Technology and taboos redefined – part two

A friend recently lamented on Facebook that she was unable to reach a client on any of the three available contacts she had for him. “Ah, modern communication!”, she quipped.

It set me thinking. About two conflicting phenomena in my life. First, that I have 5 separate email accounts on my iDevices. I separate different threads of my life into those accounts. I also have active Whatsapp, Skype and Viber accounts for other uses. Second, that I disabled voice mail on my phones about 2-3 years ago. I do not encourage anyone to leave me voice mails, preferring text based messages from emails to Whatsapp to iMessage.

Then there are friends in big-cheese type jobs. They seem to use their work emails for everything. But they never take a phone call, preferring instead to use their secretaries and their voice mails as gatekeepers to manage access to themselves.

Thoroughly curious, I scrolled to see some of the status messages of my contacts on Whatsapp and Viber. I noticed that the Viber status message of a friend, who absolutely detests phone calls, reads “only if you must”.

This isn’t a new problem though. As a relatively early adopter of everything from Amazon reviews (first review written in 1999) to LinkedIn (in 2004) to Quora (just about 4 years ago at the time of writing), I have often found struggled with this overload. And about related issues.

About 7-8 years ago, a friend and I were discussing the etiquette for Google Chat. What happens when the green light on their names indicates they are “available” but they don’t respond when you ping them? Are there opening niceties we must engage in, or should we keep it short and sweet? How do we sign off? Soon after we had that conversation, I got quite tired being pinged, no matter what colour the “light”. I have solved the problem by going invisible on nearly all networks and channels I use. With a few closer friends, I have evolved a sort of linguistic shorthand which lets them assess whether I am seeking a real-time conversation or just sharing something they needn’t read or respond to right away.

So what is going on here? Why do we sign up to all these channels of access, and then put up these roadblocks?

Is there real access, or is it just an illusion?

Or are we just trying to cope with communication overload, while balancing it with our FOMO?

As I ‘fessed up, I have often struggled with this overload. But I was often saved, so to speak by the slowness of network effects materialising on social networks and communities. In other words, few people I knew in real life were on these networks so early.

But there comes a moment when a network — or a platform or tool — jumps the shark. A new normal must then emerge. I recall writing in 2000 about how some Goldman Sachs traders were using (bootleg) chat windows to be real time with their clients. I happened to mention it casually in a conference to a gentleman sitting next to me. He turned out to be their head of security in London. Talk about being in the right place at the right time! A year or so later, authorised IM/ chat clients became mainstream. That is when the proverbial hits the fan.

Meanwhile we find ways to cope — we duck, go cold turkey, find other (emerging?) networks, or switch off our online lives temporarily or permanently.

There is a period of hyper-communication, there is a period of quiet. There is information overload, then there is information diet. Sometimes we go indiscriminately all-you-can-consume, sometimes we curate and retreat into filter bubbles of our own or of algorithmic making.

The wheel will turn again. We will find new problems we cannot manage. Until we can.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W4ga_M5Zdn4

 

Technology and taboos redefined

Recently I met with some friends after a considerable hiatus. Meanwhile they had had a baby. I have kept up with the news and have watched the baby grow up through the pictures and updates the friends share on Facebook. Several times in the conversation, we all made casual references to what we know about one another’s lives through Facebook updates. Indeed they showed me some pictures of some big moments in the baby’s life that I had missed. It made me wonder about the role of pervasive technology in challenging behaviours deemed taboo before. In the pre-all-pervasive-tech world, we gossiped, got news through common friends, or phoned or wrote one another. Even so the signal called “life” was sampled quite infrequently and the transmission of the information could suffer fidelity issues.

But now that people themselves put out information about themselves, it has likely greater currency and respectability than gossip, which may have travelled through others. Indeed it is no longer taboo to know ambient information about the life of a friend or indeed, anyone who chooses to use the “global” setting on Facebook or indeed update on Twitter.

Has technology made other taboos acceptable too?

