The Soul Is Built Entirely of Attentiveness

I heard a podcast the other day featuring a gentleman I had never heard of named Parker Palmer. He was quoting Thomas Merton, the late American writer, and it was one of those moments when the information you need comes to you at the exact moment you need it.

Merton wrote, “There is a pervasive form of modern violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence.

It destroys the fruitfulness of his, or her, work because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

(These words were written in 1966.)

I have been reflecting on the modern violence of overwork on my own behalf, but also on behalf of a dear friend who I have watched grapple with these same issues. The feeling of near drowning is one we can slowly become accustomed to, until it makes us forget what “normal” was.

We are a society obsessed with effectiveness, results and outcomes. The tighter we cling to that effectiveness, the smaller and smaller tasks we take on. The smaller and smaller, inevitably, we ourselves become.

Faithfulness, Palmer exhorted, must trump effectiveness. By faithfulness he meant “am I being faithful to my own gifts and how I can affect the world around me? Have I shown up fully with what I’ve got everyday?”

The concept of violence goes well beyond doing physical harm. We do violence every time we violate, or fail to respect, our own or another person’s soul.

And the soul is built entirely of attentiveness.

Can The Expert Survive?

Uber has been in the news quite a bit lately, mostly for reasons that cast doubt on its long-term viability. Tone deaf comments from CEO Emil Michael about spying on journalists who had unflattering things to say about the company to reports about the company’s valuation alternately set at anywhere from $17B to $40B have kept the glare of the spotlight on the ridesharing service. The company often butts up against municipal regulations that they seek to address AFTER entering a new market. Their “shoot first, ask questions later” attitude seems ill-suited to sustainability, but I will leave that to others to analyze.

 

 

No, the news story that caught my eye dealt with how Uber is putting downward pressure on the cost of medallions in taxi-friendly cities like New York, Boston and Chicago. (Medallions are essentially the operating license one needs to legally operate a cab.) Medallions ain’t cheap- in New York, Uber is thought to have depressed the price of a medallion 17% to $872,000.

If the barrier to entry to become a driver is so low, and the cost to the passenger for the Midtown to JFK trip at 5pm is a fraction of a yellow cab, why would anyone ever drive or hail a cab again?
Why, indeed?
To me, the troubling trend at play here is one that I have been tracking since 2009 when I wondered “how good is good enough?” Long about 2006 or so, I began to notice a trend away from specialization in video production. The rise of the prosumer camera and cheap laptop editing software made anyone a producer. But, at what cost? Quality and experience began their inexorable decline into relative irrelevance.
The news business similarly eroded when reporters were now forced to both report on and take pictures (and maybe video of) the stories they covered. They might also be charged with writing both a print and web version of those same stories. The work of several specialists was now distilled down to one (likely underpaid) generalist.
“Hey,” I can hear you say, “you need to cut costs to respond to market pressure and increase value.” Or I can hear you saying, “how hard is it to drive a cab?” Perhaps, although I’m not sure that argument would have as much weight in London or Los Angeles where knowledge of one’s surroundings literally takes a lifetime to learn.
And that’s just the point: what value do we place on expertise and experience? I would say the the answer increasingly is “not much.”
So what?
Is good enough good enough? How do you value those hard-won life skills? And what happens when there’s no one around with the perspective, background and experience to make decisions?
It’s one thing to be a well-rounded individual who knows a little something about a lot of things. But I wonder if we haven’t made the expert extinct at an incalculable cost as we continually belittle and devalue their contributions.
We see it all areas of life: the big box store that offers every imaginable item from oranges to orange carpet to books on William of Orange; that newspaper (remember those?) reporter who now must report, take a picture of and edit the video of the news while posting it twitter and Facebook; or the company that can no longer afford to be the best at one thing but, instead, has to be passably decent at a lot of things.
Good enough is good enough. Until it isn’t.

What Motivates You?

Daniel Pink writes about a different paradigm for motivation in the workplace in his best selling book “Drive.” I’ve been thinking a lot about this new way of thinking, which obliterates the old notion of carrot and stick motivators and instead focuses on a new approach:

1- Autonomy: The desire to direct our own lives.

2- Mastery: The urge to get better and better at something that matters.

3- Purpose: The yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

These ideas have been dogging me for months, and as I continue to bear down on several different life and career milestones, I’m trying to decipher their place in my life.

The overarching revelation that I believe brings the promise for my enduring freedom, however, is one that I think I came up with myself, although I read so much I cannot be sure anymore, so forgive me if I stole this from you:

I am no longer willing to compete for stakes that are internally assigned but have no transcendent value.

