The Shortest Distance Between Two Realities is an Experience

Why high school geometry teachers feel compelled to tell hormone crazed teen-agers that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line is beyond me. Talk about preaching to the choir. I guess if all you want out of life is a teen-ager’s intensity of experience (Damn, DUDE, that HURT! Let’s go do it AGAIN!) then the two point – straight line philosophy is probably good enough and you can quit reading right now. However, if high school didn’t turn out to be the peak of your intellectual, emotional, and spiritual development, then it’s probably worth asking why not.

It may be a gross oversimplification to suggest that all moral philosophy, religious teaching and psychological theory can be boiled down to the thought that the physical world is the only place where the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. And yet we live most of our lives, most of our professional days, all our digital existence as if that little high-school theorem can be picked up and neatly laid over the most intricate and complex of our experiences and decisions. Just listen to the latest business pep-rally cheers of simplification, specialization, and sourcing.

Am I banging the drum for gratuitous complexity? Of course not. We humans have this tendency to under learn and over apply good lessons. Am I worried that we’ll under learn and over apply the value of editing, compression, and acceleration that the digital age relies on? Well, yes, I am.

When Simple Enough is Too Much
There’s always another studiously blasé teen-ager who’s sure they can handle it (whatever “it” is), or the energetic new VP from the coast who’s six-sigma sure they can fix it (whatever “it” is). The rising digital age, with its editing, compression and acceleration, has brought many good things to our front doors (usually via the Fed-Ex guy), but like a little gas on a good fire, it’s very difficult to know when enough is enough, though usually its pretty easy to tell when enough is too much. Melting the aluminum siding behind the bar-b-que grill is one reliable, if trailing, indicator, as are the toasted third quarter financial results.

This would be an easy place to ask Mr. Einstein up to the stage for a brief homily around his oft quoted statement that we should strive to make things as simple as possible but no simplier. What’s not so easy is keeping folks on point as he speaks.

First off, he’s usually invited into the room by some legacy lauding Luddite prattling on about how complex their particular business-critical system is and consequently how it can’t even be explained much less retired. An exec I respect says that when people tell him something is very complex, that usually just means they don’t understand it well enough to manage it. We need to know what we’re up to before we whip out the digital scalpel and start nipping here and tucking there on some bit of unpleasant analog reality, trying to get it into a more presentable and manageable representation. Otherwise the end result is less your favorite lithe super-model and more stumbling, roaring Franken-reality.

I’m guessing the brain that could wrap itself around relativity and purr like a kitten also understood the logical consequence of our 2-point-shortest-distance proclivities. Even as the last syllable of “as possible” was reverberating into the corners of the this auditorium we call life, Einstein could see the look of panic rising in our eyes as we threw up our arms and ran screaming from the monsters of complexity, straight into the razor claws of over-simplification.

Like the fat guy wheezing into McDonalds, we just know we’re hungry. We don’t want to hear about trans-fats, or industrial meat processing, or what-the-hell-are-you-talking-about inability to productively digest the long-carbon strings that are the signature of corn based pseudo-foods. Oh yeah, and if you could fix our soaring healthcare costs while you’re getting me those fries, that would be great.
 
The Winding Path
So what’s a professional to do, faced with ever expanding pricing pressures, accelerating schedules and rising expectations? Or every-parent faced with Soccer Super Mommy in all the advertisements, the realities of two jobs, a stretched budget and an almost feral instinct to ensure some kind of future for their kids? Or anyone looking for something as basic, common and seemingly elusive as a few strong friendships and maybe, please God, one sweet partnership that can’t be explained but only lived.

There are no obvious answers. If there were, we wouldn’t keep asking the same questions. And interestingly enough, for this forum, it’s probably not just an Analog/Digital thing. Yeah, Digital tends to accelerate and amplify the results of any experiment we make out there, bringing the results home with amazing and sometimes stunning velocity. But Digital doesn’t give us a pass on all the wonders and frailties of being human.

Inevitably, as we trim and edit, reduce and re-factor the analog world to shoe-horn it into some digital representation that we can easily replicate, transport, and execute, we end up discovering something about the analog reality we didn’t know or fully understand. Despite the project plans and budget meetings, the QA review and user training, the methodologies and the tools, or whatever equivalents we create in our personal lives, most of us find out what we don’t know by doing rather than analyzing.

We are almost always forced to take that first step of any meaningful journey before all the maps are drawn and understood, all the required resources marshaled. We are forced to begin without all that we need, living off the land as we travel, following the realities we encounter to whatever good end they can afford in an always less than linear passage.

Belief, Data, and Change in a Digital Age

It wasn’t too long ago that we weren’t supposed to talk about politics, religion, or sex in polite company. Given the results of such conversations recently on the national and international stage, one wonders if it wouldn’t make sense to extend that prohibition more widely. That’s probably not really a good idea though, no matter how calming in the short term. The inevitable sterile silence is nowhere more evident than in a diversity stunned workplace. We have to find some path between that strained quiet and the polarization of international politics a’la the Middle East or our national shouting match on abortion.

The problem isn’t with the topics or even with the forum, but rather how we choose to conduct the discussions. We try to untangle the most difficult of situations with slogans and sound bites. We’re debating the most important topics of our times on bumper stickers, t-shirts, and text messages. If we can’t fit it onto a poster board, it doesn’t get said. The quantity of public discourse has exploded, but the quality is at best constant and mightily diluted across all that volume.

Is this madding chatter unique to our times? Probably not. Is it influenced and fed by our modern context? Almost certainly. Our chosen topic, the Analog/Digital dynamic, seems custom crafted for illumination of mechanics behind contemporary discourse.

While the digital revolution may be influencing what we believe, the more direct impact is on how we believe. As mentioned in previous essays, the boxes aren’t so hot at nuance. Authoritative data models and closely followed syntax are the two commandments of the digital church. Violate them and be damned to netherworld of run-time errors. Sound a little bit like fundamentalism?

We information engineers from various professions and disciplines might wish to believe our world views and our interpersonal styles are not affected by our daily interactions with the boxes. The common experience as distilled into various IT stereotypes would seem to suggest otherwise. One of the defining characteristics of fundamentalism across the spectrum is that it never looks crazy from the inside, be it Muslims, Christians, Liberal Humanists, Scientists or Digitarians.

