This week: that’s obvious, skimming is the new black, and mountains of stuff. Sandra Peter (Sydney Business Insights) and Kai Riemer (Digital Disruption Research Group) meet once a week to put their own spin on news that is impacting the future of business in The Future, This Week.
The stories this week
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Intro: This is The Future, This Week. On Sydney Business Insights. I'm Sandra Peter and I'm Kai Riemer. Every week we get together and look at the news of the week. We discuss technology the future of business. The weird and the wonderful. And things that change the world. Okay let's start. Let's start.
Kai: Today on The Future, This Week. That's obvious. Skimming is the new black and mountains of stuff.
Sandra: I'm Sandra Peter, I am the Director of Sydney Business Insights.
Kai: I'm Kai Riemer, professor at the Business School and leader of the Digital Disruption Research Group. So, Sandra. Did anything happen in the future this week.
Sandra: Obviously. Our first story obviously is about how do you explain the obvious. One of our listeners Dirk- obviously.
Sandra: Picked this up in the New York Times and sent it to us. So, our first story is obviously how do you explain the obvious.
Kai: There's nothing more persuasive than the obvious, the article starts.
Sandra: It goes on to say that to appeal to it is to ask people to be bigger, better and more noble, to make a sweeping look at the facts, admit what this plain and do the right thing.
Kai: Tell me with a fixed gaze and an air of confidence that something is obvious.
Sandra: I would be tempted to believe you, if only to join in the clarity and the sense of purpose that comes with accepting what this staring me in the face obviously.
Kai: Or so the story goes and we all know that this is obviously not the case. I think we've said it enough now.
Sandra: Obviously, but obviously we need to start by defining what obvious is. And we have actually had a very interesting conversation this morning about just what role the obvious plays, and how it's challenged and how people from innovators, and entrepreneurs, and disruptors, and presidents, and other presidents employ obviousness for very different agendas and do very different things with it. And given our recent conversation about leadership lessons that were obvious. Be agile, you know nobody wants to be sluggish and slow. We thought, let's have a look at this. Obviously.
Kai: So the word obvious comes from Latin obvious from OB VIA which means in the way or right in front of us, laying there plain to see evident for everyone to see. And that's its literal meaning, so something that should be self-evident for everyone to grasp. And yet our experience in life is often different in the sense that in the article goes to great lengths to provide many examples in the political landscape what is obvious to one group isn't to the other. So, there's something about obviousness that isn't necessarily universally shared. So let's unpack this.
Sandra: Let's start with what the implied observation was in what you've just said that obvious is something that's shared.
Kai: Now if is just obvious to me and no one else, you know those kind of people typically are not taken seriously or they end up in a you know what's the word.
Kai: I was going to say institution, but -
Sandra: But the university is a grand institution.
Kai: Okay. Just as well. So, no obviousness is something that is always shared. It is collective. It is not universal necessarily, but it is shared by groups of people. It is shared by industries it is shared by professions or political leanings and the article focuses mostly on the way in which something might be obvious to the political left. The example is given of Obama appealing to common sense and the obviousness of having to do something about gun ownership in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, when in fact it isn't that obvious because large parts of the US might answer the question 'Do we have to do something about gun ownership when it leads to these mass shootings?' in a way that isn't obvious to those who call for curbing gun ownership.
Sandra: And obviously these sorts of values form over time and we coalesce around what is obvious when we start sharing those sets of values. For instance, the right of every man to vote literally meant the right of every man to vote and no women.
Sandra: Obviously. Over time, the right of every man to vote meant every person.
Kai: And we take this for granted now of course.
Sandra: And it's obvious that it should have always been like that and that is normal.
Kai: And that it was a mistake previously and we have changed for better. So. The way in which common sense works is it changes over time. When something is common sense. It is entirely self-evident, and in hindsight we look back on what used to be self-evident, taken for granted and obvious and it shows up to us as old fashioned, outdated or plain wrong when not so long ago, 10 years ago, any sensible man or woman would have said this is obvious right. So we need to look at how what we take for granted, the common sense that makes the words intelligible to us that determines what counts as a fact, what counts as a truth. The thing that doesn't have to be explained because it's obvious how that actually changes because that has a lot to do with what we talk about on the podcast a lot. And that is innovation or disruption for that matter.
