Analyzing the Problem with News “Analysis”

Last week, I talked about the Free News problem. In thinking about how to follow that up, I ran across an interesting study that was published earlier this year in the Science Advances Journal. One of the authors was Duncan Watts, who I’ve mentioned repeatedly in previous columns.

In the study, the research team tackled the problem of “Fake News” which is – of course – another symptom of the creeping malaise that is striking the industry of journalism. It certainly has become a buzzword in the last few years. But the team found that the problem of fake news may not be a problem at all. It makes up just 0.15% of our entire daily media diet. In fact, across all ages in the study, any type of news is – at the most – just 14.2% of our total media consumption.

The problem may be our overuse of the term “news” – applying it to things we think are news but are actually just content meant to drive advertising revenues. In most cases, this is opinion (sometimes informed but often not) masquerading as news in order to generate a lot of monetizable content. Once again, to get to the root of the problem, we have to follow the money.

If we look again at the Ad Fontes Media Bias chart, it’s not “news” that’s the problem. Most acknowledged leaders in true journalism are tightly clustered in the upper middle of the chart, which is where we want our news sources to be. They’re reliable and unbiased.

If we follow the two legs of the chart down to the right or left into the unreliable territory where we might encounter “fake” news, we find from the study mentioned above that this makes up an infinitesimal percentage of the media most of us actually pay attention to. The problem here can be found in the middle regions of the chart. This is where we find something called analysis. And that might just be our problem.

Again, we have to look at the creeping poison of incentive here. Some past students from Stanford University have an interesting essay about the economics of journalism that shows how cable tv and online have disrupted the tenuous value chain of news reporting.

The profitability of hard reporting was defined in the golden age of print journalism – specifically newspapers. The problem with reporting as a product is twofold. One is that news in non-excludable. Once news is reported anyone can use it. And two is that while reporting is expensive, the cost of distribution is independent of the cost of reporting. The cost of getting the news out is the same, regardless of how much news is produced.

While newspapers were the primary source of news, these two factors could be worked around. Newspapers came with a built-in 24-hour time lag. If you could get a one day jump on the competition, you could be very profitable indeed.

Secondly, the fixed distribution costs made newspapers a very cost-effective ad delivery vehicle. It cost the newspapers next to nothing to add advertising to the paper, thereby boosting revenues.

But these two factors were turned around by Internet and Cable News. If a newspaper bore the bulk of the costs by breaking a story, Cable TV and the Internet could immediately jump on board and rake in the benefits of using content they didn’t have to pay for.

And that brings us to the question of news “analysis”. Business models that rely on advertising need eyeballs. And those eyeballs need content. Original content – in the form of real reporting – is expensive and eats into profit. But analysis of news that comes from other sources costs almost nothing. You load up on talking heads and have them talk endlessly about the latest story. You can spin off never ending reams of content without having to invest anything in actually breaking the story.

This type of content has another benefit; customers love analysis. Real news can be tough to swallow. If done correctly, it should be objective and based on fact.  Sometimes it will force us to reconsider our beliefs. As is often the case with news, we may not like what we hear.

Analysis – or opinion – is much more palatable. It can be either partially or completely set free from facts and swayed and colored to match the audience’s beliefs and biases. It scores highly on the confirmation bias scale. It hits all the right (or left) emotional buttons. And by doing this, it stands a better chance of being shared on social media feeds. Eyeballs beget eyeballs. The gods of corporate finance smile benignly on analysis content because of its effectiveness at boosting profitability.

By understanding how the value chain of good reporting has broken down due to this parasitic piling on by online and cable platforms in the pursuit of profit, we begin to understand how we can perhaps save journalism. There is simply too much analytical superstructure built on top of the few real journalists that are doing real reporting. And the business model that once supported that reporting is gone.

The further that analysis gets away from the facts that fuel it, the more dangerous it becomes. At some point it crosses the lines from analysis to opinion to propaganda. The one thing it’s not is “news.” We need to financially support through subscription the few that are still reporting on the things that are actually happening.

Why Free News is (usually) Bad News

Pretty much everything about the next week will be unpredictable. But whatever happens on Nov. 3, I’m sure there will be much teeth-gnashing and navel-gazing about the state of journalism in the election aftermath.

And there should be. I have written much about the deplorable state of that particular industry. Many, many things need to be fixed. 

For example, let’s talk about the extreme polarization of both the U.S. population and their favored news sources. Last year about this time, the PEW Research Center released a study showing that over 30% of Americans distrust their news sources. 

But what’s more alarming is, when we break this down by Republicans versus Democrats, only 27% of Democrats didn’t trust the news for information about politics or elections. With Republicans, that climbed to a whopping 67%. 

The one news source Republicans do trust? Fox News. Sixty-five percent of them say Fox is reliable. 

And that’s a problem.

Earlier this year, Ad Fontes Media came out with its Media Bias Chart. It charts major news and media channels on two axes: source reliability and political bias. The correlation between bias and reliability is almost perfect. The further a news source is out to the right or left, the less reliable it is.

