Tag Archives: business

The Binary Privilege of Technology

Dear Sara,

I’m cooking chicken and keep coming back to your insight about Apple Watch’s design: that it lets you record a message and send it as either voice or text, but not both. I think this is actually a great example of how privilege normalizes cultural choices.

Form influences design. The fact that designers made an exclusionary choice rather than an inclusive one is a reflection of the underlying binary structure of digital technology, and desire for efficiency in business culture. They’re models that prefer on/off choices, and that value is reinforced in everything from the structure of the code itself, to the ways most technologists are encourage to write it.

Design propagates value. Designers’ choices present as the users of technology as the ideal choices. When we follow the directive value system of a product’s design, we propagate that value into the world, and enhance it with our authority.

Volume influences preference. Propagated value gains momentum by more people expressing and receiving it, as technology adoption standardizes, and two things happen. 1) People who prefer the available options (which currently omit a lot of the sensual experience), amplify their use of the technology. And 2) the volume in the feedback loop influences the cultural norm around that value, making people less likely to demand an alternative.

I bet most people, most of the time, choose to send text, since that has already become the standard of non-phone-call communication. I’d be curious to find out if that’s true or not.

I guess this is just a long way of the saying “the medium is the message” but I feel a certain urgency to have more discourse (collectively) about it. The underlying cultural assumptions that drive our behavior often change much more slowly than the adoption of new technologies. The asymmetry of that tension is bound to have some consequences, yes? It feels like we’re turning the crank on the fault line. Glad your big brain is on this.

The Intimacy of Proximity and The Privilege of Distance

Waves crashing on a beach
The Power of Presence
I have watched my relationship with my children evolve from me as a frustrated, ineffective power-broker, to one where I listen more, listen differently, and am less invested in having my way. And much of this shift happened because of an erosion of my illusions from the ceaseless wash of living in near constant contact with my children. There is a change that happens when our edges are perpetually touched by someone else’s – both are reshaped into something new. And what’s on my mind, is how, or even if, we are capable of digital touch.

When we share a physical space, we share the felt experience of our companions. Humans are deeply social creatures; we feel most complete when we feel fully understood by one another. But we have an equally intrinsic need for solitude. A need for the quiet, unmolested space of ourselves. Through the interplay of these desires, we learn what our soul, our True Self needs for its next phase of unfolding, and we calibrate the path of our True North.

When we live too much in isolation we lack precious perspective, and the relief of seeing ourselves in the greatness and baseness of others. It is in the pressure of being together that we discover our limits, by breaching the boundaries of our good intentions. I never intend to yell at my children, but I do. I never intend to be distant from my husband, but I am. These acts are part of the full expression of my humanity – the immediate assertion of my urgent and neglected desires – for the chaos to cease, for my will to be acknowledged, for solitude in a close space. Equally surprising (and more delightful) are the spontaneous confessions of love, the wonder of watching snow fall, the gratitude expressed for favorite clothes washed, and favorite meals made. Receiving and absorbing these acts is equally important for living a complete life; they reinforce what I value, not because I know it, but because I feel it.

These thousands of small interactions are how I teach the people I love, and teach myself, what I need. Words can lead us to an agreement, but only a shared discomfort, or a shared joy creates a shared experience. It is almost impossible for me to live a set of values into the world, if I haven’t integrated them with my desire through personal experience – knowing about them is not enough, I have to touch them, and be touched by them. This is the marrow of intimacy, the merged sensation of a shared life. How I choose to acknowledge my behavior is how I learn to listen to myself and grow into a person more capable of serving others.

What I miss the most about the jobs I was paid to do is the shared work of a common goal. I miss the tacit intimacy in the act of showing up, I care about this. I will come here, day after day, and help you with this thing we both love. I have come to understand, through deliberately withdrawing, how much I require intellectual companionship. And what I love about raising my children is the explicit intimacy of being in constant presence with people I cherish. Through deliberately engaging with them I have learned that relentless contact forces a full expression of my humanity. It is only through confronting our ruptured shadows that we are instructed in our deepest needs, and invited to grow into the space that beckons. I care about you. I will be here, day after day. I will learn to love myself more fully, so that I may love you more fully. The act of sharing our lives with others is a participatory prayer that tests our relationships. It is an act of creation by which we enrich the world through what we give away.

I have come to deeply value the sensuality of close living, despite the fact that I also find it exhausting and stressful. The physical, emotional and auditory cues a person provides are incredibly useful for understanding how to have a relationship with them. It is the continuity of exposure that makes it possible to learn the rich, complex patterns out of which people and relationships evolve. My children are incapable of doing anything less than crashing into my edges with the same regularity and unpredictability as the sea from which all life emerged. Rolling in this brackish space forces me to honestly examine my boundaries, and redefine them.

Like everything, these signals are contextual. They are patterned. They take time to learn, and longer to interpret. Evolution is the slow ghost we grow into, so that we might die complete. When we encounter behavior that doesn’t match a person’s words, we receive an invitation to engage. When we see them again and again, we have the chance to – and thank goodness, because it takes time to work up the courage to show up whole. When our shadow-side throws the yoke of manners, we leave ourselves exposed and vulnerable. Proximity tests our relationships, by drawing us in to the point that we are forced us apart. Our bodies lead us to act out our full identity, they live with a ruthless honesty and belie the narratives we prefer. And that identity, the dark and the bright, the overt and the unknown, is shaped in turn by what we rub against.

This Profile is Not My Body
I find Social Media unsatisfying and one dimensional. There are different platforms, and different tools, but Facebook, Google+, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Sanpchat, blogging, all of these are essentially asynchronous broadcast platforms, that allow mostly written and visual snapshots of what someone was thinking or doing. The Social Web promises radically uninhibited communication, but our most prominent tools offer us little more than a wide variety of selfies – here’s what I bought, here’s what I like, here’s what I think, here’s what I hate, here’s an adorable cat gif, here’s my foot at the beach. And these bits don’t allow for the richness of shared experience in an embodied way, or in a simultaneous occurrence. The resonance I discover is so fleeting, that I struggle to integrate it in a way that informs how I live in the world. Social media isn’t social, it’s a marketplace of other people’s selfies. It’s a high volume, transactional system, a glossy log of the lives our peers and loved ones mostly live without us. We talk about how the internet “connects us” but really, it connects us to a history of people’s selective, recorded expression. It gives us a tool for finding people who express things we like, but it is not a tool for being together. That, just as always, is a responsibility that resides with us.

The Power of Privilege
Social Media privileges a style of communication that succeeds without a reliance on physical proximity. Like all creative works, this technology reflects the values and insecurities of its builders and proponents. As someone who relies heavily on my sensory experience and wants togetherness to be part of my relationships, my identity, my expressed humanity, I feel unfulfilled by the promise of Social Media. And as is so often the case, when my desire is mis-matched with a prevailing power structure, I feel less-than. I feel isolated. I feel a deep urge to conform myself to an uncomfortable context, because that is the power of power. It’s so attractive it blinds people to the alternative of their own truth.

We increasingly seek, curate, and cultivate our relationships through digital communication. Without the repetitive intimacy of proximity to define (and erode) our edges, it becomes simpler to turn away from discomfort. As our boundaries become more diffuse we mark them with what we prefer, rather than what we encounter; it’s becoming easier to create an identity that’s shaped only by what we’re comfortable with. The reverse of this abstraction is also true. As our relationships become more abstract, less personalized, and less proximate, what we don’t like is easily hidden from us. How will this influence what we value in our interactions with others? How will it define the way we think about relationship, inform what we’re capable of giving, and our ability to empathize with the realities of others?

It is so hard to live a modern lifestyle without exchanging privacy for convenience that most of us have given up trying to do anything otherwise. Our social institutions, from banks, to friends, to schools, have raced to embrace technologies that accelerate the pace of our interactions, make them possible without physical presence, and measure us to provide insight and customization that will enhance our future engagements. The designers and evangelists of these technologies naturally favor the technology-based solutions they’ve created, and that we’ve adopted. We’re creating a feedback loop that reduces the edges we bump into, even as it amplifies our reach. And as we do this, we collectively begin to favor technological solutions to our human problems. We begin to favor what’s available, over what we need.

