The Pillorying of Zuckerberg

Author’s Note: When I started this column I thought I agreed with the views stated. And I still do, mostly. But by the time I finished it, there was doubt niggling at me. It’s hard when you’re an opinion columnist who’s not sure you agree with your own opinion. So here’s what I decided to do. I’m running this column as I wrote it. Then, next week, I’m going to write a second column rebutting some of it.

Let’s face it. We love it when smart asses get theirs. For example: Sir Martin Sorrell. Sorry your lordship but I always thought you were a pontificating and pretentious dickhead and I’m kind of routing for the team digging up dirt on you. Let’s see if you doth protest too much.

Or Jeff Bezos. Okay, granted Trump doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about regarding Amazon. And we apparently love the company. But just how much sympathy do we really have for the world’s richest man? Couldn’t he stand to be taken down a few pegs?

Don’t get me started on Bill Gates.

But the capo di tutti capi of smart-asses is Mark Zuckerberg. As mad as we are about the gushing security leak that has sprung on his watch, aren’t we all a little bit schaudenfreude-ish as we watch the public flailing that is currently playing out? It’s immensely satisfying to point a finger of blame and it’s doubly so to point it at Mr. Zuckerberg.

Which finger you use I’ll leave to your discretion.

But here’s the thing. As satisfying as it is to make Mark our scapegoat, this problem is systemic. It’s not the domain of one man, or even one company. I’m not absolving Facebook and it’s founder from blame. I’m just spreading it around so it’s a little more representatively distributed. And as much as we may hate to admit it, some of that blame ends up on our plate. We enabled the system that made this happen. We made personal data the new currency of exchange. And now we’re pissed off because there were exchanges made without our knowledge. It all comes down to this basic question: Who owns our data?

This is the fundamental question that has to be resolved. Up to now, we’ve been more than happy to surrender our data in return for the online functionality we need to pursue trivial goals. We rush to play Candy Crush and damn the consequences. We have mindlessly put our data in the hands of Facebook without any clear boundaries around what was and wasn’t acceptable for us.

If we look at data as a new market currency, our relationship with Facebook is really no different than that of a bank when we deposit our money in a bank account and allowing the bank to use our money for their own purposes in return for paying us interest. This is how markets work. They are complicated and interlinked and the furthest thing possible from being proportionately equitable.

Personal Data is a big industry. And like any industry, there is a value chain emerging. We are on the bottom of that chain. We supply the raw data. It is no coincidence that terms like “mining,” “scraping” and “stripping” are used when we talk about harvesting data. The digital trails of our behaviors and private thoughts are a raw resource that has become incredibly valuable. And Facebook just happens to be strategically placed in the market to reap the greatest rewards. They add value by aggregating and structuring the data. Advertisers then buy prepackaged blocks of this data to target their messaging. The targeting that Facebook can provide – thanks to the access they have to our data – is superior to what was available before. This is a simple supply and demand equation. Facebook was connecting the supply – coming from our willingness to surrender our personal data – with the demand – advertisers insisting on more intrusive and personal targeting criteria. It was a market opportunity that emerged and Facebook jumped on it. The phrase “don’t hate the player, hate the game” comes to mind.

When new and untested markets emerge, all goes well until it doesn’t. Then all hell breaks loose. Just like it did with Cambridge Analytica. When that happens, our sense of fairness kicks in. We feel duped. We rush to point fingers. We become judgmental, but everything is done in hindsight. This is all reaction. We have to be reactive, because emerging markets are unpredictable. You can’t predict something like Cambridge Analytica. If it wasn’t them – if it wasn’t this – it would have been something else that would have been equally unpredictable. The emerging market of data exchange virtually guaranteed that hell would eventually break loose. As a recent post on Gizmodo points out,

“the kind of data acquisition at the heart of the Cambridge Analytica scandal is more or less standard practice for every other technology company, including places like Google and even Apple. Facebook simply had the misfortune of getting caught after playing fast and loose with who has control over their data.”

To truly move forward from this, we all have to ask ourselves some hard questions. This is not restricted to Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. It’s symptomatic of a much bigger issue. And we, the ground level source of this data, will be doing ourselves a disservice in the long run by trying to isolate the blame to any one individual or company. In a very real sense, this is our problem. We are part of a market dynamic that is untested and – as we’ve seen – powerful enough to subvert democracy. Some very big changes are required in the way we treat our own data. We owe it to ourselves to be part of that process.

The Rain in Spain

Olá! Greetings from the soggy Iberian Peninsula. I’ve been in Spain and Portugal for the last three weeks, which has included – count them – 21 days of rain and gale force winds. Weather aside, it’s been amazing. I have spent very little of that time thinking about online media. But, for what they’re worth, here are some random observations from the last three weeks:

The Importance of Familiarity

While here, I’ve been reading Derek Thompson’s book Hitmakers. One of the critical components of a hit is a foundation of familiarity. Once this is in place, a hit provides just enough novelty to tantalize us. It’s why Hollywood studios seem stuck on the superhero sequel cycle.