Transcendence. That seems like a big word fraught with meaning, but to me, it really just means lining up with point number 3 above: purpose. Maybe it’s the time of the season, but finding something “important” to do feels especially urgent.

Quick aside: I realize I am not the first to feel these things or write these words. Nothing to see here, I acknowledge. Except maybe this: the word “important” does not mean that you need to invent a cure or devote your life to eradicating something or ensure the abundance of something or donate millions or organize folks to stop or start something. So often we get hung up on the grand gesture, which inevitably feels out of reach, which then guarantees disappointment leading to inertia and a profound dissatisfaction.

No.
Important means important to you. Because just like the old saw about not being able to love another until you can find a way to love yourself, I submit you cannot do anything important until you define the word for yourself.

I cannot help you do that, but for me it has taken on many shadings, all of which inform my overall definition of the word. Yet I find I keep coming back to the top three points over and again: autonomy, mastery and purpose. In my case, I have an thirst for knowledge that seemingly cannot be slaked, a desire to improve in all areas of my life (personal, professional, as a father, as a friend, as a golfer) and a devotion to a positive legacy.

Gone are pretense and hypocrisy and shallowness. Well, if not gone, they’re no longer welcome and hopefully on their way out.

So, where’s the transcendence? I think it comes from awareness, both of self and of circumstances. It feels like we all spend a lot of time figuring out (and complaining about?) what we DON’T want, which is undoubtedly time well spent. But do we pursue the reverse?

It’s up to you. Autonomy, mastery, purpose.

What motivates you? And can you get out of your own way?

Amazon Video, Netflix and the New TV Normal

The death of the traditional TV model has been forecast for many years now. I’ve always believed that the model needs to evolve and the rumors of its death have been greatly exaggerated. I think we are finally seeing the concrete manifestation of that evolution, and some of the early results are fascinating.

Since 2012, Netflix has been producing and releasing original series such as “Lilyhammer” and “House of Cards”, with the revival of “Arrested Development” in May 2013 marking their most high profile project to date. Now Amazon Instant Video is getting into the act, with an interesting twist. On April 19, Amazon released 14 pilots all at once, a mix of 8 comedies and 6 kids’ shows. With high profile names both in front of and behind the camera like John Goodman, Bebe Neuwirth and Jeffrey Tambor, to name just a few, Amazon is clearly trying to get your attention. But, have they? I’d be willing to bet this is the first you’re hearing of it.

The twist I mentioned comes from the viewers’ ability to answer a few survey questions about the pilots they just watched, giving the audience the chance to switch roles with the network suits and decide whether the show lives or dies. If you are an Amazon Prime member in the US or you get Lovefilm UK or Lovefilm Germany, all the shows are free, although there may be a way to get them for a fee if you are not a Prime member.

“The goal is to get customer feedback, to understand which ones customers are excited about and are promising,” said Amazon Studios head Roy Price. The studio was formed in November 2010, with a focus on crowd-sourced, high-quality TV and movie programming.

It is certainly debatable whether the audiences will be better judges of TV than suits, but this model does two things right away: 1) offers a value add to Prime members, as they will be the ones to receive this content for free and, 2) continues the “American Idol”/”The Voice” model of audience participation and control over content, but in a way that does not involve a contest.

I watched two of the shows (“Alpha House” and “Browsers”) and they were both fine. No better or worse than standard TV fare. “Browsers” was a comedy musical, so if musicals aren’t your thing, you might want to skip it, although Bebe Neuwirth’s song is hilarious and raunchy. I will probably wend my way through 3 or 4 more of the pilots that looked promising, as I am intrigued by Amazon’s model.

Two questions for you: 1- Had you heard about this effort from Amazon? 2- Do you  like the idea of audiences giving input to the studio about a pilot? Does that make you more or less likely to watch it? (OK, that was sort of 3 questions…)

Leave a comment…

US Internet service sucks…and that’s a problem

Let’s face it: Internet service, Internet access and Internet speeds in the US are really bad and really expensive. When you step outside your nice warm WiFi cocoon at home or at work, that’s when the point really gets driven home. And if you travel domestically, well, we’ve all been there. Hotel WiFi is usually some combination of bad, expensive, unavailable or unreliable. Why do you get charged $15/day to go online? Do you get charged every time you flush the toilet or turn on a light?

Before you accuse me of prattling on about a distinctly First World problem, keep your powder dry. The Internet is not a luxury. It is a utility like water, gas or electricity. We are rapidly reaching the point in society where you simply cannot live your life without the Internet.

How did we get here? I’ll tell you in a minute.

