The Blessings and Burden of Distance

Whatever else might be changing in this Digital age surely our relationship to physical distance is changing. Thriving through that transition isn’t as simple as maximizing the gains and minimizing the losses. We’ll find our satisfactions in some subtle blending of both, a sweet and sour sauce infused throughout our experience and history. Some of that confection is in our hands. Some will simply emerge from a mysterious calculus of time, action, and emotion, for better or worse. As always when considering the Analog/Digital tectonics, I’m more focused on the former, while keeping a hopeful and wary eye out for the later.

Analog Distance
Part of the reason for all this ambiguity is the complex nature of our relationship to Analog distance. Physical distance is a marker both of loss and gain.

For example, we treasure the security that comes from distance. That security might be mild when it’s just the fenced-in backyard that provides us some little space from even our best of neighbors. It can be quite intense when it separates us and our loved ones by many miles from the various predators that have always lurked in society and that the most fortunate of us have not had to physically encounter with any frequency.

On the other hand, this same physical distance is a trouble. At best, we feel that angst when we can’t sit across the table from a friend or cherished family member, hear the immediate tenor of their voice, savor the play of light across their face, feel the steadying weight of their presence that comes with close proximity. At worst, we agonize over it when we can’t receive or give critical care either for some medical aliment of our own or for the sufferings of those far away like the Hatian people.

And that’s just one slice across our experience of physical distance. Somewhere in between is the combined joy and agony of having one’s child leave home for the last time. It’s coming from the day they’re born and parents work for it and dread it. If we’re lucky, there’s a day they finally come to retrieve their stuff, hugs all around, and off they drive to that first job that lets them pay for their car, their residence, and all the various costs of independence. Our hearts swell with a swirl of pride and loss as the car turns the corner down this familiar, inevitable block. Yeah, sometimes that particular physical separation takes months or years or never quite happens at all. But it’s a fairly common experience of how the same physical separation that gives our lives being also tugs at the emotional attachments that give our lives meaning.

And That’s Just The Analog Experience Of Distance
As we filter our on-going lives back and forth through that membrane between Analog and Digital, what of our history, our expertise, and our frustrations with distance comes with us? What of the millennia of societal evolution and the minutiae of individual experience still applies? What familiar gauges, controls, and mechanisms still work?

Certainly the brute force security of distance is lost. From the irritating but largely innocuous spam in our inbox through the viruses that corrupt and disable our personal computing to horrific direct access of predators and scam artists to the most vulnerable among us, that safe barrier of physical separation is gone. Yeah, we throw up hopefully named things like firewalls, parental filters and routers between us and the swirling them/it that threatens us, but it’s an arms race with an ever escalating complexity subject to failure and ever rising costs in dollars and attention subject to exhaustion.

How’d we let that happen? Well, perhaps brute force separation packed its bags and left in that same swirl of activity and celebration when we welcomed in the virtual projection of ourselves into the wider world. Hoping to better manage that tug of war between independence-as-being and attachment-as-meaning we ran headlong across the Digital bridge over Analog distance. E-mail is so much more immediate than snail mail. Video conferences are so superior to a scratchy long distance phone call. IM, Twitter, Facebook better than, well, distance-driven lack of any interaction at all.

So What Now?
I’m not going back. I won’t be the Luddite terrorist to lay dynamite at the foundations of that bridge. I won’t give up my connections to my closest friends that are thousands of miles away. I won’t give up the wonderful chance conversations with smart folks across the planet that read these words and images I cast out in the digital commons. I won’t give up the random, personal, even sometimes trivial messages that arrive off a family e-mail distribution list that one of my delightful cousins maintains.
For each of us, our response to and management of the new worlds brought into being by the laws of Digital distance will have some flavor of our response to and management of Analog distance. Our satisfactions in this new world? We’ll find them in the balance between being open and skeptical. We’ll maintain them to the degree that we pay attention what is changing and what’s not.

How Social is Social Networking?

You’d be hard pressed these days to turn on a news show or peruse a company’s website without seeing some reference to Twitter or Facebook. If, God forbid, you get sucked into some discussion of the latest marketing trends, you simply can’t avoid fervid, hopeful discussions of social networking. The national shouting match called Twitter or the silly cocktail party known as Facebook are just the tip of the iceberg. Social networking thy name is legion and the sheer volume of content, focus, and, well, volume we’re currently investing here is mind boggling.

