Apparently my iPod is a sentient being. It senses its surroundings, understands context, and makes intelligent decisions.
Here’s the latest example. Yesterday, we received this week’s edition of The New Yorker. The cover features a couple kissing on the 59th Street Bridge. This morning, at the gym, my iPod randomly selected (from more than 4,000 choices) the 59th Street Bridge Song, the goopy old standard by Simon & Garfunkel. Even more eerily, the lyrics told me to “Slow down, you’re moving too fast…” which was exactly what I needed to do on the exercise machine I was using.
Clearly, my iPod knew about the magazine (the print edition!) and also knew that I was over-exerting myself. It selected the perfectly appropriate song from thousands of possibilities. Thank you, Steve Jobs.
But wait … really? Clearly the magazine’s cover art primed me to think about the 59th Street Bridge. When I heard the song, I made the connection. That’s the effect of priming. As for the advice on slowing down … well, I wouldn’t have noticed it if I weren’t overdoing it. In other words, I was being primed (or conditioned) in two different ways. I noticed things that I wouldn’t otherwise have noticed. I assumed there was a connection, but it was really just a coincidence.
Coincidences can screw up our thinking in myriad ways. Let’s look at four ways to consider coincidences and causes:
A) It’s a coincidence and we recognize it as such – most people would conclude that my iPod is not conscious … Apple’s not that good. We correctly conclude that it’s not a cause-and-effect situation.
B) It’s a coincidence but we thinks it’s a cause – this is where we can get into big trouble and deep debates. This is a problem in any discipline — like economics, sociology or climate science — where it’s difficult to run experiments. It’s hard to pin down if X causes Y or if Y causes X or … well, maybe it’s just a coincidence. (Maybe it was the rats).
C) It’s a cause and we recognize it as such – we know that certain germs cause certain diseases. So we take appropriate precautions.
D) It’s a cause but we think it’s a coincidence – before the 19th century, we didn’t recognize that germs caused diseases. We thought it was just a coincidence that people died in filthy places.
I suspect that many conspiracy theories stem from Category B. We note a coincidence and assume mistakenly that it’s a cause. The dust bowl in the United States coincided with over farming and also with the rise of communism in Europe. A small but noisy group of people concluded that the dust bowl was not caused by farming techniques and drought but was actually a communist conspiracy.
We can also suffer from Category D problems. I read recently of a man who had a chronic infection in his right ear. Doctors couldn’t figure it out. Finally, the man took some earwax from his left (healthy) ear and stuck it in his right ear. The infection went away. It seemed coincidental that his left ear was healthy while his right ear was not but it actually pointed to a cause. His left ear had healthy bacteria (a healthy microbiome) while his right ear did not. The man suspected that the difference between his left and right ears was not coincidental. He was right and solved a Category D problem.
In a weird way, this all ties back to innovation. If we want to stimulate innovation, we can usefully ask questions like this: “I note that A and B vary coincidentally. Is that really a coincidence or does it point to some deeper cause that we can capitalize on?” While Category B can generate endless debates, Category D could generate novel solutions.
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I walk our dog, Bella, two or three times a day. I enjoy it almost as much as she does. I’ve also found that walking a dog is a great way to meet people. (If only I had known when I was single). It’s nice to meet the neighbors. But what’s frightening is that we all think alike.
As Bill Bishop pointed out in The Big Sort, we’ve sorted ourselves out by political viewpoints. Republicans live in Republican neighborhoods and Democrats live with Democrats. We don’t mix and mingle much. When we meet people, we tend to hear things that confirm rather than challenge our views. We live in echo chambers. Tom Friedman calls these monocultures as opposed to polycultures.
Monocultures can make you crazy. If you only read and hear ideas that you agree with, you’ll only reinforce pre-existing connections in your brain. You won’t create new connections. From everything I’ve read, the brain thrives on connections. The more, the merrier. Tom Friedman writes that polycultures are much more sustainable than monocultures. I suspect that a polycultural brain is much healthier than a monocultural brain.
We also know that mashup thinking is one of the best ways to stimulate innovation. You take ideas from different boxes and mash them up. This is not out-of-the-box thinking. It’s multiple-box thinking. Take X-rays and mash them up with computer processing and you get CT scans. Take phones and mash them up with computers and you get smart phones. Take MTV and mash it up with cop shows and you get Miami Vice.
The more we have monocultures, the less we’ll have mashups. The more we talk to people just like ourselves, the fewer innovations we’ll have. It’s by putting different things – products or ideas – together that we get innovation. We all have partially formed ideas. Only by interacting with people who have complementary ideas can we develop bright new innovations. (I suspect this is why Apple recently hired Angela Ahrendts from Burberry).
Given all this, I’m constantly amazed that companies deliberately create monocultures throughout their facilities. Engineers sit with engineers. Finance folks sit with finance folks. Marketers sit with marketers. Each little zone is a monoculture. People with the same outlook, backgrounds, education, and conditioning sit together. They don’t talk to people with complementary ideas. They talk to people with the same ideas.
If you want to stimulate innovation in your company, mix it up a bit. Even a random seating chart is probably better than a department-by-department arrangement. Group people with different interests and backgrounds together. Then change it every now and then to establish new patterns and innovative connections. Just remember, where you stand depends on where you sit.