a support group called Facebook  Anonymous for people who can’t stop checking Facebook I probably wouldn’t join because I’d be too busy checking Facebook. 

I love Facebook.  The problem is that I love Facebook more than Facebook loves me.

I neither want to dignify my lack of social media self-discipline with the word “addiction” nor trivialize the piercing challenges addicts have with alcohol and drugs, so let me simply say that I am on Facebook (oy it’s a lot), Twitter (at least daily, way more at conferences), Google+ (yup, I’m the one) and LinkedIn (do you like me? do you like me?) too much for my own comfort and productivity when I take time out to think about it. 

The corollary behavior pattern is my over-involvement with email, which feels less like addiction and more like a punishment from God, but that’s probably just because email has been around longer and has therefore normalized itself in my sense of how the world works (see the Douglas Adams bit towards the end of this piece for more on how that works). </Digression>

Both articles are examples of The Problem with More

We want more electric cars on the road, but we didn’t think it through and now we have people arguing about who gets what access to which charging station.  It hasn’t gotten to the fight-fights-and-riots point yet, but I inferred a new form of pre-road rage is coming to California, from whence so many other technological innovations of dubious merit hail.

Coca-Cola’s profitability depends on getting more people to drink more of its products every year, and now, Marion Nestle says, a conservative estimate is that 50% of the US population drinks more than one can of soda per day, with many of those folks drinking much more— four cans plus.  Coca-Cola denies any link between its product and an obesity epidemic.

More isn’t the opposite of less: it’s the opposite of enough.

We humans, Americans particularly, have trouble with enough.  We want to earn more, go to the gym or spin class more, read more, spend more time on our hobbies, see our friends and families more, parent our children more, finish that project in the garage, be better about keeping up with the news of the world, bake bread from scratch, make our own clothes and brew our own beer.  We also want to do better at the office, get that promotion, give that conference paper, go to that networking event and turn every meeting and interaction into a miracle of productivity that leaves our colleagues breathless with gratitude because now they can go back to playing with their iPhones. 

This is where the myth of multitasking comes from.

Corporations have an even harder time — way harder — with enough.  Public companies need more, lots more, to satisfy investors.  Companies that are OK with enough get trivialized as “lifestyle businesses.”

We humans want more, so we squeeze more stuff in — both new stuff and more of the old stuff; corporations need us to squeeze more stuff in — preferably their stuff — in order to make the Street happy.

When corporations like Coca-Cola run up against limits in their customer base — that is, 50% of Americans do not drink soda — they need to get their existing customers, the other 50%, to drink more soda even though it’s unhealthy.  Faced with this question, soft drink companies dodge either by focusing on how people don’t exercise enough or on how they have other products (diet soda, water) that aren’t as bad for people— this is a “guns don’t kill people, bullets do” argument.

It’s when we come to the issue of satisfaction that things get murky.  If you know a little Latin, then you’ll already know that the word “satisfaction” literally means “to be made enough” from the combination of satis and facere

Our workaday understanding of satisfaction is the “Ahhhh” of the first gulp of an icy Coke on a blistering summer day when you’ve just finished doing something sweaty.  This is a transfixing moment: time stops.  You enter what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls a flow state where your attention is 100% focused.  For that one moment you need nothing else: you have been made enough.

Coca-Cola has built its formidable brand upon the rock of moments like this one.  Just think about its current slogan: “Open Happiness.”

The problem is that there aren’t enough transfixing moments for Coca-Cola to be profitable, so the company sells satisfaction but then delivers routine, it promises magic but provides habit bordering on addiction.  What psychologists call a Hedonic Set Point tells us that the second or third or fourth or fifth can of Coke can’t possibly create a moment like the first, but once you’re in the habit of associating thirst with Coke (rather than, say, water), you’re unlikely to stop.

Which brings me back to Facebook.  When we dive or dip into Facebook the potential for magic always exists: the old friend’s new baby, the new friend’s witty comparison, the frisson when you realize that two people whom you know also know each other.  But more often than not it’s click-bait, bad jokes or that day’s lunch pic by the perennial over-poster.

I have 1,528 connections on Facebook.  I’m an overachiever since the average number, last I heard, was 140 (close to Dunbar’s number), but even though I have 10X the usual number of connections Facebook needs me to add even more in order to increase the number of interactions happening within its user base, so it can sell more advertisements. 

