Sorry, I Don’t Speak Complexity

I was reading about an interesting study from Cornell this week. Dr. Morton Christianson, Co-Director of Cornell’s Cognitive Science Program, and his colleagues explored an interesting linguistic paradox – languages that a lot of people speak – like English and Mandarin – have large vocabularies but relatively simple grammar. Languages that are smaller and more localized have fewer words but more complex grammatical rules.

The reason, Christensen found, has to do with the ease of learning. It doesn’t take much to learn a new word. A couple of exposures and you’ve assimilated it. Because of this, new words become memes that tend to propagate quickly through the population. But the foundations of grammar are much more difficult to understand and learn. It takes repeated exposures and an application of effort to learn them.

Language is a shared cultural component that depends on the structure of a network. We get an inside view of network dynamics from investigating the spread of language. Let’s look at the complexity of a syntactic rule, for example. These are the rules that govern sentence structure, word order and punctuation. In terms of learnability, syntax offers much more complexity than simply understanding the definition of a word. In order to learn syntax, you need repeated exposures to it. And this is where the structure and scope of a network comes in. As Dr. Christensen explains,

“If you have to have multiple exposures to, say, a complex syntactic rule, in smaller communities it’s easier for it to spread and be maintained in the population.”

This research seems to indicate that cultural complexity is first spawned in heavily interlinked and relatively intimate network nodes. For these memes – whether they be language, art, philosophies or ideologies – to bridge to and spread through the greater network, they are often simplified so they’re easier to assimilate.

If this is true, then we have to consider what might happen as our world becomes more interconnected. Will there be a collective “dumbing down” of culture? If current events are any indication, that certainly seems to be the case. The memes with the highest potential to spread are absurdly simple. No effort on the part of the receiver is required to understand them.

But there is a counterpoint to this that does hold out some hope. As Christensen reminds us, “People can self-organize into smaller communities to counteract that drive toward simplification.” From this emerges an interesting yin and yang of cultural content creation. You have more highly connected nodes independent of geography that are producing some truly complex content. But, because of the high threshold of assimilation required, the complexity becomes trapped in that node. The only things that escape are fragments of that content that can be simplified to the point where they can go viral through the greater network. But to do so, they have to be stripped of their context.

This is exactly what caused the language paradox that the team explored. If you have a wide network – or a large population of speakers – there are a greater number of nodes producing new content. In this instance, the words are the fragments, which can be assimilated, and the grammar is the context that gets left behind.

There is another aspect of this to consider. Because of these dynamics unique to a large and highly connected network, the simple and trivial naturally rises to the top. Complexity gets trapped beneath the surface, imprisoned in isolated nodes within the network. But this doesn’t mean complexity goes away – it just fragments and becomes more specific to the node in which it originated. The network loses a common understanding and definition of that complexity. We lose our shared ideological touchstones, which are by necessity more complex.

If we speculate on where this might go in the future, it’s not unreasonable to expect to see an increase in tribalism in matters related to any type of complexity – like religion or politics – and a continuing expansion of simple cultural memes.

The only time we may truly come together as a society is to share a video of a cat playing basketball.

 

 

Fat Heads and Long Tails: Living in a Viral World

I, and the rest of the world, bought “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” last Friday. Forbes reports that in one weekend, it has climbed to the top of the Amazon booklist, and demand for the book is “unprecedented.”

We use that word a lot now. Our world seems to be a launching pad for “unprecedented” events. Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s black swans used to be the exception — that was the definition of  the term. Now they’re becoming the norm. You can’t walk down the street without accidentally kicking one.

Our world is a hyper-connected feedback loop that constantly engenders the “unprecedented”: storms, blockbusters, presidents. In this world, historical balance has disappeared and all bets are off.

One of the many things that has changed is the distribution pattern of culture. In 2006, Chris Anderson wrote the book “The Long Tail,” explaining how online merchandising, digital distribution and improved fulfillment logistics created an explosion of choices. Suddenly, the distribution curve of pretty much everything  — music, books, apps, video, varieties of cheese — grew longer and longer, creating Anderson’s “Long Tail.”

