Posts Tagged ‘Technology’

Resetting the Defaults – The Value of Understanding When Large Change Happens

November 21, 2012 Leave a comment

In virtually every sphere of life one can think of, there are defaults.  The basic expectations against which all other things in a category are compared.  Understanding how these work can be an important way to identify future opportunity.

Defaults seem permanent, but they’re not.  Though they may last for a long time, something inevitably enters the picture and resets that default in its own image.

Mobile phones offer a great illustration of the numerous default stages we’ve gone through.  If you hold a phone long enough, it changes your perception of every other phone as it becomes your basis for comparison (your default).

History of Cell Phones From Designboom

History of Cell Phones From Designboom (the rest of the history is available if you click on the image).

When they first came to the commercial market, they were bulky box/bag units with a phone handset attached.  This was the default until the “Gordon Gekko/Zack Morris” brick.  It remained the default until the smaller Nokia-style brick phones.  Then the StarTac clamshell vaporized the default with its Star Trek-esque elegance.

Default settings don’t change only one way, however, and after years of Motorola-led shrinking of mobile phones – the default was reset in the other direction with the advent of the Blackberry.  Suddenly bigger was okay, and in fact better because the mobile phone needed a high-resolution touch screen for all of the functionality phones could now provide.

Bigger continued to be better with the release of the iPhone and Android-powered units.  It continues to this day.  Personally I distinctly remember rejecting the Storm 2 because my default had become the mini Motorola qwerty keyboard and I couldn’t see the value in an unresponsive touch screen for typing.  Now when I pick up my old Curve, it feels too small to be of any use compared to my Razr Maxx (which is dwarfed by my wife’s Samsung Galaxy II).

Sometimes defaults are reset so substantially that they blur and join other categories.  Think of mobile phones and tablets for example.  Right now we’re watching two separate processes of evolution toward a standard: phones are growing larger to provide the capabilities of tablets and tablets are shrinking to provide the portability of mobile phones (like the iPad mini).

What we can learn from all of this is that the rules that we tend to think govern human behavior or what consumers will or won’t do are far more malleable than most assume.  It’s just a matter of timing and opportunity.  If you can understand the current defaults – you can see opportunity on the horizon when they inevitably change.

If I Wasn’t a Rich White Kid – Ruminations on Gene Marks

December 19, 2011 1 comment

One of the greatest gifts [curses] white people have is the ability to forget or take for granted the numerous advantages they’ve had in life. I’ve certainly been guilty of this many more times than once in my life.

The same is true of the tech-savvy.  We take for granted all of the things we learned and the many teachers and lessons we had along the way.  We perform highly-sophisticated tasks as rote, and because they are rote to us – we often forget that they’re most definitely NOT rote to others.  That’s why I grind my teeth whenever my co-worker asks me something about basic HTML code.  I forget all of the lessons I’ve learned since I first typed a string of it.

This is what led to Gene Marks of Forbes writing a piece (“If I was a Poor Black Kid”) offering a well-intentioned but misguided prescription for success to the inner-city black youth readers of Forbes (doubtless there are many of them):

If I was a poor black kid I would first and most importantly work to make sure I got the best grades possible. I would make it my #1 priority to be able to read sufficiently. I wouldn’t care if I was a student at the worst public middle school in the worst inner city. Even the worst have their best. And the very best students, even at the worst schools, have more opportunities. Getting good grades is the key to having more options. With good grades you can choose different, better paths. If you do poorly in school, particularly in a lousy school, you’re severely limiting the limited opportunities you have. (“If I Was a Poor Black Kid,” 2011)

Writers far better than I have already responded (and I recommend you read their pieces over mine: Kashmir Hill, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Cord Jefferson, Baratunde Thurston) but I couldn’t let this go, because of the problems inherent in how Marks closes his essay:

Technology can help these kids.  But only if the kids want to be helped.  Yes, there is much inequality.  But the opportunity is still there in this country for those that are smart enough to go for it.

One can literally parse through each sentence of Marks column and come up with a laundry list of obstacles to the tasks he so blithely outlines (insinuating they’re relatively easy to follow).  For the sake of time, I’ll just address the first paragraph in detail.

“I would first and most importantly work to make sure I got the best grades possible.”

