July 11, 2000
The Question Question: Smart people aren't
stuffed with their content. They've mastered the social art of questions.
We're on Vacation Again
Yes, we're taking another vacation. About a month ago my wife realized that for the first time in 18 years, we were going to have a house without any children in it (one's moved out, one's at a summer institute, one's doing 5-7 for whining). So, off we go! We will be listening for the reassuring sound of your bouncing emails. See you July 20 or so. (For those who think our house may be easy pickings, please keep in mind that we are leaving our mutant weimeraner unchained and unfed.)
Imagine that everyone in your organization has a head stuffed full of mental content but is unable to express any of it. They can't explain a thing. They can't answer a single question. They may be geniuses, but who cares? You've got an office full of know-it-alls. Flee! Flee!
So, if merely having knowledge doesn't help, then what makes a company smart? I'd suggest that it's what makes a person smart: she's able to answer questions and - closely related - she has great conversations.
The most interesting questions bring you to answers you hadn't already thought of (another reason to think that knowledge isn't a content). Sometimes you get there by thinking. More often, you get there by asking some questions of your own. A conversation ensues. An answer emerges. Now *that's* fun, and *that's* being smart.
This is, in fact, the origin of philosophy and of dialogue itself. Remember Socrates? His dialogues tried to uncover the truth about a topic by asking questions organically related to one another; they grew out of the previous questions, making his dialogues structured like narratives in which the ending is contained in the beginning, just as the tree is contained in the seed. Truth, biology, nature, essence, story-telling, and questions this is the right context for talking about knowledge.
Questions are a deep structure in our thought and language and social nature. When we ask a question, we not only express an interest, thus exposing our own passionate natures, but we also have some sense of the type of answer we're going to receive. At the dessert bar we don't ask "What forced you to take the brownie?" and when we ask why our computer hates us, we know we're making a sort-of joke. As Thomas Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" made so clear that it's seemed obvious ever since, a paradigm shift (the real ones, not the buzzwordy ones imagined by vendors trying to inflate the importance of the fact that their paper collator now collates at 110 pages per minute rather than 95) is characterized by an influx of new questions and new types of questions. For example, when Aristotle asked why a plant grows, he looked for an answer that had to do with intentions and values. Darwin asked the same question differently.
Questions are also primarily social. We may ask ourselves a question the way we may sing in the shower, but first and foremost, a question is something we ask someone else. And rarely is it in a pure question and answer format, like a transaction with a knowledge vending machine. Because of the organic nature of questions, they grow best in the light of conversation. They head us in a direction, and illuminate the way ahead, but they are not deterministic ... except when we're taking exams or responding to our bully of a senior manager when at a meeting he demands snap responses to questions such as "Who are our real competitors?" and "How are we going to get back our market share?"
Real questions, like real conversations, require mutuality and equality. Behind every real question is the preface: "Here's something neither of us know, but I respect you enough to think that spending time with you will lead us toward an answer neither of us may have anticipated. Let's surprise one another! Let's get some sliver of delight while we can!" (Yes, great sex is also a question, not an assertion.)
The implicit promise of the phrase "knowledge management" is that we're gonna corral some of them knowledge puppies, rope 'em, brand 'em, and build up our ranch. Yeehah! Now compare that to the implicit promise of a question. No cowboys, no spurs, no whiff of the manure-rich committee meeting in the wind. Just great questions, undiscovered directions, wisdom larger than any one cowpoke can contain, and the miracle of time unfolding the way it only can in great stories and great sex.
Every pleasure in life worth having comes in the form of a question. Doesn't it?
I was talking at a global meeting of a Fortune 100 company and guess what word kept coming up? Authenticity. I was taken aback. I only wish that I was offended so I could say that I was simultaneously taken aback and affronted. But, quite the contrary, I was pleased. As we all get used to hearing our own voices again our real voices, not our Business Suit, patter-spieling, crisply professional, message-delivering voices we're beginning to demand authenticity from our companies, partners and suppliers.
Authenticity is one of those little words with deep, deep roots. It means simply owning up to who you are, in private and in public. Of course, this implies that you can deny who you really are, which is probably a uniquely human trait: you can train Flipper to play horns as if he enjoys "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head," but Flipper will never stuff a cucumber down his pants to try to impress you.
As companies try to get past their habit of lying to their customers in the guise of marketing, some are struggling towards a notion of authentic conversation. But then they stub their authentic toe on the question of brands.