But let’s flip the curve and look at the other end. The curve has not just grown longer. The leading edge of it has also grown on the other axis. Heads are now fatter.

“Fire and Fury” has sold more copies in a shorter period of time than would have ever been possible at any other time in history. That’s partly because of the  same factors that created the Long Tail: digital fulfillment and more efficient distribution. But the biggest factor is that our culture is now a digitally connected echo chamber that creates the perfect conditions for virality. Feeding frenzies are now an essential element of our content marketing strategies.

If ever there was a book written to go viral, it’s “Fire and Fury.” Every page should have a share button. Not surprisingly, given its subject matter,  the book has all the subtlety and nuance of a brick to the head. This is a book built to be a blockbuster.

And that’s the thing about the new normal of virality: Blockbusters become the expectation out of the starting gate.

As I said last week, content producers have every intention of addicting their audience, shooting for binge consumption of each new offering. Wolff wrote this book  to be consumed in one sitting.

As futurist (or “futuristorian”) Brad Berens writes, the book is “fascinating in an I-can’t-look-away-at-the-17-car-pileup-with-lots-of-ambulances way.” But there’s usually a price to be paid for going down the sensational path. “Fire and Fury” has all the staying power of a “bag of Cheetos.” Again, Berens hits the nail on the head: “You can measure the relevance of Wolff’s book in half-lives, with each half-life being about a day.”

One of the uncanny things about Donald Trump is that he always out-sensationalizes any attempt to sensationalize him. He is the ultimate “viral” leader, intentionally — or not — the master of the “Fat Head.” Today that head is dedicated to Wolff’s book. Tomorrow, Trump will do something to knock it out of the spotlight.

Social media analytics developer Tom Maiaroto found the average sharing lifespan of viral content is about a day. So while the Fat Head may indeed be Fat, it’s also extremely short-lived. This means that, increasingly, content intended to go viral  — whether it be books, TV shows or movies — is intentionally developed to hit this short but critical window.

So what is the psychology behind virality? What buttons have to be pushed to start the viral cascade?

Wharton Marketing Professor Jonah Berger, who researched what makes things go viral, identified six principles: Social Currency, Memory Triggers, Emotion, Social Proof, Practical Value and Stories. “Fire and Fury” checks almost all these boxes, with the possible exception of practical value.

But it most strongly resonates with social currency, social proof and emotion. For everyone who thinks Trump is a disaster of unprecedented proportions, this book acts as kind of an ideological statement, a social positioner, an emotional rant and confirmation bias all rolled into one. It is a tribal badge in print form.

When we look at the diffusion of content through the market, technology has again acted as a polarizing factor. New releases are pushed toward the outlier extremes, either far down the Long Tail or squarely aimed at cashing in on the Fat Head. And if it’s the latter of these, then going viral becomes critical.

Expect more fire. Expect more fury.

Why Reality is in Deep Trouble

If 2017 was the year of Fake News, 2018 could well be the year of Fake Reality.

You Can’t Believe Your Eyes

I just saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi. When Carrie Fisher came on screen, I had to ask myself: Is this really her or is that CGI? I couldn’t remember if she had the chance to do all her scenes before her tragic passing last year. When I had a chance to check, I found that it was actually her. But the very fact that I had to ask the question is telling. After all, Star Wars Rogue One did resurrect Peter Cushing via CGI and he passed away 14 years ago.

CGI is not quite to the point where you can’t tell the difference between reality and computer generation, but it’s only a hair’s breadth away. It’s definitely to the point where you can no longer trust your eyes. And that has some interesting implications.

You Can Now Put Words in Anyone’s Mouth

The Rogue One Visual Effects head, John Knoll, had to fend off some pointed questions about the ethics of bringing a dead actor back to life. He defended the move by saying “We didn’t do anything Peter Cushing would have objected to. Whether you agree or not, the bigger question here is that they could have. They could have made the Cushing digital doppelganger do anything – and say anything – they wanted.

