Doin’ the HowWhat Dance!

Somewhere beneath the rolling pyroclastic hype of the 90’s web and the mobile ‘00s, as most meaningful discussion of people and technology got polished off the face of the planet, something really did change. All that sound and fury, while not particularly articulate or well directed, was, at least, like an adolescent’s hormones, either the source or the signal of something seismic. Experienced Analog Undergrounders know to take that kind of blatant, yet ambiguous marker as an entry point to something deeper.

As best I can tell, all that noise, motion and stink was related to the emergence of the Digital from being a “how” into being a “what.” “Pyroclastic hype, indeed” you might say. O.k. let me try again.

Digital DNA
It’s been practically imprinted in the DNA of every corporate IT drone that IT comes second to some mysterious inspiration about businessy things somewhere else in the “business.” That attitude spilled over into development of the Digital in general. Rarely a “what for”, almost always a “how to”. Someone else figures out where we’re going. We just figure out how to get there. Yeah, there’s always been that rogue element wondering back alleys with a solution in search of a problem to club into submission, but you wouldn’t want your kid marrying one of those hypoteers.

Then Glick’s First Law of Software kicked in. To refresh, my first law of software is that users will invent uses for applications that their creators never imagined. Back in the pre-big bang miasma of early networking there were all kinds of proprietary document sharing and discussion management networked applications. Then this guy in Switzerland (how appropriate) proposed a platform neutral way to share and interlink research docs across the emerging internet. Bang. Really big bang. But not immediately. The world wide web was spread pretty thinly over the world’s population for the first several years of its existence, with most of the small constituency well plugged into its original intent. But then the software genie, as it always does with killer apps, got out of the bottle.

Users and Genetic Engineering
Al Gore to the contrary, nobody really invented the internet in all its random, evolving glory. I’m pretty sure there was never a small cabal of businessmen somewhere that woke up one morning and said we’re going to do something that will shift commercial power from the producers where it’s been since the beginning of the industrial revolution to the consumer that previously pretty much had to take whatever was offered at whatever price was stated.

And there were aftershocks to that big webby bang. Mobility was almost as big, maybe bigger, but certainly of significance whatever the measure. There probably wasn’t, at the beginning anyway, a plan that said let’s take that hand held device that carries voice and replace the voice with text and music and apps and embed it so deeply in the young adult experience as to make it a new social currency. Ya’ can’t make that stuff up! It just happens, emerging from the roiling chaos of creativity, striving and greed that is an open market.

Somewhere along the line, all those Digital “how-to’s” added up to a “what-for.” You’d have to be in some kind of pharmaceutically induced denial to suggest that technology hasn’t driven business and society in all kinds of different ways over the last 10 or 15 years. Some of it’s been pretty amazing, some of it pretty amazingly foolish, but the most successful businesses have been as good at reacting to technology as they had been at driving it previously.

Reality Version 329722.1
A new “what.” So what? Well, when “what” wonders over the border from Analog reality, with all its well understood and socially supported constraints, to the wild west of Digital Virtuality, we need to start paying more attention to how that virtuality will influence our new reality.

I don’t want to stumble into the quagmire of whether there are inherent values embedded in this or that technology. It’s enough to know that technology in general and Digital in particular makes some outcomes more likely. How we decided to value those outcomes is another conversation, but the probabilities are, within reasonable margins of errors, easily discernable facts, at least over time. Yeah, one of the glories of being human is the way we confound those probabilities, but… damn just got the boots of reason and logic sucked off my feet.

So back to the, ah, factual probabilities… Let’s take the rich media, multi-tasked environment that digital natives swim in. All those images, video clips, down-loaded individual songs, simultaneous chat sessions, and text messages swirl together into a rich stew of data steaming off all kinds of information, right?

Well, yeah, but no matter how tasty the confection is that all you want to eat?

The More Things Change…
All that virtuality, may, in practice, not be adequate preparation for some mundane hallway conversation with your boss, or some dining room discussion with your spouse. As some of our “whats” cross the Analog/Digital boarder, we have to remember that even now, not all the “hows” came along for the ride. Before the IT tribe starts our drumming, dancing celebration of having finally seized a few “what” flags, we might benefit from recalling our ingrained experience that “how” inevitably follows “what.” What’s more, some of the “hows” of meaningful change, contribution and value like relationship, communication and meaning haven’t exactly been our strong suites nor have we always effectively built them into our digital progeny.

Make no mistake. Seizing the flag of “what” is not the same as creating sustainable value. Value emerges in the interactions between people and groups, organizations and societies. As all that Digital “What” lava begins to cool, as the land firms up and the first green sprouts appear, let’s not forget all we’ve learned in the Analog world about connections and constraints, value and meaning.

