Archive for ‘Society’

January 24th, 2013

Not So Hungry Games

Last May, I bought a copy of the book The Hunger Games at Costco. The movie had been released and the frenzy had mostly passed, but seeing the book on sale I decided to investigate–and I was especially intrigued by the blurb on the inside back cover:

Suzanne Collins is the author of the bestselling Underland Chronicle, which started with George the Overlander. In The Hunger Games, she continues to explore the effects of war and violence on those coming of age.

The book sat until recently, and then I finally got around to reading it–having forgotten all about that dust jacket description, and most of the hype about the movie, too.

If you’re looking for an extended summary of the plot, go check out the book’s Wikipedia entry. Here’s a short version: a boy and a girl from each of 12 districts of the country of Panem are chosen at random to compete against each other–to the death–in a fantasy land arena that in some ways resembles the Holodeck from Star Trek: The Next Generation. The losers die and their districts get nothing; the winner gets fame, some fortune, and good things for his/her district. The entire proceedings are broadcast on television to the nation.

Collins borrows from all sorts of sources: We and 1984 created the framework for the kind of controlling, monolithic police state in the book; there’s a slightly post-apocalyptic feel that has resonances of A Canticle for Leibowitz, with its knowledge lost and re-gained; and the themes of violent children come from sources as varied as the Grimm Brothers and Shakespeare to Lord of the Flies. Not to mention the many stories of star-crossed (young) lovers have we all read, including those with twists that give the girls a more tomboyish demeanor and the boys a quieter, SNAG-like feel, as well as those (such as in 1984) who find ways to try to subvert the oppressive regime under which they live. Katniss (the girl) and Peeta (the boy) are composites, and don’t add much new by way of character development.

And this is where I disagree with the blurb. Perhaps what Collins intended to do was explore how young people relate to and respond to violence, but this is not what emerges. If anything, while there is some rejection of and sadness about all the violence and death in evidence from Katniss and Peeta, they seem to adjust to it–to its necessity, to the feeling of needing to inflict it–with the ease that comes from a will to survive. The reader roots for them because, well, of course we do: isn’t that the point?

The radical part of what Collins does is mix all these things together into a new stew with a distinctly 21st century twist: the reality show. This is also the part that gets the least exploration in the book, and deserves the most examination from the perspective of its social impact. Katniss, Peeta, and the other forced “contestants” are aware of being watched by their families and districts. They can play to the cameras for support–often literally, in the form of supplies that get dropped into the game for them–and they wonder occasionally about the reactions of those at home.  Yet we get virtually nothing from the audience’s side of the story except the imaginings of those in the game, who presume there to be shouts of glee or signs of sadness when players die or survive. (The one exception is a gift to Katniss that she thinks comes from the members of another district, in recognition of something nice she has done, some subversion of the power of the state.)

It is frighteningly easy to see how we, as a society, could make the transition from the current entertainments of Survivor and The Biggest Loser to the genuine violence and death of The Hunger Games. We accept the former already, not just as entertainment but as a social structure: people are inherently in competition; their achievements in a (probably rigged) game constitute an acceptable judgment of their value; and teamwork is itself a fleeting concept, with alliances formed and reformed until ultimately abandoned in favor of a single victor. (If this sounds both vaguely Darwinian and vaguely like the Republican party platform for the 2012 presidential election, I will let you sort out for yourselves the irony of a party pursuing a Darwinian strategy while denying Darwin’s most important evolutionary insight.) This separation, this distinction between an audience and its entertainment, is dehumanizing, tapping into our basest instincts–to see harm done to those we think we don’t like–while further inoculating us from taking too seriously the reactions of those who are physically or psychically wounded. Collins’ book is no great piece of literature, but in revealing this point so clearly she may have done something good for her “young adult” readers, if only they step back long enough to see it.

June 5th, 2012

Mission, Vision, Values, and…

For years–decades, even–the triumvirate of “mission, vision, values” has reigned as the core of strategic planning for non-profits. Putting a plan together often meant starting with those three elements and then endlessly word-smithing them into the appropriate degree of institution-speak.

But it is time for a change, especially for organizations focused on the arts and culture.

What is missing is an articulation of “service”: how an organization will activate those three other elements–mission, vision, and values–and make good on its ability to serve its audiences.

As a society, we are long past the point where audiences see themselves as mere consumers of cultural offerings provided by others. Today’s audiences are participants, with a stronger role in creating and validating the programs they choose, beyond simply purchasing tickets for them. Moreover, audiences increasingly gravitate towards those institutions, programs, and activities that welcome their new modes of engagement and that offer greatest flexibility around how they choose to engage. Those points of engagement may be driven by technology, but are not necessarily; technology is only a tool to support an organization’s customer service, not a replacement for good service itself.