How does Fox fare? Not well. Ad Fontes separates Fox TV from Fox Online. Fox Online lies on the border between being “reliable for news, but high in analysis/opinion content” and “some reliability issues and/or extremism.” Fox TV falls squarely in the second category.

I’ve written before that media bias is not just a right-wing problem. Outlets like CNN and MSNBC show a significant left-leaning bias. But CNN Online, despite its bias, still falls within the “Most Reliable for News” category. According to Ad Fontes, MSNBC has the same reliability issues as Fox.

The question that has to be asked is “How did we get here?”  And that’s the question tackled head-on in a new book, “Free is Bad,” by John Marshall.

I’ve known Marshall for ages. He has covered a lot of the things I’ve been writing about in this column. 

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” 

Upton Sinclair

The problem here is one of incentive. Our respective media heads didn’t wake up one morning and say, “You know what we need to be? A lot more biased!” They have walked down that path step by step, driven by the need to find a revenue model that meets their need for profitability. 

When we talk about our news channels, the obvious choice to be profitable is to be supported by ads. And to be supported by ads, you have to be able to target those ads. One of the most effective targeting strategies is to target by political belief, because it comes reliably bundled with a bunch of other beliefs that makes it very easy to predict behaviors. And that makes these ads highly effective in converting prospects.

This is how we got to where we are. But there are all types of ways to prop up your profit through selling ads. Some are pretty open and transparent. Some are less so. And that brings us to a particularly interesting section of Marshall’s book. 

John Marshall is a quant geek at heart. He has been a serial tech entrepreneur — and, in one of those ventures, built a very popular web analytics platform. He also has intimate knowledge of how the sausages are made in the ad-tech business. He knows sketchy advertising practices when he sees them. 

Given all of this, Marshall was able to undertake a fascinating analysis of the ads we see on various news platforms that dovetails nicely with the Ad Fontes chart. 

Marshall created the Ad Shenanigans chart. Basically, he did a forensic analysis of the advertising approaches of various online news platforms. He was looking for those that gathered data about their users, sold traffic to multiple networks, featured clickbait chumboxes and other unsavory practices. Then he ranked them accordingly.

Not surprisingly, there’s a pretty strong correlation between reputable reporting and business ethics. Highly biased and less reputable sites on the Ad Fontes Bias Chart (Breitbart, NewsMax, and Fox News) all can also be found near the top of Marshall’s Ad Shenanigans Chart. Those that do seem to have some ethics when it comes to the types of ads they run also seem to take objective journalism seriously. Case in point, The Guardian in the UK and ProPublica in the U.S.

The one anomaly in the group seems to be CNN. While it does fare relatively well on reputable reporting according to Ad Fontes, CNN appears to be willing to do just about anything to turn a buck. It ranks just a few slots below Fox in terms of “ad shenanigans.”

Marshall also breaks out those platforms that have a mix of paid firewalls and advertising. While there are some culprits in the mix such as the Daily Caller, Slate and the National Review, most sites that have some sort of subscription model seem to be far less likely to fling the gates of their walled gardens open to the ethically challenged advertising hordes. 

All of this drives home Marshall’s message: When it comes to the quality of your news sources, free is bad. As soon as something costs you nothing, you are no longer the customer. You’re the product. Invisible hand market forces are no longer working for you. They are working for the advertiser. And that means they’re working against you if you’re looking for an unbiased, quality news source.

Amazon Prime: Buy Today, Pay Tomorrow?

This column goes live on the most eagerly anticipated day of the year. My neighbor, who has a never-ending parade of delivery vans stopping in front of her door, has it circled on her calendar. At least one of my daughters has been planning for it for several months. Even I, who tends to take a curmudgeonly view of many celebrations, has a soft spot in my heart for this particular one.

No, it’s not the day after Canadian Thanksgiving. This, my friends, is Amazon Prime Day!

Today, in our COVID-clouded reality, the day will likely hit a new peak of “Prime-ness.” Housebound and tired of being bludgeoned to death by WTF news headlines, we will undoubtedly treat ourselves with an unprecedented orgy of one-click shopping. And who can blame us? We can’t go to Disneyland, so leave me alone and let me order that smart home toilet plunger and the matching set of Fawlty Towers tea towels that I’ve been eyeing. 

Of course, me being me, I do think about the consequences of Amazon’s rise to retail dominance. 

I think we’re at a watershed moment in our retail behaviors, and this moment has been driven forward precipitously by the current pandemic. Being locked down has forced many of us to make Amazon our default destination for buying. Speaking solely as a sample of one, I know check Amazon first and then use that as my baseline for comparison shopping. But I do so for purely selfish reasons – buying stuff on Amazon is as convenient as hell!

