Thursday, October 28, 2010

Selection and development

I was looking at the blog Aid on the Edge of Chaos and followed a link to Owen Barder's wonderful presentation titled "What can development policy learn from evolution?" I enjoyed the clear, thought-provoking presentation so much I wrote a comment to the post. However, the comment turned out to be much too long for manners, so I am posting it here instead. Readers, you may want to look at Owen's blog post and presentation to understand the context.

Selection as a design tool

First, I wish Steve Jones [an evolutionary biologist excerpted in the presentation] had been a bit more careful in his terminology, because the process he was talking about was not natural selection but artificial selection. There are important differences. One is that people can control and even design artificial selection. The people who created that soap nozzle [which Jones used as an example of evolutionary design] chose how many generations to create, how many progeny to create per generation, how to create the variation (which was certainly not perfectly random), and how to tie their selection to fitness for the task at hand. They also could choose to stop the selection at any point and veer off on a totally different tack. Because artificial selection is artificial, it can be incorporated into deliberate design in ways that makes it much more valuable to human ends than natural selection could ever be. So a "roomful of scientists" is exactly the group that can use and control and benefit from artificial selection.

It follows from this that selection is not the only good way to solve wicked problems; it is one tool in the designer's toolkit, and many of the tools work together. I've had some little experience with this myself. In a previous career making educational software, I designed an artificial selection process for "breeding" plants in simulated 3D space (to teach botany and to help artists populate 3D worlds). An essential element of the system was the ability to "reach in" and stop the evolutionary process at any point, make some changes, restart it, and essentially incorporate it into a larger design process. This relates to the point I've often made in my writings, that in human life self-organized complexity does not exist apart from human-made structure, and that it is pointless to pretend we can or should leave structure entirely behind. The greater utility is found in intelligently managing the two sources of order (organization and self-organization) to create something neither could create alone.

Getting to the main point about development and evolution, to my mind there are three main issues to consider in applying artificial selection to problems of development.

My fitness, your fitness

One issue is that selection must be strongly tied to actual fitness in order for the process to work. In human societies fitness depends on perspective, and there may be conflicting ideas of what deserves to reproduce and what deserves to die. Aid that makes donors want to give more money is not always aid that works; aid people will accept is not always aid that helps them; aid people will admit works is not always aid that works; aid that works once is not always aid that will work again; what helps in one place may harm in another; my solution may be your problem; and so on.

This is somewhat like sexual selection, in which male peacocks grow larger and larger tails and become more and more vulnerable to predation. They are more fit overall because they are also likely to sire more offspring. In natural selection (which envelops sexual selection) the balance between death and reproduction irons out all details with a heavy hand. But in human affairs there is no such equalizer. If what matters to you is vulnerability to predation, you may see peacock tails as a disaster. But what if I see things differently? Who decides what is most fit and should reproduce? What happens when people can't agree on that? Does it just go back to power and money again? If it does, what have we gained?

Even something as apparently binary as death is not so simple when you consider human affairs. If a cockroach is dead, it's dead. When you move into the plant world where organisms are modular things get more complicated. I have the stump of a maple tree in my yard that has been rotting away for more than ten years; but every year it reminds me that it is not yet dead by putting up new maple stems (which I ruthlessly "kill" wanting the sun for gardens around it). Is the maple tree dead? Yes and no. (And here I simply must quote the irreplaceable Billy Crystal in The Princess Bride: "It just so happens that your friend here is only mostly dead.") In the same way, it might be hard to say whether development projects are alive or dead. What constitutes death, and who decides that?

As with death, reproduction also gets difficult to determine when you are setting up an artificial selection process related to human endeavors. Reproduction in biological evolution seems simple from the outside -- either the place is swarming with babies or it isn't -- but even there things are sometimes difficult to parse. In many species "maiden aunts" take care of the children of siblings, or of their parents, and thus promote kin selection to the detriment of their own reproductive success. Is this reproduction? Yes and no. When I was in graduate school in the 80s the concept of "sneaky fuckers" was all the rage (yes, that was the technical term) and it led to what is now a widely accepted understanding that reproduction in many species has various complementary modes, some of which involve deception and counter-intuitive means to the popular end (such as looking like a female in order to get close to the females). So even in nature reproduction is not as simple as it may seem.

In the soap nozzle example of artificial selection, control over reproduction was easy: one nozzle was carried forward to the next generation, by human caveat. But in selecting development projects, what would reproduction mean? A project would get more money? Or an aid group would? Or an aid worker? Or an approach? If an approach got more money, how would the system enforce adoption of the winning approach? What if groups or approaches got more money by "sneaky" reproduction, meaning, getting money outside of official channels? Would this be considered valid reproduction? If not, how could it be stopped? If so, what effect might it have on what is selected and how development evolves?

Mourning the soap nozzles

The second issue I see is that natural selection embraces death but people do not. If you are designing an artificial selection process to create a better soap nozzle, nobody mourns the lost soap nozzles. So it's easy to make strong decisions about what lives and what dies. But when you are trying to help people, it's harder to work in that critical death element. Everywhere you put it, it bounces off or morphs into something else.

I would suggest that to plan a successful artificial selection process for development policy, what dies and what reproduces has to be carefully chosen and agreed upon, and you need to be prepared for such definitions to change over time. This issue was mentioned by other commenters [to Owen's post] who said evolution was "unforgiving to the weak" and that "you have to work against the political forces that resist calling a failure a failure". It hinges on values. You need to find some soap nozzles you can throw away without anyone rushing to defend them or mourning their loss. Artificial selection in development won't work if projects or funding sources or field units or institutions must die, because people will fight to keep all of those things alive. You might say approaches can die, but people get very attached to approaches. You might say ideas can die, but again, people fight for ideas. What can die? What can be selected out? It's a hard question, but you can't proceed without getting past it.

What you select selects you

The third issue is the issue of scale and awareness. If mice in a particular valley are falling prey to a particularly clever cat with exceptional night vision, mice halfway around the world don't hear about it and tell each other stories about night cats. But people do. This is both an enabler and an obstacle in planning artificial selection processes. Say you design a system where only projects that meet five carefully chosen criteria receive more funding. You have set up a system of artificial selection, with fitness tied to particular characteristics of individual elements in the system. Fine. What is the probability that in a few years' time every single project meets those criteria? What is the probability that some of those projects will fail to produce positive outcomes for those they mean to help, or even hurt those they mean to help, even though they meet the criteria on paper? What happened? People were aware of the selection and reacted. 

This change-it-and-it-changes-you-back situation reminds me of the folk tale where the devil gives somebody three wishes, and it seems wonderful until the person gets the wishes and realizes how the devil can deliver them in a devilish way. In one movie that repeated this old story (Bedazzled), the main character wanted to be very rich, and he became very rich -- and a drug lord about to be attacked by rivals. Unlike mice, people become aware of global patterns and change their behavior, appearance, tactics, even sometimes their self-definition to suit the new criteria. So I would say that artificial selection, when it applies to people, has to include a recursive element that operates on itself. Which forms of variation and selection deserve to die, and which should reproduce? And again, who decides?

Watch out for those sharp edges!