Labels Again
Before we go any further, it’s important to take step back and draw distinctions between believers of any stripe and crazy people. From the Enlightenment, through the Industrial Revolution to the Digital Revolution, it’s been something of a sport to equate belief with ignorance, or worse. In his book, The Trouble with Testosterone, Robert Sapolsky happily equates most religious rituals and strictures around cleanliness, diet, and association with obsessive compulsive disorder. Robert Dawson in the more recently released The God Delusion, comes right out and labels God as depicted in the Old Testament as psychotic. The reemergence of militaristic religious fundamentalism has only broadened the appeal of these interpretations of the more ethereal side of human experience.

This is not the crowd I’m trying to run with.

The problem our relationship to beliefs often runs into is an old digital pot hole around labels. Not everyone who believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible is pitching bombs at abortion clinics. Not every liberal humanist is pitching birth control pills to twelve year olds. Not every Muslim fundamentalist is pitching bullets at US troops. Not every scientist, blinded to human impact by a belief in the scientific method, is pitching to the next weapon of mass distruction in drugs, diet or warfare.

All fine and good, but when we’re under fire, intellectually, emotional, or literally, we happily retreat to these generalizations and stereotypes rather than confront the complexities of existence in both temporal and ethereal contexts. Worse yet, in the finest digital fashion, having retreated to a simplification, we conveniently forget that a more comprehensive set of information is available.

Would you like Chicken or Egg with that Revolution?
Clearly, our expanding dependencies on the boxes and the software they run is not a root cause of this behavior. A certain xenophobia was probably an essential survival tool for Og the caveman as he emerged from his cave each morning. Perhaps it is just coincidence that in the midst of this digital revolution, we find ourselves struggling with oversimplification and even demonization of those with whom we’re less familiar or comfortable. However, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the very digitization, modeling, and electronic processing that has shrunk our world comes with some limitations that lead us to less than totally productive interactions. Perfect presence in no way ensures perfect harmony or understanding.

Nor should we be too surprised that as we employ digital means to extend our presence and our experience, that those extensions might amplify existing tendencies, good or bad, in our world views and approaches. Imperfect replication combined with amplification should invoke at least some caution. And, in practice, it does. The sterilization of the work place as a response to diversity is a worst case scenario.

Believing in Change for the Work Place
The literal interpretation of any creed, code or business process is one thing. Taking that creed, code, or business process as permission to be above the conventions of civil interaction is another. We Analog Undergrounders have to hang onto that distinction and measure ourselves against it as we lead, manage, and participate in our professional and personal lives.

In a fascinating parallel, one finds a thread in the current business press espousing that meaningful change occurs only when some individual develops an early and apparently unreasonable belief in the benefits of the change and becomes its champion. That same thread also exists in fundamentalist Muslim commentary on the Qu’arn. It would appear that there is a necessary element of fundamentalism in business leadership, some facility with belief, the transmission of core principles, and their faithful application.

The Harvard Business Review’s anointed guru on change, John Kotter speaks to building coalitions in his seminal work, Leading Change. It’s clear he’s talking about developing a core of true believers. His follow-on title, The Heart of Change, paints a picture that most change fails from too much “data gathering, analysis, report writing, and presentations” and too little generation of “feelings that motivate useful action.”

Mere replication and amplification, no matter how speedy and efficient is not sufficient. Our digital capabilities, absent of judgment, an understood context of beliefs, and on-going assessment of ever emerging reality will not deliver that holy grail of all business – results. It would seem that between the bits and bytes, co-existent with the data, the reports, and the power-points, and woven into the fabric of processes and policies is a world of interpretation, world view and belief.

Can we just jump in at the deep end of belief, driving some visionary result, regardless of all that analog experience and digital data feeds us at every moment? Of course not. It didn’t work for foreign policy, and it won’t work in the executive suite. Looping back to where we began in this discussion, we have to find some what to merge belief with data, to avoid the temptation to replace one with other, in either direction.

If all we aspire to as leaders, peers, and individuals is a kind of perfect bureaucracy, we can ignore all that, banishing belief from our workplace and our consciousness. If, on the other hand, we hope for creativity, inspiration, and satisfaction, we might want to cast some of our focus and energy to that more ethereal side of our work and our relationships.

The Risky Business of Being Human

Back at the dawn of my career when I was traveling a lot, I was bemoaning having missed a flight somewhere when somebody told me that if I didn’t miss a flight now and again, I was spending too much time in airports. That seems quaint in our current age of TSA lines snaking through the airport and sitting for hours on taxi-ways at hub airports, but the sentiment is still relevant. Avoiding one thing might rush us into the arms of something even less desirable.

That’s not a concept that modern business, the digiraty, or society-at-large are particularly adept at recognizing much less being able to apply. Of course, a certain degree of risk aversion is an all too human tendency. There is, after all, a fine line between innovative and crazy. Being sensitive to risk helps keep us in a useful proximity to that line after we’ve crossed it. Being allergic to risk, on the other hand, usually prevents us from ever having the opportunity to consider where that boundary might be.

Risk and Innovation – Twins We’ve Tried to Separate
It’s somehow appropriate in this age of irony, that one of the holy grails of our time, innovation, comes cloaked in one of our worst nightmares, risk. We can sulk around all we want wondering why a hot chick like innovation wants to spend so much time with a loser like risk, but that’s the choice she’s made. They’re inseparable. Learning to live with risk is the price we pay for the company of innovation.

This seems particularly difficult for us digitarians to master. I don’t know if it’s a case of our risk muscles atrophying in the presence of digital or if we created digital to compensate for our already decaying risk management proficiency. I’d like to blame the boxes, but I’m suspicious this behavior predates digital, electricity, or even most technology.

Caveman Ug thought his brother, Og, was just plain nuts to run at that wooly mammoth and try to bring it down using just a stick with a little stone tied to end of it. About two seconds after the knapped flint spear pierced that tough hide and brought the wooly down, Ug was beginning to calculate how he might mass produce those sticks at a lower cost, arm a troop of Og mammoth hunters and open up a successful chain of Ug’s Mammoth Burger Barns. And just to piss off the inventors among us, Ug lived a long life with lots of kids while Og got trampled three weeks later when his second spear shattered against the flank of a mightily irritated wooly due to an unseen production flaw. No wonder we cling to the hope that we can somehow separate innovation and risk.

