Moving Beyond Willful Ignorance

This is not the post I thought I’d be writing today. Two weeks ago, when I started to try to understand willful ignorance, I was mad. I suspect I shared that feeling with many of you. I was tired of the deliberate denial of fact that had consequences for all of us. I was frustrated with anti-masking, anti-vaxxing, anti-climate change and, most of all, anti-science. I was ready to go to war with those I saw in the other camp.

And that, I found out, is exactly the problem. Let me explain.

First, to recap. As I talked about two weeks ago, willful ignorance is a decision based on beliefs, so it’s very difficult – if not impossible – to argue, cajole or inform people out of it. And, as I wrote last week, willful ignorance has some very real and damaging consequences. This post was supposed to talk about what we do about that problem. I intended to find ways to isolate the impact of willful ignorance and minimize its downside. In doing so, I was going to suggest putting up even more walls to separate “us” from “them.”

But the more I researched this and thought about it, the more I realized that that was exactly the wrong approach. Because this recent plague of willful ignorance is many things, but – most of all – it’s one more example of how we love to separate “us” from “them.” And both sides, including mine, are equally guilty of doing this. The problem we have to solve here is not so much to change the way that some people process information (or don’t) in a way we may not agree with. What we have to fix is a monumental breakdown of trust.

Beliefs thrive in a vacuum. In a vacuum, there’s nothing to challenge them. And we have all been forced into a kind of ideological vacuum for the past year and a half. I talked about how our physical world creates a more heterogeneous ideological landscape than our virtual world does. In a normal life, we are constantly rubbing elbows with those of all leanings. And, if we want to function in that life, we have to find a way to get along with them, even if we don’t like them or agree with them. For most of us, that natural and temporary social bonding is something we haven’t had to do much lately.

It’s this lowering of our ideological defence systems that starts to bridge the gaps between us and them. And it also starts pumping oxygen into our ideological vacuums, prying the lids off our air-tight belief systems. It might not have a huge impact, but this doesn’t require a huge impact. A little trust can go a long way.

After World War II, psychologists and sociologists started to pick apart a fundamental question – how did our world go to war with itself? How, in the name of humanity, did the atrocities of the war occur? One of the areas they started to explore with vigour was this fundamental need of humans to sort ourselves into the categories of “us” and “them”.

In the 1970’s, psychologist Henri Tajfel found that we barely need a nudge to start creating in-groups and out-groups. We’ll do it for anything, even something as trivial as which abstract artist, Klee or Kandisky, we prefer. Once sorted on the flimsiest of premises, these groups started showing a strong preference to favour their own group and punish the other. There was no pre-existing animosity between the groups, but in games such as the Banker’s Game, they showed that they would even forego rewards for themselves if it meant depriving the other group of their share.

If we do this for completely arbitrary reasons such as those used by Tajfel, imagine how nasty we can get when the stakes are much higher, such as our own health or the future of the planet.

So, if we naturally sort ourselves into in groups and out groups and our likelihood to consider perspectives other than our own increases the more we’re exposed to those perspectives in a non-hostile environment, how do we start taking down those walls?

Here’s where it gets interesting.

What we need to break down the walls between “us” and “them” is to find another “them” that we can then unite against.

One of the theories about why the US is so polarized now is that with the end of the Cold War, the US lost a common enemy that united “us” in opposition to “them”. Without the USSR, our naturally tendency to categorize ourselves into ingroups and outgroups had no option but to turn inwards. You might think this is hogwash, but before you throw me into the “them” camp, let me tell you about what happened in Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma.

One of the experiments into this ingroup/outgroup phenomenon was conducted by psychologist Muzafer Sherif in the summer of 1954. He and his associates took 22 boys of similar backgrounds (ie they were all white, Protestant and had two parents) to a summer camp at Robbers Cave and randomly divided them into two groups. First, they built team loyalty and then they gradually introduced a competitive environment between the two groups. Predictably, animosity and prejudice soon developed between them.

Sherif and his assistants then introduced a four-day cooling off period and then tried to reduce conflict by mixing the two groups. It didn’t work. In fact, it just made things worse. Things didn’t improve until the two groups were brought together to overcome a common obstacle when the experimenters purposely sabotaged the camp’s water supply. Suddenly, the two groups came together to overcome a bigger challenge. This, by the way, is exactly the same theory behind the process that NASA and Amazon’s Blue Origin uses to build trust in their flight crews.

As I said, when I started this journey, I was squarely in the “us” vs “them” camp. And – to be honest – I’m still fighting my instinct to stay there. But I don’t think that’s the best way forward. I’m hoping that as our world inches towards a better state of normal, everyday life will start to force the camps together and our evolved instincts for cooperation will start to reassert themselves.

I also believe that the past 19 months (and counting) will be a period that sociologists and psychologists will study for years to come, as it’s been an ongoing experiment in human behavior at a scope that may never happen again.

We can certainly hope so.

Why Is Willful Ignorance More Dangerous Now?

In last week’s post, I talked about how the presence of willful ignorance is becoming something we not only have to accept, but also learn how to deal with. In that post, I intimated that the stakes are higher than ever, because willful ignorance can do real damage to our society and our world.

So, if we’ve lived with willful ignorance for our entire history, why is it now especially dangerous? I suspect it’s not so much that willful ignorance has changed, but rather the environment in which we find it.