I'm not saying you can't apply artificial selection to development. I'm saying it's a tool whose power and danger have to be equally respected. This is partly because it will be operating on top of several layers of biological and sociocultural evolution that can't stopped to create an "all other things being equal" experiment. (Some argue that biological and cultural evolution have become so intermingled in human life that they cannot be considered separately.)

Artificial selection has been responsible for many of the best things humans have done, but it has also been responsible for some of the worst. So it's not a solution without its own dangers. Feedback loops can be positive as well as negative, and even with negative feedback the wrong things can feed back. Both natural and artificial selection are replete with stories of events going "off the rails" with disastrous consequences. As I've mentioned on this blog before, I'm concerned about people believing that complexity science and evolutionary theory present panaceaic solutions to human problems. If you think complexity is a uniformly benevolent force, Google the term "ant mill". There are some videos of this phenomenon on YouTube. They make my hair stand up. It's smart to be aware of complexity and evolution, but it would be as much of a mistake to look for simple or easy solutions in them as it is to look for simple and easy solutions in rigid centralized planning.

Selection and narrative

Now of course I have to make a plug for the complex solution I've been working on for the past ten years: stories. Stories are unique vehicles of human communication, packages of thought and belief and value, tiny simulations of life itself, that we use to make sense of our lives together. I've helped lots of organizations and communities work with raw, personal stories to create new feedback loops that bring difficult-to-articulate values, beliefs and experiences where they most need to be heard. I've helped people use narrative techniques to pump up diversity of thought through exposure to new perspectives; to facilitate selection through self-organizing participation; and to connect variation and selection to fitness functions relevant to the community through the crystallizing lens of sensemaking.

I sound like an evangelist, and I suppose I am one! My bias is that narrative work is particularly well suited to enabling well-informed, self-reflective creation of artificial selection processes in human societies. If there is any chance of people meeting the goals you set out in your presentation, I humbly submit that stories are likely to be involved. The reason I wrote (and am now expanding) my free book on this subject is to help people use narrative methods for exactly these purposes.

Readers, I recommend Owen's excellent presentation, and I wish him the best in his important work!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Depth and breadth in organizational narrative

Last night I finished reading The Pillars of the Earth, a historical novel by Ken Follett about the middle ages. I wanted to read the novel because I enjoyed the miniseries, which I fell into watching on Netflix purely by chance (all right! it was because I saw Matthew MacFadyen and Rufus Sewell in it). I generally hate movies about fighting (b.o.r.i.n.g.) and skipped over the clash-and-gore battle scenes, but I enjoyed the rest of the miniseries very much. Everyone said the book was ten times better, so I had no choice but to read it. (It is ten times better.)

Depth: 1 cm

When I started reading Pillars, my first thought was "now I remember why I read historic novels instead of historical novels." The subject matter might have been medieval, but the delivery was pure 21st century. That means: a painful lack of detail. Here is the monk Phillip leaving the monastery where has been raised since he was orphaned at five.
His farewells were tearful. He had spent seventeen years here, and the monks were his family, more real to him now than the parents who had been savagely taken from him. He would probably never see these monks again, and he was sad.
He was sad? He was sad? That's all we get? When I read that sentence I put the book down in disgust. But the next day there it was again, and I had paid for it, so I took it up again.

Depth: 100 cm

By a funny coincidence, the book I had read just before Pillars was Dickens' Great Expectations. I was struck by the fact that in it another Phillip (Pip) also left the only home he had ever known. Here is how Dickens described it.
It was a hurried breakfast with no taste in it. I got up from the meal, saying with a sort of briskness, as if it had only just occurred to me, "Well! I suppose I must be off!" and then I kissed my sister who was laughing and nodding and shaking in her usual chair, and kissed Biddy, and threw my arms around Joe's neck. Then I took up my little portmanteau and walked out. The last I saw of them was, when I presently heard a scuffle behind me, and looking back, saw Joe throwing an old shoe after me and Biddy throwing another old shoe. I stopped then, to wave my hat, and dear old Joe waved his strong right arm above his head, crying huskily "Hooroar!" and Biddy put her apron to her face.

I walked away at a good pace, thinking it was easier to go than I had supposed it would be, and reflecting that it would never have done to have had an old shoe thrown after the coach, in sight of all the High-street. I whistled and made nothing of going. But the village was very peaceful and quiet, and the light mists were solemnly rising, as if to show me the world, and I had been so innocent and little there, and all beyond was so unknown and great, that in a moment with a strong heave and sob I broke into tears. It was by the finger-post at the end of the village, and I laid my hand upon it, and said, "Good-bye O my dear, dear friend!"

Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts. I was better after I had cried, than before - more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle. If I had cried before, I should have had Joe with me then. [He asked Joe not to go to the coach with him.]

So subdued I was by those tears, and by their breaking out again in the course of the quiet walk, that when I was on the coach, and it was clear of the town, I deliberated with an aching heart whether I would not get down when we changed horses and walk back, and have another evening at home, and a better parting. We changed, and I had not made up my mind, and still reflected for my comfort that it would be quite practicable to get down and walk back, when we changed again. And while I was occupied with these deliberations, I would fancy an exact resemblance to Joe in some man coming along the road towards us, and my heart would beat high. - As if he could possibly be there!

We changed again, and yet again, and it was now too late and too far to go back, and I went on. And the mists had all solemnly risen now, and the world lay spread before me.
The depth of Dickens' description, with its conflicting emotions and layers of individual, interpersonal, societal interactions, feels like velvet in comparison to Follett's threadbare description of Philip's "sad" day.

Depth: 1000 cm

But to tell the truth, I had been reading Dickens with a sense of desperation anyway. Ever since Dostoyevsky I've been wandering in a wasteland of superficiality. My advice, if you love depth and have not yet read Dostoyevsky: wait until you are pretty sure you have less than a year left to live. Because reading Dostoyevsky spoils you for reading anybody else, ever. Everything else seems like dime-store fiction in comparison. I have nothing left to read, but must read. Yes, Proust, James, Lawrence, Tolstoy, Balzac, Chekhov, Eliot, Austen, Gaskell, Sand, Gogol are deep, but they are deep in a more irritatingly repeating way. Dostoyevsky is a universe unto himself; these others are just solar systems. You get to the end of them too quickly and meet them again on the way back. Take D.H. Lawrence: when I read the words "he was annihilated" for the umpteenth time, a little "enough" switch flipped in my mind. I had got to the end of D.H. Lawrence and was on my way back. With Dostoyevsky you never come back; you just travel inward until you fall into the black hole in the center.