An Endangered Species – Risk
It doesn’t really matter if digital creates this behavior or is just a convenient foil for it. The end result is the same. When we try to replace management of risk with its elimination bad things happen. Ug had a good run with the Mammoth Burger Barns until Dr. Og-son discovered that inconvenient link between mammoth burgers and heart disease. That and cousin Ig’s low-fat Pterodactyl fillet pretty much did in the Burger Barns. After that, you didn’t have to hang out around Ug’s cave too long to hear him muttering how un-natural it was to use spears against things that flew instead of ran. “You watch. Ig will have spears raining down from the sky on our own heads before long!”

Any casual perusal of tech history makes it clear we get the dance between innovation and risk wrong as much as we get it right. Quick now, name five eagerly accepted 20th century miracles that we now believe to be deadly. Probably didn’t have think too long to come up that list. What turned those miracles bad? I don’t think it’s over simplifying to suggest that the men and women behind all those Franken-miracles got seduced by the innovation and left risk for others to discover and deal with.

They crossed over from innovative to crazy without ever seeing or even looking for the boundary. And we, society, consumers, individuals, happily ran along, the Franken-miracle makers on our shoulders until suddenly we found ourselves so deep in crazy land, we could barely see the border any more. Is it really so tough to eliminate a fatal drug like nicotine from our world of commerce? Does the food industry really crumble without toxic hydrogenated oils and other trans-fats? Apparently.

Perhaps because the Universe loves balance so much, running from risk inevitably involves running from innovation as well. The siren song of technology is that it will enable us to separate innovation from risk. Our ever more precise and controlled digital representations will eventually eliminate the need to encounter the tumbling dice of life in any form or fashion. At least until the power goes out.

And what happens then? When all our surrogate risk managers, all the remote video cameras, all the home security systems, automated on-line trading tools, programmed credit score monitors, and radon detectors in the basement all give that strangled bleep that is the last voice of a dieing power grid? What then? Will we suddenly be able to tolerate risk, mysteriously adept at managing its realization like an ancient kung fu master?

A World Without Risk? No Thanks.
In a kind of goofy way, we seem to recognize that the total elimination of risk from our lives is not a desirable end. Even as we’re wallowing in all the pseudo-security marketing of SUVs, gated communities, ubiquitous security cameras and the like, we gobbling up hyper-realistic slasher movies, “reality” T.V. and a host of other adrenalin-pumping simulations of risk. We’re constantly voting with our pocket books and business budgets for the wholesale elimination of risk, but like giddy teenagers driving through the bad side of town with our doors unlocked we’re also finding ways to take a chance, buying the next lottery ticket instead of that gallon of milk for our kid’s breakfast.

Perhaps at some deep level we understand that risk is the rudder and ballast of innovation. It gives direction and energy to our creativity, guiding us down out of the trees and upright onto our feet, into the village of exciting new strangers, and up the elevator to the 110th floor and the corner office. Yes, we’ll occasionally get the perversion of an Enron or junk bond traders that transfer all the risk to someone else while keeping all the rewards. However, the Universe does love balance and tends to smooth those things out over time, even if the timelines are immediately recognizable to the individuals involved.

The more effective among us see through that swaddled illusion of no risk to deal with whatever reality happens to pop up in front of us. The best technologists, and those that use our wares most effectively, recognize the connection between risk and survival, between the potential for loss and the discovery of new capabilities and resources. We turn to face risk, embracing it, managing it, and delivering the heart of innovation to an eager populace.

Taking the Private Public

Don’t worry. The Analog Underground hasn’t gotten swept up in IPO fever. If there was a social equivalent for IPOs though we could safely accuse ourselves of indulging in irrational exuberance for offering up in public everything that once was private. There seems to be no end to our desire for acting out our personal lives across an ever-widening slice of the public domain, whether through reality T.V., the seemingly ubiquitous blog, or just plain loud obnoxious behavior. Is Digital to blame? Maybe, maybe not, but like the perpetrator a DA can never quite nail, Digital always seems to be hanging around at the scene of the social crime.

It’s not that human nature has changed. We still want to be known, to have our existence validated by some external community, and we still want to be safe and secure, anonymous in the herd, unseen by the wolves looking for the weak one. What has changed is Digital’s capability to create more or less high fidelity representations of ourselves which we can fling across the public cyberspace with at least a feeling of invulnerability, if not the actuality, and how that practice seeps into our all our interactions, analog or digital.

What We Do With Tools and What They Do To Us

In the early industrial revolution we got really good at power generation very quickly using steam and coal. What we weren’t so hot at or even aware of, was the lasting impact of using that particular tool until many cities like Pittsburg literally disappeared under a black cloud of power making detritus. I’m thinking that Digital will be like that. A hundred years from now, I’m convinced that we’ll look back at some aspects of the “Digital Revolution” and wonder what on earth we were thinking.

I’m suspicious that Mass Personalization will turn out to be one of those “What were we…” conversations. Not that there aren’t benefits to be had from applying digital to tailoring many of our common realities. I like the idea of a computer watching over my various prescriptions to prevent some kind of personal pharmaceutical melt down. In the same way I like walking into a local restaurant and having a Mountain Dew show up on my table without me asking, I like being “recognized” when I return to web sites I visit frequently. I may not like that the state DMV and consequently any state trooper knows exactly how many points I have on my license, but it’s comforting to know they’re using the same personalization of records to track various more serious miscreants. In my book that’s all turning Digital to Analog ends.

My skeptic meter begins to twinge, though, when we blithely assume that such carrying of personal information into public forums doesn’t represent a fundamental change in the rules. All that “New Economy” chatter didn’t change the fundamental economic exchange of “Something I have for Something I Want.” Mass personalization, on the other hand, does require a basic change. Instead of our currencies of exchange being money or time or something else outside of ourselves, mass personalization almost always requires that I cough up some bit of myself, who I am.

In the future we will probably shake our heads ruefully about the trend to require more and more irrelevant personal data for even the most trivial of services, and the consequent loss of privacy. However, the real chagrin will be reserved for the impact of mass personalization on the division of the public and private. We’re dramatically increasing the number and variety of tools available to shape our public presence to our personal whim. Like teenagers with a full tank of gas, a new license and a deserted back road, we’ve got our foot on the accelerator. It feels good and the details of physics and that tight corner two miles up the road aren’t even a passing thought.

