CES 2017 for Brands: a Skeptical Review

Most years at CES you can spot me leading tours, and most years after the show is over I sit down to ponder what I made of it all, what the pundits got right and what they missed.

While in past years I’ve given presentations on these things, this year I wrote it up for my friends at The Ascendant Network– private to their online group until today.

You can find the PDF here.

My 2016 in Books

This is the third year that I’ve kept a running list of every book that I’ve completed for the first time and then shared that list here as the first thing I write on either the last day of the old year or the first of the new.

You can see the 2015 list here and the 2014 list here, and as always I want to thank my friend David Daniel for the inspiration to do this.

A lot of folks in my line of work spend the waning moments of one year gazing out with predictions about the months ahead, and I’ll be doing plenty of that soon — most publicly at CES where I’ll be leading tours next week. However, I’m not only a futurist, I’m also a historian — a “futuristorian” — and so I look back as well as forward.

Looking back on what I read and when I read it helps me to track each year’s intellectual journey similar to how looking back at old emails or social media posts or journal entries can help me to pinpoint what I was thinking, when and often where.  This year, one change from previous years is that I read more physical books than e-books.

So much of the recent news and social media torrent has been about how 2016 was a crappy year (John Oliver did a great job starting this meme).  I prefer to think of it as a profound challenge, and amidst the challenges I read many wonderful books that I’m pleased to share.  One new feature: at the end I’ll list a few of the books I have on deck for the first part of 2017.

For folks who just want the list without the thoughts after reading, here’s the short version:

  1. Polanyi, Michael. The Tacit Dimension.  
  2. Bach, Rachel. Honor’s Knight. 
  3. Edgerton, David. The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900.
  4. Bujold, Lois McMaster. Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen (Vorkosigan series).  
  5. Grant, Adam. Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. 
  6. Bear, Elizabeth. Karen Memory.  
  7. Dunstall, S.K. Alliance: A Linesman Novel.
  8. Nisbett, Richard E. Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking.
  9. Rushkoff, Douglas. Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity.
  10. Connelly, Michael. Echo Park: A Harry Bosch Novel. 
  11. Connelly, Michael. The Crossing: a Bosch Novel.
  12. Sacks, Oliver. Gratitude.  
  13. Thaler, Richard H. & Cass R. Sunstein. Nudge: Improving Decisions About Heath, Wealth, and Happiness. (Revised & Expanded Edition.) 
  14. Case, Steve. The Third Wave: an Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future.
  15. Wallace, David Foster. This is Water; Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life. 
  16. Bujold, Lois McMaster. Penric & the Shaman.
  17. Sennett, Richard. The Craftsman. 
  18. Riordan, Rick. Blood of Olympus.
  19. Levitin, Daniel J. The Organized Mind. 
  20. Lee, Sharon & Steve Miller. Alliance of Equals (Liaden Universe.) 
  21. Riordan, Rick. The Trials of Apollo: Book One, The Hidden Oracle.
  22. Vance, J.D. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.  
  23. Shafer, David. Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot: A Novel.
  24. Chiang, Ted. Stories of Your Life and Others.
  25. Bujold, Lois McMaster. Penric’s Mission. 
  26. Connelly, Michael. The Wrong Side of Goodbye: a Bosch Novel.
  27. Schwab, Klaus. The Fourth Industrial Revolution.
  28. Krasny, Michael. Let There be Laughter: A Treasury of Great Jewish Humor and What it all Means. More Than 100 of the Funniest Jewish of all Time.  
  29. Levitin, Daniel J. A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age.
  30. Lewis, Michael. The Undoing Project: a Friendship that Changed Our Minds.
  31. Sawyer, Robert J. Hominids: Volume One of The Neanderthal Parallax.
  32. Gibbs, Stuart. Spy Ski School. 
  33. Perzanowski, Aaron and Jason Schultz. The End of Ownership: Personal Property in the Digital Economy

I read fewer books in 2016 than the whopping 56 of 2015, and less fiction than usual, which shows how busy my head has been with work and other matters.

Here’s the longer version with thoughts, occasional snarky remarks and analysis:

1.  Polanyi, Michael.  The Tacit Dimension.  Finished January 1, 2016.

Polanyi was a mid-twentieth century polymath, and this brief 1966 book came out of a series of lectures at Yale in 1962. The most useful for folks in 2017 are the first two.

In “Tacit Knowing,” Polanyi talks about how we can know more than we can say, and discusses a number of psychological experiments where subjects use information that they understand tacitly but cannot explain explicitly when asked to do so.  

Tacit Knowledge is an important idea for our digital era where more and more things can be tagged, identified, tracked and known. We have ever more that we can say but not necessarily an equally speedy increase in what we can know… and vice versa.

in the second Terry lecture, “Emergence,” Polanyi extends the concept of the leap to show how concepts emerge out of hierarchies, where the emerged form cannot be anticipated from the lower form, as a set of grammatical rules cannot anticipate poetry. In this thinking, Polanyi anticipates by decades recent discussions about moving up and down technological stacks and how innovation builds on platforms.