What can we do about it? I have to say, I really don’t know. Any suggestions?

First, how did we get here.

If we can agree that access to the Internet is no different than access to running water or electricity, then this little bit of history is instructive. In the 1880s, electric companies were privately owned and, logically, went to where the money was: big cities and the homes of the wealthy. The rest got spotty service, or none at all. By the 1920s, nearly 90% of the electricity distribution in the US was controlled by a very few companies, who provided crappy service while gouging their customers. (Is this starting to sound familiar?)

Communities across the country began to form their own local utilities and now electricity is a regulated public utility, and no one longs for the days when only big cities and rich people could turn the lights on and off.

So what happened to the Internet? Since 1996 it has been a deadly combination of lack of foresight, lack of regulation and lack of competition. The FCC, at one time, felt that deregulating communications in all its forms (cable TV, cellphones, satellite, land line phones) would open the way to competition, lower prices and better services. And for a little while, they were right. But a big problem in the US is infrastructure. Sometimes being first can hurt you. (What’s the joke about a pioneer being the guy with the arrows in his back? Something like that.) While we laid miles of copper wiring and phone lines to bring service to our homes at huge expense during the mid-20th century , many nations did not. Many so-called Third World (and even some First World ones) laid out on the whole copper wire thing, and when fiber became available, they leap frogged onto this new technology.

The end result is the US is saddled with aging infrastructure that is prohibitively expensive to upgrade.

On the competition side of things, well, there basically isn’t any. Just like electricity in the 1880s, so went Internet access in the 90s and up to today. The great myth in our country is that anyone can start a business and compete with the big guys. Really? So where are the community-based ISPs? Yes, I know they exist, but not on a level that makes any kind of difference to the majority of Americans. With the completion of the Comcast-NBC merger, you now have the “communications equivalent of Standard Oil.” It is the country’s largest cable operator, largest high-speed (ahem) ISP, third largest phone company, owner of 11 regional sports networks and now the owner of NBC-Universal and their cable and broadcast networks, 25 TV stations, 7 production studios and various online properties. So now the biggest service provider of content also creates and owns that content and decides how and when you get access to that content. It’s the Golden Rule: whoever has the gold, makes the rules.

I have no hope that Google’s efforts to lay fiber in Kansas City will move much beyond that test market. As a nation, we do not seem to understand or care that information and connectivity are the economic drivers of the foreseeable future. It is just simply not a priority, and all of us suffer. How many times have you heard someone say that they never make phone calls anymore? Everything is email or text or some other type of post to a shared online network? Well, that requires access and reliability. For readers old enough to remember when we all had land lines only, the one thing you could say about them was that you never lost service. When was the last time you felt that way about your internet or cell phone service?

I am wary of suggesting that the government get more involved in regulating this utility the way they regulate the others. But something needs to be done if we don’t want to fall further behind, because make no mistake- we are falling behind. Shitty internet is a non-trivial problem and the sanctioning by Congress and the FCC of monopolies like Comcast only exacerbates the problem. For all those who love to say things like, “America has the best (fill in the blank) in the world,” how can we stand for this? Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, Latvia and Romania are the 5 fastest. The US hovers somewhere around 14th. Yes, we have a greater land mass, yes, we have more rural areas, yes, yes, yes, excuse, excuse, excuse.

If you had to pay extra for electricity and water every time you checked into a hotel, or if you only got service if you lived in New York, LA or some other big city, you wouldn’t stand for it, would you? We have the horrible combination of lack of real competition, lack of regulation, and lack of reliable service.

I started this post by saying I don’t know what the answer is  to this problem. Do you? I would love to hear them.

Sources: Captive Audience by Susan P. Crawford: http://amzn.com/B00AMYGFXK

US Internet Users Pay More for Slower Service: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-12-27/u-s-internet-users-pay-more-for-slower-service.html

What is a Post-PC World?

For the past couple of years, since the advent of the iPad and other tablets, there has been a lot of digital ink spilled over how we’re living in a “post-PC world”. It got me thinking as to what that means.

At first blush, it sounds like the prediction that the computer as we know it is going away forever. With today’s announcement that Dell is taking itself private (the opposite of what you usually hear, right?) and the lack of focus on the part of Apple over the past 3 or 4 years on OSX upgrades, it might seem that the headlong surge to mobile computing might be the end of our relationship with our computers at home or work.

Not so fast.

