Read This Book: “Life, Inc”

As part of my research into the Connected Age, and why business needs to be more human, I came across Douglas Rushkoff’s “Life Inc: How Corporatism Conquered the World And How to Take It Back.”

This is an important, eye-opening book. Rushkoff is a akin to Neo in the Matrix, seeing through our societal behavior to the corporatism that undergirds everything.

There are two main things I appreciate about this book. The first is political. In 2000, I caught a lot of grief for having supported Nader. My point at the time is that the difference between Bush and Gore was negligible. Nader’s point was that corporate influence had rendered the two main political parties nearly identical. While perhaps an unpopular opinion, I still believe that to be true — just look at how many of Bush’s policies Obama carries on. And real solutions for our social, economic, health, and environmental challenges will be neglected or heavily compromised, because of corporatism.

The other is professional. As I discussed in my post addressing bureaucracies, the prevalent belief is that this is how things have always been, and so this is how things will inevitably be. Rushkoff points out that much of what we take for granted — corporations, centralized currencies, real estate — are fabrications, created by the powerful to maintain their influence and inhibit people from engaging directly with one another.

Sometimes this book feels like medicine — reading it is good for you, but not necessarily fun. Nevertheless, it’s worth the effort.

…and there’s no way that Ticketmaster is Connected

An article in today’s NY Times talks about how the man who was instrumental for growing Ticketmaster to be the value-draining behemoth we all hate is now spearheading a competitor that aims to return ticketing to the specific venues. Ticketmaster is most definitely a hanger-on from an earlier era, and it’s inevitable that startups will aim at bringing the values of the Connected Age to ticket sales. Honestly, I’m doubtful that this guy is the one to do it, but when your customers hate you as much as Ticketmaster’s does, once there’s a viable option, people will flock.

Textbook publishers are most definitely not ready for the Connected Age

This article is about a month old, I know, but still worth pointing to: Salman Khan: The Messiah of Math. It’s an excellent example of how, when you engage in approaches that are suitable to the Connected Age, you can make serious inroads. Textbook publishers are among the most backwards businesses you can imagine, sadly clinging to an obviously outdated business model. If Craigslist can eviscerate the newspapers, can Khan Academy break us free from the stranglehold of the textbook publishers? (Even though in the article, Salman Khan says part of the magic of his efforts is that his is a non-profit, I don’t see any reason this couldn’t be a company, a la Craigslist — you don’t have to be rapacious to be successful!)

Book Review: The Most Human Human (in short: read it!)

After seeing the an interview with author on The Daily Show, and reading a glowing notice in The New Yorker, I made a priority of finishing The Most Human Human before I ended family leave.

It’s a delightful and discursive book, wending its way through cognitive science, philosophy, poetry, artificial intelligence, embodied experience, and more. The author, Brian Christian, writes with a deft touch, in an episodic and occasionally meandering style that feels like you’re taking part in a good conversation.

Which makes sense, considering the book’s supposed raison d’etre is the author’s preparation for being a confederate (a human participant) for the Loebner Prize, in which judges of a Turing test have conversations with computers and humans, to determine both The Most Human Computer and The Most Human Human.

As part of this training, Brian, who has B.A.s in philosophy and computer science (from Brown, natch), and an MFA in poetry, endeavors to better understand just what makes humans human. In doing so, he runs across what he calls “The Sentence,” which every discipline that studies humans (anthropology, psychology, sociology, etc.) has some version of, and goes something like, “The human being is the only animal that ____________”. Except that the items that have filled in that blank (“uses tools”, “has language,” “feels remorse”, “thinks”, etc. etc.) have been taken down one by one. Perhaps the best fill-in is, “obsesses about its own uniqueness,” because, really, what does it matter if humans aren’t wholly unique (except, perhaps, in our agglomeration of traits), and yet why do we seem to get so worked up about being distinct from all other creatures? But I digress.

This book came at a particularly opportune time, given the theme of my recent writing on business in the Connected Age — that it needs to embrace our humanity. In the context of computation and automation, Brian addresses the world of work, how many activities that were once done by people are now done by machines, computers, and robots. He astutely points out that replacing people with machines isn’t the problem, but what happens before then, when people’s work tasks become so rote and repetitive, that you’ve essentially turned people into machines. You can’t have IVR (interactive voice response) until you’ve already turned customer service representatives into automatons by requiring them to closely follow a pre-defined script.