Like many others, I now know a fairly large number of people through my blogging and my use of social platforms such as Twitter or Quora. Often the opportunity arises to meet some of them too. It seems to me that checking someone’s background – using Google or LinkedIn – before meeting them for the first time is now deemed normal. I hasten to add though that my experience suggests it can still freak out the “non-intertubes” people, who are less frequent or less prolific users of the web. This needs to be used abundantly but talked about with caution. I sheepishly admit to not being able to maintain this caution myself. A friend recently invited me to dinner with a friend of his called R. Waiting for our table, R and my friend kept talking about cooking and eating fabulous meals. Then R turned to me and asked if I could guess what he did. Having checked out his profile on LinkedIn in advance, of course I knew he specialised in sanitation. When I said so, both R’s and my friend’s faces fell. I had committed a massive social boo-boo and I have never recovered from it. R never accepted my Facebook friend request, and the less said about the earache my friend has given me since then, the better.

Then there is the idea of flexibility. While in some cultures, it is still not uncommon to plan to meet friends way in advance, making last minute arrangements as well as last minute changes to a rendezvous seem to be common and acceptable now. This has been made possible by mobile phones, of course. And location based services such as FourSquare, where you may be able to locate friends in the vicinity.

This next point may resonate with those who live many time zones away from their parents or siblings. Rationing communication between time zones is a thing of the past. Earlier, when phone calls were expensive, we scheduled calls once a week or fortnight. Now with iMessage and Whatsapp on the one hand, and GTalk, Google Hangouts, FaceTime, Skype etc. on the other, continual and richer communication is possible at almost zero cost. It helps people keep in close contact, regardless of how far apart they may physically be.

As I write this I am aware that the most important social taboo that has been removed or modified beyond recognition is our expectation of privacy. Mainly because we ourselves now put out a lot of information about our lives out there for consumption by friends, families or strangers (the last one is that global setting on Facebook status messages).

The second social taboo that seems to have been removed is exhibitionism. There is now a blurred line between sheer exhibitionism, and self-promotion and advertising of one’s skills for professional gain. Accordingly, persons such as Katie Price in the UK and the Kardashians in the USA have “careers” deemed mainstream and bona fide, although they still successfully shock some in my parents’ generation (and mine).

Of course, individuals themselves are curating and broadcasting this information, portraying themselves not just in favourable light but also sometimes engaging in outright fabrication of a life that looks glamorous and glittering when the reality may be vastly different. Seeing all this, some have argued we are in the midst of a narcissism epidemic. In evidence are vanity and attention-seeking. How else do we comprehend the need for daily changing digital avatars? And their handmaiden, a feeling of entitlement. “You didn’t like my holiday photos on Facebook”. Then there is blame-storming and rages that follow.

We have probably only just seen the tip of the iceberg called technological intersubjectivity. Hopefully it will not sink the Titanic advances that can also be made with technology.

Four For Friday (21)

Before long, the title of this sometime-series of readings will be just an alliterative poetic licence. The week serves up worthy readings far more numerous than four, way before Friday. If I take into account the entire gamut of my interests — that all feed off and feed one another — then the task of curation becomes trickier still. The liberty of sharing more than four however shall be taken. Liberally.

Good story-telling makes for good products. While the article focus on technology product design, it is also an idea core to design at Livyora (declaration of interest: founding COO!).

On Twitter and in the workplace, it is power to the connectors, says Rosabeth Moss Kanter.

Older minds make better decisions. Because they selectively retain information. This link came via @chrisyeh who is a brilliant person to follow on Twitter. (Bonus reading: this review of a well-written, accessible book on the matter of the grown-up brain.)

Chief Marketing Officers must embrace technology. Or fail. This link came via @syamant, one of the most thoughtful strategists and doers I know. Related to this theme I spent a brilliant day at Chinwag’s Psych event about neuroscience and marketing.

If, like me, you have a penchant for spending guilt-free days at the British Museum or the Victoria and Albert’s jewellery section, you probably have an altruistic streak. Say scientists.

Our mothers, ourselves and risk literacy

The web is on fire with Ms Angelina Jolie’s honest and unsentimental account of her elective, prophylactic double mastectomy, appearing in the New York Times. She writes about her mother, who died at 56, having suffered cancer for a decade. She also writes about how she is a carrier of the BRCA1 gene. Her risk profile, she writes, was estimated at “87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer”. This risk would manifest itself before menopause is reached.