The Personal Impact of Mass Personalization

There are two aspects to the mass personalization dynamic that every individual and every manager should pay attention to. The first is potential for mass personalization to atrophy our capabilities for intelligent compromise and useful collective action. The second is the corrosive effect of mass personalization on individual meaning.

Thinking Personally and Acting Out Locally

How many times, during that first commercial rush onto the internet, did we hear or even, God forbid, say “Your competitor is only a click away.” This was not only a statement about pricing, but also about capabilities, presentation, and locality. The intent was to suggest that consumers’ expectations were influenced not only by their experience of your store, but also by the experiences they had in every store they visited. The internet tended to make expectations from one set of experiences bleed over into others.

As we’ve brought stores, public discourse, blogs, chat rooms and all the tools of the internet into our family rooms and our kid’s bedrooms, our expectations for our personal control of and responsibility in public forums has evolved, not always for the good. Like the early commercial web, those expectations are bleeding over into the work place, various social settings, and even the way we drive (road rage, anyone?). As our boundaries between public and private crumble, the “Public Place” nature of work can no longer be counted on to contain non-work issues, behavior and attitude. In addition to being effective advocates for their own interests, successful managers and peer leaders will have to champion the compromise, respect and discretion that are the foundations of successful communities, professional or otherwise.

Personalization, Identity and Meaning

Paradoxically, the rush to massly personalized individual experience seems likely to diminish the individual value and meaning we derive from those experiences. Individuality may give us identity, but most meaning still bubbles up through association with others. Our ability to share, either in the moment or after the fact, with others is imperiled if those experiences become too personalized. So what? Well, roughly speaking, we have a name for folks who cannot hold common perspective on their experience with a wider community. They’re called psychopaths.

When personalization breeds a sense of entitlement and dulls our sense of place and fit in a wider society, then the death of satisfaction can’t be far behind. If we are owed everything, than nothing is ever a gift. No one or no thing can ever exceed our expectations or delight or pleasantly surprise us. Just as the capabilities of any one web site raise the bar for all web sites, any tidbit of automated personalization begins to set expectations of a reliable, continual drip of recognition and customization. Unfortunately for the easily addicted, the analog world, with its fits and starts, crafted moment by shared moment, is not so hot at that kind of predictable, six sigma consistency.

I guess it’s not too surprising that individuals faced with the near deification of “Global” in economic and business circles will respond with an ever more relentless personal point of view. Perhaps it only seems more personalized when thrown in relief against a bigger canvas. In any event, whatever the potential of Digital to bridge the gap between the individual and the global, we have to remember that MacLuhan’s Global Village was as likely to turn into a terrifyingly tribal, post‑civilization as it was some kind of Kumbya global utopia.

So bring on the automated, digital representations of each of us in the wider world. Take those mundane and ritualized decisions off our plates and let the computers tend to the tasks we’d rather not. Free us up for better relationships, brighter professional contributions, a more meaningful existence. Just don’t forget that controlling everything, remaking the whole world for our own pleasure, convenience, and efficiency will not necessarily give us more meaningful lives, especially if the cost is insulation and isolation from each other on the way there.

What Ever Happened to Judgment?

One of the undeniable features of the digital revolution is the “all you can eat and more” buffet of data and information. Whether your pleasure is the slop and gristle of the unedited internet or the oh, so refined subtlety of the Complete Oxford English Dictionary on four CDs for only $99.99, there is something for every palate. We live with the feeling that the answer to every question is out there somewhere in the digital world and if you can’t find it, well, that’s just your problem.

Judgment: The State of the Art
In quieter moments, one can’t help but wonder why the quality of our decision making hasn’t kept pace with the quantity of data and information. Yeah, we’re getting much better at so many things in the digital age. If faced with the choice of having major surgery now or a hundred years ago, I would so much rather be talking to my current friends in the medical community. Would I rather manage my personal finances with today’s tools or live in a pre-ATM/On-line trading world? Well duh. Would I rather carry my 70’s boombox, my 80’s Walkman, or my 00’s iPod? No contest. But a friend of mine in her grumblier moments has been heard to remark that the population is growing but the IQ pool is apparently constant. I’d be inclined to at least consider her perspective.

Didn’t we do the financial scandal thing with the savings and loan industry? Why did we have to repeat it with junk bonds or the Internet bubble? The 60’s had LSD, the 70’s had heroin, the 80’s had cocaine, the 90’s had crack and now I can’t buy Co-advil without a blood sample and a first born child because of Meth. We been swingers, danced disco, done techno, punk’d, grunged, and Lordy knows what else, but it’s still all just rock and roll to someone. We’ve had Watergate, the embassy in Iran, Iran-Contra, Monica’s thong (WAAAAY too much information), and Weapons of Mass Destruction, or maybe not.

I’ll just stop there before we all have to go take long hot showers and then lie down in a dark room with a cool moist rag draped over our eyes.
Why, with all the information tools we have to hand, are we not making better decisions? This is point where we should trot out the usual suspects of information overload, the corrosion of attention span by modern media and the every popular metaphor about drinking from a fire hose. Thanks for coming in guys, but your services won’t be needed today. While your flash and boom are all very entertaining, we’re looking for causes not symptoms today.

From Good Data to Bad Decisions
So, causes. The standard bearer for good judgment in a digital age is good data. Well packaged, easily accessible, comprehensive, it is the holy grail of the digital age. But that only brings us back to the question of why with so much data we’re still making such bone head decisions. If good data is the standard bearer, then automation is the foot soldier, endlessly replicating some predetermined application of good data to the mundane decisions that make up daily life.

It is almost irresistible to try and drive the obvious benefits of automation up the decision making hierarchy. It seems logical to apply the same methods that help us spot early indicators of a falling market, or find the cheapest price for those Jimmy Choo shoe knock offs to, oh say, finding a perfect business partner or employee. We might, however, want to take at least one deep breath before we assume what works for deciding where to buy toothpaste will also work for deeper decisions like business strategies that affect millions of people, or life choices that affect only one or two of us very deeply. The siren song of easy digital replication does not encourage that deep breath, but we must take it.

