Tag Archives: The New Yorker

Your Invention is about to Launch: Did You Consider ALL Ramifications?

Do you think it’d be wonderful to have government departments with such lofty titles like the Ministry of Peace, the Ministry of Truth, the Ministry of Plenty, and the Ministry of Love? OK, maybe that’s a bit too on the nose, as most people have probably read (and/or heard of) 1984. The point I’m trying to make:

The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

Huh? Let me explain.

You’re a burgeoning, young social entrepreneur who can’t wait to set the world on fire with this idea you’ve been cultivating for years. This invention has all the hallmarks of a game-changer in its industry and will surely have a spillover effect into other industries. It will revolutionize the way business takes place for years to come. You know that as soon as your invention goes to market, the world will be a better place. Finally, the day is here and your invention goes live. There is an enormous uptake rate. People start using it instantly – across the world. You’re so happy and can’t believe how quickly people have adapted to making it part of their daily lives. You always hoped and thought they would, but to see it actually happening – wow!

Two months later, you start to notice something peculiar in how your invention is being used. You notice that people are starting to use the invention in a way that you hadn’t intended and that this is starting to have an adverse effect in some areas. Weeks pass and you see that the trend has continued. People are continuing to use your invention in the “wrong” way and as a result, some people are starting to get hurt. More weeks pass and you realize that your invention, while if used in the way you intended is wonderful, has become a main driver of pain and suffering in the world.

Recognizing this, you wish with all your might that you could go back to the day before you launched the invention to undo it. Take it all back. Unfortunately, the proverbial cat is out of the bag and there’s no going back. The internet is here to stay…

I share this anecdote on account of something I read in The New Yorker recently:

In an influential piece that appeared in Rolling Stone in 1972, Brand prophesied that, when computers became widely available, everyone would become a “computer bum” and “more empowered as individuals and co-operators.” This, he further predicted, could enhance “the richness and rigor of spontaneous creation and human interaction.” No longer would it be the editors at the Times and the Washington Post and the producers at CBS News who decided what the public did (or didn’t) learn. No longer would the suits at the entertainment companies determine what the public did (or didn’t) hear.

“The Internet was supposed to be a boon for artists,” Taplin observes. “It was supposed to eliminate the ‘gatekeepers’—the big studios and record companies that decide which movies and music get widespread distribution.” Silicon Valley, Foer writes, was supposed to be a liberating force—“the disruptive agent that shatters the grip of the sclerotic, self-perpetuating mediocrity that constitutes the American elite.”

Fifty years ago, people thought computers would bring us closer together in a way that we hadn’t imagined. Certainly, we can say that that’s the case, but we must also say that they’ve brought us closer together in a way that we hadn’t imagined!

When we aspire to bring things into the world through entrepreneurship (or) intrapreneurship, it’s extremely important that there be someone there to play the role of “devil’s advocate” to consider ways in which this “wonderful idea” might literally set the world on fire. Optimism is great, but without a healthy dose of pessimism in the planning process, we might be closer to a Ministry of Plenty than we’d like to believe.

NOTE: This was cross-posted.

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Understanding is Inherent to Empathy: On Paul Boom and Empathy

I came across an article in The Atlantic recently that expressed the opinion that empathy might be overrated. You’ll note that the way the headline is written: “Empathy: Overrated?” should already tell us that the answer is no (via Betteridge’s law of headlines). While from the outset, I’m already noticing my bias against the idea of empathy being overrated, I did my best to read the piece with an open mind and I’m glad I did because there are a few passages that I think are important to highlight from the “con” side of empathy:

The problem, as Bloom sees it, is that “because of its focusing properties, [empathy] can be innumerate, parochial, bigoted.” People are often more empathetic toward individuals who resemble themselves, a fact that can exacerbate already-existing social inequalities. And empathy can cause people to choose to embrace smaller goods at the expense of greater ones. “It’s because of the zooming effect of empathy that the whole world cares more about a little girl stuck in a well than they do about the possible deaths of millions and millions due to climate change,” Bloom said.

Empathy can also make people do evil. “Atrocities are typically motivated by stories of suffering victims—stories of white women assaulted by blacks, stories of German children attacked by Jewish pedophiles,” Bloom said. It also can lure countries into violent conflicts based on relatively small provocations, and researchers have shown that people who are more empathetic are more likely to want to impose harsh punishments on people. “The more empathy you have, the more violent you are—the more ready and willing you are to cause pain,” Bloom said.