As with Coke, more Facebook “friends” does not mean that I’m going to find my experience with Facebook more satisfying— it just means that there will be more of it.  There are enough magical Facebook moments to keep people coming back, but paradoxically the more you come back the less often you’ll find that magical moment because Facebook has become routine. 

<Digression> There’s another Facebook Problem with More, which is that Facebook presumes that any interaction I have with any person is an indelible mark of my interest in that person’s actions.  If my friend Tim posts a cute picture of his dog, and if I make the mistake of interacting with that picture (a like, a comment), then the all-seeing Facebook algorithm concludes that I want to see more stuff from Tim. 

But what if I’ve scratched my Tim itch?  What if I have satisfied my craving for information about Tim for the next few months and no longer feel the need to see his dog posts?  This never occurs to Facebook, which means that I then have to dive into the settings on one of Tim’s posts to turn down the gain or stop following him altogether, which is a homework assignment for I class I never decided to take. </Digression>

I’m confident that the satisfaction shape of having a lot of Facebook friends looks like this:


So the more friends you have the less satisfaction you’ll feel, and you’ll work harder to get those moments of satisfaction… which benefits Facebook on the surface because it generates more advertising inventory for them but at a plummeting quality.

Since I’m polite, I don’t want to unfriend a bunch of people on Facebook.  And since Facebook’s filters suck ass — I can’t intuitively say, “more from THOSE 150 people, please” — the only thing I can do is limit the time I spend on Facebook in the hope that by making it less a chronic part of my day I’ll be able to notice more when the magic moments occur, and incidentally I’ll have more time to focus on my new bread-making hobby. 

Hence this week’s experiment. 

A closing irony: In addition to publishing this on my blog and on Medium, I’ll also post a link on Facebook and Twitter.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web isn’t terrible, isn’t great

Over the weekend I zoomed through the new David Lagercrantz novel, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, which is the not-written-by-Stieg-Larsson sequel to the Millenium Trilogy that started with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

I’ll start with some thoughts about the book itself — so you have your spoiler alert — but I’ll wind up this post with some thoughts about the the aesthetics of ephemera and vice versa.

About the novel: It’s a good gulp-it-down novel, quickly plotted and dark in similar ways to the Larsson books (although not nearly as dark as Larsson’s third, which sucked the light of out the room where I was reading it).

But the book feels unnecessary. After the riveting revelations about Salander’s childhood in Larsson’s third book, The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, there’s not much left to say about Lisbeth Salander’s past, and any changes to the character in service of a future would risk betraying the readers who want more of the same. This is a terrible trap for a novelist.

Lagercrantz couldn’t escape the trap, so he has reduced Salander to a series of narrative functions rather like what happened to Sherlock Holmes in the Holmes stories written by others after Conan Doyle’s death (and there are thousands). In most of these stories, Holmes is a pastiche of narrative-advancing tricks (he deduces that Watson been to the horse races from a bit of straw on Watson’s shoe, causing gullible Watson always to be astounded yet again) rather than a character that interests the reader himself. With the exception of Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven Percent Solution, talking about Holmes as a character is like talking about Batman’s utility belt as a character— it’s not all that useful.

In the post-Larsson world of the Lagercrantz, Salander is an angry superhero, superhacker, protector of innocents who bursts onto the scene regularly, makes things happen, and then disappears. 

The Girl in the Spider’s Web is a misleading title for this book, since Salander is never caught, never motionless, never the prey despite being hunted— she is the predator.

I don’t regret reading the book — despite my sense that it serves the publisher’s greed rather than the readers’ need — but I probably won’t read the next one, and I’m sure there will be a next one.

The aesthetics of ephemera: Perhaps more importantly, I don’t regret reading the book last weekend— my satisfaction index will never be higher than just a few days after its August 27th release date. The longer I wait, the more information from the world will trickle in to spoil my fun.

This isn’t just true of The Girl in the Spider’s Web, of course. The reason that a movie’s lifetime economic success usually is a function of its opening weekend is that the water cooler conversation about a movie is at its frothiest after opening weekend. 

I love to see movies (particularly popcorn movies) opening weekend — although I rarely get to do so — because that’s the moment of maximum potential for having that explosive moment of connection in my own head to other movies and works, and it’s also the moment of maximum potential for having fun discussions with other people about the movie and its broader context.