I don’t think I’m alone. We do seem to love us some Amazon. In a 2018 survey conducted by Recode, respondents said that Amazon had the most positive impact on society out of any major tech company. And that was pre-Pandemic. I suspect this halo effect has only increased since Amazon has become the consumer lifeline for a world forced to stay at home.

As I give into to the siren call of Bezos and Co., I wonder what forces I might be unleashing. What unintended consequences might come home to roost in years hence? Here are a few possibilities. 

The Corporate Conundrum

First of all, let’s not kid ourselves. Amazon is a for-profit corporation. It has shareholders that demand results. The biggest of those shareholders is Jeff Bezos, who is the world’s richest man. 

But amazingly, not all of Amazon’s shareholders are focused on the quarterly financials. Many of them – with an eye to the long game – are demanding that Amazon adopt a more ethical balance sheet.  At the 2019 Annual Shareholder Meeting, a list of 12 resolutions were brought forward to be voted on. The recommendations included zero tolerance for sexual harassment and hate speech, curbing Amazon’s facial recognition technology, addressing climate change and Amazon’s own environmental impact. These last two were supported by a letter signed by 7600 of Amazon’s own employees. 

The result? Amazon strenuously fought every one of them and none were adopted. So, before we get all warm and gooey about how wonderful Amazon is, let’s remember that the people running the joint have made it very clear that they will absolutely put profit before ethics. 

A Dagger in the Heart of Our Communities

For hundreds of years, we have been building a supply chain that was bound by the realities of geography. That supply chain required some type of physical presence within a stone’s throw of where we live. Amazon has broken that chain and we are beginning to feel the impact of that. 

Community shopping districts around the world were being gutted by the “Amazon Effect” even before COVID. In the last 6 months, that dangerous trend has accelerated exponentially. In a commentary from CNBC in 2018, venture capitalist Alan Patricof worried about the social impact of losing our community gathering spots, “This decline has brought a deterioration in places where people congregated, socialized, made friends and were greeted by a friendly face offering an intangible element of belonging to a community.”

The social glue that held us together has been dissolving over the past two decades. Whether you’re a fan of shopping malls or not (I fall into the “not” category) they were at least a common space where you might run into your neighbor. In his book Bowling Alone, from 2000, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam documented the erosion of social capital in America. We are now 20 years hence and Putnam’s worst case scenario seems quaintly optimistic now. With the loss of our common ground – in the most literal sense – we increasingly retreat to the echo chambers of social media. 

Frictionless Consumerism

This last point is perhaps the most worrying. Amazon has made it stupid simple to buy stuff. They have relentlessly squeezed every last bit of friction out of the path to purchase. That worries me greatly.

If we could rely on a rational marketplace filled with buyers acting in the best homo economicus tradition, then I perhaps rest easier, knowing that there was some type of intelligence driving Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand. But experience has shown that is not the case. Rampant consumerism appears to be one of the three horsemen of the modern apocalypse. And, if this is true, then Amazon has put us squarely in their path. 

This is not to even mention things like Amazon’s emerging monopoly-like dominance in a formerly competitive marketplace, the relentless downward pressure it exerts on wages within its supply chain, the evaporation of jobs outside its supply chain or the privacy considerations of Alexa. 

Still, enjoy your Amazon Prime Day. I’m sure everything will be fine.

Bubbles, Bozos and the Mediocrity Sandwich

I spent most of my professional life inside the high-tech bubble. Having now survived the better part of a decade outside said bubble, I have achieved enough distance to be able to appreciate the lampooning skills of Dan Lyons. If that name doesn’t sound familiar, you may have seen his work. He was the real person behind the Fake Steve Jobs blog. He was also the senior technology editor for Forbes and Newsweek prior to being cut loose in the print media implosion. He later joined the writing staff of Mike Judge’s brilliant HBO series Silicon Valley.

Somewhere in that career arc, Lyons briefly worked at a high tech start up.  From that experience, he wrote Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start Up Bubble.” It gives new meaning to the phrase “painfully funny.”

After being cast adrift by Forbes, Lyons decided to change his perspective on the Bubble from “outside looking in” to “inside looking out.” He wanted to jump on the bubble band wagon, grab a fistful of options and cash in. And so he joined HubSpot as a content producer for their corporate blog. The story unfolds from there.

One particularly sharp and insightful chapter of the book recalls Steve Job’s “Bozo Explosion”:

“Apple CEO Steve Jobs used to talk about a phenomenon called a ‘bozo explosion,’ by which a company’s mediocre early hires rise up through the ranks and end up running departments. The bozos now must hire other people, and of course they prefer to hire bozos. As Guy Kawasaki, who worked with Jobs at Apple, puts it: ‘B players hire C players, so they can feel superior to them, and C players hire D players.’ “

The Bozo Explosion is somewhat unique to tech start-ups, mainly because of some of the aspects of the culture I talked about in a previous column. But I ran into my own version back in my consulting career. And I ran into it in all kinds of companies. I used to call it the Mediocrity Sandwich.

