A Lesson Learned from the Lost Generation

“I wasn’t around for Y2K. Was it like this?”

The question was posed to me by a young man named Jeremy – about 18 or 19 – who brought the online order of groceries to my car. He had just been telling me how store employees had been scrambling to stay ahead of items people were starting to hoard so they could post limits to prevent the shelves being stripped bare. On this day, it was bread. He shook his head, unable to wrap it around people’s panic. He was trying to relate it to something that could serve as a baseline.

My initial reaction to his question was to laugh. Y2K was a nothingburger. We panicked, we nervously rang in the New Year of 2000, and then we laughed sheepishly and went on with life.

This is different. On so many levels. I told that to Jeremy. “I have been around for almost 60 years. I have never experienced anything like this before.”

I’ve been thinking about that conversation a lot since. In Jeremy’s short time here on the planet, he probably has never experienced true hardship. But then, neither have I. Not really. Not like what we’re about to experience.

If you were to plot a trendline of my life over the last 6 decades, it would overwhelmingly be up and to the right. Sure, there were blips. But it’s been a pretty damned good 60 years. For me, hardship has been defined by putting off a trip because I couldn’t afford it. Or buying a used car when I wanted a new one. Poor me.

In the writing of this, I tried to find some formula to put magnitude of significance to events like this. I couldn’t find one, so I made my own:

Personal Impact X Number of People Impacted X Duration of Impact

The Pew Research Center asked Americans to rank the most significant events of their lifetimes in 2016. If we just look at those events that were negative, they were 9/11 (by a significant margin), the JFK assassination and the Vietnam War.

But now let’s attempt to quantify the magnitude of significance. When I say personal impact, I’m not talking about emotional impact. I’m talking about material impacts on my life that are directly attributable to the event.

My heart broke on 9/11, just like all of yours. That day would change my perspective on many things. But in real terms, it didn’t shift my life in any significant ways. There was tightened security when I travelled, but that was about it. This in no way minimizes the tragedy of the event. I know it was excruciatingly real for some of you reading this. I’m just putting it in perspective for myself.

This will be different. There is a shit-ton of uncertainty about what lies ahead, but I’m pretty sure all our lives are going to change significantly for the next 18 months to 2 years at least.  And it will impact everyone in the world. The vast majority of us have never been through anything like this before.  But others have. In fact, a whole generation has. Unfortunately, none of them are around to talk to. They were called the Lost Generation.

My Grandfather was part of this generation. Officially, those belonging to the Lost Generation were born between 1883 and 1900. Charles Edward Hotchkiss was born in Herefordshire, England in 1888. He died in Ontario, Canada in 1955, at the age of 67. He was just 8 years older than I am today. Given what we’re going through currently, I stopped to think about what “Charlie” experienced in his lifetime.

In 1910, he boarded the SS Lake Champlain in Liverpool and came to Canada. He was 21. Four years later, he volunteered for service in World War I. In the next 4 years, 9 million soldiers would die, 21 million would be wounded (my grandfather was one of them), 7 million would be left permanently disabled. 10 million civilians also died.

Those numbers are staggering, but an even deadlier and more significant event was just getting started in 1917. Today, we remember it as the Spanish Flu but that is a misnomer. It was called that because early reporting of the severity of the influenza pandemic was censored in wartime Europe for fear that troops would panic and desert. The only country where reporting was somewhat accurate was in neutral Spain, which led to the mistaken notion that the impact was worse there than anywhere else. By the time the epidemic subsided in 1920, somewhere between 50 and 100 million people would die. It had infected 500 million people, a quarter of the world’s population.

This was the reality newly discharged Charlie came back to when he stepped off the boat in Halifax on September 14, 1919. He was 31.

Charlie married my grandmother, Rose, in 1926. Three years later, the world slipped into the Great Depression. Half of all banks in the US failed. Unemployment spiked to 25%. International trade collapsed by 65%. Millions became homeless migrants. And it would continue like this for the next 10 years. In the middle of all this – in 1935 – Charlie and Rose had a baby. It was my father, William Francis Hotchkiss.

