Wednesday, June 18, 2008

I’m Going Crazy. . .But So Are You

One of the great disappointments in life is that almost nothing we do is unique.

Have you got the most remarkable hangnail in history? Sorry. You can go on-line and find dozens of pictures of every type of hangnail known to man, including yours.

Get fired? Believe me, there are entire chapters in books not only about getting fired, but about getting fired in exactly the way you got fired. Verbatim on what your boss said. Verbatim on how you responded. (Good advice on what you should have said.)

Going a little bit crazy?

Ah ha. Even that.

A few years ago—I’m going to set the date at 2004, exactly a decade after Google launched—I began finding it difficult to read anything more than a few paragraphs. I could do it, but what used to come naturally was now work. I wanted to skim. I wanted to be the second-coming of Evelyn Wood. I wanted to get the page turned so I could get on with it, whatever it turned out to be on the next page.

I thought I was going just a little bit crazy.

It turns out, I was. And still am. And, according to Nicholas Carr’s sobering article in the July/August 2008 Atlantic, entitled, "Is Google Making Us Stoopid?", so are you.

And, as your willing enabler, I’m going to summarize the article for you, just in case you can no longer sit and read five pages of magazine text.

First comes Carr’s reassurance that we’re all in this together:
Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.
Already I was feeling better. At least two of us were going crazy.

But soon after, I was feeling worse. Because, Carr suggests, unless we’re willing to change the way we interact with the Net, we’re probably rewiring our brains, just as we did when the clock, the book, the printing press and the typewriter entered the lives of our ancestors.

Here are the key takeaways from Carr’s article:
1. As Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

2. Scott Karp, who writes a blog about online media, recently confessed that he has stopped reading books altogether. “I was a lit major in college, and used to be [a] voracious book reader,” he wrote. “What happened?” He speculates on the answer: “What if I do all my reading on the web not so much because the way I read has changed, i.e. I’m just seeking convenience, but because the way I THINK has changed?”

3. A recently published study of online research habits from the University College London suggests that we may well be in the midst of a sea change in the way we read and think. As part of the five-year research program, the scholars found that people using two popular websites exhibited “a form of skimming activity,” hopping from one source to another and rarely returning to any source they’d already visited. They typically read no more than one or two pages of an article or book before they would “bounce” out to another site. Sometimes they’d save a long article, but there’s no evidence that they ever went back and actually read it.

4. When we read online we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.

5. As we use what the sociologist Daniel Bell has called our “intellectual technologies”—the tools that extend our mental rather than our physical capacities—we inevitably begin to take on the qualities of those technologies. The mechanical clock, which came into common use in the 14th century, provides a compelling example. Lewis Mumford described how the clock “disassociated time from human events and helped create the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences.” In deciding when to eat, to work, to sleep, to rise, we stopped listening to our senses and started obeying the clock.

6. Sometime in 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche bought a typewriter. His vision was failing, and keeping his eyes focused on a page had become exhausting and painful. He had been forced to curtail his writing. But the typewriter rescued him, at least for a time. Once he had mastered touch-typing, he was able to write with his eyes closed, using only the tips of his fingers. Words could once again flow from his mind to the page. But the machine had a subtler effect on his work. One of Nietzsche’s friends, a composer, noticed a change in the style of his writing. His already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic. Under the sway of the machine, writes the German media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler, Nietzsche’s prose “changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.”

7. The Internet, an immeasurably powerful computing system, is subsuming most of our other intellectual technologies. It’s becoming our map and our clock, our printing press and our typewriter, our calculator and our telephone, and our radio and TV. When the Net absorbs a medium, that medium is re-created in the Net’s image. It injects the medium’s content with hyperlinks, blinking ads, and other digital gewgaws, and it surrounds the content with the content of all the other media it has absorbed. The result is to scatter our attention and diffuse our concentration.
8. In Google’s world, there’s little place for the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed. The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive.

The idea that our minds should operate as high-speed data-processing machines is not only built into the workings of the Internet, it is the network’s reigning business model as well. The faster we surf across the Web, the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements. The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction.