The Mediocrity Sandwich lives in middle management. I used to find that the people at the C Level of the company were usually pretty smart and competent (that said, I did run across some notable exceptions in my time). I also found that the people found on the customer facing front lines of the company were also pretty smart and – more importantly – very aware of the company’s own issues.

But addressing those issues invariably caused a problem. You have senior executives who were certainly capable of fixing the problems, whatever they might be. And you had front line employees who were painfully aware of what the problems were and motivated to implement solutions. But all the momentum of any real problem-solving initiative used to get sucked out somewhere in the middle of the corporate org chart. The problem was the Mediocrity Sandwich.

You see, I don’t think the Bozo Explosion is so much a pyramid – skinny at the top, broad at the bottom – as it is an inverted U-Shaped curve. I think “bozoism” tends to peak in the middle. You certainly have the progression from A’s to B’s to C’s as you move down from the top executive rungs. But then you have the inverse happening as you move from Middle Management to the front lines. The problem is the attrition of competence as you became absorbed into the organization. It’s the Bozo Explosion in reverse.

I usually found there was enough breathing room for competence to survive at the entry level in the organization. There were enough degrees of separation between the front line and the from the bozos in middle management. But as you started to climb the corporate ladder, you kept getting closer to the bozos. Your degree of job frustration began to climb as they had more influence over your day-to-day work. Truly competent players bailed and moved on to a less bozo-infested environment. Those that remained either were born bozos or had “bozo”ness thrust upon them. Either way, as you climbed towards middle management, the bozo factor climbed in lock step. The result? A bell curve of bozos centered in the middle between the C-Level and the front lines.

This creates a poisonous outlook for the long-term prospects of a company. Eventually, the C level executive will age out of their jobs. But who will replace them? The internal farm team is a bunch of bozos. You can recruit from outside, but then the incoming talent inherits a Mediocrity Sandwich. The company begins to rot from within.

For companies to truly change, you have to root out the bozo-rot, but this is easier said than done. If there is one single thing that bozos are good at, it is bozo butt-covering.

Why Good Tech Companies Keep Being Evil

You’d think we’d have learned by now. But somehow it still comes as a shock to us when tech companies are exposed as having no moral compass.

Slate recently released what it called the “Evil List”  of 30 tech companies compiled through a ballot sent out to journalists, scholars, analysts, advocates and others. Slate asked them which companies were doing business in the way that troubled them most. Spoiler alert: Amazon, Facebook and Google topped the list.  But they weren’t alone. Rounding out the top 10, the list of culprits included Twitter, Apple, Microsoft and Uber.

Which begs the question: Are tech companies inherently evil — like, say a Monsanto or Phillip Morris — or is there something about tech that positively correlates with “evilness”?

I suspect it’s the second of these.  I don’t believe Silicon Valley is full of fundamentally evil geniuses, but doing business as usual at a successful tech firm means there will be a number of elemental aspects of the culture that take a company down the path to being evil.

Cultism, Loyalism and Self-Selection Bias

A successful tech company is a belief-driven meat grinder that sucks in raw, naïve talent on one end and spits out exhausted and disillusioned husks on the other. To survive in between, you’d better get with the program.

The HR dynamics of a tech startup have been called a meritocracy, where intellectual prowess is the only currency.

But that’s not quite right. Yes, you have to be smart, but it’s more important that you’re loyal. Despite their brilliance, heretics are weeded out and summarily turfed, optionless in more ways than one. A rigidly molded group-think mindset takes over the recruitment process, leading to an intellectually homogeneous monolith.

To be fair, high growth startups need this type of mental cohesion. As blogger Paras Chopra said in a post entitled “Why startups need to be cult-like, “The reason startups should aim to be like cults is because communication is impossible between people with different values.” You can’t go from zero to 100 without this sharing of values.

But necessary or not, this doesn’t change the fact that your average tech star up is a cult, with all the same ideological underpinnings. And the more cult-like a culture, the less likely it is that it will take the time for a little ethical navel-gazing.

A Different Definition of Problem Solving

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And for the engineer, the hammer that fixes everything is technology. But, as academic researchers Emanuel Moss and Jacob Metcalf discovered, this brand of technical solutionism can lead to a corporate environment where ethical problems are ignored because they are open-ended, intractable questions. In a previous column I referred to them as “wicked problems.”

As Moss and Metcalf found, “Organizational practices that facilitate technical success are often ported over to ethics challenges. This is manifested in the search for checklists, procedures, and evaluative metrics that could break down messy questions of ethics into digestible engineering work. This optimism is counterweighted by a concern that, even when posed as a technical question, ethics becomes ‘intractable, like it’s too big of a problem to tackle.’”

If you take this to the extreme, you get the Cambridge Analytica example, where programmer Christopher Wylie was so focused on the technical aspects of the platform he was building that he lost sight of the ethical monster he was unleashing.

A Question of Leadership

Of course, every cult needs a charismatic leader, and this is abundantly true for tech-based companies. Hubris is a commodity not in short supply among the C-level execs of tech.