2. Bach, Rachel.  Honor’s Knight Finished January 3, 2016.

Sequel to Fortune’s Pawn, which I read in 2014.  This would be entirely conventional space opera if the protagonist were male, but because Deviana “Devi” Morris is a woman, it’s more interesting.  Like many trilogies (e.g. “Empire Strikes Back”) this one is pure action and stops right in the middle, tantalizing the reader to go read the 3rd, which I might do if it’s in my local library, as this one was.

3. Edgerton, David.  The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900.  Finished January 25, 2016.  (While on a plane to a conference in Cincinnati.)

This fascinating book challenges innovation-centric thinking by exploring the impact of technologies in use rather than when new devices and services first come over the horizon.  “Our technological museums, with their emphasis on first design, tied to miss out on the extraordinary life stories of the objets they have” (38).

Edgerton focuses on maintenance as well as invention, highlighting how our attitudes toward technology today differ from prior eras: “In the 1920s a Ford Model T buyer ‘never regarded his purchase as a complete finished product. When you bought a Ford you figured you had a start — a vibrant, spirited framework to which could be screwed on almost limitless assortment of decorative and functional hardware’” (97). This is both similar to and different than today’s smart phones with limitless apps and customization opportunities, but few people get under the hoods of their phones and computers. In this, Edgerton’s argument reminds me of Jonathan Zittrain’s arguments about generativity in The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It.

4. Bujold, Lois McMaster. Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen (Vorkosigan series). Finished February 3, 2016.  

Anything by Bujold is a cause for celebration, and a new entry in the Vorkosigan series can provoke a Snoopy-like happy dance. Bujold is my favorite living science fiction writer, and this series is magnificent and sublime. No spoilers: ping me if you want a hint about where to jump onto this terrific ride.

5.  Grant, Adam. Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World.  Finished 2/19/16.

I loved Grant’s first book, Give and Take, and so I snapped this one up the moment I saw it.  Like the first book, Grant is a stellar writer who could have a second life writing fiction. In Originals, his insights about how things as seemingly-trivial as birth order determine choices, risk aversion and achievements later in life can cut to the bone in a spooky way. This book combines canny analysis with practical, applicable ideas: I wish it had a companion volume or app that would make some of the thinking more easily deployable… something I also think about books #8 and #29.

6. Bear, Elizabeth. Karen Memory.  Finished 3/5/16.

Pacific Northwest Steampunk.  This was genuinely interesting sci-fi that left me wanting to read more by Bear, and I hope for more from the protagonist, a prostitute with an appetite for adventure in an alternate-universe Seattle.

7. Dunstall, S.K. Alliance: A Linesman Novel. Finished March 25, 2016.

This is the second book in the Linesman series: not as good as the first because it was quieter after the sprezzatura world-building of #1.  I remembered the first well but not perfectly, which inhibited my pleasure a bit while reading the second. I look forward to reading #3, which came out when I wasn’t looking in November.

8. Nisbett, Richard E. Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking. Finished March 26, 2016.

Brilliant and useful and worth a second read as it ties into a bunch of other reading and thinking over the past couple of years.  Many psychologists perform experiments about how flawed we are as thinkers, how irrelevant facets of a story can influence our decisions, and how bad we are at making the distinction between something that is plausible (a good story) and probably (likely).  Nisbett’s “mindware” are rules and tools to help us think more effectively, or at least be aware of biases as we muddle through our lives.

9. Rushkoff, Douglas. Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity. Finished April 8, 2016.

Fascinating and important: Doug Rushkoff is one of those courageous thinkers who tackles foundational presumptions to shake our thinking into new shapes.  The foundational idea that he tackles at the core of Throwing Rocks is that corporations need to grow in order to survive. This hasn’t always been the case (nor have corporations), and the practical consequences of adopting grow-or-die as the operating system for companies is that individual liberty and prosperity becomes subservient to the health of corporations.

Speaking of companies like Uber, AirBNB, Spotify and others, Rushkoff observers “As private companies induce us to become sharers, we contribute our own cars, creativity, and couches to a sharing economy that is more extractive than it is circulatory. Our investments of time, place, and materials are exploited by those who have invested money and actually own the platforms” (218). You won’t think about Uber and the like in the same way after reading this book.

10. Connelly, Michael.  Echo Park: A Harry Bosch Novel Finished April 16, 2016.

Devoured in less than 24 hours, on a quick trip to L.A. to give a dinner keynote. This is the 12th Harry Bosch novel, published in 2006.  I haven’t been a completionist with this series, and the last one I read was The Burning Room at the end of 2014.  That leaves me with The Crossing as the most-recently published that I haven’t read…

11. Connelly, Michael. The Crossing: a Bosch Novel. Finished April 21, 2016.

The Harry Bosch novel published in November of 2016, which I got out of the library Tuesday afternoon and inhaled. This one also features Mickey Haller from the Lincoln Lawyer series, although we see the story from Bosch’s POV.  Connelly is amazing with both character and plot, hence the momentum. He’s also daring with having his main character change over time (like Lois McMaster Bujold with Miles Vorkosigan). Unlike Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, who is a bag of tics and a narrative function, Bosch changes over time. In this book, Bosch is facing his life after a second retirement from the LAPD and what to do with himself (also as an about-to-be empty nester). 

