Category Archives: Society

Lifestyle and Urban Revitalization

Recently Fred Wilson wrote a blog post about urban revitalizations and highlighted what he thinks are the critical elements necessary for it to work:

We’ve seen that things can be turned around. The economic and cultural juggernaut that is Brooklyn right now is a perfect example. The grandchildren of the people who fled Brooklyn in the fifties and sixties are now coming back in droves, attracted to its lifestyle, its coffee shops, bars, restaurants, art and culture, parks, and affordable real estate. And the tech companies are coming too. Attracted by all the talent that is there.

I’ve been asked by civic leaders from places like Newark, Cleveland, Buffalo, and a number of other upstate NY cities that have suffered a similar fate how they can do the same thing. They all talk about tax incentives, connecting with local research universities, and providing startup capital. And I tell them that they are focusing on the wrong thing.

You have to lead with lifestyle. If you can’t make your city a place where the young mobile talent leaving college or grad school wants to go to start their career, meet someone, and build a life, all that other stuff doesn’t matter.

This immediately brought Winston-Salem to mind. The city's downtown is definitely enjoying a renaissance, but it's easy to forget how long the road has been and where it all began. Ten years ago when my family first moved to the Camel City there were tax incentives for restuaranteurs who set up shop downtown. I remember thinking it kind of odd because there didn't seem to be a whole lot that downtown offered outside of those restaurants and I wondered who would venture down just to eat. Some restaurants did indeed fail, but it ended up being a small, important piece of the downtown puzzle. Combined with the evolution of the arts scene on Trade Street, the growth of UNCSA's downtown presence, and yes, the maligned-at-the-time BB&T Ballpark project, you have the critical lifestyle element that Wilson identified in his piece. It's no wonder that people now want to live there (see the Nissen Building, Winston Lofts, etc.) and that businesses are moving to the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter.

In short, if you're looking for evidence that supports the importance of culture all you need to do is look downtown, whether in Winson-Salem, Durham or Brooklyn.


New Etiquette for the Always On Observers

Two recent articles highlight the side effect of "wearable computing" – personal cameras that automatically capture the world around us. First is this piece from a Wired writer describing his year as a Google Glass user:

My Glass experiences have left me a little wary of wearables because I’m never sure where they’re welcome. I’m not wearing my $1,500 face computer on public transit where there’s a good chance it might be yanked from my face. I won’t wear it out to dinner, because it seems as rude as holding a phone in my hand during a meal. I won’t wear it to a bar. I won’t wear it to a movie. I can’t wear it to the playground or my kid’s school because sometimes it scares children.

Next up is a piece in The Wall Street Journal about cameras you can clip to your shirt so they can take pictures automatically throughout the day:

But there's a cost to amassing so much photographic evidence. The tiny cameras made others uncomfortable when they found out they were being recorded. Some friends wouldn't hug me; gossiping colleagues kept asking, "Is that thing on?" These devices upset a fundamental (though arguably flawed) assumption that even in public, you aren't being recorded.

Makes you squirm, doesn't it? One reason I wanted to review these cameras is that this kind of technology isn't going away. "Always on" cameras are becoming popular in home electronics like the Xbox One and a new wave of streaming video security systems. Now you can buy cameras that attach to your wrist, ear, bike helmet and eyeglasses. They're also fast becoming part of the uniforms of cops, soldiers and doctors.

Both articles explore the positive utilities of these devices, but the authors also highlighted the discomfort that these things caused in people around them. It's not surprising when you think about how uncomfortable you'd be if someone were to just start snapping pictures of you with a traditional camera while you're out and about, but it's even more discomfiting when you realize that people can do it without you even knowing it. What this means is that in the very near future we're going to go through a societal learning stage about what will be the appropriate (polite?) way to use these new devices.

