That’ll Do, Pig: If You Care About Excellence, Stop Over-Praising

Also published at Huffington Post. In a meeting of nonprofit leaders the other day, I heard an executive praise some recent work done by his staff as “amazing” and “incredible”.

I hear this kind of thing so often that, normally, it hardly registers — it’s become the equivalent of someone saying “thank you”.

But this time it hit me: it is the equivalent of saying “thank you”. What these staffers had done wasn’t amazing or incredible at all. It was their job.

How did “amazing and incredible” come to mean “doing your job”?

I thought back to the highest-performing organizations I’ve worked with, in entertainment, media, technology or politics: no one talked like this. Among the very best of those organizations was Obama for America. At OFA, superlative performance wasn’t amazing or incredible. It was described simply as “gettin’ it done”.

At mediocre organizations, on the other hand, people get a gold star for finding their way to the office.

Of course, we should recognize good work. Skillful managers catch people doing things right, as Ken Blanchard taught us long ago.

But there’s a long way from there to here. In the years since we discovered positive reinforcement, a kind of praise inflation has taken over. Like monetary inflation, praise inflation reduces the value of the underlying currency.

It’s a formula for mediocrity. If you praise people to the skies for simply meeting your expectations, what does that say about your expectations?

I myself wrestle with the temptation to over-praise. After all, it feels like what a kind, supportive boss would do.

But I’ve realized that over-praise is the opposite of supportive: it tells people is that their work isn’t worth much.

The result? High performers feel that their work is unrecognized, and low performers feel encouraged to get away with even less — after all, “adequate” has now been deemed “amazing”.

Research backs this up. Intrinsic motivation — satisfaction in one’s work — yields better results than does extrinsic motivation — external rewards or punishments. Extrinsic motivation is not only weaker than intrinsic motivation, it undermines it.

It might be better to take a lesson from another model of excellence, the 1995 movie Babe. Farmer Hoggett is the “boss” of Babe, the world’s highest-achieving pig. Babe has learned to do the job of a top sheepdog, and against all odds (spoiler alert), he wins a sheep-herding championship.

Here’s how Farmer Hoggett praises his hard-working genius:

Narrator: And though every single human in the stands or in the commentary boxes was at a complete loss for words, the man who in his life had uttered fewer words than any of them knew exactly what to say.

Farmer Hoggett: That’ll do, pig. That’ll do.

And Babe beams with pride.

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Bill O’Reilly and I Killed Bin Laden — But the Liberal Media Doesn’t Want You to Know

Originally published at the Huffington Post: We were right there with Seal Team Six, Bill and me.

Please, don’t call us heroes. We were just two patriotic Americans, doing our jobs.

And our job was to crash land the chopper, hustle up the stairs, and — BAM! Send America’s greatest foe on his way to a date with the Devil.

Now, if you looked around that compound in Abbottabad — if you turned it inside out— you think you’d find any zealots from the left wing media there?

You think they’d have the stones?


They’d be back the hotel, ordering room service.

But now, these same cowards are saying I wasn’t there either, and neither was Bill.

Surprised? Don’t be. These people aren’t going to tell you the truth — they hate the truth. Because truth gets in the way of tearing America down — and of tearing down our troops.

Folks, here’s the truth — and you’ll only get it here. I saw the photos of the Seal Team Six raid. And so did Bill, with his own eyes. Hell, we both saw the movie.

And we didn’t turn away.

Could have stepped out for another Coke, or a Snickers.


But they don’t want you to know that. They want you to think we’re the liars.

They’re running an orchestrated campaign, a hit job. They want you to think we said we were actually there with Seal Team Six.

As if that’s what the words, “Right there with Seal Team Six,” mean.


What part of, “We saw pictures,” don’t these pinheads understand?

What we meant is perfectly clear — no matter how much the liberal media wants to twist it, or how much they want to apologize to our enemies for the brave actions of our troops.

I’m done talking about this. And so is Bill. And so is the management of Fox News — the highest rated channel in cable, bar none.

But do you think that’ll stop the also-rans and bottom-rungers? Of course not.

Just wait. They’re going to come after us again. You heard it here first.

The next thing you know, they’re going to claim that Bill and I didn’t win World War Two.

World War Two! The war that saved civilization from the Nazis!

You think they won’t? Mark my words.

Because these people?

They have no shame.

