The Blessed Typo

I had occasion this week to query an order from Amazon. I was sent a notice of dispatch for something I had not ordered. I did the usual checks to make sure the account had not been compromised, and set about querying the order and organising a return.

And so it began.

A few years ago, there was some interesting research into the notion of the uncanny valley. The dissonance that occurs as you become unsure whether you’re conversing with an algorithm, or a person.

The system is efficient – you know the routine. Then you get to the part where you have a non standard problem, and a chat box opens. The responses were efficient, but mechanical and I found myself wondering what I was conversing with. It’s a strange feeling, wanting the reassurance of being paid attention to rather than being efficiently processed.

And then – A TYPO!! – and a quick correction.

Algorithms don’t do typos. Algorithms don’t do vulnerable.

The whole tenor of the exchange altered. I was dealing with a human somewhere. It changed the nature of my questions (have you noticed how we fall into “machine speak” in chat situations?) which in turn changed my host responses. I got a satisfactory result to my issue, and felt acknowledged.

There is a space – a liminal space – between things – notes of music, responses in a conversation, gaps between thoughts. They are hugely powerful – they contain the all the emotions from fear to joy that will determine what happens next.

As yet, algorithms don’t do liminal space. They respond, but don’t leave space for empathy.

AI will have a huge impact, but we need to recognise context.

When I have a non standard problem, I don’t want a more senior algorithm, I want a human. And I want to know I’m conversing with one.

Are we nearly there yet?

For those of us interested in the nature of change, this is a fertile time.

It’s a though a whole bevy (what a great collective noun!) of black swans have taken flight (when they become a wedge – another great metaphor) and are heading right for us.

Our individual and collective reactions vary, but in general we tend to be negative. We see them as a potential threat, and hope that somehow we can stop them arriving – as though where we are now is where we really want to be.

We’d actually like other people to take care of it for us, whether its climate change, technology change, our politics or Brexit.

The inconvenient truth is that this is a system. All of it. And we’re part of that system. We have a duty to ourselves, and the communities we are part of not just to have a view, but to exercise it. We’re hugely privileged to live in what is still a democracy, no matter how bent out of shape it may have become.

What is clear is that these swan are coming in to land, and it behooves us to be ready. Depending on our mindsets, there will be as many positives (which we may not yet see) as there are negatives (most of which we see, and make up a few more for good measure)

What seems certain is that there will be significant change. I suspect, to switch metaphor, that it will be like a forest fire. It will take out old wood and dead wood to create room and nutrients for new growth. Parts of it will be frightening for us. It already is, because it’s something that is happening rather than something that is going to. We’re in the middle of it.

There’s lots we can do. We can not hope it will go away. We can not wait for somebody else to deal with it.

We can take action, no matter how small. Drive less, fly less, use technology, learn new ways of doing old habits, reduce unconscious dependence on chindogu. Use our imaginations. Refuse to be afraid. Do more than talk about it.

What we face is a great challenge, but that’s what, as humans, we are designed for.

Build your own Paradigm

Our lives and businesses are defined by periods that appear relatively certain, intespersed with short periods of relative chaos from which emerges a “new normal”, until the next element of relative chaos.

I have felt that on a number of fronts, we are in a such a period of real chaos right now. It’s not “bad” (although it feels bad as we transition from “old normal” to “new normal”). The pain only stops when we adjust our expectations and actions to embrace the emerging new normal.

There was an excellent piece on Linkedin by Ray Dalio of Bridgewater Capital on the financial aspects of this. He has long based his investment strategy on these changes, or “paradigm shifts”.

A paradigm is a way of looking at the world. A collection of personal experience, unconscious biases, heuristics, and groupthink that we accept as truth for a while.

All the indications are we’re coming to an end of the last one.

It’s not only finance of course. Coming to terms with inconvenient truths, such as climate change, demographics, globalisation, artificial intelligence and suchlike is a big load to bear. These changes are as unwelcome and threatening as they are real. All of them imply significant changes to the way we live and work, some of them existential.

So what to do?

Get your retaliation in first. Not by following populists whose stock in trade is to deny and blame, and who present a charismatic (but lazy) “solution” to sort it out and go back to the old normal.

Move ahead of the curve; build your own paradigm:

  • We can argue all day about the reality of climate change, but if we think in bets it’s far more likely to be real than not, and the downsides to acting as though it is real is limited. Act accordingly. That way, we’ll still be here if we find out it’s wrong.
  • Our current wealth model is unsustainable. We need those with the wealth (social, financial, economic, technical) to lead, not defend, and the rest of us not to blame them for being wealthy. It’s not as though they were that clever, it is the “Matthew Principle” systems we have created. We need to find better systems.
  • Look for and recognise the opportunities that reside in a different paradigm. We have phenomenal tools to create a more sustainable world based on generative mindsets. It does not have to be a fight.
  • Take responsibility. We are where we are. Don’t wait to be rescued. Make a choice about what you do, who you work with, why it’s worthwhile. Use the power of being a wise follower.
  • Accept that periodic fads are just that. It used to be business process engineering, then lean sigma, and the latest one that seems to be biting the dust is agile. For a while, these things are useful, but they are never the truth and have limited life spans.

Your imagination and humanity are not fads. They are the engine of what we might create.

Time to bring them into play.