When my dad was just 4, World War II started. My grandfather, who was 50, was too old to actively serve but the impact of the war was still immense on Rose, William and Charlie. Over the next 6 years, 100 million people would be directly impacted from more than 30 countries. It is estimated 20 million military personnel and 40 million civilians would die in those 6 years.

These events, any one of which would be staggering to us, were packed into just 3 decades. I tried to imagine myself going through that from 1990 to today. I couldn’t.

Sometimes, when you can’t see forward, it’s helpful to look back. When I did that, I realized we’re a pretty resilient species. The Lost Generation laid the foundation for the world we live in today. They weathered storm after storm after storm. They made it through. They raised families, started businesses and survived.

It will get hard for us. Really hard. It’s a definition of hardship many of us will be dealing with for the first time in our lives. But we go into this with technological and societal advantages the Lost Generation never had or could even dream of. We should be able to do this without falling apart.

We come from good stock.

Want Solid Covid-19 Information? Here is What I've Found

If you’re a statistical “what if” type of person, I can relate. I’ve been doing a lot of that over the last week or two. I’ve found some tools and resources that are heavy on statistical probability and solid information rather than panicked hyperbole or “head in the sand” denial. I thought I’d share them with you.

Updated Numbers

The one source I’ve been following the longest is Worldometer’s Coronavirus page, which is updated daily.

You can drill down to breakdowns for most countries. I’ve been particularly looking at results in example countries that are ahead of us on the curve: on the plus side: China and South Korea. On the negative side: Italy and Spain. The US has further breakdowns by state. Keep on eye on Washington, which will be soon getting to the point where they’ll see if their efforts at lockdown are being effective. Governor Jay Inslee did a statewide lockdown on March 15, the first state to do so. What we want to see if that starts “bending the curve” in the right direction. We should start to see trends in the next week or so.

One note of caution on looking at these numbers. You have to factor in the ramp up of testing, which will identify many more new cases. While this looks scary, it’s very much a good thing. Increased testing is one of the most important steps in slowing down the spread.

Canadian Specific Numbers

Canada does not have a province by province breakdown on Worldometer. The best site I’ve seen for Canada is from the Globe and Mail.

This tool does offer provincial breakdowns. Again, we want to be watching the daily new case graphs to see if the curve starts to bend. Provinces that were leaders in this regard are the ones that have been hit the hardest: BC, Ontario and Alberta. In BC we’ve been stepping towards total lock down for the last week or so. On Friday, we finally shut all restaurants, so we’re about a week behind Washington State in this regard. Ontario was a little bit ahead of us.

Other Trackers

Bing

If you prefer a map-based interface, other tools you might want to check out are Bing’s Covid Tracker:

Bing has done a nice job here, particularly if you’re in the US. You can drill down to very specific location based tracking if you’re American. It’s less useful for Canadians. I also want to see new case incident rates, which are missing.

Google

New on the scene is Google’s Covid Tracker

To be honest, I was expecting a lot more from Google. I know it’s just been rolled out, but Bing is miles ahead in functionality

Bottom Line

If you want to see what might happen, you need to drill down on locations that were aggressive in implementing lockdowns and see what is happening there on a day by day – new cases and new deaths – basis. Remember, there is a 7 – 14 day incubation period, so you need to factor that in. Social distancing and Shelter at Home strategies will take 2 to 3 weeks to show up on these graphs.

Sound Statistics and Modelling

Tomas Pueyo has done an absolutely stellar job of taking available information and modelling out what we might expect to see. In two posts on Medium, he has knocked it out of the park. If you need some solid statistical arguments why you should keep your ass on your couch, you’ll find it here. The first post came on March 10. It convinced me to “shelter at home”.

(By the way, I’ll be using terms around which there is a lot of confusion currently. See this guide about what these terms mean)

Pueyo, who is the VP of Growth at Course Hero, has basically assembled a team of academics, health authorities and quants to “hack” an approach to saving our collective lives. His original post has been read over 40 million times and has been translated into over 30 languages. The science is sound here. His message is straight forward and urgent: stay the fuck home.

