Monthly Archives: November 2012

It’s Not Always a Narrative

I was reading a commentary on financial issues the other day that was extremely poorly-written. It wasn’t that the author couldn’t write. He had a great ability to evoke emotions. It wasn’t that his topic was bad. He was trying to explain why the economy was doing so poorly.

His problem was that he wanted it all to fit into a narrative.

We humans do that. Whatever problem we’re trying to work through, we want a narrative to explain it to us. Even in our personal lives, we have a deep desire for it “to just all make sense” — meaning that we can connect events in our life in some kind of greater meaning.

The problem is, many times when dealing with thousands or millions of independent agents each making the best decision they can, it doesn’t necessarily fit into any narrative at all. It just is.

I see flaw many times when people describe marketing to kids in college. Marketing is some great evil force out to control their mind. It has desires, needs, goals, and it reacts when things happen.

These are all not just examples of anthropomorphism — treating some random object as if it were a person. These are examples of trying to make some external system fit into some simpler narrative that we can understand and relate to. We try to make stories out of everything.

This is especially bad in business. Nobody wants to know that a random bunch of really smart people, executing adaptively in a certain context, created a unique machine that made a lot of money for a short period of time (usually until conditions changed and the team was unable to adapt) But everybody wants to read a gripping narrative about how Steve Jobs, or Bill Gates, or some other guy was able to beat adversity and champion a killer idea and maintain a vision until he was rewarded.

We love a narrative.

Business doesn’t work like that, though. Yes, you can sell books like that, but that’s not the way business works. In the startup community, we even have a name for these TV shows and books that glorify some hero working through adversity to make it happen — business porn. The idea is that the average reader comes by, takes a look for a few minutes, is suitably and superficially stimulated, then moves on to other things. Nothing of lasting value was exchanged. If anything, in many consumer’s minds, an unrealistic expectation was created of how things work.

One of the neat parts about helping technology teams is watching how really smart people solve problems. We tend to do this in narratives. One of the reasons user stories are so powerful is that they play into this natural tendency.

Narratives can be powerful tools for solving problems. But they also can create their own problems if used incorrectly. We need to be able to leverage our natural proclivity to narratives without being overcome by it.

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Hacking an Election as a Voter

I tried something very interesting this year: I refused to participate in the election.

Not the voting part — I’m a big believer in voting. I simply refused to allow the candidates to directly speak to me. I didn’t watch the debates, I didn’t watch the news, and whenever I heard either of their voices on the radio, I turned it off. I limited my entire contact with the campaigns from reading the reactions of others on the internet.

Boy, was it an interesting experience in human nature.

We have a president who prides himself at being able to explain things at sort of a 20-something collegiate level. He prides himself in caring for the downtrodden. He’s considered a bit aloof. Some referred to him as Mr. Spock. As a result, his followers either tend to feel themselves as victims needing special help or astute managers of the human condition. They tend to either rant at others about not caring or to belittle them for being uninformed.

The other guy had a fairly religious background. Did a lot of charity. A bit of a technocrat. He prided himself in being able to understand and manage complex systems. He prided himself in his ability to both care and make tough choices. As a result, his followers either tend to be people with a religious bent that feel the nation has lost its way or those who feel that the structure of the system itself is poorly understood by the other side. They would rant about the end of western civilization as we know it.

Editorials and OpEd columns were pretty much total garbage. All the same partisan guys saying the same partisan stuff. A few times I clicked on titles that I thought would lead to more balanced coverage, only to get pitched one way or another. I found the best opinion pieces, oddly enough, in the financial sections. The finance guys have to make things work no matter who gets elected, so their main goal is to describe honestly what they feel the economy will be like under each guy. There was still bias, but nothing like with the other opinion guys. (Self-promotional plug: I created a personal site to consume opinion pieces without ads. It’s Newspaper23, the next generation of newspapers. You’re welcome to try it out.)

I found it was very difficult to stay away from direct reporting of the politicians. Of course I don’t consume entertainment/political media. But even with radio news, it seemed like any kind of news story at all (I didn’t watch TV) would lead into an angle about the campaign. Off goes the radio. I think the beat reporters got so caught up in the hysteria over the election that it colored everything they did. Fire in Dallas? How’s that impact the latino vote? It was pervasive.

There was one exception to my rule: I watched “Reliable Sources” on CNN at times. Howard Kurtz has a show about how reporters work, and that kind of thing fascinates me. How do you pick a story? A hook? What are the rules for anonymous sources? And so on.

What I found was that even that show turned into a political slugfest. The last couple were just reporters arguing their own politics whenever a question about journalism was asked. The election simply pervaded all social interactions.

Facebook and other social media was fine, since I was okay with hearing how other people reacted to the campaign. And boy, did they ever. I have around 200 friends and over the last month I was getting dozens of political cartoons and memes a day. Some were funny. Some were snarky. Some were just hateful. Most of my friends tend to associate in cliques, so nobody much argued with them. All their friends just told them how awesome their opinions were. At times somebody or another would post something like “Can we just stop it with the political stuff! I know where you guys stand!”

But then the bickering would start back up again almost immediately. Over time, I came to view this social sharing as a sign of insecurity. Folks were not sure their guy was going to win, they had a lot emotionally invested, and they just wanted some kind of validation. So they’d post whatever made them feel better and what they thought their peer group would praise.

The greatest benefit of doing things this way, by not exposing myself to any direct media messaging (including news) from the candidates, was that I felt more truly free to vote however I like than I have in years. I did not buy into the notion that one party or another was the answer to all of the country’s problems. Instead I could evaluate candidates both on their positions, their personalities, and the impact they had on others that I could observe. Plus I got a great lesson in human nature from my friends on both sides of the aisle. I also did not feel I had to either gloat or lash out after the entire thing was over.

This is the way I want to do elections from here on out.

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