But the longer I wait to see a movie, the more likely I’ll hear something about it that will diminish that connection-making pleasure for me. I’m not talking about classic “the girl’s really a guy!” plot spoilers, although those suck. Instead, I’m talking about those trying-to-be-helpful hints that come from people who’ve already seen the movie. “I’m not going to tell you anything, but you have to stay all the way to the end of the credits: it’s really cool!”

This is a horrible thing to say to somebody going to a movie you’ve already seen since it means that the viewer will detach from the climax of the movie early, in order to focus on the extra coming after the end.

The ephemera of aesthetics: We don’t have good language to talk about this phenomenon, the very short half-life of the water cooler effect on how we experience culture.

We’re good at talking about the work itself, the creation of the work, the background and previous efforts of the creators of the work.

But we’re bad at talking about how we are a moving point in time relative to the work, and how satisfaction decays with some works but deepens with others.

For example, I’ve been a fan of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series for about 20 years now, and they merit re-reading. I see new things in the characters, the plot, and her writing when I revisit the books. Although Bujold’s books are masterfully plotted, I can’t reduce my satisfaction with her books to the plot, and this is good.

Lagercrantz’s book is entirely about the plot: at the end of the story all the energy has been released from the plot, a bunch of the characters are either dead or narratively exhausted, and Salander will need to be released into a new situation to exercise her narrative function.

Some sorts of aesthetic experience, then, are fragile in Nasism Nicholas Taleb’s notion of fragility and antifragility.

Plot is fragile. Character is not inherently, but for a character to be antifragile that character must exceed the needs of the plot in which the character embedded. 

Ironically, inside the world of The Girl in the Spider’s Web Lisbeth Salander is indestructible: nothing stops her. Meanwhile, for this reader the experience of reading about Salander’s latest adventure is soap bubble ephemeral.


[Cross posted with Medium.]

High Fidelity, Pillow Talk, The Music Man: on technology and on ideas that rhyme, but then don’t

Hey, this looks like a piece about old movies, and it starts out that way, but it’s also about how to think about technology. I even throw in a little Douglas Adams at the end.

Ideas can rhyme like words do. When words rhyme, the rhyme helps us position ourselves inside a poem: we know we’re at the end of a line when the rhyme happens. Rhyme’s spatial nature makes us pay attention to a similarity that doesn’t mean anything most of the time. “Bed” always sounds like “dead,” but we only notice — we only think it means something — when and where both words come at the end of nearby lines in a poem or song in a rhyme.

When ideas rhyme, the rhyme helps us position ourselves inside a story, fictional or non-fictional. Ideas that rhyme* are building blocks for analogies.

Here’s what I mean: one night some years back on a driving trip with my then-eight-year-old daughter we took in a show at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The classical plays were all too dark (Macbeth) or esoteric (King Henry VIII) to choose as a little girl’s first introduction to Shakespeare, so instead I took her to The Music Man thinking that this 1950s musical set in the early years of the twentieth century would be more approachable for my twenty-first century kid.

Boy, was I wrong. The gap separating her everyday experience from The Music Man was no narrower than if I’d shown her the Thane of Cawdor’s ancient Scotland. River City, Iowa, after all, is so sleepy that when the Wells Fargo wagon arrives the whole town breaks into celebratory song. Try that today and the UPS guy will floor the big brown truck.

Little about The Music Man resonated with H since the plot depends on information paucity: con artist Harold Hill is able to fleece town after town because the towns don’t have ready communications with each other; Marian the Librarian has to send a letter to Gary, Indiana to determine when the music conservatory there was founded… and then she waits for most of the play to get the answer. There may be trouble in River City, but there’s not a lot of information.

In contrast, at eight H had grown up in an information superabundant world with Google, email, hundreds of TV channels, infinite options online, books aplenty, music streaming from every direction, and frequent Amazon deliveries to our doorstep although not yet by drone. Today, with mobile and social media there’s even more.

When you’re working with ideas that rhyme you can understand stories that don’t bear a lot of resemblance to your own life because there are structures buried inside the narrative ecosystems that look a lot like the structures buried inside your own life.

When we saw The Music Man, H had just finished second grade and was about to enter third. The main reason H could appreciate The Music Man at all, which she did, was that going to elementary, middle and high school today is a lot like River City. The shapes of the experiences rhyme with each other: the same people milling about the same claustrophobia-inducing place doing the same stuff day after day… just with the addition of a barbershop quartet.