Dusting Off Analog Judgment
Digital doesn’t have a lock on bad decisions. Analog has all kinds of pitfalls for judgment and decision making. They include all the supposed saving graces of moving to digital such as not having enough information, being too time constrained, and plain old personal bias. Case studies abound, but perhaps one of the most striking is the decision making process of Saddam Hussien just prior the U.S. invasion. In the journal “Foreign Policy” there is a fascinating account of how terrified his subordinates were to deliver information that was anything less than glowingly positive. The end result was that Mr. Hussein had a completely unrealistic picture of his armed forces’ capabilities and performance even as Baghdad was crumbling around him. If ever there was an argument for the purported unbiased, unedited world of digital data collection, that was it. So, if anything, the analog world requires us to pay much closer attention to the dynamics of judgment to get a good result.

Our challenge, as we dive into the digital side of the information buffet, is not to improve judgment. There’s ample opportunity for that. The challenge, as we pick up knife and fork, is to remember that judgment is still required, to recall that digital data is shaped by a collection bias and by significant in-stream editing. To take the analogy to a less than appetizing conclusion, digital doesn’t mean decisions and judgment come to our plates predigested. The analog lesson that good judgment requires our attention and time carries intact to the digital side. Good data does not necessarily equal good judgment.

In the analog world, good judgment is a very contingent thing. It depends on so many factors, so many inputs, so many variables that only a fool would take it for granted. The very nature of analog pressures us to be aware of what we do not know, to feel our limitations even if we can not speak of them. Whether in the esoteric world of wine or fashion or the more concrete worlds of business and daily life, we can’t help but encounter elements beyond our control or knowing. We are constantly surprised, sometimes pleasantly, sometimes otherwise. Either way though, that element of surprise, of discovery and of adaptation is a central part of our human experience.

Why Not Pure Digital?
It’s not surprising that we might want to retreat from all that analog variability and consequent uncertainty into a digitally ordered world of data. The problem is that despite our fondest wishes, data is only reality once removed. We can collect all the descriptions, characteristics, definitions and attributes we want to, but getting a good result still requires awareness of context, feel for inter-relationships, and understanding of meaning. To act appropriately on what digital sets in front of us, we have to have a feel for what’s been left out and how the presentation shapes our attention and focus. Without that element of judgment we risk becoming like Mr. Hussein, trapped in our own little tyranny of delusion. No matter how high we stack our plates with steaming piles of data, that feast still won’t replace the need for common judgment.

As we become more and more capable in the digital world, it is so tempting to hope that we can eliminate the messiness that comes with the need for judgment. The conundrum is that the very essence of digital, being finite and discrete, will always require judgment to bridge the distance between the bits and bytes. All the work of collecting data isn’t the same work required in the moment of decision, the act of making a choice between A and B and C. If we consume all our calories in data, we’ll find judgment starved and undernourished at the moment of decision, when we need it most. For all it’s failures and limitations, analog forces us to exercise our judgment, to feed it, nourish it.

We have no choice but to live out our lives and our professions in the analog world. We are creatures of uninterrupted and uncompressible time, of sensation, and of impression. That is, of course, both our glory and our misery as we live in a world of constant interruptions and compression, of real consequences for decisions based on too little data, and of those wonderful moments when despite every compromise and shortfall, things just come together.

We live an analog life, but we sometimes choose to act digitally, consciously collecting, editing, and shuffling representations of the world on the way making one choice or another. The challenge is being able to distinguish, in the moment, those times when acting digitally is adequate from those times when we must set ourselves out into the currents of the world and let them carry us to where we want to be.

Be Careful What You Wish For

If ever you are feeling too much in the Digital world, I’ve got a very simple cure. Move. Sell your house of choice, sort through every last object you own, sell some, give some away and then pack up the rest of it and move it somewhere else. If ever there was a perfect analog exercise, moving from one home to another has got to be it. Bear with me, dear reader. I’ve recently relocated from Green Bay, WI back to my city of choice, Madison, WI. The nuances of an Analog move are much on my mind right now.

One of the wisest men I know told me everything that happens is just data. How we respond, how we make meaning of events is what counts. Transforming the flood of data from the last few weeks into meaning has been an interesting journey. Like adolescence, if we had a clear picture of what a move was going to entail, we probably wouldn’t sign up for it in advance. This was my twenty-first move in this life time. You’d think I’d have a pretty good sense of what it means to decide to pick up and go. But no, denial is a pretty virulent strain of memory disorder and this move like every other one had its share of surprises.

So just how traumatized am I by all this variance from expectations? Well, pretty much not at all. Madison is my city of choice. I’m living in a down-town neighborhood and for the first week, didn’t even take my car out of the garage. There are hundred year old trees lining the street I live on and on this sunny May morning, the shadows of the newly fledged leaves are doing a dappling dance across my neighbor’s house. I have four cats perched on various window ledges watching the walkers go by and an Albinoni woodwind concerto is lightfooting its way out of the stereo and around the house. Pretty sweet.

Managing Digital Expectations
This most analog of adventures has me thinking about expectations, how we deal with variance from those expectations, and how the emerging Digital world shapes both the expectations and the coping with variance from same. Assuming we haven’t gone completely delusional, the gap between expectations and reality is usually nurtured in the limited scope of our knowledge. The algebra of the situation is that the more we know, the better our anticipation of future events. So far, so good. Unfortunately, the calculus is that the more we know the less we’re able to believe there are bits and pieces we don’t know and hence the more they surprise us when we unexpectedly but inevitably bump into them.

In techy terms, this is called managing to the Happy Path. You know the Happy Path. It’s the result when everything works out just as expected. There are only two problems with this approach.

It’s Always Something
First off, things never work out just as expected. I’m not lazily recycling Murphy’s Law here. Digital provides all kinds of little controls and automated checks that would seem to assure our ability to cleave to our vision. And yet, every surprise comes as, well, a surprise.

About twenty years ago I heard a key note speaker suggest that we would not fully realize the benefits of the Information Age until all the pre-digital executives either retired or died. Twenty years ago, I was young enough to digest that thought without the least heartburn. Surely once the digirati were in control, we’d get everything out of the machines that they possibly had to offer. Right? Well, twenty years later, not all the pre-digital bosses are gone, but there are enough boy-princes (and even a few girl-princesses) in the executive ranks that some picture of a world ruled by those suckled at the Digital teat is coming into a hazy kind of focus. And guess what? It doesn’t look all that different in some pretty basic ways.