Anyway, those who are still reading this (we few, we happy few) will not mind if I pull in an example from Dostoyevsky. In The Idiot, a mountain with its waterfall is used as Prince Myshkin's image of his youthful home, and this image is brought back over and over to symbolically portray a critical point of his identity and of the entire novel. Here is the prince at the start of the novel, explaining his old home to newly met relations.
There was a waterfall near us, such a lovely thin streak of water, like a thread but white and moving. It fell from a great height, but it looked quite low, and it was half a mile away, though it did not seem fifty paces. I loved to listen to it at night, but it was then that I became so restless. Sometimes I went and climbed the mountain and stood there in the midst of the tall pines, all alone in the terrible silence, with our little village in the distance, and the sky so blue, and the sun so bright, and an old ruined castle on the mountain-side, far away. I used to watch the line where earth and sky met, and longed to go and seek there the key of all mysteries, thinking that I might find there a new life, perhaps some great city where life should be grander and richer—and then it struck me that life may be grand enough even in a prison.
Later, overwhelmed with the contrast between his simple, idealistic view of life and the complexities of social intrigue, he wishes to return to that image.
At ... moments he felt a longing to go away somewhere and be alone with his thoughts, and to feel that no one knew where he was. Or if that were impossible he would like to be alone at home ... and to lie there and think—a day and night and another day again! He thought of the mountains-and especially of a certain spot which he used to frequent, whence he would look down upon the distant valleys and fields, and see the waterfall, far off, like a little silver thread, and the old ruined castle in the distance. Oh! how he longed to be there now—alone with his thoughts—to think of one thing all his life—one thing! A thousand years would not be too much time! And let everyone here forget him—forget him utterly! How much better it would have been if they had never known him—if all this could but prove to be a dream.
Finally the image returns to reinforce the novel's central theme, of the incompatibility between the prince's Christ-like simplicity and the hardened pragmatism he finds in the world around him.
An old, forgotten memory awoke in his brain, and suddenly burst into clearness and light. It was a recollection of Switzerland.... He climbed the mountain-side, one sunny morning, and wandered long and aimlessly with a certain thought in his brain, which would not become clear. Above him was the blazing sky, below, the lake; all around was the horizon, clear and infinite. He looked out upon this, long and anxiously. He remembered how he had stretched out his arms towards the beautiful, boundless blue of the horizon, and wept, and wept. What had so tormented him was the idea that he was a stranger to all this, that he was outside this glorious festival.

What was this universe? What was this grand, eternal pageant to which he had yearned from his childhood up, and in which he could never take part? Every morning the same magnificent sun; every morning the same rainbow in the waterfall; every evening the same glow on the snow-mountains.
Every little fly that buzzed in the sun’s rays was a singer in the universal chorus, 'knew its place, and was happy in it.' Every blade of grass grew and was happy. Everything knew its path and loved it, went forth with a song and returned with a song; only he knew nothing, understood nothing, neither men nor words, nor any of nature’s voices; he was a stranger and an outcast.
Now that's depth. If you lay this series of quotes beside the quote from The Pillars of the Earth, it's like watching a minnow swim next to a whale. And pretty much every event, every perception, every emotion in Pillars is minnow-sized. They never get much bigger than that.

Breadth has its own depth 

So, is that the end of the story? Contemporary fiction is shallow, thus useless? No. As I read The Pillars of the Earth my opinion of it went up and up. Yes, the individual descriptions of emotions and actions and reactions are radically simple all the way through. There is an overarching theme of sorts, but there is no single image that holds it all together. What Pillars does instead is heap up hundreds of simple small descriptions into great mounds of narrative that eventually become nuanced in aggregation rather than in detail. The minnows gather into shoals, and together they move like whales. The book holds together perfectly and the main characters resonate, even though the details are so sparse as to exasperate detail lovers throughout. The breadth of the story becomes almost as satisfying, in its own way, as depth in another story. It takes a bit of work to encourage the coalescence, but all good reading should challenge the reader in some way. (I'm not sure if you'd call this literature, but literature, like morality, is a retrospective classification. Ask me in a few hundred years.)

As I read Pillars I kept feeling like it reminded me of something, and after a while I figured out what it was. It was two things. First, it reminded me of reading folk tale collections. I love doing this, but it's a very different experience than reading a coherent novel. Each story is short, but the stories layer onto each other in ways that ripple out as you move through the collection, and across multiple collections, until you arrive at new understandings that can't be found in any one story but straddle a great many of them. Bocaccio's Decameron is a similar set of related but disparate tales, as is Chekhov's oeuvre of short stories (which I read en masse). The second thing Pillars reminded me of was Henry Fielding's novels Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews. In those early novels the same characters are followed throughout, but their adventures are superficially described and strung together loosely. So I have read and enjoyed works of fiction like The Pillars of the Earth before, and though they have never been my first choice I have enjoyed them in their own way. It took a while to remember that, but it was worth remembering.

By the way, I noticed an interesting contrast between the critical and popular receptions of The Pillars of the Earth. Many critics apparently panned the book, calling it "a cornucopia of banality," "an inert pudding of slipshod research and slovenly writing," and most damning of all, "not literature." In contrast, most of the popular reviews on laud the book's exciting storytelling, which even the critics grudgingly admit is exceptional. Amazingly to me, many of the popular reviews complain that the book is too detailed! One reviewer said: "Some might consider the plot to be a bit slow, especially with the long descriptions of cathedrals and architecture, but definitely worth it!" Long descriptions? Long descriptions? The amount of detail on medieval architecture in this book could have fit into the first five minutes of the first lecture of the first art history class I had in college. There were only a few sentences on architecture at a time -- just the barest of hints! When you compare it to Henry James taking five pages to describe a glance, it seems almost a joke to say the book is detailed. It makes me wonder if we are all living in the same narrative universe. But that's not the point of this post.

Affinity and organizational narrative

Ah, the point of the post. You thought it would never come, didn't you? The point is that as I pondered the various preferences for and effects of depth and breadth in fiction, I began to see a parallel pattern in narrative work. There has been long debate in the field of organizational narrative about whether it's better to work with few or many stories. Sometimes people suggest that attention to detail in few stories is biased, usually through over-reliance on expert interpretation, and sometimes people suggest that a lack of attention to detail is biased, usually through over-reliance on statistical techniques. But bias is a friendly fellow; he visits everyone and overstays his welcome everywhere.

When you collect few stories, you come to understand them in nuanced detail, like Pip's leave-taking in Great Expectations and the mountain scenes in The Idiot. When you collect many stories, it's not the individual stories but the assemblages that make sense, in the same way that the shallow descriptions in The Pillars of the Earth build up into complex portraits of increasingly familiar, nuanced and enjoyable characters. Both styles of narrative and of narrative research can lead to satisfying and enlightening results.

I'm beginning to think it's possible that hiding behind our declarations of superior quality, both in literature and in narrative work, are rationalized cognitive style preferences for depth or breadth. We think we are making methodological choices based on utility, but there is an aspect of affinity as well. (Yes, this is related to the suggestion I made a few weeks ago, that declarations of the utility of various social media approaches might hide cognitive style preferences for modes of social interaction. It's on my mind.)

I've worked on narrative projects ranging from a few dozen to a few thousand stories, and I've come to enjoy all degrees of breadth and depth. But I'm most comfortable near the lower end of the range, and I think this is connected to my preference for narrative depth over breadth. I most enjoy projects at the sweet spot of 100-200 stories, but that's not necessarily because it creates the best outcome. It's because I can still read all the stories and revel in their details. (I do get nervous when the number of stories dips below 100, but that's because the statistics get shaky, and I like to balance qualitative and quantitative approaches to even out the forms of bias.) When I have a project with a thousand stories or more, I can carry it out, but a little of the fun goes out of it (unless I just read all the stories anyway). I know people who find a hundred stories too many and people who find a thousand stories too few. I haven't done a systematic study of what sorts of novels they prefer, but I have noticed some matches between what people read and what sorts of narrative projects they prefer.