Sandra: So what becomes interesting for us to look at is how do you change what's obvious. How do we redefine a new normal? How do people in business shift these sets of values, these sets of assumptions about what should be done and how it should be done. How do we change what's obvious?
Kai: So first of all I want to say because what is obvious is collective. No one person or company gets to define what is normal what is taken for granted, how an industry works. The kind of things that never have to be questioned. So these shifts in understanding and common sense in what is obvious and in industry happens sometimes quite dramatically. They take time and they are collective achievement. But the important thing is that when something like this happens the companies that fail to make that switch in understanding or world view, they are the ones that get disrupted because they're being left behind. Right. Example that I often use is the music industry. Back in the day, not too long ago, companies in the music industry were record companies. It was taken for granted that the business was about recording and selling music, so the product was a record. When digital music came up and the shift happened to an MP3 download, digital songs and later streaming, the idea of a record got disrupted, it got done away with. So music was no longer something that you owned and bought and put in your living room. It is something that is available everywhere and anywhere. And so the record basically disappeared. But for companies who were in the record business, whose identity was bundled up with this the truth in the industry was there was all about the record. You do away with this and the disruption is quite profound. Today we look back and we think it's quite inevitable that we would have to change because you know who wants to own CDs. It seems quaint and outdated.
Sandra: Obvious in hindsight.
Kai: Not so obvious when it happens.
Sandra: But implicit in that is the idea that challenging what was taken for granted was not enough. You also had to replace this to articulate a new normal that people could identify with and people could congregate around and take part in so that a new normal would emerge. Quite often we see companies or organisations try to disrupt challenging the status quo challenging the obvious but not giving a solution not articulating that new normal.
Kai: And I think that is one of the biggest points that is always missed in the innovation story that it is not enough to challenge the status quo, to disrupt and offer an alternative. You have to have a way to make this disruption normal to make it obvious right. This is not for one company alone to do. But it helps to think about what would the world be like in which my product has become the obvious new normal. Unquestionably taken for granted by everyone.
Sandra: And I think that's where the key difference lies indeed because it is not about the new technology and quite often disruptors and innovators. Consider that the obvious thing or the obvious newness is the technology rather than how the world is organised around that technology. And we've discussed this on the podcast previously the Tesla batteries are successful not only because of the battery technology, but because a new normal is invented in how energy is produced, how energy is distributed, how it is stored and where it comes from.
Kai: How it is understood most importantly. What is taken to be energy or energy production and thus the ground on which we actually understand the industry is being changed.
Sandra: But the grounds on which an industry is changing or not changing is only obvious in hindsight. It's so obvious that it's not obvious.
Kai: Yeah, and because it's the ground on which we understand the industry for example, or any part of society, it's not fully available for scrutiny because it's so self-evident that it is almost invisible.
Sandra: And for listeners, the image that goes with this article in The New York Times is actually of a yellow Caution Wet Floor sign on the water clearly, it's wet on the water. Which reminds me of the famous commencement speech that David Foster Wallace gave back in 2005 and he tells this anecdote of two young fish swimming along and they happened to meet this older fish swimming the other way who nods to them and goes:
Kai: "Good morning boys, how’s the water?"
Sandra: And the two young fish swim on for a bit and then eventually one of them looks over to the other one and goes "What the hell is water?".
Kai: And that sums it up. So, the question the title of the article 'How do you explain the obvious?'. The answer to that is strictly speaking, you can't because it is what explains everything else. And that makes innovation and disruption a challenging business because it's the innovator's job to not only understand and challenge what is obvious but to bring about and to articulate a way to actually change that and make something else obvious. And that also distinguishes the disruptor from the innovator because the disruptor, while having a plan to disrupt the normal, the innovator or entrepreneur also has a vision for how to achieve a new normal. And by the way the demagogue - and we're thinking off Trump here - they just ignore what is obvious and claim otherwise and talk into being an alternative reality.
Sandra: Obviously we're doing it to say that for any society or any social system to function well we do need to have some shared understanding, some shared agreement about what is obvious and what values our common sense and we accept them.
Kai: And such an understanding is often not articulated. It's like the water for the fish. It's just what's there on the basis of which everything else is understood. Such as in our economic system that growth is good. Growth is at the heart of the economic system as we know it.