The world we live in is more complex because it is more connected. But there are two sides to this connection, one in which we’re more connected, and one where we’re further apart than ever before.

Technology Connects Us…

Our world and our society are made of networks. And when it comes to our society, connection creates networks that are more interdependent, leading to complex behaviors and non-linear effects.

We must also realize that our rate of connection is accelerating. The pace of technology has always been governed by Moore’s Law, the tenet that the speed and capability of our computers will double every two years. For almost 60 years, this law has been surprisingly accurate.

What this has meant for our ability to connect digitally is that the number and impact of our connections has also increased exponentially, and it will continue to increase in our future. This creates a much denser and more interconnected network, but it has also created a network that overcomes the naturally self-regulating effects of distance.

For the first time, we can have strong and influential connections with others on the other side of the globe. And, as we forge more connections through technology, we are starting to rely less on our physical connections.

And Drives Us Further Apart

The wear and tear of a life spent bumping into each other in a physical setting tends to smooth out our rougher ideological edges. In face-to-face settings, most of us are willing to moderate our own personal beliefs in order to conform to the rest of the crowd. Exactly 80 years ago, psychologist Solomon Asch showed how willing we were to ignore the evidence of our own eyes in order to conform to the majority opinion of a crowd.

For the vast majority of our history, physical proximity has forced social conformity upon us. It leavens out our own belief structure in order to keep the peace with those closest to us, fulfilling one of our strongest evolutionary urges.

But, thanks to technology, that’s also changing. We are spending more time physically separated but technically connected. Our social conformity mechanisms are being short-circuited by filter bubbles where everyone seems to share our beliefs. This creates something called an availability bias:  the things we see coming through our social media feeds forms our view of what the world must be like, even though statistically it is not representative of reality.

It gives the willfully ignorant the illusion that everyone agrees with them — or, at least, enough people agree with them that it overcomes the urge to conform to the majority opinion.

Ignorance in a Chaotic World

These two things make our world increasingly fragile and subject to what chaos theorists call the Butterfly Effect, where seemingly small things can make massive differences.

It’s this unique nature of our world, which is connected in ways it never has been before, that creates at least three reasons why willful ignorance is now more dangerous than ever:

One: The impact of ignorance can be quickly amplified through social media, causing a Butterfly Effect cascade. Case in point, the falsehood that the U.S. election results weren’t valid, leading to the Capitol insurrection of Jan. 6.

The mechanics of social media that led to this issue are many, and I have cataloged most of them in previous columns: the nastiness that comes from arm’s-length discourse, a rewiring of our morality, and the impact of filter bubbles on our collective thresholds governing anti-social behaviors.

Secondly, and what is probably a bigger cause for concern, the willfully ignorant are very easily consolidated into a power base for politicians willing to play to their beliefs. The far right — and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the far left — has learned this to devastating impact. All you have to do is abandon your predilection for telling the truth so you can help them rationalize their deliberate denial of facts. Do this and you have tribal support that is almost impossible to shake.

The move of populist politicians to use the willfully ignorant as a launch pad for their own purposes further amplifies the Butterfly Effect, ensuring that the previously unimaginable will continue to be the new state of normal.

Finally, there is the third factor: our expanding impact on the physical world. It’s not just our degree of connection that technology is changing exponentially. It’s also the degree of impact we have on our physical world.

For almost our entire time on earth, the world has made us. We have evolved to survive in our physical environment, where we have been subject to the whims of nature.

But now, increasingly, we humans are shaping the nature of the world we live in. Our footprint has an ever-increasing impact on our environment, and that footprint is also increasing exponentially, thanks to technology.

The earth and our ability to survive on it are — unfortunately — now dependent on our stewardship. And that stewardship is particularly susceptible to the impact of willful ignorance. In the area of climate change alone, willful ignorance could — and has — led to events with massive consequences. A recent study estimates that climate change is directly responsible for 5 million deaths a year.

For all these reasons, willful ignorance is now something that can have life and death consequences.

Making Sense of Willful Ignorance

Willful ignorance is nothing new. Depending on your beliefs, you could say it was willful ignorance that got Adam and Eve kicked out of the Garden of Eden. But the visibility of it is higher than it’s ever been before. In the past couple of years, we have had a convergence of factors that has pushed willful ignorance to the surface — a perfect storm of fact denial.

Some of those effects include the social media effect, the erosion of traditional journalism and a global health crisis that has us all focusing on the same issue at the same time. The net result of all this is that we all have a very personal interest in the degree of ignorance prevalent in our society.

In one very twisted way, this may be a good thing. As I said, the willfully ignorant have always been with us. But we’ve always been able to shrug and move on, muttering “stupid is as stupid does.”

Now, however, the stakes are getting higher. Our world and society are at a point where willful ignorance can inflict some real and substantial damage. We need to take it seriously and we must start thinking about how to limit its impact.

So, for myself, I’m going to spend some time understanding willful ignorance. Feel free to come along for the ride!

It’s important to understand that willful ignorance is not the same as being stupid — or even just being ignorant, despite thousands of social media memes to the contrary.

Ignorance is one thing. It means we don’t know something. And sometimes, that’s not our fault. We don’t know what we don’t know. But willful ignorance is something very different. It is us choosing not to know something.

For example, I know many smart people who have chosen not to get vaccinated. Their reasons may vary. I suspect fear is a common denominator, and there is no shame in that. But rather than seek information to allay their fears, these folks have doubled down on beliefs based on little to no evidence. They have made a choice to ignore the information that is freely available.