Bloom raises some really good points here, but I don’t know if it’s fair to lay the blame for climate change at the feet of empathy. There’s been an extremely strong misinformation movement that I’d “blame” before I’d blame empathy.

The point about empathy exacerbating social inequalities is also a bit curious to me. While we may be more inclined be to empathetic to people who look like us, that doesn’t preclude us from being empathetic to people who don’t look like us and to that end, wouldn’t being at least marginally more empathetic to people who don’t look like us be better than not being empathetic to them at all (if we’re to look at it from a cold, calculated, and objective standpoint)?

Lastly, and most importantly, I’m worried about this point that the more empathetic you are, the more likely you are to want to impose harsh punishments on people. I looked and looked, but couldn’t find the study that Bloom is referring to in this article in the New Yorker from a few years ago, so I won’t attempt to critique the study’s methodology, but I will say this: isn’t campaigning for less empathy taking us a step back? If we’re looking at the progression of humans, I think it’s probably fair to say that empathy is something that we’ve developed along the way. It’s growth. It’s positive (I mean that it’s an addition to our species, rather than when positive is meant to indicate a judgment). Wouldn’t it be better for us — as a species — to incorporate this new phenomenon of empathy as we continue to grow?

This idea reminds me of Ken Wilber and his work. In particular, the idea that we start with x, move to y, and then find a way to integrate our understanding of x and y to move to a third stage, let’s call it xy. It seems to me that we’ve learned about this thing called empathy (stage x), and now we’re learning about how it can sometimes have a negative effect on us. As a result, there’s this backlash or movement against empathy (stage y). So now, we’ve got to move to place where we can integrate the two (stage xy).

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Finally, I wanted to talk about one more thing that Bloom said:

At the end of the Aspen session, an audience member posed a scenario to the scientists: What if she was fired from her job, and her partner offered her a back rub and kind words but didn’t truly get why she was upset? Wouldn’t the comfort feel hollow, useless?

“What you’re really asking for is compassion plus understanding,” Bloom replied. “Suppose you feel humiliated. I don’t think it’s what you want or what you need for your partner to feel humiliated. You want your partner to understand your humiliation and respond with love and kindness. I think for your partner to feel humiliated would be the worst thing you want. Because now, you have to worry about your partner’s feelings.”

I like Paul Bloom and I’ve even written about him before, but I wonder if this is a misunderstanding of empathy. Or maybe more accurately, the way that the study defines empathy is different from the way that others may define empathy. The way that I remember empathy is that understanding is a component of empathy. I wrote a post about this a little while back and included a helpful short from the RSA:

Musings on the Future of Cable News

After reading Kelefa Sanneh‘s piece in The New Yorker that took an in-depth look at MSNBC, it got me thinking about what I wrote a few days about about the future of TV. In that post, I mostly talked about the idea of moving television programs to online streaming or mobile streaming. I didn’t, however, talk about the idea of unbundling TV packages and allowing people to choose which networks they wanted.

This is one of the the things that Sanneh briefly touches on in his article. In particular, he questions whether the unbundling of TV packages would hurt cable news programming. That is, would CNN, MSNBC, and FOX News keep their heads above water if they weren’t part of a bundle? For instance, Sanneh tells us that FOX News (the leading cable news network since 2002), gets about half as many viewers as the lowest-rated network news program. That’s significant. Would FOX News survive if it wasn’t bundled? Might it do better if it weren’t bundled?

Chances are that cable news — barring something unforeseen — would be in trouble if TV packages became unbundled.

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About a quarter of the way into the article, Sanneh has a quote from the President of MSNBC that I find rather startling. I’ll include the lead-in, so the quote makes sense [Emphasis mine]:

“I’m building for the future,” Griffin said, not long after the switch. He was sitting in his office, reviewing a series of promotional clips that highlighted Hayes and the network’s other stars. “You’ve got a young guy who’s incredibly smart, who’s got a following,” he said. “We’re making a bet that this is what our audience wants.” 

The startling part is the bit that I’ve bolded. I don’t understand that a company as big as MSNBC would be gambling in the way that Griffin claims to be. They’re making a bet that this is what the audience wants? They don’t have the resources to find out if that’s what their audience wants? Maybe Sanneh hasn’t included the whole quote, but this to me makes it sound like Griffin is being a bit cavalier with the most important time slot.