But It’s Not just Hollywood That Can Warp Reality

If fake reality comes out of Hollywood, we are prepared to cut it some slack. There is a long and slippery ethical slope that defines the entertainment landscape. In Rogue One’s case, it wasn’t using CGI, or even using CGI to represent a human. That includes a huge slice of today’s entertainment. It was using CGI to resurrect a dead actor and literally putting words in his mouth. That seemed to cross some ethical line in our perception of what’s real. But at the end of the day, this questionable warping of reality was still embedded in a fictional context.

But what if we could put words in the manufactured mouth of a sitting US president? That’s exactly what a team at Washington University did with Barack Obama, using Stanford’s Face2Face technology. They used a neural network to essentially create a lip sync video of Obama, with the computer manipulating images of his face to lip sync it to a sample of audio from another speech.

Being academics, they kept everything squeaky clean on the ethical front. All the words were Obama’s – it’s just that they were said at two different times. But those less scrupulous could easily synthesize Obama’s voice – or anyone’s – and sync it to video of them talking that would be indistinguishable from reality.

Why We Usually Believe Our Eyes

When it comes to a transmitted representation of reality, we accept video as the gold standard. Our brains believe what we see to be real. Of all our five senses, we trust sight the most to interpret what is real and what is fake. Photos used to be accepted as incontrovertible proof of reality, until Photoshop messed that up. Now, it’s video’s turn. Technology has handed us the tools that enable us to manufacture any reality we wish and distribute it in the form of video. And because it’s in that form, most everyone will believe it to be true.

Reality, Inc.

The concept of a universally understood and verifiable reality is important. It creates some type of provable common ground. We have always had our own ways of interpreting reality, but at the end of the day, the was typically some one and some way to empirically determine what was real, if we just bothered to look for it.

But we now run the risk of accepting manufactured reality as “good enough” for our purposes. In the past few years, we’ve discovered just how dangerous filtered reality can be. Whether we like it or not, Facebook, Google, YouTube and other mega-platforms are now responsible for how most of us interpret our world. These are for-profit organizations that really have no ethical obligation to attempt to provide a reasonable facsimile of reality. They have already outstripped the restraints of legislation and any type of ethical oversight. Now, these same platforms can be used to distribute media that are specifically designed to falsify reality. Of course, I should also mention that in return for access to all this, we give up a startling amount of information about ourselves. And that, according to UBC professor Taylor Owen, is deeply troubling:

“It means thinking very differently about the bargain that platforms are offering us. For a decade the deal has been that users get free services, and platforms get virtually unlimited collection of data about all aspects of our life and the ability to shape of the information we consume. The answer isn’t to disengage, as these tools are embedded in our society, but instead to think critically about this bargain.

“For example, is it worth having Facebook on your mobile phone in exchange for the immense tracking data about your digital and offline behaviour? Or is the free children’s content available on YouTube worth the data profile that is being built about your toddler, the horrific content that gets algorithmically placed into your child’s feed, and the ways in which A.I. are creating content for them and shaping what they view? Is the Amazon smart speaker in your living room worth providing Amazon access to everything you say in your home? For me, the answer is a resounding ‘no’.”

2018 could be an interesting year…

The Retrofitting of Broadcasting

I returned to my broadcast school for a visit last week. Yes, it was nostalgic, but it was also kind of weird.

Here’s why…

I went to broadcast school in the early 80’s. The program I attended, at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, had just built brand new studios, outfitted with the latest equipment. We were the first group of students to get our hands on the stuff. Some of the local TV stations even borrowed our studio to do their own productions. SCTV – with the great John Candy, Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Rick Moranis and Andrea Martin – was produced just down the road at ITV. It was a heady time to be in TV. I don’t want to brag, but yeah, we were kind of a big deal on campus.

That was then. This was now. I went back for my first visit in 35 years, and nothing had really changed physically. The studios, the radio production suites, the equipment racks, the master control switcher – it was all still there – in all its bulky, behemoth-like glory. They hadn’t even changed the lockers. My old one was still down from Equipment Stores and right across from one of the classrooms.