In an age in which there are a million and one distractions beeping in a person’s pocket, and another million distractions prepared to offer you free or low-cost entertainment right from the comfort of your couch, it is no longer enough to think that organizations can reserve “service” areas as something to be addressed tactically, programatically. Any (arts) organization that wants to maintain or grow its audience needs to start thinking at the highest levels about its customer service experience. The organization must be prepared to speak to its goals, strategies, and tactics from the perspective of those customers–no longer just from the perspective of the organization’s presumptive mission, vision, and values.

November 6th, 2011

Telling Stories, And Living Them

Fifteen years ago, a client called my bosses and asked to have me removed from their account. This was a big account for the firm financially, and one that was both demanding and challenging. It was difficult not to take it personally.

I was reminded of this “anniversary” recently when I read a short post on Seth Godin‘s blog, about a business relationship gone awry. This item was so short it’s easy to recount with a single quote: “When pressed, though, she couldn’t actually recall what the problem had been, or how much financial or project damage had been done. All she remembered was that she didn’t like him.”

Yes, well, that could apply to many situations—and probably many of us have been there.

***

There are all sorts of ways to describe what I do as a communications consultant to cultural institutions. My colleagues and I help clients evaluate and set goals; we develop strategies to meet their goals; and we work with them to develop messages and create platforms for them to speak about or otherwise demonstrate what they do, whether that is through written materials, public programs and events, or tools like social media. (There are other parts of the job, too; harder to describe, and I often put them under the umbrella of “consigliere-psychologist.”)

But when it comes right down to it, once you push past the business jargon around “communications,” the thing that we help clients do is simple: tell their stories. The audiences for these stories may be external—journalists, or potential visitors—or internal, to help one part of the organization understand the needs of another. Ultimately, that’s what communication is all about: getting your story across as best you can, and hoping someone else finds it compelling. It’s definitely the part of my job that is easiest to explain or witness externally.

And you’re thinking: well, that’s fine, but how does that relate to this thing about relationships and getting kicked off an account?

Simple: relationships are also about stories. Whether business or personal, they are the things that we tell ourselves (and others) about how we feel about particular people or groups. In Godin’s example, the woman was essentially replaying for herself a particular narrative—a very broad one, without much detail, that always led to the same conclusion. Once these stories are written, they are difficult to re-write.

Fifteen years ago, I knew something had gone wrong in my relationship with this client, I just didn’t know what. I found out five years later when, under different circumstances, I met someone from my former client who had the details: I had shown up to a meeting carrying a backpack. To them, that said something about me that had nothing to do with qualifications, and created a narrative they couldn’t get over.

It’s easy to laugh now—especially since these days backpacks are de rigeur for many New York business men. But it’s why I think Godin’s post epitomizes the challenges and, more importantly, the opportunities of (business) relationships. When relationships are good, projects are often even more successful: the internal narrative we build for ourselves subconsciously will be better, and the work that we do and the client does will also be better. You get engaged, committed; you want the best for your clients, not just because that’s what they pay for but because you have invested in the relationship with them. Success (and sometimes failure) nurtures these relationships, but good relationships are about more than just success.

It’s also increasingly clear that these different levels of understanding are reached slowly, and often through indirect means. There are lots of news stories about social media tools being (mis)used and causing problems in the workplace, but they can be just as beneficial in helping people learn about and understand each other. These tools help people write their own public narratives, and they may be funny or boring, shocking or banal—but you learn something either way.

Commitment counts, of course. So do simple things like understanding each other’s working processes and goals. In my business, it helps to be smart, a nimble thinker, and to have a good understanding of human psychology. But the longer I work in this field, the more I find that it is often the internalized stories we have about our relationships that are as critical as the working processes or the external outcomes. Those stories are what drive emotional responses around whether we trust people or feel they understand our goals. And that is hard to beat.

June 16th, 2011

How you like them Apples?

June 9th, Thursday

I’m sitting at home, working on my computer–a late-2008 edition MacBook Pro, all appropriately up-to-date on its software, etc.–when the cursor starts going haywire. My hands are not on the trackpad, yet it’s jumping all over, it’s right-clicking, it’s opening windows and files; it’s possessed. Every attempt I make to control it is like Ouija Board combat, it just doesn’t want to do what I want it to do.

I closed the lid and let the machine sit. Ten minutes later, I try again. It works, briefly, and then is possessed again.

I forcibly quit all open programs and turn off the machine. Time for bed.

 

June 10th, Friday

On the iPad, I search for a range of related terms like “possessed MacBook trackpad,” and get lots of results with a range of inconclusive answers. One suggests resetting the “PRAM,” wherein you unplug the computer, take out the battery, and then press the power button to clear all electrical charges. Another suggests the problem is caused by swollen batteries. I open up the machine, reset the “PRAM,” and in the process check my battery. Doesn’t seem swollen.

I reboot, and I get about 15 minutes of time before … the Possessed Trackpad takes over. Mere seconds after that, it has shrunk the icons of the items on my desktop to miniscule items of something like 8×8 pixels, while also opening 20+ PDFs in a folder.