This was driven home to me as I travelled. I’m a do-it-yourself traveller. I avoid packaged vacations whenever and wherever possible. But there is a price to be paid for this. Every time we buy groceries, take a drive, catch a train, fill up with gas or drive through a tollbooth (especially in Portugal) there is a never-ending series of puzzles to be solved. The fact that I know no Portuguese and very little Spanish makes this even more challenging. I’m always up for a good challenge, but I have to tell you, at the end of three weeks, I’m mentally exhausted. I’ve had more than enough novelty and I’m craving some more familiarity.

This has made me rethink the entire concept of familiarity. Our grooves make us comfortable. They’re the foundations that make us secure enough to explore. It’s no coincidence that the words “family” and “familiar” come from the same etymological root.

The Opposite of Agile Development

seville-catheral-altarWhile in Seville, we visited the cathedral there. The main altarpiece, which is the largest and one of the finest in the world, was the life’s work of one man, Pierre Dancart. He worked on it for 44 years of his life and never saw the finished product. In total, it took over 80 years to complete.

Think about that for a moment. This man worked on this one piece of art for his entire life. There was no morning where he woke up and wondered, “Hmm, what am I going to do today?” This was it, from the time he was barely more than a teenager until he was an old man. And he still never got to see the completed work. That span of time is amazing to me. If built and finished today, it would have been started in 1936.

The Ubiquitous Screen

I love my smartphone. It has saved my ass more than once on this trip. But I was saddened to see that our preoccupation with being connected has spread into every nook and cranny of European culture. Last night, we went for dinner at a lovely little tapas bar in Lisbon. It was achingly romantic. There was a young German couple next to us who may or may not have been in love. It was difficult to tell, because they spent most of the evening staring at their phones rather than at each other.

I have realized that the word “screen” has many meanings, one of which is a “barrier meant to hide things or divide us.”

El Gordo

Finally, after giving my name in a few places and getting mysterious grins in return, I have realized that “gordo” means “fat” in Spanish and Portuguese.

Make of that what you will.

Why Do Cities Work?

It always amazes me how cities just seem to work. Take New York – for example. How the hell does everything a city of nine million needs to continue to exist happen? Cities are perhaps the best example I can think of how complex adaptive systems can work in the real world. They may be the answer to our future as the world becomes a more complex and connected place.

It’s not due to any centralized sense of communal collaboration. If anything, cities make us more individualistic. Small towns are much more collaborative. I feel more anonymous and autonomous in a big city than I ever do in a small town. It’s something else, more akin to Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand – but different. Millions of individual agents can all do their own thing based on their own requirements, but it works out okay for all involved.

Actually, according to Harvard economist Ed Glaeser, cities are more than just okay. He calls them mankind’s greatest invention. “So much of what humankind has achieved over the past three millennia has come out of the remarkable collaborative creations that come out of cities. We are a social species. We come out of the womb with the ability to sop up information from people around us. It’s almost our defining characteristic as creatures. And cities play to that strength. Cities enable us to learn from other people.”

Somehow, cities manage to harness the collective potential of their population without dipping into chaos. This is all the more amazing when you consider that cities aren’t natural for humans – at least – not in evolutionary terms. If you considered just that, we should all live in clusters of 150 people – otherwise known as Dunbar’s number. That’s the brain’s cognitive limit for keeping track of our own immediate social networks. It we’re looking for a magic number in terms of maximizing human cooperation and collaboration that would be it. But somehow cities allow us to far surpass that number and still deliver exponential returns.

Most of our natural defense mechanisms are based on familiarity. Trust, in it’s most basic sense, is Pavlovian. We trust strangers who happen to resemble people we know and trust. We are wary of strangers that remind us of people who have taken advantage of us. We are primed to trust or distrust in a few milliseconds, far under the time threshold of rational thought. Humans evolved to live in communities where we keep seeing the same faces over and over – yet cities are the antithesis of this.

Cities work because it’s in everyone’s best interest to make cities work. In a city, people may not trust each other, but they do trust the system. And it’s that system – or rather – thousands of complementary systems, that makes cities work. We contribute to these systems because we have a stake in them. The majority of us avoid the Tragedy of the Commons because we understand that if we screw the system, the system becomes unsustainable and we all lose. There is an “invisible network of trust” that makes cities work.