As we sit here today, I believe the definition of  a “post-PC world” means how we interact with our data and how that data is stored. Cloud storage has made it insanely easy to never be far from your digital stuff. Before, everything had to be stored locally on your hard drive. Now Dropbox, Amazon cloud services, Google Drive and dozens of others make all your stuff accessible from anywhere. The ability to get your music, documents, email, photos, etc. from multiple devices says more about how we store and interact with things, and less about the machines we use to get to that storage locker in the sky.

There are certain things that phones, tablets and other “post-PC” devices are still not much good at: Skype, video gaming, video editing, Photoshop, document creation and document editing etc etc etc., and until such time as they can handle “computer” tasks like these, they will always just be cloud access devices.

So, I think branding this evolution as post-PC is somewhat misleading. “Post hard drive” might be more accurate.

How about you? How much do you rely on the cloud?

The Ongoing Online Privacy War

I love keeping my eyes open for changing trends in behavior, especially online behavior.

The battle to maintain one’s privacy in a world of socially mediated publicness is a topic well picked over. Both celebrities and folks of less renown have all had a digital mishap, whether it’s the mistaken click on “Reply all” or the R-rated photo that ends up in the wrong hands.

The message of “the internet is forever” is probably as firmly embedded in the consciousness of folks young and old, just like “look both ways before you cross the street.” Not that people always heed the good advice they hear.

Into the breach have stepped several apps and services designed to anonymize your activity online. Wickr, Snapchat and the Silent Circle products are just a few examples of companies trying to help you keep your private life private.

 Wickr offers “military-grade encryption of text, picture, audio and video messages.” Yikes!

Snapchat is a photo-only service (for now) that allows you to put a time limit on how long the picture will display on the recipient’s device, up to 10 seconds. I gather this one is popular with the younger crowd.

The Silent Circle family of products were created by a “mix of world-renowned cryptographers, Silicon Valley software engineers…and former US Navy SEALs and British Special Air Service security experts.” They even offer a feature called “Burn Notice.” Too much time watching USA Network?

All kidding aside, it appears that the time is right for options like these, for various reasons. While no one is FORCING you to post a status update on Facebook or check in on Foursquare, none of us ever feel totally confident that what we try to keep private actually remains that way. Our website visits are tracked by advertisers or your ISP, our emails and texts logged, phone conversations recorded. There is no digital equivalent to the Mafia movie scenes where the  two guys walk outside amid traffic noise, and far from wiretaps, to have a private conversation.

Nowadays, closing the door to your office has no digital equivalent.

All of us have had that slightly queasy feeling that everything we do might someday be a part of the public record. I’m not positive that even these three services can successfully wipe the digital slate clean. It seems to me that communications sent from your phone, across a network to someone else’s device must be stored SOMEWHERE. Do your research.

Too often the argument for more privacy online (or off)  is attacked with the tired argument of “well, if you’re not doing anything wrong, you shouldn’t be worried.” That is so stupid on its face I won’t comment further. Smart people do dumb things, to be sure, but there are few justifications for the level of invasiveness granted to corporations, public utilities, your employer, etc. And there are times when you might like to talk to someone about something, and not have the whole world potentially know about it.

This is not some unhinged Libertarian rant against Big Brother, but I wonder if we are not seeing some push back in an area that all of us have probably felt some prior discomfort.

Plus, getting to play “Mission: Impossible” with your phone could be kind of fun. “This text will self-destruct in five seconds…”

What do you think? Do you think these kind of apps are responding to a real need? Would you sign up for one of them? Post a comment.

Can you protect your kids online?

The concept of regulation, especially when modified by the word “government,” often produces a knee jerk reaction among many who feel that if the government is involved, things can only end badly.

About this time last year, I wrote about the well-meaning but impossibly overmatched Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) passed in 1998, at a time when the internet did not even bear a passing resemblance to today’s internet.  [Click here to read that post.] The focus of that post was largely about parents and other authority figures encouraging kids to lie to get around Terms of Service agreements. Today, the FTC is attempting to strengthen COPPA in  a futile attempt to deal with data mining and behavioral targeting.

Naturally, this effort to redress the shortcomings of a law passed in the internet Stone Age is being met with opposition. I think it’s always useful to examine exactly WHO is against any kind of regulatory change as a good first step towards parsing whether that change is good or bad.

In this case, the charges of “get government off my back” are coming from the likes of Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and twitter, not to mention television networks, app platforms and advertising trade groups.

I am not making any earth-shattering observation when I say that kids, especially pre-teens and teenagers, do not spend a lot of time thinking about the long-term consequences of online behavior. (Heck, neither do a lot of adults.) An innocent upload of a picture so they can see themselves on their computer screen next to a Disney character or battling robots inside of an app seems, to them, like no big deal.

