Thomas Friedman brilliantly oriented us to a world that is flat, a world in which technology connects us all — people, businesses and countries. Yet, neuroscience has shown technology has not flattened the nature of mind. Each person constructs their own experiences and objectivity is a false idol. The brain forms algorithms in seeking predictions. These algorithms are not stochastic. The mind is a jagged terrain (as Friedman implies in all his writings).
Paradoxically, social networks have tended to separate people from themselves and each other. Since the advent of social media, tempers have shortened and truth has been perverted. Impulsive extremes have increased their population in public discourse.
Recently, artificial intelligence (AI) has taken center stage. Interestingly, social networks and Chat bots have each diminished real life’s symbolic depth, idiosyncrasy, paradoxical and ironic nature, personally-created imagery, desire, pain and joy.
Perhaps real life has nowadays reached a level of complexity and has produced enough confusion that people are becoming lazier. To tame all the moving parts under where one stands they want to do things fast and do things the easy way. Look up an answer on Search. Get a report one needs for school or work from an AI system. Looking at lazy from a cognitive perspective it can be said that for many, the tendency is to act on what’s familiar, on what’s ready-made. Things that do not require creativity or even much thinking, at least not artful thinking.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Vaclav Havel, playwright and once-president of Czechoslovakia, alerted us to what the world needs “is less explanation and more understanding.” Explanation, he explained, is based on looking at something from outside of it; understanding comes from living inside the experience.
Dr. Bernard Lown, a Nobel Prize winning cardiologist, speaking in the context of medicine, also draws our attention to the idea that a doctor must rely on the art of human understanding to amplify a knowledge of disease with an appreciation of the intimate details of a patient’s emotional life — to understand not only an organ, but a total human existence.
Business, too, is following the easy way. People have been replaced by the category “consumers” and marketing methods that once sought to understand what individuals are motivated by, now only assume to explain a population by recording overly simplified categories of behavior and coding these as binary ones or zeros in so-called “Big Data” sets. Computer-based algorithms currently rule corporate decision-making. Passion, imagination and non-logical, emotionally-based cognition of real people have been replaced by conceiving of humans as two-dimensional stick figures who follow simplified steps from product awareness to purchase. The world is only considered as a marketplace, often run by people who skim over the top of real life.
This chasm is not completely new. C.P. Snow’s Rede Lecture at Cambridge University in 1959, titled “The Two Cultures,” alerted us to the separation between the objective and the subjective. But over some 64 years this divide has increased its separation. Nowadays, expedience trumps insight and wisdom.
Doing v Being
In politics, medicine and business, categories of momentary and localized “Doings” have replaced caring about the more insightful but harder to quantify ways individuals embody and deploy their ways of “Being”. Business has especially gotten enamored by all the data points it can collect from tracking smartphone activity. Businesses now mostly post “sell jobs” touting its products, materials and staff. Business pays no mind to a story needs to have a main character who meets up with obstacles and so changes trajectory. Furthermore, a good story is porous, it allows its audience to read their story into the proffered story.
The raw drama and utter beauty of real life mostly has been extracted. The superficial and the spectacle are now proffered as the ideal. No wonder Americans often feel sad, lonely and let down. To uplift is a forgotten purpose. The pandemic exacerbated our current cultural context, but the coronavirus didn’t create them. Living on the surface of things has made us all more demanding, more myopic and more herd-like. Following suit, the gap between America’s two parties has widened. And let’s not forget that when identity meets up with religious or political belief, emotions can run wild and even crash though the doors and windows of the U.S. Capital Building.
Knowing v Believing
What one knows and what one believes are two different knowledge systems.
Beliefs arise out of deep, mostly unconscious, dynamics. Wynton Marsalis put his finger on the fundamental idea that structures belief. He says: “The limit of your belief always tends to be tied to your conception of your mortality; in a sense that you are part of the flow of things. The sun rises and the sun sets.” Trump and his core supporters seem to be against this natural flux. They lack imagination that connects to anything beyond ‘I know best and I want…’
In their rush for profits, business has all but eliminated what makes the human mind human. Marketing research lives on the surface of peoples’ experience. Simple, direct, top-of-mind Q and A has become businesses prime modus operandi. All questions are created before speaking to the interviewees. Business calls this a “discussion guide,” but no conversation takes place — this, despite naturally-occurring conversation is when and where all the juicy information comes to the fore. Conversation is an improvisational art, par excellence. In conversation everything is not pre-ordained and the roles of interviewee and interviewer are fuzzy.
In conversation you can ask questions, but the best questions are ones that no one has ready-made answers to — ones that people never heard before. For example, when I began doing work for the Government of Japan who wanted to know the place of Japan in the American mind during a time when Detroit was calling for a luxury car tariff, I asked Americans questions like “What is the difference between economic competition and economic warfare?” And I gave people the time to talk. In response, for example, I heard a woman in LA say, “My family lives and works in Detroit, but I think tariffs are a bad idea.” I asked why. Her response was: “Tariffs are a bad idea. America is a good idea; the idea is freedom.”