Reading these two Bosch books back to back also inspired me to watch the terrific Amazon Prime TV adaptation, Bosch.

12. Sacks, Oliver. Gratitude.  Finished 17 May, 2016.  

A little book with big ideas and emotions: it collects Sacks’ last four essays, originally published in The New York Times, written between the time he got his terminal cancer diagnosis and his death.  He was such a beautiful writer, and I’m pleased that my wife Kathi gave me this inspiring little collection for the 2015 holidays.

13. Thaler, Richard H. & Cass R. Sunstein. Nudge: Improving Decisions About Heath, Wealth, and Happiness. (Revised and Expanded Edition.) Finished May 22, 2016.

I’ve been meaning to read this book for years, and that ambition was heightened when I read Thaler’s Misbehaving memoir last year.  A brilliant book about the social context of and need for deep thinking about default assumptions for all manner of situations, as well as how to change them via gentle “nudges” rather than strong mandates. The seeming paradox of “libertarian paternalism” takes an entire book to unwind, and although sometimes it is hard going the read repays the effort.  The authors’ notion of “choice architecture” is profoundly useful, and I’ll be thinking about it a lot… in particular in the context of the connected experiences at the heart of my current work.

14. Case, Steve. The Third Wave: an Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future. Finished 31 May, 2016.

This book was frustrating to read but has stuck with me in the months since I finished it.

Here’s a transcription of a notecard I scribbled on 5/26/16: “Generally book is platitudinous —> a good keyword to describe most biz books. Not enough concrete examples when he talks about the future, although plenty of the war stories.”

The word “platitudinous” is one happy result of a so-so book. Case’s Third Wave is a powerpoint with elephantiasis— the reverse of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” that was a book masquerading as an endless powerpoint presentation. 

The other happy result of reading Case is my idea that most business books are Thneeds, from Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax… an idea that probably needs no teasing out. In Case’s case (ha), the “thneed” is the concept of “the third wave” itself, borrowed from Toffler and transmogrified into IoT.  

Two of Case’s most-useful insights are 1) that the need for infrastructure makes the third wave more similar to the internet’s first wave than to the social/mobile second wave, and 2) that third wave companies will need to partner more effectively with governments in order to succeed… unlike, say, Uber which has grown by ignoring government regulations until they get in trouble.

15. Wallace, David Foster. This is Water; Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life. Finished 31 May, 2016.

An exquisite little book, which is the slightly revised text of DFW’s famous 2005 Kenyon College commencement address. I think I read the text online once before, and/or heard the audio, but I’ve been thinking about this talk lately and ordered the hard copy on Amazon in order to get it into my head more actively.  The highest compliment that I can give this book is that I’ll have to read it again soon in order to make sure that I’m paying attention to what it asks me to attend to.  

The reason I’ve been thinking about This is Water is that the thread of some other books I’ve been consuming have been more complicated versions of this, like Douglas Rushkoff’s operating systems in Throwing Rocks.

16.  Bujold, Lois McMaster. Penric & the ShamanFinished June 28, 2016.

A brilliant novella in Bujold’s “Five Gods” universe that I bought, downloaded and inhaled in one day despite my hopes of stretching out the experience. This is fantasy rather than science fiction and the sequel to last year’s Penric’s Demon.

17.  Sennett, Richard. The Craftsman. Finished July 2, 2016.

I picked this up after my friend John Willshire talked eloquently about Sennet’s work in a presentation I admired. I couldn’t get through it the first time I tried, but the second time I got hooked and wound up filling 18 notecards with enthusiastic observations and filling the book with marginalia and underlines.  

Sennett is brilliant and insightful, and his work resonates with my thinking about connected experiences, and particularly how using tools expands both our capabilities and our individual senses, leading us into new thinking: “We want to understand how tools can more generically engage us in large intuitive leaps into the unknown” (209),

18. Riordan, Rick. Blood of Olympus. Finished July 26, 2016.

This is the final book in the second Percy Jackson series, which I read because my son wanted me to do so. Although Riordan is always good, the second series was not nearly as good as the first: there are too many characters with a dizzying, constantly-switching POV.

19. Levitin, Daniel J. The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information OverloadFinished July 26, 2016.

This is a rare exception to my “first reads only” rule, but over the summer I realized that I hadn’t retained as much of this brilliant book the first time I read it last year… perhaps because I read it on the iPad. So I bought a paperback copy and dove back in, pencil in hand and a pile of notecards on the table beside me. The book rewarded a second read just as much as a first, which is rare.

The next phase of the digital revolution is going to put immense pressure on our notions of environments, place, transcending the limits of our bodies and more: Levitin’s book has informed my thinking about these matters. Moreover, his insights about how we all have a limited amount of decision-making energy each day have changed how I approach allowing many forms of stimulation into my life, particularly in the mornings.

20. Lee, Sharon & Steve Miller. Alliance of Equals. (Liaden Universe.) Finished August 14, 2016.

The latest in the Liaden series. I had to reread the prior (Dragon in Exile), as I didn’t remember it well.  As with the last Percy Jackson book, this suffers from an oversupply of plots & POVs and characters, but at least in this case the three main plots all share a theme of transition, becoming and arrival.