What is the extent to which we’ll cede our personal power in exchange for a promises of safety, knowledge, and advancement? As corporations grapple with the consequences of technology use – the ability to summon workers on demand, the at once tacit and manifest authority of Big Data, and their inability to protect the data they’ve collected – I see an upsetting pattern that consolidates power into the existing structures rather than fulfilling the promises they claim. The technology itself is becoming elevated as superior to the experience it creates, and pushes risk back onto the most vulnerable participants.

Uber, Handy and other companies laud the flexibility they afford their workers, while remaining inexplicably deaf to the insecurity that accompanies that freedom. In order to better serve customers and maximize profits, Starbucks and other fast food chains algorithmically adjust schedules and wreak havoc in the lives of employees who alternately scramble get daycare, or bridge the gap of lost wages, depending on how their hours change. In the name of better security, credit card companies are developing biometric authorization, which literally embodies the security risk in the cardholder.

“‘Removing card account numbers from the processing and storage of payments represents one of the most innovative and promising technologies we’ve seen in decades,’ said Visa Chief Executive Charlie Scharf in a news release.” And from the same article: “By getting rid of the sensitive card information, banks and merchants can leave hackers with nothing of value to steal if they break into their computer servers.”

To me, this just doesn’t count as innovation. The storage receptacle is changing, but the underlying concern is completely un-addressed: hackers gonna hack, and if there ain’t nothing left in the database, where do you think they’ll look next? Does merging our money with our identity, and our biology, really make us more safe? How does it benefit us to carry the risk of a financial contract in our flesh? It worked out in the Merchant of Venice, but few of us enjoy a great defense to ensure a happy ending.

Privilege emerges from the consensus of a population that prefers to mimic power, rather than question it. Check the “I agree to Terms” box. Swipe right. Like it. We are in the phase between Benefit and Standardization; Bondage is slumbering with one eye open.

The Marketplace is Now Only Business and Technology

02-17-02015 – Front page of the Wall Street Journal’s Business & Tech section, nee Marketplace.
WJS Business and Tech 02-16-2015
Says the Journal:
“Every business is a technology business…Algorithms direct our doctors and instruct our farmers. They will increasingly guide nearly every function in the modern enterprise…[this] section will continue to be the place to go for the most comprehensive and best-informed coverage of the business world…Above all our goal is to serve you…”
(The Marketplace is consolidating into a style of exchange that must not only be monetized, but digital. This is not a free market.)
Section Lead Headlines:

“Apple Seeks Identity for Smartwatch”
(Our devices will suffer until they are humanized.)
“At UPS, the Algorithm Is the Driver”
(Didn’t we tell you?)
“You aren’t a Human, You’re a Data Point”
(I’m a data point and I’m here to help. Trust me, I am the truth.)

Everyone Talks in the New Conversation

“I still treat email to me as though it were considered correspondence. And I feel as though I have a responsibility to answer my correspondence. But I think that as we become more sophisticated, we’ll adopt a more humane set of rules…” – Sherry Turkle

“But the four people my book is about all chose a kind of solitude or separateness for themselves…And when I was putting the book together I’m just marveling at how separate they really were. Today these people would be on panels probably, they would get so many invitations they would never have any time to do anything else.” – Paul Elie

“I think one of the questions that is behind a lot of the things I’m working on, is where is it that we can gather and kind of be alone together?…what are the circumstances for ‘we’ that I can enjoy the pleasure of something I’m seeing here, knowing that I’m also sharing that with a person next to me. And there’s an interesting kind of intimacy with this total stranger that the situation makes possible. And, that that can change our whole day.” – Ann Hamilton

“Hearing is how we touch at a distance.” – Susan Stewart, via Ann Hamilton

——————

This piece began when I heard Ann Hamilton use the phrase “alone together” to describe an experience very different than what Sherry Turkle explores in her book of the same title. I spent the month of March in the practice of listening. What it helped me realize was how much of my adult conversation has become written, rather than spoken, and how abbreviated and asynchronous much of that conversation is. Most adults I know do not make time for just sitting around and talking, and I actually have the sense (accurately or not) that they would find it irritating to be interrupted, and difficult to stop what they’re doing, to have that kind of impromptu conversation. To spend time face to face with my friends takes weeks or months of advanced planning. The word “conversation” is now part of our media vernacular, but I don’t know what this means, because my experience resembles very little of what it’s like to sit next to another person, and talk, and listen, and to feel in my body a confidence that we are together.

The production and consumption of media is becoming a larger part of how we spend our lives. And more and more, this is something we do alone. I listen alone. I read alone. I write, alone, to a silent, anonymous audience, who (presumably) reads my work alone. For me, asynchronous communication often fails to be a satisfying conversation, by which I mean a satisfying experience of communion. I want not just to be consumed, I want to be absorbed. I want to be seen and felt and heard. I want, I have discovered, a sensual experience.

In a traditional conversation, where two or more people speak and listen to each other in real time, there is a constant calibration of understanding. Speakers rephrase what’s been said, or offer examples to gauge their understanding, Do you mean…? Is it like…?. The conversation backs up, jumps forward, ping pongs, and ricochets between participants. It is possible to disambiguate nuance in real-time speech faster than any other method I know, and yet I know very few adults who make time to talk, in any depth, about the things that have their attention.

The sensuality in this style of conversation comes from the tremendous amount of information coming from the other person, who is a visual, auditory, olfactory and energetic panoply of experience, interacting with our own. And it comes, too, from the living animal you make between you that wanders, spirals, erupts and fades in the pulse measured out between your bodies. Harder though, in this method, is attending to my own internal experience and with a high degree of clarity or concentration. For that I cherish the written long form and its incubating qualities, that allow emotion to wake up and come forward, and present whatever it’s bearing. Some of my most rewarding conversations are long email threads (where each response takes hours, over the course of days to write) that play out over weeks or months. It seems I can only concentrate on one person at a time, me, or someone else, and that both of those need a lot of attention and energy to attain the level of intimacy I crave. I find myself continuously wanting to slow down in a world that seems determined to go faster.

Our connective technologies – increasingly social, ambient, and ubiquitous – create reflections of intimacy: faces of friends, sudden memories, and recognition of what we desire. It is easy to assume that we are inside the relationship that has cast them, when more often, we simply inside a silky kaleidoscope. We turn it over and over, fascinated by each click that reveals a beautiful new form of a pattern we recognize. Our conversations now, live outside of our mouths and outside of our hearts. The houses in which they reside, are more and more opulent – with more photos, more feedback, more participants and more visitors. These houses are busy places, and it is hard to sit still and listen, amid the chatter of what everyone is doing right now.

The “now moment” exists in a large and supported context. When we focus just on our personal experience of now it denigrates the interdependence of what gave birth to now – the space and the context that yields it. Now only exists by virtue of everything that it isn’t, but seeing the negative form that holds what “is” requires patience, insight, stillness, respect and humility. When we care too much for the newness and closeness of now, it denigrates the linage of arising.

In our current media landscape those with prominence, who are leading the conversations, and those wishing to speak with them – wanting to join the conversations – are suffering differently from the appearance of availability that pervades our communication tools. I am a seeker. I have no store of social capital to draw on. I read and listen to all sorts of wonderful stuff, and then, because the speakers appear tantalizingly close to me, on Twitter, on their web sites, on Facebook, on Google+, I want to talk to them about their work. I want to tell them what I think. I want to ask them things. I want to give them things. I want to act out my natural urge to respond to, and engage in, the conversation. So I email, I tweet, I comment, and I get very little engagement in a conversation I’ve been “invited” to, because everyone talks in the new conversation.

What I perceive about the people who are followed by people like me, is that they are increasingly overwhelmed by it. There are elements they enjoy, and the notoriety is useful for advancing work they care about, which is often beautiful and important. But they battle an impossible volume of information and contact requests. Much of what they receive is positive and supportive, plenty of it isn’t, and plenty more is simply irrelevant. They don’t know who to trust, they don’t know who might be of legitimate value and interest to them, who is trying to take advantage of them, or how even, to comfortably make the inevitable choice of who to ignore or decline, even when they presume the best about that person.

It’s hard to ask, and it’s hard to say no. And in both cases, it’s harder than ever not to feel some sense of personal distress about it. Our tools encourage us to communicate to a point where rejection is becoming a normalized (and necessary) result of the overture to connect, which is weird. The new capital is social capital. The new market is the attention market. You no longer need a lot of financial and physical capital to play, but scarcity is still a barrier to entry, just as it always has been, albeit in different forms. And in this environment, talking without expectation becomes a way to stay safe, and consuming becomes synonymous with listening. I’m not sure what this model is, but it doesn’t feel like a conversation.

