Technology and People

World Without Mind: The existential threat of big tech

Franklin Foer

Penguin Press, 2017

In World Without Mind Foer, an author and journalist, takes a hard look at the impact of the tech giants (Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple). Foer makes the case that these companies have become monopolies. As a rule democracy takes a dim view of monopolies and their impact on society. Foer provides examples of actions taken by the United States Government against past monopolies. He argues this is an important role for government despite the powerful technology lobbies present in Washington.

Foer expresses concern about loss of privacy created by the data tracking of these companies. He suggests the default should be no data capture. Users can opt in to share their personal information with the company.

As a journalist Foer has experienced firsthand the dramatic effect of these companies on the publishing and journalism industries. These giants are not content creators but rather they sort and organize   existing content. The work of good journalism has been degraded as now anyone can create and post content, whatever the quality, without training and professional ethics.

Foer notes the tech giants tout the wisdom of the crowd, collaborative processes and the transparency of the internet. However the tech companies have proven to be anything but transparent in their methods.

World without Mind is not all doom and gloom. Foer leaves the reader with a number of positive suggestions.

Whether you are a fan of these companies or not Foer’s book gives both an historical and current look at the impact of monopolies and the challenges they pose.

Fern Richardson MBA PHEc

 

Reclaiming Conversation: The power of talk in a digital age

Sherry Turkle

Penguin Press, 2015

Sherry Turkle is a Professor of Social Studies of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She studies how technology shapes our relationships and communication. Her book, Reclaiming Conversation, builds on her research highlighted in Alone Together.

We all recognize the effect communication technologies have on how we work together. Sometimes we miss the impact these tools have on our productivity.  Turkle provides practical, research-based ideas for effective technology use. Here are a few ideas from Reclaiming Conversation.

Meetings

Consider how screens are used in meetings.  A screen will distract anyone in a meeting who can see it. Does the person beside you have a laptop open or their phone on the table? Are meeting notes placed on a screen as the meeting progresses?  These are all potential distractions that can result in less depth of discussion and a less productive meeting. Turkle suggests a “no phone” policy at meetings where phones are checked at the door. To implement this idea be sure to give the group a ten minute phone break for every hour of meeting. It is better to have everyone checking messages at one time than have people randomly checking in and out of your meeting every time they get a message notification.  When the meeting  information is straightforward and quick consider a short, stand up meeting.

Individual work

The average office worker is distracted every 3 minutes and takes an average of 23 minutes to get back on track. To do our best work we need private time and space. When focusing on high value work shut off all interruptions for a predetermined period of time. Focus solely on what needs to be done. It helps to break your work routine into times when you are on line and off line.

Management’s role

It is important for management to support and model these effective behaviours daily.  If you chose to work late and email others during that time, let them know you don’t expect an immediate response. Consider writing a draft and put in a file to send the next day during business hours. Another idea is to batch emails and send them when it is convenient for staff to receive them.

Reclaiming Conversation provides many practical ideas for managing communication technology in both work and personal life. Thoughtful use of these tools will make us their master and not servant. Turkle’s book gives us information to do just that. I’ve been able to use many of her ideas in both my personal and work life as well as to share it with others through my training seminars and workshops.

Fern Richardson MBA CED PHEc

 

The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What machines teach us about human relationships

Clifford Nass with Corina Yen
Penguin Group, 2010

I first became aware of Clifford Nass through his work on media multi-tasking. Nass is a Stanford University professor who merges the diverse disciplines of computers and software design with social science to provide a better understanding of how people react in social relationships. The Man Who Lied to His Laptop explores these ideas. Each chapter delves into a different aspect of human behaviour including praise and criticism, personality, teams and team building, emotion and persuasion. Each chapter offers insight into our current understanding. Nass outlines his fascinating research experiments which study human computer interactions. He then links the sometimes surprising findings to interpersonal interactions and offers ways to use this information in our own lives.

In the chapter on praise and criticism his experiments show how the much touted “sandwich method” of delivering feedback (a specific positive comment, followed by a specific corrective comment, followed by an over-arching positive remark) tends to make things worse!

I found The Man Who Lied to His Laptop an insightful read. I was fascinated to see how such cross-disciplinary studies enhance our knowledge. I know I will include many of Nass’ research findings in my seminars and training in emotional intelligence, communication skills, and team building.

