Spaghetti Principle Best Way to Change Minds

IMG_0580 by Brent (2)
IMG_0580.  Photo courtesy of Brent.

Does everything change when you touch it?  Yes for spaghetti: spaghetti changes when you touch it.  But what about people?  Do people change when you try to move them?  Sometimes.  Only sometimes.

One of my sub-skills is my ability to give one-on-one tutorials to colleagues to bring them to a higher level proficiency in Microsoft Excel.  Results vary, not because of talent, but more because of the person’s interest-level and their opportunity to apply the learning. I have done these tutorials enough times to know that there is a major concept that everyone needs to “get.”  So I offer the spaghetti metaphor.

When you move cooked spaghetti from the colander to the dining table, there are two ways that it gets there.  First, you move spaghetti out of the colander and onto the plate, changing the layout of the noodles in the process.  Then, after putting on the sauce, you move the entire plate to the dining table.  Transporting the plate does not change the layout of the noodles.  You can move the noodles or move the entire plate.  The distinction is that in some cases you change the configuration of the contents and in other cases you change their location but with the configuration left intact.

For those struggling with Excel, the issue is that if a rectangular cell has formulas in it, you must cut-and-paste the cell, drag-and-move the entire cell, or copy the formula inside the formula prompt to move a formula without altering it.  By contrast, if you copy-and-paste a cell or you use the autofill feature, your formula will automatically change so that all the cell references move accordingly.  You don’t have to worry about this if you’re not manipulating Excel right now.  As I mentioned, your ability to grasp this depends on your opportunity to apply the learning.

Enough math, let’s extend the concept to people’s opinions.  Are there cases where we attempt to move the logic in the minds of others?  Yes indeed.  Sometimes when you attempt to compel others to think of things differently, you get to change the configuration of their spaghetti-scramble of ideas.  But other times, you simply move the plate.  You get a person with the exact same opinions as before, they’re just in a different place, possibly more entrenched.

On Ozan Varol’s website, the rocket-scientist-turned-contrarian-author has some advice on how to change people’s minds.  Varol explains that people’s beliefs have an outsized impact on their grasp of the facts.  This role of beliefs drives a cognitive fallacy known as confirmation bias, the tendency for us to select facts that strengthen our beliefs and gloss-over those facts that are disruptive and uncomfortable.  The challenge is that we cannot use facts to drive changes-of-opinion, because it’s almost impossible to get into peoples’ grasp of “the facts” without attacking their intelligence.  So their defenses go up and they tell you where to go.  You know how this goes.

Varol recommends re-framing either-or debates around an alternate frame of reference.  His best example is when Columbians in the 1950s were grappling with the collapse of the Rojas dictatorship.  An entrenched mindset would blame the military for complicity in the Rojas regime, but that’s not what happened.  Instead, citizens offered an alternative narrative that “…it was the ‘presidential family’ and a few corrupt civilians close to Rojas – not military officers – who were responsible for the regime’s success.”  This narrative significantly reduced the risk of Columbia slipping into a military dictatorship.

As an academic, Varol presents papers at conferences with a subtle verbal shift.  He presents opinions somewhat detached from himself (“This paper argues…”) so that his ideas are lobbed into the public sphere to be thrashed about until others come to a more meaningful conclusion.  When he made this shift his ideas “took a life of their own” allowing him to view his own arguments with some objectivity.

You can do this too.  Varol encourages you to befriend those who disagree with you, expose yourself to environments where your opinions can be challenged, and presume that you will experience some discomfort.

Personally, I think the big deal is to get over yourself.  Or to be precise, that I need to get over myself. (See what I did there?)  If everyone other than me has opinions that are a random configuration of noodles, what are the odds that my own ideas are configured perfectly?

When it’s my turn to make spaghetti, I get the noodles into the plate, even them up, pour the sauce, and just get it all onto the table.  I have one kid that hates parmesan, and another that hates pepper.  Neither of them uses a spoon.  They handle the noodles as they see fit.  I let everyone enjoy what’s in front of them, while we talk about our day and our lives.  Hands off the noodles, because now’s the time to enjoy people.

Information is the New Sugar

pie. by chad glenn. (=)
pie. Photo courtesy of chad glenn.

On Pi Day, are you able to resist temptation?

The bright colours?

The sweet flavours?

Maybe once a year it’s good for you.  But what if you were force-fed sweets every day?  That’s what’s happening today with information.

In an article in Wired, author Zynep Tufekci makes a comparison to food when describing the addictive power of information.