Japan had also done surveys and asked, for example, what’s the first thing that comes into your mind when you hear the word, Japan? I was told the most frequent survey answer was “hard-working.” The Japanese officials liked that response. I then asked the same question in my conversation sessions. Here, I too heard “hard-working,” but I let people continue talking. Such soliloquies often ended in hard-working eventually meant “fanatical.”
Language is a hallmark of Homo sapiens. Giving people time to talk is critical to understanding. I once did work focused on people diagnosed with PTSD. The task was how to intervene before a homicidal or suicidal occasion took place. Big data sets were compiled with answers to questions such as How many times has someone in the person’s household called the police or 911 about the person’s behavior? What medications, if any, is the person on? Does the person ever have suicidal thoughts? These kinds of questions make sense on the surface, but they are not really predictive. I was than allowed to speak to one soldier, face-to-face (with his permission). I simply asked one question: Why have you not already committed homicide or suicide? The person sat silent for a minute and then started crying. He then told me a story about how much he loved and felt responsible for the well-being of his dog.
Subjectivity reigns and this is true for mundane consumer goods, too. I talked with product managers in a company that sells mostly breakfast foods. I asked them, “What domain do you work in? Their responses were words such as cereal or yogurt. All responses referred to their company’s products. I the told them my answer would be “morning.” I explained my answer as focused on peoples’ experience and not the product or company. I further described how morning is a unique time in peoples’ lives, a time when ritual and predictability are paramount, and how a focus on morning would provide a wide palate for marketing communications that could even be humorous and surprising in revealing what people already know but that is not fully conscious of.
Along with these aforementioned examples, I bring up the possibility of asking people a simple and direct question, but one that can get to a more naturally-occurring conversation through cascading through people’s thoughts. When I was working for a gasoline producer I asked people “What gives you energy?” and also “What drains you of energy?” They did not know I was there working for a gasoline company. Eventually, given their initial answers were about their life, some mentioned things such as “I like being on the road, on vacation” or “Traffic zaps me of energy.” When I heard thoughts like these that related to cars I could segue to asking questions naturally related to my client, but statements the people brought up, not me.
Time for Conversation (not Q and A) and Listening for Mundane Eloquence
We all want to be liked, to be sought after, and for our output to be bought into. But to seek likeability and recognition as an overt, objective-based, strategy never really works.
Subjectivity assumes authenticity, spontaneity, sensuality, metaphor-making and the ability to integrate paradox. In other words, a respect for real life.
Popularity, not as a fleeting trend, but as something enduring, requires both Identification AND surprise.
In a discussion session I was running I began by asking, “Please tell me something about what your life is like, nowadays. Eventually, people in this session talked about the media. At that point, a woman who had remained quiet up until then said: “Things are always advancing, getting better, sometimes for the worse.” After hearing this comment, the rest of the group — in a very activated way — chimed in saying things such as “Yes, that’s it. Everything, at the same time has a positive and negative connotation. Life is so confusing.”
Similarly, approximately a year after the fall of the Soviet Union I traveled to Russia asking people in discussion sessions how they are experiencing life. Ambivalence echoed through many of the comments; comments such as “Things are better now, but they were worse then.”
You can learn a lot from paradoxical comments. Very often life is not linear and straightforward. As I learned from the great trial attorney, paradox is a sign of authenticity, not to be ignored. I remember Bruce Springsteen’s keynote address at SXSW 2018: “If you can keep two contradictory ideas in your mind and in your heart at the same time, if it doesn’t make you crazy, it will make you strong.”
Real life is not Either/Or. Real life is not binary.
And talking about ‘The Boss’ there is a documentary I saw titled “Bruce and I.” It’s a compilation of people given a moment to say on camera what they feel about Springsteen. I listened to all the answers and they all boiled down to something quite profound: “Bruce understands me. Bruce makes me feel less alone.” That’s brand (according to rea life).
And thinking about real life, let me end this writing by mentioning Artificial Intelligence (AI). AI is commonly used to decode intent. For example, a Chat bot tries to understand from the words one uses to what one wants and needs. With generative AI, the use cases will expand because the knowledge base and synthesis will provide a more comprehensive sense of intentions.
But the mind is jagged. Subjectivity provides for that non-linearity. So before you next ask a direct “doing” question, I suggest you ask a “vague” question and as a result have a deeper and more intense dialogue so your company can better decode intent AND convey empathy.
When all is said and done, whether on- or off-line, success requires a recognition that a person’s or a company’s product must fit into the rea lives of your sought-after audience; your audience does not have to fit into your product. Therefore, success comes from knowing something significant about peoples’ real life. What any of those things might is a glorious mystery story to immerse yourself in. Your life will be better for it, and so will your company’s.