My whole life I’ve been a tech optimist. I’ve always believed that, over time, culture and society improve when the tools for learning, understanding, doing and making, improve.
I’m not an optimist about synthetic, AI driven “content”. I’m very worried about the long-term cultural and societal impact of a never-ending stream of stuff to put into our eyes, ears, and bodies. When visuals, words, sounds and, soon, code and digital tools are being generated by algorithms, our attention will be frayed even more. We humans won’t be able to make meaning out the world because the inputs won’t be real.
This project is a harbinger of what’s to come. It’s a toy of sorts, a provocative example of the synthetic content stream we’re going to be swimming in over the next 10 years. It sounds sort of real. The words almost makes sense, but the “uncanny valley” effect might trigger careful listeners to understand this is fake.
For those of us who have lived through this first era of digital (i.e. from the late 90’s to now), what’s our responsibility to try to warn the rest of the culture about what’s coming at us? It’s going to seem fun at first, but then it’s going to be hell . Is it too late?
All day, everyday, I swim in “digital” alongside the coders, designers, and makers that create the internet. When we do our best work, we’re inventing and innovating. You’d think I look to the scientists and coders to help me crack hard cases at work, but time after time, I find the best ideas come from non-engineers in the room. When in doubt, I turn to the history majors and English lit nerds to guide me. They have super powers.
The press writes stories about the lack of workers with engineering, math and science skills. Those of us running businesses that depend on digital know there is a legitimate need for all those STEM graduates. But, I am concerned about the decline in the number of Liberal Arts degrees being granted in the US. We need their skills as much as we need people that can design algorithms. America needs more poets!
Liberal Arts degrees – English/literature, history, philosophy, etc. – create the thinkers and leaders we need to keep innovation happening. Beyond the domain knowledge that these degrees cultivate, they all build skills needed to create and shape innovative solutions. The insights that lead to new ideas come from the habits built doing liberal arts work: Pattern matching, understanding and defining the contexts, making associations across domains.
And, just as importantly, Liberal Arts work – reading, writing, creating, analyzing – gives us practice in the skills required to get new to ideas built. Creating new things and making them useful requires working with and translating abstract concepts clearly enough that others want to invest, literally and figuratively (e.g try explaining what a “platform business model” is to someone that’s never heard that term before). Before the coders and engineers make the ideas real, the liberal arts folks make them understandable and applicable.
I recently went to the retirement party for a business leader I’ve worked with over the years. She’s had tremendous success, building and selling technology companies worth millions, creating strong organizations where his employees flourished. An undergraduate degree in history pointed her in the direction of her first dream in life: A high school history teacher. But, tech, business and the startup life got in her way.
I believe her success was partly due to her understanding of how history works. She saw patterns unfolding in the culture and in her industry, patterns she recognized from her study of culture and history, and knew there were openings for for innovators. She was able to communicate beautifully, probably due to her training as a teacher: Clearly, simply, and to everyone. She used anecdotes and stories from American History to make current business decisions relatable. She could explain the hard concepts in language anyone could understand, getting consensus and buy in for her recommendations. I doubt those skills would have been developed as well if she studied math and engineering.
I’m a tech optimist. I know how important math, science and engineering are for the continued growth of our culture. I am inspired by the the entrepreneurs who have built the culture-shaping, world-changing tools and platforms that we all use everyday. But, I also know those companies weren’t winners because of their tech. They won because the inventors and founders had folks around them – on their leadership teams, in the investor groups – that could translate the tech breakthroughs to everyone else. The non-techs – the language majors, the history wonks, the poet/writers on the leadership team – were just as important to the success.
Are you struggling at work to get traction on your idea? Are you feeling a little aimless in your work and want a boost of creativity? Try writing some poetry, go read a little history. Crack open that primer on philosophy. See what happens when you come at those problems in a new way and find your own super powers.
