Ummm – America – Did You Forget Something?

Hey Americans – the 2nd most important country in the world for you guys (because – you know – of that whole America First thing) just had a milestone birthday. I hope you remembered to send a card.

Nope..It’s not Russia. Not China. Not the UK.

It’s us – up here – Canada.

Why are we the 2nd most important country in the world for Americans? Well, between us we have the biggest trade relationship in the world – pushing a trillion dollars a year. We’re your single biggest trading partner – by a big, big margin. You rely on us for oil – we export 3 times more oil to you than the number 2 source – Saudi Arabia. In fact, you rely on us for a huge variety of natural resources.

We also happen to share a 5500 mile long border (the longest international border in the world). And it’s a pretty easy border to get across. In fact, much of what you think is American is actually Canadian. Ben Cartright, Captain Kirk, Perry Mason, Captain Von Trapp – all Canadians. Deadpool, the Green Hornet, that jazz pianist in La La Land, the Rock (the actor, not the province) – yep, Canadian (or at least, half Canadian in Dwayne’s case). Saturday Night Live, Superman, radio, telephones, the light bulb, basketball, the California roll, Hawaiian Pizza, you wouldn’t have any of these things if it wasn’t for a Canadian. Hell, even America’s sweetheart was Canadian. We tend to keep track of such things.

So would it kill you to sing a refrain of happy birthday? Especially since we just turned 150.

We can understand if you didn’t hear about it. A quick search on Mediapost (the online blog I write for) turned up just one article talking about our bonne fête – and that was saying how we were going to introduce you to poutine on a maple glazed donut. On behalf of Canada, I apologize for that.

It’s probably our fault. In fact, I’m sure it is. We just don’t demand your attention that much. You probably didn’t even know that July 1 was our birthday. It’s our nature – we like giving and don’t ask for much in return. Then we passive-aggressively make fun of you behind your backs. It’s Canada’s national pastime (and you thought it was hockey). Besides, we know you’ve been pre-occupied with other things – you know – like your own birthday party and the guy you put in the White House..for instance.

But, if you get a chance, drop a card in the mail. It would be a nice thing to do.

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.

Drowning in a Sea of Tech

The world is becoming a pretty technical place. The Internet of Things is surrounding us. Which sounds exciting. Until the Internet of Things doesn’t work.

Then what?

I know all these tech companies have scores of really smart people who work to make their own individual tech as trouble free as possible. Although the term has lost its contextual meaning, we’re all still aiming for “plug and play”. For people of a certain age – me, for example – this used to refer to a physical context; being able to plug stuff into a computer and have it simply started working. Now, we plug technology into our lives and hopes it plays well with all the other technology that it finds there.

But that isn’t always the case – is it? Sometimes, as Mediapost IoT Daily editor Chuck Martin recently related, technology refuses to play nice together. And because we now have so much technology interacting in so many hidden ways, it becomes very difficult to root out the culprit when something goes wrong.

Let me give you an example. My wife has been complaining for some time that her iPhone has been unable to take a picture because it has no storage available, even though it’s supposed to magically transport stuff off to the “Cloud”. This past weekend, I finally dug in to see what the problem was. The problem, as it turned out, was that the phone was bloated with thousands of emails and Messenger chats that were hidden and couldn’t be deleted. They were sucking up all the available storage. After more than an hour of investigation, I managed to clear up the Messenger cache but the email problem – which I’ve traced back to some issues with configuration of the account at her email provider – is still “in progress.”

We – and by “we” I include me and all you readers – are a fairly tech savvy group. With enough time and enough Google searches, we can probably hunt down and eliminate most bugs that might pop up. But that’s us. There are many more people who are like my wife. She doesn’t care about incorrectly configured email accounts or hidden caches. She just wants shit to work. She wants to be able to take a picture of my nephew on his 6th birthday. And when she can’t do that, the quality of my life takes a sudden downturn.

The more that tech becomes interconnected, the more likely it is that stuff can stop working for some arcane reason that only a network or software engineer can figure out. It’s getting to the point where all of us are going to need a full-time IT tech just to keep our households running. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t know where they’re going to sleep. Our guest room is full of broken down computers and printers right now.

For most of us, there is a triage sequence of responses to tech-related pains in the ass:

  1. First, we ignore the problem, hoping it will go away.
  2. Second, we reboot every piece of tech related to the problem, hoping it will go away.
  3. If neither of the above work, we marginalize the problem, working around it and hoping that eventually it will go away.
  4. If none of this works, we try to upgrade our way out of the problem, buying newer tech hoping that by tossing our old tech baby out the window, the problem will be flushed out along with the bath water.
  5. Finally, in rare cases (with the right people) – we actually dig into the problem, trying to resolve it

By the way, it hasn’t escaped my notice that there’s a pretty significant profit motive in point number 4 above. A conspiracy, perchance? Apple, Microsoft and Google wouldn’t do that to us, would they?

