If you’re reading this blog, you probably know me as a digital marketing/UX guy. But I have another life..not so much shrouded in mystery as just newly revealed. I love riding my bike. And it’s when I wear that hat (or helmet) that Western Living Magazine asked for input. They wanted 5 Great Road Rides in the Okanagan. I obliged. If you’ve come here looking for that, I will redirect you to my G.O. Cycling Blog. If you’ve come here looking for how the ventromedial prefrontal cortex correlates with online foraging activities – well then, God help you, you’ve come to the right place!
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).
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.
I was in the U.S. last week. It was my first visit in the Trump era.
It was weird. I was in California, so the full effect was muted, but I watched my tongue when meeting strangers. And that’s speaking as a Canadian, where watching your tongue is a national pastime. (As an aside, my US host, Lance, told me about a recent post on a satire site: “Concerned, But Not Wanting To Offend, Canada Quietly Plants Privacy Hedge Along Entire U.S. Border.” That’s so us.) There was a feeling that I had not felt before. As someone who has spent a lot of time in the US over the past decade or two, I felt a little less comfortable. There was a disconnect that was new to me.
Little did I know (because I’ve turned off my mobile CNN alerts since January 20th because I was slipping into depression) but just after I whisked through Sea-Tac airport with all the privilege that being a white male affords you, Washington Governor Jay Inslee would hold a press conference denouncing the new Trump Muslim ban in no uncertain terms. On the other side of the TSA security gates there were a thousand protesters gathering. I didn’t learn about this until I got home.
Like I said, it was weird.
And then there were the SAG awards on Sunday night. What the hell was the deal with Winona Ryder?
When the Stranger Things cast got on stage to accept their ensemble acting award, spokesperson David Harbour unleashed a fiery anti-Trump speech. But despite his passion and volume, it was Winona Ryder, standing beside him, that lit up the share button. And she didn’t say a word. Instead, her face contorted through a series of twenty-some different expressions in under 2 minutes. She became, as one Twitter post said, a “human gif machine.”
Now, by her own admission, Winona is fragile. She has battled depression and anxiety for much of her professional life. Maybe she was having a minor breakdown in front of the world. Or maybe this was a premeditated and choreographed social media master stroke. Either way, it says something about us.
The Stranger Things cast hadn’t even left the stage before the Twitterverse started spreading the Ryder meme. If you look at Google Trends there was a huge spike in searches for Winona Ryder starting right around 6:15 pm (PST) Sunday night. It peaked at 6:48 pm with a volume about 20 times that of queries for Ms. Ryder before the broadcast began.
It was David Harbour that delivered the speech Ryder was reacting to. The words were his, and while there was also a spike in searches for him coinciding with the speech, he didn’t come close to matching the viral popularity of the Ryder meme. At its peak, there were 5 searches for “Winona Ryder” for every search for “David Harbour.”
Ryder’s mugging was – premeditated or not – extremely meme-worthy. It was visual, it was over the top and – most importantly – it was a blank canvas we could project our own views on to. Winona didn’t give us any words, so we could fill in our own. We could use it to provide a somewhat bizarre exclamation point to our own views, expressed through social media.
As I was watching this happen, I knew this was going to go viral. Maybe it’s because it takes something pretty surreal to make a dent in an increasingly surreal world that leaves us numb. When the noise that surrounds us seems increasingly unfathomable, we need something like this to prick our consciousness and make us sit up and take notice. Then we hunker down again before we’re pummelled with the next bit of reality.
Let me give you one example.
As I was watching the SAG awards Sunday night, I was unaware that gunmen had opened fire on Muslim worshippers praying in a mosque in Quebec City. I only found out after I flicked through the channels after the broadcast ended. Today, as I write this, I now know that six are dead because someone hated Muslims that much. Canada also has extreme racism.
I find it hard to think about that. It’s easier to think about Winona Ryder’s funny faces. That’s not very noble, I know, but sometimes you have to go with what you’re actually able to wrap your mind around.
