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Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Tyranny of the Immediacy of Now

I was traipsing through the NYT Magazine's best ideas of the year edition and happened on  "The 2000s were a great decade." It's a desultory oxide of a rust-gathering irony that an article designed to elevate perspective-gathering contradicts its own sense-making. The 00s? The uh-ohs? What opinion are we rounding off to which decimal place?

Here in world-is-flat matter-of-factness,  the current century is shrink-wrapped  as bite-sized summaries. They're easier to maintain, cheaper to make, and grant us permission to close the books on the nameless decade.

Remember that decade? It begins with a Y2K bridge to the 21st Century and ends in the rear view yearning for some fantasy period -- lost innocence for sure. Was it a lost ... century? Really? What generation is self-important enough to warrant that responsibility? The naming rights are still open bid.

The New York Times Magazine article maintains that the drumbeat of boom-bust recyclables delivers us passenger/audience dwellers within the awareness range of the 24 X 7 squad car dispatchers. The static in our ear buds is tuned to a closed circuit of finites, futilities and fatalisms:

"Two recessions. 9/11. Iraq. Afghanistan. You might think the last decade was among the worst in modern history. But according to the economist Charles Kenny, author of “Getting Better,” a forthcoming book on global development, you’d be wrong."

The passage moves on to echo Mr. Kenny's cheerful aggregates:

* Average worldwide income up 25%
* Cereal production outpaces 3rd world population growth by half
* Mortality rates from measles plummet 60%, from birth, 17%, and so on

The numbers shrug at our self-centered pessimism and smile on our civilizing progress. It's a greater time to be alive than us grousing romantics might concede. Have we overstayed our welcome in the new century? Time to get on texting terms with the social media bureaucracy, right?

But where exactly does human progress part company with personal experience? It may be the time in human history where our own personal histories were severed from an abstraction of greater consequence to our lives. Encouraging factoids be damned. That was the moment we reached constant communications and the false and implicit assumption that "instantaneous" equals "understanding." It's a disservice to human potential and achievement that a reproducible world of zeros and ones can accurately portray and scale the sum of human experience in a pre-digitized form.

(One promising departure from our immediacy fixation is Google's NGram -- a byproduct of Google's literal assault on digitizing all things punctuated. Here in the 2.0-teens it's a little like the 1860s and we're seeing the dinosaurs in the headlights for the first time.)

The passing of the nameless decade is celebrated in the the pages of the current issue of BusinessWeek. A retrospective on the first ten years of  recorded Wikipedia history is a breathless reverie on how the Deepwater Horizon oil spill clocks a Wikipedia entry before the rig inferno burns out. Even this afternoon here comes the health status of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, one ER procedure after the same massacre claims six other victims.

Conversely the fluid and bending fashions of Wikipedia's self-selecting editorial staff skews the importance of group pastimes far beyond their merit as cultural influences:

"Popular cultural looms large. The entry for the game Halo, for example, is significantly longer than the one for the Protestant Reformation." 

This kind of self-identity cuts us off from divinations that run deeper than any religious sect -- let alone gaming application.The tyranny of the immediacy of now there is no longer a grace period or a honeymoon or the requisite down time to take in  the tumult of disruptive events and accord them the proportion, connectedness, and possible redress they deserve.

Thinking on our feet is important for remaining on them. It's our grace under pressure when we refuse to be overcome by events not of our design or intention. But running to a rescue or maintaining serene calm in the most perfect of storms doesn't confer a clear understanding of the chaos we are wrestling with in these volatile and eruptive moments. Likewise our poise does not impart a deeper connection to why these catastrophic cinders rain down on us, no matter how laudable the march or modest the parade.

Faith is a partial answer. Much of this is beyond us. But the missing human ingredient in all of this is the biggest picture. It is the deeper pre-digitized history that places us in the historical context that we once called our calling or destiny. This biggest picture shows us that our own blood is no bloodier, our own adversities are no mightier, and our own bruised hopes are no less romantic than our forebears.

