Still Amusing Ourselves To Death

Several months ago, a friend recommended a book (all my friends seem to recommend books to me, I assume as a form of torture) in a group Slack channel that we all avoid work with. That book was Amusing Ourselves To Death by Neil Postman, a book old by today’s standards (first published in 1985). It is about the author’s concern about the downfall of Western Civilization with the onset of the Age of Television. Heady stuff. I put in a request for the book at the Plano Library since they had a copy and it came up for loan about three weeks ago. Most of the time, I would have attempted to read the book, gotten slightly bored or very distracted, and moved on. But this book struck a chord with me and I managed to finish it in the allotted two week checkout window.

Originally about the cultural changes that television brought to American culture and political discourse, the book rings quite true today. Postman’s main thesis was that because television is designed around images and because images are by their nature decontextualized from any cohesive context, television was radically restructuring our civilization to be incapable of serious thought or discourse. In my mind, Postman’s fears were both accurate and incomplete. What television began, the Internet fully realized, specifically social media and the delivery of “news” to most people via that medium.

Postman was singularly concerned with our growing inability to have serious conversations about much of anything because the medium of television naturally controlled and guided what things we were capable of talking about. This idea isn’t novel to Postman as he notes in the book. Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message” and Noam Chomsky has built a legacy on how mass media controls and frames what we believe. However, Postman fully fleshed out the idea that the medium of television had a direct impact on what topics we as a civilization were capable of discussing in the public sphere.

Because television was built to appeal to the most people possible and because it was built on images and not language, it set guardrails around what the sphere of available discourse was.

To put it plainly, television is the command center of the new epistemology. There is no audience so young that it is barred from television. There is no poverty so abject that it must forgo television. There is no education so exalted that it is not modified by television. And most important of all, there is no subject of public interest—politics, news, education, religion, science, sports—that does not find its way to television. Which means that all public understanding of these subjects is shaped by the biases of television.

Postman, p.78.

The discussion of all these subjects of public interest began to be shaped by the biases of television, namely that everything was a performance and that credibility (or the appearance thereof) held more importance than reality. Postman talks deeply about the debates between Lincoln and Douglas where the two men talked and debated before an audience for long hours and the audience NEVER GOT BORED. Contrast that with the debates of the last election cycle, where answers to questions were time boxed to single digit minutes or less in a format that would seem almost Twitter-like in its brevity. The debates of today are about the appearance of winning and not about any serious logical issues that a candidate might bring up. This has happened because the medium of television (and I’d argue social media even more so) has biases that shape and frame the topics that appear there.

Today, Postman’s views seem both prescient and quaint. We just finished a four year Presidential cycle with a celebrity in the starring role, a role he was shockingly well built for. During that time, the media through TV and social media further polarized the American people. The American people have apparently lost all ability to deeply engage in moral and political issues. Our entire national discourse and attention span is built around disinformation and decontextualized beliefs. While there is plenty of blame to go round, I believe most of the problems lie in our mediums of information and their design.

Children grow up on social media. The ad economy controls and directs, with or without our consent (Chomsky would say most definitely without) and we are impotent in our actions because the events that impact us are decontexualized from reality. We joke about how short our attention spans are never bothering to realize how critical deep, intellectual discourse is to full understanding and power. One has to assume Postman would be appalled with the state of Western Civilization. Mass media frames and controls our understanding of the world and it is almost entirely performance art, devoid of context of history or depth of understanding.

So what can be done about it? Postman worried that the horse had left the barn regarding TV and it is even worse now. However, odd as it sounds, I think a return to active antitrust enforcement as it relates to the tech giants like Google and Facebook would have a second order effect of limiting the impacts. They are both known to increase polarization because it is in their ad economy based interests. Limiting their monopoly power would help.

A return to localization would also serve us well. Small, diverse communities that governed, provided for and protected each other would expand the options for discourse and discussion. By focusing on the nearby, those events that do not matter to us or that we can take no action on would fall farther down our attention span. The fact that we are currently bombarded with news upon which we can take no action at all is a major contributor to our depression, our anxiety and the impotency we live with. Our local communities are the only sphere of influence that we really have and by focusing on them instead of random events that happen in other states or countries, we could begin to expand beyond our current experiment with extreme polarization.

But it’s hard to be optimistic about the chances. Our national discourse has been reduced even further since Postman’s book to the point where politicians posting sound bytes on Twitter are considered the norm. It is hard to see a large majority of Americans deciding that they need to deepen their knowledge of anything when avoiding that depth is so much more entertaining. Postman’s work was a harbinger of a much darker time in the development of our national discourse. Where we go from here does not seem likely to be in a more promising direction.