What interests me is when ideas stop rhyming. As a researcher and futurist, I’m always on the lookout for cultural narratives that stop making easy sense as everyday life changes. I use those transitions to dig into how our lives are changing as technology and culture do an evolutionary dance with each other. 

This isn’t just a matter of having lived your entire life with Batman as a dark movie character (Christian Bale) rather than the sunny TV one (Adam West) your parents remember with happy smiles— the sort of thing that the Beloit Mindset list captures each fall. My kids have no trouble watching the 1960s Batman TV show with me and understanding it, even though they think I’m ridiculous for loving it.

Instead, I’m talking about stories that dwindle into inaccessibility because the audience no longer shares enough context with the story to understand it without footnotes— like trying to rhyme “bed” and “guava.” Indeed, the very presence of footnotes is a clear sign that a story belongs to the past more than the present.**

Pillow Talk is a perfect example of a movie that no longer makes easy sense and that stopped making sense over the last decade. The idea that stopped rhyming is the party line, where multiple houses or apartments share a single phone line because there were more people who wanted phone lines than the phone company had yet built.

Even back in 1959, when Pillow Talk (the first Rock Hudson and Doris Day movie) hit the theaters, party lines were already on their way out.

But growing up in the 1980s the absence of party lines in my parents’ house didn’t stop me from understanding the movie. Pillow Talk made sense because I had to deal with the similarly-shaped frustration of never being able to have a private conversation. It was impossible to chat with a girlfriend and not have other people in both houses picking up the handsets every few minutes. So Pillow Talk was just like my house, only Jan Morrow (the Doris Day character) had to deal with complete strangers interrupting instead of clueless parents and malicious little brothers. The shapes of the experiences rhymed.

But those ideas no longer rhyme today.

It would never occur to now-teenaged H to use the house line to call her friends, and even if she did the likelihood of somebody else picking up the seldom-used house line is small. H has an iPhone, and since she doesn’t know any of her friends’ numbers by heart she would have to look at the address book in her iPhone in order to punch the number into the house line, which is absurd. Moreover, H wouldn’t want to use her mouth to make noises to communicate with her friends in the first place: that’s what texting, Instagram and Snapchat are for. If H does want to chat in real time, she’s more likely to use FaceTime or Skype.

The telephone is for talking with grandparents.

The plot of Pillow Talk revolves around technology barriers, but the technology in question no longer plays a role in the lives of children today. Universal Pictures couldn’t remake Pillow Talk unless the studio decided to set it in the same period when it was written, which would be pointless.

Which brings me to my disheartening realization last night after I stumbled across High Fidelity on Netflix and sank with a happy smile into that delightfully written, perfectly-directed, amazingly-cast film. (And is there a better soundtrack in movies?) 

The realization? My kids won’t understand High Fidelity. Oh, I’ll try to show it to them, and perhaps the charming performances will suck them in, but it’s unlikely because the ideas don’t rhyme.

Want to know why? Just look at this timeline…

1995: the novel High Fidelity by Nick Hornby hits bookstore shelves, which means it had been completed sometime in 1993 or 1994. It’s a love story set in a world of used vinyl record shops run by monkish musical obsessives. It is a world that is about to die because…

1997: the first MP3 player is released.

1999: Napster makes music sharing (and piracy) effortless, and shifts the musical unit of measurement from the physical album or CD to the individual song in MP3 form.

2000: High Fidelity the movie, starring John Cusack, comes out; Pandora Radio launches, bringing streaming radio and music discovery to the world.

2001: Apple iTunes and Apple’s first generation iPod come out, taking MP3s mainstream; H is born.

Some of the key moments in the movie (ahem, spoiler alert… although if you haven’t seen the movie already then how did you make it this far in this post?) don’t make easy sense if you’ve grown up with today’s technology.

Sure, there are still record stores out there that cater to music snobs, but not many, not one in every neighborhood and every shopping mall— and rumbling around the record store with your friends on a Saturday afternoon isn’t an activity for today’s teens the way is was for previous generations. 

In High Fidelity, as they hang around Championship Records waiting for customers to stumble in, many of the interactions among Rob, Dick and Barry concern musical trivia: which group first performed which song, who did what on which record. Today, Google would answer all such questions.

Rob using a stack of quarters to call his ex Laura over and over again from a rain-drenched phone booth outside her new beau Ray’s apartment is dramatic and emotionally charged. Today, good luck finding a pay phone. Rob would simply hit redial on his smart phone while sitting at Starbucks.