Our now decades long rush to the information age is beginning to acquire some of the ballast known as history. Folks aren’t so naïve anymore as to gush that this changes everything, that social networking makes the old ways irrelevant at best and obstructionist of some vaguely defined digital Nirvana at worst. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t acting like it. Our utopian digital hopes may be too wounded to speak them aloud, but our unconscious keeps its own kind of rapidly revolving historical record barely distinguishable from immediate gratification. Even as we project ourselves into the digital world, that projection is as much unconscious as it is deliberate. And social networking feels good, really good. Personally and professionally.

The Good and the. . .
Linkedin helped me secure my current job. It’s a good job with good folks. I’m glad I have it and not just for the paycheck. I’ve been blogging regularly for over a year now. A writing project called A Year In Haiku, a collective giving project tied to a milestone birthday, a novel, Survival in a Minor Key, in serial form, and, of course, this. The response has been a little hit or miss, but none of them have gone completely unacknowledged. All have started conversations that I would otherwise not have had, both in person and through the ‘net. In the last year, through Facebook, I’ve reconnected with many friends that I’d lost touch with due to my Gypsy blood and the limits of physical distance. A few of those reconnections have recovered something profoundly satisfying, a rediscovery of people who get me and see parts of what I consider to be my authentic self. Social networking feels good, really good.

So why did one of my friends throw out the question at the digital cocktail party, “When will we understand this [Facebook] as damage?” I’m not sure what answer he was thinking of, either in terms of timeline of recognition or the definition of the damage, but I recognize a good question when I see one. The benefits of social networking are pretty obvious. So were the benefits of rural electrification, the interstate system, and a plethora of consumer package goods. However, we’re coming to understand those benefits came with, among other things, a carbon tax that we might not want to pay long term

So what’s the new social networking tax? As we go from an analog social networking in restaurants and bars, conferences and training sessions, churches and coffee houses, to digital social networking on Facebook and blogs, e-mail and shared calendars, video conferencing and conference calls, what’s the tax? What’s the cost? What has to be sacrificed (and I’m not talking the ritual kind involving goats that my international video conference bridge seems to require)?

What Comes Between You and Me
The switch from presence to representation, Analog to Digital has some obvious pre-requisites. There’s some kind of machine based intermediation. Even in high def, touching the image of a lover’s cheek on the screen is not quite the same thing as being there. The digital world is rapidly and vastly improving its representations, but there are still limits. Representation is representation and presence is presence.

I’m not getting all gushy about catching the scent of a well brewed coffee as a backdrop to a casual conversation or even tapping into all the science about how touch or taste or scent can have a profound physiological effect on our well being. Yeah, all of that gets stripped away with digital intermediation in the newest variation on the oldest of human activities (not that! I was thinking of social networking). There’s something more basic, less about our more refined senses and intelligence, and more about our lives as physical beings in an actual, analog world.

Much as we might wish it, the laws of physics, the march of time, the realities of place are not susceptible to the whims of our conscious and subconscious selves. When we are networking in person, we have no choice but to adapt ourselves to the realities of our proximate situation, the realities of who we are, the people we’re with, and our present locality. That adaptation, being good at the collaborative creation of immediate reality, is the foundation of any relationship, is a critical element of initial connection and sustained meaning in our lives.

What Comes Between Me and Me
The digital world places us under no such constraints. Don’t like your history? Edit it, don’t share it. Tired of that once funny, now not so glamorous picture? Delete it. Don’t like your gender? On the internet, nobody knows your representation is trans-gendered. Need to find a different group of friends? Fan some person or event or something or other on Facebook and you’ve got thousands of instant new friends.

In full disclosure mode, I have to confess I’ve done all of the above. I’m on Facebook three times. Once as myself, once as guy who’s single and 20 years younger than I am, and once as a woman about my age, but much better looking and much more successful. What started out as a gaming driven divertissement, has become an element of my understanding of the world and of my self in it. Hey guys, did you know that women see a completely different internet than you do? The pop up ads, the spam, recommended apps and friends – all significantly different. I never saw a pop up ad for a vacuum cleaner until I logged on as a female. Instead of big boobs and promises of sex, I got sparkling eyes and promises of romance. Tell the truth boys, have you ever been offered help on-line with the problem of “intimate odor”?