So, if you work with stories, or are planning to, you might want to ask yourself whether you gravitate to depth or breadth in your narrative life. If you like long detailed descriptions in your stories, you might also prefer in-depth qualitative analysis of narrative texts. If you prefer aggregations of short descriptions in your stories, you might find statistics and mass narrative collection more to your liking.

Here's a self-test. Find a copy of Henry James' book The Golden Bowl. Read a few chapters. Do you love it? Can you stand it? Is your reaction like this one?
Like all the rest of James' works The Golden Bowl gave me a massve headache. Amidst all the adjectives and adverbs James tells an interesting story where all the characters act 'splendidly' toward each other. In this case deceit and infidelity are at the core. Hemingway could have written this in 100 pages or less. James just makes your head spin.
 Or this one?
The subtle discriminations, the way James holds up to the light tenuous motives and turns them slowly - very slowly - so that their hidden facets become, fleetingly, visible; the very real portrayal of interesting characters that James reveals; as well as the languorous, unpredictable turns of a Jamesian sentence - all offer the kinds of pleasures that no other writer (possibly excepting Proust) is able to produce.
These are both from customer reviews on I'm definitely in the latter camp: The Golden Bowl is in my top ten books of all time. (In one of these reviews the word "splendidly" gave me goose bumps all over. If you've read the book you know why.)

But most people probably don't need to read The Golden Bowl to find out their narrative style. What do you read already? What do you come back to and read over and over? That's probably your best answer.

If you are just starting out doing narrative work, I suggest starting with your strength. Find your narrative home and start your work there. If you prefer depth, start with few stories and go deep. If you prefer breadth, start with more stories and watch them swarm. But after you have become comfortable doing story projects in your narrative home, get ready to leave it and travel elsewhere. Why? Because depth and breadth complement each other, and the best narrative work involves both approaches. If you have collected few stories in the past, try a broader shallower collection. If you have never gone deep into stories, try collecting fewer, longer stories and giving them more depth of attention. You are guaranteed to find some new ideas you did not know you needed.

How can you combine depth and breadth in a story project? There are lots of ways to bring them together. You can complement an intense 20-person all-day workshop with a web collection that brings in hundreds of anecdotes. You can collect many anecdotes, then follow up with ten percent of the respondents for in-depth ethnographic interviews. Workshop methods can integrate assemblages of stories into deeper, fewer artifacts. Asking twenty people to integrate hundreds of stories told by dozens of contributors into ten emergent constructs creates a breadth-depth bridge you can use to address an issue from both sides. Many narrative methods can be used in concert, with the outcome of one feeding into another.

If you look for opportunities to pursue both depth and breadth in your narrative projects, I suggest you will find the outcomes to be richer and more useful, and you'll extend your skills so that you can get the most from all narrative contexts.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Life without ... what?

Recently I've come across three random tidbits that struck me as strangely connected. They are all narrowings of self-definition, of what it means to be a human being.

Humanity = electricity

My son and I have been enjoying some episodes of a television series called Life After People. The series examines what would happen to all the things humans have built in the days, weeks, months and years after we all mysteriously disappear. (We interpret "disappear" as "ride off in really cool space ships.") Part of the show involves computer graphic representations of famous buildings slowly becoming covered with mold, rust and vines and then crashing to the ground. (I often find myself cheering for the molds and vines, which I suppose makes me a species traitor.) These imagined scenes of destruction are interspersed with interviews where people responsible for maintaining facilities gamely talk about what would happen in the years "after people." The interviews are the best part, specifically those about the elaborate maintenance systems that keep urban structures intact in the face of daily affronts from natural forces. Some of the graphics are cheesy and the speculations ridiculous, but overall the series raises some interesting ideas.

So here's the thing I found most amazing about this show. I've now seen the introduction about a dozen times, and it took that many viewings to realize what was hidden in plain sight. Each episode starts with the words, "What would happen if every human being on earth disappeared?" On the word "disappeared" the image shown is that of a street full of houses, with the lights in those houses going out, one after another, until the street is dark. The two scenes before it? Streets without cars on them. The privileged place given to electricity (on the very word "disappeared," as proof) shows its greater strength in self-identity.

The amazing thing is that it took me twelve times watching this to realize how amazing it is. Electricity and self-propelled vehicles were nothing but curiosities a hundred and some years ago, and were absent for all but the tiniest sliver of human history. But they are now so central to our self-definition that to show the entire human race disappearing, all you have to do is show lights going out and cars not going round. Wow.

From estimates I've seen, about two-thirds of the people on earth have reliable access to electricity, and about a tenth have cars. So that's either ninety or thirty percent of "every human being on earth" for which the words "disappear" and "vanish" would have no reasonable connection to the images shown. Of course this is not the audience of Life After People. But it makes me wonder what sorts of images people without cars and electric lights would choose. What would life after people look like to them? A fire gone out? An empty path? A door left open? Uneaten bread?

Do you know what? I can't guess what it would mean to these people. I'm just making stuff up. I have no idea what image would work. Isn't that striking? Can you guess? What does that mean about what it means to be human? Shouldn't we all know what we all think it means to be human? Did we ever know? Will we ever know?

Humanity = television

The other day I got a catalog of stuff for your house that you don't need, and I was glancing at it before throwing it away, but one product in it started me laughing and carrying it off to show my husband. I've since found this item on the web; it has many glowing reviews at It is a television simulator. This little box emits multicolored lights that make it look like you are watching television. People use it to deter burglars. You can set it to come on at dusk and run for either four or seven hours, or all night. (There are apparently no options below four hours, which is in itself striking.)

So, not only can electricity and cars stand in for all humanity, apparently now television can too. A few satisfied customer comments:
The flashing behavior looks completely real. It screams "someone's home!!" 

Anyone observing my home would assume that someone is HOME and AWAKE.
What is the proportion of humanity that lives without television? About three quarters. Now this one is starting to get personal, because I put myself into that group. My family does own two televisions, but we probably turn either of them on for a few hours a week at most. According to this device we do not fit a reasonable definition of humanity. Hm.

Humanity = social media

I've been bouncing around the web reading various blog posts about Facebook, mostly because I don't get it and am trying to understand why some people do (standing with my nose against the glass, I guess). I came across somebody mentioning a study showing some people still use email more than Facebook. The amazing thing, to me, was that the blogger said, "Who are these people?" Meaning, the people who don't use Facebook.

Curious (and yes a bit miffed), I Googled a few pages of links using the phrase "who are these people," and surmised that it has three general meanings.
  1. The innocuous meaning of "let's get to know these people better" is typically found on web sites saying "About Our Staff" and so on. We can put that aside as it is the least often used.
  2. The "I have nothing in common with these people" meaning is typically used to talk about people whose worldview is quite different and cannot be imagined. This is more of an "outside my tribe" parochialism that may be based on trivial appearances (like the famous "we all wear jeans so there will be no more wars" idea).
  3. The "I am nothing like these people" meaning is typically used to talk about people who have done reprehensible things from which the writer wants to maintain a visible distance. These are people forcibly expelled from humanity through their lack of conformity to social norms.
Which of these did the blogger mean? To be charitable, probably the second, but I wonder if any of the third element had crept in. Would it be a fair statement to say this blogger felt that "people who use Facebook" can stand in for humanity, in the same way that the creators of Life After People felt they could use empty streets and dark houses to show depopulation? It's not as strange as it seems, because the proportion of people using Facebook at this point is apparently not that different from the proportion owning cars. If the Facebook phenomenon continues, will future Life After People episodes show dated Facebook pages?

