Red Devils

Cass street bridge

A few weeks ago, while meandering down our local river walk with my pre-teen son, we passed a well-known but dilapidated railroad bridge. It remains raised, looming over our heavily-invested, developing downtown area. As abandoned machinery often does, this bridge stands as a monument to the captains of industry that put our fair city on the map. We natives know it well, but it was the first time my young son had seen it.

“Mom, what is that,” he asked, pointing to the rusting metal that cut the afternoon sunlight into familiar geometry on the sidewalk before us.

“It’s a defunct railroad bridge,” I answered.

He paused, a reaction I know well as his processing behavior.

“What does ‘defunct’ mean?” I already knew he had a fairly good idea.

“Well, what does the prefix ‘de’ mean?”

“Not,” he answered.

“And the second syllable, ‘funct?’ What did it sound like?”

“Functional,” he answered without hesitation.

“Alright then, what do you think ‘defunct’ means?”

“Obviously, it means ‘not functional,’ mom.”

“Well, almost. It actually means ‘no longer functioning,’ which communicates that it DID, at one time, function. That is different from dysfunctional, which communicates that it never functioned properly. That’s an important distinction.”

Another pregnant pause.

“Do you understand?”

“Yes. I do.”

Three important things happened for my son that afternoon. The first, simplest change was that he added to his vocabulary. The second was that he practiced his ability to discern ideas by reverse engineering other ideas, in this case, learning a new word based on his knowledge of its parts. The third, and most important, is that he increased his ability  to comprehend complex ideas.

What prompted this nostalgia, you wonder? Well, I had another tiresome discussion on Facebook today with another person whose reading comprehension was, shall we say, less than stellar.

Unless I am engaged in sophomoric banter with friends (don’t judge, everyone does it), I write comments thoughtfully, focusing hard on clarity. I ensure that I have made my point without insult, without false equivalency, without malice. If I read something I do not understand, I research the information, or I ask for clarification of the comment. In other words, I make sure I understand before I take the offensive. Today, I was not even mildly surprised when I was personally attacked for my “ignorance” as I openly discussed the idea that finding and addressing root cause will always provide the lasting solution, especially in an otherwise volatile situation. The person who accused me of “ignorance” does not know me. Calling me “ignorant” and my favorite, “pathetic,” based on a single, out-of-context comment was the width and breadth of her attack. I found it sad, and simultaneously, a revelation.

It was obvious that the woman who attacked me had not read the commentary elsewhere in the thread. Or perhaps she had and just short of true alexia, her emotions inhibited her. She did not appear to comprehend the conversation into which she injected herself, having only insulted me, addressing no part of the original post. She obviously did not understand the core of the discussion. Cognitive dissonance, I wondered. No, that would assume she’d read, understood and then formed a separate but competing opinion about the subject at hand. Perhaps this is the BIGGEST problem with social media.

I have found, in nearly every “discussion” thread into which I’ve reluctantly entered, comprehension decomposes quickly. Each thread is a microcosm of what is happening in our country. It usually begins with a highly emotional, hyperbolic post. Several people with similar feelings chime in, raising the temperature. The comments become more and more vile. If, at this point, someone with an opposing, or even moderate view enters the discussion, the pack turns, salivating, and begins an all out personal war. Trolling notwithstanding, it quickly becomes obvious that the mob is either incapable of or disinterested in truly comprehending the commentary they are reading. They are the Red Devils in the ocean of social media. I don’t want to think it is a willful disregard for facts and reason, but I must concede that that may be part of it. I have often said that MOST people want the same thing but don’t agree on how to get there. Now I believe that humans are decreasingly capable of the meta-comprehension required to live democratically. The rapid breakdown on a single thread is proof that productive debate and comprehension are now defunct.

Comprehension requires not only a grasp of language, and at least an average vocabulary, but more than anything else, it requires the maturity and reason to accept that we cannot know everything, that we must be receptive to the ideas and experiences of others and that we must ask questions when we do not understand. Most importantly, we must be introspective and accept that we may not understand.

Persuasion is an art form. Tribalism, the opposite of debate and persuasion, is the natural human condition. As civilization has evolved, we have had to devise constraints that promote order and progress as we increase in number to many more humans, who are naturally self-centered. The last twenty or so years has seen a near complete abandonment of the intelligent application of systems that created the environment for innovation and improvement. “I am entitled to” has replaced “I will work for” and “I will contribute to.”

This is not an indictment of emotion. No great rock would move without the power of a good push. However, in order to move that rock, we have to push together in the same direction. We have lost sight of this fundamental idea. Many find more gratification in keyboard bullying than they do in solving the problems about which they spew their vitriol. I don’t want to believe that it is a devolution of human understanding, but after what I’ve seen just in the last few weeks, I can see that the Red Devils are increasing and all reasonable voices are being consumed in a melee of poorly written, myopic comments. The Red Devils are winning, Borg-like in their pursuit of group-think. If you’re not with them, you’re against them, and these days, that’s a very dangerous place to be.

(Original photo credit “Steve E.” No more information available, edited by me for composition and dynamic range)

Frankenstein Lives

“What causes you pain,” I ask my user. His aspect changes. First he looks a bit surprised, but then a very predictable thing happens. His body language, tone of voice and facial expression shows frustration. He’s been given permission; he commences unloading with considerable emotion, about what hinders his work.