It’s not that they’re assholes (well, ethical assholes anyway). It’s just that they’re, umm, highly focused and instantly dismissive of any viewpoint that’s not the same as their own. It’s the same issue I mentioned before about the pitfalls of expertise — but on steroids.

I suspect that if you did an ethical inventory of Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Travis Kalanik, Reid Hoffman and the rest, you’d find that — on the whole — they’re not horrible people. It’s just that they have a very specific definition of ethics as it pertains to their company. Anything that falls outside those narrowly defined boundaries is either dismissed or “handled” so it doesn’t get in the way of the corporate mission.

Speaking of corporate missions, leaders and their acolytes often are unaware — often intentionally — of the nuances of unintended consequences. Most tech companies develop platforms that allow disruptive new market-based ecosystems to evolve on their technological foundations. Disruption always unleashes unintended social consequences. When these inevitably happen, tech companies generally handle them one of three ways:

  1. Ignore them, and if that fails…
  2. Deny responsibility, and if that fails…
  3. Briefly apologize, do nothing, and then return to Step 1.

There is a weird type of idol worship in tech. The person atop the org chart is more than an executive. They are corporate gods — and those that dare to be disagreeable are quickly weeded out as heretics. This helps explain why Facebook can be pilloried for attacks on personal privacy and questionable design ethics, yet Mark Zuckerberg still snags a 92% CEO approval rating on Glassdoor.com.These fundamental characteristics help explain why tech companies seem to consistently stumble over to the dark side. But there’s an elephant in the room we haven’t talked about. Almost without exception, tech business models encourage evil behavior. Let’s hold that thought for a future discussion.

Why Quitting Facebook is Easier Said than Done

Not too long ago, I was listening to an interview with a privacy expert about… you guessed it, Facebook. The gist of the interview was that Facebook can’t be trusted with our personal data, as it has proven time and again.

But when asked if she would quit Facebook completely because of this — as tech columnist Walt Mossberg did — the expert said something interesting: “I can’t really afford to give up Facebook completely. For me, being able to quit Facebook is a position of privilege.”

Wow!  There is a lot living in that statement. It means Facebook is fundamental to most of our lives — it’s an essential service. But it also means that we don’t trust it — at all.  Which puts Facebook in the same category as banks, cable companies and every level of government.

Facebook — in many minds anyway – became an essential service because of Metcalfe’s Law, which states that the effect of a network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system. More users = exponentially more value. Facebook has Metcalfe’s Law nailed. It has almost two and a half billion users.

But it’s more than just sheer numbers. It’s the nature of engagement. Thanks to a premeditated addictiveness in Facebook’s design, its users are regular users. Of those 2.5 billion users, 1.6 billion log in daily. 1.1 billion log in daily from their mobile device. That means that 15% of all the people in the world are constantly — addictively– connected to Facebook.

And that’s why Facebook appears to be essential. If we need to connect to people, Facebook is the most obvious way to do it. If we have a business, we need Facebook to let our potential customers know what we’re doing. If we belong to a group or organization, we need Facebook to stay in touch with other members. If we are social beasts at all, we need Facebook to keep our social network from fraying away.

We don’t trust Facebook — but we do need it.

Or do we? After all, we homo sapiens have managed to survive for 99.9925% of our collective existence without Facebook. And there is mounting research that indicates  going cold turkey on Facebook is great for your own mental health. But like all things that are good for you, quitting Facebook can be a real pain in the ass.

Last year, New York Times tech writer Brian Chen decided to ditch Facebook. This is a guy who is fully conversant in tech — and even he found making the break is much easier said than done. Facebook, in its malevolent brilliance, has erected some significant barriers to exit for its users if they do try to make a break for it.

This is especially true if you have fallen into the convenient trap of using Facebook’s social sign-in on sites rather than juggling multiple passwords and user IDs. If you’re up for the challenge, Chen has put together a 6-step guide to making a clean break of it.

But what if you happen to use Facebook for advertising? You’ve essentially sold your soul to Zuckerberg. Reading through Chen’s guide, I’ve decided that it’s just easier to go into the Witness Protection Program. Even there, Facebook will still be tracking me.

By the way, after six months without Facebook, Chen did a follow-up on how his life had changed. The short answer is: not much, but what did change was for the better. His family didn’t collapse. His friends didn’t desert him. He still managed to have a social life. He spent a lot less on spontaneous online purchases. And he read more books.

The biggest outcome was that advertisers “gave up on stalking” him. Without a steady stream of personal data from Facebook, Instagram thought he was a woman.

Whether you’re able to swear off Facebook completely or not, I wonder what the continuing meltdown of trust in Facebook will do for its usage patterns. As in most things digital, young people seem to have intuitively stumbled on the best way to use Facebook. Use it if you must to connect to people when you need to (in their case, grandmothers and great-aunts) — but for heaven’s sake, don’t post anything even faintly personal. Never afford Facebook’s AI the briefest glimpse into your soul. No personal affirmations, no confessionals, no motivational posts and — for the love of all that is democratic — nothing political.