Be Bop Bazzzzzzit!

O.k. Analog Undergrounders. Prepare to have your mind blown! If you don’t know Pat Metheny, you should. He’s written the Analog Underground anthem. Hell, he’s written the whole hymnal. As with all things T.A.U. it’s not quite what I would have predicted (no words!), but it is unmistakably music for dancing along the Analog/Digital divide. Take a minute, seven actually, hop over to youtube, and take in an interview with Pat on his latest project, Orchestrion.

I’m no musical savant so when I first caught a blurb on this, I had to go look it up. Yeah, it’s a real word, meaning a machine that produces the affect of an orchestra. Seeing “machine” and “music” in the same sentence is a bit jarring and not something that I’d expect to lead to an Analog epiphany, but reality has its own agenda and we’re only rarely its master.

If you haven’t gone out to the interview, Pat’s latest project is a complete jazz band driven entirely off his guitar. “So what?” you say, “Isn’t that true of any ensemble with a star lead?” Well, yeah, but in this case the ensemble is just him. The rest is all automation. The hot base line, the riding cymbals, the drums, the piano, every riff and run, every improvisation, it’s all ‘bots. Cables, solenoids, and levers wrap around the instruments, poking and jerking and whirring over the bits that generate sound like some mad scientist’s nightmare of a band. It doesn’t seem possible that the result could be anything but alien, mechanical, sterile.

So much for being constrained by the possible, though. The result is another rich example of that mystical expression of the human condition we call music, that howl and whisper, the ecstatic shout and the caressing murmur that life elicits from each of us in one form or another.

How can this be? Music is one of those most human of preserves, like painting, or preparing the family holiday banquet, or poetry, or playing chess (whoops, never mind, we already lost that one to the boxes). No. No. No. NO, I DON”T WANT TO LIKE THIS. But I do. It’s even more than that. Not only do I like this, but I recognize myself in it, both in the sound and approach. I can almost feel the Analog ground shifting under me.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised as I’ve always disowned the Luddite Analog-Only approach to navigating our Digital age. Perhaps familiarity does breed contempt, but it can also be the ground for admiration, or at least grudging respect and such is the emerging partnership between Analog and Digital. Like a smarmy romantic comedy or Hallmark Channel tragedy, we just know the two opposites are going to attract, but not before some either hilarious or tragic conflict and maybe a little of both.

The whole game for the machines and their computer brains is leverage. Extension of our physical and logical clout, baby! The Digital allows a near miraculous scaling of human capabilities. Digital allows us to throw space shuttles into orbit and drive a surgeon’s blade with microscopic precision. It allows us to react in nano-seconds and manage consistent action across decades and even perhaps millennia. We collect millions of bits of type into a massive library on the head of a pin. It is all amazing and wonderful. Why not extend the musician’s finger tips and lips beyond a single instrument?

The risk is, that without some guided intention, all the leverage in the world only falls on us like noise, like an avalanche, like a mysterious act of a malevolent God. It is that guided intention that draws my Analog Underground eye. The scaling up and down of human capabilities, all that leverage needs some guidance to achieve its best effect. Scale, up or down, without sense, without perspective is a woeful thing. Like eternal teenagers, when we figure out how to do something, we’re almost helpless to stop ourselves from actually trying it. Unfortunately, history is littered with examples of how inadequate a moral compass the phrase “Because we can” usually turns out to be. Our current economic crisis is only the most recent example.

All things digital are based on differentiation and step functions. Yeah, given our Digital capabilities we can often tune those step functions well below our physical ability to perceive them in sight and sound. But a funny happens on the journey from our physical senses to making sense, making meaning. For better or worse, it seems that most meaning that means anything emerges from the space outside of the Digitally replicated states, explicitly perceived or not. Something happens in between, beyond those static reference points, no matter how many we stack up and stream together. Low fidelity as mentioned in other posts is one thing. No fidelity is something else all together.

The Digital world gives us ever increasing multipliers on our intentions. Balance would suggest we also become ever more proficient at processing and applying the continuous Analog feedback that daily life provides. Whether we’re paying attention or not, Analog is always putting out a steady stream of on-the-ground leading indicators of result. We may not always be able to summon those up into conscious, articulated thought. They may not be infinitely replicable or rapidly transportable between people, places, and situations, but that doesn’t mean they are not real or useful. A friend of mind has dubbed this “The optician view of morality.” You know, two experiences and then the question, “Better or Worse?” The unique value of Analog is that it lets us play this vital game on an infinitely sliding scale with the middle relentlessly attached to the ends, paying attention not only to the data but, also, to the actual outcome.

