January 30, 2017

Your Steady Stream of Tech News Will Continue When Morale Improves

The Web always promised to bring people together. But just as simply, it can drive people apart, as geographical barriers or partial or full anonymity empowers people to say things or behave in ways they wouldn't in a direct setting.

Accelerated by the new reality of realtime streams where everyone has a megaphone and seemingly everyone is working to "go viral" and make the biggest noise leads to a constant cacophony of shouting on the issues of the day. And of late, as I outlined in my last post about Trump's looming $100 billion productivity crisis, just about every stream and news source is dominated by politics and the impact to people by political decisions.

For those opposed to the Trump team's way of thinking, the daily barrage of news and rumors can be fatiguing. Each morning can bring new horrors of gut-churning policy and more needing to escalate to fight back. This weekend's sparked crisis stemming from an ill thought out and very likely racist and illegal refugee travel ban saw rallies across the country and millions of dollars raised to flow into the coffers of charities aiming to help, like the ACLU. (I too donated, and my company has promised to set aside millions to help.)

As colleague Yonatan Zunger warns (and you absolutely must read his post), we will likely hit a wall of outrage fatigue. If there is a steady stream of controversial news that impacts us, or people we know, or people we are tangentially fond of, we will run into capacity limits to be angry and to be heard, as the calamities run into each other. But even if that occurs, that doesn't mean we can act as if nothing is happening at all.

I've already seen people yearn for the good old days when we could debate data portability, site aggregation, text editors, or even which mobile OS is the best. But at a time when people's lives are at risk, and foundations we expected to be stable are proving themselves unstable, having a row about the latest geek gadget seems out of place.

It's not that we didn't see this coming. Back in 2006, an ancient eleven years ago, I knew we would see the web accelerate people's disagreements. People want to flock to their tribes, where others agree with them, and the opposite side can seem evil, foolish or subhuman. Most of the time, they're not - even as their words are alarming and frightful. We knew when people had an opportunity to polarize one another and their beliefs, they would. And every study shows this - including our unprecedented divisions in government, globally, nationally and locally.

We can use the Web to rally together and raise funds and awareness for our causes, and we will. But while I'm excited to see the deep pocketed among us excitedly match donations, a great chunk of society is living paycheck to paycheck, and the access to discretionary funds to hold back the government, an institution that is designed to help them, is simply going to run out.

Until we reach some level of stability and understanding with one another, and are out of a crisis mode, you can expect the 'all politics all the time' streams to continue. Mild apologies.

January 20, 2017

Trump's Looming $100B+ Distraction and Productivity Crisis

Each year, American businesses are confronted with estimates that upwards of $2 to $4 billion in worker productivity is lost thanks to employee office pools around March Madness, the month-long college basketball championship tournament. Conventional wisdom has it that the tens of millions of players may physically check in to the office, but mentally are somewhere else, working at half speed, sapping dollars from their employer.

That single digit billion dollar gap is trivial compared to what the country has likely already seen after a year-long torture test of a presidential campaign, followed up with the looming tenure led by a person whose unpredictability and lack of respect for historical precedent, combined with a filter-free ability to share his half-formed thoughts with the world has everyone guessing what headline will flare up next.

The fidgety and distracted half-attentive employees in corner cubicles who may have been pulling for upset picks to win their bracket are instead replaced by entire teams of workers who are on edge - possibly unsure whether their place in the world is safe, whether their rights are going to be protected as new leaders rewrite and repeal the laws, or simply numb and horrified from the scandal of the day. And, if the 2016 campaign and post-election news cycles have been any hint as to what's to come over the next few years, this feeling, resembling post-traumatic stress disorder, will be felt in some capacity for a large percentage of the population for some time.

"Sharon, you've been watching CNN for about 8 weeks now.
Don't you want to watch something else?" -- South Park

If it's at all possible to act as if politics were not part of this discussion, leaving aside my strong support for Hillary and revulsion to Trump... putting aside the real life-threatening possibility that he and his team will ignite wars, stir up hatred against people who don't match his criteria of perfection, and the domino effects of reducing health care for millions and denying environmental impacts that threaten the very world... the very spectacle of distraction alone will seep in its darkness, sapping morale and focus.

The volume of noise and conflict around Trump is unprecedented in a connected age, when everyone can consume and share information instantly. And while Twitter has had its challenges, it has become the epicenter for the latest volley of noise from the president elect. Buzzfeed recently said noise around Trump had crested 10 times higher than the previous first family of the network -- the Kardashians.

At this point, even logging in to a social network, be it Facebook, Twitter or any other, runs into the possibility someone is talking about who Trump might be or what he might do. The campaign even brought the debate of whether you could trust news sources to the fore. The entire Web is infested.

Conversations among friends, neighbors, and colleagues either tiptoe around the election or confront it head on, but it's always there, in the way the tragedy of 9/11 was on everyone's mind for the months and years following the attacks. It's a distraction not just for a few hoops jockeys or degenerates, but for tens to hundreds of millions of people, and won't just last a month, but, most likely, for years.

Maybe this administration isn't going to be as alarming and disruptive as we all predict. Possibly after we all look at this like passing a smoldering wreck on the freeway, we can continue forward, but the rhetoric and policies promised to hit us seemingly have us positioned for a half decade of PTSD, which will impact everyone. This madness won't end with a buzzer beater from Gonzaga.

Disclosures: I work at Google, a perceived partner and occasional competitor to Twitter, which I use constantly. I was also more than happy to donate to Hillary's 2016 campaign.