These trivial acts of self-definition start to feel a little bit less funny when you are on the other side of them. They start to feel ... a little bit scary. What has defined a person throughout history? White skin? Male gender? A title? Property? Geography? Belief? Could it be that technology -- or even technological choices -- is the new answer to that question? What does that mean about choice? If you stop using technology, do you stop being human? What does that mean for the future of humanity? What will stand in for people a hundred years from now? Will it stand in for all of us?

Friday, October 8, 2010

WEIRD research on WEIRD people

To start, you might want to look at the interesting article by James Surowiecki in this week's New Yorker on procrastination. Which brings me to my resolution: I am going to try to finish the rewrite of Working with Stories this month. My favorite part from Surowiecki's article is this part:
Instead [of fighting with ourselves], we should rely on what Joseph Heath and Joel Anderson, in their essay in [a book named] "The Thief of Time," call "the extended will"—external tools and techniques to help the parts of our selves that want to work. A classic illustration of the extended will at work is Ulysses' decision to have his men bind him to the mast of his ship. Ulysses knows that when he hears the Sirens he will be too weak to resist steering the ship onto the rocks in pursuit of them, so he has his men bind him, thereby forcing him to adhere to his long-term aims. 
So I have created an "extended will" of (a) publically saying I will do this, and (b) limiting myself to microscopic blog posts for the remainder of the month. Yes, it's bread and water for you folks this month. Here is this week's meagre fare.

WEIRD people and the researchers who love them

I've been having a wonderful time traipsing through this review paper. It's by Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine and Ara Norenzayan, and it explains how much of psychological and sociological research is biased by its exclusive attention to WEIRD people: that is, people from Western, educated, industrial, rich, democratic societies. Here are some of my favorite excerpts.
In the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the premier journal in social psychology—the sub‐discipline of psychology that should (arguably) be the most attentive to questions about the subjects’ backgrounds—67% of the American samples (and 80% of the samples from other countries) were composed solely of undergraduates in psychology courses (Arnett, 2008). In other words, a randomly selected American undergraduate is more than 4000 times more likely to be a research participant than is a randomly selected person from outside of the West.
That's perfectly spectacular bias, isn't it? Worse, the idea that American undergraduate students might not be representative of the species is rarely mentioned:
Leading scientific journals and university textbooks routinely publish research findings claiming to generalize to "humans" or "people" based on research done entirely with WEIRD undergraduates. In top journals such as Nature and Science researchers frequently extend their findings from undergraduates to the species—often declaring this generalization in their titles. These contributions typically lack even a cautionary footnote about these inferential extensions.
The authors review worldwide differences in visual perception, spatial cognition, cooperation, independence, choice, views of self, conformity, reasoning styles, and moral reasoning. Across all these areas the human ranges are wide, but the research selections and conclusions are narrow.

Carpentered minds

I found plenty of surprises here. For example, did you know that not everyone sees these lines as having different lengths? This is the famous Mueller-Lyer illusion, but apparently the San foragers of the Kalahari, among others, are "unaffected by the so-called 'illusion'."

The authors mentioned that this issue was previously discussed by Segall, so here I am looking up the referenced book (The Influence of Culture on Visual Perception) and assuming it has just come out, and I find out it was published in ... 1966. And it's out of print. What I end up wondering is why, 44 years later, nobody knows about this (unless I'm the only one surprised, which I doubt). I wonder what that says about science and culture. Did we not want to know that?

Henrich et al. say:
As discussed by Segall et. al., these findings suggest that visual exposure during ontogeny to factors such as the "carpentered corners" of modern environments may favor certain optical calibrations and visual habits that create and perpetuate this illusion. That is, the visual system ontogenetically adapts to the presence of recurrent features in the local visual environment. Since elements such as carpentered corners are products of particular cultural evolutionary trajectories, and were not part of most environments for most of human history, the Mueller‐Lyer illusion is a kind of culturally‐evolved byproduct....
Non-carpentered house
It certainly makes me look at my house differently, I'll tell you that. I have seen some designs of clay houses where a sharp corner cannot be found, and I wonder what it might be like to have the gift of not having grown up "cornered." What might my mind be like? What might I be capable of? What sorts of sensemaking frameworks might I come up with? What sorts of stories might I tell? What sorts of software might I design? And what would an internet designed by non-cornered minds look like? Maybe we should find out.

Nice bird

I will allow myself just one more excerpt (I told you it would be meagre), this one about "folkbiological reasoning." I like this one particularly because it intersects with something I've mentioned on this blog a few times. My hobby is reading old novels, and I've repeatedly been struck by how people spoke so casually then of skills we cannot fathom today, like starting a cake recipe by grinding the flour and solidifying the butter. And how our perceptions of everyday life have moved on a gradient from creating to consuming in many overlapping ways.

This part of the study matches that observation:
[There are] three robust findings from urban children: (1) inferential projections of properties from humans are stronger than projections from other living kinds, (2) inferences from humans to mammals emerge as stronger than inferences from mammals to humans, and (3) children’s inferences violate their own similarity judgments by, for example, providing stronger inference from humans to bugs than from bugs to bees....

However, when the folkbiological reasoning of children in rural Native American communities ... was investigated ... none of these three empirical patterns emerged.... In rural environments both exposure to, and interest in, the natural world is commonplace, unavoidable, and an inevitable part of the enculturation process. This suggests that the anthropocentric patterns seen in U.S. urban children results from insufficient cultural input and a lack of exposure to the natural world. The only real animal that most urban children know much about is Homo sapiens, so it is not surprising that this species dominates their inferential patterns.... Indeed, studying the cognitive development of folkbiology in urban children would seem the equivalent of studying "normal" physical growth in malnourished children.
So not only is cake made of things from the refrigerator and cabinet instead of the field and barn; animals and plants are things in zoos and parks instead of in woods and streams. And fridges and cabinets and zoos and parks are the things we come to know the most about (and assume everybody else knows about too). This statement also resonated with me:
This deficiency of input likely underpins the fact that the basic level folkbiological categories for WEIRD adults are life‐form categories (e.g., bird, fish, and mammal) and these are also the first categories learned by children: e.g., If you say "what’s that" (pointing at a maple tree), the common answer is "tree". However, in all small‐scale societies studied, the generic species (e.g., maple, trout, and fox) are the basic level category and the first learned by children....
I'm not a naturalist by any stretch, but I've been confused by an increasing tendency for people to think my minuscule ability to distinguish a few local species of trees, birds, flowers and herbs is more amazing than it is. When I was a young biologist, the number of birds and trees and things I knew was embarrassing, and still is among real naturalists. But among people who don't consider themselves biologists I've noticed a change over the decades. Today I almost feel a pressure to hide knowledge about species when I talk to people, as though they feel my saying "wow, did you hear that thrush singing" instead of "nice bird" is an insult. They want the larger categories. In my rural childhood we did learn the specific names for things first (many of our names were wrong, but that's beside the point: they were precise if not accurate). I've met many people since who were raised in urban environments and who habitually refer to "that flower" or "that bird" as though there were no sub-categories beneath the general class. I'm not saying there is anything wrong with that, but it does make me wonder what effect on general thinking about things it might have when your taxonomies stop halfway down. How does that impact the things people build? How should people design for people who have had different experiences than they have had? How should I design for urbanites, and how should urbanites design for me?