Sandra: Exponential growth is better. It's also something that is taken for granted.
Kai: At least in the Silicon Valley narrative. So this is what we should be striving for.
Sandra: But maybe this is useful just like the fish to sometimes ask "How's the water?".
Kai: But that's the point because challenging the nature of growth or whether growth should actually underpin the economic system is near to impossible. Just having the conversation is impossible because it is very hard to imagine what it would be like otherwise. And it's also very hard to make the argument when it is so taken for granted that it underpins our understanding of prosperity, wealth, wealth distribution.
Sandra: Saving for our retirement, planning our education system, planning our trade networks, everything that makes the systems that we surround ourselves with function. But questioning the obvious is actually fundamental work that we need to engage with. And we did challenge the assumption on growth on one of our previous podcasts, and we said, Well let's think about what exponential growth actually implies. Let's think of what the world would look like where 'growth is good' is not a taken for granted assumption. And this is incidentally a lot of the work that makes for good research.
Kai: Or interesting research. Now most research is of what we call the gaps spotting kind. On the curve and taken for granted understanding of research field, we look for things that haven't been solved yet that haven't been done yet, where there's a gap in the literature. But the most interesting research you could argue is when we actually challenged the assumption that defines those gaps and that defines what is happening. And challenging those assumptions incidentally, often happens when we make observations out in the field that are somewhat surprising. And rather than trying to explain away what is surprising or fitting it under the categories and the understanding that we have, holding on to these surprises and then to say why is it that this observation is surprising. What in the assumptions in the field makes this observation surprising. So treating those surprises as occasions for questioning the assumptions. And Mats Alvesson and colleagues - and you have interviewed Mats on the podcast previously - they call this way of doing research problematization. The idea that interesting research is often of the kind that brings about a new understanding in the assumptions of a field, which then allows asking new questions. Rather than more mechanically identifying gaps that need to be filled, which always happens on the basis of what is already self-evident and obvious.
Sandra: And incidentally Mats talks about challenging obviousness in organisations as well. Some of his later work on stupidity actually talked about how do we observe these, and how do we problematise things in organisations.
Kai: Yes and so the way in which organisations often come to embody these taken for granted ways of doing things, that over time might become outdated and right stupid yet they are so self-evident because it's what we do day-in, day-out also embodies the same phenomenon. So obviousness, common sense, the way in which the word makes sense in a certain way is hard work in all of these phenomena. The clash and polarisation of the political system. Innovation and disruption over time the way in which we do interesting research and also the functional stupidity and organisations that holds back change for good when in fact it is much easier day in day out to just enact the process that everyone already understands.
Sandra: So it seems some obvious things are not that obvious after all. Which brings me to our second story from The Guardian this time around. Skim reading is the new normal and the fact that it has on society is profound. But skim reading is one of those things that we take for granted, it's obvious that there is not enough time to read everything that comes at us every day whether it's in the newspapers, on social media, through our work, through reports, research, memos, skim reading must be a good thing.
Kai: It seems obvious that the more information we have at our disposal from various different media, comes in via email, social media, the news, the television, different channels to stay on top of all of this barrage of information requires us to be selective, to skim, to be nimble, to be fast and efficient at how we take in information.
Sandra: That seems like a good idea, and indeed we teach that. We teach that to managers, to consultants. We teach that in the university system.
Kai: And if we look at the advice that universities give to their students, we basically find skimming front and center.
Sandra: So randomly, let's pick the University of New South Wales, a reputable university. Giving advice for instance to students on reading strategies to save time. Where active readers use these reading strategies to help save time and cover a lot of ground. And most of the strategies have to do with previewing, skimming, scanning the text. Identifying the important sections or identifying the least you could read to actually make sense of the text and be able to move on quite quickly. And intensive reading is only advised for those important parts, important pages or important chapters that you need to focus on or as Swarthmore College puts it - and this is probably my favorite quote on skimming - "The first rule, in some ways the only rule, is skim, skim, skim".