Rob making mix tapes for Caroline the music reporter and for Laura were time-draining labors of love in the 1990s, but today the process is instantaneous and not impactful. “Here, I spent hours selecting, organizing and recording this tape for you” becomes, “here, I spent minutes selecting and seconds creating this Spotify playlist for you: it’ll take you longer to listen to it than it took me to make it. Have fun!”

In the vinyl days, when you heard about a new band or a new song you had to find a disc-shaped object somewhere, either in a store or at a friend’s house. When cassettes came along you could copy things, but you could only do it in real time, which was a drag.

Teens today love music just as much as they ever have, but their musical challenges are about filtering rather than access. There’s instant streaming for just about everything, but the challenge is figuring out what to listen to, whether it’s free and where to find the best deal if it isn’t.

High Fidelity — a movie that, sigh, I still think of as relatively new — is more distant from my kids’ automatically understandable experience than The Music Man. How weird.

Watching stories move into the rear-view mirror — when ideas stop rhyming — is the flip side of watching technologies move into the unremarkable mainstream of our everyday lives where of course I can reach my wife with a stupid question about where the charger for the laptop might be hiding because she has an iPhone and I haven’t thought to look under the bed.

Douglas Adams, in a 1999 blog post called “How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet” articulated this brilliantly:

I suppose earlier generations had to sit through all this huffing and puffing with the invention of television, the phone, cinema, radio, the car, the bicycle, printing, the wheel and so on, but you would think we would learn the way these things work, which is this:

1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;

2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.

With rhyming ideas, we can tweak this into a slightly different three-fold story:

1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;

2) anything that stops being relevant to everyday life between then and before you turn thirty (fax machines, type writers, cameras, VCRs) takes up space in your garage and makes you smile with nostalgia when you run across it;

3) anything that stops being relevant after you’re thirty is a painful sign that you’re going to die sooner than you want to and that your kids don’t appreciate how good they have it until you gradually realize that this is just like when you rolled your eyes at your own parents when they nattered on about black and white TV and wringing out laundry and mixing food dye into margarine and that sort of thing so just relax because it happens to everybody.

Still, though…High Fidelity is a terrific movie. Too bad my kids won’t get it.

[Cross-posted on Medium.]

Miscellaneous notes:

* My notion of “ideas that rhyme” is similar to but not identical with my old teacher Stephen Booth’s description of “ideational rhyme,” which he works out in detail in his edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

** Simply putting the words “bed” and “guava” into proximity with each other might provoke readers with too much time on their hands to think about how these two things actually do go together. If this is the case, then for heaven’s sake please share with me how you think they go together because that sounds fascinating, and then please go read Donald Davidson’s 1978 essay “What Metaphors Mean” because it describes how our minds creates meanings out of these sorts of comparisons rather than discovering meanings that are already there.

Stewart, Cosby, Williams: Tough Times for U.S. Comedy

Take heed, sirrah, the whip.
   King Lear to his Fool

Jon Stewart’s farewell episode of The Daily Show last night proved joyful rather than sad as dozens of people whose careers took root and bloomed under Stewart’s watch turned up to celebrate and — despite his resistance — to thank him.

For the under-30 crowd, last night was their May 22, 1992: Johnny Carson’s last episode of The Tonight Show.  Unlike Carson, Stewart has no plans to disappear from public life; yet more dissimilar Stewart is universally reported to be a great guy rather than a jerk.

No reasonable person can fault Stewart for wanting to do something new after brilliant 17 years, but it’s a stabbing loss to nightly political commentary and to comedy. 

Funny people abound in U.S. comedy — and I’ve now reached my tautology quotient for the day — but in different ways we’ve lost three icons in the last year, Stewart the most recent.

Bill Cosby was the second: like Stewart, Cosby is alive, but since Hannibal Buress put the spotlight on Cosby’s history of sexual assault last fall all the joy Cosby had brought to us over the decades tastes sour.  Don’t get me wrong: Buress was right to do it, and it’s a shame on us all that until a man said it nobody took alleged attacks on women seriously. 

And I mourn the loss of the joy.  For most of my life, Cosby’s voice hasn’t been far from my inner ear.  Just this morning I found myself thinking about an early routine called “Roland and the Roller Coaster,” but then frowned as all the stories of his assaults on women rolled into my mind. 