I can't help mentioning my Gogol mountain ash story again (sorry to those who have heard it already). I was reading Dead Souls, and I came across this bit:
At one particular spot the steep flank of the mountain range is covered with billowy verdure of denser growth than the rest; and here the aid of skilful planting, added to the shelter afforded by a rugged ravine, has enabled the flora of north and south so to be brought together that, twined about with sinuous hop-tendrils, the oak, the spruce fir, the wild pear, the maple, the cherry, the thorn, and the mountain ash either assist or check one another's growth, and everywhere cover the declivity with their straggling profusion.
It just so happened that on the day before I read this, I had been trying to figure out what a young tree growing in my yard was, and I fell into the "mountain ash" section of the field guide, never having heard of one before. What made me laugh that day was that evidently Gogol felt he could build a narrative metaphor through reference to the relationships among particular species of trees. It apparently never occurred to Gogol to think that he needed to explain to his readers how these species interact, because of course everybody would know those things. Mountain ash is an understory shrub that (at least in my yard) is tolerated to live beneath the larger oaks and maples which check its growth. People reading Dead Souls when it was written would have had a precise image of the relationships to which Gogol was referring, but we struggle to grasp them, even if we have mountain ash trees growing in our yards.

In every age and place we assume some knowledge is universal, and we are always wrong. Otherwise I wouldn't have two bookmarks in every old book I read -- one in the book proper, and one in the notes that explain all the things the author thought didn't need explaining when they wrote the book. We do the same thing as Gogol: we say "I got my email" expecting our readers to know that involves turning on a computer and using an email program. (Which will probably be a footnote two hundred years from now.) This sort of we-are-the-world thinking is interesting and fun when novelists do it. I love figuring out what authors are talking about and learning what people used to think everybody knew. But it's dangerous when scientists do it.

Henrich et al. conclude:
Journal editors and reviewers should press authors to both explicitly discuss and defend the generalizability of their findings..... The widespread practice of subtly implying universality by using statements like "people’s reasoning is biased..." should be avoided. "Which people?" should be a primary question asked by reviewers.... The sample of contemporary Western undergraduates that so overwhelms our database is not just an extraordinarily restricted sample of humanity; it is frequently a distinct outlier vis‐à‐vis other global samples. It may represent the worst population on which to base our understanding of Homo sapiens.
My suggestion is that the import of papers like these (this is not the first) goes further than even the authors state. Biased-sampling science over-generalizes explanation, but it also over-generalizes expectation. Studied things are important things, and people pay attention to research results.

One of the papers that had a big impact on me back when I was reading mostly about animal behavior was a study done on birds where the researchers used colored bands to distinguished their bird subjects. They had to halt the study because they discovered that the male birds with the red bands were receiving disproportionate attention from the female birds. In other words, the experimental design altered the phenomenon being studied. I remember another study on naked mole rats where the researchers observed a curious phenomenon that seemed to indicate a novel circadian rhythm, until they realized the activity rhythm coincided with the rhythm of ventilation noises in the building. If you are studying rocks you can probably choose any sample and say it is representative without the rocks responding, but with anything else responses to experimental manipulation might extend beyond what you thought you were experimenting with. Experiments that produce broad claims from tiny slices of humanity are conducting a wider experiment than they imagine.

Here's hoping attention to WEIRD research has an impact on the way people study people.

Friday, October 1, 2010

It takes all kinds, even on the internet

I've been enjoying the fascinating spectacle going on lately with everybody talking about social media, spurred by Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker essay on social media and activism. Here's my perspective on it.

Lowering the bar

(Warning: this is the "that's just what I said" part of this post -- can't remove it -- tried.) Gladwell is right to say that social media don't deserve the hype they have received in the area of social activism. I loved this sentence:
In other words, Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice. 
It's very similar to what I said about social media and the Haiti crisis:
Come on, people! Let's stop patting ourselves on our backs for doing nothing! What a bunch of Marie Antoinettes we are. If social media worked for social good, why did Haiti get into this mess to begin with? Geologists have been lamenting to a deaf world about this earthquake for years, but nobody listened when something could still be done. What I've heard is that people are showing up with temporary relief equipment, and the Haitians are finding it better than what they had before the quake. Essentially, our inflatable hospitals are better than their real hospitals. If this event doesn't wake people up to the horrendous double standards we live under, nothing will.
Like Gladwell, I'm worried about low expectation setting on these don't-put-yourself-out contribution campaigns. If social media really could turn the uncaring multitudes into passionate activists, Haiti would be in much better shape today than it was before the earthquake. Giving a tiny fraction of what you can, and then believing you have just been generous and made a sacrifice because a button on a web site said you were and did, might be as much of an obstruction to overall donation as it is a spur.

People negotiate expectations of acceptable behavior all the time, and now lots of us are doing it online, and that does matter. When clicking "like" or "support" or making a trivial donation to people in desperate need is relabeled as generous, there is a danger of creating doublethink. In a related post on celebrity, I wrote about how today's celebrities fill societal sensemaking roles once handled by ancient emperors, gods and goddesses. Essentially, people use celebrities to negotiate societal norms:
Celebrities have inherited from heroes and gods the mantle of societal sensemaking through narrative play. People use these characters as elements in collective narrative play, to negotiate issues such as what is required, what is "hot or not," and what is taboo.
I fell into reading about celebrity worship because I couldn't make sense of the difference between what some famous celebrities actually gave to Haiti (tiny fractions of their massive net worths) and what was said about their donations: "extraordinarily generous," "giving it all." If we are busy relabeling the crumb-throwing of celebrities as passionate activism, that is because we are using them as pawns in a game in which we negotiate our own obligations. Mobilizing social movements is all about getting people to renegotiate their social obligations up, not down. So I think this trend represents a real danger to those who are trying to make change happen.

I particularly like this way of explaining it, from an article in Fast Company:
There's another dark side to social technology: the appearance of activism where in fact there is inaction. Using social media to make someone aware of a cause is half the battle; getting him or her to take real action is the ultimate goal. ... Membership in an online group does not equal true commitment; it might even make people less likely to take action, because they feel that their online group membership lets them off the hook. In one study, researchers showed that when people talk about their intentions, they can be less likely to act on them because the talking gives them a "premature sense of completeness."
Sadly, the thing Gladwell gets wrong (and lots of people have already pointed this out so I won't elaborate) is that weak and strong ties, and hierarchies and meshworks, are not polar opposites. They intermingle and interpenetrate, and they influence and sometimes become each other. I agree that social media support weak ties more than they support strong ties. But people interact in many ways. The whole thing is not as simple or strong as he makes it out -- and that in itself is telling, as I will explain.

One party, two parties

Reading the discourse on this article has helped me understand something I've been pondering about personality, the internet, and my own work on social media. In reading a few dozen blog posts on this topic over the past few days, I noticed a curious pattern. The more Gladwell's simplification and vilification of social media got under the skin of the person writing about the article, judging from what they wrote, the more likely the title of their blog post mentioned his name. Posts that said he took a reasonable point too far (but were calm about it) were less likely to feature his name in the title. My guess is that the people most provoked by Gladwell's statements were the most extraverted, and those people are the most attracted by social media (and the most upset when it is attacked), because it works best for them.