I’m all for the Internet of Things. I’m ready for self-driving cars, smart houses and bio-tech enhanced humans. But my “when you get a chance could you check…” list is getting unmanageably long. I’d be more than happy to live the rest of my life without having to “go into settings” or “check my preferences.”

Just last night I dreamt that I was trying to swim to a deserted tropical island but I kept drowning in a sea of Apple Watches. I called for help but the only person that could hear me was Siri. And she just kept saying, “I’m really sorry about this but I cannot take any requests right now. Please try again later…”

Do you think it means anything?

 

The Winona Ryder Effect

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.

The Vanishing Value of the Truth

You know, the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. They don’t alter their views to fit the facts. They alter the facts to fit the views.

Dr. Who, 1977

We might be in a period of ethical crisis. Or not. It’s tough to say. It really depends on what you believe. And that, in a nutshell, is the whole problem.

Take this past weekend for example. Brand new White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, in his very first address, lied about the size of the inauguration crowd. Afterwards, a very cantankerous Kellyanne Conway defended the lying when confronted by Chuck Todd on Meet the Press. She said they weren’t lies…they were “Alternate Facts”.

http://www.nbcnews.com/widget/video-embed/860142147643

So, what exactly is an alternate fact? It’s something that is not a fact at all, but a narrative intended to be believed by a segment of the population, presumably to gain something from them.

To use a popular turn of phrase, it’s “Faking It til You Make It!”

And there you have the mantra of our society. We’re rewarding alternate facts on the theory that the end justifies the means. If we throw a blizzard of alternate facts out there that resonate with our audience’s beliefs, we’ll get what we want.

The Fake It Til You Make It syndrome is popping up everywhere. It’s always been a part of marketing and advertising. Arguably, the entire industry is based on alternate facts. But it’s also showing up in the development of new products and services, especially in the digital domain. While Eric Ries never espoused dishonesty in his book, The Lean Start Up, the idea of a Minimal Viable Product certainly lends itself to the principle of “faking it until you make it.” Agile development, in its purest sense, is about user feedback and rapid iteration, but humans being humans, it’s tough to resist the temptation to oversell each iteration, treading dangerously close to pitching “vaporware.” Then we hope like hell that the next development cycle will bridge some of the gap between reality and the alternate facts we sold the prospective customer.

I think we have to accept that our world may not place much value on the truth any more. It’s a slide that started about 100 years ago.

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People author Stephen Covey reviewed the history of success literature in the US from the 1700’s forward. In the first 150 years of America’s history, all the success literature was about building character. Character was defined by words like integrity, kindness, virtue and honor. The most important thing was to be a good person.

Honesty was a fundamental underpinning of the Character Ethic. This coincided with the Enlightenment in Europe. Intellectually, this movement elevated truth above belief. Our modern concept of science gained its legs: “a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths.” The concepts of honor and honesty were intertwined

But Covey noticed that things changed after the First World War. Success literature became preoccupied with the concept of personality. It was important to be likeable, extroverted, and influential. The most important thing was to be successful. Somehow, being truthful got lost in the noise generated by the rush to get rich.

Here’s the interesting thing about personality and character. Psychologists have found that your personality is resistant to change. Personality tends to work below the conscious surface and scripts play out without a lot of mindful intervention. You can read all the self-help books in the world and you probably won’t change your personality very much. But character can be worked on. Building character is an exercise in mindfulness. You have to make a conscious choice to be honest.

The other interesting thing about personality and character is how other people see you. We are wired to pick up on other people’s personalities almost instantly. We start picking up the subconscious cues immediately after meeting someone. But it takes a long time to determine a person’s character. You have to go through character-testing experiences before you can know if they’re really a good person. Character cuts to the core, where as personality is skin deep. But in this world of “labelability” (where we think we know people better than we actually do) we often substitute personality cues for character. If a person is outgoing, confident and fun, we believe them to be trustworthy, moral and honest.

This all adds up to some worrying consequences. If we have built a society where success is worth more than integrity, then our navigational bearings become dependent on context. Behavior becomes contingent on circumstances. Things that should be absolute become relative. Truth becomes what you believe is the most expedient and useful in a given situation.

Welcome to the world of alternate facts.

Watson:2020 – America’s Self-Driving Presidency

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/

The Calcification of a Columnist

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.

800px-diffusion_of_ideas

Everett Rogers, 1962

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.

stevenpinker2Technology, 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.