And that’s doubly ironic, because the very same technology that enables willful ignorance has made more information available than ever before.

Willful ignorance is defined as “a decision in bad faith to avoid becoming informed about something so as to avoid having to make undesirable decisions that such information might prompt.”

And this is where the problem lies. The explosion of content has meant there is always information available to support any point of view. We also have the breakdown of journalistic principles that occurred in the past 40 years. Combined, we have a dangerous world of information that has been deliberately falsified in order to appeal to a segment of the population that has chosen to be willfully ignorant.

It seems a contradiction: The more information we have, the more that ignorance is a problem. But to understand why, we have to understand how we make sense of the world.

Making Sense of Our World

Sensemaking is a concept that was first introduced by organizational theorist Karl Weick in the 1970s. The concept has been borrowed by those working in the areas of machine learning and artificial intelligence. At the risk of oversimplification, it provides us a model to help us understand how we “give meaning to our collective experiences.”

D.T. Moore and R. Hoffman, 2011

The above diagram (from a 2011 paper by David T. Moore and Robert R. Hoffman) shows the sensemaking process. It starts with a frame — our understanding of what is true about the world. As we get presented with new data, we have to make a choice: Does it fit our frame or doesn’t it?

If it does, we preserve the frame and may elaborate on it, fitting the new data into it. If the data doesn’t support our existing frame, we then have to reframe, building a new frame from scratch.

Our brains loves frames. It’s much less work for the brain to keep a frame than to build a new one. That’s why we tend to stick with our beliefs — another word for a frame — until we’re forced to discard them.

But, as with all human traits, our ways of making sense of our world vary in the population. In the above diagram, some of us are more apt to spend time on the right side of the diagram, more open to reframing and always open to evidence that may cause us to reframe.

That, by the way, is exactly how science is supposed to work. We refer to this capacity as critical thinking: the objective analysis and evaluation of  data in order to form a judgment, even if it causes us to have to build a new frame.

Others hold onto their frames for dear life. They go out of their way to ignore data that may cause them to have to discard the frames they hold. This is what I would define as willful ignorance.

It’s misleading to think of this as just being ignorant. That would simply indicate a lack of available data. It’s also misleading to attribute this to a lack of intelligence.

That would be an inability to process the data. With willful ignorance, we’re not talking about either of those things. We are talking about a conscious and deliberate decision to ignore available data. And I don’t believe you can fix that.

We fall into the trap of thinking we can educate, shame or argue people out of being willfully ignorant. We can’t. This post is not intended for the willfully ignorant. They have already ignored it. This is just the way their brains work. It’s part of who they are. Wishing they weren’t this way is about as pointless as wishing they were a world-class pole vaulter, that they were seven feet tall or that their brown eyes were blue.

We have to accept that this situation is not going to change. And that’s what we have to start thinking about. Given that we have willful ignorance in the world, what can we do to minimize its impact?

Re-engineering the Workplace

What happens when over 60,000 Microsoft employees are forced to work from home because of a pandemic? Funny you should ask. Microsoft just came out with a large scale study that looks at exactly that question. The good news is that employees feel more included and supported by their managers than ever. But there is bad news as well:

“Our results show that firm-wide remote work caused the collaboration network of workers to become more static and siloed, with fewer bridges between disparate parts. Furthermore, there was a decrease in synchronous communication and an increase in asynchronous communication. Together, these effects may make it harder for employees to acquire and share new information across the network.”

To me, none of this is surprising. On a much smaller scale, we experienced exactly this when we experimented with a virtual workplace a decade ago. In fact, this virtually echoes the pros and cons of a virtual workplace that I have talked about in other previous posts, particularly the two (one, two) that dealt with the concept of “burstiness” – those magical moments of collaborative creativity experienced when a room full of people get “on a roll.”

What this study does do, however, is provide empirical evidence to back up my hunches. There is nothing like a global pandemic to allow the recruitment of a massive sample to study the impact of working from home.

In many, many aspects of our society, COVID was a game changer. It forcefully pushed us along the adoption curve, mandating widescale adoption of technologies that we probably would have been much happier to simply dabble in. The virtual workplace was one of these, but there were others.

Yet this example in particular, because of the breadth of its impact, gives us an insightful glimpse into one particular trend: we are increasingly swapping the ability to physically be together for a virtual connection mediated through technology. The first of these is a huge part of our evolved social strategies that are hundreds of thousands of years in the making. The second is barely a couple of decades old. There are bound to be consequences, both intended and unintended.

In today’s post, I want to take another angle to look at the pros and cons of a virtual workplace – by exploring how music has been made over the past several decades.

Supertramp and Studio Serendipity

My brother-in-law is a walking encyclopedia of music trivia. He put me on to this particular tidbit from one of my favorite bands of the 70’s and 80’s – Supertramp.

The band was in the studio working on their Breakfast in America album. In the corner of the studio, someone was playing a handheld video game during a break in the recording: Mattel’s Football. The game had a distinctive double beep on your fourth down. Roger Hodgson heard this and now that same sound can be heard at the 3:24 mark of The Logical Song, just after the lyric “d-d-digital”.

This is just one example of what I would call “Studio Serendipity.” For every band, every album, every song that was recorded collaboratively in the studio, there are examples like this of creativity that just sprang from people being together. It is an example of that “burstiness” I was talking about in my previous posts.