The disruption of the past four decades was instantly crystallized. None of the students today touched any of that 80’s era technology – well – except for the locker. That was still functional. The rows and rows of switches, rotary pots, faders and other do-dads hadn’t been used in years. The main switching board served as a makeshift desk for a few computer monitors and a keyboard. The radio production suites were used to store old office chairs. The main studio; where we once taped interviews, music videos, multi-camera dramas, sketch comedies and even a staged bar fight? Yep, more storage.

The campus news show was still shot in the corner, but the rest of that once state-of-the-art studio was now a very expensive warehouse. The average iPhone today has more production capability than the sum total of all that analog wizardry. Why use a studio when all you need is a green wall?

I took the tour with my old friend Daryl, who is still in broadcasting. He is the anchor of the local 6 o’clock news. Along the way we ran into a couple of other old schoolmates who were now instructors. And we did what middle-aged guys do. We reminisced about the glory days. We roamed our old domain like dinosaurs ambling towards our own twilight.

When we entered the program, it was the hottest ticket in town. They had 10 potential students vying for every program seat available. Today, on a good year, it’s down to 2 to 1. On a bad year, everyone who applies gets in. The program has struggled to remain relevant in an increasingly digital world and now focuses on those who actually want to work in television news. All the other production we used to do has been moved to a digital production program.

We couldn’t know it at the time, but we were entering broadcasting just when broadcasting had reached the apex of its arc. You still needed bulk to be a broadcaster. An ENG camera (Electronic News Gathering) weighed in at a hefty 60 pounds plus, not including the extra battery belt. Now, all you need a smartphone and a YouTube account. The only thing produced at most local stations is the news. And the days are numbered for even that.

If you are middle aged like I am, your parents depend on TV for their news. For you, it’s an option – one of many places you can get it. You probably watch the 6 o’clock news more out of habit than anything. And your kids never watch it. I know mine don’t. According to the Pew Research Center, only 27% of those 18-29 turn to TV for their news. Half of them get their news online. In my age group, 72% of us still get our news from TV, with 29% of us turning online. The TV news audience is literally aging to death.

My friend Daryl sees the writing on the wall. Everybody in the business does. When I met his co-anchor and told her that I had taken the digital path, she said, “Ah, an industry with a future.”

Perhaps, but then again, I never got my picture on the side of a bus.

The Medium is the Message, Mr. President

Every day that Barack Obama was in the White House, he read 10 letters. Why letters? Because form matters. There’s still something about a letter. It’s so intimate. It uses a tactile medium. Emotions seem to flow easier through the use of cursive loops and sound of pen on paper. They balance between raw and reflective. As such, they may be an unusually honest glimpse into the soul of the writer. Obama seemed to get that. There was an entire team of hundreds of people at the White House that reviewed 10,000 letters a day and chose the 10 that made it to Obama, but the intent was to give an unfiltered snapshot of the nation at any given time. It was a mosaic of personal stories that – together – created a much bigger narrative.

Donald Trump doesn’t read letters. He doesn’t read much of anything. The daily presidential briefing has been dumbed down to media more fitting of the President’s 140 character long attention span. Trump likes to be briefed with pictures and videos. His information medium of choice? Cable TV. He has turned Twitter into his official policy platform.

Today, technology has exponentially multiplied the number of communication media we have available to us. And in that multiplicativity, Marshall McLuhan’s 50-year-old trope about the medium being the message seems truer than ever. The channels we chose – whether we’re on the sending or receiving end – carry their own inherent message. They say who we are, what we value, how we think. They intertwine with the message, determining how it will be interpreted.