The first post, published March 10, is entitled: Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now:

The second post from March 19 is called: Coronovirus: The Hammer and The Dance

Neither of these posts are easy reading, but it is essential that you do. Pueyo does get into the weeds on his statistical reasoning, but it’s the best analysis I’ve seen about what we might expect.

Statistical Models

The final resource I’ll point you to are a few statistical models I’ve found that allow you to do some what-if modelling for your own circumstances. By far the best is the Epidemic Calculator on Github:

It looks a little daunting at first, but there are really only a few adjustments you need to make. On the bottom, you can leave almost everything in the default position. The inputs are based on the latest information we have on Covid-19. The one you might want to change is the Population input. Set this for your home country, region or even city if you want.

What you want to change are the two slider controls on the top, the Intervention Threshold and the Rt Factor. These two work together, one the timing of actions and the other the severity of actions. The R factor is the transmission rate (Pueyo talks about this extensively). It appears that Covid currently has an R factor of about 2.2, which means that every infected person will infect 2.2 other people. What we want is to get that under 1. Until we do that, the disease spreads exponentially.

Drag the Intervention slider to see the impact of delaying action. Then adjust the slider to the right to see why staying at home is so important. If anything drove it home for me, this did.

There are other models out there. If you like Canadian Content in your statistical models, there is also this one from Memorial University:

Why is This Important?

The biggest problem with what we’re about to go through is the tendency to either panic or to not be aware of the urgency of the situation. Both can be equally dangerous.

It’s so important to know what might come. We have a couple of significant obstacles in this regard:

The Cause/Effect Gap

First, we are dealing with the incubation lag, that frustrating delay between what we do today and when we begin to see the payoff from it. For me, statistical analysis is the best way to drive that point home. With it, its abundantly clear to see why we need to act now and act aggressively.

The Things We Can’t See

The other problem is underestimating the number of people that are already infected. Remember, some of those infected may never show symptoms but still be contagious. Others will show symptoms at 5 or 6 days but will be contagious before that. You can’t look at the number of confirmed cases in your area and get any feeling of security from that. You can be sure the number of actual infections is much higher. This was the same dangerous path that Italy and Spain went down.

For me this has been a roller coaster ride. I need information – good information that’s grounded in fact based research and reasoning. There is far too much bad information out there. That is why I wanted to share these resources. As near as I can tell, this will give you the best baseline of where we’re at and what we need to do going forward. It is scary shit. So the last thing I’ll leave with are some tips of how to cope when it all gets too much: a conversation with psychologist and mental health expert Dr. Reyman Abdulrehman.

Whipped Into a Frenzy

Once again, we’re in unprecedented territory. According to the CDC – COVID-19 is the first global pandemic since the 2009 H1N1 outbreak. While Facebook was around in 2009, it certainly wasn’t as pervasive or impactful as it is today. Neither – for that matter – was H1N1 when compared to COVID-19. That would make COVID-19 the first true pandemic in the age of social media.

While we’re tallying the rapidly mounting human and economic costs of the pandemic on a day-by-day basis, there is a third type of damage to consider. There will be a cognitive cost to this as well.

So let’s begin by unpacking the psychology of a pandemic. Then we’ll add the social media lens to that.

Emotional Contagion aka “The Toilet Paper Syndrome”

Do you have toilet paper at your local store? Me neither. Why?

The short answer is that there is no rational answer. There is no disruption in the supply chain of toilet paper. If you were inclined to stock up on something to battle COVID-19, hand sanitizer would be a much better choice.  Search as you might, there is no logical reason why people should be pulling toilet paper by the pallet full out of their local Costco.

There is really only one explanation; panic is contagious. It’s called emotional contagion. And there is an evolutionary explanation for it. We evolved as herd animals and when our threats came from the environment around us, it made sense to panic when you saw your neighbor panicking. Those that were on the flanks of the herd acted as an early warning system for the rest. When you saw panic close to you, the odds were very good that you were about to be eaten, trampled or buried under a rockslide. We’re hardwired to live by the principle of “Monkey see, monkey do.”

