A few days ago, I posted a short piece on the attention economy. In a sense it was a bit of a cheat. What I had actually written was much, much longer. I cut it short because the trains of thought it prompted created a whole set of new starting points, but didn't make for a very coherent piece. When I then collided with the concept of Low Latent Inhibition the thought processes exploded.
One of the places this took me to was back to the idea of Purposive Drift and how what I seem to be saying there could be reduced to two grammatically inelegant aphorisms that seem to apply as much to organisations as they do to individuals like you and me:
"You are what you pay attention to"
"If you want to change who you are; change what you pay attention to"
Every so often one comes across a concept that seems to set off an explosion of ideas. Visiting Grant McCracken's blog the other day provided one of them. The concept is Low Latent Inhibition. I'll go on to McCracken's take on the concept a bit later, but first we'll get to the crunch.
McCracken links to an article in The Harvard Review by Craig Lambert, who describes the concept in the following way:
"In a paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, lecturer on psychology Shelley Carson, Ph.D. '01, Harvard graduate student Daniel Higgins, and Jordan Peterson of the University of Toronto (formerly assistant professor of psychology at Harvard) focus on "latent inhibition," a cognitive mechanism discovered as a result of experiments with animals in the late 1950s. Latent inhibition is the capacity of an animal to unconsciously screen out stimuli perceived as irrelevant to its needs.
Psychologists have generally linked a low level of latent inhibition to psychotic conditions like schizophrenia; the lack of filtering can even flood the mind with random inputs. But the eminent psychologist Hans Eysenck also speculated that low latent inhibition might be one of the cognitive deficits that creative and psychotic people share. Although too much material entering the "cognitive working area" might disorient psychotics, Carson wondered whether "highly creative people could use those many bits and pieces in the cognitive workspace and combine them in novel, original ways."
This idea intrigues me because it seems to link to many of the things I have been thinking about for years. Thinking in terms of this concept, much of what I have been trying think through in Purposive Drift has been about how to overcome Latent Inhibition without being overwhelmed. The idea of bricololage is about the process of putting together "bits and pieces in the cognitive workspace and combine them in novel, original ways." And, of course, the mystery of creativity itself and how some circumstances seem to promote it and others inhibit it, maybe explored using this concept.
What also interests me in this concept is that it could explain the sense of danger that is associated with creativity. Something that seems to be missing in much of the writing about creativity and business. While there are countless articles urging companies and the people who work in them to be more creative and innovative, few seem to confront the reality that being creative can get you into some dangerous, lonely places.
Since Grant McCracken alerted me to this concept I should conclude with his take on the idea. He speculates that:
"Our culture and our economy now appear to be predicated on the constant flow of ?difference? both from without and within. In the words of Thomas Stewart, ?intellectual capital? is the new wealth of organizations. More to the present point, it is the necessary wealth of organizations. Without a constant stream of new ideas and innovations the organization withers and dies. To put this more apocalyptically, it is as if we are as a culture and an economy, now hydroplaning. As long as we continue hydroplaning, we?re fine. It?s the moment of touchdown we do not want to think about."
Or in other words he seems to be arguing that we may have managed to institutionalise low latent inhibition.
As I said at the beginning of this piece, some concepts set off an explosion of ideas. No doubt I shall be returning to this one in the future. Meanwhile, I hope it has given you something to think about too.
The other day my attention was grabbed by a very short entry in Bruce Sterling's blog. Essentially it consisted of a title The Inherent Nature of a Capitalist "Attention Economy"" and a link "Michael Goldhaber, economic prophet" plus one of Sterlings photos"
Now I don't know about you, but the term, "Attention Economy" seems very last century to me and the name "Michael Goldhaber" didn't register. So why did I click on the link?
I think, in this case, it was a combination of things. First, I rate Bruce Sterling, so a recommendation from him carries some weight. Second, the link was to First Monday, which, while quite often a bit worthy and dull, sometimes contains some articles that require serious attention.
Goldhaber is a very lively and persuasive writer, but I am not convinced by his argument that the "attention economy" is replacing the money economy. What he has persuaded me is that "attention" is an increasingly important part of the money economy. And, that getting and giving attention is a phenomenon we should take very seriously.
A while back I spotted that Fast Company's latest issue was centred on design. I didn't talk about it here then, because most of the issue is still not on-line. But since it will be up soon I couldn't resist quoting from the editorial, which is on-line:
"An essential part of this revolution is the idea of design as a metaphor for the future of work. We don't need to understand designers better, writes Roger Martin, dean of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, in a recent essay. We need to be designers ourselves. We "need to think and work like designers, have attitudes like designers, and learn to evaluate each other as designers do," says Martin. "Most companies' managers will tell you that they have spent the bulk of their time over the past decade on improvement. Now it's no longer enough to get better, you have to 'get different.' "
If you want the link to Roger Martin's essay you can find it here.