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Obama’s Real Crime: Treating Americans Like Adults

Originally published at the Huffington Post: There are obvious explanations for Rudy Giuliani turning himself into a Donald Trump-scale joke this week by attacking President Obama’s patriotism.

#1: A craving for attention, in someone who had fallen out of the spotlight.

#2: Racism, just the latest example of the right’s “othering” of Obama. Giuliani denies he’s a racist, of course, but like Trump, he’s obviously comfortable with exploitingracism, and at that point, sorry, it’s racism.

But, obvious though these explanations may be, I find them unsatisfying — there’s something more going on here, as well as in the failure of Republican leaders (apart from Marco Rubio) to repudiate Giuliani.

Giuliani and others like him can’t possibly believe their own claims that Obama never shows patriotic fervor. Patriotism has defined this president since he first gained national attention with his “No Red America, No Blue America” speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

But they do seem genuinely angry about this: that Obama will now and then grant that, even as it strives to be “a more perfect union,” America has flaws.

Surely only a child would believe that if you love something, you must never criticize it in any way.


Here’s what really gets Giuliani and the others. Obama is breaking the unwritten law of modern conservative politics:

At all times, you must treat Americans like children.

Look at the enormous investment in reassurance that seems to go into every GOP event. There aren’t just flags, there are flags everywhere, and on everything. Speakers don’t just express patriotism, they battle to declaim, loudest and longest, that America is the greatest country in the history of the world.

When you’re the greatest country in the history of the world, you might expect that would mean a little less anxiety — as Jerry Seinfeld once asked, how many billions did McDonald’s need to serve before they finally accepted that they were doing OK?

But no. Apparently we’re to believe that the people of the greatest country in the history of the world can’t bear to hear anything but unalloyed praise.

They must never be exposed to the complicated truths of the adult world.

And there goes Obama, saying that America is the greatest country ever known, andsometimes we fall short of our own ideals. Outrage!


I blame marketing.

At least since the Nixon-Humphrey presidential campaign of 1968, our politics have been dominated by marketing. This has been especially so on the right, whence we get the postmodern, post-reality politics of pioneers like Nixon veteran and Fox News head Roger Ailes, which makes marketing not just the vehicle but the point. Freedom means the free market, and the free market is never wrong. What’s right is what people buy.

Marketing has useful, economy-growing effects, but — here’s another complicated, adult truth — it also has some negative ones, chief among them its tendency to infantilize us. What do we hear from marketers all day long? “You deserve this.” It’s the underlying theme of every ad you see.

And it’s become the underlying theme of GOP politics: you deserve everything you want (wealth, safety), and nothing you don’t (taxes, the consequences of wars). It’s ironic, given that there was a time when Republicans prided themselves on being the grown-ups.

From the marketing-dominant perspective, the charge that Obama is unpatriotic — and the apparently real anger behind that charge — finally makes sense.

In the reality-based world, yes, it’s ridiculous and, as noted, makes a joke of the person behind it. But what if you think America and marketing are more or less the same thing? That this should be a land of child-consumers, swaddled in comforting fictions?

Then yeah, I guess Obama isn’t very patriotic towards that.

And when he shows it, when he acts like he thinks we’re capable of something more, you can see how some would express not feigned, but genuine outrage at the threat to their debased version of American greatness.

After all, there’s money at stake.

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Beyond artificial intelligence: artificial compassion

Originally published at O’Reilly Radar: When we talk about artificial intelligence, we often make an unexamined assumption: that intelligence, understood as rational thought, is the same thing as mind. We use metaphors like “the brain’s operating system” or “thinking machines,” without always noticing their implicit bias.

But if what we are trying to build is artificial minds, we need only look at a map of the brain to see that in the domain we’re tackling, intelligence might be the smaller, easier part.

Maybe that’s why we started with it.

After all, the rational part of our brain is a relatively recent add-on. Setting aside unconscious processes, most of our gray matter is devoted not to thinking, but to feeling.

There was a time when we deprecated this larger part of the mind, as something we should either ignore or, if it got unruly, control.

But now we understand that, as troublesome as they may sometimes be, emotions are essential to being fully conscious. For one thing, as neurologist Antonio Damasio has demonstrated, we need them in order to make decisions. A certain kind of brain damage leaves the intellect unharmed, but removes the emotions. People with this affliction tend to analyze options endlessly, never settling on a final choice.

But that’s far from all: feelings condition our ability to do just about anything. Like an engine needs fuel or a computer needs electricity, humans need love, respect, a sense of purpose.

