Mind Crunches #5: The symbiotic relationship between technology and humanity
Alternatively: What fungi can teach us about social change
Friends, welcome to the 5th issue of the Synapses Fest newsletter! It’s been a while since the last time I sent out my favorite Mind Crunches but these are some strange times we are living in!
Allow me to start with a scientific excerpt from the great book “Entangled Life” that I recently finished reading. “There are anthropologists who argue that the word evolution, which literally means rolling outward, doesn;t capture the readiness of organisms to involve themselves in one another’s lives. The word involution better describes the entangled pushing and pulling of organisms constantly inventing news ways to live with and alongside one another…Involution is ongoing and extravagant: By associating with one another, all participants wander outside and beyond their prior limits.”
This excerpt talks about how fungi and plants form symbiotic relationships directly influencing the growth of one another. The relationships can be mutualistic or parasitic. I believe that we have a lot to learn from fungi when it comes to our relationship with technology.
The world has been experiencing a new reality shaped by a pandemic and a “social revolution”. Technology already plays a pivotal role on how humans decide to restructure big chunks of their social life but this time we witness a bipole. Emerging social dynamics also influencing how technologies are shaped so as to reflect the new reality. Many are pessimistic about what the future entails but I truly believe that we will come out stronger, better and fairer. And when I say “we”, I mean all of us in the sense of a global community that consists of individuals, constitutions and businesses.
Just a bit of housekeeping, for the last time, before sharing my favorite Mind Crunches.
Synapses Fest is my personal blog where I am writing about a very diverse and unstructured list of topics that are of interest to me like technology, anthropology, business, sports, behavioral science, digital transformations and politics to name a few. This newsletter is all about sharing interesting, insightful and though provoking content, aka Mind Crunches.
Click “Subscribe” and enjoy the ride!
EVERY BUSINESS QUESTION IS NOW A BEHAVIORAL QUESTION
I have written in the past that I am very skeptical towards analysts and business thinkers who confidently communicate their predictions about the post-COVID and post-Floyd world. I still think that we know very little about how COVID has reshaped our lives, economies and behaviors and we are still struggling to agree on basic things after George Floyd’s death. We should focus first on identifying the emerging patterns rather than jumping on the Nostradamus bandwagon.
I was recently thinking that it would be great if Raj Chetty was publishing a research on the COVID impact and a few days later I found out that he was invited to Princeton to discuss his latest findings! But first things, first. In case you don’t know Raj Chetty, he is a Harvard economist who has dedicated his life studying the equality of opportunity. His project Opportunity Insights uses big data to understand how we can give children from disadvantaged backgrounds better chances of succeeding. I can’t recommend enough spending some time to read his research or play with the Insights dashboards if you want to witness how the postcode of your house can determine the fates of your children.
Back to COVID, Chetty’s speech at Princeton is pure gold. Some of the best parts are:
Reduction in spending by the rich has led to loss of jobs in low-income levels
Disparate job losses can have persistent effects for a decade
The biggest decline in SMB revenues was in affluent areas
Stimulus payments increased spending by low-income consumers substantially
Focusing only on Chetty’s economic analysis of the COVID impact doesn’t tell the full story of how our world is changing. If you have read my previous newsletters, you will know by now that I am a big advocate of behavioral economics and the value they bring in business rather than psychology. (in case you are interested this is my earlier Medium post on the most common cognitive biases)
Nudgestock is the world’s leading festival of behavioral science and creativity and this year’s lineup was impressive. There are many sessions I would recommend, but if there is one you definitely need to watch is Sutherland’s opening keynote.
In the old world, efficiency was used as a proxy for effectiveness. Most business activity was focused on questions on cost savings and efficiency. This will change. There will be many more questions about resilience and psychology. In other words, the question will not be how we can operate more efficient flights but how can we convince people to get on a plane?
The last Mind Crunch which I found to be perfectly fitting the discussion of how our world is changing is the emergence of the post-truth society. You may think that the nature of such a topic doesn’t have business implications but I beg to differ. Culture, societal values, myths and expectations are just few of the forces that shape how businesses perform, attract customers and make profits. It is true that we live in a world of competing truths , fake news and extreme polarization but how can we navigate this new reality? I found the discussion between Martin Gurri and Arnold Kling to be extremely insightful.
We seem to be getting deeper and deeper into a very subjectivized perception of what truth should be. That's sometimes described as an information bubble, but that's false because that assumes that you are in a bubble but somebody somehow knows the truth. So, you are escaping from some gigantic truth by being in your bubble. There is no truth out there. We're all retreating into ourselves.