This is the slow resolve of wondering off the network reservation and letting in the days. These are the days that we share freely with our predecessors and the unborn. The limits to the biggest picture are not measured in lifetimes or pixels but in the ancestral community of living memories.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Higher Edification

Fear is terrific for meeting deadlines, demonizing adversaries, and filling us with inertia. Freedom as Jon Stewart pointed out is not the best tonic for creative output. But the fear contagion squeezes those last drips of inspiration from the creativity juicer. There they go. Down the drain of risk aversion. Hence a climate of uncertainty is all corporate America needs to sits on its hands -- or in the case of Haliburton move to Dubai so taxes can be treated with the respect a balance sheet treats pure profit -- a revenue-gusher harpooned from the veiny arms of the U.S. Treasury.

And what happens when Government 2.0 takes matters into its own hands? It trips over its own unfunded regulations or runs into corruption on highway projects that overbill taxpayers with the same confidence that our officials voice when campaigning to fix our crumbling infrastructure.

These are the familiar invective-laced villains that managed to escape economic gravity up until the end-of-life care for the American middle-class (remember when that was an actual voting bloc? I don't either). But there's a whole section of the economy that's escaped the wrath of every cable diatribunal. It's even escaped the sights of the most vehement members of the tea party freshman class. In fact a March showdown over the debt ceiling is likelier to see the chandeliers crashing on well-heeled Medicare recipients than any fingers wagging in the direction of this most elitist and blameworthy of our domestic cartels.

American higher education is the envy of the world. But it is in the unenviable position of being out of the reach of most Americans. According to Jonathan Alter America's college graduation rates have plummeted from #2 to #16 over the last generation. And how much of the swelling amenities lining the tax exempt pockets of American Universities gone to enriching the commonweal for which that privilege was first extended? And why the free ride? Harvard doesn't have to move to Dubai to evade taxes. (That's where the action is for American Universities as they tap out of the elites over here).

Here in New England (formerly American Higher Education headquarters) 40% of Boston proper is off Mayor Menino's tax map for this reason. But does that policy foster good collegial neighbors or a trust for sheltering the otherwise taxable excesses of former HBS grads who never counted a dollar they couldn't depreciate (or compete on)?

Harvard's trustees weren't sure just how far the sky had fallen by the time its endowments had shriveled in the wake of the financial meltdown. It also served as the reason that major capital works in surrounding Allston were suspended -- even though that justification has since subsided. But hey, the future's still an iffy proposition, right? Especially for an asset pile as high, precious, and potentially imperiled as the Harvard endowment.

It's interesting how unquestioning the media is. Is a college degree worth getting? The question's no more open than bargaining for the size of one's tuition bill. In fact it's a rigorous debate compared to performance-based degree programs. Can you imagine basing student tuition debts on the actual career benefits the degree advances? No skin in that game.

Still, it's good for the higher ed business if we accept the long-held premise that college grads earn a good deal more than the rest of us. In last week's New York Times Brigham & Young Economist Eric Eide reasoned that the costs of college are not going up any "faster than the returns of graduating from an elite private university." In other words the cost of an ivy league degree is commensurate with competing for jobs in the 21st century -- either you're in or you're out.

That may be true. But until the surrounding community is completely out of their ivy league the national debt should be no less abstract to economists like Mr. Eide than the institutions that keep cranking out those economists, tax lawyers, robber-barons, and Oval Office holders.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Requiem for a Working Stiff

There are two reasons that economies exist: (1) to remunerate the owners of capital to the optimal degree; and (2) to maintain social stability, a.k.a. so the renters of capital keep the roofs on their backs and don't storm the gates of McMansionville

The further the U.S. strays from reason #2 the more convinced I am that there is a price for greed. There is a cost for fear. What us humans will stumble over the brambles of adversity in the life auction to bid for at any price is stability. What's the market doing today -- name your price. It's stability that's priceless. There's actually a third reason -- electing more Republicans to public office by promising to cut the taxes of all Americans (dead or alive). But I digress. 

I showed you my economic cards to foreshadow a recent get-together with a former colleague once removed. It happened at a completely pass-up-able trade show in Boston few weeks back. I wasn't speaking, I wasn't listening. I wasn't paying or expensing or conventioning any of it. But I went because it gave me the opportunity to run into folks I normally graze indirectly through a fleeting tweet or a bump on a blog. The fact that these are "chance" meetings with no formal agendas or hard stops is sometimes as appealing as the names that drop into these calendar openings.