Kai: And while skimming is certainly a vital skill for selecting what to read and for staying on top of information the article makes the point that when we predominantly skim, and when skimming is the only way in which we come to read, it comes at a price. It comes at a price of a deeper engagement with text. That comes at the expense of internalising knowledge, perspective taking, getting into someone else's words. Empathy. The ability to actually deeply question what is in text and the way in which it affects our own thinking and therefore the way in which we are able to change the way we think. Which directly harks back to our story about obviousness. Now the article links this to the proliferation of digital devices, but the argument is a little more complex than just vilifying digital technology or gadgets as such because skimming is something that can happen in any medium. And of course, it is being propagated by the way in which digital devices oft interrupt what we do and so we jump back and forth easily between different tasks lends itself to skimming. The article is not predominantly trying to argue against digital devices it is trying to sharpen our view for what happens when skimming is all there is.
Sandra: Just reflecting on what I do. Skimming is a large part of what I engage in simply because of the volume of information that is coming at me. It's not necessarily that I am now reading more in digital form than in paper form. I still absolutely love books, and there is definitely a different dimension to reading something that has a beginning, and an end, and a back and a forward.
Kai: And a physical appearance, and the ability to actually engage with the text in an embodied way. Which is what the article also alludes to. You know those of us who have learned for school or university using paper as a medium, I've always knew where on the page something would be and use this to orient my thoughts. But that's not the main point here.
Sandra: No, the main point is that the sheer volume of information has led to us evolving this as a skill to basically deal with what's coming at us. But the battle we got at reading faster and making more sense of the volume of information, the less cognitive real estate we devote deeper reading processes. And that article makes the case that those kinds of processes allow us to understand feelings that might be embedded in their work to perceive beauty, to grasp complexity, really complex arguments. We are looking for short versions of the arguments which do not allow for nuance.
Kai: That's the main point for me in this story is the irony that's in a world that is more and more complex, that has more and more variety in the information that streams at us, this leads us to actually lose the one skill that is required to deal with this. The deep reading, the reflection, the taking a time out to actual engaged with one text in a deep way, to unpack it and engage with the complexity of the ideas rather than just the complexity in the nature of information that streams at us.
Sandra: Which puts us in an interesting bind, because on the one hand this is an absolutely critical skill to functioning in this world. On the other hand, it makes it extremely difficult to develop the normal or the obvious around some of the new emerging complex phenomena that we're seeing. So, you and I get asked quite often questions about how many jobs will disappear are due to automation or AI. And people expect a number - 40 percent, 60 percent, a lot, not so much. Worry about it. Don't worry about it. Whereas we have the tendency to say actually it's a really complex answer.
Kai: Yeah, and usually what we say is, let's think about this and we don't mean this as a throwaway line because what has to happen is an engagement with - what are the assumptions? Where are we coming from? What technologies are we talking about? What is work? What does a job look like? So to unpack all of this, and what it means and people's lives and then to think forward and imagine what a world would be like in which new technology has become normal and you know obvious. All of this is needed to make sense of this question giving a number might be convenient but it's also meaningless.
Sandra: And we've seen the same sort of conundrum arise in conversation for instance around the ethics of AI. Extremely complicated to even ask the question, then people do not have the patience or the time really to engage with the substantive issues around what would it take to build unbiased algorithms. Can we even do that? What does that mean? What does it mean to test an autonomous vehicle? Can we actually do that? So we're finding it increasingly difficult as a society to have these conversations. The role of Facebook. How do we think about privacy? Is it an individual concept or a collective concept? They become increasingly difficult questions when we can't engage with the complex underlying nature of the debate. Which also brings us to the nature of our podcast. We've often been asked to explain artificial intelligence in the minute or less. Have a podcast about the most important issues in business in 15 minutes or less.
Kai: Well that has taken us about 100 episodes to unpack this topic, but you know.
Sandra: We're working on it. We're working on it. So, this becomes a matter of actually being a bit more conscious about when we choose to engage with certain topics in that. But also seeing this as a muscle that you need to exercise, picking something and trying to stay with it. And I myself actually found this quite difficult. I was reading this article about skimming and actually skipping back and forth to other things that it reminded me of, to other research, to the other university papers that I wanted to bring in and realised well I haven't actually managed to stay with a page and a half.
Kai: That's ironic isn't it?