Fern Richardson MBA CED PHEc

The Most Human Human: What talking with computers teaches us about what it means to be alive

Brian Christian

Doubleday, 2011

I thoroughly enjoyed reading the Most Human Human. The book is based on Christian’s experience as a contestant in the annual Loebner Prize Competition. The competition is a Turing test (developed by Alan Turing in the 1950’s) designed to determine an artificial intelligence’s ability to show intelligent behaviour. A human judge has a text only, blind, five minute conversation with both a human being and an artificial intelligence programme. At the end of the allotted time the judge has to decide who is the person and which is the artificial intelligence.

Christian prepared for his contestant’s role by researching what makes humans different from artificial intelligence and what it means to be human. The book is full of interesting tidbits along with insights on our unique place in the world. I thought I’d share some tasty tidbits and whet your appetite for Christian’s experience.

The Most Human Human gave me a greater understanding of human communication and a few juicy examples to share in my training seminars and workshops. If you deal with people (and who doesn’t?), I believe you will have an AHA moment or two. By the way, another point the author makes is that human beings are endowed with the great gift of curiosity. So…if you want to find out how Christian fared in the competition be sure to read The Most Human Human.

Fern Richardson MBA CED PHEc

 

Click: What millions of people are doing online and why it matters

Bill Tancer

Hyperion, 2008

While checking out my local library’s recent acquisitions for new ideas to incorporate into my training and seminars, I came across the rather intriguing title Click: What millions of people are doing online and why it matters. Author Bill Tancer is general manager of global research for Hitwise, an online competitive intelligence firm.

Tancer believes the Internet is changing the way we experience the world. Using data generated from search engines over a set period of time Tancer compiles a list of the top search requests. He analyzes the data to discover the stories behind the information. In Click he sheds light on subjects as diverse as prom dresses, understanding our fears and celebrity worship.

The book is composed of two sections: Part One: Understanding ourselves and Part Two: What’s possible with what we know.

In Part One Tancer looks at: market analysis of consumer’s online behaviour; insight into the human condition (seasonal searches for diet and weight loss information peak in the first five days of the New Year); gender differences in celebrity worship (women seek personal information and men visual images); and understanding human fears (a higher number of social fears than previous research suggests).

In Part Two he discusses: the connection between television and the Internet (when advertisers provide a specific search engine reference in the ad); developing business predications for leading economic indicators; tracking the on-line early adopter segment to determine which ideas will catch on (exemplified by YouTube and Facebook).

I found Tancer’s book to be a thought provoking read. He explains technical terminology well and connects his ideas to other concepts such as the tipping point and the diffusion of innovation. He offers practical uses for search engine data including political, business, and social science applications. Tancer makes a good case for his theory that information gleaned from collective Internet behaviour provides insights into ourselves and how we adapt to our changing world.

Other reviews on social media and your business : The Facebook Era, How to Make Money with Social Media and Crush It!.

Fern Richardson MBA CED PHEc

 

The Facebook Era: Tapping online social networks to build better products, reach new audiences, and sell more stuff

Clara Shih
Pearson Education Inc. 2009

Whether you are a social networking aficionado, a newbie or even a definite nobie you will find this book an informative read. Shih breaks the book into three sections: the history of social media; business uses of social networking; and concrete steps to develop a social networking business presence.

I found the book well laid out and easy to follow. Shih does a good job of defining technical terms which may be unfamiliar to the reader. The book uses real world examples with corresponding webpage pictures for clarity. There is a focus on Facebook, however Shih does not limit herself to one social networking site and provides information on a number of currently popular sites and highlights their differences.

She presents a positive view of social networking benefits for business in the areas of sales, marketing, product development/innovation and employee recruitment. Although Shih is a definite believer in the business use of social networks, she provides a balanced perspective and acknowledges potential challenges and pitfalls. One business concern I hear from my clients, which was not addressed in the book, is inappropriate use of social networking sites during work hours which results in time theft from the company. The line between business and personal use of social networking is so blurred as to be almost invisible for many employees, causing a real dilemma for business.

The book offers practical advice for a business considering social networking: from the importance of setting objectives and choosing among the various strategies available; to setting up a Facebook account; corporate governance issues and finally Shih’s thoughts about the future of social business.

From a personal perspective, readers will better understand how businesses can access and use personal information disclosed on a social networking page to sell, market, innovate and recruit with the information. Additionally readers are informed how to select a comfortable level of personal privacy and maintain a satisfying social network presence.

Does your business need a social networking presence? Facebook Era could be a useful tool to help you understand the medium and think through the decision for your enterprise.

For more book reviews on social media and your business see: Click, How to Make Money with Social Media, Crush It!