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FOX News consistently outperforms other cable news networks in an older demographic: 35-64. Take this past Monday’s cable news ratings, for example. FOX News outperformed all the other cable news networks in this demographic at every time slot. The closest any network came in this demographic was in the 9 o’clock hour when Hannity beat The Rachel Maddow Show by over 200,000 viewers. I don’t know how to put this delicately, so I’ll say it like this: what happens when this demographic “passes on?”

Yes, FOX News still outperforms the other networks in the coveted 25-54 age bracket, but their lead is substantially smaller. The largest lead FOX News has is during the 8 o’clock hour and that’s a little more than 250,000 viewers (over the next closest show). If I were Roger Ailes (or the guy who was likely to replace Roger Ailes), this is something I would be thinking considering, in addition to the prospect of unbundling TV packages.

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The last thing I wanted to talk about is this idea that those people who MSNBC is trying to reach may not like cable news or TV:

One explanation for MSNBC’s struggles is that the network is trying to do something nearly impossible: it is a cable news network for people who don’t like cable news, and may not even like television.

MSNBC, in its current format as I understand it, is still quite new. It’s only recently switched over to a more partisan-esque feel. I wonder if there’s still a bit of a lag before the viewers they’re trying to reach will show up. I also wonder if TV does start to move in a new direction (simultaneous online streaming), will this open up a new audience for MSNBC? I’m particularly interested in MSNBC because of this idea that the people who MSNBC is targeting are those people who wouldn’t normally watch cable news or TV. I wonder if these people had another avenue to watch these programs, would they?

 

If You Want to Succeed, You Must Heed

I’ve been thinking about Malcolm Gladwell and the 10,000-hour rule. This is a concept that comes from one of his books, Outliers. Recently, this idea came under fire after an article in Time earlier this year in May. After some time, Gladwell wrote a response (a few days ago) that seems to adequately account for the critiques in the Time article. Nonetheless, it got me thinking about the idea of 10,000 hours and what it represents.

In case you’re not familiar, the 10,000-hour rule is the idea that in order to be “great” at something, one has to put in 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. After the 10,000 hours (approximately), one will likely be at the pinnacle or very near to, of the field. Ten thousand hours.

That’s 20 hours a week for 10 years.

You have to really like something — a lot — or really want to do well at something, in order to remain committed to the goal of becoming an expert. Twenty hours a week. Ten years. Nowadays, people might not even spend that much time at the same job (if we compress it to 40 hours a week and 5 years)!

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Then I got to thinking about Daniel Day-Lewis. Certainly one of the premier actors of our time. Since 1989, Day-Lewis has appeared in 11 movies. Of those 11 movies, he’s won the Academy Award for Best Actorthree times — making him the only male actor to win the award three times. He was also nominated for Best Actor two other times. So, of the 11 movies he’s been in during the last 20+ years, he’s been up for the award for Best Actor five times. From what I understand, most people are pretty happy to simply have been nominated once, much less 5 times — and then win three times!

Daniel Day-Lewis is certainly someone who is at the top of his field. He has put in the hours and done the work to become one of the best actors.

And then there’s Meryl Streep. She’s received more nominations for Academy Awards (17) and more nominations for Golden Globes (27) than anyone in the history. She’s also won 3 Academy Awards and 8 Golden Globes. Clearly, someone else who is at the top of their field.

But why have I highlighted both performers?

They continue to win awards. Daniel Day-Lewis won his first Academy Award for Best Actor back in 1989. And then again in 2007. Do you think he ‘rested on his laurels?’ No, how else would he have been able to pull off such a convincing Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s flick last year. And Meryl Streep won her first Academy Award in 1979. Again, in 1982. She wouldn’t win again until 2011 for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. Between 1982 and 2011, she was nominated 12 other times. 12!

Both of these performers are stunning examples of the idea that even though you’ve won, even though you’ve made it to the top of your field, that doesn’t mean you can’t still keep working. That doesn’t mean you can’t still keep getting better. Practicing. Perfecting.

If you want to be good at something, really good at something, you’ve got to put in the work even if you think you’ve already made it. If Daniel Day-Lewis and Meryl Streep don’t rest on their laurels, what makes you think you can?