“…within the next few years, the number of children struggling with obesity will surpass the number struggling with hunger. Why? When the human condition was marked by hunger and famine, it made perfect sense to crave condensed calories and salt. Now we live in a food glut environment, and we have few genetic, cultural, or psychological defenses against this novel threat to our health.”

The author compares our food behaviours to our current addictions to highly processed data:

“Humans are a social species, equipped with few defenses against the natural world beyond our ability to acquire knowledge and stay in groups that work together. We are particularly susceptible to glimmers of novelty, messages of affirmation and belonging, and messages of outrage toward perceived enemies. These kinds of messages are to human community what salt, sugar, and fat are to the human appetite.”

There was a time when humans desperately needed food and new information.  Once these needs are satisfied the ability of industry to exploit our lingering sense of need and push unhealthy variants and volumes became the next big threat.

With food, it is helpful to seek out existing traditions in which things have been figure out already.  Healthy people eat in a manner that resembles the cuisine of their grandparents, rejecting processed foods and fad diets alike.  To quote Michael Pollan, the food writer, “eat food, not to much, mostly plants.”  So, if we were to seek healthy and viable traditions in the free flow of information, where would we turn?

Pi Day is a great place to start.  In the late nineties, I stayed at the home of a family friend named Larry Shaw, a science educator at the San Francisco Exploratorium.  During this trip Larry handed me a slice of pie on March 14.  I didn’t figure out until years later that he was the creator of Pi Day.  Larry looked like a hippie, and he had a great sense of fun.  But he was closer-at-heart to a serious movement to empower people to disagree with those with power, and express disagreements through free speech.

We watched a brief documentary about the Freedom of the Speech Movement.  In 1964 a man named Jack Weinberg was arrested for distributing political materials on the Berkeley campus.  Students encircled the police car Weinberg was in.  There was a 32-hour stand-off during which activist Mario Savio gave a compelling speech, saying:

“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious — makes you so sick at heart — that you can’t take part. …you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”

In the era of social media and big data we are experiencing this same problem, but in reverse.  In decades past, government and industry asserted legal power and made threats against the publication of some news.  Coercion-narrowed perspectives whipped the public mood into compliance.  When protests break out today, we know about it through social media in minutes, without the support of broadcast media.  This should be the golden era of free speech.  But it’s not.

Nowadays when you see news it is unclear if you are receiving something accurate.  And if you are the one posting the video Tufecki asks “…is anyone even watching it?  Or has it been lost in a sea of posts from hundreds of millions of content producers?”  It’s not the case that accurate news is reaching the broadest audience, and it’s not the case that you as a citizen can make your voice heard.

Social media offers a community experience that is equivalent to shopping for groceries at a convenience store.

Tufekci notes that the world’s attention is overwhelmingly funnelled through Facebook, Google, YouTube, and Twitter.  These entities

“…stand in for the public sphere itself. But at their core, their business is mundane: They’re ad brokers. …they sell the capacity to precisely target our eyeballs. They use massive surveillance of our behavior, online and off, to generate increasingly accurate, automated predictions of what advertisements we are most susceptible to…”

The author makes the case that freedom of speech is not an end in its own right.  Rather, it is a vehicle through which we achieve other social goals, such as public education, respectful debate, holding institutions accountable, and building healthy communities.  Consider Savio’s “bodies upon the gears” speech and you know he wasn’t in this so you could look at food porn or cat videos.

We shall seek the best possible recipe for our knowledge.  We need to read books, watch well-produced documentaries, and talk to trustworthy friends who are knowledgeable on the right topic.  We must be skeptical of those in power but even more skeptical about friends who coddle us with complacent views.  Seek information that is healthy and fulfilling, and guard it like a borrowed recipe from your grandmother’s box of index cards.

And yet, enjoy small amounts of rumor and gossip, like the indulgence in a favorite slice of pie.  You still get to have fun, once in a while.  You’re still human.

Not Too Shocking – Those High Numbers from AI Job Disruption

Shocked. By Mark Turnauckas.
Shocked. Photo courtesy of Mark Turnauckas.

Can you think of a time you took advantage of a new technology, and in the process got way more work done?  We’re all going to need more stories like this in order to stay ahead of the game.

I’ll never forget my first exposure to a pirated version of Microsoft Excel.  I was in graduate school in 1994 and a young woman in my class, Bev, handed me a stack of eight floppy disks held together with a blue elastic band.  She told me Excel was way better than what I was using.  Six months later I had finished an entire graduate thesis based on clever charts and tables I had created using new software.  Six months after that, I was at a firm in one of the towers in Toronto’s downtown core with experienced consultants lining up at my cubicle, waiting for some solid analysis.  My mind had co-evolved around the technology, and I was valued.