A brand is, after all, an attempt to strangulate the conversation between customer and company. It attempts to reduce the conversation to a few words that we are supposed to associate with the product. We hear Volvo and we think safety. We hear Kodacolor and we think high quality film. We hear Charmin and we think of Mr. Whipple running his soft, supple hands across our naked bums. Or maybe that's just me.
Worse, companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars to keep us from thinking of their product the way we want to. For example, when we hear "Kodacolor," we're actually supposed to think, "Warm, memorable family times," not "Chemical-soaked, light-sensitive cartridges for our cameras." And when we hear "Jell-O" we're supposed to think "Cute kids having fun," not "Gelatinous substance made from hooves and eaten by the sick and the toothless."
Can a brand be authentic? They can at least be accurate. Volvos do get rated at the high end of the safety scale. Altoids are curiously strong. And, I am not one of those who thinks that the only ads that are moral, ethical and correct are the ones that lay out test results in courier type face on recyclable brown paper. I don't mind Altoids making fun of themselves to get their message across. I don't even mind the Budweiser frogs, although I was particularly delighted when they killed them. (Hey, Pepsi, you know that odd-faced little girl you use in your ads? Take a hint.)
Nah, brands are attempts to manipulate. They can be honest or dishonest, but authenticity requires something more than imagery. Products, on the other hand, can embed themselves in our lives and achieve something like authenticity or integrity they are what they say they are, they have a history to back it up, they matter to what matters to us. A chef's knives, a carpenter's tools, a software engineer's programming environment, the musician's piano. These products make their claim on us because of the importance of the behavior they enable. But, insofar as a brand tries to stick a few key words into our brains via a marketing ice pick, a brand is a debasing of the real relationship we may have with a product.
So, if you're setting out to build a brand, don't bother blathering about "authenticity." So long as you're out to get us to buy rather than to talk with us honestly, then to hell with you.
For the Hyperlinked Organization
It's ridiculous that we need a utility to do this, but for Windows users, you really should have WinTidy, written by Neil Rubenking (the overlord of free utilities) and published through PC Magazine. Although it has some advanced features, its Value Proposition is that it remembers how your icons were laid out on the desktop so that when Windows decides to arrange them alphabetically, by size, or by randomized ordering in an n-dimensional space, you can just click and have them all returned to the places you put them. In fact, you can set a command line switch so double-clicking on the WinTidy icon will load a particular desktop image.
You can get it, for free, at: http://www.zdnet.com/downloads/stories/info/0,,000OCS,.html
A survey by RHI Consulting (in CIO magazine, June 1), asked 1,400 CIOs who in the technology field they admire the most:
Bill Gates: 37%
Michael Dell: 19%
Steve Jobs: 9%
Linus Torvalds: 7%
William Hewlett: 5%
Scott McNealy: 3%
Larry Ellison: 3%
I re-polled the 37% who thought that Gates is the most admirable technologist around and asked why. Here are my results:
Because he's unfathomably rich: 57%
Because I've heard of him: 12%
Because I'm afraid: 31%
Amazon out of control
Here's Jeff Bezos in the July issue of Wired:
Q: Sony CEO Nobuyuki Idei said recently that success for his company depends on the ability to relinquish traditional notions of control. Is Amazon out of control?
A: I think in some ways it is. For example, we don't control what customers say about our products. One of the best ways to provide value to customers is by utilizing the organic forces that the Internet makes possible if you set up the infrastructure properly, millions of people can collaborate but some of these notions are very uncomfortable inside a company, in the same way that Idei-san is saying out of control. You can also build a better customer experience by partnering with thousands of slightly uncontrollable partners. For instance, the zShops [Amazon's specialty retail sites] sometimes get used to compete against us. I am constantly finding toys on our site that a zShop is also selling, sometimes at a lower price. If you are used to having very strong control, that is a terrifying notion. But I really believe you can build a more robust company if you give up a bit of that control in this organic marketplace.
Sounds to me like's been spending a little too much time on the Cluetrain. He's actually beginning to believe that crap!
Dept. of Smart Stupid Things
Philip Carnelley forwards a press release. Here are relevant extracts:
LG Unveils Internet-Ready Digital Fridge
LG Electronics yesterday unveiled what it claims is the world's first internet-ready digital refrigerator. The 730l fridge, the "Internet Digital DIOS" not only supports internet connection but also comes with a video phone, a digital web camera, a 15.1-in TFT-LCD screen and a LAN port...
...Users can also exchange email, listen to music and watch TV. LG has also joined forces with local internet service providers to equip the fridge with cyber content such as real-time stock quotations and, in more traditional vein, vegetable prices. Users can also order food online. ...