Social media and the trend of digitizing the previously physical has disrupted institutions and exclusionary hierarchies, but it has also destroyed the protection they offered. We are losing the temples that harbor the great work produced by shared, long-term, aspirational goals, and held by a body larger than our own. We have lost the safety of entrenched values that hold the ideals we strive to achieve, and are created by our service, again and again. We live in a time where there is more choice, and access, and mobility than ever before. Technology has shattered calcified markets like music and publishing, it undermines controlling power structures, and allows us all to program, instead of being programmed. This is getting easier to do all the time, with langues like Ruby and services like IFTT. But what I see, is us choosing is to program our technology to program and regulate our behavior, because it’s become too much effort to make those choices for ourselves.

The other day, IFTT invited me to take a look at recipes for Nature Lovers, and what I discovered was a catalog of reminders to go outside if the conditions were correct: If it was over 70, if it was sunny, if it was snowing. This kind of programming lets us offload to our technology the responsibility of paying attention and making choices. And it also inhibits the kind of discovery that comes from unexpected circumstances. It suggests that we are commodifying attention as something that can, and should, be split into different value tranches, and then reassembled back into a complete entity by the program of our choosing. This didn’t work out well as a strategy for managing risk in our financial markets, and it feels equally icky here too. If you have a society that has decided it’s too much bother to think for itself, you have a population that is vulnerable to tyranny. You have a population that has opted out of their sovereign right to consciousness. You don’t even have to take away democracy from a population like that – they will give it to you. I find this idea troubling, but it seems to be a choice we keep making.

In many ways, we’ve each picked up the corporate practice of squeezing more and more from a single person – when everyone is their own brand, when everyone is their own tech team, and marketing department, and biz dev, there is no time and no energy left be a Spacemaker. There is less time to immerse in the work we care most about, to rest in the mess and feel around for the valuable pieces we might bring forward. There is no time anymore to simply see what happens if we wait, or wander. This is the great irony of the New Conversation – we’re all able to chat our way down the long tail until we bump into the folks that we have always been searching for. Except when we find them, everyone is too busy to talk about what we have in common.

I think our sense of urgency is compounded when we confuse or conflate emotional reaction – the strongest, most immediate portion of our felt experience – with sensuality, the deep, lasting, kinetic contribution to our fundamental belief system. Emotional reactions are akin to our thoughts, they’re mostly just pattern noise, distinct from the current of the human spirit that flows through each of us. That pattern noise is chop on the water, and more and more we choose to live in that frantic space, where it’s hard to breathe through the choking wetness, slapping in and out of our mouths.

Sensuality is given to us by virtue of our human form; it is something we can allow, but not something that we can construct. To emerge, it requires a cohesive context that is trusted at a cellular level, and this unfolding happens in partnership with our story telling psyche. Our instinct to build a narrative that explains our relationships is deeply entwined with our ability to trust ourselves and others. And what I see in our current media culture is the valuation of two things above all else: a high volume of participation at a rapid pace.

We live in an “I read it, so I know it. I can recite it, so I know it” kind of culture. Our whole education system primes us for this. We think because we understand something, or agree with it, we a qualified to live that way. We increasingly value the consumption of information over the application of information, and the inherent verification that accompanies practice. Our brains still construct narratives, but hastily and arbitrarily, because the forms and the content we’re using are fractured and decontextualized from the experiences that they present. And when our minds create something our bodies don’t believe, we feel unwell. I can’t figure out why we’re doing this, why we snatch up more and more bits, and stuff them into the gaping maws of our starving narratives. Why are we valuing “now” and “speed” and “more” so much? Why do we have such a strong cultural response that so vehemently rejects and subjugates our biology? Perhaps it is because our identities have become more individualized. Social media allows us to gossip about ourselves, and so we have become communities of one, networked to every other one.

How is it that we gather in a medium, and end up either alone, or together as a result? I think it hinges on the sensuality of the experience, which for me requires time, reflection and vulnerability. It requires accessing my own sensual nature, by making a safe space for it to come forward. Being a Spacemaker is hard, hard, lonely, doubt-filled work. It requires suspending identity, and not insisting on a single, well-understood role, even to yourself. And from that place, comes your offering to the world. From that place, comes the ability to listen to the sensuality of being together.

——————

My deep gratitude to Krista Tippett, Trent Gilliss, Sherry Turkle, Ann Hamilton, Susan Stewart, Paul Elie, Allen Razdow, Dan McClure, Vincent Horn, Linda McGettigan, Daniel Thorson, Chris Dancy, and Brad for their words and silence that influenced my thinking, and this piece. Some of them I have talked to, and some of them I have not, but in all cases I endeavored to listen well.

Love and Culture Shock

Love

A funny thing happened on the way to love – I got distracted by desire.

The dominant event in February was presenting at TFT14, about the relationship between technology and culture. This was a lot of fun, a great experience, and the first piece of meaty, external, professional work I’ve engaged in in over a year. I found myself almost manic in how I approached it (thinking about it constantly, up until one or two almost every night of the ten days I had to prepare), and really exhausted afterwards.

The most interesting part was watching myself not only completely loose interest in the domestic life I’ve immersed myself in (the laundry can wait, let’s get takeout tonight), but also becoming irritable and angry when it interfered with the exciting and pleasurable work going on in between my ears. I think part of what makes deliberate thinking so enjoyable is its similarity to the subtle abstraction layer that constantly runs in the background of our experience – the one we use to interpret the world, and in which we actually live most of our lives. Deliberate thinking is an amplified version of interpretation, one in which we have a feeling of control and purpose that replaces our normal vagueness, and makes abstraction feel magical, powerful and awesome.

I had a very hard time loosing myself in play with my kids; I found it exceptionally boring. I had a much lower tolerance for their bickering, for their childishness. I found it very difficult to switch with any ease back and forth between the quiet, intense, turning and touching focus I use to develop a concept and push my thinking in a new direction, and the loud, rollicking, roll-with-it easiness that makes being with little kids pleasant. For the first time, I began to question, are the roles of professional, intellectual work, and a domestic, parenting life, incompatible? I don’t want to believe this is true, but it was certainly true for me this month.

One of the key points I made in my talk, was that information is compressed experience, and this is certainly evident in the gulf between what kids know and what their parents know. We tout education as a means to transcend our more brutal instincts, and there is some truth to this. But a less commonly acknowledged truth is that with our knowledge we often adopt an intolerance for those who don’t know the same things we do. Often this is unconscious, but the consequences are still the same as overt judgement: misunderstanding, separateness, distrust. What I discovered about myself is that much of what irritates me about my kids boils down to them not understanding the world as I do, or more specifically, not complying with my worldview. We’re fighting over perspective, which, framed that way, seems insane, especially when one of the things I most wish to impart on my children is curiosity and acceptance of other perspectives.

Living with my children is like living with people from a different culture. They don’t understand the language very well, they’re illiterate, and seem to have very few customs related to emotional regulation. They don’t like a lot of the food here and frequently refuse to even try it; this behavior is accompanied by bizarre eating habits – like eating with their hands, running around with their food instead of sitting down to eat it, or preferring to eat while sitting on top of another human, usually me. They commonly talk over each other and other people, it seems that their tribe does not speak in a tennis-volley style like we do, but all at once and very loud in an effort to be heard over the other voices. Oddly, this is also a common point of frustration for them, because it is very hard to understand anything, which is exacerbated by their inexperience with the language. They are frequently loving and affectionate, but are prone to aggressive language and violent outbursts, often yelling and hitting each other or us, sometimes resulting in cuts and bruises. They are much more interested in our culture than we are in theirs, and imitate our behaviors regularly, sometimes even calling it to our attention so that they might be praised for it. And yet, with seemingly equal frequency they actively resist the things we ask them to do so that they might become fully acculturated. They are especially resistant to matters of personal hygiene, or having to do anything quickly. Also, they love sugar. They are obsessed with sugar. It must hold a place of sacred importance in their native land, for nothing else could explain the energy they put into thinking about, and acquiring, treats.

I am deeply in love with humans who are foreign to me. And when the gulf is most extreme, I yell at them, so that I might frighten all of our hearts back into their respective dominions. It is just too painful, too overwhelming, to confront what a long journey it is to meet in the middle; the miles on my side alone, appear eternal.