Whether or not you buy Richard Florida’s overall premise in his book The Rise of the Creative Class, he begins with a very interesting thought exercise. Go back a 100 years. Pick up an individual there and bring them forward 50 years, say 1910 to 1960. They would be completely baffled by the physical world they found (cars, interstates, television, ubiquitous flight, etc), but would probably get along pretty well with the prevailing social norms (racial divisions, few women in powerful positions, first world/third world separation, etc). Then go pick up someone from 1960 and drop them into our almost 2010 world. Pretty quickly they’d pick up on the physical world. Yeah, cellular phones are new, as are ATM cards, but the basic ideas are all there. However, they would be completely out of their depth in the social world. The casual racist or sexist joke at a party. Taking direction from a woman at work. And even us contemporary types haven’t quite got a handle on outsourcing yet.

We’ve come a long way in one hundred years, both in the physical world and in the social worlds. Science and technology have remade us and our sense of our place. Unfortunately, all that change carries the siren song that we can change everything that needs changing, that once we’ve all been thoroughly immersed in the Digital world from the cradle, we’ll be able to address all the problems there are. You see that world-view in every table-pounding executive crying out for better data, in every sancti-mommy pushing the protection of her dear baby’s ears in front of the real need for free speech. It underlies every neighborhood activist using e-mail lists to roadblock any minor commercial or social deviation from their perfect neighborhood vision. A glimpse is revealed in every Terrorist/Fundamentalist TV broadcast or DVD drop. Everywhere technology is whispering in our ear that we can control our outcomes.

The Happier Path
I don’t know about you, but I’m not at all sure I want to live in a world that never out-paces our collective imagination of the happy path, that succumbs completely to our idea of the best possible outcome. Variations to the happy path aren’t all train wrecks and other frustrations. Just as life has its nasty surprises, it also has the occasional moment of grace, the sometimes gift of bliss. Unfortunately, it seems that the deeper we plunge into Digital, the more focused we become on our tidy little vision of the happy path. And that’s the second problem with our obsession with the digitally controlled happy path.

Certainly as professionals and craftspeople, as parents and as citizens we should take advantage of all the opportunities to automate and digitize that knowledge we’ve so painfully accumulated on what works, what yields the best outcomes. But as we do that, we must also be vigilant with ourselves that we don’t turn off the taps of future learning. I find it mildly amusing and disturbing at the same time when I see companies calling for innovation on the one hand while on the other hand instituting exhaustive time tracking and financial tracking focused to the right of the decimal point. There are conversations in the medical community that we have so sterilized our children’s environments that their immune systems are no longer able to cope when they enter the adult, biologically suffused world. In one of our local, new-urbanist communities, founded on the idea of getting out of the car and onto the sidewalk, about half the new owners rose up in anger when it was suggested that a grocery store might be built in their Disneyesque picture of a neighborhood as if they never had to eat. We’ve all heard that absolute power corrupts absolutely, but we conveniently forgotten the first half of that aphorism which suggests any power has the potential to corrupt. We’ve lost our feel for the connection between disappointed expectation and creativity in our quest for certainty and safety.

The Digital life requires us to edit, manage, and reduce analog complexity to something more digestible to the machines. That’s a prerequisite for Digital doing its thing. That’s always been true and is maybe even the genesis of our drive to representation over reality back somewhere at the dawn of man. What’s changed, what calls for greater care and broader thought, is the increased fidelity of our representations to our expectations and the on-going, irreducible and absolutely necessary gap between our expectations and emerging reality.

What We Make of Place and What it Makes of Us

As I sit here writing, I am looking out onto a winter scene through the two windows in my office. The ridge of a snow covered roof line cuts across the bottom of my Eastern view where a watercolor smudge of orange across a lightening achromatic sky is the only indication of a coming sunrise. Bare tree limbs are etched darkly against the uniform grey clouds in an appropriately early twenty-first century, almost Asian minimalist display. The mercury (or whatever entirely neutral substance has been mandated for thermometers these days) hasn’t managed to cross a Fahrenheit zero yet, and off to the North a power plant puffs an enormous, stark white tower into the atmosphere.

This is a picture from a particular place at a particular moment in time. For me, very analog and actual. I am considering whether to go get a sweater to guard against the chill radiating off these two windows. For you, displaced from that moment by both time and location, something more like digital, a representation. Perhaps the words have invoked your own senses and memory, pulling up pictures in your mind of some similar place and moment. It is, indeed, one of the great wonders of the digital revolution how quickly we can share at least some slice of our experience across great reaches of space and expanding distances of time.

We live in a time when it is increasingly possible to separate much of our work from a particular location. Yes, a preacher needs to be up in her pulpit on Sunday or at a bedside weekdays. A manager should show her face now and again in each particular cubicle of her domain. The doctor reaches out to gently grasp a wrist and feel her patient’s pulse. All true, but for all of us a great deal of the information and interaction that helps us grow in our professions, broaden the impacts of our contributions, or redirect our focus comes through the intermediated experience of a digitally supported communication.

E-mail, electronic forums, the conference call, and even the public Internet are all necessary staples of the modern professional. I’m astounded how easy it is for me to get connected in airports, hotels, remote offices and even on trans-continental flights. I plug in (usually virtually through a wireless connection), hook up to the corporate mother ship and am working away oblivious to my actual surroundings with barely a ripple of effort.

The Paperless Office, the Video Conference, and Other Inflated Promises
So why do I travel so much? The week where I spend every night at home in my own bed is an exception. That’s not entirely the common experience, but how many times a week or a month do you get up from your desk, walk out of your office, and down the hall into a meeting in a conference room, or get in your car and drive somewhere for business? Perhaps it’s to a training location or to a customer’s site, or a service call your making, or just to have lunch with a professional colleague to “stay in touch.” Whatever it is, it’s a demonstration of attachment to physical proximity, whether to a person, building or piece of paper.

One way of writing the history of the last twenty or thirty years is to chart the steady disappearance of the need for physical presence. And good riddance. I like the tellers at my local credit union. They’re pleasant to interact with and even occasionally funny and entertaining. But I still use the ATM or automatic deposit for almost every transaction. It’s just so much easier than driving to the credit union, parking the car, walking through that sub-zero weather, filling out the deposit slip, and pushing it and check or two across the counter, walking back to the car, remembering where I put my keys getting back in the car and going onto whatever. I like being able to take that time and effort and attention and apply it to other activities that mean more to me.