Fern Richardson MBA CED PHEc

 

Crush It!  Why now is the time to cash in on your passion

Gary Vaynerchuk

Harper Studio, 2009

I have eclectic interests and keep up to date through reading and attending seminars and training regularly. Recently I attended a training seminar on social media marketing run by Jeff Schneider of Marketing Ninjas. I find the world of technology and social media fascinating and a bit overwhelming so I checked out his book recommendation, Crush It!, for more insight and understanding.

The book is based on Vaynerchuk’s personal experience as an entrepreneur in the world of wine. He has some solid street creds and the book, based on his experience with social media, is a quick read. He speaks about a concept he calls personal DNA and I expect at least one of his genes is high powered marketing. The tone of the book is both conversational and motivating. I found it strident in tone but that’s personal preference.

Crush It! covers basic social media information. Vaynerchuk discusses developing your brand, the role of content, available platforms and marketing strategies to monetize your brand. He provides examples and ideas that illustrate his points. My take home message from the book is social marketing is a must for any business today. Work with your passion, take your time, do your homework, provide quality information, care and above all be authentic. Vaynerchuk also offers cautions- successful use of social media requires an almost constant presence and is hard work. As social media continues to evolve you need to keep a weather eye out for what’s next and remember what you put out there is your legacy!

Crush It! offers basic information in an encouraging ‘can do’ format. If you are looking for more in-depth information on the use social networks as a marketing tool check out How to Make Money with Social Media and  The Facebook Era .

Fern Richardson MBA CED PHEc

 

How to Make Money with Social Media: An insider’s guide on using new and emerging media to grow your business

Jamie Turner and Reshma Shah Ph.D

Pearson Education, 2011

If you aren’t a techie and don’t have children who can explain social media to you where do you go to learn more? I suggest you give a look to How to Make Money with Social Media. Turner and Shah describe their book as a “practical roadmap designed to help you set up, launch and run a money making social media campaign.” As a non-tech person I found the book well written and fun to read. The authors use a conversational tone and a light, humourous touch.

If you are unfamiliar with the term social media, they are the digital tools that enable two-way conversations between your prospects or customers and your business. Think Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or Linked-in as well as blogs, forums, digital newsletters and postings to name a few.

How to Make Money with Social Media is composed of six sections each broken down into several chapters. Initially the reader is grounded in the current social media landscape followed by information on how to create a successful social media campaign. Other sections discuss integrating the various tools and highlight the importance of measurement in a successful social media campaign. Each chapter ends with a recap of key concepts and required action steps.

As a small business owner I appreciated the authors’ understanding of the business environment. A social media campaign should be well thought out, well executed and well managed with clear objectives, strategies and tactics designed to make the company money. I feel better informed about social media after reading this book and understand more clearly how social media could be incorporated into my seminars and training business.

I’ll leave you with Turner and Shah’s words of wisdom for anyone who engages in the give and take of social media:

Other social media books I have reviewed that you may enjoy include: Click, The Facebook Era and Crush It!

Fern Richardson MBA CED PHEc

Smarter Than You Think: How technology is changing our minds for the better

Clive Thompson
Penguin Press, 2013

In his book Smarter Than You Think Clive Thompson, a New York Times Magazine contributing writer and Wired columnist takes on the question, “Is current technology making us stupid?” He points out that pretty much every new technology, from the printing press on, has resulted in similar concerns. There is much good to be found in new technologies along with a few caveats.

For example, the advent of word processors means we are writing more. The first draft is done quickly but we tend to spend more time in editing and revision. Thompson calls it “thinking on the page.” Additionally, video capabilities are pushing the boundaries of visual communication. Consider the plethora of on-line how-to videos as we learn from each other. In the last year I’ve watched such diverse topics as dog training, basic kayaking and shrub pruning.

The internet and cloud computing allow us the opportunity to be increasingly collaborative in our work efforts. Today’s communication technology lets us to build on the strength of weak ties. Generally our social circles include close ties and strong connections. People who are similar to us rarely add diversity to our perspective. Weak ties outside our close circle allow us to access the power of multiples to create better solutions and solve problems.

Thompson talks about the concept of ambient awareness. This is how we pick up and assemble many small observations and signals to create a broader understanding. In the digital world text messages and tweets can facilitate this awareness. The author shares that ambient contact is changing our use of the telephone. Phone calls are less frequent and of a shorter duration as we preschedule calls to create space for lengthier in depth conversations. Our increased exposure to ambient awareness has a dark side. The internet can be a time sink as there is always something of interest on-line.