Do you feel that heavy weight? Maybe you sense a fatigue that’s different, not in your muscles and bones, but in your brain and heart. Do you say “meh?” more than you should? Maybe we’re all burned out.
I talk to people in digital every day. These are people that are doing the stuff at work that’s supposed to be fun: making new products, leading product teams in large enterprises, running marketing departments. It’s creative work, at its core, and that work is supposed to be energizing, right? But more and more, the folks I talk to are having a hard time reconnecting to the motivation they used to have.
A couple recent articles might shed some light on what’s happening. Trish Warren at the New York Times normally writes about faith, religion and culture, but in a recent essay she took on burnout and she touched on some potential root causes. Look beyond the christian themes woven through the essay, but pay attention to the gist of the conversation she has with Curt Thompson. A couple key ideas:
We’re getting atomized – At work, at home, out in the world we’re moving away from each other. It’s easier than ever to isolate ourselves (via our phones, headphones, computers) on purpose, but the pandemic made it even worse.
American Individualism – America’s weird preoccupation with individual identity (note: My thesis was on “Song of Myself”) is running through us all right now, making it harder than ever to find commonality, making it harder to be part of something bigger than ourselves
Loneliness – No one wants to talk about this, but there’s a real crisis of loneliness happening in America right now. The irony in our tech saturated world is obvious (haha “we’ve never been more connected! haha), but it’s real. We’ve all been working in our basements too long.
In order to feel momentum in our lives, we need to move things forward. We need to make, we need to create and we need to help others. But, it’s harder than ever right now and the work of trying has burned a lot of us out. It’s not just you.
How good can work be, when most of the people in your group or on your team are feeling the same way you are, when everyone is sort of fatigued. When everyone is “over” the idea of work in general?
The Opposite of Quiet Quitting
Its easy for me to sound like an old-timer, talking about the good old days. But, I found myself nodding along as I read the first half of Brie Wolfson’s piece on her early days at Stripe. She wrote nostalgically about the high commitment, highly intention, quality-focused culture that everyone was working to build at Stripe. “Big Mood”, she calls it. “… and we were all in. On all of it.” Its the exact opposite of “quiet quitting”, and for a lot of workers, it built a sense of belonging, purpose and focus. I think a lot of people are missing that right now.
She goes on to lament what seems to be a passed era, a time when everyone she knew felt fully committed to their work. And, while acknowledging the many, many negative aspects of a demanding, go-go, “hustle bro” culture, she’s eloquent about missing that shared commitment, that shared sense of purpose, the faith that the team was building something that would make a difference in the world.
I hate the effect, but I like the term she introduces: “lgtm culture.” Looks Good To Me is a mode where “good enough” is what you’re aiming for, a mode where your colleagues aren’t holding you to a higher standard and are ok with letting things go out the door that are “fine”. It’s hard to do your best work, to feel the sense of satisfaction when your team puts out “fine” work, but your ambitions point higher. But, conversely, it’s hard to feel isolated and alone when your whole team is expecting you to help them deliver something truly great.
I’m not sure what business leaders can do to address this stuff. But, as team mates, as co-workers we can do two things.
1) Make an effort to connect and draw people out of their isolation. Maybe it’s just a quick convo after the zoom, maybe it’s coffee. But, make a point to find some shared interests.
2) Help each other lift the work. Make supportive, actionable, constructive feedback. Help your team aim a little higher, so they can build something they’re proud of.
I’ve been an advocate of technology, the internet and social media throughout my career. I’ve been a tech optimist my whole life and I’ve spent pretty much the entirety of my career helping organizations do more with digital tech to invent or grow their businesses. I’ve seen it as creative work, a mostly positive project. It’s been fascinating, grueling, thrilling and rewarding on a number of levels.
But what if the work I’ve been doing has, in a teeny tiny way, been part of the rewiring of America’s brain? What has been my little role in driving America nuts?