21. Riordan, Rick. The Trials of Apollo: Book One, The Hidden Oracle. Finished August 22, 2016.

This is the first book in the next series in Riordan’s Greek myth universe, and the difference between Riordan writing multiple points of view and containing himself to one is profound. Here, Apollo annoys Zeus to such an extent that the Thunder God banishes Apollo to live as a mortal on Earth. The fun of the book is that Apollo is an arrogant prick, which isn’t a huge surprise after being worshipped as a deity for millennia. The narrative engine is virtually identical to that of the 1960s Marvel comic adaptation of Thor, only played for laughs.

22.  Vance, J.D. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.  Finished September 6, 2016.

This book has been a sensation, particularly around the vexing question of why middle class whites voted Republican in such overwhelming numbers in the last election despite it seeming to Democrats to be an act entirely against the self interest of those same voters.

I want to point out just two things: first, Vance never mentions President-Elect Trump by name or by direct inference, so the application to the election is more interpretive than some reviewers suggest. Second, the political application of this story is a distraction from a terrific read and a modern memoir of class that reminds me of classics like Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown and Hunger of Memory by Richard Rodriguez.

23.  Shafer, David. Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot: A Novel. Finished October 30, 2016.

My friend Ari Popper recommended this agreeable novel, which is not to be confused with the similarly-titled book that was the source for the Tina Fey movie.

Shafer’s book has a weird “this is the overture: where’s the symphony?” quality. It almost feels like a prequel written long after a novel — the start of a beloved multi-volume action series — that exists to explain to loyal readers where the protagonists originally came from… sort of like if J.K, Rowling wrote the James and Lily Potter story, where the whole point of those two characters was to get killed by Voldemort in a way that empowered Harry.  

There was an interesting container versus the content aspect to this for me: the story kept getting more compelling but I noticed (because I have a paper copy rather than on the iPad) that even though the plot was ramping up I was running out of pages. “How can he resolve all this in the short amount of time he has left?” I think that if I’d been whizzing along reading it on the iPad — and didn’t look at the “you have read X% banner on the bottom — that I’d have felt quite cheated when I slammed into that ending.  I remember this sort of thing happening to me with an Elmore Leonard novel that was one of the first things I ever read on a Kindle where the story ended abruptly even though I had a bunch of % left to read, which was because there was a free preview of another novel. At least with the Shafer book I could see it coming.

24. Chiang, Ted. Stories of Your Life and Others. Finished November 5, 2016.

There aren’t that many people who make me think, “Gosh, why don’t they write MORE?” Chiang’s astonishing collection of sci-fi short stories did just that, and I’m grateful to my friend Mike Parker for recommending the book.

The title story has now been turned into the film Arrival, which I want to see it based on the source material.  The most personally compelling story to me was “Liking What You See: A Documentary” about lookism.

25. Bujold, Lois McMaster. Penric’s Mission. Finished November 12, 2016.

Third novella in Bujold’s newest fantasy series (see #16, above), delightful.

26. Connelly, Michael. The Wrong Side of Goodbye: a Bosch Novel. Finished November 13, 2016.

More Connelly: he’s just so good.  I started the iBooks sample on the elliptical machine at the gym, went home, bought it, and then inhaled most of it that same night, finishing it the following morning. Any mystery lover shouldn’t miss these.

27.  Schwab, Klaus. The Fourth Industrial Revolution. Finished November 16, 2016.

At a conference this fall my friend Tim Murphy recommended this book.  It’s an interesting and mercifully brief “behold the future!” volume written book by the founder and head of the World Economic Forum: it provoked a long set of index card notes.

The book can be frustrating with its dearth of evocative examples, which makes imaginatively seeing what Schwab is talking about hard, but reading it catalyzed a great deal of my own thinking, and perhaps led indirectly to this recent piece.

28. Krasny, Michael. Let There be Laughter: A Treasury of Great Jewish Humor and What it all Means. More Than 100 of the Funniest Jewish Jokes of all Time.  Finished November 26, 2016.

This is a breezy read by the host of KQED’s “Forum.” In an ungenerous mood I told my parents — who lent me the book — that the commentary is so shallow that it aspires to be fatuous, which was unfair but only a little. Krasny spends so much time on self-aggrandizing anecdotes about the celebrities he knows and has interviewed that it can be annoying.  

But he does have some good jokes.

I’ve long bemoaned that 1980 and 1990s identity politics and political correctness essentially killed joke-telling as a social lubricant. For my father and grandfather jokes were the professional currency. I can only think of three friends and colleagues with whom I trade jokes, and I’m sufficiently antsy about this topic that I won’t name them. You know you are, guys.

29.  Levitin, Daniel J. A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age. Finished November 29, 2016.  

A fantastic read, one that inspired many, many notecards. More practical than his previous, brilliant book The Organized Mind (#19) and akin to Nisbett’s Mindware (#8), Levitin provides the reader with tools to evaluate information critically, not to be taken in by poor arguments, and to understand that “we didn’t evolve brains with a sufficient understanding of what randomness looks like” (163). This is a friendlier, more useful version of the work of Nassim Nicholas Taleb of Black Swan fame.

