Binoculars versus Cameras

I don’t normally pay attention to token gestures, but Mar 1/Mar 2 are the National Day of Unplugging. I don’t know who is behind this idea, or how much momentum it has, but I really like it. My one experience of joining a Jewish friend to observe Sabbath was both deeply relaxing and thought-provoking.

A complete unplugging happens to be unfeasible for me, since Refactor Camp is this weekend, but I am sort of pleased about the serendipity here. I am suspending my normal 90% online life to do something that strongly depends on physical presence and face-to-face interactions.  Refactor Camp weekend is also Ribbonfarm Unplugged weekend.

So while I won’t be able to entirely unplug from the Internet (let alone electricity), I think this qualifies as observance in the spirit of the idea. If you like the concept, check out that NDU website for more inspiration. Figure out a way to unplug.

While this is a start, I don’t think a token day of ritual observance and a manifesto will really make a huge difference. What we really need, to preserve our sanity and really figure out how to regain control of our agency, is to truly understand how digital/electronic power have hacked our brains, and hack the digital forces right back. They’re not as inexorable as they seem.

I want to share one particularly good unplugging hack I discovered recently, which has made a huge difference in my life. I bought a pair of binoculars. Specifically, these excellent Pentax binoculars:

binocularsI’ve wanted binoculars since I was a kid, but somehow never got around to buying them as an adult. I am particularly proud that I had the discipline to buy small, lightweight and waterproof binoculars I knew I would actually use, rather than bigger, powerful ones that satisfy gadget-philia more than observation needs.

But why are binoculars an unplugging hack?

Because they intensify present-moment sensory experience to a degree that you end up systematically choosing the present over the camera-deferred future. It is much easier to disintermediate the camera using a different device than simply trying to use it less. It’s the gadget equivalent of the solution to the “don’t think of an elephant” problem (the answer is “think of a giraffe instead”).

This moment — and the opportunity to experience it more intensely through binoculars — will be gone immediately. You have to choose whether to experience the moment or capture an impoverished digital memory that you are unlikely to ever review.

I’ve now carried my binoculars with me on several long waterfront walks, observed seabirds, container ships, trains and snowy mountains. I’ve taken them with me on a couple of long train and car rides, and to the Swiss alps. It seems to count as odd behavior. People stare when I whip out my binoculars while they’re whipping out their cameras or smartphones.

The camera today — especially the smartphone and lightweight point-and-shoot — is a dangerous device. Twenty years ago, film cameras were cumbersome enough (and film expensive enough) that most normal people didn’t experience reality through them by default. The dangerous device then was the camcorder, which tempted you into looking at the world entirely through a viewfinder.

Today, cameras being entirely digital and plugged into the Internet via wireless links means that they represent the temptation of continuous sharing. They are now as dangerous as camcorders used to be. Things in the environment start to be viewed and evaluated primarily in terms of their potential as online social objects. We see a spectacle and see an invisible Like button hovering under it. Once Google Glass goes mainstream, this will be literally true.

This power and potential is great so long as we remain conscious of what social sharing adds to the present experience. Does it enhance it or impoverish it? Does the act of sharing make you pay closer, more mindful attention to what you are looking at, or are you turning snap-and-share into a mindless operation like filing unread paperwork or retweeting unread links on Twitter?

Is your camera encouraging you to file away your life instead of living it?

These are not isolated behaviors. They represent a widespread abdication of agency and indeterminate deferral of direct experience. We are starting to inhabit a culture where we  are more likely to forward the experiential possibilities of our life to other people, our unreliable future selves, or digital systems, rather than choosing specific experiences in the moment.

I am never big on prescription, but I’ll offer one here: don’t do that.

And if you buy binoculars to counter the power of the camera in our lives today, please don’t buy those terrible camera-binocular hybrids you see advertised in Sky Mall catalogs. That would defeat the purpose.

I’ll stop here, just short of 900 words, which for me is a pretty disciplined act of unplugging in its own right, since I normally go on for at least 3000 words. But you’ll probably be hearing more from me on this topic in the future. I might even try to figure out a way to regularly observe a digital Sabbath (anyone want to write a WordPress plugin for me called “Digital Sabbath” that takes this site offline every Friday-Saturday and puts up a “Get offline!” page instead?)

Notes on Spatial Metaphors for Social Systems

Distance metaphors are natural in any conversation about social phenomena. We talk of the distance between governance systems and the governed, guerrilla movements and host populations,  rich and poor, Chinese and American, Red and Blue.