Fisher argues social media is at the core of the divide in the US. It’s eroding our brains and attention, creating (indirectly and directly) polarization and undermines the sense of community (in the IRL sense) we need to keep functioning. I don’t really want to read this book, but I think I have to. And, I have to take it seriously enough that it might force a rethink of the work I do for the rest of my career.
I can’t help but think about how I’ve been a small part of this. In my role as an agency leader, on the client side, as an investor. More importantly, now that I’ve got a deeper understanding, what can I do? And, can I keep doing my current work?
If you spend a lot of time online, (or at least paying attention to the news) you’re probably feeling overwhelmed. On one hand, the news is terrible: Ecological nightmares happening in slow motion, wars across the globe, economy in turmoil, inflation, infowars, 30% of the population in the US duped into thinking the election was stolen, your neighbors fighting over science and vaccines, etc. On the other hand, your Instagram feed is a steady stream of gauzy filters, happy overload, best lives, extreme positivity, hope, hustle, ambition.
Yet, we’re stuck in the middle trying to get through the day, and figure out post-pandemic norms. We’re languishing.
American culture seems to be driven by extrinsic validation. We like nice cars (because they signal success), expensive clothes (because they signal taste, style), big job titles, the right zip code, the vacations, the right causes, etc. We love likes, so we perform online to get the validation.
But, when the world is going nuts, when chaos seems right around the corner, when your planned path isn’t an option anymore, how do we stay balanced, centered, tethered, steady?
I’m struggling with this right now. I don’t have good answers, but i’m compulsively clicking on the links in twitter hoping to find an article to help me. I’m getting distracted by alerts from the folks barking for my attention. This guru wants me to take a class. That other one wants me to go to their seminar. No app will ever really help me get clear, despite what the ads say.
There are days when I feel like a Kurtz, who went up the river, leaving with optimism, now stuck in the wild, overwhelmed at what the Internet has done to us all. The horror. What has replaced all that hope?
So, I’m working at staying upright. A little yoga, a little meditation. More exercise, better sleep. You know its bad when i’m taking advice from Radiohead:
Fitter happier More productive Comfortable Not drinking too much
I’m one of those guys that always put their head down and tried hard to do the work. I was never the smartest, I have been lazy, but i thought i could endure more work than others.
I want to be centered, I want to be still. But, my reptile brain is winning and I’m pretty sure my dopamine receptors are burned out.
I think the answer is pretty obvious, but hard for me to see sometimes: Stick together. Find your people, listen carefully, be of service, offer support, ideas and generosity. Be useful. Seek ways to help move something forward. Find ways to connect, even over zoom.
I was listening to the Ezra Klein podcast and the guest was talking about the way profound loneliness – feeling apart, being isolated emotionally, not necessarily just being physically apart – drives people crazy and makes them susceptible to crazy ideas (like QAnon, the Big Lie, conspiracy theories about vaccines, etc). This recalls the book Vivek Murthy wrote a couple years ago, where he made the argument there’s an epidemic of loneliness. Of course we’re all lonely. It’s part of what’s making us nuts.
So, let’s try to stick together. Let’s help each other get out of this bog of ennui and listlessness. Let’s help each other find a sense of balance in a destabilizing world. Let’s hang onto each other when everything seems up in the air.
This take from Benedict Evans on the challenges of Section 230 and regulating social media is, as typical, really thoughtful. The key takeaway is that a fight over Section 230 is sort of aiming low, at this point. Trying to make regulations around social media based on old forms (newspapers, radio, TV, phone companies) works if you assume those old forms and the new things work the same way-ish. And, clearly they dont. The size, the scale the speed, the targeting, the volume of makers and consumers – all those are different than radio or TV or magazines or pamphlets or telegraphs or phones or whatever. We need some new, imaginative thinking to address a future media/comms tools. Keep 230, but get some new laws in place to regulate.