Another thread throughout my presentation was the idea that it’s very difficult to innovate within the context of our native culture because it’s transparent to us – we can’t see the ways in which it influences us because it’s simply become our worldview. What gets claimed, and acclaimed, as innovation is usually closer to tepid iteration. I offer that one way to disrupt this is by intentionally broadening the values and perspectives that we include in the design process of what we create. I have a very different perspective on American business and technology cultures having stepped away from them for a year and spent my time learning how to succeed survive in different culture with different values and different rhythms. I think this is valuable and I’m grateful for it, even though it’s also been painful and scary to give up an identity I’d invested so much in. And yet the reverse seems not to be true. I can see the value I bring as an outsider, surely, but it’s much harder for me to be comfortable with and open to the value of someone who is an outsider to my own experience – even though I want to. There is a weird asymmetry here. I can appreciate a business and technology perspective because I have shared it. And although I once was a child, I remember almost nothing from my young childhood. I don’t have any recollection of the experience I once shared with my own young children, and as a result, I am very quick to discount them. I don’t even mean to, in fact I mean not to, and I still do it, a lot. And if that model holds – if it is our natural inclination to automatically reject what we haven’t experienced, how on earth do we cultivate genuine diversity? Diversity that doesn’t just look different, but sounds different.

Part of what is weird, I mean truly weird, about the human experience is that we can’t imagine with any fidelity anything we haven’t experienced. The best we can do is make up a version of what might happen (or has happened) based on the reconstructed, abstract memory of something that happened to us. This means that we are wrong (in some degree or another) about everything except what is happening right now (which we also get wrong a lot), and yet we go through our lives thinking that we are mostly right, most of the time. We assume the exact opposite of what actually occurs. I can’t understand how it is even possible to do that, yet we do. All. Of. The. Time. It is amazing that anything works at all. And I think part of the reason that it does work, is that shared experience gives us a good enough imitation of someone else’s subjectivity to have it pass as our own. For it to be believable that we are in communion, and in so being, see our precious selves in another.

February’s practice had a lot of spontaneously conditional activities, which made it hard to remember how I planned to handle them, and also made clear what a large gap there is between my intention and my actual behavior. It’s hard to predict when I will get angry, talk to someone, or become tense, and nearly as hard to stay aware and responsive to those situations in accordance with my specified practice activities. The Heart Card helped with this, just having it in my pocket raised my awareness, but a lot got away from me. But despite failing a lot more than I succeeded, or in truth, probably because of that, I managed to learn a couple of things.

It’s not just me! My kids, being young and from another culture, have not yet mastered THE RULES OF HOW TO SPEAK TO EACH OTHER RESPECTFULLY. I knew this about them, but I didn’t realize how much it reinforced my own carelessness, until I made an effort to counter it (and I wonder why all my coaching isn’t having the impact I hope for). What also surprised me was how much other adults do not follow THE RULES OF HOW TO SPEAK TO EACH OTHER RESPECTFULLY. I went into this month’s practice assuming this happened because I blew the transaction with my own inattention, and of course this is partly true. But once I started deliberately offering my eye contact and full attention to the people I engaged with, I was amazed at how few people met me with an equal level of attention.

Many people in casual transactions, like handing me a coffee, or saying have a nice day, would not even look at me at all. Sometimes they would, but with very little emotional presence, as if they had good training in the rules of engagement, but were attentionally absent. It struck me that we all do a lot of hiding in plain sight. I can’t tell which way we’ve chameleoned, in or out, but we certainly seem afraid to be seen. The most pleasurable interactions were the ones in which my attention hooked the other person – they would start of non-committal, but then deepen their engagement based on my continued attention. By the end of the interaction they would be beaming, seeming equal parts delighted and mystified that a stranger wanted to see them. I loved it when this happened. It felt good, really good, to mutually recognize each other’s humanity in this way. We spend a lot of time imagining that love is big – panoramic sunsets, and epic orchestras with soaring string sections – but some of the most satisfying moments of love I experienced were when I did nothing more than witness the presence and simple actions of someone else.

The other important lesson I got was the first time I ran out of good advice. I was really mad at Colin (for what I can’t remember), and followed the directions on The Heart Card, to calm down and think of what I would tell someone else to do. Much to my amazement, I found that I had absolutely no good ideas at all. Really none, and I had not prepared for this particular predicament. I decided the best thing I could do, under the circumstances, was to just speak gently and honestly about why I was upset, which I did. What I said is also lost to memory but Colin’s reaction isn’t. He was gracious and loving. He said okay mom, and gave me a hug. And for him, a sensitive and cerebral kid, this was an off-pattern response. It is amazing how many of those eternal miles you can travel in the company of someone else.

So what did I learn about love? Nothing that I didn’t already know and have to relearn at every turn. Love is so simple as to not be believable. Love is coiled and slumbering all around us, and we are mostly too shy, too self-conscious, too hurt, too fearful to reach in and out at the same time, and gently wake it up.

Refactoring the Identity Machine

The life cycle of cultural experience: novelty > benefit > standardization > bondage > reinvention >

Kevin Kelly has been “trying to listen to what the technology wants, and the technology is suggesting that it wants to be watched”. I have been a big fan of Kelly since I stumbled across his Cool Tools blog years ago. I was working as a product manager, I loved how he thought about products. I love how he thinks about other stuff. This post is a response to Kelly’s article, The Technium (which is quoted throughout). To you sir, I bow deeply.

I’m listening to my humanity, and what my humanity is suggesting is that it wants to be watched.

The Identity Machine
Our inner experiences and outer actions are getting much longer, and more visible half lives through their instantiation as digital artifacts that we copy, push, aggregate and endlessly revise. Digital technology, and social media in particular, are bringing our insides out, capturing our behaviors without context, and creating a fossil record of our impermanence. We are using the world’s largest copy machine, primarily to make copies of ourselves.

Consider this behavior in the context of just a few questions relevant to our time:

  • What does immediate and always-on connection with a population larger and more diverse than anything we’ve ever had access to mean for our human experience?
  • What does the accelerating environmental instability and natural resource reduction – driven by us – mean for our environmental security?
  • Why do we routinely use medical technology to extend our lives, even when the quality of that life is very poor?
  • Why, despite the incredible abundance created by our scientific and financial advancements, and the existence of a high-functioning global distribution system, have we not distributed this abundance to the many, many people who are still struggling with basic needs for their health and safety?

And ask yourself, why has our cultural response to these and similar questions been to create and propagate more versions of ourselves? We actually have a great tool to solve the big questions of our time, but haven’t popularized it to solve questions much bigger than what we like.

Most prosumers still produce and consume in the pattern of the mass market era – we act out the message of the medium, which today mostly involves us copying ourselves on the internet and then staying very busy iterating all those copies. So the copy machine has become a pattern machine, and a pattern machine is an identity machine. We are creating strong patterns, in our private and collective channels, and for me the a really interesting question is, why aren’t we designing technologies to disrupt our patterns instead of continually reinforcing them? Perhaps the best way to prepare for an unpredictable future is with technology that is designed to serve impermanence.

“It’s hard to convince people to take that long-term perspective because the future is so uncertain,” Kelly tells us, and he is right. But one way to frame long-term planning is by designing values instead of objects. You can’t plan for a future based on durable goods and discrete services – their obsolescence begins the moment you name them – but you can plan for the values that serve a caring humanity, serving a sentient planet, and start designing technology that either mutates or eliminates itself in service to those values.

The Trouble with Humans
We can use the technologies of identity proliferation and privacy collapse, not to reinforce our notions of self, and our values around privacy, but to break them. These are two aspects of the same coin. The urge to reach out and share is innately human; it is beautiful. In a networked age, the need for digital identities were a necessary first step to compensate for the lost intimacy of proximity that the web allows us to leave behind. But in doing this, we immediately introduced the uncomfortable experience of profile decay: watching our former selves die, via the asymmetrical change rate of our profile and emerging self. In an effort to alleviate the dissatisfaction of our innately human condition, we quickly learned to amend, revise, and version our profiles to match the myriad contexts and developments of our constantly emerging lives. We’re already experts at doing this with our memories, but our digital memories are more resistant. In service of this Sisyphean task – capturing our complex and ephemeral nature with a tool that makes permanent a fraction of what we are, after it’s already happened – we willingly give more and more information away.