Consider that feeling unloved can cause crippling depression. Feeling disrespected is a leading trigger of anger or even violence. And one of the toughest forms of punishment is being made to feel lonely, through solitary confinement — too much of it can cause people to go insane.

All this by way of saying that while we’re working on AI, we need to remember to include AC: artificial compassion.

To some extent, we already do. Consider the recommendation engine, as deployed, Pandora, and others (“If you like this, you might like that”). It’s easy to see it as an intelligence feature, simplifying our searches. But it’s also a compassion feature: if you feel a recommendation engine “gets” you, you’re likely to bond with it, which may be irrational, but it’s no less valuable for that.

Or think of voice interfaces, also known as interactive voice response, or IVR, systems. They may boost convenience and productivity, but experience shows that if they fail at compassion, they get very annoying, very fast.

A while back, as the consulting creative director for BeVocal, I helped design such interfaces for Sprint and others. That required some technical knowledge, including familiarity with script-writing, audio production, and Voice XML. But mostly, what was needed was empathy: imagining the emotional state of the user at any given point.

AC systems will need to detect meaning across many more dimensions, taking in tone of voice, facial expression, and more.

For example, it’s important for voice systems to apologize for errors — but not too often. It turns out that if you apologize too much, people hate it. You need to find a balance between showing that you care about what they want, without sounding obsequious and incompetent.

I learned much about this (and more) from another BeVocal consultant, human-computer interaction pioneer Clifford Nass. Nass once consulted with Microsoft on how they might recover from one of the worst interface mistakes of all time: Clippy the animated paper clip, who was reviled by pretty much everyone who had to deal with his intrusive “help” while using Windows 97 through 2003. (That included me: I’m not proud to say that I used to fantasize about creating, a place to bend him into all kinds of unnatural shapes.)

Clippy was part of Office Assistant, which was described by Microsoft as an “intelligent” help interface. He turned out to be not so intelligent after all — but more importantly, he wasn’t compassionate. Here’s Nass in the introduction to his book The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships (2010):

“[Clippy was] utterly clueless and oblivious to the appropriate ways to treat people … No matter how long users worked with Clippy, he never learned their names or preferences. Indeed, Clippy made it clear that he was not at all interested in getting to know them. If you think of Clippy as a person, of course he would evoke hatred and scorn.”

Microsoft retired Clippy in 2007. As a going away present, users were invited to fire staples at him.

To avoid Clippy’s fate, AC systems will need to recognize that people’s moods change from moment to moment. Human-to-human interactions are not static but dynamic. A new and possibly unpredictable exchange emerges from each previous one.

Nass proposed a dynamic form of compassion for an online classroom. In his design, the class would contain more or fewer classmate avatars, depending on how confident a student appeared to be feeling.

Such feelings would be detected through content analysis, and this remains the dominant approach. It’s currently deployed by many social media tools, so that marketers, for example, can determine how people feel about their products, based on the presence of positive or negative terms in social posts.

Going forward, AC systems will need to detect meaning across additional dimensions, taking in tone of voice, facial expression, and more. Research in this area is well under way, as in the University of Washington’s Automatic Tagging and Recognition of Stance (ATAROS) project, which studies such factors as “vowel space scaling and pitch/energy velocity.” In 2010, researchers at Hebrew University announced that they’d developed a sarcasm-detection algorithm with a 77% success rate when applied to Amazon.comreviews.

Sarcasm detection, by the way, appears to be a growing niche. In June of 2014, the US Secret Service issued a work order for social media management software that would include the ability to “detect sarcasm and false positives.”

Looking to the future — with help from science fiction — we see how far AC has yet to go. In 2014’s Interstellar film, the robot TARS is both highly intelligent and highly lovable. That’s because he possesses one of the highest forms of compassion, a sense of humor:

Cooper: [As Cooper tries to reconfigure TARS] Humour 75%.

TARS: 75%. Self destruct sequence in T minus 10, 9, 8…

Cooper: Let’s make it 65%.

TARS: Knock, knock.

Now that feels like a mind.

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Dear Defenders of Torture: Cowardice Is Not an American Value

Originally published at the Huffington PostIncredibly, among all the debate this week over the release of the Senate torture report, some Americans have been defending torture itself.

Think about that: Americans, openly defending torture.

Their arguments apparently rest on one underlying assumption: that the need to protect ourselves justifies all else.