No you wouldn’t.  That would require that you had the luxury of time to devote to things as non-essential to survival as “grades.”  It assumes you have some place warm, safe and dry to go back to every night after school (it also mistakenly assumes the school you go to is also warm, safe and dry).  It assumes that you’re not moving every couple of months as your parents (or whomever is raising you) are kicked out of rental dwelling after rental dwelling.

Taking a step further back, it assumes you actually want to be successful at life (which requires experience with examples of success in life that plant the seeds of aspiration in us).  It also assumes you understand that there is an important series of steps that must be completed in order to achieve that success.  It also assumes that you don’t make any poor choices in between each of those steps (like commit a crime – which is basically a life sentence for a youth of color in a way it isn’t for white kids).

Taking a step forward, “good grades” don’t necessarily mean good education.  Thanks to the standardized test-driven curricula we have, it often means that you develop unimportant skills (like memorization and regurgitation – an utter absurdity in the era of Wikipedia access on our smartphones) learning relatively ineffectual information (like what a bunch of old, white academics near retirement think should be ‘common knowledge’).

I would make it my #1 priority to be able to read sufficiently.

No you wouldn’t.  That assumes you understand the importance of reading.  It assumes you can overcome the derision of peers for seeking such an absurd goal.  It assumes you have the time and resources to accomplish this end (and that humiliation doesn’t preclude you reaching out to someone to teach you how to read).  It assumes your parents know how to read and would think or have time to pass along the value of reading to you (and reinforce it at home).

What amazes me about my fellow honkeys is that they think children of color are somehow supposed to inherently have far more discipline, self-control, and patience than their own children.  By that I mean, while they can’t get their own kids to clean up their toys or keep from throwing tantrums in line at the grocery store; they expect the children of the socioeconomic underclasses to be miniature adults with fully-formed pre-frontal cortexes capable of long-term decision-making and reasoning and able to always delay short-term gain for the benefit of long-term gain.

I wouldn’t care if I was a student at the worst public middle school in the worst inner city.

Cracker, please.  Brock Lesner wouldn’t last five minutes at that school.  You would care.

Even the worst have their best. And the very best students, even at the worst schools, have more opportunities. Getting good grades is the key to having more options.

Which assumes that’s common knowledge.  It also means that these students are fluent in the language and culture of academia.  Oh yes, academia has a language and culture – and it’s distinctly white.  Here are just some of the conventions of white academic culture that are often missed:

  • Attendance is important and counts beyond the points the teacher gives.  It can also buy the credibility necessary to ask for an extension on an assignment, or overlook a minor mistake on a test question.
  • Constant communication with the teacher is important; it shows you’re paying attention, and can earn you an excused absence from class if your car breaks down.
  • Participation in class discussion is important – it shows you’re paying attention and that you read the assigned text.  It’s often something you’re also graded on either explicitly or implicitly.
  • There are conventions for every type of work you have to do in a class.  Papers have them.  Tests have them.  Presentations have them.  Knowing where to access resources to better understand these conventions is an important skill not easily developed.  Take tests as one example: it’s not built into our genes to understand that it’s important to venture a guess just in case you get credit, or to skip the hard questions and come back to them later, or to check the wording of other questions in the test for answers to others.
  • Appearance is important; understanding how prone everyone (and I mean everyone – even teachers) are to stereotyping and prejudice based on nonverbal communication is a skill some rich white people (*cough*Trump*cough) figure out – to say nothing of how hard that is for poor black kids to learn.

This also mistakenly assumes inner-city kids are aware of options for their future beyond being a musician or pro ball player.  Even white kids have trouble envisioning other options because of the limited exposure they have to career fields; some have postulated this is why education is such a popular major in college – because it’s one of the only career fields students understand well as a result of continuous exposure to teachers as role models.

With good grades you can choose different, better paths. If you do poorly in school, particularly in a lousy school, you’re severely limiting the limited opportunities you have.

Yeah but doing well in a lousy school doesn’t increase your opportunities much; you still carry that stigma to every class with you.  Not only that, but you’re completely unprepared for the workload you will encounter when you try to advance to higher education.  Just look at higher education completion rates; only 55 percent of those who go for higher ed degrees successfully finish them.

Beyond the oversimplification of the problem, inherent in this conclusion is a very ugly component of upper-crust white American sentiment toward all others: …so, uh, what about the kids who aren’t smart enough to go for it?

The answer is that the majority of White America is basically okay with those kids ending up in prison or dead (fates they would never tolerate for white children if they were happening as routinely as they do for children of other races).