We are using our digital tools in a way that creates an unsatisfying result, but it is so, so close to our human experience, that we mostly haven’t noticed that throwing more information at the problem of impermanence, isn’t working. Creating a better versions of our past selves is not going to make us comfortable with whatever is bothering us right now. Through our digital communication, we are trying to recreate the human experience in a non-physical context, and it’s frustrating the shit out of us, because we exist in a physical context. Digital versions of ourselves offer the tantalizing promise of a cleaner, more sterile, less painful humanity, but this is also a despairing one because such a thing does not exist. Our bodies force the full reality upon us, through our emotions, through our illnesses, and, of course, ultimately through death. In trying so hard to exorcise the the painful, we are also forfeiting joy and beauty, all the fresh and luscious life of a complete and present life. We’re so caught up in using our hyper-consumptive tools to craft a more accurate version of our human experience, that we haven’t noticed they’re failing to serve our humanity. We look around and say, hey, where did all the lovely virgins go? Oh, we sacrificed them.

We reinforce our identity patterns with technology that recommends we consume and act in the same way our past selves did. Sure, we can influence the algorithm, but we don’t, because it’s just too difficult to resist a medium that continuously delivers a recognizable, incomplete (often preferable) version of ourselves back to us, based on who we were.

And it’s not just our identity we’re consuming though the content. The medium is payloaded with the identity of an elite design class that disproportionately values technology and the business models predicated on that technology; people are an afterthought, and we tacitly adopt the same position when we adopt the technology.

Information is compressed experience. Design is a compressed, and directive, value system. When we consume these things we consume the experiences and values of others, but we are not, by and large, asking if the those are the right values and experiences for us, in the lives we want to live. The values of a twenty-something who makes a lot of money designing technology, works with other bright and talented colleagues, and is swaddled in a closed feedback loop and the extended adolescence companies like Google and Facebook provide their employees, might not be a very close match to lives and values of the population that adopts so much of what they make. This is not a judgement of what is “better” – neither one is – but they are different, and this difference is amplifying the identity gap we already experience when use this technology to look at ourselves. So when we consider if technology is helping us achieve what we want in our lives – financial security, a healthy environment, more leisure time, and greater intimacy with our loved ones, come to mind – we should consider if these are also the most immediate and felt concerns of the people who are designing the technology, and setting the cultural standard of use, for the rest of the population.

Orthogonate
We have accelerated the rate at which we replicate ourselves, and it’s become a compounding mechanism to reinforce the same identity patterns we are used to. But it is not so hard to imagine that we might rotate the lens to get a very different view of things. That we might collide the personal Higgs Fields of our identities with enough awareness to shake loose some perspective that is broader than our assumptions about the well-practiced self.

If we run our pattern archive through a technology designed to disrupt, rather than reinforce our behaviors, what will we learn about ourselves? What will we learn about each other? If there were no privacy filters on Facebook, and we had access to the social behavior stream of the third largest, most diverse county in the world, what would we see, and how might this inform our actions in the world? What would happen if we took the amplification power of our pattern machine, and used it to start producing insights about our behaviors, instead of more of the same behavior.

The future doesn’t pull, we spring it. Our patterns pull, in that we fall most easily into the highest volume practice of our past, but the future isn’t a force in its own right. We make it up based on our choices, and our choices are based on awareness. And because technology is increasingly becoming a ubiquitous and near frictionless accomplice to our pattern making, we are loosing our ability to even think about it as a disruptive, awareness-creating force, which is frightening. Because the technology runs all the time, if we follow its lead, we will come to the manifest destiny of singularity – but not because it was a forgone conclusion. It will happen because we forfeited our power, our human perspective as a partner to technology, and blindly followed our own invention into letting the fraction of the life we designed it for, become all of the life we live.

The questions about how we handle digital overload, and how we protect our privacy are valid. It seems strange then, that our primary response has been to design and use more technologies that interrupt us so that we can give away more information. Despite our protests, our actions indicate that we are in a fairly willing collusion with our technology. If we are going to continue on this path, and it’s hard to imagine we won’t, it is time to start asking what do we want to happen as a result? We need to design the human future we want, and then design and use our technology to help us create it. We have ceded so much of our power and perspective, that our primary solution to these problems is how we might make the same tool more efficient at creating a result we don’t fucking like. Instead we might ask: In a future where everything is known about me, how to I want that society to treat me? A perfectly reasonable cultural response to that question, for instance, is to create a society in which we have eliminated shame, and the devastating consequences it brings. Shame is a social disease, it’s only contagious if you spread it, and our poor, our ill, our addicted, and our abused die from it every day.

Scaling Identity to the Collapse Point
“…it’s very common to see these network effects kick in where…the more you have, the more attractive you become…and so you have explosions…We shouldn’t be too envious of that kind of scaling, because it’s a very ephemeral thing, and it’s a very natural thing.” Kelly wrote this about the growth patterns of technology companies, but it’s equally true about our personal identities. The most glaring examples of this are the substance of celebrity media, but as prosumers, we are all engaged in dialing up the wattage of our personal spotlights. When our identities are deeply enmeshed with a system that scales to super nova – as its natural mode of operation – what should we be preparing for in terms of our human experience with our digital selves?

We have made some very useful things, and it is time to take a look at what we’ve done. We have made a magnificent tool to study ourselves, but in order to do so, we must change the technology to encourage reflection, rather than replication. Reflection is not the same as consuming our own performance. What is the design that will allow us to truly turn the technology on ourselves? What is the design that will foster space for the attention to our inner experience, instead of encouraging us to simply document it?

In a world where there will “be more minds and artificial minds everywhere” we are ready to start designing for the collective consciousness, instead of the user experience. Let us design for the human experience, for the sentient experience. It is time to question our complicity in exploiting ourselves back to the market as data-generating commodities, and start designing and demanding technologies that treat us like the gorgeous, interconnected beings we are. It is time to design the cultural reaction we want, in the future we are creating.

Culture Tax

A few things came up over and over, during the Clarity exercise.

– Physical objects are vessels that bear abstraction
– Physical objects obscure complexity
– Physical objects last much longer than the states they were acquired to satisfy
– We approach a culture of abundance with a scarcity mindset

One of the consequences of global culture is the abstraction from the most elemental parts of our life, like our food and other energy sources. For many of us (in the West at least) this abstraction has also led to tremendous abundance. Mechanization, technology, and the extreme fungibility power of a shared monetary system, have created a world where, with relative ease, time can be turned into almost any object or service. We spend some time doing something someone else values, we’re given some money for our effort, and then swap that money for a dazzling array of goods and services in a marketplace that is more or less always available. Yet, if I am any indication, we are still largely engaged with this monumental change in our living circumstances from a scarcity perspective.

The Abundance Trap
Physical goods represent past investment and future opportunity, and getting rid of them conjures up the fear of future regret. Thoughts like, but it works fine, or I might need it later and then I’ll have to replace what I already had, emerged over and over as I sorted through the things in my home. Our physical objects become a tangible stand-in for cognitive and emotional security, and the vessels that bear our memories. It is as though our abstract models for synthesizing reality must be anchored in, and buttressed by, the material. We instantiate what we love, the things that matter, in, well, matter. It is an astonishingly literal and straight forward way to surround ourselves with our world view and personal narrative. I actually find it oddly charming, almost childlike for it’s simplicity. But the sweetness in it also seems naive in a modern context of abundance. My fear of being wasteful, led me to actually being wasteful, by accumulating, and keeping, more than I can use.

The reality of my situation is closer to this: I am not going to start cycling anytime soon, and those padded bike shorts I still have from when I was spinning six years ago, can go. And if I do take up biking again, those shorts probably won’t fit anymore, or the spandex will be too deteriorated anyway. AND, it is also insanely easy for me to either purchase new ones, or with a little more effort, get them very cheap or free from a thrift store or freecycle.org. But still, I think, well, it’s always possible… Doubt, particularly the positive doubt that allows our future self redeem to the choices and aspirations of our past self, gives staying power to physical objects that are currently irrelevant. With shows like Hoarders and Storage Wars we have turned the viewing of other’s excess into a commercially viable sport predicated on sanctimony and excitement. And like so much of our media, it reflects what we cherish and revile, what we ourselves do at a scale small enough, that we only dare explore it through the magnified reflection of some one else, safely distant from our actual lives.