Businesses survive by cultivating new customers, and with kids flocking to the internet in droves, they go to where the prospects are. I’m not convinced that any regulation, no matter how well-intentioned, can stanch the flow of data mining and behavioral targeting. The internet did not kill privacy, as fashionable as it is sometimes to take that position.

The only real alternative is to discuss internet safety and internet smarts with your kids. Many parents feel ill-equipped to do so because they themselves feel like they are unaware of how best to act online. The fact is, being online is not that much different than being out in the world, and you should govern yourself accordingly. It is neither reasonable nor feasible to opt out of the internet, just like you cannot opt our of society in general. A little common sense will always carry the day.

And keep an eye on who is for and who is against some of these things. That ought to scare you more than the possibility of your kid being served an advertisement for chocolate covered Doritos.

What do you think? Can anything really be done to protect kids from being marketed to and having their data collected? Leave a comment in the comments section.

Has Instagram changed the internet for all of us?

I’ve been thinking a lot about Instagram lately and I’ve noticed that I am not alone.

A recent study from the Pew Research Center revealed that 46% of adult internet users post original photos or videos online that they themselves created. This was the first time they had asked about Pinterest, Instagram and Tumblr, so there is no historical data to compare the numbers to, but the numbers are sure to continue growing. According to the study, “27% of internet users between 18-29 use Instagram.”

And then this, from AllThingsD: “In August [2012] US smartphone owners visited Instagram from their smartphones more frequently and for longer periods of time than they visited Twitter.” Instagram had an average of 7.3 million daily active users to Twitter’s 6.9 million, and they spent nearly twice as long perusing.

When Facebook allegedly coughed up $1 billion to buy Instagram, the black crows in the media  focused on the astronomical price tag for a company that hadn’t made any money yet. I was more interested in WHY Facebook decided to acquire the popular service. More accurately, I’m intrigued by what the rise of photo sharing apps means to the future of communications. I happen to love Instagram and enjoy seeing the way people express their creativity. It also challenges me to try and find the visual narrative in any given situation. While there is certainly an overabundance of food photos, pet photos and pictures showing the view from an airplane with the wing featured prominently, I wonder how we will all tell our stories over the next few years. While Facebook and twitter allow for photo attachments, the updates that people post are largely text-based. Maybe it’s because of my background in creating television and video that I find visual storytelling more compelling, but I’m certainly not alone. If a picture is worth a thousand words, how much is a picture passed through a saturation filter worth?

Do you use Instagram or some other photo sharing app? What do you find compelling about it?

Podcasting (still) lives!

I first discovered podcasts and podcasting somewhere around 2006, and my mind was blown. The first podcast I came upon was all about production, technology, communications- in short, everything that was of interest to me. It blew my mind because of the obvious potential to narrowcast and reach large audiences which  were not quite large enough for traditional radio or TV. One million podcast listeners is huge. One million TV viewers gets you cancelled before the second episode airs.

In the years that followed, it seemed like everyone with a mic and a laptop started releasing podcasts during this chaos period, but now it is clear that podcasting has reached a new and exciting level of maturity.

 

My enthusiasm for them has not waned one iota. In fact, I receive the vast majority of my news, information and entertainment from podcasts. Because it is such a personal medium, it feels very “one-to-one” and that appeals to me.

One area that has experienced a huge boom, and resultant ripple effect, is comedy. A few years back I happened upon Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, which led me to Greg Fitzsimmons’ Fitzdog Radio and on and on. Both of these shows are essentially interview shows, not comics doing their acts. Maron’s self-revelatory style over 300+ episodes has won him a huge following and a TV deal for an upcoming show on IFC. To hear him tell it, it has also resurrected what was, by his own admission, a dormant stand-up career.

Fitzsimmons’ career seems to be on the upswing, too, as a result of his podcast, although he often riffs on how hard he has worked to arrive comfortably “in the middle.” He says he gets recognized on the street occasionally, but mostly he works steadily in Hollywood, which is the dream of any creative type.

Two back to back articles in the NY Times this past week about the comics Chris Hardwick and Rob Delaney,  and the “direct-to-audience” model pioneered so expertly by Louis CK are further evidence of the power of podcasting to speak to your audience directly, and find new audiences in the process.

I made a blog post back in 2007 (Good God, have I been blogging that long?) about the huge potential I saw in podcasting. While NPR and other mainstream content providers have used podcasts to great mutual benefit for themselves and their audiences, there is still plenty of room for growth.

I think it’s time for me to get back to my podcast. I’ve been too lazy.

So, do you listen to podcasts? If so, got any good recommendations?