“Would you rather lose a limb or never be able to access the Internet?” My daughter looked at me, waiting for my answer.
We were playing the game “Would You Rather” during a lull in the Christmas festivities. The whole point of the game is to pose two random and usually bizarre alternatives to choose from. Once you do, you see how others have answered. It’s a hard game to take seriously.
Except for this question. This one hit me like a hammer blow.
“I have to say I’d rather lose a limb.”
Wow. I would rather lose an arm or a leg than lose something I didn’t even know existed 20 years ago. That’s a pretty sobering thought. I am so dependent on this technical artifact that I value it more than parts of my own body.
During the same holiday season, my stepdad came to visit. He has two cherished possessions that are always with him. One is a pocketknife his father gave him. The other is an iPhone 3 that my sister gave him when she upgraded. Dad doesn’t do much on his phone. But what he does do is critically important to him. He texts his kids and he checks the weather. If you grew up on a farm on the Canadian prairies during the 1930’s, you literally lived and died according to the weather. So, for Dad, it’s magic of the highest sort to be able to know what the temperature is in the places where his favorite people live. We kids have added all our home locations to his weather app, as well as that of his sister-in-law. Dad checks the weather in Edmonton (Alberta), Calgary (Alberta), Kelowna (BC), Orillia (Ontario) and his hometown of Sundre (Alberta) constantly. It’s his way of keeping tabs on us when he can’t be with us.
I wonder what Dad would say if I asked him to choose between his iPhone and his right arm. I suspect he’d have to think about it. I do know the first thing I have to do when he comes to our place is set him up on our home wifi network.
It’s easy to talk about how Millennials or Gen-X’s are dependent on technology. But for me, it really strikes home when I watch people of my parent’s generation hold on to some aspect of technology for dear life because it enables them to do something so fundamentally important to them. They understand something we don’t. They understand what Arthur C. Clarke meant when he said,
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
To understand this, look for a moment through the eyes of my Dad when he was a child. He rode a horse to school – a tiny one room building that was heated with a wood stove. Its library consisted of two bookshelves on the back wall. A circle whose radius was defined by how far you could drive the wagon in a single day bound the world of which he was aware. That world consisted of several farms, the Eagle Hill Co-op store, the tiny town of Sundre, his school and the post office. The last was particularly important, because that’s where the packages you ordered from the Eaton’s catalogue (the Canadian equivalent of Sears Roebuck) would come.
It’s to this post office that my step-dad dragged his sleigh about 75 years ago. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was picking up his Christmas present. His mother, whose own paternal grandfather was a contemporary and friend of Charles Darwin, had saved milk money for several months to purchase a three-volume encyclopaedia for the home. Nobody else they knew had an encyclopaedia. Books were rare enough. But for Isobel (Buckman) Leckie, knowledge was an investment worth making. Those three books became the gift of a much bigger world for my Dad.
It’s easy to make fun of seniors for their simultaneous amazement of and bewilderment by technology. We chuckle when Dad does his third “weather round-up” of the day. We get frustrated when he can’t seem to understand how wifi works. But let’s put this in the context of the change he has seen in his life on this earth. This is not just an obsolete iPhone 3 that he holds in his hand. This is something for which the adjective “magical” seems apt.
Perhaps it’s even magic you’d pay an arm and a leg for.
Ken Jennings, the second most successful Jeopardy player of all time, has an IQ of 175. That makes him smarter than 99.9998615605% of everybody. If you put him in a city the size of Indianapolis, he’d probably be the smartest person there. In fact, in all of the US, statistics say there are only 443 people that would be smarter than Mr. Jennings.
And one machine. Let’s not forget IBM’s Watson whupped Jennings’ ass over two days, piling up $77,147 in winnings to Jennings $24,000. It wasn’t even close. Watson won by a factor of more than 3 to 1.
That’s why I think Watson should run for president in 2020. Bear with me.
