Frankly Anything

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A blog about, frankly, anything

Glen or Glenda? How Girls Become Girls and Boys Become Boys

How Is Sex DeterminedStumbled across this section of PBS.org that includes an informative little Flash presentation on what happens during the first weeks after conception that determine whether you’re a dude or a chick.

Spoiler: for the first 6 weeks our sexual apparatus are identical.

Why Life Is A Struggle

The area encircling the set of actions we're comfortable performing intersects slightly with the set of actions most rewarding.

Thanks to garry's posterous

Fish, Water and Why Am I the Center of the Universe?

"State Hospital" by Edward Kienholz

If you haven’t read David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement address to the graduating seniors of Kenyon College then you should. In addition to being a fine piece of writing by an author who went on to kill himself, it’s an interesting meditation on consciousness. In it he talks about how each of us is born with a “default setting” of being wired to believe that:

“…everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realist, most vivid and important person in existence.”

This is an observation that most people make early on in life, usually around the same time you realize you’ll one day die. But, as illustrated in DFW’s fish/water parable, it’s so obvious that you pretty quickly forget it. Periodically remembering it tends to cause huge shifts in perspective that then spring right back to your normal, day-to-day setting.

It’s interesting to think about this in evolutionary terms. i.e. why did we develop this particular perspective as opposed to my-neighbor-is-the-center-of-the-universe?  The armchair-evolutionist answer is that the best way to equip an organism for survival and reproduction is to confer upon it the belief that it is the center of universe.

What better way to ensure you get all the food, water and sexual partners you need to survive and thrive?

In the ancestral environment in which we evolved this turned out to be a really good strategy. Back then, living another day, much less reproducing, was far from a sure bet. So all resources had to be marshaled to the goal of survival. However the environment most of us live in today is nothing like that of 200,000 years ago. We’ve since built structures and institutions that, at least, minimize the risk of death by most anything but natural causes. Yet we are saddled with brains that are still wired for survival. For examples of how this manifests itself in the context of 21st century life see the examples DFW cites in his commencement address.

The part that’s interesting though is whether or not that can be changed. i.e. can our brains evolve such that this enabler of the survival instinct is bred out of us and a more compassionate, holistic perspective takes its place? A few things would need to happen for that to occur. For starters, our environment would need to reward people who think this way with more opportunities to reproduce. I don’t think this evolutionary mechanism of natural selection is operant anymore, for reasons having to do with modern life, the moral codes related to creating offspring and the raising of them, etc. i.e. back in the day, if you were considered reproductively fit, you could spend all your non-surviving hours having sex with as many partners as you wanted, with little thought to the consequences. Today we don’t approve of people who go around siring children without taking responsibility for them.

Is there some other benefit that’s confered by the ability to hold this it’s-not-all-about-me perspective, such that it might be passed down genetically? Or is it more like the idea of equality, in that it’s not something that’s inherited but instead a cultural disposition that emerges and gets passed down to future generations. A meme, in effect. Is this mindset to our moral and cultural development akin to what the notion of equality was in the Iron age? i.e. in the year 3009 will we have laws that are underpinned by the notion that each of us is not the center of the universe? In the same way we have laws against discrimination that are underpinned by our collective subscription to the notion of equality?

Social Media And The Stupidity Of Crowds

Konami announced last week that they’re not releasing Atomic Games’ first-person-shooter “Six Days in Fallujah.” By all reports the game was intended to recreate the experience of the war-torn city after which it was named.

The game was already under scrutiny for setting the conflict in a war that is still unresolved. The company reportedly received complaints from veterans of the war and their families and friends. However it appears the final straw was Atomic Games’ president Peter Tamte’s recent interview with Joystiq. Specifically, that Atomic Games used genuine Iraqi insurgents in the design/development of the game.

As pointed out by Gaming Insider, the videogame landscape is littered with titles set on battlegrounds, both real and imagined. Admittedly most of these settings are WWII. You’ll find titles set in Vietnam but those have not proved to be big sellers on the order of “Call of Duty” and its ilk.

There are two things going on here that are interesting to note:

  1. the disproportionate response to the voices of a small, but vocal, few
  2. why we find it acceptable to purchase videogames set in WWII but abhorent to make (much less purchase) a game set in an ongoing conflict like Iraq.

I’ll address the first issue here, and the second in future post.

angry mob

Might Makes Right?

The decision by Konami is another example of digital disproportionately amplifying the voices of a small, yet vocal, number of opponents.

We’ve seen this before, most recently with Motrin’s mommy bloggers and Tropicana’s package redesign; a company reacting to a few vocal influencers. But in all of these cases it’s worth asking some questions:

Are the number of people complaining representative of the larger population? Or are they simply a very small, vocal minority, who happen to wield the digital microphone that is the World Wide Web? Kahneman and Tversky, via their Availability heuristic, demonstrated quite clearly how the rantings of a small minority can be mistakenly perceived as the overwhelming din of the majority.

It also calls into question to what extent the complaints about this game (or the Motrin commercial or the Tropicana redesign) really would have negatively affected sales. In the case of Tropicana, were their redesign to have happened 15 or even 10 years ago, I can’t help but think a consumer walking through the grocery store would’ve simply looked at the new package, mumbled “that’s stupid, i liked the old one better” as they dropped the product in their shopping basket.

Further, as a shareholder of any of those companies (which I am not) I would be appalled to learn that the company is making decisions that cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars seemingly on a whim. i.e. recalling media spend, consequently throwing out millions spent on production or unwinding packaging and design decisions that cost millions of dollars.

I’m all about marketing being more about conversations and relationships rather than simply outbound communication (it’s how I make my living). Technology allows us to tap into conversations that we never would have heard otherwise. But it also allows conversations to spin up, by facilitating a virtual “mob” mentality; mobs that might otherwise have never emerged.

What criteria should a company use to gauge when it should take action based on the brute force of a few. Is it purely quantitative? i.e. the numbers complaining reach some numerical threshold? Or is there a need for a new role in organizations? Someone who acts as an intermediary between an enterprise’s most loyal consumers and its executive management. A kind of brand ombudsman, if you will. Is this the responsibility of a community manager? Or someone higher up?

In a future post I’ll write about the changing roles in organizations as a result of the influence of digital technology on the enterprise. This is one example where it’s quite possible we need to rethink how businesses structure themselves to meet the needs not only of new customers but of their most loyal.

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//02/25/2010 - added Tynt tracking code to try out Tynt