The launch model is priced at 9.9m won (US$8,600).
This refrigerator-computer-knowledge-center thing has been kicking around for a couple of years. The Japanese supposedly already have a model out. I wrote about it 2.5 years ago in JOHO (www.hyperorg.com/backissues/joho-jan4-98.html). But I do suspect that it's a clothes-less emperor if simply because in the past three years of talking about networked appliances, this is the only example that ever comes up. Beware of disciplines with only a single example. For instance, in the early to mid 80s, every home was going to have a computer so we could do things like customize recipes in the kitchen, and, um...did I mention customizing recipes?
Dept. of Unfortunate Names
In B2B magazine (http://netb2b.com), a spin off of Advertising Age, there is a report on an industry executive named .... Dik Blewitt. Ellis Booker, the editor-in-chief of the magazine, swore to me in person that that's the guy's real name.
Bart's next prank call to Moe's: Is there a Dik Blewitt in the bar? Dik Blewitt?
Bring Out Your Dead
A late China update. When visiting Beijing last month, my tour guide recommended that I go through Mao's Tomb to see the waxy-cheeked revolutionary in person. (Alas, I didn't have time.) He then asked me about the Lincoln Memorial and was shocked to find out that you can wander all through the edifice but you won't find hide nor hair of Lincoln. He seemed to think we were cheating the tourists, sort of like a Crackerjack box with no prize.
My new rallying cry: Let's put Lincoln back into the Lincoln Memorial!
A Special New York Moment
I was in New York City on a lovely early summer day recently. It was about 8 in the morning and I was crossing 9th Avenue, the scent of heated cement and urine wafting gently in the breeze. What a great morning, I thought. And there, crossing 9th, was a cab, his left arm fully extended out the window, giving someone the finger. Ah, I thought, what could be finer! But it actually got better than this, for I only then noticed that the New York cab driver was giving the finger to a school bus that had impeded his race to be the first to get to the red light. Ah, New York, *is* life.
Chris Macrae points us to a site (also submitted by Victor de la Vieter and a couple of others of you):
If you really want to see all the dirty washing of dot com companies hung out on the line (admittedly with overbias) skim through the 300+ archives found around here
This URL is generating an error on their server today. Anyway, fuckedcompany.com is an entertaining site that luxuriates in the pain of others, especially if you were once a high-flyin' dot com. In the particular file Chris points us to, people are banging on kozmo.com for forcing employees to give them permission to spy on everything from their credit reports to their "mode of living."
Steve Yost is envious of the free plugs I've been giving to other readers who have written in. But I'm happy to point you to Steve's site because it's damn useful, a cool idea, and free: www.TakeItOffLine.com lets you easily divert a flame war to a safe haven. In fact, whenever you want to bang around some ideas, TIO is there for you. (Against my advice, Steve's changing the name to Quick Topic.)
Mark Hurst, at his web site www.goodexperience.com, points to an "The Second Coming A Manifesto," at The Edge (http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/gelernter/gelernter_p1.html ) :
If you haven't heard of David Gelernter or read his "Second Coming" essay, you have a treat awaiting you. Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale, recently released an essay that slams the technology industry for continuing to create products that ignore the user. He also describes the indifference on the part of the victimized users:
...we accept bad computer products with a shrug; we work around them, make the best of them and (like fatalistic sixteenth-century French peasants) barely even notice their defects instead of demanding that they be fixed and changed.
...The second half of Gelernter's essay offers a solution that he calls "lifestreams" an interesting concept but not as strong as the preceding parts of the essay...
The Lifestreams part may be weak because it's a commercial for Gelertner's company called, by coincidence, Lifestreams (www.lifestreams.com). It's a newly-patented (sigh) way of organizing information. As the Lifestreams site says:
In short, our approach in designing the Lifestreams interface was to provide a simple and unified system that is easily grasped by users and not constrained by a real-world metaphor.
In short, no one will understand it.
Myrtle.co.uk, an exemplary commercial home page it's just way cool points to www.netbaby.com, a site that wants to be "the most entertaining" in the world. Considering that none of the games on the site have sexual or violent elements, they are unlikely to achieve that aim. But it is a surprisingly good-hearted site with a bunch of Shockwave games, good for your children, or for the child in you that's struggling to get out. (Alas, my inner child got out the way the creature got out of John Hurt's stomach in the movie Alien.)