“Well, um…I have to enter the same information on every invoice for clients. You know, um, shipping address…it takes too much time. I should just be able to pick the location and then all that stuff fills in. I do dozens of these a day. It would save me so much time.”

“Great example,” I say, “tell me more.” With each answer, his mood improves, his brow unfurls. He’s been heard.

It’s a fairly simple question, but it results in myriad answers, easily organized into only a few recurring categories: just like stories that fall into into one of the seven major plots. The users address process deficiencies; they identify, often in whispers and furtive glances, who they believe are ineffective managers; they even admit, on rare occasions, that they themselves are the problem, citing poor training, or in some cases, no training at all, which when fully analyzed, still points to a problem with their employers.

The most valuable project management skill is identifying and refining requirements, which are often gleaned from users whose expertise is process-based work. These users are constantly evaluated and compensated based on some form of tangible output, such as the number of pallets shipped or the number of orders fulfilled in a given period.

This seems like a simple process, doesn’t it? One would think that it culminates in a task list, which can then be completed step by step, which would in turn culminate in perfect conditions at the end.

However, anyone with any work experience agrees that no process improvement, big or small, is that simple. All the data gleaned from interviews must be catalogued and categorized, then the emotional responses must be analyzed for root cause and organized objectively as to their true impact to the company and the user. In conjunction with a team of subject matter experts, the project manager presents solutions to the project sponsors. I cannot count, for I long ago lost track, the number of times that the solution is education. In order for a user to be more effective, he or she must understand intimately, end to end, where lies all of the potential failure points, and more importantly, how to mitigate or avoid them. This is the nature of process dynamics.

Having honed this skill over many years, I have peripherally become good at analyzing political arguments. I “hear” what people are really saying, on both sides, and as they talk, I am forming potential solutions to the problems they are discussing. Keeping my personal feelings out of the debate is essential to what I do. I have often found that people do not “hear” reasonable solutions unless those solutions fall within their emotionally accepted range of possibilities. Emotional responses ALWAYS lead to “bandaids.” They want a fix now that they cannot understand will cause them bigger problems, later.

Designing information systems for humans is a unique parallel to solving societal problems. A user who cannot complete his or her tasks often has the same visceral response as those trying to solve a social issue. They become focused on how the problem affects their immediate existence. They make decisions based on the fear of losing their jobs. They are not concerned with root cause; they want an immediate solution, which is how bandaid after bandaid becomes the monsters that are poorly written solutions. Those same bandaids satisfy management in the immediate, because their key performance indicators stay within range in the short term. Sadly, legislation is a canon of bandaids that rarely, actually solves a problem, but it makes the public happy until they’ve forgotten about the original issue.

It is useless to have “feelings” about a problem. Long-term solutions require that root cause is identified and accepted without the chaos that accompanies fear and loss. Effective, feasible, long-term solutions are most often the result of small, measurable course-corrections. A well-placed ripple can become a tidal wave of change.

I am grateful that my friends and acquaintances are a bell curve of political viewpoints (minus the pesky, lunatic extremes at both ends, which I attribute to my limited tolerance for stupidity). The ONE thing I’ve experienced consistently is that when we have open and honest discussions (about anything), and listen without prejudice to opposing opinion, we find common ground. In the end, we all tend to want the same things. The arguments, the intractability, is in the how.

I understand that it is difficult to remove emotion from an argument, especially one as intimate as politics, but bickering based on how we feel about a problem is the intellectual equivalent of throwing cow manure at one another: everyone ends up angry and reeking. Is this really what we want to teach our children? Listening, maturity and reason are the prerequisites for effective and lasting change. If you, an adult, are not willing to hear opposing views and try to understand them, how can we expect our children to become good, informed decision makers? How can we expect that we ourselves can make informed, lasting decisions if all we ever do is talk into a mirror?

Lately, I’ve read too many op eds, posts and comments and seen far too many videos of people who cannot seem to assimilate that they are not informed, that they do not have a clear understanding of the “big picture,” that they’re unexposed, “small town” perception does not translate to a world view. They are busy with their heads buried firmly in the mountains of detritus shoveled out by the media, and then perpetuated by the even less informed. Most are too lazy to seek the truth for themselves. They simply accept whatever trash supports their personal agendas. We claim to be improving as humans, in better health and with greater capacity for complex thought. Yet, we’ve allowed an insidious anti-intellectualism to infect society. We  tolerate views that are virtually irreconcilable without our hard-won freedoms, so that we can say we are the welcoming, the magnanimous. We continue to create more problems than we can possibly solve because we cannot seem to operate outside the confines of our personal circuses and those we trust to implement effective solutions are not keeping their collectives eyes on the prize.

In order to move forward, we have to accept that the human race mimics exactly the animal kingdom. There are predators and there are prey.  We are an intellectual food chain of personalities. For society to operate, we have to minimize the impact of the predators and protect and empower the prey. Predators will always manifest destruction because that is their psychosis. This applies to every aspect of human existence, from the stewardship of our environment to the protection of both our loved ones and our rights.

The question is, how do we identify and eliminate predatory behavior without restricting the rights of the rest of the human race? What is creating new crops of predators? We have to ask ourselves hard questions, some of which make us very uncomfortable. Are we manufacturing predators as products of our behaviors? Have we, as a society, as a race, created the monsters we now want to contain? Are we collectively Dr. Frankenstein?