Meanwhile, here’s a useful take from Joan Donovan at Harvard Business Review on the fundamental difference between current social media platforms and the media of the past. Key point: A system that incentivizes and rewards items (content, features, mechanics) that produce high engagement at scale, with no limits on the bad actors in the system, will inevitably produce disinformation.
Deep in her essay, she gets to the heart of the issue, something that’s not being discussed at all (emphasis mine):
In every instance leading up to January 6, the moral duty was to reduce the scale and pay more attention to the quality of viral content. We saw the cost of failing to do so.
So, do corporations have a moral duty to do anything? Is there a moral and ethical dimension to the working models of companies? Do we hold them to a different standard?
I don’t think the Republicans have completely thought through their attempts at a Supreme Court case to address perceived election system wrongs. If it were to have gone to the court, there’s a whole lot of stuff in that pandora’s box, a whole bunch of unintended consequences. Andrew McCarthy at the the National Review provides a reasonable take:
“What this argument implies, whether the states making it realize it or not, is that even if Missouri wants to apply its own, stricter voter-identification standards, California should be allowed to file a complaint against Missouri in the Supreme Court. After all, the uber-progressive Golden State’s experts will say a strict-identification requirement disproportionately discourages qualified minority voters, which depresses Democratic Party turnout, effectively inflating the value of Republican votes to the detriment of Californians, who voted overwhelmingly for the Democratic candidate.
Staying Optimistic At Work When Everything is Hard
We’re now seven months into the slog of this pandemic. Those of us who can work — and can work from home — are probably feeling fortunate that, despite the hassle of zoom and video calls, we’re able to keep the train mostly on the tracks.
But, I’m sensing that, for a lot of us, the routine is starting to feel a little bit empty. Like the movie Ground Hog day, but without Bill Murray. Maybe our moods are getting a little jagged, and the humor is getting a little dark. And, maybe that future we’re building towards is getting a little cloudier. We’re trying to do good work, meaningfully, to create something better and, if we’re lucky, more useful. This rock won’t push itself up that hill, you know.
But, it’s getting harder. Trying to do it from the basement or home office is going to get lonely, if it hasn’t already. After a while, it’s all going to feel like most days are our worst days, when work is bullshit and we can’t really see the point of it. (Or, maybe the work reallyis bullshit, pandemic or not; that’s another post)
It doesn’t help that the virtual world we’re working in is overcooked and populated by a lot of empty wannabes. Those of us who pretty much live and work online are pepper sprayed with positivity and hustle-secrets by bros hawking their classes and private communities. I read too many click-baity headlines and I get worried for those under-employed journalism kids getting crappy hourly wages to crank them out, seeking just a bit of a career toehold so they can get off their parents’ payroll. There’s too much glossy snark and manufactured “I’m living my truth” first person stuff from stay at home moms and dads who dream of becoming the next Tim Ferriss or Glennon Doyle, the edge cases who actually did it, who jumped off the “real job” grind. I’m avoiding Youtube because it seems like every video is over-dosed with ads featuring some guy pitching me their course that will teach me how to sell my course, so I don’t have to work for the man anymore.
The relentless hustle and commercialism of this new workplace is toxic and transactional like the old one, just in a different way. It just reinforces the fear among us working alone, at home, that we’re not only in the wrong job, but that we’re not trying hard enough.
So how do we stay grounded? How do we see the meaning in the work, the satisfaction in the routine?
On my best days, I remind myself, in the words of the philosopher, that I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.
Remember how Phil Connors escaped the bleakness of those Feb 2 day-loops? Hint: It wasn’t just waking up next to Andie McDowelI.
On my good days, I can wake up and see pretty clearly what we’re trying to do at Fahren:
• There’s a leader out there, trying to make something important happen at their job.
• It doesn’t matter too much what it is, but they’re probably trying to put some technology to better use.
• They might be trying to bring something new into the world.
• They know there’s a better way to work, some techniques they can use to do something smarter.