For many months I was the only analyst on a team that had four consultants.  When new technologies are brought in, sometimes one person can do the work of several peers.  And this appears to be a concern today with incoming technologies, such as artificial intelligence, internet of things, and analytics.

There has been some excitement lately about McKinsey’s report that 800 million jobs will be eliminated worldwide by technology.  Reading the content of the report – not just the media coverage – I can assure you that it’s far less dramatic.

First, the 800 million jobs was the upside of a forecasted range, and the authors recommend considering the mid-point of the range, which is 400 million jobs.  Those 400 million jobs are proportional to 15% of current work activities in the global labour market.  These job losses are not expected to be immediate, as this is a forecast into 2030 – twelve years from now.  This means the forecast is closer to 30-35 million jobs lost per year, which seems far more modest on a planet with 7.6 billion inhabitants.

But it gets better.  Of the 400 million jobs lost, only 75 million jobs will be eliminated altogether.  The remaining job losses will be in cases where parts of our jobs will be eliminated.  About 30% of “constituent” work will be automated for 60% of occupations.  That is, there will be bots taking care of the more mundane parts of our jobs.  It remains to be seen whether this shift will result in 30% less employment, or if our outputs will just be more efficient.  There may be a line-up at your own desk, with senior people increasingly reliant on your own unique, human-machine hybrid.

This technological revolution will have more dramatic impacts on industrialized economies such as Canada, the U.S. and Europe.  New technologies have a cost of implementation, and cost savings are needed to justify the investment.  A lot of cost savings can be found in eliminating expensive jobs.  But in the developing world, wages are lower and the gains of the new technology won’t always outweigh the cost.  The trade-offs between hiring people and bringing in new technology often tips towards employing people in those places where wages are low.  It’s in the industrialized world where we will see the most change.

In my opinion (not necessarily McKinsey’s), this will have an impact on political optics.  Jobs will appear to be eliminated in industrialized economies and then magically reappear in the developing world.  But the back-story is that technology allows work to be done with fewer employees and more machines in industrialized countries.  And those western workplaces will have competition from countries where it is not optimal to bring in new technologies.  The jobs created in developing countries will look like the same jobs that used to exist in the West.  But that’s not what’s going on.  Developing economies are just briefly immune to the more-expensive technology, for as long as those countries have low wages.

McKinsey also reviewed the history of technological change and found that there tends to be a net gain from new technologies.  The technology benefits someone — the buyer, investor, or some new profession or trade.  That someone spends money in a manner that creates different jobs, often by taking advantage of yetanother new technology.  Those 400 million lost jobs are likely to be the downside of a net-gain from technology.

This raises the difficult issue of things getting better on average.  As I described in an earlier post, if one million jobs are eliminated and a million-plus-one jobs are created, this is a net gain of one job.  In the minds of economists, this is considered progress.  However, looking at the blow-back from voters in industrialized countries, it appears that we must now pay very close attention to the millions who were on the downside of this net-gain.  And perhaps you know some of these people.

McKinsey was all over this issue:

“Midcareer job training will be essential, as will enhancing labour market dynamism and enabling worker redeployment.  These changes will challenge current educational and workforce training models…  Another priority is rethinking and strengthening transition and income support for workers caught in the cross-currents of automation.” (p. 8)

Within the human resources crowd, we are experienced at either enduring push-back from unions, or anticipating labour’s response with meaningful policies and initiatives.  But regardless of whether you are sympathetic to the underclass, or just trying to implement a new technology as quickly as possible, you can see that society’s success at adapting to this change will hinge on the personal experience of those who have lost.

Looking around us, it seems like we are all trying to get our footing, trying to figure out for that one special thing that sets ourselves apart.  You might not be told ahead of time what that thing should be.  In fact, you might need to figure it out entirely by yourself.  But those who are always working on their angle will have a better shot than those who are relying on prior wins.

Sure, there might be an employer who is loyal enough to set you up for success, or a program or union that will help with the job transition.  But as we take turns eliminating each other’s jobs, you might want to hold onto a dash of selfishness.  If you can bot-boss your way into a superior level of productivity, you might have a shot at being that one valued employee on the upside of a turbulent net-gain.

Either as a society, or as an individual, you need to write yourself into a story where you reached for the power cord and taught the corporate machine to work for you.