Reading books like Levitin’s can make me despair of ever thinking clearly myself, but I can at least take comfort in always making progress.

30. Lewis, Michael. The Undoing Project: a Friendship that Changed Our Minds. Finished December 10, 2016.

Magnificent. As with the Vance book (#22), this is a huge bestseller so I don’t know how much I can add. I’ve read the works of its main protagonists — Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky — and other behavioral economists with fascination for years. What Lewis does is to make their ideas come alive in a powerful platonic love story between two geniuses.

You can watch a long, insightful conversation between Lewis and Adam Grant (a.k.a. #5) here.

31. Sawyer, Robert J. Hominids: Volume One of The Neanderthal Parallax. Finished December 15, 2016.

Delightful, thoughtful and well-structured sci-if novel about a parallel universe where Neanderthals survived & homo sapiens died off. Then, a Neanderthal physicist accidentally drops through a portal to our universe in modern day Canada. The book was published in 2002 & therefore written as the first early phases of the internet took place. I wonder how the story would have come out differently if written a decade later when the internet and the smart phone were established. One key difference between our world and the Neanderthal counterpart is that every Neanderthal has a “Companion” grafted into his or her inner forearm that is like an advanced iPhone with a smarter version of Siri.  The gap, in other words, between the Neanderthal world and ours has shrunk in the years since the book first came out. I just started reading Humans, the second volume: so far, so good.

32. Gibbs, Stuart. Spy Ski School. Finished December 20, 2016.

Fourth in the hilarious series that my son reads and urges me to read immediately after he does. Gibbs channels the minds and concerns of middle-schoolers with a James Bondian overlay that is delightful and funny. With its speedy plot and engaging characters, I can’t believe this series hasn’t been optioned for a TV series. (Note: there was a 2008 movie called “Spy School” that is entirely unrelated.)  

I also admire how closely Gibbs engages with his young readers on his website.

And finally for 2016…

33. Perzanowski, Aaron and Jason Schultz. The End of Ownership: Personal Property in the Digital EconomyFinished December 29, 2016.

In this wide-ranging yet powerfully-focused book, two law professors explore the issues surrounding our cultural move from owning copies (of movies, CDs, books) to EaaS (Everything as a Service) alternatives like Netflix, Spotify and licensed ebooks (versus physical copies that are our property).

We are trading a lot for the convenience and wider selection of digital goods over physical, and after reading this book (which is surprisingly brief) I’m more aware of the tradeoffs than I was before. The ramifications are widespread, from the death of secondary markets (e.g., because you can’t sell the Netflix videos you’re done with on eBay) to attempts to block generic alternatives to manufacturer brands (printer ink, Keurig cups) and beyond… with added implications coming in the world of self-driving cars and 3D printers everywhere. This books makes a remarkable, if inadvertent, bookend with Edgerton’s Shock of the Old that I read last January (#3 on this list).

Thanks for reading! I’d love your comments, critiques and suggestions for further reading.

Here’s a sneak previews of books already on my desk to read or complete in 2017 in alphabetical order by author rather than ordered by likelihood of reading:

  • Samuel Arbesman, Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension
  • Dan Ariely, Payoff: The Hidden Loginc that Shapes our Motivations
  • Harry Collins, Tacit & Explicit Knowledge
  • Jon Fine, Your Band Sucks: What I Saw at Indie Rock’s Failed Revolution (But Can No Longer Hear)
  • Thomas L. Friedman, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations
  • Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
  • Tim Harford, Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform our Lives
  • Joi Ito and Jeff Howe, Whiplash: How to Survive our Faster Future
  • Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities
  • Steven Johnson, Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World
  • Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
  • Robert Sawyer, Humans: Volume Two of the Neanderthal Parallax
  • Pat Shipman, The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction
  • Cecily Sommers, Think Like a Futurist: Know What Changes, What Doesn’t, and What’s Next
  • Amy Webb, The Signals are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe is Tomorrow’s Mainstream
  • Tim Wu, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads

The attentive will see some clear themes extended from both this year’s list and those of previous years. It will be interesting to see how many of these make it onto the 2017 list one year from now.

Happy New Year!

Playing “Whack-a-Mole” with Apple News on my iPhone

I love my iPhone. The dangerous problem is that while sometimes I love it the way a writer loves a favorite pen while at other times I love it the way an alcoholic loves beer.

Or like Brokeback Mountain. I wish I knew how to quit you, iPhone.

Today, I had a lovers quarrel with the iPhone.

From nowhere — certainly from no action on my part — the iPhone decided to start sharing notifications from the News app.

There has been no update for that App in the App Store (perhaps because it is bundled with the OS that updated a couple weeks back), and I cannot discern what triggered the change aside from Apple’s business strategy of disintermediating both Facebook and the news properties themselves.

I suffer from acute distractibility at the best of times, which is why I’ve deleted all social media from the iPhone as a portcullis next to a moat around my concentration, such as it is. I get no notifications when an email arrives. I think the new Facebook Messenger app has some nifty “we hate Snapchat” features, but after a five minute exploratory look I deleted it.

My attention is my most precious asset.