Hallelujah Anyway

I have been on an Anne Lamott kick lately. I’m reading her book on writing, Bird by Bird and I have checked out both Almost Everything and Hallelujah Anyway from the library. I managed to finish Hallelujah Anyway over the course of about 6 weeks of listening to it between sets while working out in the mornings. The book is about mercy, a concept greatly lacking in our modern world, one that if you were to ask the average human “Who is one person you wish you were more merciful with?”, they’d probably think you were deranged. This is unfortunate given its immense power to provide actual freedom, partially to the receiver but more importantly to the giver.

Mercy is defined as “compassion or forbearance shown especially to an offender or to one subject to one’s power.” Lamott’s book is almost entirely about mercy for ourselves even though where that often begins is with mercy with someone who has wronged us. The definition of the term implies a hierarchical relationship between two people as in a king and a subject or a judge and a criminal. In these instances, the ability to give mercy is built into the hierarchical relationship. A judge can show mercy on a criminal in certain circumstances. Perhaps it’s a first offense or a partially justifiable crime or any other situation that might warrant leniency. But the criminal cannot show mercy to the judge, not in the sense we might often interpret the word.

The beauty of Lamott’s book and her insight is that she turns this on its head by pointing out the fact that often when we need to impart mercy to someone in our lives, we have allowed the subject to hold the power over our freedom and our psychological health. We all have stories of people who have deeply hurt us. Many of us cling to these hurts as if they are treasure, building up a wall from them so that we can avoid being hurt again. The irony of this is that the offender often has no real power over us in the sense that a king or a judge has over those before them. We willingly give the offender the power to control our minds by focusing on what they have done to us, letting it fester or grow cancer-like for years. It consumes energy and causes anxiety. We become the slave, the subject, as if we need the mercy. We accept the sin against us as if it were a truth about our actual person.

Lamott shows in the book through her personal experiences with mercy how only by giving mercy to ourselves, often by first forgiving the original slight, can we gain back the wonderful freedom we had before. Instead of allowing the sin or slight against us to define who we are, convincing ourselves we really are dumb or ugly or fat or whatever else someone accused us of, we must show mercy to ourselves. Only then can we stop being the criminal in the transaction and become whole again. When we choose to cling to past hurts, we give up our freedom. The only way to regain that freedom is to forgive.

This is a powerful concept but not one found in wide use in our modern world of constant attacks, polarization, and antagonism framed as debate. The beauty of the concept is that once we become more merciful with ourselves, we become more merciful with the world. We become not weaker, which would be the common conception of someone who is merciful, but more powerful, able to withstand great events of fate that turn against us with grace and happiness. When we hold on to the hurts, we willingly take our freedom and give it away to ghosts that don’t even exist. To regain that freedom, we must be willing to be merciful, first with ourselves and then others.

I struggle with this a great deal. I have Imposter Syndrome about just about everything. I prefer justice, preferably fateful in nature, over mercy any day. Most people do. We have a keen sense of fairness as human beings and when we are hurt, we prefer to have the world make it right by imparting some justice for us. But this so rarely happens. Lamott teaches that it is ok to be an Impostor, that maybe, just maybe, you aren’t if you’d only allow yourself the right to forgive yourself for it all. It’s a battle but one worth jumping into because without it, my freedom is being given to people or things that don’t deserve it.

The book has a great deal more to it about regaining a sense of wonder and curiosity and joy through the power of mercy. It is a tonic for our modern world in many ways and definitely worth the read or listen. Lamott believes strongly in a spiritual, mystic Christianity but there is plenty in the book for people who do not. It’s a fast read and full of Lamott’s usual wit and subtle humor. If you are looking for a way out of the polarization and out of the trap of holding on to things that steal your freedom and joy, it’s a good start.

On Individual and Departmental Goals

It’s that time of year again whereupon three months into the year, organizations everywhere begin the exciting task of examining the tabula rasa of a new year filled with potential of achieving amazing things. As part of that task, many organizations set goals for individuals and departments in hopes that they will lead said individuals and departments to greater success for the company. There is no shortage of information on this topic, freely available after a short Google search.

One common theme to goal setting is that they must be SMART which is a fun HR derived acronym for Specific, Measurable, Aggressive, Realistic and Time-bound. Substantial evidence shows that goals set in this manner are in fact correlated with happier, more motivated employees and greater success in the achievement of the goals. However, I would argue that the resultant success and happiness are not caused by the fact that goals are SMART but instead by the underlying process through which the goals are worked towards. It is quite feasible that an organization would set SMART goals and then still have highly unhappy employees who achieve few if any of the goals nine months later. This happens because goals alone are useless regardless of how SMART they are. Goal achievement relies on the underlying system and strategy that support the goals.

