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Errors in personification

“The sun is trying to break through the clouds.”

“The virus doesn’t like it when people stay home and isolate.”

“The computer didn’t expect you to type that.”

Of course, the sun, the virus and the computer aren’t people. And genes aren’t actually selfish, and new data demonstrates that we don’t really have a lizard brain.

But these aren’t errors at all. It makes it easier to predict what a non-human is going to do if we imagine that it has motivations and preferences that are like ours.

Two problems can arise, though:

The first is when we assert human motivations that don’t actually do a good job of prediction. For example, imagining that events are motivated by some sort of unrelated specific superstition or narrative.

The second is more problematic: It happens when we personalize other people–imagining that they’re not just humans, but they’re us. “If I were you…” is not always a useful predictor, because you’re not me. And vice versa.

Everyone has their own history, their own biases and their own irrationalities. Personification is a useful shortcut if it helps us make smart predictions about others, but it’s a trap if we assume that we’re the only ones who are right.

A thing about ‘normal’

Normal is the thing many don’t notice.

Until it changes. And then we can’t unsee how much we had failed to pay attention to.

Who’s on the short list for consideration, who is given the benefit of the doubt, who gets a head start…

We begin to notice the people that are artificially selected to seem like the right ones, who are then supposed to be better and anointed as normal.

I was thrilled that Unilever has decided to get rid of the word ‘normal’ on their personal care product labels. Because when it comes to people, normal is an artificial construct, the center of a statistical bell curve but not a standard that we ought to seek to achieve, even if we could.

Normal is a distribution, not a person.

Screwdriver clarity

This screwdriver, what’s it for? The one with with black oxide non-slip tips, tri-lobe ergonomic handles, and a special “Speed Zone” at the base of the handle, which allows for faster turning in low back torque applications. You know, the one with a nut bolster for added strength and versatility. What’s it for?

Can I use it to open a paint can? Well, sure you can, but you could find easier and cheaper substitutes. And you might get paint on the screwdriver, which would make it much less effective for its real job.

Can I use it to turn this Phillips-head screw? Well, possibly, but you’ll probably strip the screw.

Can I use it to stir my coffee? Well, sure, but why?

This all seems obvious.

And yet, we can ask the same questions about your website, your advanced degree, your office building… Or this meeting, that job description or the choice to work a nine-hour day. What’s it for?

If it’s a tool, not a destination, what’s the tool for?

It doesn’t have to be expensive, all-purpose or exactly the same as the others are using. It simply needs to do the job you need it to do better than any other alternative method.

Celebrity Art (priceless/worthless)

Why are some paintings so valuable?

Works by Rothko or Matisse are worth millions. The Mona Lisa is truly priceless.

There are four reasons, all working together, all quite relevant today as we remake our culture around digital goods:

Beauty/decoration. Since before the 20,000 year old cave paintings in France, we’ve been putting things on our walls. Things that are beautiful, or remind us of important stories, or simply our humanity. It happens regardless of income or culture.

Status/scarcity. When gold became revered for its scarcity, it began to show up in the decorations of households that aspired to be seen as high status. The same happened with spiritual relics and items from antiquity. A decoration that is scarce and in demand acquires a sort of cultural beauty that some people seek out.

The printing press. Until 500 years ago, no given painting (or tapestry) was seen by many people. And then, quite suddenly, images began to spread. Durer sold many thousands of the eight editions of his woodcut, and it was one of the first famous pieces of art. And the Mona Lisa? It’s so valuable because it was stolen just as newspapers (in color!) were becoming widespread. Her face was on the front page of newspapers around the world, ensuring her celebrity for generations.

While the fame and cultural currency that the printing press created was a boon for artists, art collectors and dealers, it was also a huge problem. If a print could be had for a few dollars, what good is the original? How to satisfy those that sought status from the decoration on their walls?

First and best version. And thus the last pillar. An original oil painting is truly different from a signed print, which is different from the mass market poster. People wait in line to see a famous painting. They gasp in its presence. They take selfies with it, and it elevates the way they feel about themselves and the world.