Kevin Simler’s recent guest post made use of the standard geometric-metaphoric scheme, the Hofstede cultural dimensions model, to talk about startup cultures. The model also forms the basis for the analysis of globalization in Pankaj Ghemawat’s World 3.0, which I reviewed last year. So distance metaphors are very robust across a wide range of social phenomena, from small startups to the entire planet.

Topology — the study of the pre-geometric structure of a space, such as whether it is orientable or not, doughnut shaped or spherical, and so forth — is not as natural or easy to apply, but is also useful if you can pull it off, as Drew Austin’s recent post on the Holey Plane demonstrated.

When you do topology and geometry for social systems incoherently, you get frustrating books like Friedman’s World is Flat.

But more careful approaches aren’t safe either.  In particular, the more I think about Hofstede’s model, the more dissatisfied I get. Is there a better way? I’ve been playing around with a few very preliminary ideas that I thought I’d share, prematurely.

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At Home, in a Car

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Regenerations

Early tomorrow morning, I will pile stuff into my twelve-year old Corolla one more time, and make the two-day drive from Las Vegas to Seattle, via Twin Falls and Boise. My car (which I bought new in 2000) is now over 130,000 miles old and has sported license plates from five states. It has traveled with me from Austin to Ann Arbor to Ithaca to Rochester to DC to Vegas. That last trip was also a nomadic driveabout across the lower 48 that covered nearly 8000 miles over six weeks. Many of you have met my car. Some of you have ridden in it as well.

To the extent that there is any sign of external continuity to my adult life, it is tied up in this car. It has also been the only non-disposable physical part of my life for a long time. Since I arrived in America at age 22, I have not lived in a single place continuously for more than three years. In about a week, I will turn 38. I will have lived in 16 apartments/houses and half a dozen cities through my adult life. My digital life will have passed through half a dozen computers, email addresses and cell-phones.

For much of this time, my car has been the only physical anchor of my sense of place and self.


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Cloud Mouse, Metro Mouse

The fable of the town mouse and the country mouse is probably the oldest exploration of the tensions involved in urbanization, but it seems curiously dated today.  The tensions explored in the fable — the simple, rustic pleasures and securities of country life versus the varied, refined pleasures and fears of town life  — seem irrelevant today. In America at least, the “country” such as it is, has turned into a geography occupied by industrial forces.  The countryside is a sparsely populated, mechanized food-and-resource cloud. A system of national parks, and a scattering of “charming” small towns and villages pickled in nostalgia, are all that liven up a landscape otherwise swallowed up by automated modernity.

In America, larger provincial towns and cities that are just a little too large and unwieldy to be nostalgically pickled, but not large enough to be grown into metropolitan regions, appear to be mostly degenerating into meth-lab economies or ossifying into enclaves of a retreating rich.

So the entire canvas of the town mouse/country mouse fable is being gradually emptied out. If there is a divide today, it is between two new species of mice: metro mice and cloud mice.

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Hall’s Law: The Nineteenth Century Prequel to Moore’s Law

For the past several months, I’ve been immersed in nineteenth century history. Specifically, the history of interchangeability in technology between 1765, when the Système Gribeauval, the first modern technology doctrine based on the potential of interchangeable parts, was articulated, and 1919, when Frederick Taylor wrote The Principles of Scientific Management.

Here is the story represented as a Double Freytag diagram, which should be particularly useful for those of you who have read TempoFor those of you who haven’t, think of the 1825 Hall Carbine peak as the “Aha!” moment when interchangeability was first figured out, and the 1919 peak as the conclusion of the technology part of the story, with the focus shifting to management innovation, thanks in part to Taylor.

The unsung and rather tragic hero of the story of interchangeability was John Harris Hall (1781 – 1841), inventor of the Hall carbine.  So I am naming my analog to Moore’s Law for the 19th century Hall’s Law in his honor.

The story of Hall’s Law is in a sense a prequel to the unfinished story of Moore’s Law. The two stories are almost eerily similar, even to believers in the “history repeats itself” maxim.

Why does the story matter? For me, it is enough that it is a fantastically interesting story. But if you must have a mercenary reason for reading this post, here it is: understanding it is your best guide to the Moore’s Law endgame.

So here is my telling of this tale. Settle in, it’s going to be another long one.

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The Towers of Priority

First, let me get an announcement out of the way: Tempo is now out on the Kindle. Buy it, give it as a gift, tweet it etc. Whew! That’s a big, high-priority item checked off my to-do list.