Riding the Certainty Sine Wave

If you take a long enough view, the future is certain. Whether through a Christian/Mayan mélange of apocalypse, or the more mundane operations of thermo-dynamics, sooner or later there is no future. From an equally lofty view point the past is pretty much fully baked as well. The show got started as either the casual casting of God’s mind on the emptiness around 40,000 years ago or the flicking of some cosmic light switch several orders of magnitude earlier. Smack dab in the middle is the present moment, feeling equally inflexible in its restraints of the laws of physics, recent history, and our own various attachments.

Yet change happens. Somewhere between that eventual nothing and this specific now, the future gets complex. Like a towering growler of a North Shore wave avalanching towards the present, all the possibilities, all the mysteries pile up in a roiling, thrashing maelstrom of choice, aspiration and longing. Eventually the gravity of time pulls that skyscraper down into a single specific present. The ride isn’t over, though, as all that accumulated momentum and energy then whistles off into a mid-term past that endlessly kaleidoscopes through the various lenses of our belief and interpretation.

And then it instantly repeats. Again. And again. And… well, anyways, like walking, if you stop to think about it too much, you probably can’t do it very well.

‘Scoping the Future
None the less, those of us swept up in the Analog/Digital tango might benefit from a closer examination of the repetitive nature of this rolling series of near random events we call reality.

The physicists and mathematicians among us know that a sine wave is a smooth repetitive oscillation, which brings us some of our favorite consumables such as sound and light. Those of us that know the physicists and mathematicians among us also know how challenging it is to try and follow them through a description of those waves collapsing into particles as we turn on the kitchen light. Which gives us a perfect metaphor for a day in the life of an IT professional.

‘Scoping IT
Each and every morning we can count on something unexpected happening that will trouble the emotionless minds of our digital charges. We’ll have to rush in with some urgent patch, retreat into deep dive analysis of the problem, or, if we’re lucky, march into the undefined territory of new product development. If we’re lucky and stoned (aka working at Apple on the iPad) we might even get involved in something “magical and revolutionary.” Hey Apple dudes. Word of advice. Put your heads between your knees and breathe into a paper bag for a while.

At a more abstract level, any moment in the life of a sine wave inevitably contains its own opposite. If you’re riding the sine wave of certainty, you’re also riding the sine wave of uncertainty, surely as a Calvinistic destiny. In IT, we spend inordinate amounts of time hammering up cages made out of requirements and specifications, test cases and training manuals to drive a herd of needs into a corral of solutions. Then some sales person goes out and actually meets with a potential customer and suddenly we’re talking steam engines and not horses anymore.

The boxes can’t cope with that degree of uncertainty very well. But we, their technology nursemaids, can, if we decide to. We can dry those tears of 404 Page not Found errors and the temper tantrums of program ab-ends, given enough time. Being human in a digital age doesn’t mean becoming more like the machines, but rather getting back in touch with the things that make us human in the first place.

Like Any Good Parent
Raising our digital charges, helping them to become more productive members of our society as opposed to stumbling bureaucratic Frankensteins, requires us to employ our broader array of intelligences. The boxes need context, and kinds of context they can’t provide themselves. In addition to the expected analytical and systems intelligence, we need to bring our emotional, creative, and even spiritual intelligence to bear.

Emotions in the workplace! In the digital workplace! Flame on, you might say! Well, yeah, if we’re as dull and limited as our binary off-spring. The problem is not that we have too much emotion in the workplace, on the net and at home. It’s that we have too little facility with emotion, too little familiarity with the constructive application of passion. That first stirring of fear or anger, that single tick on passion’s Geiger counter are wonderful leading indicators of the need for focus, honed over years and generations of learning. The problems come when we let those emotions swirl into the all-too-common morass of useless, unharnessed energy and desire.

Same with our spiritual selves. I’m not talking religion here. Atheists are invited to come along. I’m talking about the part of our selves that makes meaning, that helps us understand what is significant and what is not. Like sancti-mommies run wild, left to their own devices the boxes will create an impression of significance for any output they produce regardless of real value. Ask the refugees from any failed SAP implementation.

Lord knows, I’m not calling for better, more improved self-righteous puffery at work or at home. We’ve got plenty of that, thanks to the likes of Karl Rove, Al Franken, Rush Limbaugh, Ralph Nader, Nancy Grace, and Glen Beck. What we need is more discipline and persistence in sorting through all the random stimulants to find those that actually lead us to our better selves, better organizations, and a better world.