Museums exist to show us what we all own, our shared cultural heritage, the output of our culture in the form of original work created by artists with something to say.

I’ve sat in the Art Institute for hours, simply breathing the same air as a Magritte. I grew up at the Albright Knox in Buffalo, with the DeBuffet’s, the O’Keefe’s and the Still’s. The Marisol is an old friend. They were worth the trip.

There used to be museums that forbid people from taking photographs. Over time, they’ve come to realize that this is foolish, because sharing the photographs don’t take anything away from the value of the painting, they add to it (though the sometimes annoying act of the person with a flash or a shutter click is a different story).

The top of the painting market is 50 billion dollars or more a year. Wealthy people and institutions trading scarce originals, and sometimes, perhaps, exhibiting them, for the public or for people who come over for dinner. When there’s a huge signed Jill Greenberg on the other side of the dining room table from you, it’s unforgettable.

But now, we’ve taken the printing press to a whole new level. That has made some existing paintings more famous than ever. But it has also created a billion images that were never paintings in the first place.

There are millions of painters who aspire to be at the most expensive tier of working artist creating for the auction houses and collectors, but very few achieve this goal every year. And there are countless collectors who buy paintings hoping that there value will soar, but most fail to succeed.

The art market has shifted from something that supports art to something that is mostly a market. Some collectors bought art they didn’t like, simply because they were persuaded that the system would make it increase in value or that their perception of status was so shaky that they needed the next big thing. Some painters were pushed to create painting that would go up in value instead of work they believed in. Museums ended up with tens of thousands of paintings in storage. Wealthy collectors put priceless paintings into tax-free havens, simply as a hedge, not for any of the emotions that painting originally set out to produce.

And now, if you’re a fine artist, hoping to make a living selling canvases for far more than they cost to produce, beauty is insufficient. The market for this sort of status is demanding curation and approval and yes, celebrity.

And if you’re a cyber-person, intent on pushing NFTs (the abbreviation for Non-Fungible Token, unhelpful shorthand for ‘an unduplicatable digital code that’s easy to trade and speculate on’) then it’s worth noting:

Digital tokens aren’t beautiful.

Digital tokens will never make someone gasp.

No one wants to see your hard drive.

It’s quite difficult to display the status or beauty of something that isn’t connected to 20,000 years of cultural expectations, institutional embrace and design evolution. And if you can’t display your status or enjoy the beauty, then it’s simply a speculative trade.

People buy and trade stocks in order to make a profit. Most of them are largely indifferent to what the stock certificate looks like.

I think we’re always going to be hooked on status, and we’re always going to seek beauty. I’m not sure, though, that just because we can marketize and digitize something that it will inherit so many of the cultural tropes that are at the core of the human experience.

Price, wants, needs and the perils of urgent

You have a choice to make. There are four quadrants, and the thing you offer can fit into one of them.

Perhaps you make a low-priced treat, something that people want. Wrigley’s gum or Heinz ketchup, or an app that’s fun to use. Because it’s cheap, it might appeal to the masses. Because it’s a ‘want’, you’re not going to kill anyone if it doesn’t work now and then.

In the other corner, you might choose to sell pacemakers. Sure, your profit per unit is in the thousands, but the room for failure is precisely zero. You won’t sell a lot, and every single one of them better work.

The other two corners are also fascinating in their own way.

Perhaps you want to offer a luxury good, something that’s clearly a want, and not a matter of life and death. You won’t sell many of your $15,000 handbags, but that’s okay, because the margins are great. But it better increase my status!

And finally, there’s the tempting but difficult quadrant of low-priced goods that the user feels are mission critical. This is a vial of insulin or a web service that backs up data in real time (which can feel like life or death). Tempting, because people are always happy to pay a bit less for something they really need. And dangerous, because if you fail to invest in keeping your promise, everything falls apart.