Billie Eilish and the Virtual Studio

But for this serendipity to even happen, you had to get into a recording studio. And the barriers to doing that were significant. You had to get a record deal – or – if you were going independent, save up enough money to rent a studio.

For the other side of the argument, let’s talk about Billie Eilish. Together with her brother Finneas, these two embody virtual production. We first heard about Billie in 2015 when they recorded Ocean Eyes in a bedroom in the family’s tiny LA Bungalow and uploaded it to SoundCloud. Billie was 14 at the time. The song went viral overnight and it did lead to a record deal, but their breakout album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, was recorded in that same bedroom.

Digital technology dismantled the vertical hierarchy of record labels and democratized the industry. If that hadn’t happened, we might never have heard of Billie Eilish.

The Best of Both Worlds

Choosing between virtual and physical workplaces is not a binary choice. In the two examples I gave, creativity was a hybrid that came from both solitary inspiration and collaborative improvisation. The first thrives in a virtual workplace and the second works best when we’re physically together. There are benefits to both models, and these benefits are non-exclusive.

A hybrid model can give you the best of both worlds, but you have to take into account a number of things that might be a stretch for the typical HR policies  – things like evolutionary psychology, cognition and attentional focus, non-verbal communication strategies and something that neuroscientist Antonio Damasio calls “somatic markers.”  According to Damasio, we think as much with our bodies as we do with our brains.

Our performance in anything is tied to our physical surroundings. And when we are looking to replace a physical workplace with a virtual substitute, we have to appreciate the significance this has on us subconsciously.

Re-engineering Communication

Take communication, for example. We may feel that we have more ways than ever to communicate with our colleagues, including an entire toolbox of digital platforms. But none of them account for this simple fact: the majority of our communication is non-verbal. We communicate with our eyes, our hands, our bodies, our expression and the tone of our voice. Trying to squeeze all this through the trickle of bandwidth that technology provides, even when we have video available, is just going to produce frustration. It is no substitute for being in the same room together, sharing the same circumstances. It would be like trying to race in a car with an engine where only one cylinder was working.

This is perhaps the single biggest drawback to the virtual workplace – this lack of “somatic” connection – the shared physical bond that underlies some much of how we function. When you boil it down, it is the essential ingredient for “burstiness.” And I just don’t think we have a technological substitute for it – not at this point, anyway.

But the same person who discovered burstiness does have one rather counterintuitive suggestion. If we can’t be in the same room together, perhaps we have to “dumb down” the technology we use. Anita Williams Wooley suggests the good, old-fashioned phone call might truly be the next best thing to being there.

Adrift in the Metaverse

Humans are nothing if not chasers of bright, shiny objects. Our attention is always focused beyond the here and now. That is especially true when here and now is a bit of a dumpster fire.

The ultrarich know that this is part of the human psyche, and they are doubling down their bets on it. Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are betting on space. But others — including Mark Zuckerberg — are betting on something called the metaverse.

Just this past summer, Zuck told his employees about his master plan for Facebook:

“Our overarching goal across all of (our) initiatives is to help bring the metaverse to life.”

So what exactly is the metaverse? According to Wikipedia, it is

“a collective virtual shared space, created by the convergence of virtually enhanced physical reality and physically persistent virtual space, including the sum of all virtual worlds, augmented reality, and the Internet.”

The metaverse is a world of our own making, which exists in the dimensions of a digital reality. There we imagine we can fix what we screwed up in the maddeningly unpredictable real world. It is the ultimate in bright, shiny objects.

Science fiction and the entertainment industry have been toying with the idea of the metaverse for some time now. The term itself comes from Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel “Snow Crash.” It has been given the Hollywood treatment numerous times, notably in “The Matrix” and “Ready Player One.” But Silicon Valley venture capitalists are rushing to make fiction into fact.

You can’t really blame us for throwing in the towel on the world we have systematically wrecked. There are few glimmers of hope out there in the real world. What we have wrought is painful to contemplate. So we are doing what we’ve always done, reach for what we want rather than fix what we have. Take the Reporters Without Borders Uncensored Library, for example.

There are many places in the real world where journalism is censored, like Russia, the Middle East, Vietnam and China. But in the metaverse, there is the option of leapfrogging over all the political hurdles we stumble over in the real world. So Reporters without Borders and two German creative agencies built a meta library in the meta world of Minecraft. Here, censored articles are made into virtual books, accessible to all who want to check them out.

It’s hard to find fault with this. Censorship is a tool of oppression. Here, a virtual world offered an inviting loophole to circumvent it. The metaverse came to the rescue. What is the problem with that?

The biggest risk is this: We weren’t built for the metaverse. We can probably adapt to it, somewhat, but everything that makes us tick has evolved in a flesh and blood world, and — to quote a line from Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

It’s fair to say that right now the metaverse is a novelty. Most of your neighbors, friends and family have never heard of it. But odds are it will become our life. In a 2019 article called “Welcome to the Mirror World” in Wired, Kevin Kelley explained, “we are building a 1-to-1 map of almost unimaginable scope. When it’s complete, our physical reality will merge with the digital universe.”

In a Forbes article, futurist Cathy Hackl gives us an example of what this merger might look like:

“Imagine walking down the street. Suddenly, you think of a product you need. Immediately next to you, a vending machine appears, filled with the product and variations you were thinking of. You stop, pick an item from the vending machine, it’s shipped to your house, and then continue on your way.”