Too Legit to Quit QR Codes (Don’t do it Just to do it)

May 10, 2011 Leave a comment

[This post is featured at Grand Rapids Social Diary as a guest editorial for May 24, 2011!]

Hammer ... err ... QR Code Time!

QR or “Quick Response” codes have been around Asia since 1994, and a few years ago they finally started to pop up in the US.  There was a brief period a couple of years ago where they were a fad (a way for the tech savvy to show off).

Sadly, just like the ascot or Hammer Pants, that time has passed.  If you want to use QR codes now, you’ll want to have a very specific, well-defined strategy that makes use of their unique properties.

Here are some questions you’ll want to ask yourself: Read more…

Get up Get up and Get Get Get Down – the AUA is a Joke in Your Town

April 18, 2011 Leave a comment

Get up Get up and Get Get Get Down, the AUA is a Joke in Your Town

In the interest of transparency, I must confess that my first attempt to persuade my organization to adopt the social media policy I wrote for it as written hasn’t been successful (but I endeavor to persevere).  I once again must find my spot in the long, sad, line of public relations pros who spend their time hoping their unheeded recommendations don’t become dire prophesy foretold.

Rather than officially establish a social media policy, Grand Rapids Community College leaders decided to mention social media in the “Authorized User Agreement” (AUA) for the college.  This is a problem.

Beyond the “burying” effect it has (ensuring no one will read it in the same way no one reads the fine print of cell phone contracts), there are two concerns people in higher education should have with lumping social media policy in with AUAs:

1) AUAs only apply to college equipment and the college network.  They don’t apply to an employee’s personal phone, computer, or internet access.  YET – most (if not all) of the policies employees are bound by at work also apply to them off-hours.  The employee handbook: applies.  FERPA: applies.  HIPAA: applies.  You get the idea.

2) AUAs are obtuse and selectively-enforced.  They’re the “McDonald’s Coffee is Hot” warning of communications policies.

From all that I’ve seen, AUAs seem to exist solely to pad flimsy cases for firing employees to avoid wrongful termination lawsuits.

C-suite can’t come up with enough dirt on an employee to can them? – Throw in a trumped-up charge that they “violated the AUA” by watching YouTube videos on their lunch break (horrors!) or installed a freeware weather applet for their desktop (gads!).

If you ever see me grinning wryly with a faraway look – it’s because I’m envisioning how, at that moment, there’s an employee somewhere in the world being disciplined for violating an organization’s AUA by an HR representative who is also currently violating the AUA (by using a work email for personal use, or installing the Spongebob Squarepants screen saver on their PC).

Another unintended negative consequence of folding social media policy into the AUA is that the student newspaper for the college is now concerned about the language of the AUA, worrying it will be used to kick students off of lab computers for using Facebook.

I understand the need for IT departments to indemnify themselves and to protect the technology and network that serves their organization.  I really do; people do a lot of stupid things with their keyboards.  The AUAs we’re using, however, are not cutting it.  They need to be practical and relevant – and they need to either apply to everyone, every time or no one at any time.

Buzz is a Finite Natural Resource

April 7, 2010 Leave a comment

Once in a Blue Moon

Whenever something explodes into the zeitgeist, marketers, PR pros and advertisers give in to the temptation to reverse-engineer the success of the communication campaign to find what they can apply to their own projects.  This is going on right now with the success of Apple’s iPad release.

The problem is, I think there’s precious little we can glean from these successes because they come along because they’re “blue moon” examples.

  • First, the time, effort, resources and luck that went into building the Apple Brand is largely what gave the iPad its credibility and reach (which caused the buzz).  Only a tiny handful of organizations will ever wield that power no matter how hard they work.
  • Second, when something big like this happens – it mines and depletes the buzz.  The public’s attention span isn’t infinite.  Tunneling down with a second mine will won’t produce a second strike.
  • Third, the real trick often isn’t reducing a success to a set of maxims – it’s knowing when those maxims apply and when they don’t (because none are absolute).  Seth Godin observes that the iPad case study is a good example of the success that happens when one doesn’t try to please everyone – however there are situations (like customer service) where pleasing everyone is critical.

Doubtless there is value in examining them and trying to gain insight – but we need to be careful about leaning on those insights too heavily.  They very likely don’t apply beyond the “blue moon” example.  At the very least, they won’t be nearly as powerful the second time around.