I reboot, switch batteries. I get another 15 minutes in, but not more. I manage to get TimeMachine connected and get a back-up process going–and then effectively lock the cursor out by switching on the screen saver.

The back-up completes, I turn off the computer, and I go to work. Over the weekend, I hardly touch it.

 

June 12th, Sunday

It’s still not working. I check my AppleCare status–good through November!–and make a date for Thursday with the Genius Bar folks.

I try running the computer with no battery. I have no evidence that the battery is the issue, but I wonder whether it’s too hot and affecting the trackpad. This technique works for the standard 15 minutes, before the Deus in Machina takes over again.

 

June 13-15, Monday – Wednesday

I give a lot of thought to cloud computing, which sounds fairly attractive right about now. The idea of being only moderately dependent on a single computer is alluring at times like this. (I’m writing this on a 10″ Sony Vaio running Ubuntu Linux. I try to run a Microsoft-free home.) I have my iPhone and my iPad, plus the Vaio, and aside from my files all locked up on the Mac, things aren’t so bad. Normally, I don’t like the “cloud” idea, because internet access can be so unreliable (not to mention slow); I don’t want every interaction with my files to be dependent on an external connection of some kind, a point echoed by David Pogue in his review of the new Google Chromebook.

I also give a lot of thought to how dependent I am on all this tech shit. How miserable it makes me when it’s not working. How obscenely addicted we are to something that’s been with us less than a half-century, yet feels as integral as food. Granted, I *work* on a computer; my job would be harder without one. Granted, I got my first computer in 1981, when I was 10, and I have been working with computers for the majority of my life.

But still. It sucks when they’re broken and sucks to realize how much it seems to matter.

 

June 16, Thursday

The good folks at the Genius Bar are kind and comforting. A trackpad issue, clearly; it can be replaced, free of charge and in under an hour. We’ll call you.

They call me. Actually, it seems like the display isn’t working properly either; with your permission, we’d like to replace it. Free of charge, and it’ll take another hour. Ok, sure, great. Thanks!

They call me. Actually … well, we’re sorry. We’re sorry it’s escalated like this. We’d like to send it out to our diagnostic repair shop, off-site. There seems to be an additional problem, maybe an electrical issue, can’t tell–but they can sort it out, and any part that needs replacing will be replaced. Free of charge. It takes five days, starting today. Did you back up recently, because if they replace the harddrive… (Yes, I backed everything up.)

And there we are. The MacBook Pro is in the shop, in the care of AppleCare. I remain impressed with the quality of service Apple provides, and feel good about the likelihood my computer will be fixed. Not to mention that I’m still left with more computing power than most people.

And yet feel naked without my “core” machine. Services like Evernote and GoogleDocs help keep me going–yay, “cloud”–while not entirely diminishing my sense that all is not right with the universe. There’s been a disturbance in the Force. I just want my damn computer to work.

Stay tuned.

UPDATE, 29 June 2011

Apple called me on June 25th to tell me my computer was ready, a few days later than originally estimated, but it’s hard to complain in this situation. I picked up my MacBook Pro on Sunday, June 26th, and they walked me through the servicing as I booted up the computer. It had been given a new TrackPad and display, as mentioned previously–and also a new motherboard, new hard drive, and a new cover. (I’m not sure why it needed a new cover, but perhaps the original was damaged in the process of repair…) The motherboard alone costs north of $500, and all told it was probably $1,000 in new parts and who knows how much more in labor. In theory, Apple is sending me an itemized invoice–but all costs were covered by AppleCare. I usually pass on extended warranty programs, but I definitely got my $350 of value out of this one.

This story would not be complete without the tale of renewal that goes with it. Once the machine was booted up, the third screen asked me if I wanted to restore my computer from a TimeMachine backup. I closed it up right at that spot, and went home. At home, I connected the external hard drive that is my TimeMachine backup, and hit the option for restore.

I have had to do this once before, and it is always a nerve-wracking few seconds: everything depends on whether the backup itself has worked. But it had, like a charm–and 90 minutes later, my computer had been returned to it’s original state, with all my files and all my settings intact. (First thing I did after that? Update it with all the files that had been in holding since the repair process started … And then I ran another backup.)

Back when I had a Dell, I had one of the worst computer repair experiences ever. The man who came to fix my computer (after making me sit at home all day) spoke virtually no English, and didn’t have the right part. When he came back the second time, he had the part, but because of his language deficiency wasn’t in a position to tell me what was wrong with the computer when it still didn’t work. In the International Herald Tribune recently there was an article about design and functional items, and how good design can help users with even complicated tasks. I think Apple products sometimes need more descriptive support than people think, at least for some users. But the author is dead on in describing the ease of use issue as central to Apple’s strengths. This experience just proves it, on a few fronts, from service and repair to restoration. Apple products may not be infallible, but few are. What matters, though, is how the systems manage the fallibility, and whether it’s designed to protect and help the user.