Not for me to comment on how our mothers – living or not – continue to shape our lives. I lost mine when I was 4. As far as I am concerned, I will never find out what she may or may not have suffered from, had she lived to age 46 (which was the age at which Ms Jolie’s mother’s cancer was diagnosed, according to publicly available information). Or longer. Every day I live defies all risks I may or may not know of.

But in this age of “austerity”, and living in a country with a publicly funded healthcare system being ravaged by budget cuts and the looming threat of privatisation, I worry. Alas the NHS’s postcode lottery is all too well-known for us to hide from it.

When TV celebrity Jade Goody died of preventable cervical cancer at the age of 25, it increased the uptake of pap smears in the NHS. When Kylie Minogue made the news of her breast cancer public, there was a 20-fold increase in the uptake of mammograms and early screening. There may now well be a worldwide surge in the uptake for genetic testing for BRCA mutations, which may be attributable to Ms Jolie sharing her experience.

Which is not all bad news. An estimated 20000 breast cancer related deaths could be prevented every year in the UK, not all attributable to advance knowledge of genetic markers.

I am sure you all know everything I have written so far. So I come to my main point. It is both a policy concern and a societal concern.

Risk literacy in the general public is rarely if ever discussed, even as risk communication remains ever-present, slightly sensationalised, yet incomplete or poor. For instance, BRCA mutations are almost exclusively discussed as a risk factor for breast cancer, following which ovarian cancer. Why not discuss that BRCA mutations may almost double the risk of cancer of the fallopian tubes? Which can be detected early and treated.

We still haven’t fully explained, in plain English, what it means to have a risk of X% versus Y% of getting A or B type of cancer. Risk really is a two-part concept: an undesirable outcome and the probability that it will come to pass. The probability may be expressed in numerical terms — making it sound, to most people, very accurate and reliable, which may not be the case — or in generalised terms such as “negligible”, “considerable”, “very likely”. Thereon it is a case of how one’s own risk propensity matches up to the description of a risk. That is what decisions are often guided by.

Here’s a story. A friend of mine, who had her first child at age 34, was told she had 1 in 1200 chance of having a baby with Down’s Syndrome. She said she took the chance. She is a highly educated, mathematically literate, senior pharma industry executive and struggled to explain to me what it really meant. To take that chance. She finally said: “Whatever I get I shall deal with.”

So that is what it comes to. Dealing with it.

Ms Jolie dealt with her risk in a certain way and shared her decision in unsentimental language with the broader public. It will increase awareness about BRCA for sure, but will it lead to better-informed decisions? Hard to say. Not everyone who gets tested — with the myriad (if you will ignore the pun**!) of genetic testing firms mushrooming in the market — will have access to the sort of counselling Ms Jolie might have had access to. Increasingly the choice to get screened or not is being left to the patient, even as this review took place because too often women are informed of the benefits of screening but not the harms. Back to risk literacy then.

Ms Jolie’s candid sharing of her experience needs to ignite a debate on risk literacy — not just BRCA mutations, breast cancer, or preventative mastectomies.

I have a final point. Men get breast cancer too. Because the absolute risk is low, the increase in the chances of a BRCA mutation carrying man getting breast cancer by age 70 or beyond is dramatic. This is also the age, when a lot of medical and health insurance policies start to enforce exclusions on the insured. With institutionalised differences between how men and women are treated by the healthcare system, surely risk communication about BRCA should include the risks to men, shouldn’t it?

Of course, I care about the issue as it affects men — I have only one parent left and it is my father.

(** If you missed the pun please read this. As well as the history of the company. Thanks.)

Four For Friday (20)

This week’s readings are mainly about cultural themes – openness, archiving, sustainable thinking (yes, even in luxury!) and – in the week that welcomes Olympics to London –  performance enhancement.

Academic research should go from “filter, then publish” to “publish, then filter“.

How can museums preserve our digital heritage?

Rio Tinto (yes, them!) launches a sustainable jewellery collection. It is the only miner certified by the Responsible Jewellery Council at every stage of the pipeline.

British Medical Journal discusses the science of hydration and sports drinks, and the links between the industry and academia. You may be able to watch this BBC Panorama programme titled The Truth About Sports Products too.