I’m sad that letter writing is a dying art, but I’m also contributing to its demise. It’s been years since I’ve written a letter. I do write this column, which is another medium. But even here I’m mislabeling it. Technically this is a blog post. A column is a concept embedded in the medium of print – with its accompanying physical restriction of column inches. But I like to call it a column, because in my mind that carries its own message. A column comes with an implicit promise between you – the readers – any myself, the author. Columns are meant to be regularly recurring statements of opinion. I have to respect the fact that I remain accountable for this Tuesday slot that MediaPost has graciously given me. Week after week, I try to present something that I hope you’ll find interesting and useful enough to keep reading. I feel I owe that to you. To me, a “post” feels more ethereal – with less of an ongoing commitment between author and reader. It’s more akin to a drive-by-writing.

So that brings me to one of the most interesting things about letters and President Obama’s respect for them. They are meant to be a thoughtful medium between two people. The thoughts captured within are important enough to the writer that they’re put in print but they are intended just for the recipient. They are one of the most effective media ever created to ask for empathetic understanding from one person in particular. And that’s how Obama’s Office of Presidential Correspondence treated them. Each letter represented a person who felt strongly enough about something that they wanted to share it with the President personally. Obama used to read his ten letters at the end of the day, when he had time to digest and reflect. He often made notations in the margins asking pointed questions of his staff or requesting more investigation into the circumstances chronicled in a letter. He chose to set aside a good portion of each day to read letters because he believed in the message carried by the medium: Individuals – no matter who they are – deserve to be heard.

We’re Becoming Intellectually “Obese”

Humans are defined by scarcity. All our evolutionary adaptations tend to be built to ensure survival in harsh environments. This can sometimes backfire on us in times of abundance.

For example, humans are great at foraging. We have built-in algorithms that tell us which patches are most promising and when we should give up on the patch we’re in and move to another patch.

We’re also good at borrowing strategies that evolution designed for one purpose and applying them for another purpose. This is called exaptation. For example, we’ve exapted our food foraging strategies and applied them to searching for information in an online environment. We use these skills when we look at a website, conduct an online search or scan our email inbox. But as we forage for information – or food – we have to remember, this same strategy assumes scarcity, not abundance.

Take food for example. Nutritionally we have been hardwired by evolution to prefer high fat, high calorie foods. That’s because this wiring took place in an environment of scarcity, where you didn’t know where your next meal was coming from. High fat, high calorie and high salt foods were all “jackpots” if food was scarce. Eating these foods could mean the difference between life and death. So our brains evolved to send us a reward signal when we ate these foods. Subsequently, we naturally started to forage for these things.

This was all good when our home was the African savannah. Not so good when it’s Redondo Beach, there’s a fast food joint on every corner and the local Wal-Mart’s shelves are filled to overflowing with highly processed pre-made meals. We have “refined” food production to continually push our evolutionary buttons, gorging ourselves to the point of obesity. Foraging isn’t a problem here. Limiting ourselves is.

So, evolution has made humans good at foraging when things are scarce, but not so good at filtering in an environment of abundance. I suspect the same thing that happened with food is today happening with information.

Just like we are predisposed to look for food that is high in fats, salt and calories, we are drawn to information that:

  1. Leads to us having sex
  2. Leads to us having more than our neighbors
  3. Leads to us improving our position in the social hierarchy

All those things make sense in an evolutionary environment where there’s not enough to go around. But, in a society of abundance, they can cause big problems.

Just like food, for most of our history information was in short supply. We had to make decisions based on too little information, rather than too much. So most of our cognitive biases were developed to allow us to function in a setting where knowledge was in short supply and decisions had to be made quickly. In such an environment, these heuristic short cuts would usually end up working in our favor, giving us a higher probability of survival.

These evolutionary biases become dangerous as our information environment becomes more abundant. We weren’t built to rationally seek out and judiciously evaluate information. We were built to make decisions based on little or no knowledge. There is an override switch we can use if we wish, but it’s important to know that just like we’re inherently drawn to crappy food, we’re also subconsciously drawn to crappy information.

Whether or not you agree with the mainstream news sources, the fact is that there was a thoughtful editorial process, which was intended to improve the quality of information we were provided. Entire teams of people were employed to spend their days rationally thinking about gathering, presenting and validating the information that would be passed along to the public. In Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s terminology, they were “thinking slow” about it. And because the transactional costs of getting that information to us was so high, there was a relatively strong signal to noise ratio.

