Slowing Down

Thanks to a link on Rajesh’s blog, I discovered a brilliant essay published on the Wall Street Journal, entitled “Not So Fast“.  The WSJ describes it as a “Manifesto for Slow Communication”, and in it, John Freeman makes a very good argument on how the breakneck pace of modern day Life is adversely affecting our relationships and our general well-being.

Here are some excerpts…

The speed at which we do something – anything – changes our experience of it. Words and communication are not immune to this fundamental truth. The faster we talk and chat and type over tools such as email and text messages, the more our com­munication will resemble traveling at great speed. Bumped and jostled, queasy from the constant ocular and muscular adjust­ments our body must make to keep up, we will live in a constant state of digital jet lag.

We need to protect the finite well of our attention if we care about our relationships. We need time in order to properly consider the effect of what we say upon others. We need time in order to grasp the political and professional ramifica­tions of our typed correspondence. We need time to shape and design and filter our words so that we say exactly what we mean…

Continuing in this strobe-lit techno-rave communication environment as it stands will be destructive for businesses. Employees communicating at breakneck speed make mistakes. They forget, cross boundaries that exist for a reason, make sloppy errors, offend clients, spread rumors and gossip that would never travel through offline channels, work well past the point where their contributions are helpful, burn out and break down and then have trouble shutting down and recuperating. The churn produced by this communication lifestyle cannot be sustained. “To perfect things, speed is a unifying force,” the race-car driver Michael Schumacher has said. “To imperfect things, speed is a destructive force.” No company is perfect, nor is any individual.

There is a paradox here, though. The Internet has provided us with an almost unlimited amount of information, but the speed at which it works – and we work through it – has deprived us of its benefits. We might work at a higher rate, but this is not work­ing. We can store a limited amount of information in our brains and have it at our disposal at any one time. Making decisions in this communication brownout, though without complete infor­mation, we go to war hastily, go to meetings unprepared, and build relationships on the slippery gravel of false impressions. Attention is one of the most valuable modern resources. If we waste it on frivolous communication, we will have nothing left when we really need it.

A large part of electronic commu­nication leads us away from the physical world. Our cafes, post offices, parks, cinemas, town centers, main streets and commu­nity meeting halls have suffered as a result of this development. They are beginning to resemble the tidy and lonely bedroom commuter towns created by the expansion of the American interstate system. Sitting in the modern coffee shop, you don’t hear the murmur or rise and fall of conversation but the con­tinuous, insect-like patter of typing…

This is not a sustainable way to live. This lifestyle of being constantly on causes emotional and physical burnout, work­place meltdowns, and unhappiness. How many of our most joyful memories have been created in front of a screen? 

I can only hope this makes you reach for the ShutDown button on your PC, instead of taking you to another email!

Managing for Abundance

I love the way Chris Anderson (of Wired) thinks.  His arguments provide a fresh new perspective on Society, and are far more relevant in today’s age than the stale stuff that most business schools churn out.  If you haven’t already, read The Long Tail – it’s a fascinating story of how the new age demands a new way of thinking.

Also, read this piece in Wired where Anderson talks about “managing for abundance, not scarcity”… 

Wired’s IT department used to send out occasional emails telling employees it was time to “delete unneeded files from the shared folders”—their way of saying they had run out of storage room on the servers. Because we’re good corporate citizens, we all dutifully scanned through our files, deleting those we could live without. Perhaps you’ve done the same.

One day, after years of this ritual, I began to wonder just how much storage capacity we actually had. Turns out, not so much: 500 gigabytes. At the time, a terabyte of memory (1,000 gigabytes) cost about $130. I had recently purchased a standard Dell desktop PC for my family, which the kids used for playing videogames; it came with a terabyte internal hard drive. My children had twice as much storage as my entire staff.

How did this happen? The answer is simple: We had gotten stuck thinking that storage was expensive, when in fact it had become dirt cheap. We treated the abundant thing—hard drive capacity—as if it were scarce, and the scarce thing—people’s time—as if it were abundant. The corporate bureaucracy had gotten the equation backward. (Let me hasten to add that my office quickly added a heap of storage, and those emails don’t go out anymore!)

This is the truth of most large enterprises, and a theme we see repeated in every home or workplace…

Our brains seem wired to resist waste, but we are relatively unique in nature for this. Mammals have the fewest offspring in the animal kingdom, and as a result we invest enormous time and care in protecting each one so that it can reach adulthood. The death of a single human is a tragedy, one that survivors sometimes never recover from, and we prize the individual life above all.

As a result, we have a very developed sense of the morality of waste. We feel bad about the unloved toy or the uneaten food. Sometimes this is for good reason, because we understand the greater social cost of profligacy, but often it’s just because our mammalian brains are programmed that way.

Our grandparents grew up in an age when a long-distance telephone call was an expensive luxury, to be scheduled and kept short. Even today, many find it hard to keep people of that generation on a long-distance call for very long—they still hear a meter ticking in their head and rush to finish.

Can we harness this realization to our advantage?  You bet.

Nature is so wasteful because scattershot strategies are the best way to do what mathematicians refer to as fully exploring “the potential space.”  …The way to get from what the mathematicians call a local maximum to the global maximum is to explore a lot of fruitless minima along the way. It’s wasteful, in a sense, but it can pay off in the end.

This is the power of waste. When scarce resources become abundant, smart people treat them differently, exploiting them rather than conserving them. It feels wrong, but done right it can change the world.

The power of waste!  Now, who would’ve seen that coming?

The Story Matters

I was talking to a friend who works in Social Development, and the conversation veered towards what can such institutions do differently to make a bigger impact on Society.

I had a few ideas in this regard, and I was happy to voice them.  I told him that organizations that were focused on social development efforts have to straddle two different ends of the spectrum.  On one end, they have to engage in grassroots work and ensure that their efforts yield results.  This includes identifying areas in which they can make a difference, getting together the resources needed, going about it the right way, making results measurable and increasing accountability of the initiative.  On the other hand, there’s what I call the “megaphone” factor.  It’s equally important to garner support for the cause, to make the programs more visible (to stakeholders, investors, media, etc.), to leverage the power of communication and connect with volunteers who can contribute in a small albeit meaningful way.  Both ends were important.  In fact, what’s needed is to achieve a balance between the two.

A few days later, I chanced upon an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times that resonated some of this thinking:

In a thoughtful book published this year, “The Life You Can Save,” Professor Peter Singer of Princeton University offers the pond example and explores why we’re so willing to try to assist a stranger before us, while so unwilling to donate to try to save strangers from malaria half a world away.

One of the reasons, I believe, is that humanitarians are abjectly ineffective at selling their causes. Any brand of toothpaste is peddled with far more sophistication than the life-saving work of aid groups. Do-gooders also have a penchant for exaggeration, so that the public often has more trust in the effectiveness of toothpaste than of humanitarian aid.

There’s growing evidence that jumping up and down about millions of lives at stake can even be counterproductive. A number of studies have found that we are much more willing to donate to one needy person than to several…

For example, in one study, people donate generously to Rokia, a 7-year-old malnourished African girl. But when Rokia’s plight was explained as part of a larger context of hunger in Africa, people were much less willing to help.

A few socially-focused organizations may have mastered the art, but others definitely needed to get better at the “megaphone” factor, and in ways that leave a lasting impact.

See Also :
Gordon Brown’s inspiring TED talk on Global Good (July ’09)