Food, my most direct and important energy source, is freighted with complexity and abstraction. What is crucially intimate, is also frighteningly foreign; this is the paradox of our time. I know almost nothing about where my food comes from, who makes it, and whether or not it will be good to eat after a seemingly arbitrary date, stamped on the packaging, has passed. I am being duped into unnecessary waste (and more purchasing) by the manufacturer, or is it actually not safe to eat, or safe, but lousy tasting? I can’t believe how little I really know about my food. Why would dry grains that once served as currency, for heaven’s sake, expire? I store it to the point of waste because it’s easier than using it. I buy Japanese soba noodles to try in a recipe and then let the rest sit in the cabinet for years, because they don’t quite fit with what I normally eat. Globalization and accessibility have made it easy for me to trifle in experiences outside my dominant culture, but the steel gossamer of my own native patterns makes it difficult to see those liaisons through to an honorable conclusion. My life is littered with the wreckage of my love affair with information – the noodles I bought to make a recipe in Gourmet, have outlasted the publication!

We buy in bulk at box stores for convenience and value, but this also obscures our consumption rate. It feels like we use less, and spend less because we don’t have to go through the uncomfortable exchanges of giving away our time and money every time we want another roll of paper towels – and the side effect of that is we don’t live in close contact with the true cost of using them at the rate we do.

The abstract nature of the abundance further divorces us from the relationship between what we do with our time, and how we come to have the trappings around us. I might talk and write about an idea that someone else builds, and someone else buys, and through the magical power of commerce and other people’s labor, have a house full of things I don’t maintain, and food whose origin is a mystery. I have more of everything, but I am distracted and lonely, because I have so little relationship to myriad things that surround me. I am constantly fighting my eagerness to find it in the next shiny object, or tantalizing idea, but I inevitably begin the cycle again, blindly, with the same model that landed me here in the first place. The abundance around me – in my home, in my media, in my schedule – tugs and taps and winks, a million microns of attentional gravity, pulling me into a perpetual now of nothing.

Learned Instinct
As a species, we are terribly impoverished in the realm of instinct. We’re born knowing how to eat, cry and clutch, and nearly everything else has to be learned. When we think of “trusting our instincts” it almost always applies to a personal, subjective experience, and does little to reliably contribute a predictable offering into the world around us, like say a spider’s web, or a bird song. But instinct is awfully useful, and so we do our best to approximate it through social organization: culture is the collective instinct of any given population – a family, a town, a nation, a gender…

Culture is learned, and preserved, through deep repetition and social reinforcement, which is why it is so hard to change – it requires collective practice against the already existing (usually unconscious) pattern. It is often vaguely linked to safety – physical (don’t eat this) or social (don’t say that) – and strongly linked to identity (we do, or don’t do, X). And because it’s also linked to the power structures of any given system, there are painful consequences for dissent, ranging from time-outs to execution. The immediate social and psychological benefits of belonging are so powerful that being counter cultural seems not only like a lot of work, but also dangerous to one’s wellness and security. As the saying goes: One doesn’t sip cyanide just to see what it tastes like.

The dominant population in America is one who has exchanged the cultural identity of their linage for a personal identity of hope. The origin stories of most non-Native Americans start with leaving the culture of their heritage, either willingly (often because things were so bad abandonment was the best option), or by force (because they were dragged away in chains). The American mythos is that of the pain/hope cycle: that merciless combination that drives astounding feats of achievement. Americans, by and large, are gambling on the exchange of a less-than ideal now, for a perpetually better future. This has been an extremely successful model for generating vast amounts of wealth, technological advances, and scientific discoveries, but we’ve mortgaged our humanity along the way. The chafing from our nobly-intentioned sacrifice further drives us to abandon the status quo just as quickly as we can identify it, in the hope that the arrival of the next future will make us happier right now.

Even when we can see our unhappiness, the prospect of trying to step out of this cycle is terrifying. For starters, it produces so much convenience and prosperity; the abundance we’ve created allows for a near frictionless (and presumably infinite) feathering our nests with goods and services that subtly reinforce this pattern. But stickier still is the emotional attachment we have to belonging. As humans, we long to be part of a narrative that is broader and longer than our own. It is very hard to leave the only home you’ve ever know, even when you don’t want to stay there.

The cycle times of these cultural narratives run at a much slower pace than the cycles of our markets. Our stories of sacrifice and improvement enjoy the dual benefits of an early introduction and constant repetition in the way they’re (often silently) enacted around us. Against this behavioral backdrop, quarterly earnings capture our attention over and over, leaving little room to consider the less urgent, but deeply pervasive, patterns that drive most of what we do. We eat the values of the market, and subsequently grow the culture that perpetuates them. If you’re at least third-generation American, you’ve probably got a family story about the Great Depression, and you’ve probably got some personal values that relate to behavior associated with economic hardship, and you are likely enacting those values in a way that also supports the perpetuation of personal abundance. For those of us who have been eclipsed by the abundance we’ve helped create, I offer that it is time to stop refining – and start redefining – the model that creates it. Rather than continuing to look at everything through the same lens, we must consider the lens itself.

America is a culture exquisitely primed to consume connective and information-pushing technologies that feed our cultural instinct for more. It’s no surprise that we have invented so many of them – it’s what we value. And this, in and of itself, might not be so problematic if it were not for the clutter of objects that accompany our frenetic pace of acquisition. In material form, these objects are crippling and overwhelming our environment, and in abstract form they are crippling and overwhelming our human spirits. The impact of object proliferation is finally reaching an impact point painful enough to contend with the painful risks of culture change. Abandoning our cultural narrative of acquisition for a better one would, in fact, be a very American thing to do.

So what, then?
The good news is that if our instincts are learned, they are also mutable. How do we learn in a culture of abundance, to accept the abundance, and shift our attention elsewhere in order to solve more pressing problems, including the problems of abundance? What will we loose by doing this? How do we even think clearly in the din of our economic engine?

One possibility is that our excess will actually allow more of us to live well, by living more simply – but we must choose to do so. In a world where we no longer need to hedge against basic needs that aren’t secure, and put our energy into the attainment of physical goods, we have to retrain ourselves step off the gas, and practice living in the (sometimes uncomfortable) intimacy of our own lives: Cooking our own food, raising our own kids, cleaning our own homes, and actually BEing with the people around us.

Successfully switching to a culture of being, from a culture of doing, requires reducing, among other things, the number of relationships that we claim for intimacy. Americans are loathe to surrender to the limits of their capacity – because it is pleasurable (and mythological) to live in the abstraction layer of abundance afforded us by ubiquitous technology and financial capital, not to mention the righteous fantasy generation of that little meat computer between our ears. It has become so common to do this – it is so culturally supported – it’s difficult to even recognize how dominant it is. Culture is transparent from the inside out, like a one way mirror.

Significant change usually comes from a place of emergency, disgust, or impoverishment; otherwise we’re just not motivated enough to undertake the effort. And it is a lot of effort. Sitting still long enough to discover these things within ourselves, requires patience and tolerance and kindness for oneself – not exactly skills that we get a lot of chance to develop along the way. Class, we will now sit still for an hour and practice recognizing and accepting our fear and self-loathing with loving-kindness…

Our values and intentions are difficult to quantify because the inner experience is so subjective. And we live in a culture that is crazed for quantification because that is how we convert nearly everything into financial currency, so it can go through the abstraction exchange that powers abundance. Americans are some of the hardest working, most creative and driven people in the world, but our cultural narrative is so fixated on expansion and achievement, we trample the development of our humanity in the rush to prove how great we are. We call the normal, second adolescence of adult psychological development a midlife crisis. How did a culture founded by pioneers, inventors, entrepreneurs, slaves and exiles become so disdainful of questioning the world around us, that is, the one we created? I actually find this heartbreaking.

The world will re-balance itself, to be sure; either through a catastrophic failure (likely in the economy or environment) or through the deliberate work and attention of humans – the same way we got here. I would prefer the latter, but it’s not as attention garnering as cataclysmic disaster. I’m not sure how you give kindness, generosity, compassion, and self-awareness mainstream appeal and commercial viability.