The book also digs into our collective left-brain bias, with a quote from Oliver Sacks: “The entire history of neurology and neuropsychology can be seen as a history of the investigation of the left hemisphere.” It’s becoming clear, though, that we favor the left-brain over the right at our own peril — those with strokes affecting right-brain function can find it impossible to make decisions, because it turns out decisions are rooted in emotion, not rational analysis. There’s even a mention of user experience, and how it’s ascent demonstrates a shift away from a left-brained “rational” desire for more features and functions, toward a whole-brained understanding of how people behave, to support, as my colleague Jesse calls it, “human engagement.”

Anyway, I could go on, but I simply don’t have the time. In short, get the book, read it, engage with it, talk to it, take notes as you think about it, and enjoy it.

The “Connected” Meme Flourishes

At the beginning of March, I gave a talk where I posit that we are in a “Connected Age” and that business must alter its practices accordingly. Shortly after, I find out that Dave Gray had recently written a blog post about the Connected Company, which then turned into its own blog, and Google Group.

And now I hear about Tiffany Shlain’s new film, “Connected”, a documentary that is tag-lined “an autobiography about love, death, and technology,” and which seems to hit on many of the themes I’ve been mulling around the Connected Age.

(And in finding out about the film, I found out about the book Living Networks, “leading your company, customers, and partners in the hyper-connected economy.”


Thanks to paid family leave, Stacy and I were able to duck out to a matinee of Cave of Forgotten Dreams, in 3D… with an 8-week-old in tow!

The subject matter of the film, the prehistoric art on the walls of the Chauvet Cave, is heartstoppingly powerful. Bearing witness to creative and communicative output that is over 30,000 years old was emotionally overwhelming — more than once I nearly sobbed as I took in the imagery. This art connects us not with “a people” from over 30,000 years ago (a span of 1,500 generations), but with specific individuals. The quality of the art is stunning, and it becomes evident that we’re not so different from those Cro-Magnons who ran Europe wearing reindeer to survive during the ice age.

A perhaps more quotidian thought occurred to me, related to my recent writing on the Connected Age. The primary theme running through my latest work is that business must embrace humanity, human values, human ideals. And this movie makes evident that the creative impulse, manifested in visual art and music, is key to human-ness. The cave art seems to have two purposes — to help understand and process the world around them, and to communicate to others what you’ve experienced. Those activities of understanding and communicating are foundational in the Connected Age.

I’m of the opinion that Cave of Forgotten Dreams should be required viewing for, well, everyone. It would be hard to find a more universal film, even one told through the idiosyncratic perspective of Werner Herzog. 3-D is definitely a “feature” — though occasionally head-hurting, it’s essential to appreciate the undulations within the caves, and how the artists used the topography in their work.

As things get trickier, we need to get more human

Earlier, I wrote that the Information Age was simply an extension of the Industrial Age, as the introduction of computation further entrenched bureaucratic values.

One key way that the Information Age differed from the Industrial Age was the development of complexification. Electro-mechanical things have a certain limit to just what they can do. Embed them with microchips, and you can add enormous functionality. Multi-purpose computers replaced single-purpose typewriters and tabulating machines. The remarkable malleability of software enabled complexity like we’d never seen before.

It’s important to recognize this complexification as a parallel development to connectedness, because it’s the two of them, working in concert, that has lead to the context in which we work today. When you combine the complexification of software with the emergent properties of networked connectedness, what arises is by nature unpredictable and chaotic. And the bureaucratic, hierarchical, command-and-control approaches that worked when offerings were relatively simple, fail to address this new reality. Particularly when you also consider the shift from product to service, where the “offering” exists only in the ephemeral relationship between the company and customer.

It turns out that humans, given a chance to engage with their complete selves, are pretty good at dealing with complexity and connectedness. As I wrote in “Innovate Like a Kindergartner,” I’m convinced that the interest in “design thinking” is less about exploiting the power of design, and more about getting in touch with those things that make us human. As businesses realize this, we’re seeing a re-humanizing of the workplace.

From Industrial/Information Age to Connected Age

I am endlessly frustrated by how we cling to 19th and 20th century paradigms for conducting business in the 21st century. When it comes to business, much of what we take for granted, which we assume to be just how things are, were actually purpose-built, beginning in the Industrial Age. Before then, you had a combination agrarian and mercantile economy, and business simply didn’t operate at a scale that required systemic management.

Then, in order to take advantage of the big machines made possible by the industrial revolution, to get the most out of their ability to produce in mass and distribute far and wide, business developed tools and practices that enabled such growth. The prevailing management approach was that of the bureaucracy, wherein the organization became a system to produce a predetermined outcome (over and over again). This proved ideal for business (and much of society) in the Industrial Age, because bureaucracy supports the values of efficiency, calculability, consistency, and predictability.