In one of the very few hostile reviews of Understanding Hypermedia, the reviewer took particular exception to my use of the word bricolage. This he explained to his readers meant do it yourself in French. Not long afterwards, I went on holiday to France and it seems almost everywhere we went was met by signs at the side of the road advertising "Mr. Bricolage". Ever since then I have been tempted to create a new identity for myself as Monsieur Bricolage.
This prompted me to dig out a copy of Understanding Hypermedia to see what had aroused the ire of that hostile reviewer all those years ago. If I'd still got it soft I'd reproduce the whole section, but since it involves retyping I just put in a couple of passages so that you can get the flavour:
"With a digital medium such as hypermedia, not only is copying very easy, but once it has been copied, material can be very easily adapted, modified, changed or merged with other copied material. In 20 years time, one definition of 'literacy' may be the ability to put together an interactive communication (using sound, images, animation and live action video as well as text). If this is the case, it will be largely because hypermedia is the supreme medium for bricolage."
"... bricolage can be seen as a fundamental aspect of human creativity. Nothing that any of us creates is totally new. Everyone, including the most brilliant and original, draws on existing elements of the culture. What makes something new and original is the organization of those existing elements into new and original relationships, combined with the detail of their expression."
According to Lalith Munasinghe and Nachum Sicherman smokers earn less than non-smokers. Their starting wage is lower and wage growth flatter. In an intriguingly titled paper, "Why Do Dancers Smoke? Smoking, Time Preference, and Wage Dynamics", they use smoking as a proxy for people's attitude towards time. Smokers are more orientated towards the present and immediate gratification. Non-smokers seem to live Max Weber's Protestant Ethic, deferring gratification for future benefit.
As they put it in their introduction:
"The title of our paper ?Why Do Dancers Smoke?? suggests a paradox. Dancers place great importance on physical health, strength, and fitness; and yet, smoking leads to untoward health, loss of strength, and diminished fitness. We contend that the concept of time preference, the individual valuations of present versus future consumption, resolves this apparent paradox. Both activities sacrifice some distant benefit for a more present-oriented gratification. Dancers are passionate, if not obsessed, with their work; but their careers are short with dim, if not nonexistent, prospects of future earnings. Even more obvious is the fact that smokers sacrifice future health for an immediate source of pleasure. Hence the answer we consider is that dancers smoke because they are more present-oriented."
Anticipating a common objection to their thesis, they add in a footnote:
"Seminar participants never fail to point out the ?real? reason why dancers smoke: weight control. Although this answer is not inconsistent with our claim that dancers have higher discount rates, among 120 plus professional dancers who smoke (based on a survey we conducted in New York City in 2001), a reason for smoking they least agree with is ?weight control.? Among the reasons they most agree with are ?relaxation? and ?enjoyment.?
As part of their study they conducted a survey of students in their universities, in which they found the highest percentage of smokers in students studying Dance, English and History. The lowest percentage was found in students studying Psychology, Engineering and Natural Science.
In a time when the issue of smoking seems to have been reduced to a simple minded non-smokers good, smokers bad, Munasinghe and Sicherman's highlighting of the relationship between occupational choice and smoking points to a more fruitful way of exploring the practice.
Back in 1963 when the epidemiological evidence on the dangers of smoking had become firm, Carl C. Seltzer, a physical anthropologist, published an article in The Atlantic, "Why People Smoke". One of his conclusions was that while it was difficult to characterise smokers, at that time non-smokers could be described in the following terms:
"The consensus of various studies indicates the nonsmoker to be of middle-class origin rather than in either the upper or lower classes, reflecting the mark of middle-class respectability and the persistence of the Puritanical trait. Seemingly, he considers smoking one of the small vices to which the flesh is heir, is often pious and a devout churchgoer, and is frequently an abstainer from alcohol. While the nonsmoker tends to be dependable, purposeful, hard-working, stable in marriage, and quietly progressive in general outlook, he is less gregarious and sociable than the smoker. He is described as being more often inner-directed or an introvert, and is, accordingly, immoderately preoccupied with his own thought processes and other internal states. More rigid in personality than the smoker, the nonsmoker is attracted to scientific rather than business studies, and during his adolescence he tends to be more seriously absorbed in his studies and academic achievements."
The profile of the non-smoker is likely to be more diverse today. After all in the USA their numbers have grown from being 60% of adults in 1964 to about 73% today. But for many smokers Seltzer's profile is a stereotype we don't want to be. Smoking seems to be as much a matter of identity as it is anything else. As Malcolm Gladwell put it in "The Tipping Point", "Smoking was never cool. Smokers are cool."
But smoking also has a pharmacological effect. As Kathleen Cushman describes in her review of David Krogh's "Smoking: The Artificial Passion":
"People use "workplace drugs" like tobacco, Valium, and caffeine, Krogh says, not so much to induce an exotic sensation as to deal with the stresses and strains that make us less ourselves?not to get high, that is, but to "get normal."
A theme that is picked up by Oliver James:
"So what is it that makes smoking so rewarding? As an anti-depressant, nicotine produces a brief, euphoric sensation by boosting dopamine, yet it also seems to affect serotonin levels (serotonin is the brain chemical that is low in depressives and is boosted by anti-depressants such as Prozac).