That sounds benign — even helpful. But if we’ve learned one thing it’s this: When we try to merge technology with human behavior, there are always unintended consequences that arise. And when we’re talking about the metaverse, those consequences will likely be massive.

It is hubristic in the extreme to imagine we can engineer a world that will be a better match for our evolved humanware mechanics than the world we actually evolved within. It’s sheer arrogance to imagine we can build that world, and also arrogant to imagine that we can thrive within it.

We have a bright, shiny bias built into us that will likely lead us to ignore the crumbling edifice of our reality. German futurist Gerd Leonhard, for one, warns us about an impending collision between technology and humanity:

“Technology is not what we seek but how we seek: the tools should not become the purpose. Yet increasingly, technology is leading us to ‘forget ourselves.’”

Imagine a Pandemic without Technology

As the writer of a weekly post that tends to look at the intersection between human behavior and technology, the past 18 months have been interesting – and by interesting, I mean a twisted ride through gut-wrenching change unlike anything I have ever seen before.

I can’t even narrow it down to 18 months. Before that, there was plenty more that was “unprecedented” – to berrypick a word from my post from a few weeks back. I have now been writing for MediaPost in one place or another for 17 years. My very first post was on August 19, 2004. That was 829 posts ago. If you add the additional posts I’ve done for my own blog – outofmygord.com – I’ve just ticked over 1,100 on my odometer.  That’s a lot of soul searching about technology. And the last several months have still been in a class by themselves.

Now, part of this might be where my own head is at. Believe it or not, I do sometimes try to write something positive. But as soon as my fingers hit the keyboard, things seem to spiral downwards. Every path I take seems to take me somewhere dark. There has been precious little that has sparked optimism in my soul.

Today, for example, prior to writing this, I took three passes at writing something else. Each quickly took a swerve towards impending doom. I’m getting very tired of this. I can only imagine how you feel, reading it.

So I finally decided to try a thought experiment. “What if,” I wondered, “we had gone through the past 17 months without the technology we take for granted? What if there was no Internet, no computers, no mobile devices? What if we had lived through the Pandemic with only the technology we had – say – a hundred years ago, during the global pandemic of the Spanish Flu starting in 1918? Perhaps the best way to determine the sum total contribution of technology is to do it by process of elimination.”

The Cons

Let’s get the negatives out of the way. First, you might say that technology enabled the flood of misinformation and conspiracy theorizing that has been so top-of-mind for us. Well, yes – and no.

Distrust in authority is nothing new. It’s always been there, at one end of a bell curve that spans the attitudes of our society. And nothing brings the outliers of society into global focus faster than a crisis that affects all of us.

There was public pushback against the very first vaccine ever invented; the smallpox vaccine. Now granted, the early method was to rub puss from a cowpox blister into a cut in your skin and hope for the best. But it worked. Smallpox is now a thing of the past.

And, if we are talking about pushback against public health measures, that’s nothing new either. Exactly the same thing happened during the 1918-1919 Pandemic. Here’s one eerily familiar excerpt from a journal article looking at the issue, “Public-gathering bans also exposed tensions about what constituted essential vs. unessential activities. Those forced to close their facilities complained about those allowed to stay open. For example, in New Orleans, municipal public health authorities closed churches but not stores, prompting a protest from one of the city’s Roman Catholic priests.”

What is different, thanks to technology, is that public resistance is so much more apparent than it’s ever been before. And that resistance is coming with faces and names we know attached. People are posting opinions on social media that they would probably never say to you in a face-to-face setting, especially if they knew you disagreed with them. Our public and private discourse is now held at arms-length by technology. Gone are all the moderating effects that come with sharing the same physical space.

The Pros

Try as I might, I couldn’t think of another “con” that technology has brought to the past 17 months. The “pro” list, however, is far too long to cover in this post, so I’ll just mention a few that come immediately to mind.

Let’s begin with the counterpoint to the before-mentioned “Con” – the misinformation factor. While misinformation was definitely spread over the past year and a half, so was reliable, factual information. And for those willing to pay attention to it, it enabled us to find out what we needed to in order to practice public health measures at a speed previously unimagined. Without technology, we would have been slower to act and – perhaps – fewer of us would have acted at all. At worst, in this case technology probably nets out to zero.

But technology also enabled the world to keep functioning, even if it was in a different form. Working from home would have been impossible without it. Commercial engines kept chugging along. Business meetings switched to online platforms. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, as of the writing of this, is over 20% higher than it was before the pandemic. In contrast, if you look at stock market performance over the 1918 – 1919 pandemic, the stock market was almost 32% lower at the end of the third wave as it was at the start of the first. Of course, there are other factors to consider, but I suspect we can thank technology for at least some of that.

It’s easy to point to the negatives that technology brings, but if you consider it as a whole, technology is overwhelmingly a blessing.

What was interesting to me in this thought experiment was how apparent it was that technology keeps the cogs of our society functioning more effectively, but if there is a price to be paid, it typically comes at the cost of our social bonds.

Why is Everything Now ‘Unprecedented’?

Just once, I would like to get through one day without hearing the word “unprecedented.” And I wonder, is that just the media trying to get a click, or is the world truly that terrible?

Take the Olympics. In my lifetime, I’ve never seen an Olympics like this one. Empty stands. Athletes having to leave within 48 hours of their last event. Opening and closing ceremonies unlike anything we have ever seen. It’s, well — unprecedented.