The psychology of this trust is interesting. As I mentioned before, in evolutionary terms, the mechanisms that trigger trust are fairly rudimentary: Familiarity = Trust. But system trust is a different beast. It relies on social norms and morals – on our inherent need to conform to the will of the herd. In this case, there is at least one degree of separation between trust and the instincts that govern our behaviors. Think of it as a type of “meta-trust.” We are morally obligated to contribute to the system as long as we believe the system will increase our own personal well-being.

This moral obligation requires feedback. There needs to be some type of loop that shows our that our moral behaviors are paying off for us. As long as that loop is working, it creates a virtuous cycle. Moral behaviors need to lead to easily recognized rewards, both individually and collectively. As long as we have this loop, we will continue to be governed by social norms that maintain the systems of a city.

When we look to cities to provide us clues on how to maintain stability in a more connected world, we need to understand this concept of feedback. Cities provide feedback through physical proximity. When cities start to break down, the results become obvious to all who live there. But when it’s digital bonds rather than physical ones that link our networks, feedback becomes trickier. We need to ponder other ways of connecting cause, effect and consequences. As we move from physical communities to ideological ones, we have to overcome the numbing effects of distance.

 

Sorry, I Don’t Speak Complexity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Fat Heads and Long Tails: Living in a Viral World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expect more fire. Expect more fury.

Watching TV Through The Overton Window

Tell me, does anyone else have a problem with this recent statement by HBO CEO Richard Plepler: “I am trying to build addicts — and I want people addicted to something every week”?

I read this in a MediaPost column about a month ago. At the time, I filed it away as something vaguely troubling. I just checked and found no one else had commented on it. Nothing. We all collectively yawned as we checked out the next series to binge watch. That’s just what we do now.

When did enabling addiction become a goal worth shooting for? What made the head of a major entertainment corporation think it was OK to use a term that is defined as “persistent, compulsive use of a substance known to the user to be harmful” to describe a strategic aspiration? And, most troubling of all, when did we all collectively decide that that was OK?

Am I overreacting? Is bulk consuming an entire season’s worth of “Game of Thrones” or “Big Little Lies” over a 48-hour period harmless?

Speaking personally, when I emerge from my big-screen basement cave after watching more than two episodes of anything in a row, I feel like crap. And there’s growing evidence that I’m not alone. I truly believe this is not a healthy direction for us.

But my point here is not to debate the pros and cons of binge watching. My point is that Plepler’s statement didn’t cause any type of adverse reaction. We just accepted it. And that may because of something called the Overton Window.

The Overton Window was named after Joseph Overton, who developed the concept at a libertarian think tank  — the Mackinac Center for Public Policy — in the mid-1990s.

Typically, the term is used to talk about the range of policies acceptable to the public in the world of politics. In the middle of the window lies current policy. Moving out from the center in both directions (right and left) are the degrees of diminishing acceptability. In order, these are: Popular, Sensible, Acceptable, Radical and Unthinkable.

Overton_Window_diagram.svgThe window can move, with ideas that were once unthinkable eventually becoming acceptable or even popular due to the shifting threshold of public acceptance. The concept, which has roots going back over 150 years, has again bubbled to the top of our consciousness thanks to Trumpian politics, which make “extreme things look normal,” according to a post on Vox.

Political strategists have embraced and leveraged the concept to try to bring their own agendas within the ever-moving window. Because here’s the interesting thing about the Overton Window: If you want to move it substantially, the fastest way to do it is to float something outrageous to the public and ask them to consider it. Once you’ve set a frame of consideration towards the outliers, it tends to move the window substantially in that direction, bringing everything less extreme suddenly within the bounds of the window.

This has turned The Overton Window into a political strategic tug of war, with the right and left battling to shift the window by increasingly moving to the extremes.

What’s most intriguing about the Overton Window is how it reinforces the idea that much of our social sensibility is relative rather than absolute. Our worldview is shaped not only by what we believe, but what we believe others will find acceptable. Our perspective is constantly being framed relative to societal norms.

Perhaps — just perhaps — the CEO of HBO can now use the word “addict” when talking about entertainment because our perspective has been shifted toward an outlying idea that compulsive consumption is OK, or even desirable.

But I have to call bullshit on that. I don’t believe it’s OK. It’s not something we as an industry — whether that industry is marketing or entertainment — should be endorsing. It’s not ennobling us; it’s enabling us.

There’s a reason why the word “addict” has a negative connotation. If our “window” of acceptability has shifted to the point where we just blithely accept these types of statements and move on, perhaps it’s time to shift the window in the opposite direction.

Why Reality is in Deep Trouble

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

You Can’t Believe Your Eyes

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

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

You Can Now Put Words in Anyone’s Mouth

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

But It’s Not just Hollywood That Can Warp Reality

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

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

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

Why We Usually Believe Our Eyes

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

Reality, Inc.

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

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

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

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

2018 could be an interesting year…