For better or worse, digital social networks are much more malleable than the analog kind, both in how we present ourselves and in how our represented selves are interpreted and manipulated by others. As a representation, especially a representation we create, it has no bottom line that forces us to confront the multiple, shifting realities of our individual day-to-day worlds. Perhaps the predictions of “damage” are a bit of hyperbole, but certainly we need to be sensitive to the likelihood of lost capabilities. I come back to a possibly apocryphal story at the beginning of Neil Postman’s Technolopy. He writes of a tribal leader confronted with writing for the first time. Rather than seeing this as a wonder, he muses that this will cost his people their culture as they forget how to talk, to sing, and to experience their own history in un-intermediated memory.

We humans certainly shape our tools, but can there be any doubt that our tools shape us back, drawing us to new possibilities and distracting us away from others? Social networking isn’t new, but we’ve got some new tools that we use to pursue it these days. Those tools force us to walk the Analog/Digital divide, to follow those new possibilities (and possible illusions) to the exclusion of others. If we’re paying attention, if we have our eyes at least part-wise open, we’ll watch how those new tools shape the fidelity of the on-going translation from recent history to immediate future.

The Tech Whisperer

I’m not going all softy, new age psycho-babble on you with the idea of a Tech Whisperer. I’m just suggesting that some of the perspectives and tactics of the whisperer crowd might actually be effective at improving the technology/human partnership, be it in business or the wider social sphere.

A digital tsunami has come roaring through our lives in the last decade or so. The ring tones and Facebook, the credit scores and identity theft, targeted marketing and buyers clubs, blue-ray that and hi-def this, it all seems little concerned or even aware of the gentler, more engaged, almost miraculous “whisperer” variants of animal training and control. Instead, us high-tech cowboys saddle up our boxes and applications and herd those poor dumb pack humans into our corrals of Digital pre-conception, by and large ignoring their bellows of distress and obvious pain. We’re much more Yosemite Sam than Cesar Millan.

Even the most fleeting perusal of the internet turns up literally thousands of references to whisperer variants for dogs, cats, birds, lions, bears, and… well you get the idea. All the various species in the whisperer club share a common trait. They’re social animals. They have highly evolved social structures and means of communication within those social structures. The whisper approach, regardless of species, emphasizes getting tuned into to the social structure and the communications that are central to maintaining it. That “quieter” communication and social interaction approach becomes the basis for forming a partnership rather than the more physical and coercive “loud” approach of say “breaking” a horse.

Still not getting the Analog/Digital interest? What’s the dominant animal on the planet, the most intensely hard-wired social and communicative species? Anyone who answered “The Na’vi from the movie Avatar” needs to take their meds and have Mom warm up some milk for them. I’m referring, of course, to us, human beings.

Becoming a Tech Whisperer
If we’re going to talk Tech Whisperers, we have to talk about roles first. Cesar Millan, the wildly successful Dog Whisperer, is pretty clear on this point of roles. Every show starts with his introduction, “I’m Cesar Millan. I rehabilitate dogs, and I train humans” before he plunges off into some scene of domestic canine chaos and in the first few minutes has a Tasmanian devil of a dog morphed into a happy lap pup.

So wait a second. Great results, but what did he say at the beginning? He TRAINS humans? I thought this was about training dogs. Well apparently not so much. The dogs come more or less hardwired with predictable responses within their social lexicon. The humans are supposed to be the pack leader, but that leadership is not assumed. It is earned and in particular is earned by becoming savvy about the social lexicon of that particular species of pack.

Learning the Ways of the Human Pack
If we want to become hi-tech whisperers, we have to drain the useless drama out of the development and application of technology. If we want to achieve seeming miraculous acceptance and pleasure with our ‘wares, then we have to become savvy about the firmware of the human sub-conscious. It’s the tech whisperer’s job to bridge between the explicit syntax and precise design of the boxes to the less tangible, but no less real social wiring of the human pack.

So the next time you’re asked to wade into a swirling, snarling pack of disgruntled users or customers or execs, don’t get too wrapped up in the snapping, whining and verbal outrage.  Yes, ignore it at your own peril, but don’t let it become your entire focus. Put all the words, all the energy, in a wider context. Notice the non-verbal interactions, the gestures, the choice of media (e-mail, phone, meeting, whatever), the types of words as much as the actual content. Are people really angry? Or are they more afraid or insecure? Are they aggressive or just really really uncomfortable and not able to express it effectively.

What can you do to address that underlying fear, the lurking discomfort?