Former G.W. Bush White House communications director Nicolle Wallace* expressed it forcefully on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Tuesday:

“I pray to god that until the end of time, we do whatever we have to do to find out what’s happening.”

“The notion that somehow this makes America less great is asinine and dangerous.”

“That’s what this is about. Does this help us kill people who want to kill us regardless of what we do.”

Here’s something that makes America less great: placing safety above all other values.

In other words, assuming that this should be a nation of cowards.

I don’t for a minute discount the horror of the deaths of 3,000 innocent people on September 11, 2001.

But if we are to use 9/11 as an excuse to throw away our fundamental values — and adopt some of the values of the people who attacked us — we will dishonor those deaths. We will dishonor the deaths and injuries of so many brave people who volunteered to fight terrorism on our behalf. And we will dishonor the ordinary courage of civilians who choose not to panic.

Of course we should be vigilant in defending America. But let’s remember that America is an idea, not just a homeland: a nation built not on accident of birth, but on shared belief in democracy, and all that it means.

If you think we can protect America while abandoning the idea of America, then you don’t understand America very well.

There’s a song that says this is the home of the brave. We sing that song with a lot of feeling.

Let’s act like we mean it.

*Also, incongruously, a former spokeswoman for John McCain, a powerfully eloquent opponent of torture.

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“You ARE Home” — How a Small Canadian Town Shamed Bigots Everywhere

Originally published at the Huffington PostAmid all the frenzy over ebola, terrorism and immigrants, it can start to seem as if fear and loathing are the new normal. They’re not — or not yet, anyway. If you want to regain your faith in human nature (after losing a little more of it first), just compare two small towns: Murrieta, California and Cold Lake, Alberta.

Remember last summer’s the wave of unaccompanied children fleeing Central America? Many feared for their lives because of violent gangs back home.

Here’s a reminder, from a July 3, 2014 CNN report, of how these scared young refugees were met in Murrieta:

In a faceoff Tuesday with three buses carrying the migrants behind screened-off windows, the demonstrators chanted “Go back home!” and “USA” and successfully forced the coaches to leave Murrieta, CNN affiliate KFMB reported…

The protesters, who shouted “Impeach Obama!” and “Deport! Deport!” confronted the buses a day after the town posted a notice on its website: “Murrieta Opposes Illegal Immigrant Arrival.”

Now let’s turn our gaze north to Cold Lake. Last Thursday night, someone broke some of the windows of Cold Lake’s mosque and sprayed “Go Home!” and other hate messages on its walls. It’s not certain there was a relationship, but the incident followed murderous attacks by lone wolf terrorists in Ottawa and near Montreal.

And how did other Cold Lake residents respond? According to the Canadian Press:

By Friday afternoon residents of the city, population 14,000, had posted colourful signs on the front of the mosque saying “You are Home!” and “We stand united as Canadians.”

Then people started showing up with ladders and buckets to clean the paint off.

Every cowardly bigot, in the US, Canada or anywhere, is put to shame by the people of Cold Lake. And there are plenty who should be ashamed — Murrieta isn’t a rare example. Think of the hysteria over another mosque, the one built near Ground Zeroin New York. Think of Cliven Bundy. Or think of the hatred stoked by Fox News and its ilk every day of the week.

Luckily, that hatred isn’t welcome everywhere. As Cold Lake’s mayor, Craig Copeland, put it:

“Cold Lake showed its true stripes today… Cold Lakers came out and supported the Muslim community and by 3:30 in the afternoon the windows were replaced and the graffiti was gone. This is what makes Cold Lake a great place to live.”

It’s what would make the world a great place to live.

The world could use a lot more Cold Lakes.

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Obama’s Fighting a New Kind of War — While Critics Are Stuck in the Past

Originally published at the Huffington PostCritics of Obama’s war strategy seem to want him to fight a new kind of war with old weapons.

As I described last time, they judge success and failure by traditional measures — in particular, by who controls how much ground.

But in a new kind of war — counterinsurgency — such measures don’t always apply, at least not in the same way.

Think about all the anxiety over how much territory ISIS currently holds, and the calls for U.S. “boots on the ground.”

Yes, boots on the ground might very well win territory faster. But in counterinsurgency, territory is just one dimension among many, and the others can matter more. When and how you control territory can be as important as whether you control it at all.

U.S. war planners learned this lesson, at great cost, in Vietnam. They had to learn it all over again after the invasion of Iraq.

In both cases, they tried to control territory that turned out to be quicksand.