Here’s the other thing about emotional contagion. It doesn’t work very well if you have to take time to think about it. Panicked responses to threats from your environment will only save your life if they happen instantly. Natural selection has ensured they bypass the slower and more rational processing loops of our brain.

But now let’s apply the social media lens to this. Before modern communication tools were invented, emotional contagion was limited by the constraints of physical proximity. It was the original application of social distancing. Emotions could spread to a social node linked by physical proximity, but it would seldom jump across ties to another node that was separated by distance.

Then came Facebook, a platform perfectly suited to emotional contagion. Through it, emotionally charged messages can spread like wildfire regardless of where the recipients might be – creating cascades of panic across all nodes in a social network.

Now we have cascades of panic causing – by definition – irrational responses. And that’s dangerous. As Wharton Management professor Sigal Barsade said in a recent podcast, “I would argue that emotional contagion, unless we get a hold on it, is going to greatly amplify the damage caused by COVID-19”

Why We Need to Keep Calm and Carry On

Keep Calm and Carry On – the famous slogan from World War II Britain – is more than just a platitude that looks good on a t-shirt. It’s a sound psychological strategy for survival, especially when faced with threats in a complex environment. We need to think with our whole brain and we can only do that when we’re not panicking.

Again, Dr. Barsade cautions us “One of the things we also know from the research literature is that negative emotions, particularly fear and anxiety, cause us to become very rigid in our decision-making. We’re not creative. We’re not as analytical, so we actually make worse decisions.”

Let’s again consider the Facebook Factor (in this case, Facebook being my proxy for all social media). Negative emotional messages driven by fear gets clicked and shared a lot on social media. Unfortunately, much of that messaging is – at best – factually incomplete or – at worst – a complete fabrication. A 2018 study from MIT showed that false news spreads six times faster on social media than factual information.

It gets worse. According to Pew Research, one in five Americans said that social media is their preferred source for news, surpassing newspapers. In those 18 -to 29, it was the number one source. When you consider the inherent flaws in the methodology of a voluntary questionnaire, you can bet the actual number is a lot higher.

Who Can You Trust?

Let’s assume we can stay calm. Let’s further assume we can remain rational. In order to make rational decisions, you need factual information.

Before 2016, you could generally rely on government sources to provide trustworthy information. But that was then. Now, we live in the reality distortion field that daily spews forth fabricated fiction from the Twitter account of Donald. J. Trump, aka the President of the United States.

The intentional manipulation of the truth by those we should trust has a crippling effect on our ability to respond as a cohesive and committed community. As recently as just a week and a half ago, a poll found that Democrats were twice as likely as Republicans to say that COVID-19 posed an imminent threat to the U.S. By logical extension, that means that Republicans were half as likely to do something to stop the spread of the disease.

My Plan for the Pandemic

Obviously, we live in a world of social media. COVID-19 or not, there is no going back. And while I have no idea what will happen regarding the pandemic, I do have a pretty good guess how this will play out on social media. Our behaviours will be amplified through social media and there will be a bell curve of those behaviors stretching from assholes to angels. We will see the best of ourselves – and the worst – magnified through the social media lens.

Given that, here’s what I’m planning to do. One I already mentioned. I’m going to keep calm. I’m going to do my damnedest to make calm, rational decisions based on trusted information (i.e. not from social media or the President of the United States) to protect myself, my loved ones and anyone else I can.

The other plan? I’m going to reread everything from Nassam Nicholas Taleb. This is a good time for all of us to brush up on our understanding of robustness and antifragility.

What is the Moral Responsibility of a Platform?

The owner of the AirBnB home in Orinda, California suspected something was up. The woman who wanted to rent the house for Halloween night swore it wasn’t for a party. She said it was for a family reunion that had to relocate at the last minute because of the wildfire smoke coming from the Kincade fire, 85 miles north of Orinda. The owners reluctantly agreed to rent the home for one night.