Donald Trump’s IQ is probably in the 119 range (not 156 as he boasts – but then he also boasted that every woman who ever appeared on the Apprentice flirted with him). Of course we’ll never know. Like his tax returns, any actual evidence of his intelligence is unavailable. But let’s go with 119. That makes him smarter than 88.24% of the population, which isn’t bad, but it also isn’t great. According to Wikipedia, if that IQ estimate were correct, he would be the second dumbest president in history, slightly ahead of Gerald Ford. Here’s another way to think about it. If you were standing at a moderately busy bus stop, chances are somebody else waiting with you would be smarter than the President Elect of the United States.
Watson won Jeopardy in 2011. Since then, he’s become smarter, becoming an expert in health, law, real estate, finance, weather – even cooking. And when I say expert, I mean Watson knows more about those things than anyone alive.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, has probably learned little in the last 5 years because, apparently, he doesn’t have time to read. But that’s okay, because he reaches the right decisions
“with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had, plus the words ‘common sense,’ because I have a lot of common sense and I have a lot of business ability.”
In the President Elect’s mind, that also qualifies him to “wing it” with things like international relations, security risks, emerging world events, domestic crises and the other stuff on his daily to-do list. He has also decided that he doesn’t need his regular intelligence briefing, reiterating:
“You know, I’m, like, a smart person. I don’t have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day for the next eight years. Could be eight years — but eight years. I don’t need that.”
That’s right, the future leader of the free world is, “you know, like, a smart person.”
Now, President Watson could also decide to skip the briefing, but that’s because Watson can process 500 gigabytes – the equivalent of a million books – per second. Any analyst or advisor would be hard pressed to keep up.
Let’s talk about technology. Donald Trump doesn’t appear to know how to use a computer. His technical prowess seems to begin and end with midnight use of Twitter. To be fair, Hillary Clinton was also bamboozled by technology, as one errant email server showed all too clearly. But Watson is technology: and if you can follow this description from Wikipedia, apparently pretty impressive technology: “a cluster of ninety IBM Power 750 servers, each of which uses a 3.5 GHz POWER7 eight-core processor, with four threads per core. In total, the system has 2,880 POWER7 processor threads and 16 terabytes of RAM.”
In a presidential debate, or, for that matter, a tweet, Watson can simultaneously retrieve from its onboard 16-terabyte memory, process, formulate and fact check. Presumably, unlike Trump, Watson could remember whether or not he said global warming was a hoax, how long ISIS has actually been around and whether he in fact had the world’s greatest memory. At the very least, Watson would know how to spell “unprecedented”
But let’s get down to the real question, whose digit do you want on the button: Trump’s “long and beautiful” fingers or Watson’s bionic thumb? Watson – who can instantly and rationally process terabytes of information to determine optimum alternatives – or Trump – who’s philosophy is that “it really doesn’t matter…as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of *ss.”
I know what you’re thinking – this is us finally surrendering to the machines. But at least it’s intelligence – even if it is artificial.
Note: In writing what I thought was satire, I found once again that fact is stranger than fiction. Somebody already thought of this 4 years ago: http://watson2016.com/
First: the Caveat. I’m old and grumpy. That is self-evident. There is no need to remind me.
But even with this truth established, the fact is that I’ve noticed a trend. Increasingly, when I come to write this column, I get depressed. The more I look for a topic to write about, the more my mood spirals downward.
I’ve been writing for Mediapost for over 12 years now. Together, between the Search Insider and Online Spin, that’s close to 600 columns. Many – if not most – of those have been focused on the intersection between technology and human behavior. I’m fascinated by what happens when evolved instincts meet technological disruption.
When I started this gig I was mostly optimistic. I was amazed by the possibilities and – somewhat naively it turns out – believed it would make us better. Unlimited access to information, the ability to connect with anyone – anywhere, new ways to reach beyond the limits of our own DNA; how could this not make humans amazing?