9. The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking.

10. Carr concludes, “Never has a communications system played so many roles in our lives—or exerted such broad influence over our thoughts—as the Internet does today. Yet, for all that’s been written about the Net, there’s been little consideration of how, exactly, it’s reprogramming us. The Net’s intellectual ethic remains obscure.”
Here’s something I worry about as it relates to my business life. There’s a kind of creativity and innovation that, for lack of a better term, I’ll call “connecting-the-dots.” It involves taking two or four or a dozen disparate ideas and morphing them into something brand new. In my experience, it’s usually done in a quiet place, over an extended time, when the mind is able to seek and search.

I’m worried that the web is stealing that kind of creativity from us. This desire to skim across the top of information impacts our products and our art and our writing. Maybe even our relationships. So, it’s not just about reading differently, it’s about doing everything differently.

Maybe better. Maybe not. And by the time we know, it’ll be very late in the game.

So, I am going crazy. But so are you. (And, no disrespect intended, but I'm a bit more concerned about the former.)

We'd both know more about it if we could just concentrate long enough to read Nicholas Carr's upcoming book.

You first.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Game 3 Employees

This morning I was listening to Colin Cowherd on ESPN Radio talk about the Los Angeles Lakers’ win in Game 3 of the play-offs against the Celtics.  I’ll paraphrase: The Lakers won Game 3. Big deal. The Lakers were supposed to win Game 3. Teams that lose the first two games in a basketball play-off series almost always go home and win Game 3. It’s practically a given. And it doesn’t mean a thing.

“Game 3,” Cowherd said, “is Fool's Gold.”

To prove his point statistically, he noted that the Lakers have about a 15% chance of becoming World Champions. That’s the history of NBA teams, at least after falling behind in the first two games. So, while miracles do sometimes happen in sports, the Lakers are effectively cooked.

Cowherd ended by saying that, after the first two wins by the Celtics, this series was established.

It got me to thinking about all the “Game 3” events that occur in our lives.

Suppose you are on a diet, trying to lose weight, but find yourself ever-so-accidentally in the drive-thru of Burger King at lunchtime. And, being starved, you order a Whopper with cheese, an onion ring, and a Diet Coke.

The Diet Coke is essentially a “Game 3” event. It’s good of you to do, but it doesn’t matter. You might as well have gone with the chocolate shake, because once you’d ordered the Whopper and onion rings, you had no chance of sticking to your diet. The no-calorie drink was “fool’s gold.”

Your lunch was, in Cowherd’s terms, established.

Or how about this. You have a bad experience with an on-line merchant and launch a complaint. In return you get a form email and no other response.

Finally, after repeated calls you get through to customer service, which apologizes and offers you a credit against future purchases.

That’s a “Game 3 event.” By the time you have a bad experience with the service and a second bad experience trying to correct the first, it doesn’t much matter what customer service does.

That merchant is established.

Many years ago I was offered a job with a questionable boss, a lousy salary, but an office with a great view of the Rocky Mountains. The view was entirely Game 3. The job was already established.

I’ve often thought that one of the toughest things in business is to manage the “Game 3 Employee.” That’s the person capable of delivering superior work--and who does so for stretches at a time--but habitually falls off (for whatever reason) to perform at an unacceptable level.

What happens? You try to correct through conversation, compensation, review, or even warning. And, inevitably, after one of these sessions, good performance returns—often better than before.

But, in 85% of the cases, this is a Game 3 event. It’s fool’s gold. Because, with time, the Game 3 Employee inevitably falls off the wagon again.

And, trying to be good managers, we meet once more with the employee and correct the performance. And off they go again, turning in stellar work.

For a while.

It’s a frustrating activity at best: Too good to fire and too bad to keep.

And you become aware, once you’ve been through the cycle two or three times, that all you’re really getting from the employee is a series of “Game 3s.” You can root and you can hope, but the percentages are entirely and inevitably against you. There’s probably no champion here.

This employee is established.

Of course, you can always try again. And a lot of us do.

But history would indicate that the smarter thing is to cut our losses and move on.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Camouflage Marketing: Making it OK to Buy What We Want

I want to talk with you for a few minutes about vibrators--and, yes, those kinds of vibrators.

I just finished an article by Rachel Maines called “Socially Camouflaged Technologies: the Case of the Electromechanical Vibrator” in Carroll Pursell’s American Technology.  In it, Maines argues that there are certain products and technologies which, while sold legally, are expected to be used either illegally, or in a socially unacceptable manner. To be successful, these kinds of products demand not just marketing, but camouflage marketing.