Shortly after 9 pm, the neighbors called the owner, complaining of a party raging next door. The owners verified this through their doorbell camera. The police were sent. Over a 100 people who had responded to a post on social media were packed into the million-dollar home. At 10:45 pm, with no warning, things turned deadly. Gunshots were fired. Four men in their twenties were killed immediately. A 19-year-old female died the next day. Several others were injured.

Here is my question. Is AirBnB partly to blame for this?

This is a prickly question. And it’s one to extends to any one of the platforms that are highly disruptive. Technical disruption is a race against our need for order and predictability. When the status quo is upended, there is a progression towards a new civility that takes time, but technology is outstripping it. Platforms create new opportunities – for the best of us and the worst.

The simple fact is that technology always unleashes ethical ramifications – the more disruptive the technology, the more serious the ethical considerations. The other tricky bit is that some ethical considerations can be foreseen..but others cannot.

I have often said that our world is becoming a more complex place. Technology is multiplying this complexity at an ever increasing pace. And the more complex things are, the more difficult they are to predict.

As Homo Deus author Yuval Noah Harari said, because of the pace of technology, our world is becoming more complex, so it is becoming increasingly difficult to predict what the future might hold.

“Today our knowledge is increasing at breakneck speed, and theoretically we should understand the world better and better. But the very opposite is happening. Our new-found knowledge leads to faster economic, social and political changes; in an attempt to understand what is happening, we accelerate the accumulation of knowledge, which leads only to faster and greater upheavals. Consequently, we are less and less able to make sense of the present or forecast the future.”

This acceleration is also eliminating the gap between cause and consequence. We used to have the luxury of time to digest disruption. But now, the gap between the introduction of the technology and the ripples of the ramifications is shrinking.

Think about the ethical dilemmas and social implications introduced by the invention of the printing press. Thanks to the introduction of this technology, literacy started creeping down through social classes and it totally disrupted entire established hierarchies, unleashed ideological revolutions and ushered in tsunamis of social change. But the cause and consequences were separated by decades and even centuries. Should Guttenberg be held responsible for the French Revolution? This seems laughable, but only because almost three and a half centuries lie between the two.

Like the printing press eventually proved, technology typically dismantles vertical hierarchies. It democratizes capabilities – spreading them down to new users and – in the process – making the previously impossible possible. I have always said that technology is simply a tool, albeit an often disruptive one. It doesn’t change human behaviors. It enables them. But here we have an interesting phenomenon. If technology pushes capabilities down to more people and simultaneously frees those users from the restraint of a verticalized governing structure, you have a highly disruptive sociological experiment happening in real time with a vast sample of subjects.

Most things about human nature are governed by a normal distribution curve – also known as a bell curve. Behaviors expressed through new technologies are no exception. When you rapidly expand access to a capability you are going to have a spectrum of ethical attitudes interacting with it. At one end of the spectrum, you will have bad actors. You will find these actors on both sides of a market expanding at roughly the same rate as our universe. And those actors will do awful things with the technology.

Our innate sense of fairness seeks a simple line between cause and effect. If shootings happen at an AirBnB party house, then AirBnB should be held at least partly responsible. Right?

I’m not so sure. That’s the simple answer, but after giving it much thought, I don’t believe it’s the right one.  Like my previous example of the printing press, I think trying to saddle a new technology with the unintentional and unforseen social disruption unleashed by that technology is overly myopic. It’s an attitude that will halt technological progress in its tracks.

I fervently believe new technologies should be designed with humanitarian principles in mind. They should elevate humans, strive for neutrality, be impartial and foster independence. In the real world, they should do all this in a framework that allows for profitability. It is this, and only this, that is reasonable to ask from any new technology. To try to ask it to foresee every potential negative outcome or to retroactively hold it accountable when those outcomes do eventually occur is both unreasonable and unrealistic.

Disruptive technologies will always find the loopholes in our social fabric. They will make us aware of the vulnerabilities in our legislation and governance. If there is an answer to be found here, it is to be found in ourselves. We need to take accountability for the consequences of the technologies we adopt. We need to vote for governments that are committed to keeping pace with disruption through timely and effective governance.