The weather is unprecedented. What is happening in politics is unprecedented. The pandemic is unprecedented, at least in our lifetimes. I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’m watching a blockbuster where the world will eventually end — but we just haven’t got to that part of the movie yet. I feel the palpable sensation of teetering on the edge of a precipice. And I’m pretty sure it’s happened before.

Take the lead-ups to the two world wars, for example. If you plot a timeline of the events that led to either July 20, 1914 or Sept. 1, 1939, there is a noticeable acceleration of momentum. At first, the points on the timeline are spread apart, giving the world a chance to once again catch its collective breath. But as we get closer and closer to those dates circled in red, things pick up. There are cascades of events that eventually lead to the crisis point. Are we in the middle of such a cascade?

Part of this might just be network knock-on effects that happen in complex environments. But I also wonder if we just become a little shell- shocked, being nudged into a numb acceptance of things we would have once found intolerable.

Author and geographer Jared Diamond calls this “creeping normality. “ In his book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,” he used the example of the deforestation and environmental degradation that happened on Easter Island — and how, despite the impending doom, the natives still decided to chop down the last tree: “I suspect, though, that the disaster happened not with a bang but with a whimper. After all, there are those hundreds of abandoned statues to consider. The forest the islanders depended on for rollers and rope didn’t simply disappear one day—it vanished slowly, over decades.”

Creeping normality continually and imperceptibly nudges us from the unacceptable to the acceptable and we don’t even notice it’s happening. It’s a cognitive bias that keeps us from seeing reality for what it is. Creeping normality is what happens when our view of the world comes through an Overton Window.

I have mentioned the concept of the Overton Window before.  Overton Window was first introduced by political analyst Joseph Lehman and was named after his colleague, Joseph Overton. It was initially coined to show that the political policies that the public finds acceptable will shift over time. What was once considered unthinkable can eventually become acceptable or even popular, given the shifting sensitivities of the public. As an example, the antics of Donald Trump would once be considered unacceptable in any public venue — but as our reality shifted, we saw them eventually become mainstream from an American president.

I suspect that the media does the same thing with our perception of the world in general. The news media demands the exceptional. We don’t click on “ordinary.” So it consistently shifts our Overton Window of what we pay attention to, moving us toward the outrageous. Things that once would have caused riots are now greeted with a yawn. This is combined with the unrelenting pace of the news cycle. What was outrageous today slips into yesterday, to be replaced with what is outrageous today.

And while I’m talking about outrageous, let’s look at the root of that term. The whole point of something being outrageous is to prompt us into being outraged — or moved enough to take action. And, if our sensitivity to outrage is constantly being numbed, we are no longer moved enough to act.

When we become insensitive to things that are unprecedented, we’re in a bad place. Our trust in information is gone. We seek information that comforts us that the world is not as bad as we think it is. And we ignore the red flags we should be paying attention to.

If you look at the lead-ups to both world wars, you see this same pattern. Things that happened regularly in 1914 or 1939, just before the outbreak of war, would have been unimaginable just a few years earlier. The momentum of mayhem picked up as the world raced to follow a rapidly moving Overton Window. Soon, before we knew it, all hell broke loose and the world was left with only one alternative: going to war.

An Overton Window can just happen, or it can be intentionally planned. Politicians from the fringes, especially the right, have latched on to the Window, taking something intended to be an analysis and turning it into a strategy. They now routinely float “policy balloons” that they know are on the fringe, hoping to trigger a move in our Window to either the right or left. Over time, they can use this strategy to introduce legislation that would once have been vehemently rejected.

The danger in all this is the embedding of complacency. Ultimately, our willingness to take action against threat is all that keeps our society functioning. Whether it’s our health, our politics or our planet, we have to be moved to action before it’s too late.

When the last tree falls on Easter Island, we don’t want to be the ones with the axe in our hands.

A Hybrid Work Approach To Creativity

Last week I introduced the concept of burstiness, meaning the bursts of creativity that can happen when a group is on a roll.

Burstiness requires trust: a connection in the group that creates psychological safety. But I would go one step further. It also requires respect — an intuitive acknowledgement of the value of contribution from everyone in the group. It’s a type of recursive high that builds on itself, as each contribution sparks something else from the group. It’s like the room has caught fire and, as the burstiness continues, everyone tries to add to the flames.

We’ve used jazz as an example of burstiness. But there are other great examples, like theater improv. Research has found that the brain actually changes how it acts when it’s engaged in these activities, according to a Psychology Today article.

A 2008 fMRI study found that that different parts of the brain lit up when musicians improvised rather than just playing scales. The brain shifted into a different gear. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex decreased in activity, and the medial prefrontal cortex increased. This is a fascinating finding, because the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain where we look at ourselves critically and the media prefrontal cortex is linked with language and creativity. A follow-up study was done on improv actors, and the findings were remarkably similar.

This modality of the brain is important to understand. If we can create the conditions that lead to creativity, magic can happen.

Also, this is a team sport. Creativity is almost never exclusively a solo pursuit.

In 1995, Alfonso Montuori and Ronald Purser wrote an essay deconstructing the myth of the lone genius. In it, they showed that creativity almost always relies on social interaction. There is a system of creativity, an ecology that creates the conditions necessary for inspiration.