I also noticed some remarkable correspondences between what Gladwell has said about social media and what I've thought about it. Here's a bit of an interview with Katie Couric last winter:
Katie Couric: Do you use social media? Do you use Facebook and Twitter and ...

Malcolm Gladwell: No. Not really. My goal is to do less things online, not more.

KC: Why?

MG: Well, because I have a limited amount of time.

KC: Uh huh. Do you feel it clutters you?

MG: Yeah. I mean, my whole goal in the world is to clear big spaces of time to think and to explore and to follow my curiosity. And if I'm constantly on my Blackberry it kind of chews into what's important.
The important thing here is the word important. To me, and to Malcolm Gladwell, talking to people gets in the way of what is important. To some people, talking to people is what is important.

I'm a slow, deep thinker and, probably not coincidentally, a strong introvert. If I don't have big spaces of uninterrupted time to work in, I am rendered useless to the world. I always tell people I have one thought per week, and they think I'm joking, but I'm not. Anyone who has ever worked with me knows I shut down when life gets too broken up into little pieces. But many of the people I know do work in tiny little pieces, in hundreds of conversations and projects per week, and what's more, they like it that way. These people simply amaze me. When my mother was at the height of her piano teaching career she often had more than sixty lessons a week. I could not function in such a world. I know this because the few times I've tried, I failed miserably. Just a few weeks ago, I had a week in which I participated in more phone calls and answered more emails than I'm used to. I had to spend half the weekend immersed in the woods and in classic literature to regain a semblance of sanity. (Luckily I got sick, which was wonderfully focusing.)

I've tried Facebook and Twitter, and I seem to have had the same visceral ugh-gross reaction that Malcolm Gladwell had. As many people have mentioned, Gladwell has made something like twenty Twitter things -- um, tweets? I've made four. I look at twitter once in a while, but I'm always struck speechless by it. The last tweet I made ("about 1 month ago") was "Twitter is amazing. I have never before realized how little I have to say." And that about exhausts what I have to say (that can be said in Twitter).

I'm starting to think the debate on social media is being warped by a tacit agreement not to bring up differences in extraversion and introversion. As we pundits pontificate about the value of social media tools to society in general, we need to consider the possibility that our arguments are, at least in part, rationalizations of our unbidden visceral reactions. As a result we sometimes make farther-reaching statements than are merited by the evidence, possibly without realizing our own motivations. I myself tried to explain my frustrations about Facebook when I tried and then left it. When I've talked to people about the post since, reactions have been similarly visceral: either people totally agree or have no idea what I'm talking about. Perhaps the cause of the range of opinion on social media tools is related to the range of personalities among those speaking. Maybe just becoming more aware of that range, or making it more acceptable to mention it, would improve the discourse.

Long ago in my twenties, I used to go to parties. Many, many parties. (Okay, a dozen or so, but it seemed like a lot more.) Why did I go? Because going to the party was the only way to get to the party after the party. Meaning, the real party, where the people I already knew gathered around the embers of the before-party and got all quiet and philosophical and talked about important things until the sun rose. The after party was the real party for me because it was about few and strong ties. During the before-party, my usual scheme was to find the the biggest, loudest speakers on the dance floor and dance directly in front of them until the before-party was over and the real party started. That way I could ignore the waves of small talk crashing around me and wait for the storm to subside.

I do not have the gene for small talk. I have watched some absolute masters at it: they can sit down with any human being and have a conversation about nothing at all for as long as is required. (I do not say this in a pejorative way: I am truly impressed.) I have through decades of observation and study learned to mimic this skill to a limited extent when it is necessary, but I typically need hours of restorative silence to recover from just a few minutes of superficiality.

It was a great revelation to me when I realized that some people went to the same parties I did, but for the other party. For them, the before-party was the real party, and the after-party was just a bunch of boring stick-in-the-muds talking too long about boring things. Those people loved small talk. They thrived on it. It was why they were there. They danced, but only if they could shout banal observations about trivial matters over the music. I watched these people revel in telling complete strangers what they thought about all sorts of things, and what they ate for lunch, and where they grew up, and what breeds of dog were cutest, and the great book they read last week, and how everybody could lose weight, and ... pretty much all the stuff people talk about on Facebook and Twitter.

Explanations on top of motivations on top of personalities

So what I've noticed is: people have the same visceral reactions to the weak ties of social media as they have to the weak ties of party small talk. Some people lap it up, and some people endure it because it's the only way to get to the strong ties they are waiting for. And then we all write about how social media is wonderful or awful. But what's really happening is that we all try social media, and if we love it we feel we have to explain why, and if we hate it we feel we have to explain why. Because everybody is supposed to like it, but not love it. People who love it too much need to find a reason for that, so they say it will save the world and should win the Nobel peace prize. People who hate it feel like they need to find a reason for that, so they write scathing articles in the New Yorker.

I've done the same thing as Gladwell, which in retrospect makes complete sense. In a post about my own social media software (which I now realize was written for the after-party), I said:
In general I think web software has been wonderful for people finding and meeting people. It has been wonderful for people trying to draw more people to a cause. It has done a dismal job helping people who already know each other do anything but bring the most basic information together. In my opinion, Margaret Mead's small groups of thoughtful, committed citizens trying to change the world are still waiting for their internet.
I think the reason so many people are upset about what Gladwell said, that only strong ties create real change, is that he's attacking the before-party, and lots of the people who use (and work in) social media come to the party for the before-party. My guess as to why the most irate posters were also the most likely to mention Gladwell's name in their blog post titles is that those are the people most likely to participate in small talk, which always includes connective name-dropping (another thing most introverts shun).

So far I've only been writing about my hunches, but here is a fascinating study by the sociologist Stefan Wehrli. He surveyed people about their personalities and compared this information with their activities on a social network. Says Wherli:
Extraverts show a higher probability in joining StudiVZ [the German version of Facebook], they adopt the technology faster and accumulate more friends on their contact lists. Accordingly, individuals with high scores on extraversion take more central positions in the friendship network.
That's not surprising, but more interestingly:
Highly conscientious people tend to refrain from participation on social networking sites, suggesting that they successfully evade this popular source of distraction in student’s everyday life. Surprisingly, we found activating, positive effects from neuroticism which stands in sharp contradiction to theory and the majority of empirical findings reported in the literature. One possible explanation is that people exhibiting high levels of emotional instability tend to spend more time on social network sites. In being fearful of rejection, they might try harder to present themselves well in an unstained and attractive manner.
I would guess that both myself and Malcolm Gladwell are somewhat introverted, way too conscientious, and more than a little neurotic. This may be a combination that makes it simply impossible to participate in the major social media venues currently available. I myself found that when I did try Facebook, I couldn't stop checking it, and thoughts of what people might be saying about me on it impinged on my ability to concentrate. I don't get neurotic about this blog, because I don't write in it every day (I said I had one thought a week, didn't I?), and because, well, I've always written. It's a habit. I don't think I've stopped writing for more than a few days since I turned sixteen. I used to write letters and a journal; I'm just writing to a few more people now. If my blog readership skyrocketed, I might get a lot more neurotic about it, but at least for now I'm still at the after-party with my friends. Facebook is definitely not like an after-party, because there random people keep wandering around asking where the bowl of peanuts got to.