Oh, one more thing. Keep your damned finger off of the like button, unless it’s for your cousin Shermy’s 55th birthday celebration in Zihuatanejo.

Even then, maybe it’s time to pick up the phone and call the ol’ Shermeister. It’s been too long.

Running on Empty: Getting Crushed by the Crush It Culture

“Nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.”

Elon Musk

Those damned Protestants and their work ethic. Thanks to them, unless you’re willing to put in a zillion hours a week, you’re just a speed bump on the road to all that is good in the world. Take Mr. Musk, for example. If you happen to work at Tesla, or SpaceX, or the Boring Company, Elon has figured out what your average work week should be, “(It) Varies per person, but about 80 sustained, peaking above 100 at times. Pain level increases exponentially above 80.”

“Pain level increases exponentially above 8o”? WTF, Mr. Musk!

But he’s not alone. Google famously built their Mountainview campus so employees never had to go home. Alibaba Group founder Jack Ma calls the intense work culture at his company a “huge blessing.” He calls it the “996” work schedule, 9 am to 9 pm 6 days a week. That’s 72 hours, if you’re counting. But even that wouldn’t cut it if you work for Elon Musk. You’d be a dead beat.

This is the “Crush It” culture, where long hours equate to dedication and – by extension – success. No pain, no gain.

We spend lots of time talking about the gain – so let me spend just one column talking about the pain. Pain such as mental illness, severe depression, long term disabilities and strokes. Those that overwork are more likely to over-eat, smoke, drink excessively and develop other self-destructive habits.

You’re not changing the world. You’re shortening your life. The Japanese call it karoshi; death by overwork.

Like so many things, this is another unintended consequence of a digitally mediated culture. Digital speeds everything up. But our bodies – and brains – aren’t digital. They burn out if they move too fast – or too long.

Overwork as a sign of superior personal value is a fairly new concept in the span of human history. It came from the Puritans who settled in New England. They believed that those that worked hard at their professions were those chosen to get into heaven. The more wealth you amassed from your work, the more evidence there was that you were one of the chosen.

Lately, the creeping Capitalist culture of over-working has most firmly embedded itself in the tech industry. There, the number of hours you work has become a proxy of your own worth. A twisted type of machismo has evolved and has trapped us all into thinking that an hour not spent at our jobs is an hour wasted. We are looked down upon for wanting some type of balance in our lives.

Unfortunately for the Musks and Mas and other modern-day task masters – the biology just doesn’t support their proposed work schedules.

First, our brains need rest. Back in the 18th century when those Puritans proved their worth through work, earning a living was usually a physical endeavour. The load of overwork was spread amongst the fairly simple mechanical machinery of our own bodies. Muscles got sore. Joints ached. But they recovered.

The brain is a much more complex beast. When it gets overworked, it loses its executive ability to focus on the task at hand. When your work takes place on a desktop or laptop where there are unlimited diversions just a click away, you suddenly find yourself 45 minutes into an unplanned YouTube marathon or scrolling through your Facebook feed. It becomes a downward spiral that benefits no one.

An overworked mind also loses its ability to spin down in the evening so you can get an adequate amount of sleep. When your co-workers start boasting of being able to function on just 3 or 4 hours of sleep – they are lying. They are lying to you, but worse, they are lying to themselves. Very few of us can function adequately on less than 7 or 8 hours of sleep. For the rest of us, the negative effects start to accumulate. A study found that sleep deprivation has the same impact as drinking too much. Those that were getting less than 7 hours of sleep faired the same or worse on a cognitive test as those that had a 0.05% blood alcohol level. The legal limit in most states is 0.08%.

Finally, in an essay on Medium, Rachel Thomas points out that the Crush It Culture is discriminatory. Those that have a disability or chronic illness simply have fewer hours in the day to devote to work. They need time for medical support and usually require more sleep. In an industry like Tech where there is an unhealthy focus on the number of hours worked, these workers – which Thomas says makes up at least 30% of the total workforce – are shut out.

The Crush It Culture is toxic. The science simply doesn’t support it. The only ones evangelizing it are those that directly benefit from this modernized version of feudalism.  It’s time to call Bullshit on them.

Why Elizabeth Warren Wants to Break Up Big Tech

Earlier this year, Democratic Presidential Candidate Elizabeth Warren posted an online missive in which she laid out her plans to break up big tech (notably Amazon, Google and Facebook). In it, she noted:

“Today’s big tech companies have too much power — too much power over our economy, our society, and our democracy. They’ve bulldozed competition, used our private information for profit, and tilted the playing field against everyone else. And in the process, they have hurt small businesses and stifled innovation.”

We, here in the west, are big believers in Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand. We inherently believe that markets will self-regulate and eventually balance themselves. We are loath to involve government in the running of a free market.