We love the story of the eccentric solitary genius toiling away in a loft somewhere, but it almost never happens that way. Da Vinci and Michelangelo had “schools” of apprentices that helped turn out their masterpieces. Mozart was a pretty social guy whose creativity fed off interactions with his court patrons and other composers of the era.

But we also have to understand that a little creative magic can go a long way. You don’t have to be 100% creative all the time. In a corporate setting, creativity is a spark. Then there is a lot of non-creative work required to fan it into a flame.

Given this, perhaps the advent of hybrid virtual-traditional workplace models might be a suitable fit for encouraging inspiration, if we use them correctly and not try to force-fit our intentions into the wrong workplace framework.

A virtual work-from-home environment is great for efficiency and getting stuff done. Our boss isn’t hovering over our cubicle asking us if we “have a second” to discuss whatever happens to be on his mind at this particular moment. We’re not wasting hours in tedious, unproductive meetings or on a workplace commute.

On the flip side, if creativity is our goal, there is no substitute for being “in the room where it happens.” A full bandwidth of human interaction is required for the psychological safety we need to take creative risks. These creative summits need to be in person and carefully constructed to provide the conditions needed for creativity. Interdisciplinary and diverse teams who know and trust each other implicitly need to be physically brought together for “improv” sessions. The rules of engagement should be clearly understood.

And unless bosses can participate fully “in kind” (a great example of this is Trevor Noah in the “Daily Show” example I mentioned last week from Adam Grant’s “Worklife” podcast), they should stay the hell out of the room.

Be ruthless about limiting attendance for creative sessions to just those who bring something to the table and have already built a psychological “safe space” with each other through face-to-face connections. Just one wrong person in the room can short-circuit the entire exercise.

This hybrid model doesn’t allow for the serendipity of creativity — that chance interaction in the lunchroom or the offhand comment that is the first domino to fall in an inspirational chain reaction. It also puts a constrained timeline on creativity, forcing it into specific squares on a calendar. But at least it recognizes the unique prerequisites of creativity and addresses them in an honest manner.

One last thought on creativity. Again, we go back to Anita Williams Wooley, the Carnegie Mellon professor who first identified “burstiness.” In a 2018 study with Christopher Riedl, she shows that even with a remote workplace, “bursty” communications can lead to more innovative teams.

“People often think that constant communication is most effective, but actually, we find that bursts of rapid communication, followed by longer periods of silence, are telltale signs of successful teams,” she notes.

This communication template mimics the hybrid model I mentioned before. It compartmentalizes our work activities, adopting communication styles that best suit the different modalities required: the effectiveness of collaboration and innovation, and the efficiency of getting the work done. Wooley suggests using a synchronous form of communication for the “bursts” — perhaps even the old-fashioned phone. And then leave everybody alone for a period of radio silence and let them get their work done.

Seeking “Burstiness” When Working from Home

I was first introduced to the concept of “burstiness” by psychologist Adam Grant in his podcast, “Worklife.” In one episode, he visits the writers’ room at “The Daily Show” and probes the creativity that crackles when those writers were on a roll. A big part of that energy, according to Grant, was because of “burstiness.”

The term was initially coined by Anita Williams Woolley, associate professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University.

Burstiness is, according to Grant,

“like the best moments in improv jazz. Someone plays a note, someone else jumps in with a harmony, and pretty soon, you have a collective sound that no one planned. Most groups never get to that point, but you know burstiness when you see it. At ‘The Daily Show,’ the room just literally sounds like it’s bursting with ideas.”

Last week, we reran a post I wrote at the beginning of the pandemic wondering if we might be forsaking some important elements of team effectiveness in our rush to embrace the virtual workplace. Our brains have evolved to be most effective in creating relationships with others when we’re face-to -ace. There is a rich bandwidth of communication through which we build trust in others that is reliant on physical proximity.

Zoom just doesn’t cut it.

So, would this idea of burstiness be sacrificed in a remote work environment? Let’s dig a little deeper.

Grant outlines the things that need to be in place for burstiness to occur:

  • Spending time with each other
  • Psychological safety
  • A proper balance of structure
  • The right people in the room

Let’s look at these in reverse order.

The right people in the room

First, how do you get the right people in the room – or, in the case of a remote workforce, on the same Zoom call? Here, diversity seems to be the key. You need different perspectives. Creativity comes from diversity, not sameness.

Dr. Woolley offers the example of the Kennedy and Lincoln presidential cabinets. Kennedy’s cabinet was comprised of Ivy League intellectual elites who all came from similar backgrounds and had the same ideological view of the world. Lincoln’s cabinet was fractious, to say the least. After his election, Lincoln reached out to bitter rivals who ran against him for the presidency — including Salmon Chase and William Seward — and gave them senior positions in his cabinet. Lincoln’s cabinet is generally considered by historians as the most effective political team in American history. Kennedy’s cabinet suffered from a debilitating case of “groupthink” that launched the Bay of Pigs invasion and almost ignited another world war.

There is no reason why a virtual workplace cannot embrace diversity. You just have to recruit the right people through bias-resistant practices like blind auditions and using multiple interviewers.

A proper balance of structure

Grant says the right structure provides the rules of engagement for creative bursts. You need some basic guidelines so you can focus on the work and not the mechanics of the process. To use Grant’s example, jazz improv seems unstructured, but there are actually some commonly understood ground rules on which the improvisation is built.

