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Information is over-rated

I know it’s the information age, yet I declare that information is over-rated and that Google is a show stopper. Information in abundance seems like an unconditionally good thing, but I’m not buying it. Our knee-jerk efforts to seek and provide information often shut down conversations and cheapen relationships. Here are three examples.

I was in the back of the crowd at a music festival. Just arrived. A blues band was killin it on the stage. I texted my friends in the crowd with a photo of the band: “Just got here. Who’s that on the East Stage? Wow!” A response came immediately with a link to the schedule. And then no other comments. I know, technically, they were providing the information I sought. But of course I could have looked up the schedule! What I wanted was CONVERSATION about the band, and to connect – in conversation – with others in the crowd.

I was in a text conversation and my conversation partner mentioned TTPD. “What’s TTPD?” I asked. “Google it” came the swift response. Good information, of course. But at that moment I didn’t want a research detour. I was in the middle of a conversation. I wanted to hear HER explanation about that – so much more interesting than what the internet would tell me – and then I could reply back. About what she said.

I was trying to engage with a high school kid. “So who are your favorite teachers?” I asked. His dad immediately stepped in with the answer. But honestly, I cared way less about the actual information than how the kid would answer the question. I was trying to make conversation, not get information.

Easily accessible information often short-cuts the art of conversation. What’s really interesting in a conversation is the struggle with the hard questions; when the answer is actually not immediate. And a shared struggle – a conversation around something we’re both questioning – brings us together. Many times in a conversation I don’t actually want the factual answer to the question I’m asking you, I want to see how you answer it. I want to talk with you about it. Usually the last thing I want is to bring in a factual authority to stop the debate. It’s the debate that I’m here for.

Just like capitalism has wired us to seek convenience over quality, capitalism also wants us to seek information over conversation. We have been programmed by advertisers to want the most convenient thing rather than the thing that might provide a richer experience. And similarly, we are being programmed to seek information though a screen rather than conversation with a friend or neighbor. Why? As an advertiser, if I can turn your attention away from your friend and to a screen, then while you’re there I can sell you stuff.

As an advertiser, I want to actually interrupt your conversation with your friend or neighbor and say “Hey, over here!” Advertisers want us to leave multi-dimensional conversational experiences for two dimensional consumer experiences. They want us to learn things by watching YouTube rather than by asking our neighbors. They want us to buy stuff, or at least look at stuff and consider buying it.

In most conversations between actual people, no money is exchanged. No eyeballs are counted. Capitalism devalues our direct conversations with each other because advertisers are cut out of such conversations. There’s nothing to count here. Capitalism only values things that can be counted. It’s called dollar value.

Of course capitalism has its merits. So does information. Today’s abundance of information is a great gift in many, many ways. I’m just saying that the pendulum towards instant information has gone too far and is being over-exploited by capitalists. Instant information is not always the free gift it pretends to be. We are being seduced from textured connections with each other to flat connections with screens. It’s affecting the quality of our relationships, our sense of belonging, and our ability to make good group decisions.

I suppose this is a caution, a warning, a fear spoken aloud. And this is a reminder to myself: that it’s okay to stay in conversation and resist turning to a website, even when I don’t know it all.

 

PS. I actually do know what TTPD is. I know it all too well. And if you wanna talk about it, send me a note!

 

In-Person for the Big Stuff

Let’s just get everyone in a room and talk about it. There’s something magic about that, even in this age of magic technology that allows us to talk through screens and collaborate through platforms from places unknown. Indeed, in sharp relief to the alternatives, the in-person meeting is perhaps more magical today than ever.

Aquaculture Listening Session, Ellsworth, Maine, March 21, 2024

People are more likely to change their minds in three-dimensional meetings than on two-dimensional screens. I’m not sure why, but I’ve seen it. And felt it. I can feel a shift of mood or energy, a shift of consciousness that it’s hard to feel through a screen. I suppose it’s because I can evaluate body language and facial expressions, as a whole. I can look around a room and see changes in posture, changes in attitudes. When meeting through a screen I cannot look around “the room.” I see only fragments delivered by carefully-pointed cameras. It’s hard to “read the room” when I can’t see the room, as a whole.