Cons at scale

Traditional con men do their work one person at a time. It’s a laborious process, earning trust and the benefit of the doubt before ultimately ripping someone off.

Toward the end of my dad’s life, shameless/shameful phone salespeople did just this and stole his trust, his time and his money.

Like most things, industrialists want to do it faster and bigger.

Scammy direct mail used to be obvious even at a distance. The labels, the stamps, the typography–it all signaled that this wasn’t personal.

And the occasional phone salesperson, calling from a boiler room–we could tell.

Now, as data acquisition continues to scale and become ever more granular, the hustle is getting more personal.

It’s in an uncanny valley–almost real, but not quite. And of course, the distance keeps getting shorter.

So the mail merge, the phone spam, the faux intimacy of a stranger. They continue to blur the lines between personal and personalized.

The end result is going to be a shrinking of our previously-widening circle of trust.

The benefit of the doubt is priceless. I have no patience for people who want to take it away from us.

And who are you really?

There’s a desire to celebrate our “authentic” self.

But perhaps our considered self, the one that shows up when we’re doing our best to be consistent, generous and professional–that’s our authentic self. And the voice that slips out when we’re tired, stressed or busy is simply an incomplete and lesser version of who we actually are.

We’re the sum total of the interactions we choose to create and the changes we contribute.

Certainty, accuracy and leadership

Certainty: Resolute in the face of criticism and implacable when confronting evidence to the contrary. ‘Never in doubt’ is more important than being right. The need to prove strength and consistency often ties us into knots, particularly in a world with new information and insight arriving so often.

Accuracy: Aware that the sum total of our current assertions is a measure of our wisdom, which means that disproven hypotheses should be abandoned as soon as the truth is made clear. The scientific method is a process, not a lab coat or a textbook. Changing one’s point of view is a virtue, not a flaw.

It seems clear that for just about anything that we can measure, if it really matters, accuracy is a better trait than certainty. And yet our instincts and our media cycles seem to push us toward certainty instead.

Public companies are too often out of alignment

The public markets can offer a company quite a bit: Cash right now. Liquidity for the future. A currency to help recruiting and retention.

And public companies come with a giant caveat: They are owned by people (the shareholders) who might sell out at any moment. And new ones can take their place in an instant.

This flexible ownership is part of the attraction of the stock market, but it also means that you can’t count on the people and institutions that own your organization taking a long-term view. (Long-term for them might even be a week in the future).

As a result, the others that the organization seeks to serve: The environment, their customers, the employees, the culture… often lose out. Because thanks to Milton Friedman’s mythology, the primacy of the shareholder (the one who drives the stock price, the very stock price that drives management) means that every time these companies seek to serve one of their other constituents, they have to do a sort of dance, explaining to shareholders why, after all, really and truly, what they’re actually doing is serving the shareholders. Not just serving them, serving them right now.

And, thanks to the short-term interests of many people who trade stocks, there’s pressure to own shares that go up the most today, not a company you’re proud to own for the long run.

Sometimes, the enlightened and powerful leadership of a company is able to ignore the whining of the shareholders. If you don’t like where this bus is going, sell!

But over time, that resolve often fades. I saw this first hand at Yahoo. When everyone who works for you and around you is watching the stock price, it’s hard to decide to do the right thing.

If you want to run an organization you’re proud of, choose your ownership as carefully as you choose your employees.

The confusion about “sorry”

“I’m sorry that your cat died,” does not mean that I killed your cat.

But, “I’m sorry that I stepped on your foot,” does mean that I stepped on your foot.

In creating connection and trying to make amends, we often get confused by the two kinds of ‘sorry’, and don’t apologize because we believe the problem wasn’t our fault.

“I’m sorry that you had to wait two hours while your car was being serviced.” That’s a valid sentence, even if it wasn’t your fault that the schedule was overfull.

“I’m sorry that you’re stranded here and you’re going to miss the big meeting. I know it was important,” is a useful thing to say even if you didn’t cause the snow storm.

“I’m sorry” can simply mean, “I see you.”

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