However, there was one meeting of particular merit because it reminded me of a time in the past where terms like "career-building" and "ladder-climbing" were more than platitudes to gold watches and indentured supplicants. The gentleman I was meeting with had just accepted a job to work as a KM grunt with a prestigious and high-flying brain factory fired from piping, fresh HBS idea ovens

George (I'll call him here) had a much better run than I as an independent KM consultant with longer feasts, shorter famines, and enough returning engagements to get him on the short list of folks who are called into bless, validate, and handicap most big ticket enterprise content decisions.

What search engine do we buy? Why is garbage-in, garbage-out the only process flow that works with any regularity in our document life-cycle? George was the guy who could address the daunting and predictable questions  looming on  the radars of cash-rich, strategically impoverished IT shops left minding the information management store.

Maybe it was another college tuition to meet? Perhaps it was a spouse furloughed by the uncertainty that the future includes a place for over educated Americans who expect promotions and raises? Maybe it was the shock of knowing that mom and dad are now not just confusing our names with our siblings but referring to us as their own siblings

Whatever landed over the top on the wrong side of the watershed  bed, George decided that being paid twice a month was preferable to the prospect of fatter, inconsistent pay days. He confided that it stung a little to see no press release parading the new home of his worthy track record and talents. The simple fact is that companies don't crow about their costs and George's new employer doesn't sell KM consulting for a living. 

Do they want to deliberate about how the only thing standing between them and bigger deals is better knowledge-sharing? Nope. And especially nope if they can't bill for it. Community-building? IP propagation? That's what we hired you to do, George. Let us know when you've fixed it and we'll have something.

I sympathize with George -- to a point. But then I need to remind him -- not of his senile parents or farcical former clients but that he is now firmly under the radar and cleared for take-off. This is a glide-path where he can pilot the hypotheticals. The slideware is gone.  Every new hire is not just a collegial grunt but a recruitment opportunity: what is it from me you expect? If the answer is a blank stare, I'll mold the fillings. You'll be pedaling your fulfillment right out of our showroom (or intranet for those of you viewing at work).

It's worth noting that in my own family my wife had her own recent breakthrough on working stiff etiquette.  Rather than lamenting the fact that her basket case nonprofit closes its firewall to remote access, she saw her dysfunctional IT operation as the gift that it is -- six uninterrupted hours on Acela to wifi her way to a job that leaves her alone long enough to live her life.  

In conclusion, George, believe your indoctrination into the land of working stiffs will offer its own rewards – not the least of which is far greater flexibility to unleash your pragmatic creative problem-solving in an environment that will benefit your new colleagues in ways they scarcely know.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Lessons Learned as a PI Instructor

I did something last week that I've never done in my professional life. I fired myself from a job -- not just any job but the one that pays me back on a reciprocal level that is far more nurturing than my average pay day. I resigned from my five year-long gig as an adjunct in Boston University's Center of Professional Education. That's the school within BU that awards certificates to mid-career adults looking to cut a new career path. My students were aspiring PIs. Unlike them I was never into CSI or apprehending alleged perps. Maybe I see too much good in the bad guy and visa versa to carry that moral clarity which captivates crusaders of all stripes (and many capes).

But the one thing that justice seekers and knowledge planners share in spades is an insatiable appetite for evidence. Not just smoking guns in the firing lines of law enforcement but any shred that could piece together the mysteries surrounding how people act on what they know, a.k.a. "why people do what they do" -- especially of an unspeakable vintage that only deepens both the mystery of the case and the resolve of the investigator.

If I shy away from moral judgements I'm certainly not on the fence about my participation in this worthy program. The students taught me more than I could ever learn in someone else's classroom about the tenacious and painstaking business of assembling a reliable accounting. Their case work tested by the slippery sequencing of tangled outcomes from competing versions of self-selecting interpretations. Now that's a complexity that only Mother Research could love and take under her watchful spyglass. But that's the education I got from teaching these budding detectives how to tackle the web as a research medium.

If my role was restricted only to this thrill of the hunt, such gratitude would have sustained my participation for years to come. But over time the experience began to shift, particularly in the online version of the course. A vocal and growing minority of students lacked both the personal confidence and institutional support to put their fears aside and reconnect with the same bold exploratory spirit that led them to sign up in the first place.

Too often my teaching (or facilitation as it's called in the distance learning segment) consisted of talking time-starved students down from their isolated towers of despair. It's trying hard enough that they juggle family and work schedules with their online education. But when the curriculum's too hard to grasp? That's when the sinking ship comes to anchor on the feeling that everyone else "gets it." The rest of one's virtual classmates are all on the same page.