In introducing the concept of the Invisible Hand, Smith speculated that,  

“[The rich] consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity…they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species.”

In short, a rising tide raises all boats. But there is a dicey little dilemma buried in the midst of the Invisible Hand Premise – summed up most succinctly by the fictitious Gordon Gekko in the 1987 movie Wall Street: “Greed is Good.”

More eloquently, economist and Nobel laureate Milton Friedman explained it like this:

“The great virtue of a free market system is that it does not care what color people are; it does not care what their religion is; it only cares whether they can produce something you want to buy. It is the most effective system we have discovered to enable people who hate one another to deal with one another and help one another.” 

But here’s the thing. Up until very recently, the concept of the Invisible Hand dealt only with physical goods. It was all about maximizing tangible resources and distributing them to the greatest number of people in the most efficient way possible.

The difference now is that we’re not just talking about toasters or running shoes. Physical things are not the stock in trade of Facebook or Google. They deal in information, feelings, emotions, beliefs and desires. We are not talking about hardware any longer, we are talking about the very operating system of our society. The thing that guides the Invisible Hand is no longer consumption, it’s influence. And, in that case, we have to wonder if we’re willing to trust our future to the conscience of a corporation?

For this reason, I suspect Warren might be right. All the past arguments for keeping government out of business were all based on a physical market. When we shift that to a market that peddles influence, those arguments are flipped on their head. Milton Friedman himself said , “It (the corporation) only cares whether they can produce something you want to buy.” Let’s shift that to today’s world and apply it to a corporation like Facebook – “It only cares whether they can produce something that captures your attention.” To expect anything else from a corporation that peddles persuasion is to expect too much.

The problem with Warren’s argument is that she is still using the language of a market that dealt with consumable products. She wants to break up a monopoly that is limiting competition. And she is targeting that message to an audience that generally believes that big government and free markets don’t mix.

The much, much bigger issue here is that even if you believe in the efficacy of the Invisible Hand, as described by all believers from Smith to Friedman, you also have to believe that the single purpose of a corporation that relies on selling persuasion will be to influence even more people more effectively. None of most fervent evangelists of the Invisible Hand ever argued that corporations have a conscience. They simply stated that the interests of a profit driven company and an audience intent on consumption were typically aligned.

We’re now playing a different game with significantly different rules.

This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Relevance is the new gold standard in marketing. In an  article in the Harvard Business Review written last year, John Zealley, Robert Wollan and Joshua Bellin — three senior execs at Accenture — outline five stages of marketing (paraphrased courtesy of a post from Phillip Nones):

  1. Mass marketing (up through the 1970s) – The era of mass production, scale and distribution.Marketing segmentation (1980s) – More sophisticated research enabling marketers to target customers in niche segments.
  2. Customer-level marketing (1990s and 2000s) – Advances in enterprise IT make it possible to target individuals and aim to maximize customer lifetime value.
  3. Loyalty marketing (2010s) – The era of CRM, tailored incentives and advanced customer retention.
  4. Relevance marketing (emerging) – Mass communication to the previously unattainable “Segment of One.”

This last stage – according to marketers past and present – should be the golden era of marketing:

“The perfect advertisement is one of which the reader can say, ‘This is for me, and me alone.” 

— Peter Drucker

“Audiences crave tailored messages that cater to them specifically and they are willing to offer information that enables marketers to do so.”

 Kevin Tash, CEO of Tack Media, a digital marketing agency in Los Angeles.

Umm…no! In fact, hell, no!

I agree that relevance is an important thing. And in an ethical world, the exchange Tash talks about would be a good thing, for both consumers and marketers. But we don’t live in such a world. The world we live in has companies like Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.

Stop Thinking Like a Marketer!

There is a cognitive whiplash that happens when our perspective changes from that of marketer to that of a consumer. I’ve seen it many times. I’ve even prompted it on occasion. But to watch it in 113 minutes of excruciating detail, you should catch “The Great Hack” on Netflix. 

The documentary is a journalistic peeling of the onion that is the Cambridge Analytica scandal. It was kicked off by the whistle blowing of Christopher Wylie, a contract programmer who enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame. But to me, the far more interesting story is that of Brittany Kaiser, the director of business Development of SCL Group, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica. The documentary digs into the tortured shift of perspective as she transitions from thinking like a marketer to a citizen who has just had her private data violated. It makes for compelling viewing.

Kaiser shifted her ideological compass about as far as one could possibly do, from her beginnings as an idealistic intern for Barack Obama and a lobbyist for Amnesty International to one of the chief architects of the campaigns supporting Trump’s presidential run, Brexit and other far right persuasion blitzkriegs. At one point, she justifies her shift to the right by revealing her family’s financial struggle and the fact that you don’t get paid much as an underling for Democrats or as a moral lobbyist. The big bucks are found in the ethically grey areas.  Throughout the documentary, she vacillates between the outrage of a private citizen and the rationalization of a marketer. She is a woman torn between two conflicting perspectives.