Why, then, do we seem to be going backwards? What I didn’t realize at the time is that technology is like a magnifying glass. Yes, it can make the good of human nature better, but it can also make the bad worse. Not only that, but Technology also has a nasty habit of throwing in unintended consequences; little gotchas we never saw coming that have massive moral implications. Disruption can be a good thing, but it can also rip things apart in a thrice that took centuries of careful and thoughtful building to put in place. Black Swans have little regard for ethics or morality.
I have always said that technology doesn’t change behaviors. It enables behaviors. When it comes to the things that matter, our innate instincts and beliefs, we are not perceptibly different than our distant ancestors were. We are driven by the same drives. Increasingly, as I look at how we use the outcomes of science and innovation to pursue these objectives, I realize that while it can enable love, courage and compassion, technology can also engender more hate, racism and misogyny. It makes us better while it also makes us worse. We are becoming caricatures of ourselves.
Everett Rogers plotted the diffusion of technology through the masses on a bell curve and divided us up into innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards. The categorization was defined by our acceptance of innovation. Inevitably, then, there would be a correlation between that acceptance and our sense of optimism about the possibilities of technology. Early adopters would naturally see how technology would enable us to be better. But, as diffusion rolls through the curve we would eventually hit those for which technology is just there – another entitlement, a factor of our environment, oxygen. There is no special magic or promise here. Technology simply is.
So, to recap, I’m old and grumpy. As I started to write yet another column I was submerged in a wave of weariness. I have to admit – I have been emotionally beat up by the last few years. I’m tired of writing about how technology is making us stupider, lazier and less tolerant when it should be making us great.
But another thing usually comes with age: perspective. This isn’t the first time that humans and disruptive technology have crossed paths. That’s been the story of our existence. Perhaps we should zoom out a bit from our current situation. Let’s set aside for a moment our navel gazing about fake news, click bait, viral hatred, connected xenophobia and erosion of public trusts. Let’s look at the bigger picture.
History isn’t sketched in straight lines. History is plotted on a curve. Correction. History is plotted in a series of waves. We are constantly correcting course. Disruption tends to swing a pendulum one way until a gathering of opposing force swings it the other way. It takes us awhile to absorb disruption, but we do – eventually.
I suspect if I were writing this in 1785 I’d be disheartened by the industrial blight that was enveloping the world. Then, like now, technology was plotting a new course for us. But in this case, we have the advantage of hindsight to put things in perspective. Consider this one fact: between 1200 and 1600 the life span of a British noble didn’t go up by even a single year. But, between 1800 and today, life expectancy for white males in the West doubled from thirty eight years to seventy six. Technology made that possible.
Technology, when viewed on a longer timeline, has also made us better. If you doubt that, read psychologist and author Steven Pinker’s “Better Angels of Our Nature.” His exhaustively researched and reasoned book leads you to the inescapable conclusion that we are better now than we ever have been. We are less violent, less cruel and more peaceful than at any time in history. Technology also made that possible.
It’s okay to be frustrated by the squandering of the promise of technology. But it’s not okay to just shrug and move on. You are the opposing force that can cause the pendulum to change direction. Because, in the end, it’s not technology that makes us better. It’s how we choose to use that technology.
The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.
Call it the Frog in Boiling Water Syndrome. It happens when creeping changes in our environment reach a disruptive tipping point that triggers massive change – or – sometimes – a dead frog. I think we’re going through one such scenario now. In this case, the boiling water may be technology and the frog may be democracy.
I walked through the dynamics I believe lay behind the election last week in some detail. This week, I want to focus more on the impact of technology on democratic elections in general. In particular, I wanted to explore the network effects of technology, the spread of information and sweeping populist movements like we saw on November 8th.
In an ideal world, access to information should be the bedrock of effective democracy. Ironically, however, now that we have more access than ever that bedrock is being chipped away. There has been a lot of finger pointing at the dissemination of fake news on Facebook, but that’s just symptomatic of a bigger ill. The real problem is the filter bubbles and echo chambers that formed on social networks. And they formed because friction has been eliminated. The way we were informed in this election looked very different from that in elections past.