And when I can’t read the room it’s hard to know if my views are aligned, or not, or how people are reacting to the views being expressed. As humans we are incredibly perceptive about ALL that’s happening in a room of people. We’re very impressive; evolved even. We should not sell ourselves short and pretend that a screen-based meeting (two dimensions in a small defined frame) offers nearly the amount of data as an in-person meeting (three-dimensions without limits on where I can look).

Volume and Speed of Data Exchange by Meeting Type

I facilitate all kinds of meetings and I get that on-line meetings have value in certain circumstances with certain objectives, absolutely. Yet my favorite meetings are when a group of people with different views get in a room to hear each other. Those are the fun ones; the memorable ones. You know what? I have a very hard time remembering on-line meetings yet I bet I can remember at least one thing about every in-person meeting I’ve ever experienced, perhaps because I “experience” in-person meetings whereas I pretty much “watch” on-line meetings.

When we meet in person, not only do we hear each other in formal ways as each person stands and says their piece, we exchange glances, hold doors, share food, and bathrooms, and the parking lot. The micro-communications that happen in these off-camera ways is not to be underestimated. It’s these incidental micro-communications that clue me in to the group’s culture, how it shifts, and where I stand relative to others. Macro-communications happen off-camera too. If you have even been part of a legislature or a council or a board, you know that most decision-making happens not in the main room but in the hallway or the parking lot, person-to-person.

Norman Rockwell, Freedom of Speech, 1943

Last month I facilitated a series of meetings for the Maine Department of Marine Resources on the topic of Aquaculture; what’s good about it, what’s not good about it, and how it should be regulated…….from MANY points of view! I think those meetings were successful not just because people had a chance to give input – they could have done that through a screen or through a survey – but because people had a chance to hear each other, in a room together, and experience each other’s reactions in ALL dimensions. It’s relatively easy to discount a talking head on a screen. It’s not so easy to discount a person who’s “in your space” looking in your eyes backed up with full scale body language and desperate tone-of-voice. Such an in-person experience is likely to be memorable. You will think about it later. You might “process” it with someone later. And on reflection, it might cause you to change your mind. Even if just a bit.

Again, I’m not saying that an in-person town hall meeting is best for every situation, far from it. What I am saying is that in-person meetings are special – magic even – and should be used unapologetically for “the big stuff.” When there’s an angry mob, when opinions are hot, when the stakes are high, get everyone in the room and talk about it.

Helping others. For fun.

What makes me smile looking back on my day? It’s not the $5 I spent on a that new thing, or the $5 I saved with that special coupon; it’s the $5 that I gave to Tom the bottle guy. (Here in Maine we have a bottle law so people collect empties for money). When I ran into Tom on the street I didn’t have any empties to give him, or time to go get some from my office, and then it occurred to me: “I could just give him $5.” What a fun idea!

“But he didn’t earn it,” says a voice in my head. There’s another voice that says, “If you give people money they will just use it for drugs or alcohol.” And another voice says, “You’re creating dependency. Tom should get a job.” I used to listen to these voices. Today I don’t. Today I listen to the voice that says, “If a fellow human is in dire straits, help them if you can.”

My decision whether or not to hand someone a $5 bill doesn’t need to be a whole big statement about my political principles. In that moment I don’t need to be all thoughtful or righteous or care what people think. What’s gonna make me feel good? I make it a heart thing not a head thing.

And today, I don’t give with strings. I used to say, “Now you’re gonna spend this on food, right?” Or, “I won’t give you money but I’ll buy you a meal.” And I would feel so righteous about applying my big morality in this little situation. Today I honor the dignity of the asker. I don’t impose my views about how they should spend their money. I try to treat them as an equal, walking along with me, a lateral transfer.

Lately I’ve been helping to deliver furniture to asylum seekers. No big deal, just a couple deliveries here and there. Yet look at this family and how happy they are with their new couch. This family had been sitting on the floor of their living room. And eating on the floor of their kitchen. And sleeping on the floor with no mattresses. Now at least they have a couch. How fun is that!

Just because I give to you doesn’t mean less for me. That’s an old voice in my head. Today when I give to you my heart gets full. I make fun for myself by doing stuff for others. The needs can seem so great and the world can seem so heavy. That doesn’t mean we have to be sad and forlorn and give up on joy. Just do whatever you can wherever you can and have fun with it. That’s what I say. That’s the voice I listen for today.

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