Speaking of priorities. I had one of my weirder Aha! moments: you can use the well-known Towers of Hanoi game as a metaphor to understand the behavior of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (or any similar hierarchy of priorities) under changing life circumstances, and the role of compartmentalization as a costly coping strategy. Here’s a picture:

If the details and implications of the metaphor aren’t immediately obvious, read on for the help-text.

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The Milo Criterion

There is a saying that goes back to Milo of Croton: lift a calf everyday and when you grow up, you can lift a cow. The story goes that Milo, a famous wrestler in ancient Greece, gained his immense strength by lifting a newborn calf one day when he was a boy, and then lifting it every day as it grew. In a few years, he was able to lift the grown cow. The calf grew into a cow at about the rate that Milo grew  into a man. A rather freakish man apparently, since grown cows can weigh over  1000 lb.  The point is, the calf grew old along with the boy.

I have been pondering this story for a couple of years, and it has led me to a very fertile idea about product design and entrepreneurship.

I call it the Milo Criterion: products must mature no faster than the rate at which users can adapt. Call that ideal maximum rate the Milo rate.

It seems like a simple and almost tautological thought, but it leads to some subversive consequences, which is one reason I have been reluctant to talk about it. The most subversive effect is that it has led me to abandon lean startup theory, which is now orthodoxy in the startup world.

As a consequence, I have mostly abandoned notions like product-market-fit, minimum viable product, pivots and the core value of “lean.”  I only use the terms to communicate with people who think in those terms.  And I can’t communicate very much within that vocabulary.

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The Calculus of Grit

I find myself feeling strangely uncomfortable when people call me a generalist and imagine that to be a compliment.  My standard response is that I am actually an extremely narrow, hidebound specialist. I just look like a generalist because my path happens to cross many boundaries that are meaningful to others, but not to me. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know the degree to which I keep returning to the same few narrow themes.

I think I now understand the reason I reject the generalist label and resonate far more with the specialist label. The generalist/specialist distinction is an extrinsic coordinate system for mapping human potential.  This system itself is breaking down, so we have to reconstruct whatever meaning the distinction had in intrinsic terms. When I chart my life course using such intrinsic notions, I end up clearly a (reconstructed) specialist.

The keys to this reconstruction project are: the much-abused idea of 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, the notion of grit, and an approach to keeping track of your journey through life in terms of an intrinsic coordinate system. Think of it as replacing compass or GPS-based extrinsic navigation with accelerometer and gyroscope-based  inertial navigation.

I call the result “the calculus of grit.” It is my idea of an inertial navigation system for an age of anomie, where the external world has too little usable structure to navigate by.

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Week 3: Memphis, St. Louis, Omaha, Carhenge, Deadwood, Yellowstone

Post your comments over on the original post on the Tempo blog.

I am in Memphis, where I plan to meet up with Daniel Pritchett, some local entrepreneurs at a startup incubator, and anyone else who might be around. Next stop, St. Louis on Tuesday. As far as I know, I have no readers there, but I wanted to check out the Billy Goat chip company, maker of my favorite chips. If anybody is out there, it’d be great to meet up. From St. Louis I head to Omaha and after that, the road-trip basically goes into a sights-over-people mode, since my destinations in Nebraska and South Dakota (North Platte for a second visit to Bailey Yard, Alliance for Carhenge and Rapid City for Deadwood) aren’t places I am likely to find any readers. I’d be shocked to find somebody beyond Omaha. After South Dakota, I head to Jackson Hole in the heart of Yellowstone, where oddly enough I do have someone to stay with. After that, depending on how much time I have left, I might dawdle or dash my way to Vegas, the end point for this leg.

Posts from Week 2

Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia

This is a guest post by Stefan King.

In 1990, the art historian Camille Paglia provoked feminists and post-modernists with her controversial book Sexual Personae.  Paglia’s goal was to show the pagan patterns of continuity in western culture, and to expose feminist ideals as misguided wishful thinking. Now, two decades later, it is time to dig Sexual Personae out of the cultural compost heap and see if something interesting has grown there. Paglia has a highly sensitive intuition about great works of art, and she is a talented psychoanalyst of artists. The value of the book lies in those intuitions, which we can now study with the benefit of hindsight.

The Venus of Willendorf

The grand narrative of western archetypes, or “sexual personae” as Paglia calls them, starts with the Venus of Willendorf, a small statuette from the Stone Age. It is a faceless lump of feminine flesh, possibly a fertility talisman. It contrasts perfectly with anything civilized: there is no line, no shape, no stillness, and no Apollonian light. In those times, nature’s domination of humanity was total.

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