Information is now spread more through emergent social networks than through editorially controlled media channels. That makes it subject to unintended network effects. Because the friction of central control has been largely eliminated, the spread of information relies on the rules of emergence: the aggregated and amplified behaviors of the individual agents.
When it comes to predicting behaviors of individual human agents, our best bet is placed on the innate behaviors that lie below the threshold of rational thought. Up to now, social conformity was a huge factor. And that rallying point of that social conformity was largely formed and defined by information coming from the mainstream media. The trend of that information over the past several decades has been to the left end of the ideological spectrum. Political correctness is one clear example of this evolving trend.
But in this past election, there was a shift in individual behavior thanks to the elimination of friction in the spread of information – away from social conformity and towards other primal behaviors. Xenophobia is one such behavior. Much as some of us hate to admit it, we’re all xenophobic to some degree. Humans naturally choose familiar over foreign. It’s an evolved survival trait. And, as American economist Thomas Schelling showed in 1971, it doesn’t take a very high degree of xenophobia to lead to significant segregation. He showed that even people who only have a mild preference to be with people like themselves (about 33%) would, given the ability to move wherever they wished, lead to highly segregated neighborhoods. Imagine then the segregation that happens when friction is essentially removed from social networks. You don’t have to be a racist to want to be with people who agree with you. Liberals are definitely guilty of the same bias.
What happened in the election of 2016 were the final death throes of the mythical Homo Politicus – the fiction of the rational voter. Just like Homo Economicus – who predeceased him/her thanks to the ground breaking work of psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman – much as we might believe we make rational voting choices, we are all a primal basket of cognitive biases. And these biases were fed a steady stream of misinformation and questionable factoids thanks to our homogenized social connections.
This was not just a right wing trend. The left was equally guilty. Emergent networks formed and headed in diametrically opposed directions. In the middle, unfortunately, was the future of the country and – perhaps – democracy. Because, with the elimination of information distributional friction, we have to ask the question, “What will democracy become?” I have an idea, but I’ll warn you, it’s not a particularly attractive one.
If we look at democracy in the context of an emergent network, we can reasonably predict a few things. If the behaviors of the individual agents are not uniform – if half always turn left and half always turn right – that dynamic tension will set up an oscillation. The network will go through opposing phases. The higher the tension, the bigger the amplitude and the more rapid the frequency of those oscillations. The country will continually veer right and then veer left.
Because those voting decisions are driven more by primal reactions than rational thought, votes will become less about the optimal future of the country and more about revenge on the winner of the previous election. As the elimination of friction in information distribution accelerates, we will increasingly be subject to the threshold mob effect I described in my last column.
So, is democracy dead? Perhaps. At a minimum, it is debilitated. At the beginning of the column, I quoted Winston Churchill. Here is another quote from Churchill:
Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…
We are incredibly reluctant to toy with the idea of democracy. It is perhaps the most cherished ideal we cling to in the Western World. But if democracy is the mechanism for a never-ending oscillation of retribution, perhaps we should be brave enough to consider alternatives. In that spirit, I put forward the following:
The best antidote to irrationality is mindfulness – forcing our Prefrontal cortex to kick in and lift us above our primal urges. But how do we encourage mindfulness in a democratic context? How do we break out of our social filter bubbles and echo chambers?
What if we made the right to vote contingent on awareness? What if you had to take a test before you cast your vote? The objective of the test is simple: how aware were you not only of your candidate’s position and policies but – more importantly – that of the other side? You don’t have to agree with the other side’s position; you just have to be aware of it. Your awareness score would then be assigned as a weight to your vote. The higher your level of awareness, the more your vote would count.
I know I’m tiptoeing on the edge of sacrilege here, but consider it a straw man. I’ve been hesitating in going public with this, but I’ve been thinking about it for some time and I’m not so sure it’s worse than the increasingly shaky democratic status quo we currently have. It’s equally fair to the right and left. It encourages mindfulness. It breaks down echo chambers.
It’s worth thinking about.