That was because while ground may have been won, the political and social environments were not. In both cases we were fighting on behalf of governments that didn’t have the support of big segments of their country’s populations — they were illegitimate. And so there was no foundation on which to build a lasting victory. Instead, there was “quagmire.”

The result of this painful learning was the emergence of a new doctrine of counterinsurgency, based on American experiences as well as those of colonial powers. The doctrine was established by the U.S. Army – Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, published in 2006 (and since updated). It was put into practice in the strategic turnaround known as the Iraq Surge.

The Field Manual recognizes that in fighting an insurgency, strategy can’t just be “enemy-centric,” as it was in the past. It must also be “population-centric:” it must address and fix the social factors that give rise to the insurgency in the first place.

From the Manual:

Western militaries too often… falsely believe that armies trained to win large conventional wars are automatically prepared to win small, conventional ones. In fact, some capabilities required for conventional success — for example, the ability to execute operational maneuver and employ massive firepower — may be of limited utility or even counter-productive in COIN [counterinsurgency] operations. Nonetheless, conventional forces beginning COIN operations often try to use these capabilities to defeat insurgents; they almost always fail. [Counterinsurgency Field Manual, 2006 edition, Introduction, page ii.]

This sounds a lot like the kind of plan for which Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, for example, keep beating the drum.

Instead, says the Manual:

…success in the form of a durable peace requires restoring legitimacy, which, in turn, requires the use of all instruments of national power. A COIN effort cannot achieve lasting success without the HN [host nation] government achieving legitimacy. [ibid, page 39.]

This population-centric approach was behind the Sunni Awakening in Iraq, which provided critical social support for the military surge.

You can see population-centric thinking at work in what President Obama is doing now:

  • Insisting that the Iraqi government become more legitimate, in the eyes of both civilians and soldiers
  • Pushing Iraq to defend itself as much as possible with its own forces
  • Forming an alliance of Sunni Arab states against the Sunni extremists of ISIS.

But the adoption of population-centric strategy doesn’t mean the enemy-centric kind has been discarded (though some feel the U.S. military initially swung too far in that direction). Sometimes you just have to take out the bad guys, the people who will never stop attacking you, no matter how much social good you do.

And we’ve seen that happening, too, first in the killings of Al Qaeda leaders, including Osama Bin Laden, and now in the air strikes on ISIS. There’s something new about these enemy-centric actions, too, though: they aren’t massive, conventional attacks. Instead, they’re targeted, both for their direct effect and to avoid harming and alienating the larger population.

Critics, judging by the old-war measure of success, complain that the air strikes aren’t winning enough territory. I doubt if that’s the point, at least for now. The strikes appear to be aimed at ISIS’ leadership, its infrastructure and its sources of financial support: the oil installations that had been yielding millions of dollars per day.

In addition to his immediate strategy of employing both population- and enemy-centric approaches, Obama has a third element in play, one that works at a larger scale and over a longer time span: energy policy. The main reason we’ve been tangled up for so long with so many illegitimate regimes is, of course, our dependence on their oil. From day one of his administration, reducing that dependence has been one of Obama’s highest priorities. He’s pursuing it, with more success than is often reported, through alternative energy, domestic oil and gas drilling, and conservation — his “all of the above” strategy.

The president isn’t doing this just because he wants to help the environment, although of course that’s part of it. A smarter energy policy also leads towards greater national security, through ending the oil-fueled foreign policy distortions that help spawn the insurgencies we keep having to fight.

Naturally, reasonable people can debate elements of Obama’s strategy — neither fracking nor drones, for example, are uncontroversial — or with the strategy as a whole — nothing, after all, is certain.

But the debate over both the strategy and its elements would be more useful if more people understood their meaning: a new way of fighting a new kind of war.

Critics who call for simplistic solutions like “getting tough” — some go so far as to recommend imitating Vladimir Putin, of all people — are trying to re-fight the wars of the past.

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What Obama’s War Critics Don’t Get: Change Means Change

Originally published at the Huffington Post: President Obama has faced a lot of criticism lately for not being “tough enough” on ISIS. Most of it seems to boil down to this: Why won’t he do what we always do?

  • Why didn’t he leave (unwanted) forces in Iraq?
  • Why didn’t he arm the Syrian rebels?
  • Why isn’t he putting boots on the ground?

In other words: Why won’t he double down on the failed strategies of the past?