That is no longer the case. Transactional costs have dropped to the point that it costs almost nothing to get information to us. This allows information providers to completely bypass any editorial loop and get it in front of us. Foraging for that information is not the problem. Filtering it is. As we forage through potential information “patches” – whether they be on Google, Facebook or Twitter – we tend to “think fast” – clicking on the links that are most tantalizing.

I would have never dreamed that having too much information could be a bad thing. But most of the cautionary columns that I’ve written about in the last few years all seem to have the same root cause – we’re becoming intellectually “obese.” We’ve developed an insatiable appetite for fast, fried, sugar-frosted information.

 

Searching for Leaders

I was planning on writing a very erudite column on how our consumption of news has drastically changed when I decided to do a research check on Google Trends and found something interesting. It should come as no surprise to learn that Donald Trump is dominating news searches on Google. But what was surprising was that the number one audience with an appetite for “Trumpie Tidbits” is Canadians. That’s right, my fellow countrymen can’t get enough of the guy. We, as a nation, search more for news on Donald Trump than any other place on earth, even the U.S. We out search you Americans on Google by margin of almost 25% (mind you, that margin reverses for web searches for Trump, but we’re still number 2 in the world).

Why?

I could offer some psychologically plausible reasons having to do with morbid curiosity, voyeurism, schadenfreude or even the Stockholm Syndrome, but honestly I have no idea why we’re submitting ourselves to this. Maybe it’s giving us something to do during our abnormally long winters and seeing as we’re already miserable as hell, we feel we have nothing to lose?

This is somewhat ironic, given that according to several highly reputable online polls, we have the hottest leader in the world right now – one Monsieur Trudeau. But even as photogenic as Justin is, when it comes to launching a Google search, our vote still goes to Trump. When you compare searches for Trump during his election to searches for Trudeau during his election – in Canada, no less – Trump wins by a margin of 2 to 1.

But it’s not just us. Trump’s domination of the search zeitgeist is historic. Google shows relative volumes – with 100 representing the peak popularity. For Trump, this peak corresponded with his election, in November. A second peak, at 65, came with his inauguration. Never in the entire length of Barack Obama’s presidency did he ever come close to this. The nearest was during his first election in 2008, when he peaked at 55. So, in one category at least, Trump would be accurate in claiming a historic win.

I thought I’d see if this pattern holds up globally. Angela Merkel is barely a blip on Google’s search radar. Worldwide she has never peaked above 1 compared to Trump’s peak score of 100. Perhaps that’s why he refused to shake her hand. Even in Deutschland itself, she peaked at a paltry 17 in the last 5 years against the Trump standard of 100.

Poor Theresa May, the new leader of the United Kingdom, can’t catch a break either. Even on the week she assumed power Donald Trump gained more searches worldwide by a solid 3 to 1 margin.

So let’s put this to the acid test. Trump vs Putin. Worldwide over the past 5 years it was no contest. Trump: 100, Putin: 3 (scored the week of March 2 – 8, 2014, when Putin was making noises about reclaiming Crimea). And yes, even if we restrict the searches to those coming only from Russia, Trump’s best outscored Putin’s best (in June of 2013) by a margin of 2 to 1.

This probably shouldn’t surprise me. According to Google, Donald Trump outscored everyone when it came to searches in 2016. In fact, he came third on Google’s list of most popular searches of any kind, just after Pokémon Go and iPhone 7. The world is locked in a morbid fascination with all that is Trump.

I’d love to wrap up this column with something philosophical and enlightened. It would be good to pass on some tidbit of behavioral wisdom that would put all this search activity into perspective. But that’s not going to happen. All I know is that I’m as guilty as anyone. Since November 8, I search almost daily for ‘Trump” just to see what the last 24 hours hath wrought. I call it my Daily WTF Round Up.

Apparently I’m not alone.