I’ve heard stories of Cosby’s infidelity since I was in high school.  One of the dubious privileges of growing up in L.A. is knowing a lot of celebrities and their kids.  I was in a play with the kid of a famous woman who knew Cosby well.  I don’t know how it came up — I must have been merrily quoting a Cosby routine — but the kid said, “you know he cheats on his wife all the time, right?”  I don’t remember having an intelligent response beyond, “oh.”  Even then, infidelity was something that struck me as being an issue among the people directly involved rather than the public’s business. 

I remained a Cosby fan, and his observations intertwined with those of George Carlin as a running commentary in my head.

Now when I hear Cosby’s voice in my head I change the mental channel with a flinch.

It’s the second time that I’ve found myself dancing across the minefield of my own responses to Cosby: the first was after the mysterious 1997 murder of his son Ennis just a couple of miles from where I grew up.  After that, I couldn’t listen to any of Cosby’s routines about his kids, and particularly his son, without sadness. 

But I still listened. 

Not anymore.

Next week bring the one-year anniversary of the third and most grievous loss, the suicide of Robin Williams. 

A friend stumbled across LIFE magazine’s tribute issue to Williams at a garage sale and bought it for me, as she knew I was a huge fan.  I’ll read it on Tuesday, on the anniversary of his death, but I haven’t been able to open it yet.

I had the privilege of seeing the incandescent Robin Williams perform live onstage three times and saw or listened to him numberless other times.  The speed and depth and genius of his wit will never leave me.  His 2001 appearance on Inside the Actor’s Studio with James Lipton was the most astonishing display of mental gymnastics that I’ve ever seen.

Darkness always lives in comedy, and when the light is that bright the simple math of it says that shadows must go deep.  I wish I could have done something for him, even though we never met.  I understand this but I still can’t accept it: the funniest man in the world killed himself.

Dustin Hoffman captured the unfathomable, unacceptable, incomprehensible nature of Willams’ suicide in an unguarded moment during an onstage interview with Alec Baldwin that later became a June episode of Baldwin’s wonderful Here’s the Thing podcast.  Hoffman was talking about Lenny Bruce, and how Bruce didn’t prepare set material.  The only other person Hoffman could think of who was like Bruce was Robin Williams.  As he said the name, Hoffman broke down in a sob that hit him like a lightning bolt from a clear blue sky, and it took him several seconds to collect himself.  I cried too.

Good luck, Jon Stewart, and thanks. 

Bill Cosby, I wish you were as good a man as you are a funny man, although that’s a tall order.

Robin Williams, rest in peace.  You deserve it.

[Cross-posted on Medium.]

Michael Wolff’s Just-Released Book is a Puzzler

The dust-jacket of Television is the New Television: the Unexpected Triumph of Old Media in the Digital Age describes Wolff as a man with unparalleled access to powerful figures in media and the book as something that will change the reader’s thinking. Moreover, it frames Wolff as an archly bitchy writer with enemies who would like nothing better than to see his vital organs recycled to serve the more deserving. 

None of this is the case.

The vast majority of Wolff’s writing is a sober and thoughtful (if limited and unsupported) account of the power dynamics in media at the moment.  It’s a useful snapshot of what’s happening right now, which reduced to tweet-length is “Print and digital media companies are all turning to video to create brand advertising-worthy products, but TV is hard to make on the cheap.”  This is not an insight that changes my thinking.

The book has mild flights of interesting speculation. For example, without sports digital media companies like Google or Facebook will never be able truly to compete with broadcast and cable companies, but the digital companies have neither the stomach to write the big checks nor the narrative skills to create the product the right way if they did.  However, I didn’t take a single note or make a single check mark in the margin as I was reading (rare for me). 

The occasional outbursts of temper — heralded on the back cover as one of the book’s guilty pleasures — are mean-spirited cheap shots rather than Oscar Wildean performances of acerbic wit.  Rather than a frightened editor red-lining a bad-manners manifesto to prevent riots, as I read the book I imagined a desperate editor pleading with Wolff to make it just a little bit more cruel, please, Michael, whereupon Wolff, with a fatigued eye roll, would throw in something nasty like adding a dash of salt to soup.

Nonetheless, if you work in the digital media industry, then you should read Wolff’s book immediately for two reasons.

First, old media people — who long for less-complicated days before the arrival of the internet with its staggering complexity (and, yes, these folks are still around and in positions of power) — will wave this book about with a dash of glee and a little Rumpelstiltskin dance.  The book panders to the vanity of television people in a way that should make the team at Merriam Webster update their definition of “sycophancy” with a new example.