Andrew Hinton comments on our article a few issues ago about the Arthur C. Clarke quote: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
one problem with how people are communicating about this idea is this: we tend to define "magic" in western, technocentric terms. magic is, by our contemporary cultural definition, "unreal" "imaginary" and merely something that has an explanation that merely hasn't been discovered or revealed yet.
to many "primitive" cultures, however, what we call magic is for them a kind of technology: it has its own complex lore of cause-and-effect, not unlike what you get when you listen very long to a group of seasoned UNIX sysadmins. they don't call what they do "magic" but it has its own arcane (another witchcrafty word) history and deep deep thicket of byzantine logic.
what we now call magic is basically another (usually earlier and more alien) culture's technology. if they could hang out in Chuck-E-Cheese, they'd probably think the same thing about us. But to compare them out of context kind of mixes things up, don't you think? it's almost a self-reflexive statement.
As always, it depends what you mean. Compare rain dances, acupuncture and aspirin. I'm *assuming* that:
Rain dances don't cause rain.
Acupuncture does relieve back pain but we don't know why and don't have a widely accepted Western paradigm for how it works.
Aspirin relieves pain and we don't know why but we have a paradigm for understanding it.
Of these, I'm only tempted to call rain dances a type of magic. That's because it doesn't work and it breaks our paradigm. I'm not going to try to respect other cultures by claiming that magic works in a causal way; I'd rather look to the other roles of magic in their culture.
Now, if there were a paradigm shift and we discovered that harmonic activity by human beings creates a type of meteorological field, then rain dances wouldn't be magic any more. But the fact is that rain dances don't cause rain, and birth times don't correlate to personalities, and putting Uma Thurman's picture under your pillow doesn't cause her to want you (or, um, so I've been told). If only.
Andrew also comments on our comments about memory and architecture:
when i was studying Vico way back in college i ran across all this great stuff about ancient rhetoricians in an oral tradition remembering their diatribes & orations by placing objects (avatars?) in rooms of a large house. As I work more in "information architecture" this idea keeps coming back to haunt me, but I thought I was alone til I saw it mentioned in joho a few weeks or so ago...
But it strikes me that architecture is not unlike many of our other metaphors for "ideas" and "communication" ... it's interesting to me that, depending on what the individual is trying to convince us about, the metaphor can change a great deal: Info Superhighway sounds like a futuristic government project waiting to happen...right up Gore's alley. Compare to Rheingold's "Highways of the Mind" which predates the "superhighway" idea (if i'm not mistaken...whole earth review around 1990?) which sounds kind of similar but makes the highways plural and makes them a product or property of the mindmuch more utopian, eh? Then there's all the early-commercial-web metaphors like Internet Mall and Electronic Storefront. Others have likened it to the old west ... And there's that wacky crowd talking about how networks are the environment for growing "conversations".... no concrete place metaphor needed, just lots of disembodied talk, where physicality is determined by "voice" which is really just rhetorical style...
Conversations? Nah, it'll never catch on. But if voice is more than rhetorical style, if it is in fact the way we *are* in the new public space of the Web, then Web conversations aren't ghostly whispers; they are the expression of our new selves. (Our voice is our body on the Web.)
Dan Kalikow writes about our re-publishing of a Web semi-humorous piece about a new element called Administratium:
Puts me in mind of all the fun I had when my girls went off to Harvard in 90 & 93, got their own email accts, and they'd fwd me old chestnuts like the above. This sort of drivel has been circulating aperiodically since the dawn of email, when some e-wags apparently got together and typed in all the dreck that had previously been circulating by fax or carbon-paper or scratches-on-rocks. I rejoiced in stroking my beard & telling them "oh THAT old thing. Been around the 'net since forever." They eventually stopped sending the stuff, which was the desired effect...
A few years back, however, after my big sister took on the Presidency of a U. Maine campus, I thought she might enjoy the above jape (which I'd just received, in an incarnation pointed specifically at academic rather than research administrators). I was rather taken aback by the snippiness of her response apparently every time this one starts to re-circulate (if indeed it ever stops), every college administrator on the planet gets an overdosed emailbox!
Then, referring to my call for names for these types of Web chestnuts, Dan suggests:
e-chestnuts... e-dreck... e-bleck (a la Dr. Seuss's "Bartholomew and the Oobleck")
How about Spim sort of like spam but with a whole new zesty flavor!
Christopher Moisan is among a surprising number of you who actually liked the report from China I almost had the good sense not to publish:
Just to say I loved the little ditty from China...does this mean you are going to become a roaming travel writer from now on ?