Kai: What I want to say is that skim reading, the quick scanning of stuff, and the lack of time to actually reflect on what's going on is the breeding ground on which the bullshit reporting, the bullshit narratives the hype around AI can actually flourish. So you know, the bullshit story and the skim reading, the two basically go together. And I think if we want less of one we need to also have less of the other.
Sandra: So the article finishes on the old adage of use it or lose it. I think this is the point where we say the same of your bullshit attack. Use it or lose it.
Kai: Speaking of use it or lose it. Our next topic is from the Atlantic and it's got to do with shopping. Shopping a lot. We are all accumulating mountains of things. Its titled and it's about Americans buying a lot through one click shopping at Amazon and basically hoarding things that we don't need.
Sandra: And this is not just Amazon, right. It's every single type of online shopping. It's the rise of the fast fashion industry which we've spoken about on the podcast before. It's the increasingly rapid cycles of technology. There is a new iPhone coming out every year. New devices, new gadgets, get replaced a lot faster than we actually need them because we are now coming to expect something new, some additional features, new design every few months. And the article has quite a few statistics around this. Talks about Americans on average buying sixty-six garments a year, and spending about twenty percent more than they used to. Average American buying more than seven pairs of shoes a year. Again, a number that's up to previous years. There is even more number on their gadgets and accessories that people carry with them on the day to day basis. And this is a study at Columbia University's Graduate School of Business that asks students how many things how many accessories, how many gadgets do they have with them at any one time. And this is counting cables and chargers and everything that you carry around. And this number happened to be 50. That's a lot of stuff to carry around. This interestingly has a flow on effect right, as we demand cheaper clothes and more electronics on a fast basis. Manufacturers are increasingly spending less time and less care and less attention on making them. Making them also quite a bit cheaper, which means that we can afford more of them, but we also replace them more often because they fall apart.
Kai: And despite the fact that we have the right to return things with many online shopping platforms people rarely ever do. Because while it is very convenient to buy things sometimes with one click, it takes considerably more effort to return things and so people just hoard things or they donate things or they just leave things behind. So another set of numbers comes from US universities and colleges where students, when they move out of their dorm homes, leave behind a staggering amount of stuff. So, Michigan State University reports that the 16000 students who live in the dorms leave behind almost 150 thousand pounds of goods like clothing, towels, appliances and also perfectly good non-perishable food. And so while the universities have taken on-selling used stuff to incoming students in their op shops they are also donating things and making it easier for people to actually recycle stuff. Which the article says makes it even more appealing to buy more things if you can get rid of them easily and with a good conscience.
Sandra: And yet interestingly if you think of this on a societal level, our ability to produce and buy more and more things and to accumulate things is a fundamental tenet of growth. It's a fundamental way we grow our economy in which companies expand. Even though it comes at a huge cost to the environment. We've spoken before on the podcast about our inability to keep up with recycling the clothes that come out of fast fashion. Few weeks ago, we gave an update about the billions of clothes that companies like Zara and H&M have unsold, and they don't actually know what to do with them. Even high-end companies like Burberry have started to actually burn their overstock because they do not want to diminish the exclusiveness of the brand. At the same time even they are producing more than we can consume.
Kai: We've also seen counter examples like the garment company Patagonia, who famously advertised with you know don't buy this jacket, keep your jacket. Wear your garments longer. Don't throw them away. Be more sustainable and hang on to your things.
Sandra: They even offer to mend the Patagonia clothes in their shop so if you have a tear in it, there's no reason to throw it out. Bring it then we'll fix it for you.
Kai: And while all of these numbers are quite staggering at an aggregate level, the article also makes an interesting point about what it does to the individuals who engage in what can be described as habitual or in some instances compulsive shopping behaviour. Because it's easy it's not expensive and it's just there and available day and night. In the article quotes author Ann Patchett who wrote in an op ed in The New York Times about an experiment she did where she set out not to buy anything for a year and she figured out that you know she had so much stuff in her apartment that it was actually able to do this and it felt good and she said the things we buy and buy and buy are like a thick coat of Vaseline smeared on glass. We can see some shapes out there light and dark but in our constant craving for what we may still want we miss life's details. And so that alludes to an existential aspect and I want to highlight the fact that as a species we have things in our life. We build tools. We have always had things. But those things usually mean something to us. A craftsman has tools. We have certain equipment in our lives that define who we, are engaging in a profession we buy certain things that become expressions of ourselves. And that comes under threat as we buy more and more things, cheaper and cheaper things, that each by themselves have less and less value and meaning for us that are also easy to come by. So we enjoy things more when they are hard to obtain that might mean that they're expensive and we have to save for them, or we have to actually work hard to obtain them. And then they take on a certain meaning for us. That we have a sense of achievement. But if everything is there abundant and convenient to obtain, the individual things become meaningless and what the article alludes to is that when we do this we also kind of lose ourselves in the things that we amass around us. The clutter that we produce, each individual thing representing less and less who we are as people.