Scott Adams has written about the difference between systems and goals. We all have regular experience with goals gone awry. Many of us are sure this will be the time that we lose 20 lbs or exercise more or read more books or whatever. It does not matter if the goal is SMART or not. I can say “I will read 24 books in 2021” which is Specific (read more books), Measurable (24), Aggressive (I read 7 last year), Realistic (outside any context of course which is critical) and Time-Bound (one year). But if there is no underlying system and strategy for accomplishing this goal, all the smartness in the world will result in the same failure.

A system is a set of things—people, cells, molecules, or whatever—interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time. The system may be buffeted, constricted, triggered, or driven by outside forces. But the system’s response to these forces is characteristic of itself, and that response is seldom simple in the real world.

Donella Meadows, Thinking In Systems

System has a specific definition and meaning in this setting. It is the interconnected nature of the pieces of the system that produce the results that the system outputs. In order for an organization or a department or an individual to achieve goals, there must be an underlying system of management designed at least in part to facilitate the necessary behavior of goal accomplishment. If this system is designed, either intentionally or more often haphazardly, to produce behavior other than goal accomplishment, no amount of SMARTness will ever overcome it.

A trivial example applied to my desire to read more books. On its face, the goal seems SMART. However, that is only so if the underlying system that I use to make choices with my free time has taken into consideration the constraints on that time. Unless I have examined the amount of free time I had in 2020 and discovered a great deal more of it and then dedicated my future expenditures of that time to reading via a disciplined schedule, the goal of 24 books is much more likely to be DUMB (Definitely Underestimating My Behavior) than it is to be SMART even though on the surface, the goal seems to conform to the definition.

I would actually argue that one of the core principles of good management is the diagnosis and analysis of the Realistic in SMART. This is the area where management skills make or break the underlying system that allow successful goal achievement. In order to determine if a goal is realistic, a manager must understand and be able to answer the following questions:

  • What is the underlying system of how work gets done by the organization?
  • What is the underlying system of how work gets done by the department?
  • What is the underlying motivational type of the individual (if setting individual goals)?
  • Are all of these cohesive with each other?
  • Are they congruent with each other? (see Esther Derby’s work on Change and Congruence)
  • What are the constraints on work within the system?
  • How much work can the org, department or individual realistically do given the system within which it operates?
  • And so on and so on.

The key to successful goal setting and achievement is to have an underlying system of behavior that clearly defines what is realistic. It is not realistic to lose 10 lbs if you do not throw away all the Cheetohs in the pantry and continue to eat donuts every Saturday morning because it is a family tradition. The system that includes Cheetohs and donuts will overcome any amount of SMART goal setting because it is the system that produces the behavior that leads to outcomes. It is not realistic to have 8 priority one departmental goals if the underlying system of the organization is such that at any moment the entire department may be reallocated to focus on unrelated organizational goals.

A good manager understands the constraints on what is and is not realistic for an organization, department and individual. Here lie the dragons of management. Most goal setting exercises I have been a part of have applied a great deal of wishful thinking and magical handwaving around the capacity of the organizational structure. Most of these exercises identify several things that seem highly desirable and then ask “can we do all this?” Because humans are naturally inclined to be good, your experience with social media notwithstanding, the result is often a half-hearted “yes” if only so that we can get on about the business of actually doing work. But in order to have not only successful goal setting but also goal achievement, we must have a more rigorous system around what is realistic. At the very least, a manager must understand the constraints of the system within which she operates and have a strategy for dealing with those constraints.

The strategy work of Richard Rumelt is very helpful here. Specifically, we must realize that good strategy is about policy choice and commitment to action. We have to write strategies for our goals that lay out policies to guide action towards the system behavior that we want. We must lay out consequences for violating the strategy and be prepared to defend them. Circling back to my personal goal, when I discover I have 30 minutes of free time and am thinking about practicing my guitar, I must realize that this hampers the realistic definition of my reading goal and that there are consequences to that choice. The same goes for reducing technical debt of an engineering organization. When faced with opportunity of some free time, if we fill it with yet another story delivering business value instead of dedicating it to removing NHibernate (don’t ask), we have violated the Realistic nature of our goal. To prevent this from happening, we have to have hard policies that say things like “when presented with available resource time, we will always choose to apply that time to the reduction of technical debt”. This guides teams actions but does not dictate it. They can still choose what actions to take within the guardrails of the policy. We must also then ensure that free time both exists and is encouraged. If it does not or cannot be created due to organizational constraints, no amount of SMART goal setting will ever result in a different behavior.

By building a system that produces the behavior we want, goals become mostly secondary in nature. If there are clear policies and feedback loops built into the system to confirm, analyze and affirm behavior, goals will just happen. We must understand the constraints of the system and operate within them as well. We must know the inputs and the outputs of the system and how those interact to balance or reinforce behavior. We must work to ensure that goals are written in such a way that they do not violate the boundaries of the system because that guarantees failure. Successful goal setting is really about system design and is just as hard as more concrete problems like making an API faster or migrating to the cloud.