For my part, the best idea I have come up with, is simply to practice in the ordinary context of my ordinary life. Practice is like pulling that loose thread, before you know it, a whole bunch you weren’t expecting is undone. I am learning humility in spades, and pitching fits with every lesson. And I am doing the other, equally small and simple thing I can think of, which is to write. To tell my story, which is a story about being human. The hurt and hope in my pressable flesh, and ethereal spirit, are not so special as I fancy. We need voices of relief, voices that throw contrast against the crystalline instincts of our culture, so that their forms might be seen. Voices that name what’s already slumbering in the hearts of others, so that it might be known to them.

An Agile Life

Agile board of post-its
I struggle with feeling satisfied at the end of my domestic days. Slowing down, being mindful, and making a deliberate effort to do fewer things well, I was surprised to discover, left me feeling like I was not doing enough, and bad at everything. Coincidentally, this was also how I felt when I was taking on more than I could ever hope to accomplish. My solution to investigate this? Pay even more attention to what I’m doing, or rather, pay a different kind of attention.

I have stepped off the corporate path, and am still running my tongue around my gums to get the taste out. Yet, when it came to trying to figure out what is actually going on in my BIG TIME OUT, the most sensible thing I could think to do was to run an agile board. I spend a lot of time wondering why our corporate and economic models omit so much of real life, but as it turns out, this has been a really helpful lens to understand my own behavior. Funny that.

I’ve got five epics: my personal endeavors, kids & family, and the logistics of the household, a “today” task list, and, of course, a backlog. I put down all most some of the stuff I anticipate needing or wanting to do, estimate how long each task will take, and then prioritize the “today” column each morning. This has been a very educational experience.

Lessons learned:

I suck at estimating how long stuff will take. I rarely know how long something will take until I’ve done it. Often, I forget to measure in a discrete way, so I retroactively guess. Sometimes I skip estimating because I don’t know, but don’t bother break out a task into something more estimable, or even hazard my best guess. I’ve seen (and by and large believed) all of these things in development teams, but trying it with something so personal let me understand the limitations of estimates in a much deeper, felt sense.

I suck at prioritizing, and a rarely execute my day in the order of priority I’ve set. As a Product Manager, I wasted a lot of energy lamenting that business units have no idea how to prioritize. Turns out I don’t either. I don’t have a clear idea of what is most important. There are a lot of competing, non-binary factors that might make something more important, or not – it depends. As it happens, I can not predict the future, nor I am I all that comfortable with not being able to. I know how is ridiculous this is, still it remains true in my experience – which is frustrating.

Hierarchical models, like prioritization, are inherently binary – you’ve got more or fewer bits of “yes” turned on. But prioritization only remains accurate when layered on top of a perspective that it already matches. When they don’t match, then there’s a conflict to resolve. What I didn’t realize is that these conflicts are constant. Sometimes they’re small and obvious, like wanting to eat something before getting started, and sometimes they’re large and subtle, like reorganizing a business unit, or development team. Prioritization can be a useful framework, certainly, but expecting it to be a unifying, static definition of reality, well, that is not only impossible, but seems like a sure way to end up confused and disappointed. But we all agreed on the priorities… Equally as helpful as identifying what ever priorities are set, would be identifying all the conflicts that might impede them – and not just the obvious ones of time, budget, tools, and human talent. Comparing the length of those lists – priorities and conflicts – might be as accurate a predictor of project success, or percentage of overrun, than any other.

My “stuff” permeates the simplest tasks in way that is fairly alarming. It takes me five minutes to put in a load of laundry if I just grab enough clothes of a similar color, add soap, and start the wash. But if I do it the way I’m patterned to do it – get all the laundry from all over the house, and sort multi-tiered loads of laundry (bleachable whites, light whites, colors, and then by fabric weight within those groups, and/or other logical grouping like linens, kids, and adults) – then it takes me, well, longer, and how much longer varies based on the laundry that day. Subtle, personal preferences and patterns influence my actions in a way I just didn’t (don’t) realize.

My life is much more dynamic and emergent than a model like this allows for, which throws off my estimates and prioritization even more than they were to start. Almost nothing is linear, and I am constantly being interrupted. My tasks take way longer than I think they “should” because I am dealing with semi-rational, semi-functional, and unpredictable team mates. My kids are little and require a lot of help. Stuff takes longer because I need to do it for them, because they undo it, because they are doing something else at the same time, because they are practicing something they’re not yet good at, and almost everything at their age requires practice. I extrapolate my own (already bad) estimates onto the kids, and then end up unhappy that the reality did match a plan that was delusional to begin with. WTF? I can clean up, get dressed eat and be ready to leave in 30 minutes an hour, but doing this with my kids is a two, sometimes three hour job. I’ve spent years being frustrated by this, and feeling like this was somehow a personal failure of mine. And it was, but not in the way I thought – it was not a failure of execution, it was a failure to let reality define my expectations and actions, rather than the other way around.

My environment and the moods of myself and others are the largest influences of what I do. If the weather is nice, or my kids are foul, the day can take a radical departure from what I had planned. I am astounded at how much this alters the flow and choice of my activities; I suspect these likely hold a much larger sway in our business environments than we recognize.

Almost everything I do is cyclical, “done” is a dangerous fallacy. Seeing this (in the very concrete form of moving post-it notes back a forth, and back again) has helped me shift my attitude to valuing the quality of the process over the completion of the task. It’s also helped me see how the natural order of everything is fundamentally rhythmic. Any model that does not account for expansion and contraction is bound to fail at some point, because it’s leaving out half of something. This is what makes temporal models so tricky – time is linear, predictable, and only moves in one direction. When we bind other processes to time, it’s easy to expect them to share the same qualities, and consider the natural reset of the cycle a failure when viewed through the primary lens of time.

These are not particularly profound realizations, but rewiring my automatic response system to value action over outcome, and welcome resets, is a profound change (challenge) for me; it requires a lot of intentional awareness, emotional energy, and patience. A task is only done for a moment, before dust starts to accumulate again, or another dish gets placed in the sink. When understood in this way, valuing an instant of satisfaction, rather than the entire process in between those blips on the graph, seems insane. Why set up pleasure to be so brief, and so antagonistic to the natural course of events? I’m surprised by how strongly I associate the “completion” model with value, and how commonly I use that as my viewpoint.

The value of this process is in analyzing behavior, not outcomes. So frequently data, tracking, and analysis are used to pressure conformity to predefined outcomes – finish a project on schedule, loose three pounds this week, meet a testing standard – rather than understand the underlying reasons for any deviation that occurs. It’s good to have goals, it’s totally legitimate to have a schedule and a plan, but it’s also important to be able willing to question if the goal and the plan were reasonable to begin with, or if they account for all the common variables. Most discussions about “failure” are focused on what prevented the objective from being met (frequently cast as unpredictable, one-time events), or perhaps they skip right to fixing the problem. Typically it’s asked: How do we make up for the deviation that occurred, and prevent it from happening again? instead of Why did we see the deviation we did?

The most valuable part of this exercise has been to help me see that the root causes of my dissatisfaction are different than I thought. I’ve become more aware of my behavior, and make more conscious choices about what I’m doing. I’m more compassionate with myself, and more satisfied with the choices I make, in large part because they’re done intentionally, with fuller knowledge of what’s gained and lost. The data is not telling me what to do, it’s exposing what I already do – indirectly, by making visible the gaps between the model and what actually happened. I’m still not satisfied, but I’m less unsatisfied. I’ve got less doer’s remorse, and this is a good thing.

The Handicap of Authority

I have recently been thinking a lot about the state of “don’t know” – directly in my practice, but also throughout my days. I did a great home retreat session with Shinzen Young on this topic, in which I had two opposite experiences around the state of don’t know (which I define as being conscious of not knowing something, either cognitively or somatically). I experienced “don’t know” both as doubt, which was critical, fearful, contracted and emotionally distressing, and as curiosity, which was questioning, excited, open and emotionally pleasurable. Same state, two completely different experiences. It was like watching the minds of a paralyzed neurotic and a creative genius. Same mind.

I also realized, when I noted the pleasure of a breeze on my face, how the action of “knowing” something closes off the possibility for additional experience. We give an experience a label, and identity, and package it up for easier consumption, but this act of simplifying and sense-making creates much bigger wakes of don’t know for everything else that is omitted from our direct experience. We tune into a thin channel of reality so that we are not deafened by the cacophony, but lost are the myriad other tones and voices. Only now, I am starting to hear the echos. Knowing and not knowing are the same then, it seems. They are the inverted form of the other, or maybe, a triggering cycle, back into the other.