The inconsolable student is in need of an immediate emotional rescue. It's 2 am. There's no life line. They are catastrophizing, big time. All sympathy aside, this routine sapped me dry. It consumed the energy I had been able to invest through the luxury of eye contact and 1:1 consults with my classroom students.

In addition to the lack of real-time human interaction, the course materials for the Internet Research section were treated the same as the other program components. This is not a minor omission. The world of surveillance, fingerprinting and case management doesn't require new readings, war stories or legal updates just because the program is cycling through a new class of students. I might not know my way around a crime scene barricade but I do know I could do a whole class on FaceBook -- a phenomenon that wasn't even a glimmer on horizon when our course materials went to press.

Internet Research not only warrants but demands a blanket refresh to stay in step with changing capabilities, rewritten interfaces, and expired resources. The course text predates social media. Even the online materials were produced three years ago, further alienating the virtual classes that call online their home, not just their subject matter.

I believe with a little more attentiveness the program can provide the stewardship that comes with a commitment to continuous improvement. Either way it's been an affirming, valuable experience and I thank CPE Director Ruth Ann Murray, Program Director Tom Shamshak, and curriculum manager Nancy Ahern for the opportunity to have helped pour the original foundation. That grounding will continue to establish BU's Certificate in Professional Investigations as a nesting bed for what Brendon Perrone calls the truth seekers among us -- the "modern day dragon slayers" with the courage to carry a questioning nature into the lines of battle.

To my former students thanks ... so much for inspiring me in your PI quest and your determination to engage a distracted, confusing, and often uncooperative set of circumstances that will ultimately answer to the justice you seek.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Radio Interference

I attended a focus group for WERS 88.9 FM a week ago on Boylston Street. The management invited 16 random listeners to weigh in on the play mix of this eclectic and sometimes meandering college station. Seventeen of us showed up and everyone told the facilitator the same thing: “Surprise me!”

The consensus among us 35-54 year-olds was for novelty. However, the facilitator was more interested in a comparison shopping of radio formats. Is it just me or is the format of the focus group itself as outdated as the goal of this facilitation? I say that because he kept trying to draw these forced linear parallels between the upstart powerhouse WERS and the balance of the remaining Boston-based FM rock choices. The whole point was to co-opt any style, manner, or focus smacking of the slightest originality from anywhere else.

I told the guy that WERS was in the unique position to build bridges between the contemporary alt bands that draw inspiration from the sounds us middle elders grooved to in our bigger-headed and delusional college days. Wouldn't it be cool to hear testimonials from the new regime rationalizing what's preservation-worthy and what deserves to be flushed from the clammy grip of passing hot flashes?

Ephemeral or perennial?

The facilitator was having none of it. He wasn't biting if it wasn't already being done somewhere else. This bummed me out, man.

Flash forward to a recent Friday afternoon ritual, a.k.a. "Friday afternoon musical challenge" where knowledge diva Sadalit "Sadie" Van Buren petitions an unpolished list of 95/128 hub-based miscreants and would-be session-hands. Each week Ms. Van Buren invites us to disrobe from our silicon-coated techie armor and into our secret musical selves. Sadie picks out a segue-conducive musical theme and then we strike our collective encore lighters for a jukebox jam. We pool the soul and body-piercing rhythms and melodies that line the standing room only sections of our most favored play lists and treasured performances.

Sadie tosses that spinning platter into the air and we lunge for those hidden stashes of inspiration we would never entrust to social media -- let alone the servers we prune and pamper to exasperation behind our rave-proof firewalls. The resulting pile-on is impressive -- sometimes the majority of list members join in. One collaborator who I divine some similar inspirations from asked the group how much of our constructions were supported by Google validations when fumbling for the misplaced reading glasses of our inner listening ears.

Q: (courtesy of Philip Edward Kret): How many of you in this group honestly think these things up on the spot and how many are in front of you (your whole collections to peruse!) on your iPods, and how many use tools like Google to cheat your aging memory. Lots of memory aids going on here methinks or maybe you just have a nice neat record collection and have all you need to know (lucky you!). Thoughts?