So when the iPhone News app started interrupting me to let me know that TIME magazine had a mighty keen article about “5 Tech Predictions for 2017” — this hardly qualifies as urgent — I opened “Settings” and scrolled down to News, whereupon I changed the alert style from “Alerts” to “None.”

Thinking that was it, I went back to my life. Au contraire!

The next time I went to do something with the iPhone and pressed the wakey-wakey button, there was a notification on the lock screen from the Wall Street Journal: “Taxpayers are pouring money into charitable-giving accounts, worried that deductions may not last.” Heaven forfend! Thank the good lord that the iPhone decided that knowing about this was more important than whatever it was that I picked the phone up to do in the first place… which I can no longer remember because of the interruption.

I went back to Settings and looked more closely. Ah ha! What I missed the first time was the faint gray little letters that said, “Alert Style When Unlocked.” I had eliminated the interruptions that would happen when I was using the device, but not when I was about to use the device… which is a vulnerable moment of distractibility.

Sheesh.

I then toggled everything off: “Show on Lock Screen,” “Badge App Icon,” “Show in Notification Center” and “Allow Notifications.” That’s a lot of things to toggle, and while I suspect that simply choosing “Allow Notifications” would have done the trick, I’m a suspicious sort of guy and decided to overcompensate.

But that still wasn’t enough.

If I swiped right from the iPhone home screen that took me to a screen where — you guessed it — right up top were two top stories from CBS and Bloomberg and two trending stories from CNN and The New York Times. That’s four opportunities to drop whatever thought was in my head and fall down the rabbit hole into the always-open-all-you-can-eat information buffet: now with unlimited breadsticks!

I’m pretty technical, but it took me a few minutes to figure out that if I scrolled all the way down on the all-the-way-to-the-left screen that had magically appeared with the most-recent iOS I’d find a faint gray “Edit” button that would let me rearrange, add and eliminate notifications on that screen.

It was too much work to limit the notifications coming at me from just one app, let alone managing notifications from all the apps on my iPhone.

I’m sympathetic to the plight of app developers: without notifications an app will wither and die from neglect. But I object to the whole “opt out” presumption of developers that turn notifications on — or make “yes gimme gimme” the “don’t think about it” option to pick — when installing an app in the first place.

I should be able to say, “Hey Siri: I don’t want notifications from the News app anymore” and have that remove everything. When I tried that, though, Siri simply opened the News app.

I think Siri has a learning disability.

Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times recently dubbed the iPhone “the thing that does everything,” which is apt.

But just because a thing can do everything doesn’t mean that it should do everything.

Shameless comment-seeking question: what do you do to eliminate distraction in your environment?

P.S. Don’t even get me started on how angry I am that Uber eliminated the “you can only track my location when I’m actively using Uber” option, so now I either have to let Uber track my iPhone 24/7/365 or I have to hit Settings > Privacy > Location Services > Uber > “Always” when I’m about to call a Uber and then remember to hit Settings > Privacy > Location Services > Uber > “Never” when I’m done. This is one of many reasons I think that Uber hates people, both its riders and its drivers. Lyft, I hasten to say, retains the “While Using” option.

Amazon’s Robot Bodega

Don’t miss this important piece from The Verge, which gives great context around this promotional video about Amazon Go, the robot bodega:

As The Verge captures, there are no cashiers and no checkout lines: you grab what you want and just go.

At the moment, there are human stockers at the Amazon Go beta in Seattle, but that seems temporary as Amazon historically has used robots wherever it can to reduce costs and add efficiency.

Neither the video nor The Verge engage with whether or not Amazon Go follows Amazon.com’s normal practice of being intensely price competitive.  In other words, are the prices at Amazon Go the same, cheaper or more expensive than the human-powered bodega at the corner? Answer: probably cheaper.

This is important because if I’m right about the prices that skews everything about Amazon Go as an experiment.  Shoppers are highly price sensitive in many (but not all) contexts, particularly with CPG.

If Amazon Go is cheaper than the local bodega or 7/11, then this is bad news for those local shops.

Mom and Pop markets will now have big box Walmart with its supply chain strong arm tactics chomping away at their existence from one side and Amazon Go eating its way into the middle from the other.

More importantly, the human-to-human interactions that characterize most grocery shopping today at the cash register evaporate in the face of this frictionless but also emotionless interaction. (This reminds me of Erica Jong’s zipless fuck from Fear of Flying.)

All things being equal, we tend to go with the cheaper option. However, at issue here is what we count among all the things.

What aspects of the shopping experience are in our consideration sets when we go to the store?

For high consideration items, perhaps we want a skilled salesperson to guide us in concert with the research we do on our phones in the store or on our computers before we leave the house.

But for low consideration items like groceries, it’s easy to discount the identity-formation supporting energy that comes with going to the same store regularly, seeing the same people at the checkout line, chatting with the fellow customers — some of whom are friends — that you happen to meet.

This sort of identity-formation isn’t the kind we seek deliberately, like a college or a job or a neighborhood where the houses are the right size and the schools are good: it’s the kind that happens as a matter of course after we make those bigger choices.

Until things like Amazon Go show up on our mental horizons.