Like it or not, the technology we have created and adopted has propelled us into a new era of complexity and unpredictability. We are flying into uncharted territory by the seat of our pants here. And before we rush to point fingers we should remember – we’re the ones that asked for it.

Saying So Long to SEMPO

Yesterday afternoon, while I was in line at the grocery store, my phone pinged. I was mentioned in a Twitter post. For me, that’s becoming a pretty uncommon experience. So I checked the post.  And that’s how I found out that SEMPO is no more.

The tweet was from Dana Todd, who was responding to a Search Engine Journalarticle by Roger Montti about the demise of SEMPO. For those of you who don’t know SEMPO: it was the Search Engine Marketing Professionals Organization.

It was a big part of my life during what seems like a lifetime ago. Todd was even more involved. Hence the tweet.

Increasingly I find my remaining half-life in digital consists of an infrequent series of “remember-when” throwbacks. This will be one of those.

Todd’s issue with the article was that much of the 17-year history of the organization was glossed over, as Montti chose to focus mainly on the controversies of the first year or two of its existence.

As Todd said, “You only dredged up the early stages of the organization, in its infancy as we struggled to gain respect and traction, and were beset by naysayers who looked for a reason we should fail. We didn’t fail.”

She then added, “There is far more to the SEMPO story, and far more notable people who put in blood sweat and tears to build not just the organization, but the entire industry.”

I was one of those people. But before that, I was also one of the early naysayers.

SEMPO started in 2003. I didn’t join until 2004. I spent at least part of that first year joining the chorus bitching about the organization. And then I realized that I could either bitch from the outside — or I could effect change from the inside.  

After joining, I quickly found myself on that same SEMPO board that that I’d been complaining about. In 2005, I became co-chair of the research committee. In 2006, I became the chair of SEMPO. I served in that role for two years and eventually stepped down from SEMPO at the same time I stepped away from the search industry.

Like Todd (who was the president of SEMPO for part of the time I was the chairman), I am proud of what we did, and extraordinarily proud of the team that made it happen. Many of the people I admired most in the industry served with me on that board.

Todd will always be one of my favorite search people. But I also had the privilege of serving with Jeff Pruit, Kevin Lee, Bill Hunt, Dave Fall, Christine Churchill and the person who got the SEMPO ball rolling, along with Todd: Barbara Coll. There were many, many others.

Now, SEMPO is being absorbed by the Digital Analytics Association, which, according to its announcement,  “is committed to helping former SEMPO members become fully integrated into DAA, and will be forming a special interest group (SIG) for search analytics.”

I’ve got to admit: That hurts. Being swallowed up, becoming nothing more than a special interest group, is a rather ignoble end for the association I gave so much to.

But as anyone who has raised a child can tell you, you know you’ve been successful when they no longer need you. And that’s how I choose to interpret this event. The search industry no longer needs SEMPO, at least as a stand-alone organization.

And if that’s the case, then SEMPO knocked it out of the park. Because that sure as hell wasn’t true back in 2003.

Search in 2003 was the Wild West. According to legend, there were white-hat SEOs and black-hat SEOs.

But truth be told, most of us wore hats that were some shade of grey.

The gunslingers of natural search (or organic SEO) were slowly and very reluctantly giving up their turf to the encroaching new merchants of paid search. Google Adwords had only been around for three years, but its launch introduced a whole new dynamic to the ecosystem. Google suddenly had to start a relationship with search marketers.

Before that, the only Google attempt made to reach out was thanks to a rogue mystery poster on SEO industry forums named “googleguy” (later suspected to be the search quality team lead Matt Cutts).  To call search an industry would be stretching the term to its breaking point.

The introduction of paid search was creating a two-sided marketplace, and that was forcing search to become more civilized.

The process of civilization is always difficult. It requires the establishment of trust and respect, two commodities that were in desperately short supply in search circa 2003.