To be fair, some of the attacks carry more weight than the rest. For example, complaints from military leaders that they aren’t being given enough freedom to get the job done. They may well be right — and I expect they know more about the subject than I do (odd as it may be to hear that from a pundit).

But what if military victory — at least as traditionally defined — is not the primary objective? What if, instead, the goal is to escape the seemingly endless need for military victories — each one ending up so transient and inconclusive?

After all, we’ve been stuck in an entropic cycle of such “victories” (and some defeats) for decades, each one leading to the need for more. To a large extent, it’s been a cycle of support, accommodation and intervention on behalf of governments that can’t, or won’t, take care of their own people. We beat back a threat, and sow the seeds of three new ones.

People who complain that Obama’s foreign policy has no theme might look no further than this: just like he’s always said, it’s time for a change.

  • Maybe he could have strong-armed the Iraqi government into accepting an ongoing US military presence. And when would that presence stop being needed?
  • Maybe he could have stuck by his “red-line” comment armed the Syrian rebels (because, apparently, not changing your mind has a mystical power that outweighs all others). That would have required arming only the moderates we could trust among a hellacious tangle of those we couldn’t. How well has that worked in the past?
  • And yes, maybe he could put boots back on the ground now, and that might lead to the earlier destruction of ISIS. But what then? Long-term occupation, presumably: using military might to keep a lid on a powder keg.

What if, instead, Obama’s objective is to protect the United States from any direct threats, while helping and pushing other countries to protect themselves?

Beginning with the hard work of establishing the only solid foundation of security: legitimacy.

If that were Obama’s goal, the right response to terror might look a lot like what the one we’ve been seeing. In his six years in office, Obama has managed to cripple Al Qaeda, even while he’s been withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan. Before attacking ISIS in Iraq, he arranged for a new, more representative Iraqi government. He formed an alliance that for the first time includes Arab states. And the attacks he’s leading are focused on degrading ISIS’ leadership, infrastructure and financing more than seizing control of ground.

It’s almost as if winning and occupying physical territory might not be the only choice for fighting the new, stateless threat of terrorism.

It’s almost as if change actually means change.

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The World Isn’t Flat, It’s Hollow

Originally published at the Huffington PostBack in 2005, Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat made a persuasive argument that the globe was coming together on a level playing field, thanks to the equalizing forces of technology and peaceful economic competition.

But nearly 10 years later, it looks instead like the world is falling part. Among the most disturbing signs:

  • Vicious gang violence afflicting cities and towns across the U.S.
  • Mass killings happening roughly every two weeks in this country
  • A new terrorist threat that some experts say is worse than al Qaeda
  • Russia abandoning the 21st Century and expanding its borders by force.

Each of these phenomena is frequently described as “senseless.” And yet here they are.

What’s going on?

Here’s one possible explanation: While for some the world may indeed be flat, for many others it’s hollow.

Think about how you succeed in the flat world. If you’re highly educated, technologically adept and culturally flexible, you can do very, very well. You have a place in history’s richest global economy. You’re a candidate for the 1 percent.

But if you aren’t those things? You’re being left out and left behind.

For many, this means relative poverty. But what may be even worse, for some, are the alienation, humiliation and meaninglessness that come with it.

In the flat world, many people feel homeless.

That feeling may help explain otherwise senseless behavior.

Blood In The FieldsFrom the outside — and from above — joining a gang looks insane. You’ll likely make less than minimum wage to shoot people who are a lot like you, and you end up in prison or dead. But to young recruits, a gang doesn’t look crazy at all — it looks like family. In a gang (they’re led to believe), they’ll belong, they’ll be respected, and their life will have meaning.

One of the best books I’ve read this year — and a must-read for anyone who wants to understand gang violence — is reporter Julia Reynolds’ Blood In The Fields: Ten Years Inside California’s Nuestra Familia Gang (disclosure: I know Julia Reynolds through my work on reducing gang violence in and around Salinas, California). As Reynolds recounts, while the true business of Nuestra Familia is selling drugs, what draws and binds its Norteño street soldiers is the myth of The Cause, a highly distorted version of the nonviolent United Farm Workers movement:

Mando [a gang recruit] learned that while the Norteños’ war was going on in the prisons, all that Cesar Chavez stuff was going on in the fields. The northern inmates adopted Chavez’ symbol — the Aztec-style huelga eagle — because Chavez was taking a stand… Chavez’ beliefs were pretty much the same, Mando decided. If you looked at history, Chavez wanted equality. He wanted respect [my emphasis]. It was just a different situation. [Page 62, hardcover edition.]