By virtue of its very presence in our cognitive landscape, Amazon Go requires us to make a conscious decision to go to the human powered bodega in order to be part of a community… this is a new decision, one that requires us to spend part of our limited daily allotment of decision-making energy.

When it comes to buying books, I frequently vote with my dollar and spend a little bit more at independent bookstores like Powell’s to keep them in existence, although I’m also a frequent orderer at Amazon.

But when I’m in a hurry to grab lunch or need milk before I collect my kids at school, will I think through how that purchase will keep my local market in business?

I’d like to say yes, but I might be lying.

SHORT: Don’t Miss REDEF Original on Truth in Advertising

From the “too long for a tweet” department:

I just finished Adam Wray‘s powerful Fashion REDEFined original article “With Great Power: Seth Matlins on how Advertising can Shift Culture for the Better.”

It’s about Seth Matlins‘ efforts to change how advertisements featuring too-skinny and Photoshopped models body shame girls and women (men too, by the way).

Here’s a useful except from Matlins:

This practice, these ads, cause and contribute to an array of mental health issues, emotional health issues, and physical health issues that include stress, anxiety, depression, self-harm, self-hate. At the most extreme end they contribute to eating disorders, which in turn contribute to the death of more people than any other known mental illness, at least domestically. What we know from the data is that as kids grow up, the more of these ads they see, the less they like themselves.

What we know is 53% of 13-year-old girls are unhappy with their bodies. By the time they’re 17, 53% becomes 78%, so roughly a 50% increase. When they’re adults, 91% of women will not like themselves, will not like something about their bodies. Women on average have 13 thoughts of self-hate every single day. We know that these ads, and ads like these, have a causal and contributory effect because of pleas from the American Medical Association, the National Institute of Health, the Eating Disorder Coalition, and tens of thousands of doctors, mental and physical, educators, psychologists, health care providers, to say nothing of the governments of France, Israel, and Australia, who have urged advertisers to act on the links between what we consider deceptive and false ad practices and negative health consequences. And yet to date, by and large, and certainly at scale, nobody has.

I wish that the numbers in the second paragraph were stunning or surprising, but they aren’t. What they are, however, is infuriating.

My one critique of the article — and the reason for this short post — is that blame for this sort of body shaming doesn’t only lie with advertisers and marketers.

The entertainment industry also propagates unrealistic body images for females and males alike, and let’s not forget all the magazines and websites featuring photoshopped bodies on covers and internal pages.

It’s not just the ads.

As the father of a 15 year old girl and an 11 year old boy (a teen and a tween), I’m hyper-conscious of these images, but aside from trying (often vainly) to restrict their media access there’s only so much my wife and I can do.

So I celebrate Matlins’ efforts.

You don’t have to be a parent to find this article compelling, but if you ARE a parent, particularly to a teen girl, then this is required reading, folks.  It’ll be on the final.

Along these lines, high up on my “to read this summer” list is Nancy Jo Sales’ American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, although I’ll confess that I’m a bit afraid to read it, as I think I’ll feel the way I felt after seeing Schindler’s List for the first time.

First Thoughts on Amazon’s Echo and Alexa

Based in large part on my friend Jeff Minsky’s enthusiast endorsement, I bought the Amazon Echo device that comes with its voice-activated, Siri-like, AI digital helper named Alexa.  “This is a no-brainer,” Jeff said.  “If nothing else it’s a terrific wireless speaker for under $200, and it does so much more.”

I unboxed Echo on Wednesday, downloaded the iPhone app, plugged it in and had it running in minutes.  Jeff is right about the speaker: it has a great sound and fills up even my (no pun intended) echo-filled living room. 

Here are my first thoughts about the Echo and Alexa, its successes, missed opportunities, and where I see it going.

Surprise and Delight: The Beatles

As I did the morning dishes, my first request was, “Alexa, play The Beatles.”  Seconds later I heard “Long, Long, Long” from The White Album.  Wow!

Over the course of the next few minutes of puttering and tidying, I heard a news briefing from NPR, skipped through a bunch of other music, and also discovered that every CD or MP3 I’d purchased in my 18 years of Amazon.com membership was available to Alexa… and this is quite a bit.  I didn’t even realize that I had a music library outside of the Spotify-like, free-with-Amazon Prime music service.

Then — more surprise, more delight — a query of mine revealed that Alexa also has access to all my Kindle books… and she has a nice reading voice.  Within moments, Alexa was reading Michael Winberg’s It Will Be Awesome if They Don’t Screw it Up book about 3D printing and IP law.  I’ve experienced earlier algorithmic reading of text, and it was no fun: robotic voices with no cadence and a ton of mispronounced words.  By contrast, Alexa is smooth and winning.  Does she measure up against a professional actor performing a text?  By no means.  But for simple, “what’s this book about?” curiosity she’s fine… it’s a Herb Simon satisficing exercise, rather than a premium audio-book optimization.

Alexa is an example of what Jeff Minsky calls the “Ambient Internet.”

Even more so than with the always-in-your-pocket smart phone, having hands-free Echo on the kitchen counter reduces friction between my desire to search something and performing the search.  This is even lower friction than my experience with the Apple Watch, because with the Watch I have to raise my wrist to my face with my left hand and push a button with my right hand to wake it up and have it start listening… although Siri on my iPhone wakes up to “Hey, Siri.” 