Nicotine also affects levels of cortisol, a hormone that plays a vital role in the response to danger. Neurotic people may have high levels. Alternatively, if you have low levels they may need boosting to make you more reactive and alert.
Nicotine seems to affect cortisol levels differentially - if they are too low, it raises them; if too high, it drops them. This probably explains why smoking is more common in people who are anti-social, rebellious, impulsive and risk-taking. Interestingly, being anti-social when young is the single strongest predictor of later smoking. Rebelliousness and risk-taking at 11 predict smoking at 18."
People who smoke have adopted the practice as a strategy for dealing with life and defining who they are. The fact that the number of smokers seems to have stabilised, even in countries like the USA, where there are massive social pressures against smoking, suggests that current propaganda and health education is no longer working.
What all this suggests to me is that anti-smoking as a moral crusade has itself become dangerous. What seems to be required is more disinterested research into why people smoke, the perceived and actual benefits of smoking, and what, if any, other strategies smokers could adopt to gain these benefits without the harmful effects of smoking.
What might also be worth considering too is whether there are any hidden costs to the possibility of the total elimination of tobacco smoking. The general assumption is that the elimination of tobacco smoking would be an unqualified good. This looks like a moral rather than a scientific judgement.
And, as a final note, from the late Bill Hicks:
"My biggest fear is that if I quit smoking, I'll become one of you...Don't take that wrong. I have something to tell you non-smokers that I know for a fact that you don't know, and I feel it's my duty to pass on information at all times. Ready?.......Non-smokers die every day...Enjoy your evening. See, I know that you entertain this eternal life fantasy because you've chosen not to smoke, but let me be the 1st to POP that bubble and bring you hurtling back to reality....You're dead too."
A piece in the New Yorker got me thinking about Jane Jacobs again. (I've written about her here before in relation to the concept of Purposive Drift) So exploring the web I found this link, which took me to this interview from about two years ago, where she puts forward this cheerful thought:
"...we are living, I am convinced, in one of the most intellectually exciting times the human race has ever gone through. We are emerging from this linear cause-and-effect way of seeing the world into a way that has really been led by the ecologists, into a Web world, beginning to understand relationships in quite a different way. And it is affecting everything. And no end of people have grasped this and are seeing the world differently and analyzing things differently and seeing possibilities differently--basically in a very hopeful way. And I think this is awfully exciting. People who are younger than I am, you are lucky. You can play a part in what I think can be an extremely hopeful stage."
If you enter the phrase, "To go faster, slow down" into Google, you won't find the name "John Brunner" in your returns. The closest you will get is,"To go faster, slow down. Everybody who knows about orbital mechanics understands that.? attributed to Scott Cherf of Cisco.
This is kind of sad since that bit of advice, I culled from Brunner's "Shockwave Rider", is one that really works if you can do it.
All though Brunner's best books were written some thirty years or so ago, they largely seem as relevant today as when they were first published. Thankfully, after a long period of neglect, the good ones, "Shockwave Rider", "The Jagged Orbit", "Stand on Zanzibar" and "The Sheep Look Up", seem to be going through something of a revival.
I've been telling my son, Ben, whose just turned eighteen, that if he wants economic security the best way to do it is to build up a portfolio of tradable skills. By tradable skills I mean a set of skills that are clearly identifiable by people who will pay for them. (I should add this is something I have manifestly failed to do myself. Most frequently asked question, "What exactly is it that you do?) I've also pointed out that he already has some such skills, but I'm not sure he really believes me.
This extract, gives a taster, but read the whole thing, it could, as they say in the ads, change your life:
"What I've come to realize is that the street is the safest place to be. There's no fear, here, because you're already here. (It's where you are, anyway, even if some company has given you cubicle space - but that's a bit existential for spring.) Your employment is as diversified as your ability to multitask. And the more different kinds of work you take on, the more media in which you can play. It's not a jack-of-all-trades problem, at all, since the more different arenas in which you work, the more clear it gets what you bring to each one of them."
As regular readers will know I like John Brockman's the Edge . Invariably, I find something that gets me thinking. On my visit this morning, I found this little gem in an interview with Nassim Taleb, a thought that deserves some deep reflection:
"There is a silly book called A Millionaire Next Door, and one of the authors wrote an even sillier book called The Millionaire's Mind. They interviewed a bunch of millionaires to figure out how these people got rich. Visibly they came up with bunch of traits. You need a little bit of intelligence, a lot of hard work, and a lot of risk-taking. And they derived that, hey, taking risk is good for you if you want to become a millionaire. What these people forgot to do is to go take a look at the less visible cemetery ? in other words, bankrupt people, failures, people who went out of business ? and look at their traits. They would have discovered that some of the same traits are shared by these people, like hard work and risk taking. This tells me that the unique trait that the millionaires had in common was mostly luck."
A great quote from Robert Altman in an interview in the Guardian: