The Rot of Pop-Intellectualism

I just read an academic paper for the first time in 6-7 years(?). It was a pretty refreshing experience, which is something I never, ever thought I would say. It occurred to me how much post-degree learning has changed in the past 10 years. (I’ve been calling it pop-intellectualism.)

At the risk of sounding grumpy, 10 years ago…
- Everyone wasn’t an expert on Medium.
- Life’s insights were not packaged into 15-minute TED talks.
- If you built on someone’s work, you referenced it.
- You were required to show evidence before making vast proclamations across spacetime.

As we rushed to package intelligence for consumption, it feels like the pursuit of knowledge has become hollow. This seems especially prevalent in the realm of psychology, economics, and behavioral studies spread across the disciplines.

My guess is that this started with the big publishing houses; after Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point ripped through the charts, things have never been the same. Every book of this stripe knew it had to make their reader instantly intellectual. These books weren’t about opening up the larger questions of life for debate, they were about packaging ideas so people could ‘win at dinner’.

It followed soon into print media. Magazines were forced to re-factor to be more digestible, more glance-able. They had to compete with the web; long articles were so boring. I remember reading the Harvard Business Review in it’s original form. Every article was a death sentence to get through. Today, it’s hard to distinguish it from Fast Company.

And then even digital media fell. we can no longer read through three pages on the web, it’s not better to have a ‘listicle’. (Which is a word that I still can’t believe exists in the vernacular.)

To be fair, 10 years ago learning about life beyond academic resources sucked. This explains the current state of things; we got exactly what we asked for. Intellectualism is a packaged product.

It feels like we raced for an alternative, but on the way we lost something important. It pains me to say this, but the rigor of academia is important for our culture. Yes, research texts can be more accessible, but we lack anything of their rigor on the open web.

I feel like we’re reaching such a collective overload of broad information, I wonder if well-packaged, deep, cross-referenced research could be a thing soon. Stranger things have happened.

The Pike Syndrome

My good friend Tom Hulme passed me this video called the Pike Syndrome. It’s a short clip that’s a dark commentary on learned helplessness. I won’t spoil the video for you, you should watch it. The clip is an important reminder of how much our culture and our environment can condition our behavior. In a short time, negative reinforcement de-programs the fish of its basic instincts for survival. (How is that even possible?)

I think about this sort of stuff a lot, so it’s nice to have such a powerful story telling tool to convey The video focuses on how the fish has lost its ability to hunt, a dark warning that we all should be wary of ‘becoming a pike’. For me, the bigger warning is to not allow an environment that disempowers people. It’s one of the biggest failures you can make as a leader. Think about it: you spend all this time trying to find great people to work with only to squander all their potential by not creating the right conditions for them to shine.

People naturally look for cues from their environment. As a leader, you should think about their perceptions. Dictate orders and actions, you’ll have a team that is lost without sharp direction. Run a fear campaign, you’ll have a team that is afraid to think for themselves. Provide zero direction, you’ll be lost to distractions. As a leader, you need to be personify the characteristics you need in your team, (I’d suggest starting with being approachable and human). 

As a team, you need healthy friction; discussion and dialog that make sure the ideas are more important than the egos; Strong opinions, weakly held. Everyone is empowered, everyone is responsible - there’s zero room for helplessness.

Since we have the ability to organize around ideas faster that ever before, we have to extremely careful about the environments we create. We can move so fast, we aren’t afforded too many detours as we create the cultures we work in. In this sense, the Pike Syndrome is the perfect reminder that we can strip people of their most important behaviors if we aren’t careful of the conditions we create.

Curiosity is Your Best Weapon

Funny, I haven’t touched this blog in nine months, and I’ve returned to write about (almost) the same thing I wrote about last time; curiosity.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been reviewing 8+ years of journals I’ve kept at IDEO, trying to figure out some of the things I’ve learned over the years. (BTW, first learning is that I need to write more.) There’s a lot in those journals for me. It’s most of my thirties. It’s having two kids. It's traveling 6 continents. It’s stepping into some really hard problems with really smart people.

I’m hoping to blog about it more in the coming weeks to make sense of it all. I’m pretty amazed at how much the topic of curiosity keeps showing up. It’s a transformative attitude. The minute you’re heading down a dark path, it seems if you can flip the curiosity switch you kind of move from losing to learning. This quote stood out...

"May your frustration make your curious"

One of my mentors had found me at a moment where I was working with a team and things had not gone as planned. I don’t remember the exact circumstances, but I was pissed because the team wasn’t where it was supposed to be. Someone wasn’t doing their job. Someone wasn’t being collaborative. It was one of those moments where everyone else was the problem and if I could just figure out how to fix it, we could make progress. It was in this moment I had lost my way.

If only I could have taken off my frustrated glasses and put on a set of curious glasses, I could have found empathy for the people I was working with. I could try to see their world as they see it. When you’re wearing curious glasses you’re just trying to learn, you can reason and judge later, and creating that space for perspective is really powerful. In these moments you see new perspectives and realize often it’s you, not them that have misunderstood the problem or the situation.

Curiosity is important because our mental models often fail us. What we perceive of the world is often different that the actual. We miss nuance and details, we factor things incorrectly. Curiosity is also important because it’s playful; you’re looking forward and backward, playing with new ideas. True curiosity will toy with unimaginable things. Every since moments (which was a really shitty day), I’ve tried really hard to catch myself being frustrated, angry, bewildered, or sad and turn it into a moment of curiosity. It’s not running away from that emotion, it’s trying to use that moment as a stimulus to see a path forward I haven’t seen before. 

May the Obvious Make You Curious

Eric Paley posted a great piece on Inc. tackling the idea of "obvious feedback". In the piece he rightly points out the irony that the best advice is often the most obvious. It struck me as a simple maxim that carries many complexities. It had me thinking about the many nuances of feedback…

When we ask for feedback, we're often looking for novelty
As Eric points out, we rush past the obvious, often looking to discover something we haven’t heard before (silver bullet theory). If the feedback is familiar, it’s easy to be dismissive. In this hunt for novelty, we're blinded to things we should make the priority. It seems important to have the self-awareness to recognize that if you’re hearing the same feedback over and over, you still have the same issues.

We often treat feedback as a to-do list
It’s easy to look for action in people’s feedback. After all, hearing how things might be better can feel like a directive to go make them better. OK, maybe. But could you look for patterns in the feedback that reveal a bigger principle? Instead of just inspiring action, could that feedback help you think differently about the problem you’re solving? (Feedback often pushes us to focus on outcomes, rather than the problem we’re solving.)

Feedback should make you curious
To the core point of the article, when you’re swimming in obvious feedback, how do you do anything with it? If it’s obvious, you been there before. You’ve probably tried to solve it already. I would offer that the more obvious the feedback is, the more curious you must become. Be curious around what prompted the feedback; be curious around why it feels so obvious. 

Dismissing the familiar is a funny thing; it’s either the best idea, or the absolute worst. 

The Art of Savoring

I spent this weekend working with the Director's Fellows at the MIT Media Lab. It's an amazingly diverse group of people united by a passion for making things that make the world better. Each Fellow is working with the Lab on a different project that hopes to create impact in the world. Among the projects, there's learning through fashion, new approaches to maker spaces, smashing together humor and technology, and a project that will help people atone for violent crimes. It's an understatement to say that it's an extremely inspiring group.

As we were working on the ideas and directions for the Fellow's projects this weekend, one of the Fellows, Geetha Narayan, made a comment that stopped me cold.  Referring to the way we bounce madly around in our lives, she noted…</p>

"We are driven by a culture of immediacy. How can we create experiences we can savor?"

Consider for a moment how much our need for progress and satisfaction informs the way we live our lives and what we choose to create. We live in a world that despises waiting. But this also has us often with our body in the present and our mind somewhere else. Geetha's comment strikes me as a massively important observation, both as a life principle and a design principle.

As a life principle, it's advice for the world we've created for each other. (And I'm terrible about this.) We're all creatures of endless options and immediate satisfaction. If we aren't particularly interested with a certain pursuit, we're immediately on to the next thing. But in this frenetic pursuit of happiness, I wonder if we're leaving enough space to learn about ourselves? I love the challenge of savoring an experience. It's not consuming more and more. It's not about riding the roller coaster over and over. It's about experiencing something, then reflecting and considering how it affected you. Like sipping good wine and pausing to consider how the chemistry of the drink has altered the feeling in your mouth.

As a design principle, it seems equally powerful. In this case, the idea of savoring becomes and invitation, not an obligation. Instead of always designing for progress and forward flow, you build moments for people to pause. (I've heard service designers refer to these moments as  eddies, referring to the swirls that happen on the side of a riverbank.)

Premium services know how to incorporate the idea of savoring. High-end markets will sample ingredients and share its story. Great hotels have a knock for suspending the idea of time upon arrival; bags disappear and attendants have you relax while they arrange your room. These moments encourage you to break your pace, breathe and consider where you are.

Today, it feels like a small victory to hold people's attention long enough to create a meaningful moment. Geetha's comment had me wondering how to savor more, and it's an inspiration to create services that inspire the same. I don't mean to rally against progress; building an interconnected world that moves faster each day is just a reality. But we're responsible for the future we create. I'm  wondering if we don't design a little more savoring into our lives, if we'll flow effortlessly through more and more frictionless experiences, we'll end up slipping memoryless through our lives.

Rebirth of the Newsletter

After a week of vacation, I needed to go through the normal re-entry of catching up on all the emails I had missed in my absence. In the middle of the missives, it dawned on me how many newsletters I read. (I think I counted twenty from the last week?!?) They aren't sales or promotions, these newsletters were from friends (or services) that I actually look forward to. And the fact they arrive as emails was actually really helpful, (better than just another piece of content floating on the internet.) Now, I can read the letter when I have time, and I'll only have to go to the web if I find something interesting (and since it's from a friend, chances are it will be.)

The greater internet (for me) is sort of a nightmare at the moment. It's hard to find much that's worthwhile. That which is interesting is usually crowded out by behemoth paid-by-the word, advertising-driven sites. I used to use the internet to find refuge from reality television, until the internet also became reality television. &nbsp;I just can't do deep internet trawls anymore, but I very rely (and need) the web to serve up new inspirations and constantly help me reframe my world. (It's actually why i'm so addicted to the information super highway.)

A good read is tough to find, (that which is valuable is rarely plentiful.) There's a certain amount of hunt-and-gather that has always been the nature of the web. And as dorky as they are, RSS readers are excellent here (RIP Google Reader). Unfortunately, for me the stories I'd rather read are buried beneath sites counting down the top 10/20/50 best whatevers, with every entry serving up a new round of ads. (The latest in ad-driven internet crack.)

Good content usually doesn't live off ads, and it's usually hidden deep in the niche, (the more different from your normal routine, the harder it is to find.) That content has a point of view and stirs something inside you. It inspires, or provokes, or has you seeing things you would have never seen. You can usually spot "good content" because it has a shelf-life. It's worth reading/discussing several days/weeks after it's published.

WIth that obvious rant out-of-the-way, here's few newsletters I'm loving lately in-case you're so inclined….

  • Just Another Crowd by Sean Bonner - technology, anti-establishment, and antagonism from my favorite misanthrope.
  • The Ann Freeman Weekly - #realtalk about journalism, feminism, and spirit animals.
  • Tuesday Ten by Rosie Simon - The best of current culture, social media stunts, etc.
  • Quibb Daily - Quibb filters content to you based on your Twitter feed, (I wrote about them previously.) It's a great service, I just wish their audience had a little wider aperture (It's mostly tech start-ups, VC blogs, 23-year-old know-it-all's, etc….which I'm worn-thin on at the moment.) Still, I scan the newsletter daily and always find something I'm glad I saw.

I'm definitely on the hunt for inspired newsletters…if you have any favorites; email me, please. (I ended up closing the comments on this blog…the constant spam attacks were too much. (Death of the blog comment is another trend for another time.)

Crowdsourcing the Manhunt

In 2003, Howard Reingold wrote a book called Smart Mobs. At the beginning of that book he wrote about an anti-war protest held in San Francisco in 2002. He noted that it was one of the first decentralized protests in human history. Instead of everyone meeting in one place to demonstrate, protesters passed on some simple instructions to anyone who was interested. The instructions were simple; shut down business, traffic, and cause peaceful mayhem to protest the war.