The boxes are really good at helping us manage the floods of data along the sine wave of certainty/uncertainty. Making sense of all that data, knowing how it feels, figuring out what it means and managing our response… that probably still requires a human touch.

The 100% Club and Why I Don’t Want to Join

Somewhere between that last nine in 99.999999 and giving 110% we’ve lost sight of the big picture. In our quest for perfect control, that platinum club, queue skipping, arrow straight, GPS-tuned line from idea to delivery, we seem to have forgotten that reality isn’t quite that neat and tidy. We’ve got a risk-free monkey on our back. To be perfectly fair (chuff!), I can’t lay this addiction at the feet of the Digital but you can bet Digital is not on the menu at the Perfect Control Rehab Clinic either.


Back in 1772 Voltaire said “The perfect is the enemy of the good” so apparently we’ve got a running start at this jones for dominion over variation. It took a mechanical engineer, Fredrick Winslow Taylor, and his time and motion studies to really get rolling with the application of assembly line thinking to the masses. By the time ENIAC started frying apocryphal moths against its vacuum tubes in the 1940’s we barely felt the prick of the needle seeking that last good vein.

Who Let That .000001 In?
You’d think the software engineering industry would get that there’s always a gap between the actual and the ideal. After all, software engineering is nothing more than the translation of some reality from natural language through progressively more structured formats until we arrive at something the boxes can apply. That process isn’t perfect.

We clarify and trim a hallway conversation into a meeting agenda and power point slides. The meeting notes refine debate into a requirements document. Some designer edits and prioritizes to accommodate budget, technical, or political limitations. Then some engineer, hectored by syntax or admiration of their own creativity, lays some Jackson Pollock-like description of the envisioned state at the foot of the boxes. They then race off at the speed of electrons to recreate a fifth hand rumor of the original idea. All those clipped off bits of yellowed understanding and crumbling clarity are scattered like fallen leaves into some dusty cubicle corner. At the end of it all you’re left standing in front of a confused clerk who pushes the same button on the same point-of-sale terminal for the 15th time, hoping for a different result.

Sorry Mr. Taylor, but Meaning Gets Lost in all that Time and Motion
We act like Bermuda-shorted tourists shooting blurred pictures of what might or might not have been the latest b-list reality show star spilling their coffee at Starbucks with our 10 megapixel camera. One of the best software engineers I know says there isn’t much value in trying to take the measure of something in units finer than precision of available tools. Put another way, what we do with the boxes is an approximation of some reality. Much as we might wish it otherwise, the fidelity of that approximation is limited by the precision of our tools, both intellectual and physical. When we acknowledge these limitations and act within them, good things happen. When we don’t, watch out.

I’d love to suggest that this just a matter of more disciplined analysis and engineering. However, we’re not talking some street corner thugs stealing cigarettes. When executives, engineers, and society as a whole collude to ignore the limitations of our Digital tools, it’s more like the Mob moving in to muscle out understanding and meaning. Tonight, reality sleeps with the fishes and no RICO wielding Digital DA is ever going to figure out what happened.

Celebrating the .000001
The Analog is an infinitely variable, no-solution calculus. Digital is always an attempt to take its measure, and fans of quantum physics know you can’t measure something without changing it. Our application of machines and computers to the physics and logic of reality cannot help but change that reality. We almost always base our designs on some snapshot of the passing show, freezing reality, dumbing it down so we can apply the mechanical advantage and logical efficiency of our machines. We spend a tremendous amount of energy chasing that absolutely perfect, 100% accurate snapshot. However, whatever our intent, only the snapshot is frozen. Reality moves on. Eventually every machine and every computer is, at best, solving a problem that doesn’t matter anymore, or, at worst, creating new problems more intractable than the old ones.

The machines are always going to have a greater mechanical advantage. The boxes are always going to be quicker at puzzling out some mundane piece of logic. We don’t become better humans beings by getting better at playing second fiddle in those games, endlessly refining out the those .000001 variations and deficiencies. We become better human beings when we acknowledge and even celebrate the endless variation we call reality. We become better human beings as we come together at that source of all growth and learning.

Digital Ways in an Analog World

It seems we can’t go long without hearing the Digital mob raise its favorite chant “This changes everything!” Like first time parents, they’re convinced there’s never been anything quite as wonderful as their new baby, be it the latest operating system, the next killer app, the next generation of phone, or the unfortunately named iPad. It’s tough not to roll one’s eyes, to turn away to more substantial considerations, and leave the myopic bright eyes (digitally enhanced no doubt) to their eventual disappointment or distraction.