But that dislocation is not perfect nor do I want it to be. Ok I’d be happy to get away from that vestige of presence, the fifty or sixty dollars of change that I skim out of my pockets over a few months and have to drag it down to the credit union to deposit. But I like being in the presence of the guy I’ve talked to for over ten years about mortgages and other financing I get from the credit union. I like walking into his office, talking over whatever my current situation is and hearing about his children. I like knowing he knows some my history and I know some of his and that in our conversations he sometimes identifies a beneficial financial play in my life that I’d missed. There is a tangible value in the confidence, ease, and fit of services to my particular business or personal needs, built over many years of presence. I have no similar story of comfort built over years from a digital only presence.

When Inflated Promises Take Flight
Tech history is littered with mirages that expanded so realistically and energetically only to deflate just as we reached for them. Of course, that litter is sometimes hard to see between the digital promises that panned out. I like my cell phone, the ATM network, e-mail that keeps me in the presence of my thirty and forty-year friends that I haven’t actually seen in years. From chat rooms to xBox on-line to MySpace through YouTube and even to Second Life, we’re building a kind of digital interpersonal presence that is clearly preferable to no presence at all. It’s not clear to me, though, what of analog place and community is being recreated and what’s just being let fall between the bits and bytes.

Looking at the 80’s portable phone in a box with a shoulder strap it’s hard to imagine the slim little phone I drop in my pocket as I rush out the door. In a similar vein it’s hard to see where all this digital community is heading. Ebay and Amazon are remaking the marketplace and the connection between the stuff we buy and places we find it. The Corporate Executive Board and other on-line business forums are stealing some small slice of the business IP exchanged on the golf course or at conferences. Clearly digital presence will be a part of our world and experience in every greater degrees.

Through the Looking Glass of Place
Once in my educational career, I took a class that was half on-line and half classroom. We alternated, week over week, between the two. I really liked the idea because I was traveling for business a lot then as well and could work my travel schedule to match the timing of the on-line sessions, and attend remotely. It didn’t quite play out that smoothly though. I found that my on-line student personality was not nearly as effective at my in-person student personality. I type pretty comprehensibly at well over 80 words a minute, am comfortable in front of a computer, and always thought I multi-tasked pretty well between this window and that. Seemed like a natural fit.

And yet in the moment, on-line, my personality changed. In person, I asked questions, participated in discussions, threaded together different ideas and parts of conversation and just generally emerged the new perspectives and skills that are the goal of education. On-line, things just never quite jelled. Yeah, I’d pitch in a bon mot once in a while. I’d swap over to look at somebody’s written or imaged contribution and back to the chat window. I watched the ebb and flow of electronic conversation there. But predictably at the end of our time together, I was more frustrated than illuminated. I often found myself waiting for the following week of presence where I usually was able to grasp the fraying ends of the previous week’s on-line discussion and weave it all into some comprehensible and portable.

It’s possible that I’m just an old fart whose time has passed. Once I became aware of the dynamic and started looking for it in my class mates, I saw many folks, usually younger than I, who manifested just the opposite transformation between the class room and the on-line sessions. So it might be a generational thing that points to an increasingly digital sense of place for the workplaces, shopping malls, schools, and families of the future and I just need to get used to it. That’s possible, even probable.

So Where are We?
What’s certain is that this digital age and all the capabilities it enables is changing the way we project ourselves into the world. Certainly as time passes and our capabilities evolve and expand, the new pushes aside some things that have value. I regret that I missed the age of great ocean crossings by ship or flying boat with it’s time for reflection and intimate involvement with various way points. That doesn’t mean I want to take a month both ways every time I need to visit my business associates in India or take two days both ways to visit folks who work for me on the East Coast. I just wouldn’t do it.

The challenge in front of us as managers, peers, and members of various more personal communities is to understand, to adapt to, and to shape that interplay between physical, analog presence and the representational, virtual digital presence. We have evolved, over thousands of years, various standards and means of privacy, personality, presence and interaction that are entirely dependent on the separation in time and space that is imposed by physical location. As digital presence short circuits that separation in time and space, it also short circuits the evolved societal and personal norms that rely on them.

In the workplace that means an advancing erosion of the boundaries between the personal and professional with all kinds of shifts to be managed from personal use of company resources to corporate takeovers of personal time. Out on the streets of our societies, it points to tectonic shifts in our legal structures whether for the intellectual property of record companies or control of our various public identities and the information associated with them. At home, the relationships and roles of parents, children and siblings are redefined based on not only technical competence but also on emotional, physical, and spiritual ability to apply these new capabilities to productive ends.

It’s tempting to use that favored phrase of the Digital age, “This changes everything.” In actual practice though, I still live someplace where for two or three months of the year, I have to remember my hat or my bald head gets really, really cold. Building my digital presence skills isn’t a substitute for competence in a physical world. It still makes sense to look both ways before crossing the street. Now, more then ever, that digital world we create with our cell phones and iPods and countless other tech gadgets distracts us from the physical world in front us. So be careful out there, and don’t forget to actually be out there.

The Analog Library

The Age of Missing Information Bill McKibben
Every thought to compare 24 hours of 90+ channels of television to 24 hours spend out in the woods? While that comparison might not fill a sucking psychic void for you, it is the premise for this stimulating book. Yes, Bill McKibben is an unapologetic tree hugger, but his writing does open a window on some interesting questions.

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking Malcom Gladwell
A book length treatment of individual judgment and what judgment looks like in the hands of experts, with a particular focus on the successes and failures of intuitive thinking.

Integrity Stephen L. Carter
Judgment without integrity is a cold, unappetizing plate. Per Carter’s book, we’re ready to instantly applaud for integrity even if we aren’t always sure how to practice it. This book provides a framework for reflection on integrity while not relieving one of the burden of judgment

Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World Margaret Wheatley
Wheatley looks at how our notions of leadership are based on a rationalist, Newtonian perspective on the world and how those notions of leadership are crumbling under the crush of modern demands. She suggests that the values and perspectives of quantum physics offer us a way out of the mental and spiritual traps of 18th century scientism. Ironic that an engine of technology might provide an exit from the same.