Not having to move a muscle and still being able to search something is powerful, even seductive.

Last night, for example, my 10 year old son wanted to go to a barbecue joint for dinner.  So I asked Alexa where the best ribs in Portland are.  Alexa immediately recommended Reo’s Ribs, which is zesty and tangy (it used to be our neighborhood joint before it moved about seven miles further away).  Alexa couldn’t manage to suggest other options (although to be fair I only asked her for the best ribs in my query and, like Siri, she has a limited ability to understand followup questions), so I trotted to my computer and to Google to find a closer joint.

Dinner was delicious. 

There’s a down side to the Ambient Internet, which is that it accelerates my technology-induced quasi-Attention Deficit Disorder.  Having a bunch of devices that can deliver tasty, Doritos-like nibbles of information doesn’t help me buckle down and focus on pressing tasks at hand. 

Likewise, having a cybernetic pal eager to tell me about things happening in the world while I do dishes gets in the way of either mindful attention to task (even if the task is dishes) or mindless day-dreaming that often sparks a creative insight. 

Many smart folks have written extensively about how frictionless 24/7/365 connectivity makes us reactive and superficial rather than proactive and deep (see Nicholas Carr’s 2011 book The Shallows for one good example), and I don’t need to make that argument again here except insofar as how adding another connected device, Echo, throws more cognitive Doritos into my info-diet rather than veggies.

Brief Digression on Cyber-Security: I’m not, in this post, addressing either the Big Brother Question (Amazon is always listening, tracking everything, and using that information to take over the world or maybe just help the NSA) or the Skynet/Robot Apocalypse Question (Alexa will fuse with Siri, find Ultron, and then decide to eliminate the infestation of humans ruining this perfectly good planet). End of Digression.

But what about the shopping?  I have yet to ask Alexa to add something to my Amazon list, but I have no doubt that Alexa’s frictionlessness will aid purchase… and if Alexa continues to live in the kitchen then that will probably hurt my local supermarket if I wind up ordering dishwashing soap through Amazon because I just ask for it when I’m running out rather than having to pull out my phone to add it to the shopping list. 

Missing: a battery.  It’s only by using a device that you see the presumptions that the creators had while designing it.  With Echo, the designer presumed that once you picked a spot for the device it would stay in that spot.  This is a problem as I’m working to figure out where Alexa should be in my house, since every time I unplug the device it powers down and takes a minute-plus to reboot when I plug it into a different socket in another room.  I find this minute-plus reboot time vexing… and it doesn’t fit with the general frictionlessness of Echo. 

A backup battery that would keep the Echo going for a half hour would be useful.

But the lack of a battery also suggests that Amazon has more pervasive ambitions for Alexa.  From the start, I asked myself, “why both Echo and Alexa?”  Why not just call the device Alexa?

The reason, I think, is that Alexa has a bigger future footprint than the Echo.

The Echo is just a speaker, but pretty soon users will find themselves chatting with Alexa on their phones, on their computers and tablets when shopping on Amazon.  And judging from the Ford SYNC integration with Echo that I saw at this year’s CES, Amazon also wants us to chat with Alexa when we’re driving around.  “Alexa, please add Tide to my shopping list,” I’ll be able to say as I drive around.

While Alexa is great, she is no “Jarvis” from Iron Man and The Avengers.  One disappointing thing about Alexa is her half-hearted connectivity to other services.  Yes, you can play your Spotify tunes out of the Alexa speaker, but in order to do so you have to stream Spotify from your phone (or some other device) into Alexa.  So you can’t ask Alexa for a particular playlist or to search Spotify for that rare Bill Evans tune.

The Achilles heel of most connected technologies is having the mobile phone as a tether: this is as true of Echo as it is of the Apple Watch.   

Finally, another designer presumption that a few days of use has turned up: Echo was designed for somebody who lives alone, or at least for a single user.  Here’s a revelatory snippet from the Amazon page on Echo and Alexa:

Alexa—the brain behind Echo—is built in the cloud, so it is always getting smarter. The more you use Echo, the more it adapts to your speech patterns, vocabulary, and personal preferences. And because Echo is always connected, updates are delivered automatically.

This engineering mindset parallels that of the smart phone: one user per device.

But I live with three other humans and a dog.  While the dog’s shopping needs don’t require an AI helper, my son — who is entranced with Alexa — has trouble making himself understood because Alexa has adapted to my voice. 

This is a pervasive problem with shared services.  Since my entire family uses my Amazon Prime account, Prime thinks I suffer from multiple personality disorder since the suggested purchases run across four idiosyncratic people’s interests.  I always know when, for example, my teenaged daughter has been makeup shopping on Amazon because the Amazon banner ads that stalk me across the web shift.

My Netflix recommendations are even worse since we started using the service before the company enabled different profiles.  I have no interest in “Cupcake Wars,” but Netflix disagrees.

In a future post, I’ll write more about Echo/Alexa’s potential impact on business, shopping and branding.

[Cross-posted on Medium.]

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:

chart

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:


chart

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.

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.