What's scary is that we still haven't mastered the etiquette for proper mobile phone usage and those things have been with us for 20 years! Hell, someone was shot and killed in Tampa this month because of dispute over texting in a movie theater, so it's a bit scary to think what we'll be seeing with these always-on cameras. Of course we'll figure it out eventually but there are going to be many uncomfortable moments until we do.

Today’s Teens’ Tepid Take on Transport

My kids, all three of them, have had an extraordinarily luke-warm attitude towards getting their driver's licenses and based on conversations I've had with some of their friends' parents they aren't the only ones. Sure there are still plenty of kids chomping at the bit to get their licenses the day they turn 16, but the percentage of kids who don't seem too excited about it seems much higher these days than when their parents were that age. Why is that? Netscape founder and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen might provide a clue in his answer to the question of why he's so excited about the potential of car-sharing services:

Ask a kid. Take teenagers 20 years ago and ask them would they rather have a car or a computer? And the answer would have been 100% of the time they'd rather have a car, because a car represents freedom, right?

Today, ask kids if they'd rather have a smartphone or a car if they had to pick and 100% would say smartphones. Because smartphones represent freedom. There's a huge social behavior reorientation that's already happening. And you can see it through that. And I'm not saying nobody can own cars. If people want to own cars, they can own cars. But there is a new generation coming where freedom is defined by "I can do anything I want, whenever I want. If I want a ride, I get a ride, but I don't have to worry. I don't have to make car payments. I don't have to worry about insurance. I have complete flexibility." That is freedom too.

While Andreessen is talking about the future of car sharing services (which by the way seem much more likely to succeed in dense urban environments than in small urban/sprawl environments like where my family lives) he's stumbled on an important influence on our kids today – they don't need cars to connect with their friends because they have smartphones, computers and game consoles to connect.  Sure their parents had phones, but with the exception of the lucky few who had their own phone lines in their bedrooms they had to share the phone with the rest of their families and had zero expectation of privacy. Today's kids don't just have private phone conversations they have the ability to have private video chats which their parents could only dream about 30 years ago.

In the case of our youngest, who is well into his 17th year of life and has no desire to get his license, he doesn't even have to leave the living room to play games with his friends. Thanks to Xbox Live he plays games with/against them all the time. His dad had to use that shared family phone to call his friends to coordinate a time to meet at the arcade to watch each other play Galactica. Once that beautiful day in the early 80s rolled around when he got his first Atari system he called his friends over so that could play Atari football head-to-head!

The point is that teens are decreasingly equating a driver's license with freedom. In fact our youngest has flat out said that he's dreading getting his license because he doesn't want the responsibility. On the other hand his dad is pushing him hard to get the damn license so he doesn't have to keep getting out of bed an hour earlier than normal in order to get the kid to school in time to catch the bus to the career center!

But I digress. There truly is a large behavioral shift going on with the younger members of our society. Thanks to the mortgage meltdown many young adults no longer assume that homeownership is all that their parents thought it was cracked up to be, and now that people have mobile networks at their disposal they're no longer socializing in the same way either. Of course kids will still want to get together to party and act like the fools they are, but how often they get together and how they get there is changing very quickly and those habits and patterns will last into their adult years. It'll be interesting to see how it all shakes out.

The Bikeshed Effect

Over at the Atlantic Wire they ask the question, "Why do we care about things that don't really matter?" Here's one reason:

The Bikeshed Effect, more formally known as Parkinson's Law of Triviality derived from the humor book Parkinson's Law, is "the principle that the amount of discussion is inversely proportional to the complexity of the topic," as explained in Producing Open Source Software: How to Run a Successful Free Software Project. The most classic and titular example is that people care more about the color of a bike shed than the decision to build a nuclear plant because they know about colors and don't know about nuclear power.

