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The Hegelochus lesson

More than 2,000 years ago, an actor in Greece botched a line in a play. In an inflection error, he said “weasel” when he meant to say “calm sea.”

As a result, he was mocked by Sannyrion and then Aristophanes and others.

He never worked again.

The lesson might be that one innocent slip and you’re doomed.

The real lesson might be that in the history of his profession, one in which millions of people have stood up and said billions of words, this is the only time this ever happened.

Flashing on contempt

It doesn’t have to happen with intent, in fact, it rarely does.

Micro-emotions appear on our face and then disappear in less than a second. Blink and you’ll miss them. But sometimes, people don’t blink.

We’ve evolved to be hyperware of these tiny displays of emotion.

And yet, most of us don’t even realize it’s happening. We don’t realize we’re seeing the signs, or that we’re sending them.

Someone who sends tiny flashes of empathy is often seen as charismatic. We’re afraid of a dog that seems, in a fraction of a second, to be angry. And we build friendships around our instincts gained from these flashes (or the absence of them)

I had a friend who didn’t realize that when she got nervous, she often winked. As a result, people changed their responses to her, because they misunderstood the tiny signal she was inadvertently sending. Once she realized what was happening, she couldn’t easily extinguish the winks, but at least she knew the cause of the responses and could act accordingly.

The same thing happens, but even more so, with other flashes of emotion. When someone is stressed, nervous or fearful, he might send out previously unacknowledged flashes and signals of those feelings. They might be beyond our control, but the reactions people have are real, and understanding what prompts the response is the first step in moving forward to address them.

Delivering good taste

There are lots of books on creating cooking, photography, writing and music. But they can’t possibly help you do better until you see and taste and appreciate what you’re trying to create.

If you think what you’re serving is good, but others don’t, more recipes aren’t going to help.

That’s why so much type is poorly set, so many self-published books look the way they do, so many restaurants are merely good and so much long-tail music is easily skipped and forgettable.

There are two steps to begin:

Show us an example of someone else’s work that you believe is good. A book cover that feels professional, a jazz riff that inspires, a pasta dish that’s unforgettable.

Then make a version of it. Not a copy, but something that rhymes.

If you can’t do that, it’s probably not a matter of technique. It’s about being in sync with what other people aspire to engage with.

They will lose your data

The rules are pretty consistent:

  • The easier it is to create and save a video or other file, the more likely it is to be lost or corrupted
  • The more important the data is, the more likely it is you’ll notice when it gets lost
  • The harder it is to replace, the more frustrating it will be

We’re all creators now. Podcasting, videoing, photographing, spreadsheeting… and we’re building a foundation of valuable data as we go.

The software companies that produce the tools we use push their engineers in many ways, but not to create resilient storage systems that are sure to honor the effort and care you put into creating your data. They want you to believe that they will effortlessly and seamlessly maintain all the data you trust to them, but they actually spend most of their time focused on other things that they deem more commercially important.

That’s because convenient, viral or flashy are generally more profitable than resilient and reliable.

When a conferencing app lost a video I worked really hard to record, I realized that trusting them was my first mistake. If there’s a one in a thousand chance that a file is going to be corrupted or simply lost, storing it in two places or recording it simultaneously in two systems lowers your chances of failure to one in a million. I will never trust them again, and you shouldn’t either.

Forewarned should be sufficient. Assume that the software company doesn’t care nearly as much about your work, your memories or your reputation as you do.

How to change the world

All successful cultural change (books, movies, public health), has a super-simple two-step loop:


It’s easy to focus on awareness. Get the word out. Hype. Promo.

I think that’s a mistake.

Because awareness without tension is useless.

The tension is like pulling back a rubber band.

WHY would someone who becomes aware take action?

Is the action to buy the book? To change one’s diet? To vote?

And then the third step, so important it’s often ignored, is:

Why would the person who became aware and then experienced the tension and release… tell someone else?

So, to recap:

  • Tell 10 people.
  • Create tension among the 10 so they take action.
  • The action causes each of them to tell 10 people.

The answer to every question

If the thing of the moment is the answer to every single question, you might be in a bubble. If, regardless of the problem, the answer is crypto, homeopathy, or the internet, or perhaps GPT, essential oils or decarbonization, it’s possible we’re taking an easy way out. A new technology or approach could be the answer to a bunch of questions, but not all of them.