This brings to mind psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of Flow, the condition where creativity just flows naturally. Structure allows Flow to happen by providing the structure the brain needs to focus wholly on the task at hand. There is no reason why the structure can’t apply equally to traditional and virtual work teams.

But the next two conditions get a little trickier for the virtual workplace. Let’s look at them together:

Psychological safety and spending time together

Psychological safety is a term coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson. When it comes to promoting “burstiness,” psychology safety gives us the confidence to contribute without being punished or ridiculed. It allows us to take creative risk. Another word for it would be trust.

And that brings us to second part — spending time together — and the challenge for that in a virtual workplace. Trust is not built overnight, and it is not built over Zoom or Slack.

As I said in my previous post, organizational behavior specialist Mahdi Roghanizad from Ryerson University has found that the connections in our brains that create trust may not even be activated unless we’re face-to-face with someone. We need eye contact to nudge this part of ourselves into life.

So, if creativity is a requirement in the workplace, and connecting face-to-face is required to foster creativity, is a virtual office a non-starter? Not necessarily. In my next post, I’ll look at some ways we might have still be able to have burstiness — even when we’re at home in our pajamas.

Getting Bitch-Slapped by the Invisible Hand

Adam Smith first talked about the invisible hand in 1759. He was looking at the divide between the rich and the poor and said, in essence, that “greed is good.”

Here is the exact wording:

“They (the rich) are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society.”

The effect of “the hand” is most clearly seen in the wide-open market that emerges after established players collapse and make way for new competitors riding a wave of technical breakthroughs. Essentially, it is a cycle.

But something is happening that may never have happened before. For the past 300 years of our history, the one constant has been the trend of consumerism. Economic cycles have rolled through, but all have been in the service of us having more things to buy.

Indeed, Adam Smith’s entire theory depends on greed: 

“The rich … consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ, be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements.”

It’s the trickle-down theory of gluttony: Greed is a tide that raises all boats.

The Theory of The Invisible Hand assumes there are infinite resources available. Waste is necessarily built into the equation. But we have now gotten to the point where consumerism has been driven past the planet’s ability to sustain our greedy grasping for more.

Nobel-Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, for one, recognized that environmental impact is not accounted for with this theory. Also, if the market alone drives things like research, it will inevitably become biased towards benefits for the individual and not the common good.

There needs to be a more communal counterweight to balance the effects of individual greed. Given this, the new age of consumerism might look significantly different.

There is one outcome of market driven-economics that is undeniable: All the power lies in the connection between producers and consumers. Because the world has been built on the predictable truth of our always wanting more, we have been given the ability to disrupt that foundation simply by changing our value equation: buying for the greater good rather than our own self-interest.

I’m skeptical that this is even possible.

It’s a little daunting to think that our future survival relies on our choices as consumers. But this is the world we have made. Consumption is the single greatest driver of our society. Everything else is subservient to it.

Government, science, education, healthcare, media, environmentalism: All the various planks of our societal platform rest on the cross-braces of consumerism. It is the one behavior that rules all the others. 

This becomes important to think about because this shit is getting real — so much faster than we thought possible.

I write this from my home, which is about 100 miles from the village of Lytton, British Columbia. You might have heard it mentioned recently. On June 29, Lytton reported the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada  a scorching 121.3 degrees Fahrenheit (49.6 degrees C for my Canadian readers). That’s higher than the hottest temperature ever recorded in Las Vegas. Lytton is 1,000 miles north of Las Vegas.

As I said, that was how Lytton made the news on June 29. But it also made the news again on June 30. That was when a wildfire burned almost the entire town to the ground.

In one week of an unprecedented heat wave, hundreds of sudden deaths occurred in my province. It’s believed the majority of them were caused by the heat.

We are now at the point where we have to shift the mental algorithms we use when we buy stuff. Our consumer value equation has always been self-centered, based on the calculus of “what’s in it for me?” It was this calculation that made Smith’s Invisible Hand possible.

But we now have to change that behavior and make choices that embrace individual sacrifice. We have to start buying based on “What’s best for us?”

In a recent interview, a climate-change expert said he hoped we would soon see carbon-footprint stickers on consumer products. Given a choice between two pairs of shoes, one that was made with zero environmental impact and one that was made with a total disregard for the planet, he hoped we would choose the former, even if it was more expensive.

I’d like to think that’s true. But I have my doubts. Ethical marketing has been around for some time now, and at best it’s a niche play. According to the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals, the vast majority of egg buyers in Canada — 98% — buy caged eggs even though we’re aware that the practice is hideously cruel.  We do this because those eggs are cheaper.

The sad fact is that consumers really don’t seem to care about anything other than their own self-interest. We don’t make ethical choices unless we’re forced to by government legislation. And then we bitch like hell about our rights as consumers. “We should be given the choice,” we chant.  “We should have the freedom to decide for ourselves.”

Maybe I’m wrong. I sure hope so. I would like to think — despite recent examples to the contrary of people refusing to wear face masks or get vaccinated despite a global pandemic that took millions of lives — that we can listen to the better angels of our nature and make choices that extend our ability to care beyond our circle of one.

But let’s look at our track record on this. From where I’m sitting, 300 years of continually making bad choices have now brought us to the place where we no longer have the right to make those choices. This is what The Invisible Hand has wrought. We can bitch all we want, but that won’t stop more towns like Lytton B.C. from burning to the ground.