Second, if you wait even a week the book will be less enjoyable because it will be dated.  Ben Jonson eulogized his pal Shakespeare by saying Shakespeare was not for an age but for all time.  Wolff’s book is of the moment— just the moment.  With each passing development — such as 1) when the government did not allow the merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable or 2) Verizon’s acquisition of AOL, both of which happened as the book was already in press — the picture it paints of the media world becomes more stale.  This book will be on the remainder shelf soon, by which point it won’t be worth reading.

It’s a quick read, and one that pulls a bunch of things together neatly.  Anybody working at the collisions of video and the internet and advertising will find it handy. 

But it’s in the bubble, parochial and like that famous “View of the World from 9th Avenue ” New Yorker cover.  Wolff’s imagination of what is important lacks scope: the internet isn’t important in the history of our species because of what it does for media but because of how it empowers people to communicate with each other— even if what they talk about tends to be television. 

Speaking as a researcher, editor, and writer I have to end this note with frustration.  Wolff is a columnist, not a journalist.  He cites not a single source, gets not a single person on the record, and has not a single footnote directing the reader to where his many assertions can be supported.  Television is the New Television is a collection of long columns: occasionally insightful, informed by numberless conversations with figures in the community, and with a short half life.

[Cross-posted on Medium.]

Notes from Bergen 4: the world is less virtual than we think

It’s 8:30am as I begin writing this post.  Just minutes ago Kathi and our son trotted off towards the University of Bergen, where she’ll drop him off for his last day at Nygard Skole — the Norwegian immersion program he’s attended this year — before going to her last day at the University.  My daughter shook a leg in a perpendicular direction to her last day at Rothaugen, where she has been in an immersion class embedded in the local junior high. 

Our adventure is ending: my kids have been in 10 countries in 10 months: USA, Norway, Netherlands, Poland, France, England, Scotland, Denmark, Germany and Italy.  They are closer to being world citizens now, and the travel bug has bitten them.  I wait with fascination to watch them readjust to life in our small town south of Portland after being able to jet off to Rome for a weekend.

Now, I sit on the couch with the kitchen ravages of the morning waiting for me to order them, after which I’ll return to packing, organizing, scanning, pruning and getting ready for our crack-of-dawn departure back to America on Monday. 

Home.  We’re going home, first to visit family and friends in Los Angeles, then up to Portland a few days later.

Already, our 4-story, narrow, weird little 400-year-old house doesn’t look like us.  The books are gone, and a Berens without books is extraterrestrial.  We shipped six boxes yesterday, and this was after I schlepped an extra suitcase and bag of books to New York  with me a few weeks ago on a business trip to UPS westward at lower cost.

Other changes: the quintet resumed being our standard Berens quartet when Jordan, our beloved nanny who also works for me in the business, left on her European walkabout while I was in New York.  The house got a bit quieter. 

We measure in wake-ups: how many more times will we wake up in Bergen?  The answer as of now is three: Saturday, Sunday, Monday wheels up.  Our year-long presence falls from the house fast as an oak shakes off last leaves at autumn’s end… even though Norwegian summer is just starting to peek through the clouds here.

We have so much stuff, even in this pared down year.  We’ll travel to Los Angeles with straining duffles and carryons.  Despite buying digital books and music, being careful about what we acquire, scanning papers and then disposing of the originals… we’re still fleshy beings in a world of plastic, cloth, wood and concrete.  Friends are adopting our houseplants.  We’ve given outgrown clothes to charity.  Still we have to manage things.  Many things.

So the world is a lot less virtual than we think it is, and not just in the sense of “gosh, what a lot of stuff we have.”

When we moved to Bergen back in August I knew I’d be far away, but I thought that with Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn and Skype and Google Hangouts and email and a Vonage/VOIP phone things would chug along. 

In many ways, they did.  Facebook and Twitter helped me to keep an ambient awareness of what was happening with friends, and vice versa.  Many people have told me how they’ve enjoyed watching our European adventure unfold in picture after picture on Facebook.

But a chasm lies between recent-time Facebook updates and live conversations with family, friends and business associates.  Distance shatters immediacy, and the nine-hour time difference between Bergen and Portland is even harder to bridge than the geography.  Numberless times I’ve had to sacrifice either a meeting with business partners or dinner with the family because 9am in California is 6pm in Norway.  The numbers never added up.

After a while, I got used to the distance and forgot how different live could be.