“Saddam’s Delusions, The View from the Inside” Kevin Woods, James Lacey, and Williamson Murray, Foreign Affairs, May/June 06

The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit, Sherry Turkle
This book is fascinating for its snapshot-in-time quality looking at the moment just before the internet exploded onto the American social scene. In a way we are too much with the Internet now to be able to get a clear picture of it’s impact and Sherry Turkle gives us an insightful picture into how technology shapes our thinking as well as our relationships from a pre-internet vantage point

Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age (Open Market Edition) Duncan J. Watts
Watts turns the Six Degrees of Separation game into something of a scientific inquiry on the nature of social networks. This is more than the usual social sciences “we’re a real science too, darn it” chat as Watts comes out of a biology background and ranges well beyond social networks. If we’re moving from the Industrial Age to the Network Age, this will provide some useful insight on how that new age might work.

Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology Neil Postman

Postman makes a persuasive argument that we have allowed the values of technology and technologist to supplant all other standards of judgment and interaction.

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference Malcom Glawell
Where Blink leans more towards an examination of individual judgment, this work is squarely focused on the process of collective judgment, how cultures pick up, transmit and discard various items and ideas of interest. Taken together, they provide a useful guidebook for navigating the digital/analog decision terrain.

The Analog Underground Manifesto

There are whole moments of human experience that cannot be reliably digitized, automated, or replicated. It’s true that the digital revolution is constantly pushing that boundary, effectively embracing more and more of the human experience. One could be forgiven for assuming that eventually everything will be digital. The Analog Underground is dedicated to the proposition that there will always be both. The quality of our professional and personal lives will be directly related to our ability to choose correctly when to be analog and when to be digital.

Digital Descriptions, Analog Experience
So what’s the deal with analog and digital? A trip to the dictionary has a certain hallucinogenic quality with definitions for “analog” talking about representations via physical quantities and “digital” reduced to the expression in digits without any mention of what’s being expressed. Lots of noise and a rush of wind, but what was that masked definition?

If you’re old enough to remember the introduction of the compact disc, you may remember the wounded yelping of audio-philes that the digital recordings simply weren’t as realistic as the old analog recordings of vinyl. That gets closer to useful without getting the whole way there. Much of what passes for analog these days does so only when compared to digital. The whole music debate is prime example. All those thrusting the analog flag aloft with a picture of an LP on it were a bit confused. LPs and CDs are both representations of a reality, a substitute for the real thing. Only the most resolute exercise in denial would suggest that the best vinyl on the best home stereo system is the same experience as getting dressed up, driving to the concert hall, wading through a pool of humanity to a seat and only then listening to a performance while that pool of humanity, building structure and orchestra does its thing. The couch and level 1, row 4, seat 21 are two different experiences.

Part of the problem is that being digital is part of a larger human tendency to blur the line between reality and the mere description of reality that stretches back centuries and even millennia. The essence of being digital is the substitution of some representation of reality for the actual thing. All that data we collect and massage and treasure is just reality once removed, and we’ve got lots of practice with that. Language, written or spoken, is just a representation. Joyce Kilmer was on to something when she realized that she’d never see a poem as lovely as tree. If you want to get really crazy in this vein you can begin yabbering about our senses separating us from reality so everything is a representation in our brain.

The essence of Analog is immediacy and presence without translation. For most of our human history immediacy and presence have been the predominant mode of experience. Our tools for description and representation were pretty static and obviously something other than the thing being described. The time required to create, store, transport and then display a representation always gave local experience a priority in our attention. We saw things with our own eyes and that was the truth.

What’s so Revolutionary about Digital
Long before digital computers arrived, there was a shift underway. Perhaps the first salvo of the digital revolution came with the Camera Obscura, a room size camera with roots as far back as the 5th Century B.C. China that reportedly confused some viewers as to whether the figures on the wall were real. The line between reality and representation began to blur. Many of the scientific discoveries and theories of the 19th and early 20th century called into question what our senses told us about reality. It sure doesn’t look like the world is made up of little bits of stuff called atoms or, even more incredibly, quarks and the like from quantum physics. At the same time the telegraph, telephone, radio, photography and recording technologies began to dissolve the locality of experience in a way that print and painting never could.

By the time digital computers arrived on the scene we were well prepared to grant representations greater creditability than immediate perception. Given the lack of sophistication of the early computing tools, they were applied only to fairly restricted, well-constrained problems of representation. The results were encouraging, well in line with how we felt about the other miracles of science and industry. Simple processes were simply automated.

However, we haven’t been content to restrict ourselves to simple processes. The digital tools got applied to more and more complex representations that were less and less well constrained. The scope of problems tackled expanded much more quickly than the capability of the computers. If the tools weren’t evolving quickly enough the only other choice was to edit or trim that messy old reality and that’s the on-going revolution.

We are more and more willing to accept the surrogate reality of the digital world over the actual analog reality that’s right in front of us despite ever more obvious discrepancies. Digital is easier than analog to measure, and measurement is a quasi-religious act in the new millennia. It’s easier to control, which is very seductive when it feels like things are getting more chaotic (or is our tolerance for ambiguity eroding?). It’s more predictable and many folks prefer a known result, good or bad, to a surprise. Digital, complex as it can be, is still easier to deal with than analog.

The Analog Response
The Analog Underground isn’t interested in rolling back the digital revolution to some arbitrary point in the past where things were “better.” Whatever point we would pick, we are not ready to sacrifice the improvements in science, medicine, business, communication and a whole host of other areas between now and whatever “then” we happened to choose. Nor is the Analog Underground about freezing the status quo, halting the digital revolution where it stands. One of the ironies of being at least partly analog is that there is no clearly defined status quo to preserve.

Digital drives to the tune of statistical norms and representational reductions. As we indulge our digital urge to describe and define, represent and model, we come to a fuller awareness of all the nuance of the analog world. Every new digital capability reveals two or three analog experiences or responses that we’d never really been aware of, that we had taken for granted. It’s easy to be overwhelmed, to want to trim things back to a more manageable picture of reality, even if that picture isn’t entirely accurate.

Close enough is a necessary human condition for dealing with all the variation we encounter day to day. There’s nothing new or revolutionary in that. What is revolutionary is digital’s intolerance for close enough. The picture must be trimmed until it is manageable. Accuracy takes a back seat. To marshal the power of digital, we have to sacrifice nuance. The Analog Underground is dedicated to pursuing close enough, to preserving the restless human exploration of the short-term and the sustainable, the expedient and the honorable, the crude and the elegant and everything in between from which we weave the meaning of our lives.