• They want to keep growing and getting better. As workers, as leaders. As humans. They might be using their job to enact some real improvements in how they think, how they act and how they perform.
• They want help. They’re open to getting some ideas and support from a team that has gone through it before.
• Maybe they just want to hire an outside firm so they can work with likeminded people, so they don’t get stuck being a lifer in the old way.
• We can help. We can help that person solve their problem, to learn something new, to get a job done.
• We can help them make their own transformation, while they are changing the work they do.
Our chosen work is to help people develop and grow while they accomplish something important using the best, leading edge techniques and tools. That’s not a mission statement, or a slogan. It’s a reminder, a commitment.
Maybe that’s too optimistic? Perhaps a little naive? Well, that’s the choice I’m making. It’s how I want to view the world we’re working in now and I’ll keep doing it, even after the pandemic is over. I want my business to be successful, but I can’t keep working on it if cash is the only thing that drops to the bottom line.
We’re all swimming in tech. Technology is the water. But, when we click off zoom and look out the window, we have each other, good and bad, on the other side.
We work with people. We’re working for them, and in their own way, they’re working through us.
I don’t want to be stuck in a loop of emails and Zoom. This choice is my way out.
When I did my graduate work on Walt Whitman, Jack Kerouac and the American, civil religion of democracy, I got eye rolls from my professors for wasting time on a well trodden topic. Whitman was “over” (because who cares about form/structure and authorial intent anymore) and Kerouac was for dilettantes (which i guess I was), kid stuff. They were deep into post-structuralism, Foucalt, semiotics and Gramsci. But, i loved history, politics, religion and reading, so i got to do a little of all of those through my work.
When i watch the shitshow that is America circa 2020, I wish i could get a do-over on my thesis. The one I wrote was boring, poorly argued, not very interesting. What i probably should have focused on is the role of a creative, media celebrity in influencing ideas about politics and culture. I should have turned it into, effectively, a media studies project.
In their times, both Whitman and Kerouac were, in their own ways, media darlings. You could make an argument that Whitman was one of the first self-made influencers. If he lived today, he’d have a couple million followers on Insta and YouTube. Kerouac was one of the first post-WW2, mass media literary stars, pulled to prominence by editors and journalists and PR people who loved what he was saying, but still had to perform in their day jobs. They both had important messages about America, why we should love it, and how we should savor the elements of America that make democracy great. They both wrote beautifully about the role of the individual vs the greater culture.
Importantly, they also represented – and were presented in the media of their times – two different directions the American culture might go if the personal freedom inherent in a liberal democracy were taken to their extremes. Whitman, the communitarian, celebrated the beauty of a gajillion different identities brought together by the ideals of American democracy. Kerouac, the seeker of individual transcendence, was mostly focused on “kicks” and the freedom to follow his own path. If he lived and sobered up, he probably would have turned into a hermit monk or a libertarian.
The media of their times used both of these guys as a way to talk about American democracy. The audiences learned a little bit about democracy via the stories and the subsequent reading of Kerouac and Whitman’s work.
There are probably a lot of dissertations out there on the outsize influence Kerouac had on the hippies and “back to nature” culture dropouts of the sixties. I know there are plenty on Whitman.
When I watch the videos from the All Gas, No Brakes guy, I see the edge cases (i hope) of American freedom, pursuit of “kicks” and happiness run amok. When i watch peaceful protests, I see some hope. But, who is out there sharing a view of what democracy can and should be? Someone who isn’t a politician? Where’s the Oprah of political philosophy, someone making it easy to understand how we’re all supposed to act in a super diverse culture, but still live together in peace.
We need Walt Whitman right now. Or, something like him. A poet of democracy, someone that can teach and model what our American way of life can (and should be). Someone speaking beautifully, deeply about stuff no one wants to think about anymore: How we live together in a democracy, the beauty of the concept of “out of many, one”. Maybe they’re out there on Tik Tok? Maybe they’re streaming on Twitch?