SEMPO was the one organization that did the most to bring civilization to the search marketplace. It gave Google a more efficient global conduit to thousands of search marketers. And it gave those search marketers a voice that Google would actually pay some attention to.

But it was more than just starting a conversation. SEMPO challenged search marketers to think beyond their own interests. The organization laid the foundation for a more sustainable and equitable search ecosystem. If SEMPO accomplished anything to be proud of, it was in preventing the Tragedy of the Commons from killing search before it had a chance to establish itself as the fastest growing advertising marketplace in history.

Dana Todd wrapped up her extended Twitter post by writing, “I can say confidently Google wouldn’t be worth $1T without us. SEMPO — you mattered.”

Dana, just like in the old SEMPO days when we double-teamed a message, you said it better than I ever could.

And Google? You’re welcome.

‘Twas the Night Before the Internet

Today, just one day before Christmas, my mind swings to the serendipitous side. I don’t know about you, but for me, 2019 has been a trying year. While you would never know it by the collection of columns I’ve produced over the past 12 months, I have tried to find the glimpses of light in the glowering darkness.

Serendipity Sidetrack #1: “Glowering” is a word we don’t use much anymore. It refers to someone who has a dark, angry expression on their faces. As such, it’s pretty timely and relevant. You’d think we would use it more.

One of my personal traditions during the holidays is to catch one of the fourteen billion airings of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Yes, it’s quintessentially Capraesque. Yes, it’s corny as hell. But give me a big seasonal heaping helping of Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed and that “crummy little town” known as Bedford Falls.

Serendipity Sidetrack #2: The movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” is based on a 1939 short story by Philip Van Doren Stern. He tried to get it published for several years with no success. He finally self-published it and sent it to 200 friends as a 24-page Christmas card. One of these cards ended up on the desk of an executive at RKO pictures, who convinced the studio to buy the rights in 1943 as a vehicle for its star Cary Grant.

That movie never got made and the project was shelved for the rest of World War II. After the war, director Frank Capra read the script and chose it as his first Hollywood movie after making war documentaries and training films.

The movie was panned by critics and ignored by audiences. It was a financial disaster, eventually leading to the collapse of Capra’s new production company, Liberty Films. One other stray tidbit: during the scene at the high school dance where the gym floor opens over the pool (which was shot at Beverly Hills High School), Mary’s obnoxious date Freddie is played by an adult Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, from the “Our Gang” series.

But I digress. This seasonal ritual got me thinking along “what if” lines. We learn what Bedford Falls would be like if George Bailey was never born. But maybe the same narrative machinery could be applied to another example: What would Christmas (or your seasonal celebration of choice) be like if the Internet had never happened?

As I pondered this, I realized that there’s really only one aspect of the internet that materially impacts what the holidays have become. These celebrations revolve around families, so if we were going to look for changes wrought by technology, we have to look at the structure and dynamics of the family unit.

Serendipity Sidetrack #3: Christmas was originally not a family-based celebration. It became so in Victorian England thanks to Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and Charles Dickens. After the marriage of the royal couple, Albert brought the German tradition of the Christmas tree to Windsor Castle. Pictures of the royals celebrating with family around the tree firmly shifted the holiday towards its present warm-hearted family center.

In 1843, Dickens added social consciousness to the party with the publication of “A Christmas Carol.” The holiday didn’t take its detour towards overt consumerism until the prosperity of the 1950s.

But back to my rapidly unraveling narrative thread: What would Christmas be like without the Internet?

I have celebrated Christmas in two different contexts: The first, in my childhood and the second with my own wife and family.

I grew up with just my immediate family in rural Alberta, geographically distant from aunts, uncles and cousins. For dinner there would be six of us around the table. We might try to call an aunt or uncle who lived some 2,000 miles away, but usually the phone lines were so busy we couldn’t get through.

The day was spent with each other and usually involved a few card games, a brief but brisk walk and getting ready for Christmas dinner. It was low-key, but I still have many fond memories of my childhood Christmases.