You might think that writing books would be a problem if you are introverted, conscientious and neurotic; but it's not half the problem you might think. For one thing, you can't obsess about a book, because once it's printed, it's out of your hands (literally). For another, you don't have to listen to what people say about your book, and many people don't. George Eliot famously didn't read a single review in her entire writing life; her husband apparently shielded her from the "like" buttons of the day. I wonder if much of the great literature we have today could have been written if its authors were forced to use Facebook daily.

But just as I am sure that most current social media tools are anathema to creative action by introverts, I am equally sure that at least some aspects of them are not just acceptable but required for the creative action of extraverts. So, as a bona fide member of the introverted world, I'd like to say to Malcolm Gladwell: I know exactly how you feel, and I want to believe you are right, but I know you are wrong. Social activism needs all of us. Yes, it needs the focus and depth of the quiet invisible seekers. But it also needs the energy and breadth of the people people, and yes, it even needs the small talk of the before-party.

I've seen extraverts heap up millions of apparently trivial conversations and arrive at something I could never achieve. They can't arrive at the same things I can arrive at, but they can arrive at different things that are useful in different ways. As somebody pointed out on one of the many blog responses I've seen to Gladwell's article, social change sometimes comes about by small changes made in the lives of millions or billions of people, and that change is no less important than the kind that requires intense sacrifice from a relative few. Also it is a mistake to underestimate the importance of people who build many weak connections. I know people who, for any random topic you can possibly throw at them, can pull out the names of three people you can call right now who will be able and willing to help you. These same people couldn't write a book to save their life, but that doesn't mean what they do is any less valuable.

Somebody stole our internet

So we are diverse, and we have diverse reactions. That can't be the problem, or if it is the problem we certainly can't do anything about it. The real problem, as I see it, is that the diversity of the internet doesn't match the diversity of the people using it. Why is this? I can think of a few reasons.

By most estimates I've seen extraverts outnumber introverts by about 75% to 25%. This may be most of the issue. As the internet has grown to meet the needs of society, it has become more like society, and the advantages we introverts held in the beginning have disappeared. One of the resaons we middle-aged internet nerds are cantankerous is because things aren't as comfortable for us as they used to be. Back when I started using the internet around 1984, it was a nerd's paradise. The beautiful people were kept safely out by our gate-keeping command-line syntax, which we carefully tended until it stood like a privet hedge around our world. I was a heavy user of a VAX-based communication system on my university network, then of the larger BITNET. I mostly used the internet to keep in daily contact with a few close friends. I did sometimes visit BBS systems, but those systems at the time were considered huge if they had a few hundred visitors.

I remember there was this one professor in graduate school who was shy. We shy people can sense each other and have a sort of unspoken fraternity. Once in a while I happened to ride in the elevator with him. It was lovely. We always gave each other this little glance that said, "No need to say hello," then returned to staring at our shoes. And then we would both relax, free for a few seconds from the crushing requirement of constant small talk. The internet-that-was was like that elevator. We internet nerds didn't push each other to do things we didn't like. We didn't display like buttons and comment walls and reputations and recommended lists for everyone to see. That would have been like forcing each other to wear signs that said Selections for softball teams: zero or Number of teachers who consider me a pet: six on our foreheads. We didn't display, we didn't name-drop, we didn't advertise, and we didn't do small talk. We had quiet, private, deep, important conversations. I remember the first time a friend convinced me to meet her on BioMOO, one of the first MUDs. People did bump into us occasionally as we spoke, but it was the sort of embarassed sorry-looking-for-somebody-else talk introverts know and love. There was almost no small talk going on. We were all there for the after-parties, and we all knew it.

If the web then was like a quiet elevator where nobody was pressured to speak, the web today is like a bustling market square, full of hawkers and hookers and jostling patrons. You can't get a sandwich without half a dozen bystanders asking where'd you get that and what do you think of the new mayor. When I visit places on the web today, I feel like a stranger in what I had thought was my own land. Every place I go now, I am expected -- no, required! -- to comment, leave my calling card, make a connection, say something nice, short, and superficial. Small talk is a requirement of the new internet, and we don't like it one bit.

But we adapt. We hide. We meet in email and on Skype. We live in the mailing lists, open source project groups, Yahoo groups, and other wastelands the extraverts have left behind. (Ning could be a good after-party spot, but it has so many of the trappings of the before-party -- announcements, events, profiles, polls, eye candy -- that we use it only reluctantly, and scare easily on it.) I can tell when I encounter another introvert on the web, because when I say the virtual equivalent of "let's get out of this noise and go somewhere we can talk" they nod their virtual heads and join me in the fusty email nerd lounge. The extraverts just shout over the music, "What, and leave the party?" In the new internet we introverts are like the rebels in Logan's Run -- living in the ruins left behind, ragged, scurrying, and happy.

Why has our internet become their internet? Besides there being a lot more of them, it has to do with eyeballs and the takeover of the internet by the commercial world. Selling access to introverted eyeballs is not a winning prospect. First, introverts prefer fewer stronger ties and speak in fewer longer conversations. That's fewer places to put advertisements. Second, we don't look around that much. We plod. You know that old joke -- how can you tell an extraverted engineer? When he talks to you, he looks at your shoes. The shoes of the internet are the texts, what people are saying, and our eyes rarely stray from them. I'll wager that most of the people who use advertisement blockers are introverts. I never see a single ad on the internet if I can help it, nor does my similarly quiet husband. But I've mentioned ad-blockers to several friends and relatives who are extraverted, and they always respond with puzzlement. They can't understand why I'd want to turn off the ads. They're fun. They're part of the party. Advertisements are like small talk: broad, shallow interaction.

We introverts ignore advertisements. When we buy products, we don't look at advertisements; we go deep. We read every single Amazon review. We ask questions on forums. We research every single purchase, even soap, as thoroughly as we can. But guess what? We still buy stuff. does a great job at cultivating both the introvert and extravert populations. The extraverts get their heaps of pictures, their "hot" items, their author blogs, their "what other people liked" lists, their "gold box" deals. We get our long, funny, silly reviews (and reviews of reviews). Have you seen what some people are writing on Amazon? Some of these people are hilarious, and the best ones are probably introverted. Sometimes I'll find a great review and then just read one review after another written by somebody with a funny way of describing things. I read Amazon reviews to my son, who usually insists on hearing every single one before we buy anything (there's heredity for you). I've even come to realize that the reason I found giving up television liberating rather than depressing might have been that I'm introverted. Giving up TV, for me, meant more quality time with novels and movies, my true media friends. But for many extraverts I know, TV is the small talk of a party that never stops. No wonder they love it so much.

I still think the internet doesn't work very well for small groups working together towards common goals, and I still want to help it get better at that. But this experience has given me new respect for what extraverted people can do with extraverted tools, and a new interest in supporting interactions among both introverts and extraverts. I'd say the most important thing I have learned in the past week is this. People who care about social activism on the internet need to be more aware of how our own personalities affect what we think everyone needs. And we need to build tools that work with, not just in spite of, our diverse ways of interacting. It's not good enough to say our tools work for some ways of interacting and connecting -- yours or mine. We need to make everyone part of the solution, if we don't want to build more problems.