A: (courtesy of Adrian M. duCille): It’s mostly in my head – I’m bopping my head & singing on a daily basis (long commute)?

These Friday afternoon bolts of lightning remind me of what my first wife said many bumps in the road ago. She said that sanity itself rested on the presence of music. With it we have a chance to do great things. Without it we’re shattered, collectively and solo-wise. Everyone has a song inside them. Every collaboration is a variation on that theme -- a tireless novelty that enmeshes our thinking and our emotions.

In that spirit we all appreciate the conductivity powers of "our" Sadie -- a possessive coined by Lynda Moulton and seconded by her gallery of musical challengers.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Privatization of Privacy

In a recent Newsweek piece called Privacy is Dead, Jessica Rose Bennett peels back the post Face book packaging of personal background profiling to support her case. Using her own identify as the target she is pegged for a druggie because she once filed a story addressing pot production in the Golden State. I wonder what "state" that would find her employability score in if her undocumented preference for bourbon had also surfaced?

Whether the metric of interest is number-specific such as our number of network contacts or a hodgepodge of inputs that concoct abstractions like "aggressive demeanor" or "persistent complainer," only one thing matters. Those placeholders in the source data cannot go unpopulated. They must be filled even if it's with erroneous facts. Empty cells are neither "on" or "in" the table. The business case is not premised on accurate reporting but a rationale to freeze-out entire hiring pools of potential new hires with a blink of a single metric.

We are long past warning our kids not to sanctify their latest drinking game conquests as some post-worthy rite of passage. A simple flag can be raised without a single infraction.

The check box will be populated one way or another and it tips in favor of a demerit any time the target wants entrance into the increasingly exclusive club of gainfully employed Americans. That's because filtering out a ballooning number of applicants within some quantifiable range of conduct is now a done deal. And as our author as pothead example illustrates, questionable data can perform this function just as reliably as an accurate and verifiable fact base.

A profiling application has only one clearinghouse to hurdle -- none involving civil liberties,due process, or the quaint idea of privacy -- a notion that has as much to do with our 21st century citizenship status as the constitution has to do with affirmative action, bomb-sniffing dogs, unicorns, biblical verses, or holding onto our jobs and homes.

The only true barriers to subscription-based rating systems such as those described by Ms. Bennett is the ignorance of the subscriber and the discretion of the service provider. The chances we'd be cut into the loop of our own demise? Question time: when's the last time you got a full post interview accounting of why you never made the final cut?

It's that veil of closed-loop decision-making ensuring complete privacy is maintained ... for all employer-subscribers. Unlike a delinquent payment in a credit report there is no traceable course of events. Most of us don't even know how these scores are produced, let alone what they mean or that they even exist. Finally, there is no reportable consequence. Having your car repossessed is reality. Remaining out of work after you were invited back for the second round? That's a non-event. For falsely-accused professionals who can connect baseless accusations to the effect on their business? There's a service for that called Reputation Defender.

So there's no incentive for profiling customers to wise up or even own up to retaining such services. The only buyer motivation in terms of background screeners is to find the same thing for less. And that's the passive end of the profiling frontier.How about the blunter tools at the disposal of hackers? How about the malicious assaults now being plotted on tomorrow's Android devices?

There was a data glyph published in a recent issue of BusinessWeek that shows the ongoing price for the scattered pieces of our transactional identities. Email addresses and credit card numbers are available in bulk, an acknowledgment that deactivations are present in every batch. Some others command a far heftier per profile fee. In fact the price of a login credential increases with the balance on the account it's accessing. Pure genius. Quaint, this notion of privacy -- like a nod to the days when phone security was about dropped calls and lost phones.

Who said that all consumers were created equal? Certainly not in any termination contracts that include the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of other people's identities.
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attentionSpin is a consulting practice formed in 1990 to create, automate and apply a universal scoring system (“The Biggest Picture”) to brands, celebrities, events and policy issues in the public eye. In the Biggest Picture, attentionSpin applies the principles of market research to the process of media analytics to score the volume and nature of media coverage. The explanatory power of this research model: 1. Allows practitioners to understand the requirements for managing the quality of attention they receive 2. Shows influencers the level of authority they hold in forums where companies, office-seekers, celebrities and experts sell their visions, opinions and skills 3. Creates meaningful standards for measuring the success and failure of campaigns and their connection to marketable assets.