One such product is the electromechanical vibrator, at least as it was offered in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Here are the five things you need to know about this product (and I’ll leave it to you to read the article for the other five things you want to know):
1. Electromechanical vibrators were marketed in the popular press from the late nineteenth century through the early 1930s in the guise of a modern, professional instrument designed to cure (the creatively defined disease of) female hysteria. In particular, advertising for vibrators leveraged the prevailing belief that electricity was a healing agent, and took advantage of the fact that more and more homes were being wired.  Once vibrators began appearing in stag films (if you’re too young, look it up), this marketing camouflage was inadequate. Indeed, marketing of the product did not resurface until social change made it unnecessary to disguise the use of the product.

2. Marketing of electromechanical vibrators, at least until the 1920s, was often directed at physicians and emphasized the device’s respectability as a medical instrument (including its reassuringly clinical appearance) and its efficiency. Hard as it is to believe now, treatment for hysteria might comprise up to 75% of a physician’s practice in the nineteenth century.  (And you thought American innovation was all about the post-it note and the light bulb.)

3. Home vibrators were marketed as benefits to health and beauty by improving the circulation and soothing the nerves. An ad in the 1921 issue of Hearst’s urges the considerate husband to give his wife “A Gift That Will Keep Her Young and Pretty.”

4. Advertising of electromechanical vibrators did not appear in magazines selling for less than 5 cents and more than 25 cents per issue. Market segmentation suggested that readers of the former were unlikely to have access to electrical current, and readers of the latter were more likely to respond to ads for spas—another product benefiting from camouflage marketing.

5. The U.S. Bureau of the Census found 66 firms manufacturing these devices in 1908, and by 1919 the annual market was well over $2 million.
I didn’t do the inflation accounting on that last number to express it in today’s dollars, but suffice to say that there was a lot of "camouflage marketing" going on in 1919, if you know what I mean.

Maines lists other products that have been sold actively using this same technique. For example, distilling technology was sold during Prohibition as “Ideal for distilling water for drinking purposes, automobile batteries and industrial uses.”  Today, burglary tools are marketed in some popular magazines “with the admonition that they are to be used only to break into one’s own home or automobile.”

“Most recently,” Maines tells us, “we have seen the appearance of computer software for breaking copy protection, advertised in terms that explicitly prohibit its use for piracy, although surely no software publisher is so na├»ve as to believe that all purchasers intend to break copy protection only to make backup copies of legitimately purchased programs and data.”

I took a tour around the Internet, seeking more examples of camouflage marketing.

Planning to be in a brawl tonight? How about some brass knuckles (which are illegal most everywhere in the world)? I found a great spot to buy them, and all you need to know is that a set of knuckles is “For novelty purposes only. Makes a fine paperweight.”  I found a site for rolling papers which noted that “The site you are entering sells tobacco related products and accessories.” Just as I thought—rolling papers for all those people still rolling their own tobacco.  Bittorrent is "the global standard for accessing rich media over the Internet." That’s better than “Bittorrent: You too can rip-off HBO,” or “Bittorrent: Smarter than Napster, and richer too.”

And then, if you’ve ever been on the Seattle Underground tour, you’ll know that the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897 brought hundreds of prospectors into town on their way north to Alaska. Just coincidentally, there appeared an inordinate number of young women, most without visible means of support, who listed their profession as "seamstress." Poor camouflage perhaps, but camouflage marketing nonetheless.

I have a theory that there is an emerging group of “ungreen” products, like McMansions, SUVs and bottled water, which may one day have to practice camouflage marketing in order to survive. How’s this? “The SUV: For when your hybrid can’t make it through the snow.” Or, “Our McMansion, because you can't blame us for wanting lots of kids.”

It’s pretty clear that, unlike traditional marketing, camouflage marketing isn’t about educating the consumer, or creating a compelling value statement. The consumer already knows what it is he or she is buying.  Camouflage marketing is all about legitimizing the sale.  Especially if the sale eventually shows up on your doorstep in an unmarked brown box, with the UPS driver giving you one of those knowing smiles.