Be Careful What You Wish For

If ever you are feeling too much in the Digital world, I’ve got a very simple cure. Move. Sell your house of choice, sort through every last object you own, sell some, give some away and then pack up the rest of it and move it somewhere else. If ever there was a perfect analog exercise, moving from one home to another has got to be it. Bear with me, dear reader. I’ve recently relocated from Green Bay, WI back to my city of choice, Madison, WI. The nuances of an Analog move are much on my mind right now.

One of the wisest men I know told me everything that happens is just data. How we respond, how we make meaning of events is what counts. Transforming the flood of data from the last few weeks into meaning has been an interesting journey. Like adolescence, if we had a clear picture of what a move was going to entail, we probably wouldn’t sign up for it in advance. This was my twenty-first move in this life time. You’d think I’d have a pretty good sense of what it means to decide to pick up and go. But no, denial is a pretty virulent strain of memory disorder and this move like every other one had its share of surprises.

So just how traumatized am I by all this variance from expectations? Well, pretty much not at all. Madison is my city of choice. I’m living in a down-town neighborhood and for the first week, didn’t even take my car out of the garage. There are hundred year old trees lining the street I live on and on this sunny May morning, the shadows of the newly fledged leaves are doing a dappling dance across my neighbor’s house. I have four cats perched on various window ledges watching the walkers go by and an Albinoni woodwind concerto is lightfooting its way out of the stereo and around the house. Pretty sweet.

Managing Digital Expectations
This most analog of adventures has me thinking about expectations, how we deal with variance from those expectations, and how the emerging Digital world shapes both the expectations and the coping with variance from same. Assuming we haven’t gone completely delusional, the gap between expectations and reality is usually nurtured in the limited scope of our knowledge. The algebra of the situation is that the more we know, the better our anticipation of future events. So far, so good. Unfortunately, the calculus is that the more we know the less we’re able to believe there are bits and pieces we don’t know and hence the more they surprise us when we unexpectedly but inevitably bump into them.

In techy terms, this is called managing to the Happy Path. You know the Happy Path. It’s the result when everything works out just as expected. There are only two problems with this approach.

It’s Always Something
First off, things never work out just as expected. I’m not lazily recycling Murphy’s Law here. Digital provides all kinds of little controls and automated checks that would seem to assure our ability to cleave to our vision. And yet, every surprise comes as, well, a surprise.

About twenty years ago I heard a key note speaker suggest that we would not fully realize the benefits of the Information Age until all the pre-digital executives either retired or died. Twenty years ago, I was young enough to digest that thought without the least heartburn. Surely once the digirati were in control, we’d get everything out of the machines that they possibly had to offer. Right? Well, twenty years later, not all the pre-digital bosses are gone, but there are enough boy-princes (and even a few girl-princesses) in the executive ranks that some picture of a world ruled by those suckled at the Digital teat is coming into a hazy kind of focus. And guess what? It doesn’t look all that different in some pretty basic ways.

Whether or not you buy Richard Florida’s overall premise in his book The Rise of the Creative Class, he begins with a very interesting thought exercise. Go back a 100 years. Pick up an individual there and bring them forward 50 years, say 1910 to 1960. They would be completely baffled by the physical world they found (cars, interstates, television, ubiquitous flight, etc), but would probably get along pretty well with the prevailing social norms (racial divisions, few women in powerful positions, first world/third world separation, etc). Then go pick up someone from 1960 and drop them into our almost 2010 world. Pretty quickly they’d pick up on the physical world. Yeah, cellular phones are new, as are ATM cards, but the basic ideas are all there. However, they would be completely out of their depth in the social world. The casual racist or sexist joke at a party. Taking direction from a woman at work. And even us contemporary types haven’t quite got a handle on outsourcing yet.

We’ve come a long way in one hundred years, both in the physical world and in the social worlds. Science and technology have remade us and our sense of our place. Unfortunately, all that change carries the siren song that we can change everything that needs changing, that once we’ve all been thoroughly immersed in the Digital world from the cradle, we’ll be able to address all the problems there are. You see that world-view in every table-pounding executive crying out for better data, in every sancti-mommy pushing the protection of her dear baby’s ears in front of the real need for free speech. It underlies every neighborhood activist using e-mail lists to roadblock any minor commercial or social deviation from their perfect neighborhood vision. A glimpse is revealed in every Terrorist/Fundamentalist TV broadcast or DVD drop. Everywhere technology is whispering in our ear that we can control our outcomes.

The Happier Path
I don’t know about you, but I’m not at all sure I want to live in a world that never out-paces our collective imagination of the happy path, that succumbs completely to our idea of the best possible outcome. Variations to the happy path aren’t all train wrecks and other frustrations. Just as life has its nasty surprises, it also has the occasional moment of grace, the sometimes gift of bliss. Unfortunately, it seems that the deeper we plunge into Digital, the more focused we become on our tidy little vision of the happy path. And that’s the second problem with our obsession with the digitally controlled happy path.

Certainly as professionals and craftspeople, as parents and as citizens we should take advantage of all the opportunities to automate and digitize that knowledge we’ve so painfully accumulated on what works, what yields the best outcomes. But as we do that, we must also be vigilant with ourselves that we don’t turn off the taps of future learning. I find it mildly amusing and disturbing at the same time when I see companies calling for innovation on the one hand while on the other hand instituting exhaustive time tracking and financial tracking focused to the right of the decimal point. There are conversations in the medical community that we have so sterilized our children’s environments that their immune systems are no longer able to cope when they enter the adult, biologically suffused world. In one of our local, new-urbanist communities, founded on the idea of getting out of the car and onto the sidewalk, about half the new owners rose up in anger when it was suggested that a grocery store might be built in their Disneyesque picture of a neighborhood as if they never had to eat. We’ve all heard that absolute power corrupts absolutely, but we conveniently forgotten the first half of that aphorism which suggests any power has the potential to corrupt. We’ve lost our feel for the connection between disappointed expectation and creativity in our quest for certainty and safety.

The Digital life requires us to edit, manage, and reduce analog complexity to something more digestible to the machines. That’s a prerequisite for Digital doing its thing. That’s always been true and is maybe even the genesis of our drive to representation over reality back somewhere at the dawn of man. What’s changed, what calls for greater care and broader thought, is the increased fidelity of our representations to our expectations and the on-going, irreducible and absolutely necessary gap between our expectations and emerging reality.

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