Glad you liked it. And I'd be happy to become a travel writer *IF* I can do so from home.
Bob Morris writes, knowing our perpetual interest in search engines and my publicly stated preference du jour for google.com:
You only have to watch Star Trek to know that Browsing (or Searching) against static web pages is not the future of extracting information from computers. Most interesting information is held in databases and you can't make consequential use of it without formulating a question. Further, though well-studied, combining information from multiple heterogeneous sources remains a research problem.
Can google do this:?*
Computer, tell me where can I go hiking this week above 1500 feet, within a day's drive of here and be likely to see Fringed Phacelia blooming this weekend?
I'm sorry Captain Picard, Fringed Phacelia (Phacelia fimbriata) is rare above 1500 feet. There are many in the meadows at the base of Mt. Washington, and the intermediate elevations have similar environs to locations at 3000 feet where the Red Phacelia (Phacelia rosa) is known, so Mt. Washington might be an interesting place to try. However, rain is predicted for Sunday, and heavy rain tends to turn the normally brilliant orange fringes (from which the plant takes its name), into a tepid brown. For maximum enjoyment, you might prefer to go on Saturday.
*(Where does the question mark belong in this snippet?)
AskJeeves, which prides itself on its ability to answer "natural language" queries, came up with the following reformulations of your query:
Where can I buy a bouquet of alstroemeria?
Where can I buy backpacking and hiking equipment online?
Where can I read this week's horoscope for the astrological sign Aries?
Please don't tell me that you're an Aries, Bob! That'd be just too freaky!
As for the placement of the question mark, I don't know if it goes after the semi-colon, but I'm quite sure it goes before the asterisk.
Kyle Patrick comments on his own letter in the previous issue:
Okay, so I send you an article, demand that you only use 18 words of it, and what do you do? Print most of it, and then make fun of its length! Pshaw, see if you'll squeeze any more content out of me, web knave!
And by the way, Borges lifted the neato library with every possible combination of characters from Pascal. Unfortunately, Borges had a better publisher and PR team.
I didn't make fun of its length. I only pointed out that it was even longer than the excerpt I ran, which is characteristic of most excerpts. And don't dis Pascal's PR folks. If it weren't for them, he wouldn't be the governor of Minnesota today!
Mickey Allen writes about the absurd lawsuits being brought by British Telecom:
As you are no doubt aware British Telecom (BT) has claimed patent for hyperlinks, but you may not know that one of their more nauseous adverts featured an actor called Bob Hoskins (who stared as the human in "Who framed Roger Rabbit") who had as his catch-phrase: "It's good to talk."
So, my old buddy, you better nail up you front door real tight coz those Patent Lawyers that BT has hired to enforce its hyperlink patent will be round to convince you that neither you nor RageBoy invented the concept and/or practice of conversation !!!!
However as for the concept and/or practice of verbal diarrhea, think it is fairly well proven that the "prior-art" belongs to RageBoy !
Don't dis RageBoy. If it weren't for his verbal skills, he wouldn't be the governor of Minnesota today!
For every site there is an equal and opposite site. Your job is to discover them. Take a well-known site, create the opposite domain name, and pray that it's the opposite of what the original site is about. That's all it takes to win! For example, here are some losing entries of my own:
Reason.com "The magazine of free minds and free markets"
downside.com "The investor's reality check."
macrohard.com "under construction"
RedPlains.com - "The Southwest's Best Satellite Dealer"
BlackHouse.com - "The material on this site/server is adult oriented and/or sexually explicit... "
Answer.com - " Our latest enhancements have caused us to restructure this link..." (Computer Associates)
Irrelevant.com - "Quality web hosting. Sensible prices."
That's all it takes! You could already be a winner!
Lisa Million responds to a bogus contest looking for new jargon made by replacing a single letter in existing jargon.
direwall - keeps everything out
firus - a virus that destroys the firewall
pirus - a virus that ignites the firewall again.
Very amusing. Thanks.
Kevin Jones has his own suggestions for Web-based remakes of famous movies:
The AOL Titanium CDs
The Postman Always Rings Twice
"You've Got Mail!"
PRI-ISDN (still reasonably quick, but not even close to the original)
Throw Momma From the Train
Partnership with Microsoft
Gone With the Wind
Gone Like the Mac
Life is Beautiful
Work at Microsoft
Lisa and Kevin have shown us the way by giving entries far better than our own paltry efforts. Listen and learn, children.
And now it's on to vacation. Would someone mind checking to make sure I haven't left my virtual gas on? Thanks!
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