Having a big twitter following doesn’t create the opportunity for good conversation and reflective thinking. Research shows little correlation between large numbers of followers and being retweeted. If the information has little value your audience may not care or even notice what you are saying. Researchers found subject matter experts who shared informative tweets and links in their interest area are retweeted most often. Quality counts.

So, is current technology making us stupid? It seems the answer is no. I enjoyed reading Smarter Than You Think. I believe Thompson provides us with a balanced picture of the research and a positive approach to the question, “Is current technology making us stupid?” When the subject comes up I will be able to reassure participants in my seminars and workshops that the impact of technology is not as bleak as they might fear.

Fern Richardson MBA CED PHEc

 

The Googlization of Everything: and why we should worry

Siva Vaidhyanathan

University of California Press, 2011

I found The Googlization of Everything an interesting read particularly as I saw the movie The Social Network (2010) during the same time period. Both book and movie offer a reminder that internet companies are not necessarily the cheerful benevolent entities that appear on our computer screens- they are business- big, powerful business, no matter what their mission statements proclaim.

Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies and law at the University of Virginia, challenges us to look beyond our love of Google and consider whether any one company should wield this much power in our lives.  He argues the range of services Google provides is too important to be left to any one company.

Although most of us can hardly imagine life without Google it is still too new (fifteen years) to accurately assess the changes it has made in our habits, perspectives, judgements, transactions and imagination. Google is not a neutral entity. The company’s core business is consumer profiling and to that end it offers a set of tools for our use. We are not Google customers rather we are Google’s product.

Google has the power to set agendas and alter perceptions. Like everything in life Google has biases, some of which include favouring searches that lead us to popular sites over accurate sites and established sites over new sites. After all, does anything really matter if it doesn’t show up on the first page of your Google search?

The author also discusses the Googlization of its users. Google harvests, copies, ranks, and aggregates information about us as well as the contributions we make. The information collected about us when we use its services is made available and sold to others. He points out that each Google service has its own privacy policy and privacy policies change frequently. We can opt out of the data collecting default setting however it is not an easy process. He also encourages us to consider what would happen to Google’s vast stores of data if the company was sold, the founders leave or corporate philosophies change.

Vaidhyanathan’s goal is not to paint Google in a negative light but rather to enlighten each of us- the users. He chides our public institutions for stepping aside and allowing a company to fill roles better served by agencies of the public good. He states: “We make a grave mistake by relying on technologies to change societies. Technologies are embedded in societies and culture. They are not distinct and independent drivers.”

The author ends with a call to action in the form of the Human Knowledge Project. This project envisions a global network of libraries staffed by trained professionals using flexible technology to assist all people with their inquiries without a data mining motive.

The Googlization of Everything gave me a better understanding of the role I have allowed Google to play in my life, as well as a look behind the computer screen into the business that is Google. I reflect on Vaidhyanathan’s quote and consider how we continue to move forward without allowing technology to drive our culture.

Some other book reviews on technology and our culture include: Click, The Most Human Human

Fern Richardson MBA CED PHEc

 

Alone Together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other

Sherry Turkle

Basic Books, 2011

When working with clients in communication training and seminars the subject of communication and new technology frequently arises. This is a subject of long-standing interest to me and engenders some great class discussion. I was pleased to hear a CBC Radio interview (Sparks) on this subject. Guest Sherry Turkle, professor at MIT and licensed psychologist, studies the impact of technology on human communication and the human condition. Turkle’s most recent book, Alone Together, delves into her recent research findings. The book is broken into two interconnected but distinct parts. Part one explores the world of robots and our interactions with them. Part two examines our networked lives and the impact technology has on us and our relationships. The author states, “We make our technologies and they in turn shape us.” Turkle’s view of how these technologies are shaping us makes for fascinating reading.

Turkle highlights research findings in each chapter as she describes our actions and interactions with technology.  She poses intriguing questions along the way and encourages us to consider technology’s impact on our lives. The author theorizes that our increasingly networked communication allows us to be together constantly and yet we expect less of each other than ever before and feel more alone. Two of the many intriguing ideas explored include our creation of online selves, which many individuals view as superior to their real selves; and that mobile technology has made each of us “pausable” to others as we control communication and craft a perfect response.

Every new technology challenges us to determine whether or not the technology effectively serves our purpose and to reconsider what our purposes may be. The author believes we shouldn’t reject or disparage technology but rather thoughtfully put technology in its place. This means recognizing technology comes with costs as well as benefits. We need to consider these costs, many of which can damage our interpersonal relationships, and take action. Turkle’s research findings suggest there is an opportunity for us to reclaim such concepts as manners, privacy, our ability to concentrate, the virtues of solitude, deliberateness and living in the moment. It is up to us to decide how we will keep technology busy not vice versa.