Then I got married. My wife, who is Italian, has dozens and dozens and dozens of relatives within a stone’s throw in any direction. For us, Christmas is now a progressive exercise to see just how many people can be crammed into the same home. It begins at our house for Christmas morning with the “immediate” family (remember, I use the term in its Italian context). The head count varies between 18 and 22 people.

Then, we move to Christmas dinner with the “extended” family. The challenge here is finding a house big enough, because we are now talking 50 to 75 people. It’s loud, it’s chaotic — and I couldn’t imagine Christmas any other way.

The point here is how the Internet has shifted the nature of the celebration. In my lifespan, I have seen two big shifts, both to do with the nature of our personal connections. And like most things with technology, one has been wonderful while the other has been troubling.

First of all, thanks to the Internet, we can extend our family celebrations beyond the limits of geography. I can now connect with family members who don’t live in the same town.

But, ironically, the same technology has been eroding the bonds we have with the family we are physically present with. We may be in the same room, but our minds are elsewhere, preoccupied with the ever-present screens in our pockets or purses. In my pre-Internet memories of Christmas, we were fully there with our families. Now, this is rarely the case.

And one last thought. I find — sadly — that Christmas is just one more occasion to be shared through social media. For some of us, it’s not so much who we’re with or what we’re doing, but about how it will look in our Instagram post.

The Tourification of Our World

Who wouldn’t want to be in Venice? Gondolas drift by with Italian gondoliers singing “O Sole Mio.” You sit at a café savoring your espresso as you watch Latin lovers stroll by hand in hand on their way to the Bridge of Sighs. The Piazza San Marco is bathed in a golden glow as the sun sets behind the Basilica di San Marco. The picture? Perfect.  

Again, who wouldn’t want to live in Venice?

The answer, according to the latest population stats, is almost everyone. The population of Venice is one third what it was in 1970.

The sharp-eyed among you may have noticed that I changed the sentence slightly in the second version. I replaced “be” with “live.”  And that’s the difference. Venice is literally the “nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there.”  

A lot of people do visit, well over 5 million a year. But almost nobody lives there. The permanent population of Venice has shrunk to below 60,000.

Venice has become tourified. It’s a false front of a city, one built for those who are going to be there for 48 to 72 hours. In the process, everything needed to make it sustainable for those who want to call it home has been stripped out. It has become addicted to tourist dollars — and that addiction is killing it.

We should learn from Venice’s example. Sometimes, in trying to make a fantasy real, you take away the very things needed to let it survive.

Perfection doesn’t exist in nature. Imperfections are required for robustness. Yet, we are increasingly looking for a picture of perfection we can escape to.

The unintended consequences of this are troubling to think about.

We spent a good part of the last century devising new ways to escape. What was once an activity that lived well apart from our real lives has become increasingly more entwined with those lives.

As our collective affluence has grown, we spend more and more time chasing the fantastical. Social media has accelerated this chase. Our feeds are full of posts from those in pursuit of a fantasy.

We have shifted our focus from the place we live to the “nice place to visit.” This distorts our expectations of what reality should be. We expect the tourist-brochure version of Venice without realizing that in constructing exactly that, we set in motion a chain of events resulting in a city that’s unlivable.

The rise of populist politics is the broken-mirror image of this. Many of us have mythologized the America we want — or Britain, or any of the other countries that have gone down the populist path.. And myths are, by definition, unsustainable in the real world. They are vastly oversimplified pictures that allow us to create a story that we long for. It’s  the same as the picture I painted of Venice in the first paragraph: a fantasy that can’t survive reality.

In our tendency to “tourify” everything, there are at least two unintended consequences: one for ourselves and one for our world.

For us, the need to escape continually draws our energies and attentions from what we need to do to save the world we actually live in, toward the mythologization of the world we think we want to live in. We ignore the inconvenient truths of reality as we pursue our imagined perfection.

But it’s the second outcome that’s probably more troubling. Even if we were successful in building the world we think we want, we could well find that built a bigger version of Venice, a place sinking under the weight of its own fantasy.

Sometimes, you have to be careful what you wish for.