Training Yourself
We have to listen to and acknowledge all the messages, have to recognize the individuals across the table in all their conscious and subconscious glory. But don’t forget to look at your side of the table. It’s as much about the mechanics of your response as about the content. Pay particular attention to yourself and your posture, your cadence and tone, your actions and your volume. Do they feed the useless drama, or drain it? If you’re not playing to the underlying social dynamics as well as the explicit messages, you’re probably not being as effective as you could be.

Becoming a tech whisperer, learning to consistently and predictably enrich the human/technology partnership, isn’t the work of a moment, or some parlor trick to be quickly learned and flashed to amaze a wondering crowd of executives. It requires attention to and study of how the human pack is wired. And it requires diligent and honest self-appraisal for how you, the technology surrogate, plug into that wiring. If you’re successful, the end result is a more humane technology that has a broader impact and is more easily assimilated into our personal and professional lives.

Additional Reading
What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures, Malcolm Gladwell, from

Low Fidelity – Now at a Digital Reality Near You!

“Good Enough is the New Great” trumpets the New York Times 2009 Year in Ideas.

Catchy line. And something to keep in mind when walking the Analog/Digital divide. Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not unhappy about the new lo-fi reality we seem to be living in so many ways. True audiophiles tell me my iPod cranks out less than optimal renditions of my favorite tunes. That said it works just fine as a sound track for those long motorcycle rides.

So “good enough” definitely has its place. Who hasn’t said or at least heard the old consultant cliché “Don’t let Perfect be the Enemy of Good.” I know I’ve scratched my head more than once at some seemingly minor nuance of goodness that makes all the world of difference to a pack of my geek friends (iPhone anyone?). There’s definitely a chance for overkill when it comes to the concept of fidelity to a given reality (especially a created reality, but that’s another conversation).

Regular readers can guess, though, that I’m less concerned with going too far with the concept of fidelity to reality, than with not going far enough in this digital world of ours. If you’ve gotten out to the movies recently you might have seen “Up In the Air,” a sometimes funny, sometimes thoughtful flick about location, layoffs, presence, and perception. One of its narrative devices is the idea that a company can save money in the process of mass layoffs by using networked video conferencing to save the cash and time required to show up in person at some remote location to have the “separation” conversations. Yeah. Good luck with that. Let me know how it works out.

I hope folks would at least wonder if that didn’t cross some kind of line, even if they couldn’t exactly define what the line was or how it was crossed. I think we at least sense that some essential elements of interaction are not included as the camera and the microphone capture sound and image, package them into bits and bytes, fling them over the network and then reassemble them into the second hand reality of a video link.

I’ve got staff in an office that’s about 200 miles away from my home base. That’s far enough that I can’t just hop in the car on a whim and go show my face. Having had to deal with this in Cro-Magnon pre-video age of network technology, I gotta tell ya I love video conferencing. It makes a huge difference in how much I can invest in and how effective I can be at building a team, a community across distances.

And yet I still get in the car once at least once a month and drive to that office and spend a couple of days working from there. Those in-person visits matter. The incidental hallway conversations, the drop-in discussions, even the work to make the cubical and office arrangements have all created a level of relationship and understanding that just isn’t available in a video only world. Time and space are not infinitely compressible to fit the needs of a digital network or a particular P&L.

Taking a really long view of it, I wonder if we didn’t pick up a little too much momentum during that Renaissance transition from knowing through revelation to knowing through observation. In the move from Priests to Scientists as our ultimate authorities, did we overshoot the mark and end up with the Media Techs as our fount of all knowledge? If the podcast or the infomercial or the reality tv said it, it must be true, right? We used to say “Pictures don’t lie,” but we’ve come to understand that that particular kind of second hand reality is, in fact, subject to error either through intentional manipulation or just misinterpretation.

Like a smart woman (or man for that matter) making a bad choice, we cannot seem to extend that knowledge to a pragmatic assessment of all the second hand reality that we’ve so fallen in love with.

This blind love takes all kinds of forms. There’s the petty bureaucrat who prefers the version of reality painted on their computer screen to the reality of the person standing in front of them. You’ve probably had a manager who was more attached to latest buzz word encapsulation of the moment than the reality unfolding out their door. We’ve all used or at least heard happy-talk numbers for customer satisfaction or productivity or performance that had little or no relationship to the angry phone calls, long waits, and shoddy equipment that were our day to day experience.

So. Off with their data driven, statistically inferred, representational heads? Absolutely not. There are times when the 2nd hand reality of digital experience is, in practice and upon reflection, more than good enough, maybe even preferable. However, like all the steps in the Analog/Digital dance, the trick is knowing when.

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.