Sandra: And I think we're actually as a society, we're trying to grapple with the essence of this question. We've seen the rise of minimalism over the last few years with a lot of books coming out. Things like Marie Kondo out of Japan and quite a few other influential people who are telling us to get rid of stuff. They're not quite telling us not to buy things, but to get rid of stuff that is not making us happy in our lives or not bringing us joy. We've seen shows like the War on Waste on ABC which are doing a tremendous job towards trying to gather us to be less wasteful, to recycle more, to try to think about packaging, about the types of water that we drink and so on. All of these things which are actually dealing with the facts or the consequences of the types of shopping behaviours that we engage in in the first place.
Kai: Or indeed the Tiny House movement. The idea that we have less space to accumulate less. That we reduce our footprint, not just because real estate is expensive but also because less things in our lives means individual things matter more. But we also concentrate more on living our lives rather than accumulating more stuff. And so, what we're seeing here is not an engagement with the fundamental assumptions of growth or consumerism but dealing with the consequences of what happens when we do this at scale collectively.
Sandra: And indeed, this might be actually a moment where we start questioning some of the assumptions of obviously we should get the new iPhone, or obviously we should have more if things or newer things. So this might be one of those moments where we question some of the fundamental assumptions that we hold about the role of stuff in our lives.
And that's close to all we have time for today. But you might have noticed that this was a bit of a different episode with quite a few existential questions on different type of articles this week. And there is actually a good and at the same time very sad reason for doing this.
Kai: This has indeed been a sad and a difficult week and we've recorded this podcast partly to honour the untimely departure of Natalie Hardwicke. Who used to be my Ph.D. student. She was a colleague here at the school. A teacher and educator, and an all-round fascinating and kind person. She also had a knack for deep thinking, reading, for asking difficult existential questions, and for challenging the taken for granted assumptions of the fields of information systems. In her case how companies deal with the rollout of new technology to workplaces. Not in a top-down way, but in a much more humanistic way that foregrounds people and their situation rather than the narrow view of what the organisation needs top-down. With a view to not just create a better technology experience but also to increase the success of adoption of technologies when we put people first. Natalie died suddenly last Friday in her sleep for no apparent reason. Her departure is random. It is difficult for everyone to grasp. We have recorded this podcast to honor her because we believe that Natalie would have enjoyed today's stories. They would have made her think. They would have made her laugh and they also reflect the kind of topics that she was interested in.
Sandra: So here's to Natalie, who thought it was important to challenge assumptions, even though nobody likes their assumptions challenged. She tweeted recently that nobody likes a reverse centaur. So just think if it had the head of the horse and…
Kai: The body of the person. Natalie's Twitter stream is just amazing. So much good insight. I just want to read out two of her recent tweets. One directly related to what we discussed on the podcast. "We change the technological scenery but seldom the existential situation." And also my personal favorite, and I want to end with this piece of wisdom for everyone out there. "Instant coffee is well-deserved punishment for people in a hurry to reach the future." And that is all we have time for today.
Sandra: Thanks for listening.
Kai: Thanks for listening.
Outro: This was The Future, This Week made possible by the Sydney Business Insights Team and members of the Digital Disruption Research Group. And every week right here with us our sound editor Megan Wedge, who makes us sound good and keeps us honest. Our theme music is composed and played live from a set of garden hoses by Linsey Pollak. You can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, YouTube, SoundCloud or wherever you get your podcasts. You can follow us online on Flipboard, Twitter or sbi.sydney.edu.au. If you have any news that you want us to discuss, please send them to email@example.com.