The bubble might be just us, ignoring everything outside our comfort zone or incentive range.

Or it could be widespread, the culture carried away with the one thing that changes everything.

Everything is going to change, it always does, but nuance matters. Nuance requires patience, insight and awareness of the details. Sometimes it’s easier to just be in a bubble.

The ghost in the machine

“The computer wants you to click this button.”

“It thinks you asked for something else.”

“He’s mad at you.”

Thousands of generations ago, we evolved our way into a magnificent hack. It turns out that we can more safely navigate the world by imagining that other people have a little voice in their heads just as we have one in ours.

By projecting the narrative voice to others, we avoided fights that could be fatal. It’s a powerful shorthand that allows us to use limited brain processing power to interact in complicated cultural situations.

It worked so well, we began applying it to dogs, to lizards and even to the weather. It’s a great place to find the origins of bad decisions and superstitions.

The truth, of course, is that your cat doesn’t have a voice in her head. But we still act like she does. And that cloud doesn’t really have an angry face in it, a bug we see so often that we even gave it a name. Pareidolia is proof that the mistake is almost universal.

And now, AI chat is putting the common sense of this to the test. We know exactly what the code base is, and yet within minutes, most normal humans are happily chatting away, bringing the very emotions to the computer that we’d bring to another person. We rarely do this with elevators or door handles, but once a device gets much more complicated than that, we start to imagine the ghost inside the machine.

If it’s working, keep at it.

The problems arise when the hack stops working. When we start making up stories about the narrative intent of complex systems. Sooner or later, we end up with conspiracies, misunderstandings about public health and opportunities missed in the financial markets.

Emergent behaviors (like the economy and computers and the natural world) aren’t conscious.

It’s hard to say, “I know I’m making up a human-centric story to explain systemic phenomena, but it’s a shortcut I use… do you think the shortcut is helpful here?”

Shields up

Years and years ago, I helped the Weekly World News make a book.

While their periodical was weekly, it certainly wasn’t news. They were just four people in a small office in Florida. They gleefully made stuff up every week. They had a few filing cabinets of stock photos, and they invented stories featuring UFOs, aliens, “scientists” (in quotation marks) and various other diversions for folks trapped in the checkout supermarket line.

And now, of course, we are all trapped in that line. And now, the algorithms are pushing spineless profit-seekers to bombard us with junk, junk that shows up on the home page of search engines, in our social media feeds and in our email.

Adblockers are one of the most popular innovations of the last few years. What I want is a junkblocker. A big button on my browser that says “shields up.” And just imagine if it was set to on by default.

No celebrity gossip. No conspiracy theories. No weight loss breakthroughs. It would automatically block fist fights, trolling, urgent but unimportant breaking news, insights about the royal family, discussions of whatever happened to a star from thirty years ago, aliens, UFOs, MLMs, the latest pump-and-dump schemes, things that are true but irrelevant, things that are relevant but didn’t actually happen and stories designed to demean, degrade or intentionally inflict distress with little recourse available.

When you put it that way, who doesn’t want a button like that?

Somehow, we survived as a culture for centuries without exposing ourselves to thousands of profit-driven manipulations dumped on our living room carpet all day, every day.

No wonder we’re exhausted after a day online.

The gap between impossible and normal

It keeps getting shorter and shorter.

This video couldn’t have been made, at any price, 18 months ago. 18 weeks ago, it would have required a thousand hours of work.

Now, here it is. This impossible is going to happen faster and faster and faster.

Is it possible to care at scale?

After 25 years, I stopped using a certain credit card for business. It was easily millions of dollars worth of transactions over that period. Did anyone at the company notice? Did anyone care?

I still remember losing a client in 1987. Small organizations pay attention and care very much about each and every customer. Verizon and AT&T, on the other hand, don’t even know that you and I exist.

Small family farms have significantly higher yields than neighboring farms that are much bigger. That’s because the individual farmer cares about every single stalk and frond, and the person with a lot of land is more focused on what they think of as the big picture.

But it’s pretty clear that if you add up enough small things, you get to the big one.

Caring at scale can’t be done by the CEO or a VP. But what these folks can do is create a culture that cares. They can hire people who are predisposed to care. They can pay attention to the people who care and measure things that matter instead of chasing the short term.

Large organizations have significant structural advantages. But the real impacts happen when they act like small ones.