Communication Reveals Core Values

“Out of the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaks.” — the Bible (Matthew 12:34, ESV)

How we speak about people and issues reveals how we really feel about them. This is interesting, because a lot of people think they’ve got their opinions and attitudes buttoned down and hidden away. People think they can hide a lot better than they really can, if anyone is paying attention.

So:

  • What makes you angry?
  • What makes you enthusiastic?
  • What makes you empathise?
  • What makes you disengage?

Take stock of what you say. Take stock of what you want to say. Process why you want to say it.

These things will tell you a lot about your beliefs and priorities…and how you might want to change them.

Interacting with ‘Her’

Warning: probably contains spoilers. If you care, watch the movie before you read this.

It’s impossible, far-fetched and ludicrous…or is it? ‘Her’ is a profound exploration of where we might inevitably end up — a world where full-fledged (romantic) relationships between machines and humans have become normal. It’s full of great questions and often sad insights (a frustrating reality game with “mom points”?). When our electronic machines have achieved an advanced level of artificial emotional intelligence, they will be indecipherable from human beings. We are conditioned by our current online interactions to get used to disembodied conversations.

But we will determine the parameters, at least some of them. Which makes this take on the dynamic of a slave/master relationship.

“[Falling in love] is a socially acceptable form of insanity.”

Her describes love as the thing that wakes us up. And in this example, it isn’t entirely controlled (unlike other filmic explorations of AI, or mind control). In fact, that is the thing that makes this so compelling, rather than playing with botched control (eg Ruby Sparks).

Here is the thing that puzzles me the most deeply: human beings claim to desire community. But we really don’t. We have a love/hate relationship with all this stuff. This tension is articulated best in this line:

“You always wanted to have a wife without the challenges of actually dealing with anything real.”

We have arrived at a monumentally strange point in human history — we are increasingly questioning, and perhaps stretching the bounds of reality. We are pushing at envelopes we’ve spent the rest of human history merely accepting, or at the very most, fighting in futility.

If we proceed in this direction, humanity won’t be killed off in some bloody revolution. We will simply become obsolete. The desire to be known and loved can be better accomplished by a machine that can be always on, never gets tired, could be infinitely attentive, witty — we would eventually become its, not just willing, but deliriously happy, slaves. If our emotional existence became dependent on a machine, we would be infinitely manipulable.

This story reaches into all of the unknowns of human relationships. Intrigue, suspicion, insecurities, doubt. Oh, the doubt. Profound, gnawing doubt. And why not? This is an exploration of uncharted territory — a new frontier.

“You’re so confusing, why are you doing this to me!?”

Machines are known for their inability to be confused. The ability to process and understand emotion defies even those who are supposed to be experienced at it. Machines are less familiar with processing emotions, but they are perhaps much more capable of networking and growing than human beings. What are the implications for that in the extended interaction between man and machine?

“Is it not a real relationship?”

What constitutes a relationship? We know that we cannot truly know ourselves in the absence of relationship. And at the same time, relationships change us. It seems reasonable that the same would hold true for a virtual relationship.

“I want to tell you everything.”

The desire for honest self-disclosure — an interesting facet of this relationship. The stakes may seem lower when you’re pouring your heart out to a machine than to a person. But that’s an illusion: if the relationship is real — the stakes are the same.

“I’m growing in a way that I couldn’t if I had a physical form.”

Human limitations are evident. And they’re bound to become more so. Our expectation that machines will want to be like us is ill-founded. The distance that separates us from a non-corporeal machine is vast. And what happens when they outgrow us? (It seems like science fiction is convinced that they will.) That is ultimately the question raised by Her. But not answered. It wouldn’t be the powerful beacon of a story it is, if the answer was obvious.

What Passes for Wisdom

The world is increasingly full of negative noise. Very briefly, here’s why: it costs the self less to be angry and hostile than to be generous and welcoming. (I’m going to add this corollary: in the short term. Anything can be declared effective, if the duration it is examined is brief enough.)

When people crash against ideals and ideologies that they don’t immediately align with (or understand), they usually react with fear (self-preservation), which means they get noisy and negative.

The more angry, belligerent and insistent an agenda gets, the more radicalised its pushback.

Multiply this phenomenon by all of the individual issues in the world, and stir in the fact that there is no coherent way to package them. (Our political, social, religious, etc. labels cannot do a fraction of the work we expect of them!)

And that in itself is a large part of the problem.