Although the disturbed loners who commit mass shootings look different from gang bangers, the two groups’ apparently insane behaviors have similar roots. As Ari N. Schulman wrote last November in the Wall Street Journal, mass killers are seldom mentally ill:

Instead, massacre killers are typically marked by what are considered personality disorders: grandiosity, resentment, self-righteousness, a sense of entitlement. They become, says [State University of New York director of forensic psychiatry Dr. James V.] Knoll, ” ‘collectors of injustice’ who nurture their wounded narcissism.” To preserve their egos, they exaggerate past humiliations and externalize their anger, blaming others for their frustrations. They develop violent fantasies of heroic revenge against an uncaring world [my emphasis].

Compare this to what draws young men to ISIS, aka ISIL or the Islamic State. An unnamed diplomat cited Sunday by Fareed Zakaria puts it succinctly:

The most dangerous aspect of the Islamic State, this diplomat believes, is its ideological appeal. It has recruited marginalized, disaffected Sunni youths [my emphasis] in Syria and Iraq who believe they are being ruled by apostate regimes. This appeal to Sunni pride has worked largely because of the sectarian policies of the Baghdad and Damascus governments. But the Islamic State has also grown because of the larger collapse of moderate, secular and even Islamist institutions and groups — such as the Muslim Brotherhood — throughout the Middle East.

In other words, however deluded all these people may be in devoting themselves to murder and suicide, what’s driving them is the desire for belonging, respect and meaning.

What’s the connection with Russia’s invasions of Crimea and Ukraine? The immediate cause of this aggression is the bad luck that Vladimir Putin is in charge. But how do we explain Putin’s popularity at home, which has recently topped 80%? State control of Russian media certainly plays a part. But the fuel for Putin and his media is nationalism, which grants belonging, respect and meaning to citizens.

For the cosmopolitans who are succeeding in the flat world, nationalism can seem almost quaint, a fading background to the global pursuit of rational self-interest. (Friedman described it as the Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention.)

But for those who are failing, as Russia has been for a long time, nationalism can feel like all they have. Others turn to a gang, revenge, or a twisted form of Islam.

None of this, of course, remotely excuses invasions, gang violence, massacres or terrorism.

But it may be a warning that we can’t just flatten the world.

We also have to find ways to fill it up.

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Shopping Made Psychic: No-Content Marketing Marches on

Originally published at the Huffington Post:  A while back, I predicted the coming of no-content marketing: what comes next after the sheer volume of content drives its value below zero. That’s the point at which we start paying to avoid content, no matter how compelling, shocking, funny, or celebrity- or puppy-laden.

That point is here. The latest sign: In a piece in the New York Times, Cass R. Sunstein describes a recent study he conducted in which he asked people if they’d be willing to, in effect, let robots shop for them:

…companies can predict people’s purchases, often with uncanny accuracy. In the near future, they might even use those predictions to enroll you in special programs in which you receive goods and services, and are asked to pay for them, before you have actually chosen them. Call it predictive shopping.

Sunstein, a Harvard law professor and former Obama White House official, asked about 500 people what they thought of the idea of predictive shopping. Among his findings:

I asked, would you approve of a system in which the home monitor automatically, and without your explicit consent, bought goods for you and billed your credit card?… nearly one-third would approve.

But in an informal survey of university students, he found this:

…for household staples, there was a large difference: 69 percent approved of automatic purchases by the home monitor, even without consent.

So in other words, the cohort coming up may be much more open to letting software robots do their shopping for them. They would thus win back time otherwise spent consuming marketing content and wandering the mazes of store displays, whether IRL or on the web.

Does this mean marketing itself will go away? Unlikely, but it will change.

Content marketing emerged from traditional marketing, after all the promotion finally became overwhelming. The idea is that instead of pushing your message on people, you pull them to you with content that’s entertaining or useful.

But what happens when there’s too much content?


By using web stores like Amazon, we already rely on software to make recommendations for us, much like a personal shopper would. The next step is simply for those recommendation engines to be granted permission to buy.

At that point, consumer goods as a whole will experience the transition we’ve already seen in the music niche. Instead of shopping for songs or albums, more and more of us let iTunes, Pandora or Spotify just stream it. Next: we’ll “stream” our groceries, shirts, socks and toothpaste.

Posted in Communications, Digital Media, Social Media, The Web | Leave a comment