However, it also dehumanizes the people who work within them. They are reduced to job titles and a set of responsibilities. They become figurative cogs in the machine. And when computers and the Information Age arrived, there was talk about how this was going to free people from the drudgery of their work lives, and allow them to think. However, it turns out that the Information Age simply retrenched those bureaucratic values, because computers are great at supporting them.

It wasn’t until the prevalence of networked computers that we found ourselves entering a new age. And you could call this the Networked Age, but I find that to be a little too reductive. Networks are important, but they’re simply an enabling technology. I prefer Connected Age because it speaks to the truly human value of connectedness. Because what’s interesting about the network is how it brings people together.

This connected stimulates new relationships between people, other humanistic values arise. This was the subject of The Cluetrain Manifesto, over 10 years old and one of the seminal works of the Connected Age. People now crave authenticity in their interactions with business, which, as this post from Kottke points out, some companies do well, and others… not so much. These relationships also benefit from mutual trust, which some companies are learning can reap interesting new benefits.

The Connected Age also means that businesses must grapple with the messiness of humanity, because when people are freer to interact, unpredictability occurs. And, the decentralized networks that form the substrate of the Connected Age lead to emergent properties that, byt their very nature, are also unpredictable.

The bureaucratic model that served us in the Industrial and Information Age needs to be set aside for one that is responsive to how business (and society) actually operates today.

Breaking Free From the Iron Cage: Business in the Connected Age

Given the nature of my work, the lens through which I tend to look at things is about how can organizations deliver great experiences. Most people, when thinking about experience design, focus on execution — design and development. And while quality execution is crucial, it’s also the most straightforward element. It requires skill, talent, and experience, but the basics of good design are commonly understood by practitioners.

If the execution of delivering experiences is straightforward, why are so many experiences so bad? When addressing this question, the next step that many take, moving beyond execution, is to consider strategy and planning. The logic being, good experiences aren’t delivered because their execution is muddied by bad planning, or a lack of a coherent strategy to provide a focus, a vision, for those trying to deliver these experiences.

Strategy and planning, by nature being abstract and often ambiguous, is less straightforward than execution. However, we do have tools for tackling these challenges, giving shape to this amorphousness. And as you dig into strategic challenges that organizations face, you realize that the problem isn’t simply one of strategy or planning — given the right tools, any organization can come up with a strategy or plan.

So, if strategy and planning are manageable, it again begs the question, why are so many experiences so bad? And as you dig further, you realize the problem is with the organization itself. Strategies, plans, and execution are all outputs of organizational behavior. And if your organization is broken, if its values are ill-defined, its vision unclear, and its goals too restrictive, this will inevitably lead to mindless strategies, ill-considered plans, and sub-par execution.

So you need to address the extremely challenging aspects of organizational dynamics, interpersonal relationships, and all manner of, well, people stuff. And when you do that, you realize most corporations still operate under the mechanistic and bureaucratic practices of the 19th and 20th centuries, born of railroad functions and mass manufacturing. These bureaucratic approaches are inherently dehumanizing, and so these organizations struggle with the key characteristic of delivering great experiences–human engagement.

And so, as we move from the Industrial Age to what I (and a few others) call the Connected Age, we’re seeing that companies emerging as successful are often those that are the most human. (Where is the Information Age, you might ask? For the purposes of my thesis, I see the Information Age as an extension of the Industrial Age. More on that in later posts.)

This was the thesis for a talk I gave at MX 2011, which has just been posted. Watch it here:

MX 2011 | Peter Merholz | Why Business Must Be Human from Adaptive Path on Vimeo.

This talk was both a culmination of some writing I’d been doing (Innovate Like A Kindergartner, What Trust Brings To Amazon, Zappos, and USAA), and the beginning of an exploration I’m starting on what it means to conduct business in the Connected Age. I plan on posting a lot about my research and thinking about the Connected Age. I will leave you with a simple set of distinctions between values and characteristics of business in the Industrial/Information Age and Connected Age… It’ll give you a sense of where my head is. (And the links refer to where some of these ideas are coming from)

Industrial/Information Age Connected Age
Products Services
Manufacturing Customer experiences
Ownership Access
Stocks Flows
Efficiency Effectiveness
Analytical Generative
Silos Cross-functional
Hierarchical Hyperlinked
Individual Social
Isolation Relationships
Algorithmic Heuristic
Same Path Explore
Work Play
External Rewards Intrinsic Motivation
Control Autonomy
Marketing/Advertising Word of Mouth, sharing

If any of this spurs your thoughts, I’d love to read them in the comments!