I was living in San Francisco at the time, and to get to work I had to walk through South of Market where most of the protests were scheduled. That day was total chaos. People chained themselves together on the freeway on-ramp, blocking all inbound traffic on the bay bridge. Another group staged a big press scene by vomiting on the Federal Building. Reingold pointed out that this was one of the moments that illustrated that we had reached a tipping point as a connected society, and it had changed our social actions in a major way. People had shared their goal for the protest over SMS and email, and the end result of the demonstration was far superior than anyone could have programmed individually. And so it has gone with most things crowd-sourced since that time, (so much so that this story doesn't seem all that novel ten years later.)

Which brings me to the man hunt for the alleged Boston Marathon bomber that (thankfully) concluded tonight. If the San Francisco protest in 2002 was a watershed moment for how we organized and collaborated, I think this week has tons of signifigance both in how we collectively solve problems, and the impact of living with devices that are constantly capturing data (phones, tweets, geo-tags, sensors, etc, etc.) </p>

This week, we saw...

  • Reddit and 4Chan turn into full-on detective agencies using open platforms and their own style of sleuthing in hopes of identifying possible suspects. (This all went terribly wrong.)
  • News reports that had photos of the boat the assailant was hiding in before they could gain access to the perimeter.
  • Analysis on the suspect's Twitter account to figure out his daily patterns.
  • Collaboratively created maps of anything and everything related to the series of events.
  • Collective fundraising to help one of the amputees pay for health insurance.
  • Police using data from the marathon to identify runners who would have been finishing at the time of the explosion in order to possibly connect with their families in the search for the suspects.
  • Reddit ordered pizza for all the participating police departments.

Indeed, when we had very little to go on, we had the data created as a byproduct of the event and of the suspects lives….and that turned out to be quite a lot to work with.

The Boston Marathon bombing and ensuing manhunt will probably go down as one of the biggest news events of this decade. But I actually think the way the internet voluntarily assembled to solve problems together with all the residual data from the event is a much bigger moment. 

Data is everything

I never thought of photos as "data". Obviously they are, but they're so visceral they usually hit a different part of my brain. I usually think of data as a thing that resolves to text and numbers. I think it's from my days as a programmer; I mostly dealt with text, I've never coded against image or video codecs. But recently I've had a few experiences that remind me how powerful it is to realize data is in everything. We're so flooded with data we're interpreting and with the data we're creating, the fish doesn't know the water it swims in.

I've had two experiences over the past few years that have floored me into remembering new ways to see data. (Actually, easily more than two, but these are iconic for me.) In the spirit of writing to inspire others, I thought I'd share the experiences that have inspire me to see data in new places.

First Moment: Nick Felton's 2011 talk at Eyeo Festival. In the talk, he goes over how he created his 2010 annual report to document his father's life. Felton is someone who seems to see data in every interaction, so it's inspiring to understand how he processes the world. About 33 minutes into the video, he talks about working with some of his father's old photographs to determine the places he's traveled. He has a few great moments of using data within the photographs to reconcile images to places, (a few of those come from the help of strangers, which inspire even further.)

Second Moment: Today, my colleague Todd send a link about a project that uses the Street View data from Google Maps to reconstruct visual travel sequences (more examples here.) Every photo from Google Maps becomes a moment in a video, stitching together an experience of traveling in a place you've possibly never visited. It reminded me of Jenny Odell's Travel By Approximation, a project where she 'travelled' around the country via Google Maps - such a clever idea, it's always stuck with me. It also reminded me of Wilderness Downtown, Arcade Fire's multimedia experience from a year or so ago that uses google maps and your home address. 

Both of these experiences used data created for one purpose to create meaning in a new way. (As an aside, it's interesting that the reinterpretations are more powerful than their first incarnation.) These moments also underscore the power of neutral data to create new views into the world (photos are usually neutral, they just represent the world…interpreted/text-based data isn't always so neutral.)

For me, both of these examples are great reminders that everything we do, everything we make creates data. Still, there's something futuristic about machines defining insight from visual data (though it's an old trick.) It's a very old idea, but it still feels like we're at the tip of an iceberg. 

(If you enjoyed this, you'll probably love this article from @Faris too.)