Then, in May, I went back to Brown University for the first time for my 25th college reunion to renew acquaintance with classmates and campus.  I stayed in the dorms, which are no habitat for middle-aged bodies— each morning, the bleary shuffle from dorm to bathroom by coffee-deprived grownups (myself included) was near-slapstick comedy.  We all wandered the campus in endless combinations, trading lifetimes of anecdotes.  Often, I couldn’t recognize an older friend by looking, but when we walked, when the unchanged voice came from next to me, the years fell away.

After the reunion I went down to New York for a week of conferences.  Handshakes, hugs, smiles, meals shared, beer bottles clinked, knowing expressions traded, walks in the June sunlight: these things change, deepen and amplify interaction more than mere adverbs can capture.    

I shouldn’t be surprised by this: I’ve spent more than a decade programming conferences that exist because real relationships require real presence to start, bloom and mature.  The highest bandwidth signal we have is when we’re sitting across a table from others, feeling their bodies shift the air, hearing the crinkle of their clothes as well as their voices, noticing the new haircut, new age line, new cadence or habitual word choice.  Those things aren’t noise: they compose a richer signal.

The world is a lot less virtual than we think.

The dishes await, as do more boxes.  Tonight, friends visit.  More packing over the weekend, a last trek up Fløyen to say goodbye to the fjord on Sunday. 

You only know it’s an adventure when it’s over.

We’re going home.

Daniel Kahneman kicks my ass, or Reading Fast and Slow

Like Moe, the schoolyard bully in Calvin & Hobbes, Daniel Kahneman has taken away my cognitive lunch money for the last four years. 


To be clear, it isn’t the 81-year-old Nobel laureate himself: it’s his best-selling 2011 book Thinking Fast and Slow.

Let me back up.

I read fiction quickly, sometimes gobbling up a novel during a plane ride or a rare quiet evening. Nonfiction, though, goes down more slowly. Even delightfully-well-written nonfiction books (Adam Grant’s Give & Take, anything by Steven Johnson) go into my mind with kidney-stone-passing-out perceived slowness when compared to, say, the latest by Neil Gaiman.  I inhaled Nick Hornby’s Funny Girl so quickly last month that I belched afterward, metaphorically, of course.

But I can speed up my non-fiction reading rate by having a project at hand.  Right now, for example, I’m working on two different, oddly-echoing projects: the first is about the future of technology and user behavior and the second is about Shakespeare as a business innovator.  These projects are my cognitive rudders, helping me sail through non-fiction arguments and implications at higher speed, evaluating their relevance to my own work while making notes about interesting other bits for later.

So getting back to Kahneman, this is my third attempt at Thinking Fast and Slow, his remarkable book about how humans are not nearly as rational as we think we are when it comes to making all sorts of judgments and decisions.  I’m about to start the fifth and last section, and this progress is because of the projects.

My first try was on the iPad, but what that copy of the book taught me was that I read, metabolize and retain nonfiction better on paper, with pencil in hand, underlining, annotating and making notes in the back of the book.  If I let you borrow a copy of any of my nonfiction books, then I must trust you a lot because I’m giving you a voyeuristic window into my mind, and you’ll see any number of checks, asterisks, “yeahs,” and longer marginalia.

Susan MacDermid, my then-boss and now-business partner, then gave me a hardback copy of Thinking Fast and Slow.  I attacked it, pencil in hand, but that was around the same time that I was jetting all over the planet on business, and the hardback copy was greedily taking up most of my precious briefcase space, so I stopped lugging it around.

Over the last few weeks, though, my thoughts have returned to Kahneman time and again as my two projects have come into focus, so on a weekend jaunt to England from Norway I picked up a paperback copy at Waterstone’s and dug back in. 

Now, with projects in mind, I’m now able to place Kahneman’s arguments in context, tweak them into different directions, and think through what the book isn’t talking about as well as what it does claim.

This is great news, and a good rule-of-thumb for difficult books in the future: projects speed progress.

On the other hand, it’s bad news for when I’m between projects, as general reading without the frame of what I’m trying to do with it will slow back down to my normal molasses pace with nonfiction.

I expect I’ll finish Thinking Fast and Slow tomorrow.  It’s a magnificent book— and also laugh out loud funny in many places.  It has been a pleasure and a privilege to read it, and I expect to read it again. 

With luck, the next reading won’t take four years.

[Cross-posted with Medium.]