But Digital IS different. It may not, ahem, change everything, but like any new experience it may cast a new light across our known world, illuminating features we hadn’t noticed before.

Most of the time when I get cranked up here, I’m drawing attention to ways that Digital hasn’t changed the fundamentals of what it means to be human, either personally or professionally. I’m not quite ready to climb down off that soapbox, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that as we track outcomes on the way to more Digital, we may learn something about being human as well.

A Digital Lens
Digital is a fertile ground for metaphors of the human experience. Forget something? You “lost a pointer into memory.” Can’t quite function before that first cup of coffee? You’re just having trouble “booting up.” Feeling the need to get away? You just need to “go offline” for a while. Beyond those throw away phrases, though, are some richer veins of understanding to be mined.

Most recently this was brought to mind when trying to implement some minor bit of process at my current job. Hey WAIT A MINUTE! Before you run off screaming over the horizon at the mere mention of the word “process” for fear of its evil twin, “bureaucracy,” take a deep breath. There’s a story here that might be worth hearing.

I’m the first one to rant that process isn’t some magic elixir you pour down some poor drone’s throat and get instant conformant, efficient behavior, even it happens to have “Best Practice” printed on the label. Implementing effective process, at least in situations that mean anything, is always more complex than a single power point slide.

The evil twin, Bureaucracy, didn’t start out leaden and overly complex. Rather it was born in that moment when we imagine there is a simple, single, repeatable solution to a problem that is only poorly understood. “If we just do… THIS, the problem is solved, right?” Mmmm, but then what about this condition, or that exception? A few iterations, and all of a sudden we’re filling out form 732-B5.2 in triplicate while standing in a line that isn’t moving because somebody at the front is waving form 327-A4.5 in the face of an uncomprehending, uncaring clerk.

Does that sound familiar? It should to anybody that’s ever worked on a piece of software that is more than fifteen minutes old. We may all be only six degrees of separation away from Kevin Bacon, but trust me, we’re all infinitely removed from the mind of the original software engineer for a piece of unfamiliar code. And that’s just the well written (if poorly documented) stuff, a vanishingly small portion of all the software rat-racing down all the digital circuits around the world.

Digitally Enabled Godzilla
So what’s my point? That all software developers are really just closet bureaucrats? While perhaps true, I’m headed somewhere else. Developing good software is an amazingly difficult undertaking. Oh, it may not be too hard to come up with the happy path of functions, that yellow brick road of the well known and easily anticipated. But then we push our little digital undertaking up against the realities of everyday. In a flash it’s not so much Fred Astaire as Godzilla with a huge snort of cocaine up his prodigious nose, rampaging through the neat little processes of our workplace.

Going on thirty years ago one of my CompSci professors mused that if we built bridges the way we build software, we’d all be dead. True then and probably still true today, but in the past thirty years we’ve learned a lot about how to codify and structure an activity in such a way that it can be explained to and satisfactorily replicated by our dear if somewhat dim digital boxes.

Hmmmm. Codify and structure an activity. Software or process. You make the call, but I can’t help but think that some of the approaches we’ve developed over time to deal with the amorphous translation of ideas into software could also be applied to translation of objectives into process for our organizations.

We’d never imagine that we could take a thirty year old application written for an IBM mainframe, shove it onto our sleek little iPhone and get good results. Yet it seems like you can’t turn around at work without some newly minted VP attempting just that with process. And bureaucracy is born.

Process, just like software is only as good as its assumptions about inputs, outputs, and translations. Good software employs a degree of flexibility as a way to predictability. Lazy software just suppresses that flexibility (or throws the computer equivalent of a temper tantrum and crashes). Same deal with good process. Good process supports and enhances the application of good judgment to the unexpected on the way to predictability. Lazy, bureaucratic process drains away any opportunity for judgment and any flexibility to address the unexpected.

We Think Therefore We Stomp
Unfortunately for the process engineers, whether at home and at work, the platform for software , a computer, is much more structured and predictable than the platform for process, human beings. It doesn’t take long to get a good bead on the underlying capabilities and limitations of a particular box or application. Humans? Well not so much. We constantly surprise each other in both useful and not so useful ways. The human capacity of imagination and interpretation separates us from the boxes and is the blessing and the bane of any process engineer.

Which brings us back to more familiar Analog Underground territory. The practices of the Digirati may cast some light on how we choose to program ourselves and live our lives. Those practices, however, cannot be applied as if there is no difference between machines and humans. At best we’d create many minor irritations, inconveniences, and other petty bureaucracy. At worst we’d edit out all the random, chaotic pathways to unexpected meaning and connection that make us fully human.

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 Amazon.com

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.