I found Alone Together to be a thoughtful, well-researched and engaging book about the impact; both positive and negative that technology has on human communication. As we race to embrace new technology Turkle’s book reminds us to embrace thoughtfully and to make conscious decisions regarding how we want to be shaped by technology.

Fern Richardson MBA CED PHEc

 

Everything Bad Is Good For You: How today’s popular culture is actually making us smarter

Steven Johnson

Riverhead Books, 2005

I recently came across Steven Johnson’s book Everything Bad Is Good For You. His book provides an interesting take on popular culture’s impact on our thinking. I’m always on the lookout for information that provides a window into human thought processes. Critical thinking ability is vital tool for life in the twenty-first century and a popular topic for seminars and training. Johnson feels new media is getting a bad rap when people say new media “dumbs us down”. The author says we need to judge new media by new rules and with this in mind he explores gaming, television, the internet and films.

Johnson says in gaming it is not WHAT you are thinking about; it’s the WAY think. Games require the development of long term plans and strategies. Collateral learning takes place which includes both probing and telescoping. Probing results as games have ambiguous rules which must be figured out. This process requires probing- development of a hypothesis, reprobing the game and then rethinking the hypothesis based on the game’s feedback. Voila…scientific method in gaming form. Telescoping requires understanding a hierarchy of order and sequence to find relationships and determine priorities.

Television is more passive than gaming however today’s TV is more complex than in the past. Watchers must follow multiple story threads and distinct plot lines. Often viewers must fill in pieces to make sense of information left out or obscured. We don’t just follow a story line we are required to analyze it. Television also allows for collateral learning through things like fan discussion sites.

The internet offers new channels and opportunities for social interaction. The web is a more participatory interactive process and users constantly learn as they navigate different interfaces.

Less change has occurred in the world of film as time is a limiting factor. Movies have only two to three hours to develop plot and character complexity versus forty hours for a game and one hundred hours for a TV series. Today’s films do have more characters, character arcs, more complex plotlines and withholding of information compared to films made in the past.

Johnson discusses the impact of changing media on our thinking. IQ numbers are rising and Johnson suggests this mirrors the increasing complexity of our culture. He believes new forms of media and technology cultivates more sophisticated problem solving and opportunities for collateral learning. Ultimately, he states all forms of media have a place in our mental development. He makes a good case that popular culture is not engaging us in a race to the bottom.

Other book reviews on technology and critical thinking include: Alone Together, The Most Human Human, Future Babble

Fern Richardson MBA CED PHEc

 

The Virtual Self: How our digital lives are altering the world around us

Nora Young

McClelland & Stewart, 2012

I am a fan of Nora Young, the host of CBC Radio’s program Spark. I find her interviews to be insightful explorations of how humans interact with technology. In her book The Virtual Self Young walks us through the growing presence of our online data cache of personal information or digital map. She looks at the Western world’s focus on self-tracking especially on-line, shares her own data tracking experience in preparation for writing the book and provides examples of extreme outliers who digitally self-track multiple aspects of their lives. Young sees these outliers as a glimpse of our future.

The Virtual Self is about how we define self through on-line tracking, the data maps we create and how corporations, government and others can and should use this information.  For example most on-line tracking tools measure only that which is numeric and easily quantifiable (pedometer steps, weight, calories burned, time logged).  Most of us would argue that numeric information is not the sum total of who we are and yet public policy decisions often rely heavily on such information to determine future direction.

Technology runs ahead of society’s ability to apply meaningful parameters and regulations and The Virtual Self is also a call to arms. Young encourages us to be more aware of our on-line data map and better educated on how the information may be used. She provides an even handed perspective regarding costs and benefits of the digital map we create. Young states:

“If we are going to use it wisely, we need to wrestle with the two big questions that haunt digital culture: privacy and ownership…..to balance the business models of companies using our data, the social value of information, and most importantly our rights.”

Young reminds us that data collection is not neutral. Data collectors have their own agenda for the information tracked. She encourages us to consider what the data is being used for and also why it is being collected in the first place.  The Virtual Self offers a vision of a future where our data belongs to us.  We would own our digital self and choose what, where and how to share our information in a meaningful way for the betterment of all. I found this to be a compelling vision and as Young points out; now is the time.

Fern Richardson MBA CED PHEc