As they go on to point out the effect influences what we talk about and thus what generates "discussion" in our modern world:

Since everyone needs to say something — especially on the Internet — these mundane things get talked about often and with vigor. Meanwhile, the more complex questions — like "How Will Yahoo Increase CPM's Given Current Trends in Digital Advertising?" — get much less attention because most people can't comment with any intelligence, as The Guardian's Oliver Burkman explained in his column "Why trivia is so important" back in 2010. "Each wants to demonstrate, to the boss or to themselves, that they are taking part, paying attention, making a difference, 'adding value,'" he wrote. "But with complex subjects about which they're ignorant, they can't: they risk humiliation."

The dumbest topics — the tilt of an exclamation point, for example — therefore, get the most attention. A related phenomenon happens a lot in the work-life balance debate, which relies a lot on personal anecdotes to talk about an important societal question. Without much knowledge or data on women in the workforce, writers and thinkers revert to their personal experiences to fuel the debate. Since these people are women and have worked and have also had children, they can speak to the issue with some intelligence. That leaves harder questions, like how most women can improve working while raising families, on the sidelines. 

People have always been trivial, ill-informed bloviators but now thanks to the online extensions of our society the effect is amplified. Rather than only being exposed only to the nimrods in your circle of friends, family, coworkers and neighbors your exposed to the hundreds of millions of nimrods you can find online. What a truly depressing thought.

Importance of Being an Information Omnivore

How much time do you spend at work looking at information that would be classified as outside the realm of your expertise or not part of your core job description? If your answer is "very little" then you could be setting yourself up for eventual failure or at a minimum unnecessarily limiting your ability to succeed. Why? Because you need to understand not just your world, but the universe in which your world exists.

If you need an example you need look no further than what has happened to many people in the newspaper industry. 15 years ago many newspapers were riding high, boasting fat profit margins and enjoying monopolies in their markets. Then they were blindsided by what the internet represented – a distributed network of information sharing that pushed them from the center of the daily information ecosystem. Should the folks working in the newspaper industry have seen it coming? In retrospect it's easy to say yes, but at the time the vast majority of them had not an inkling of what the internet/web was about and so could not conceive how they might be able to utilize it to beat their competition, much less prevent it from decimating their entire business.

But what if some of the senior newspaper execs had spent the late '80s or early '90s looking at the larger universe of information distribution, looking at their circulation operations as one form of information distribution and figuring out how these new forms of distribution could change their business? It's quite likely that some did, and surely there are publishers out there who can point back to efforts at starting fax-based updates, email alerts, etc. But how many truly took the time to understand the underlying shift in information flow, to grasp how the new technology would be adopted by their customers and how they might shift to meet those changing consumption patterns? It's pretty plain by the state of the industry today that not many succeeded if they tried.

Over the last few years the big shift for many industries has been the rapidly expanding adoption of smartphones (over 50% of the US market now uses smartphones), but anyone who's been paying attention has seen it coming and hopefully has been adjusting to address this new reality. But what's next? What's the next big shift in how we do business going to be? It could be something related to Bitcoin, and the why is explained by venture capitalist Fred Wilson in a blog post he wrote to explain his firm's investment in a company called Coinbase:

We believe that Bitcoin represents something fundamental and powerful, an open and distributed Internet peer to peer protocol for transferring purchasing power. It reminds us of SMTP, HTTP, RSS, and BitTorrent in its architecture and openness. Like what happened with those other low level protocols, entrepreneurs and developers are now building technology on top of Bitcoin to make it more useful, more accessible, and more secure.

This has the smell of something important because it could potentially change how companies exchange services for compensation. What's more fundamental to a business than that? More importantly, how much could something like that change your business? Well, how much did the wide adoption of credit cards change business 30+ years ago? But that only offers part of the answer since this feels like something that eases transactions like credit cards did, but expands the market like the web did.  And who could this new development threaten? The banks are a good bet.

So who thinks that bankers truly understand what this could represent? Sure, they see it and they think about it, but how many truly understand the tectonic shift going on beneath the surface. Probably not many, because you can bet there probably aren't many bankers who have stopped counting their money long enough to try and understand this "Bitcoin World" and they could suffer the fate that many newspapers have over the last ten years.

That's where the title of this post comes into play. It is vitally important for all of us to be information omnivores, because you must understand the larger context in which you're working and living. While you don't need to understand all the technology that underlies what we do, just like you don't have to know how an internal combustion engine works to understand the affect of cars, you do need to understand how their application and adoption will affect your business or your life. How do you do this? Simply by being curious. Watch TED talks, read articles in trade magazines from industries that aren't your own, read the blogs of experts in other fields, take a class at a local community college or take a free class from one of the online programs like Coursera. The possibilities are almost endless and even if you never apply the information you glean to your day job you'll know something you wouldn't have otherwise. Worst case scenario you'll probably get better at Trivial Pursuit and you'll be able to wow people at dinner parties with your amazing grasp of (seemingly) worthless knowledge. More likely you'll find that your newfound knowledge will come in handy in ways you never anticipated.

The Rich Really Are Different

Whenever I read something that essentially says, "This group of people is different because…" I immediately think, "Well, I know X person who fits that group and he definitely doesn't fit that mold." And of course it's true; any time you make a general statement about a group you're going to have lots of exceptions, but it's important to remember that those exceptions don't necessarily disprove the general statement. That being said check out this article that explores some research that's been done about the affect that money has on people. The research shows that money changes people, and not always for the better:

In fact, a number of new studies suggest that, in certain key ways, people with that much money are not like the rest of us at all. As a mounting body of research is showing, wealth can actually change how we think and behave—and not for the better. Rich people have a harder time connecting with others, showing less empathy to the extent of dehumanizing those who are different from them. They are less charitable and generous. They are less likely to help someone in trouble. And they are more likely to defend an unfair status quo. If you think you’d behave differently in their place, meanwhile, you’re probably wrong: These aren’t just inherited traits, but developed ones. Money, in other words, changes who you are.

I Don’t Know

Want to surprise someone?  Admit you don't know the answer to a question, especially if it's a question about a topic on which you're supposed to be an expert.  Personally I respect anyone who has the guts to admit they don't know everything, and I took to heart a lesson I was taught early in my career; if you don't know the answer to a question the right response is "I don't know, but I'll be happy to find out for you."

The guys at Freakonomics recently posted two interesting items related to "I Don't Know."  The first was a response to the question “Why do people feel compelled to answer questions that they do not know the answer to?”.  The answer:

What I’ve found in business is that almost no one will ever admit to not knowing the answer to a question. So even if they absolutely have no idea what the answer is, if it’s within their realm of expertise, faking is just an important part. I really have come to believe teaching MBAs that one of the most  important things you learn as an MBA is how to pretend you know the answer to any question even though you have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about. And I’ve found it’s really one of the most destructive factors in business — is that everyone masquerades like they know the answer and no one will ever admit they don’t know the answer, and it makes it almost impossible to learn.

The second was a comment left by one of their readers:

In my classroom, students lose 1/4 point for wrong answers on quizzes. But for writing “I don’t know,” they get 1/4 point. (A correct answer is 1 point). The rationale is that if someone is in a medical emergency, and someone asks me what should be done, the answer “I don’t know” is much preferable to a guess. “I don’t know” leads the questioner to ask someone who hopefully is knowledgeable.

Part of why “I don’t know is so hard to say” stems from an education system based on attempting every single question, whether you know the answer or not.

P.S.: End-of-year student survey showed students strongly supported the +1/4 point IDK and -1/4 point wrong-answer system. 

If you think about it we do a lot of things that teach our kids to fear admitting ignorance, or making a mistake, and that inevitably leads to sending people into society who value being perceived as right more than they do actually being right.  I don't even want to think about the mischief we've brought on ourselves as a result.