Bonus: the FT article about the rise of debating
GEORGE FLOYD’S BUTTERFLY EFFECT IN TECH
On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, during an arrest for allegedly using a counterfeit bill. Floyd's death triggered demonstrations and protests in over 2,000 U.S. cities and around the world against police brutality, police racism, and lack of police accountability.
How did the tech industry respond?
Many tech companies, like Spotify & Netflix, “tweaked” their products, algorithms and UX to actively support the #blacklivesmatter movement. This is a good list.
When it comes to the hot potato of fake news and hate speech, Twitter was the first tech giant to take a stand by hiding hide Mr. Trump’s tweet behind a warning label that said the message violated its policy against glorifying violence. It was the first time Twitter applied that specific warning to any public figure’s tweets. This is how Twitter defines public interest.
With this in mind, there are certain cases where it may be in the public’s interest to have access to certain Tweets, even if they would otherwise be in violation of our rules. On the rare occasions when this happens, we'll place a notice – a screen you have to click or tap through before you see the Tweet – to provide additional context and clarity. We’ll also take steps to make sure the Tweet is not algorithmically elevated on our service, to strike the right balance between enabling free expression, fostering accountability, and reducing the potential harm caused by these Tweets.
Bonus: my discussion with Josh Elman, ex VP Product at Twitter, on some small changes that could drive better user experiences and behaviors
Facebook stayed solid to its stance to “not be an arbitrer of truth” and didn’t remove a Trump post which many people believe it incited violence. And then this started:
Powerful brands, like North Face, organizing Facebook ad boycotts.
Craig Hodges, a spokesman for The North Face's parent, VF Corp, said a number of other brands in the company's portfolio are "considering" following in The North Face's footsteps. VF Corp also owns Dickies, Vans, Timberland and Smartwool among others. For the year ended March 31, VF Corp spent $756 million on advertising.
Moreover, in the wake of protests around the death of George Floyd, IBM, Microsoft and Amazon are now denying police departments access to their facial recognition technology.
We’ve advocated that governments should put in place stronger regulations to govern the ethical use of facial recognition technology, and in recent days, Congress appears ready to take on this challenge. We hope this one-year moratorium might give Congress enough time to implement appropriate rules, and we stand ready to help if requested.
So where does this leave us? My intention is not to provide answers to such complex issues. But there is one undeniable truth. In 2020, the tech industry and the business ecosystem created around them have more power than any other organization or government in the world. Small tweaks on their products and some re-engineering of their business models can create waves of positive changes to the global community. In other words, they can set the example for other organizations to follow but more importantly they can use their unprecedented reach to our “psyche” and re-wire us to build a better future. Exactly like fungi do with plants in their symbiotic relationships. Here is Galloway’s interesting view on whether brands can drive social changes.
Systemic racism is a serious issue, but a 30-second spot during The Masked Singer doesn't prove you are serious about systemic racism. From WWII until the ascent of Google, brands served as shorthand for a product’s promise and performance. Emotion injected into a mediocre product (American cars, light beer, cheap food) was the algorithm for creating hundreds of billions in stakeholder value. Kodak moments and teaching the world to sing translated to irrational margins based on an emotional response to inanimate products.
QUICK MIND CRUNCHES
PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and even Heinz Kraft are growing direct-to-consumer sales. This is not just a cool retail trend. D2C is here to stay.
75 years of US advertising in a few charts. Amazing insights like: Newspapers are, yes, a content business, but they were also a light manufacturing business, and it was the replacement of light manufacturing and trucking with bits that removed the barrier to entry and unbundled their attention.
Marc Andreessen sharing productivity tips. This is a must. “The big thing is basically *everything* is on the calendar. Sleep is on the calendar, going to bed is in there and so is free time. Free time is critical because that's the release valve.”
WSJ on rethinking the next-gen hospital. Spoiler alert: a lot of virtual monitoring, ML clinical analytics and protective measures.
Recommended Book: “Hidden Valley Road” - Narrative science journalism at its best. The story of how we came to understand the complexity of schizophrenia through the tragedy of an American family.
Feedback is a Gift & Sharing is Caring
Thank you for reaching to this point of the newsletter. This probably means that you liked what you read. If this is the case, then the best thing to do is to share this newsletter with your friends!
Please share your feedback, post your comments and most importantly share your own mind crunches!