Monday 27 April 2009

How BlackBerries Caused the Credit Crisis

Ever been to one of those meetings where, halfway through someone's crucial point, the suit pulls out his BlackBerry? As the tiny screen draws him in, he stops listening, and his voice dwindles to a murmur.

"Uh huh."

"Uh huh."

Turns out that's not the only thing dwindling. His IQ is shrinking, too. By one estimate, multitasking shaves up to 40 points off your IQ.

Okay, so your boss isn't paying attention - but think: across the whole subscriber base, this could add up to quite a lot!

It's easy enough to estimate how many IQ-point hours have been lost to this tiny device. Let's say they're used an average of 20 minutes a day, and that there's been linear growth in the user base. That works out to .. 520 billion IQ-point-hours lost.

520 billion?! That's the equivalent of 35,000 very bright people available full-time for thirty years. That's one hell of a mental handicap.

What could that be doing to society?

Fortunately, a lot of his huge deficit of this is harmlessly discharged on things like, oh, forgetting to flush the toilet, increased golf scores, and walking into telephone poles.

But what about the rest? What might go wrong if you hand out IQ-depleting devices to management teams everywhere?

I admit, this is far from conclusive, but I think I might be on to something.

Sunday 26 April 2009

A Dirty Secret

A couple of years ago, my wife Danielle and I stumbled across The Secret, the by now well known self-help film about the law of attraction.

The Secret's take on this is decidedly metaphysical, but that in itself doesn't put me off, and we chose to ignore the money-obsessed undertone of the narrative in favour of the central message. Before long our enthusiasm had transformed into a pair of tickets to go and see the speakers featured in the film at an event in downtown Toronto.

The law of attraction isn't entirely a metaphysical concept; there's some fairly down-to-earth research about the effectiveness of positive thinking. An Australian professor by the name of Richard Wiseman did some interesting research into people who considered themselves lucky and unlucky.

In one experiment, he had self-selected "lucky" and "unlucky" participants count the photographs in a newspaper. Unbeknownst to them, he had inserted a giant ad into the paper reading, "Tell the experimenter you have seen this and win £250." The lucky people found this significantly more often than the unlucky people, leading Wiseman to believe that lucky people were actually just more observant.

Eventually, Wiseman concluded that luck was anything but, and that it consisted of learnable habits. In a 2003 BBC News article, Prof. Wiseman wrote,
"The results reveal that although these people have almost no insight into the causes of their luck, their thoughts and behaviour are responsible for much of their good and bad fortune."
Wiseman went on to write a book about how to think and behave like a lucky person. I consider myself a lucky person, and happen to think my life is pretty good. If there's a way to spread this around, so much the better!

Unfortunately, The Secret was an entirely different animal.

On the morning of the event, the registration lineup was immense, snaking out of the auditorium's ample lobby and across the skyway into the adjoining hotel. After about twenty minutes of under-caffeinated people watching, it dawned on me that everyone looked somehow different than the people I was used to seeing.

Was it the almost imperceptibly eccentric body language of entrepreneurs? A vaguely hungry look in their eyes? The subtle difference between dressing for success and dressing for imminent success. ("Please, haven't I waited long enough?")

Over the course of the day, it became obvious that The Secret was little more than a marketing umbrella over a number of otherwise unaffiliated self-help mavens. Impressively charismatic mavens, mind you. Mixed in with the motivational speeches was a strange mixture of useful tidbits (including ideas that led me to the realization that I'm uncomfortable with the possibility of earning more money than my father, and an entertaining presentation of a video very much like this one).

Overall, I found it alarming just how unabashedly the whole thing presented itself as a multi-level marketing scheme. (Take our trainers' training courses and you, too, can be successful on the self-help talk circuit!)

Danielle, bless her, signed up for a free money management follow-on conference. I never believed it would come through, assuming it was just a grab for addresses to pad out their mailing list, but months later her ticket arrived in the mail - entitling her to an excruciating weekend of psychological assaults.

She's very self-aware gal (this helps, being a marriage and family therapist), and immediately noticed how the most hard-core sales pitches (for thousands of dollars' worth of training workshops, where they purport to tell you the real goods) always occurred in the hour preceding meal times, when participants are at their most vulnerable. The way that those who identified themselves as being unconcerned about money were singled out for scorn. The way that people who left early were derided as quitters with no potential.

When the woman to her right broke down in tears, deeply in debt already and having just signed up for a whole series of conferences she couldn't afford, Danielle couldn't bear any more and left.

I guess that makes me lucky I didn't go!

It annoys me that this sort of thing happens. People who are curious about the nature of the world - or worse, those who genuinely need help - can easily find themselves exploited by people claiming they've got the answers, and it discredits the whole search whenever a big cashectomy operation like this sets up shop.


Monday 6 April 2009

Stockholm Syndrome 2.0

(Or, "In the New Economy, Downtime is Cool.")

One of the things that I find entertaining about Twitter is the way they've made downtime cool. Right now I'm looking at a picture of an ice cream cone, telling me that it's okay that I can't update my profile. "I can chill."

Man, that's a nice error page. It's cool.

It's so cool that it makes me feel cool that I'm using an app this cool. In fact, soon someone's going to tell me what this ice cream cone is called, and then I'm going to be even cooler, 'cause I'll be, you know, in the know.

By the time I've figured all this out, I'm not even upset that it lost my edit. I don't know whether this was intentional, but I'm sure they're on to something.

An editor at once remarked to me that managing his pool of writers, divided between PC users and Mac users as it was, had led him to believe that Mac was a kind of cult. When the PC users had problems, they'd swear and groan; theirs was a bond of shared suffering. When the Mac users had problems (which, in his view, was about as frequently*), they would calmly take it and continue working, apparently grateful to be using a computer this cool**.

"Any problems?" he'd ask.


My favourite example of this sort of is not as slick, not as Web 2.0 - it's simple but clever.

I've had to do business on an unfortunate number of occasions with the City of Toronto parking authority, which lets you pay your tickets through an IVR system. Each time, after typing in my eight-digit ticket ID number, the recorded voice says pleasantly:
Please wait while that information is looked up on the computer.
Sure, I know how you feel. Don't you hate slow computers? One time I was in line at the - hey, wait a second!

This app is wasting my time, and yet I'm feeling sorry for it having to wait some other computer is putting it througgh, like some Web 2.0 version of Stockholm Syndrome.

In a way, this is a lot like like the so-called Higher Authority tactic in negotiating. "My manager is very stingy," says the front office sales guy, "but I'll see what I can do for you."

I should try that in my apps.
Please wait while I talk to the app server tier, this takes a long time. I mean forever. We'll be lucky if the results come back before the connection times out. ... Oh, here you go, here's results 1-100.
Anyone out there deliberately put this to good use?

* This was in 1997.
** They're even cooler now.