United Republic

Although I think United Republic would be a great name for a band for the purposes of this post it refers to a new organization that wants to get big money out of politics.  While I'm somewhat sympathetic to the Occupy movement, and very skeptical as to its actual effectiveness, I think that groups like United Republic offer more promise to actually do something to help fix our political system. Here's a short video featuring Larry Lessig talking about the new coalition:

Lawrence Lessig Welcomes Rootstrikers to United Republic from Rootstrikers on Vimeo.


He’s More Than a Dirty Guy

Mike Rowe, the Dirty Jobs dude, testified before Congress about the lack of skilled labor we have in the US and the related problem of the marginalization of vocational education in our society:

I believe we need a national PR Campaign for Skilled Labor. A big one. Something that addresses the widening skills gap head on, and reconnects the country with the most important part of our workforce.

Right now, American manufacturing is struggling to fill 200,000 vacant positions. There are 450,000 openings in trades, transportation and utilities. The skills gap is real, and it's getting wider. In Alabama, a third of all skilled tradesmen are over 55. They're retiring fast, and no one is there to replace them.

Alabama's not alone. A few months ago in Atlanta I ran into Tom Vilsack, our Secretary of Agriculture. Tom told me about a governor who was unable to move forward on the construction of a power plant. The reason was telling. It wasn't a lack of funds. It wasn't a lack of support. It was a lack of qualified welders.

In general, we're surprised that high unemployment can exist at the same time as a skilled labor shortage. We shouldn't be. We've pretty much guaranteed it.

In high schools, the vocational arts have all but vanished. We've elevated the importance of "higher education" to such a lofty perch that all other forms of knowledge are now labeled "alternative." Millions of parents and kids see apprenticeships and on-the-job-training opportunities as "vocational consolation prizes," best suited for those not cut out for a four-year degree. And still, we talk about millions of "shovel ready" jobs for a society that doesn't encourage people to pick up a shovel.

I think he's absolutely right.  College isn't for everyone.  Desk jobs aren't for everyone.  Our society needs to get back to the point where we applaud and appropriately reward hard work, whether or not it takes place on a computer or in a ditch.

By the way, my favorite part of his testimony was at the beginning when he was talking about his grandfather, a jack of all trades, who inspired him to create Dirty Jobs:

I remember one Saturday morning when I was 12. I flushed the toilet in the same way I always had. The toilet however, responded in a way that was completely out of character. There was a rumbling sound, followed by a distant gurgle. Then, everything that had gone down reappeared in a rather violent and spectacular fashion.

Naturally, my grandfather was called in to investigate, and within the hour I was invited to join he and my dad in the front yard with picks and shovels.

By lunch, the lawn was littered with fragments of old pipe and mounds of dirt. There was welding and pipe-fitting, blisters and laughter, and maybe some questionable language. By sunset we were completely filthy. But a new pipe was installed, the dirt was back in the hole, and our toilet was back on its best behavior. It was one of my favorite days ever.

I loved this part because, quite frankly, I've held the role of Turd Man of Alcatraz for far too long and I'm in the midst of a long-term land war with my septic system.  Let's just say my appreciation and admiration of those who do the dirty jobs is quite high.

Quality of Death Index

After my post last week re. dying with dignity you might think I'm on a death kick here, but really it's just coincidence.  Just read this post at BookofJoe about an article in The Economist about an attempt to assess the dying process throughout the world:

Britain tops the table. For all the health-care system’s faults, British doctors tend to be honest about prognoses. The mortally ill get plentiful pain killers. A well-established hospice movement cares for people near death, although only 4% of deaths occur in them. For similar reasons, Australia and New Zealand rank highly too.

Some countries, such as Denmark and Finland, that normally score higher than Britain on human-development indices rank lower on the quality-of-death index. They concentrate more on preventing death (which they see as a medical failure) rather than on helping people die without suffering pain, discomfort and distress. America scores poorly because of the health insurers’ rule that they pay for palliative care only if a patient relinquishes curative treatments.