We marketers have to stop kidding ourselves and justifying misuse of personal data with statements like the one previously quoted from Kevin Tash. As people, we’re okay. I like most of the marketers I know. But as professional marketers, we have a pretty shitty track record. We trample privacy, we pry into places we shouldn’t and we gleefully high-five ourselves when we deliver the goods on a campaign — no matter who that campaign might be for and what its goals might be. We are very different people when we’re on the clock.

We are now faced with what may be the most important questions of our lives: How do we manage our personal data? Who owns it? Who stores it? Who has the right to use it? When we answer those questions, let’s do it as people, and not marketers. Because there is a lot more at stake here than the ROI rates on a marketing campaign.

Lee Iacocca and the Celebrity CEO

The recent passing of Lee Iacocca (on July 2) got me thinking about the celebrity CEO phenomenon. This is a sign of our times — our obsession with celebrity. Iacocca was not the first celebrity CEO, but he certainly ushered in a new era of personalized corporate brand building.

With Iacocca, having a bigger than life CEO went from being an oddity to a corporate expectation. In an article on Bloomberg.com, writer Joe Nocera notes, “Yes, there had been other famous corporate chieftains before Iacocca — John D. Rockefeller and Walt Disney come to mind — but they were the exceptions to the rule that CEOs should be low-key, boring even. Iacocca made it okay for a chief executive not just to gain fame, but to desire it.”

If you read any of the tributes to Iacocca, he is credited with:

  • Introducing the concept of auto loans
  • Creating the Ford Mustang
  • Introducing the Minivan
  • Saving Chrysler

But perhaps Iacocca’s biggest legacy was paving the way for celebrity CEOs who would follow in his footsteps. By stepping out from behind the mahogany desk and in front of the camera, he created the mold that would later turn out Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Elon Musk.

My intention is not to take anything away from these leaders. It’s just to put things in perspective.

How Much Influence Does a CEO Really Have?

We love a great story, and one of the foundations of a story has always been the hero. We find the hero’s journey a compelling narrative arc, and we tend to ascribe heroic qualities without necessarily making sure our anointed heroes have the right qualifications. This is certainly true in the corporate world.

Phil Rosenzweig’s extraordinary book, “The Halo Effect,” strips the compelling narratives away from corporate success stories. He urges us to take a more scientific approach to determining what really works. And when we apply some scientific rigor to the concept of a celebrity CEO, we find (according to two studies Rosenzweig cites in his book) that the actual influence of a leader on the success of a company is between 4% and 10%.

A 10% swing is nothing to sneeze at. It’s certainly statistically significant. And this is an average over a number of companies in the study. I suspect if one was to accurately measure the influence of a Steve Jobs or Lee Iacocca on their companies, it could be much higher.

But when we consistently confuse correlation and causation and automatically give a celebrity CEO all the credit for a company’s success, we could be making an attribution error. We are giving short shrift to all the other factors that may have led to that success. We are applying a simple answer to a complex question. And we humans tend to do that — a lot.

The Cult of Personality

When we make this mistake while looking backwards, it’s one thing. But when we move forward under this mistaken assumption, it’s quite another. We fall victim to the oversimplification of the “great man theory,” where we believe history can pivot on the capabilities of one person. We also run the very real risk of creating a cult of personality.

The idea of the personality cult came from a speech by former Soviet Union Premier Nikita Khrushchev. In it, he criticized the idealization of Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. When a populace believes that one person has the power to right all wrongs, it confers on that person a frightening amount of authority. It also condones the mechanisms required to consolidate power in the hands of that person.

Wikipedia outlines the typical path that leads to a cult of personality:“(it) arises when a country’s regime – or, more rarely, an individual – uses the techniques of mass media, propaganda, the big lie, spectacle, the arts, patriotism, and government-organized demonstrations and rallies to create an idealized, heroic, and worshipful image of a leader, often through unquestioning flattery and praise.” 

Mistaking Charisma for Competency

Even if we do accept that the right person may make all the difference, we then come to the issue of how we’d recognize that person when we see them. Again, we run into the fallacy of the “Halo Effect.”

When we don’t have (or want) empirical evidence of a person’s competence, we look for a proxy signal for that competence. That’s why CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are generally two-and-a-half inches taller than the average American. Its why good-looking people are assumed to be kinder and more compassionate. And — if we’re looking for a leader — it’s why we believe charisma equals competency. We are often wrong about this. In fact, there’s probably a better chance that charisma goes hand in hand with sociopathy.  Oops.

I do believe that we have been blessed with some extraordinary corporate leaders. And some of these have deservedly become celebrities. Lee Iacocca was probably one of these.

But I also believe we are walking down a dangerous path when we believe this is the rule rather than the exception. To succeed in solving complex problems — which defines almost every problem we face — we need complex solutions. And those solutions almost never come in the form of one person. To believe they do is to ignore the true scope of the issue.