So the more we “know” the less direct experience we let into our lives, the less open we become to possibility and alternative explanations and solutions. I see this all the time in business, and much of what makes the Lean movement so appealing is its attempt to align with the reality that is occurring, not the one that has been planned. But much of American business culture is still organized around the planning and hierarchy structures that worked well for the industrial era, and are failing in an age of technology and integration.

Complex, dynamic systems like software, or any modern product manufactured in a globalized economy, do not lend themselves to predictability or control. But our business structures still organize as if they do. Worse, the institutionalized expectations that this is not just possible, but ideal, are still deeply entrenched. The higher up in an organization that you sit, the greater is your responsibility for knowing what is happening, how it is going to turn out, and why. The more pressure there is to know, the greater the tendency resist, often actively thwart, any portion of reality that does not match one’s selected reality. The more committed we become to what we know, the worse our distress when it diverges from the objective reality that occurs. No wonder board room politics are so vicious, and so many start-ups fail. What is a leader to do, when trapped in the handicap of their own authority?

Filtering – knowing – making wise choices and purposeful rejections, are important qualities in a good leader, and essential for running a successful business. Expertise and mastery are essential components for creating value and authority seems like a near enemy. The controlling aspect of authority is preferred over, and sometimes even confused with, skill and knowledge.

Mastery, expertise, knowledge, are qualities that all seem real to me, that I believe are recognizable and valuable. But I’m unclear about their relationship to knowing, and not knowing. Rich, direct experience is very hard – for me, it requires slowing down and concentrating. A lot. There is a tipping point at which the broad-spectrum consumption of reality comes at the expense of day-to-day functioning. Having a well developed skill or body of knowledge requires knowing, but it seems backwards that being exceptional would come from a closed position. Is it the difference between practiced repetition, vs. assumed reality or extrapolated models?

With practice in the physical world, in a task, or in study, the repetition leads to a build-up of knowledge – a residue persists from knowing that has been tested and proven many times over, with multiple variations. The residue of practice is what leads to genuine knowledge, but the indirect or lightly tested knowing of something gets us in to trouble. It has no weight, is has does not carry the fingerprints of a previously vetted reality. Conversely, our patterns of experience lead us to “know what’s going to happen”, all the time, and contribute accordingly. While I suppose karma is a certain kind of expertise, it’s not skill. So what is the difference between patterns in our thoughts and behaviors, and the repetition that leads to wise skill? I think consciousness and intention, but this is very difficult to quantify, currently, which makes it hard to track for ourselves, or champion more broadly, given that quantifiable knowledge is very fashionable, very preferable, in our culture.

Digital Bleed

phone charger in a box of bandages

The Friday before Fourth of July week, I am in the city, with no particular plans, and no technology to assist me with my own life. I recently gave up my smartphone, and have been seeing what life is like without it.

What’s most interesting about this experiment (almost three weeks now) is how much I’ve learned from the experience of absence. We usually seek improvement on the assumption whatever we have is deficient, not that it’s too much. Our first instinct is towards abundance, rather than reduction. Aside from our cultural obsession with efficiency, we rarely consider elimination as a path to improvement. Why is this?

Living without a smartphone has been like entering another communication class. I’ve dropped outside of the tools, patterns, and expectations now common in my peer group: A friend of mine is several hours late to visit, I finally call her, slightly worried, and she says: I’ve been in terrible traffic, didn’t you get my texts? I miss my train, and now will be home several hours later than I planned. I want to let Brendan know this, but have no phone to call him. I find a payphone (a payphone!), which I think is a delightful novelty. Even more amazing, I have quarters with me. As I dial, I realize I know exactly three phone numbers, four if you count my childhood number for a house now inhabited by people I don’t know. Without technology to store, query, and display on demand, I have to be responsible for details of my life that I had become transparent to me. I have to remember more things, like what time the train leaves, and to check my watch.

All that pocketed availability, kept me slightly separate, slightly suspended from my physical, present, reality. The divide is so subtle, I could only see it once it wasn’t in front of me any more. As our technology gets more luscious – more vivid, more social, more soothing – we soften into it. As it becomes more ubiquitous, we forget what life was like without it – we forget that there even is a “without it”.

So I’m in town, and I decide to stop by the Pearson offices where I used to work and still have some friends, one or more of whom, I am hoping to coax into having some fun with me. I suddenly remember that the building is “secure” – the lobby will have a clerk, watching for the swipe of a digital key card. I do not have a digital key card. I do not have an appointment. I do not have a phone to call, or email, or text my friends, and circumvent the system. It occurs to me for the first time, that all that security isn’t to keep dangerous people out, it’s to keep non-dangerous people in. Digital bleeds both ways. It’s a seeping, creeping, invisible gas that wafts between the bricks and glass, and puts us back in touch with the people we willing lock ourselves away from, nearly every day of the week. It’s a tugging, hugging vacuum that bends us away from the people right in front of us who want and deserve our attention. In a meeting, on walk, out for drinks, in the kitchen, on the road, at the playground.

I meander through Boston common and the public garden. I consider trying to sneak in, verses following the rules. I decide to follow the rules because I think that will actually be a lot more interesting than gliding by. I’m giddy by the time I arrive. There’s a man at the desk in the lobby.

Hi.
Good morning.
I’m here to visit someone at Pearson. I don’t have an appointment, so I’m hoping you can help me get in touch with her.
Who are you here to see?
Beth Porter. Can you call and see if she’s available?
Do you work here?
No, but I used. You could just let me go up, and I can track her down. Whatever is easier.
I can’t let you do that.
He reaches for the phone, then stops and looks at me. The fastest thing would be for you to call her.
I don’t have a phone, smiling broadly.
He stars at me, nonplussed. If I had said: I don’t have a phone at the moment, because I threw it at a brain-eating zombie who was chasing me through the common, I think he would have been less surprised.
Isn’t that amazing? I say.
Yes. It is.
After another moment,Do you have a license?
Yes! Yes, I do have one of those.

I’m giggling now. I hand him my license. He looks at it. He looks at me. He rolls his chair over to his computer and types something.
Ok, there you are.
I realize he’s looking at my old employee profile, and I’m surprised that I’m still in the security system.
Why don’t you just let me go up?
I can’t do that.
What do you think would happen? Are you worried I’ll do something?
It’s against the rules. I don’t make the decisions.

I shrug, smile.
He picks up the phone and talks to someone. He says my name. He says Beth’s name. He hangs up. I stand. He sits.
What happens now?
They come and arrest you. I’m sorry, I’m just doing my job.
I smile. I love this guy.
Take this, just in case, and he hands me a guest pass ID to stick on my shirt. Ninth floor.
Thank you. As I head towards the elevators, he says something back, but I don’t hear it clearly. It sounds like Good tidings.

On the ninth floor, there is another man at a desk. He has a pad of paper next to him. My name is written on it. Beth’s name is written on it. He tells me Beth was not at her desk. Would I like him to send her an email? I consider this. I have no way to get the response unless I wait. I don’t have anything urgent to do. Beth is almost never at her desk, and when she is, she is often on the phone. I figure the chances are high, that if she is working, she will see an email quickly. Yes, sure, thank you.

He tells me it’s very quiet in the office today. I have forgotten it’s the Friday before a holiday week. I try to convince him to let me in. He won’t. He tells me it’s against the rules. He could lose his job. I have a nice face, and he doesn’t think I would do anything, but he could get in trouble just the same. I’m disappointed. There is a new, open layout that I’m told everyone hates, because there is no privacy and all the executives are working right next to everyone else. This doesn’t seem like it would be too big of a problem, because in my experience, startups are the only companies where the executives are in the office much. I have no way to know if the people that work there really hate this arrangement, because the only people I’ve talked to about it are people, like me, who don’t work there any more. I want to see what it’s like.

Beth is not responding, so I ask him to call some other people. He’s very obliging. It starts to feel like a game. Leslie, voice mail. Daphne, voice mail. Bob, strait to voice mail. No wait, let me try his other phone, voice mail. I remember that Beth, Leslie and Daphne all have summer homes. I don’t know if Bob has a summer home or not, but I’ve been told he has a new girlfriend, which is probably even more enticing than a vacation home. My friends don’t need rescuing. They aren’t locked up. They’re out in the world, and I wonder in which direction they’re bleeding, or if they’ve pressed and held, to stop the flow.