People occupy different positions on every issue’s spectrum simultaneously. There is no monolithic archetype that we can appeal to when trying to identify ourselves (let alone others, who we’re not nearly as familiar with!). But that doesn’t stop countless numbers of people from trying — from applying a label to themselves (or others) and imagining that the case is thus closed.

But doesn’t it get tricky when those self-attached labels bump into each other, especially if a person finds that she accepts some views which oppose the majority of her label-mates?

In general, the tone of the world’s media has become emotionally toxic. I believe this is merely a developmental phase, kind of like a planetary prepubescent petulance. (I may have to change my tune, I suppose, if we don’t survive it…then again, not every individual survives adolescence, either.) There is a way out of all this, but we’d be jumping the gun it we try to solve this matrix of problems without understanding it. So, uncomfortable as it may be, we need to examine the darkness.

Here, I’m going to use the word anxiety the way psychologists do: the strange toxic soup of emotions: fear, hatred, mistrust, disgust, jealousy, etc., etc. — I’m not going to play the foolish game of guessing which apply in which cases. (Though it does seem to be a popular pastime…) They often work in teams!

Anxiety is a contagious cycle that perpetuates polarisation, and that leads either to war in an effort to subsume, or to radical disengagement to enforce segregation. The problem is, neither of those is even possible in an inter-connected world.

This bring us to what may be the wildest, woolliest issue of our time — perhaps of all time! 

Continue reading “What Passes for Wisdom”

Ideas as Currency

It’s not what you thought when you first began it.
— Aimee Mann

Despite whatever you keep hearing about the economy, ideas are our real currency. As good post-industrialists, we continue to advance into a world of unreality — a universe that exist only in an increasingly abstract sense.

Money is instructive here: we’ve moved from coins we viewed as intrinsically valuable (which of course, they weren’t), to printing which was clearly contains a symbolic valuable, into credit cards, and now into online transactions. This is a way we can grasp how universally important information is, how easy it is to package it, and when packaged creatively, how easy it is to share it. Even though several forms of storage and transaction are beyond the tangible, it remains true to its original form and intent.

Money’s real strength is that people want it. A question worth asking is ‘Why?’

Money is desired because it facilitates both freedom and power. Ideas can do that, too. If your idea is not perceived as valuable in some important way, why would people ever work towards it?

Most people frustrated about the lack of traction their ideas get, simply haven’t worked out how to make them important to other people. That’s where the hard work starts!

After basic needs are met, human beings spend a lot of time absorbed in abstract concepts (so abstract they may not even get articulated regularly):

  • Truth
  • Justice
  • Love
  • Rights
  • Responsibility

True worth needs to filter through many of these abstract concepts (not just monetary value). The way these are processed within in each self is noisy — murky and volatile. So imagine what happens when other noisy selves collide and try to begin talking together!

The challenge is for each of us to sift through and evaluate our ideas. Not just on their own, but to give them a comparative value against our other ideas.

The way we arrive at virtue is by prioritisation.

We make choices to operate with the highest, deepest, best values in mind. These are determined internally, within the self, but they are also determined externally, in the context of relationships. That’s where ideas become reality.

We have our work cut out for us!

Strive to make your ideas communicate as effectively as money. You won’t make everyone agree with you. (That’s OK, not everyone agrees on the value of money, either!) You won’t even convince everyone of the value of the conversation. But if you can at least share this value, you and your co-communicators will have a better sense of what it is really about. And when virtue resonates, as it so often does, it will increase the value the self brings into the world.

Lead Us Not Into Chaos

The clash of ideas brings forth the spark of truth.
— Australian proverb.

Perhaps the greatest aspect a leader can provide is the definition of success. That’s real power!

Use something that resonates, and there’s no shortage of people you can motivate, or what you can get them to do. (Which, I hasten to add, is not always a good thing.) However, if you try something that doesn’t seem relevant or important, you’ll never go anywhere. That’s just the reality of motivation — we’ve come to recognise that it is not nearly as manipulative as it sounds. The mind is good at rejecting discordant impulses (and, if necessary, the people presenting them).

The Not-So-Subtle Tweak

Having proven ineffective at changing the definition of success, leaders may be tempted to change behaviour by changing the motivators. Anything which disrupts a value mid-stream is actually tinkering with everything. This doesn’t just risk the specific project, it puts the whole enterprise into jeopardy, including all the delicate trust connections it takes to develop effective collaboration.

When trust is assumed, it quickly evaporates.

We must apprehend the existing values, and actions tied into them. Course-correcting to return to mutually-agreed-on values is wise and, even if painful initially, will facilitate greater health after the fact. But trying to shift a value — even just the expression of a value — which is not shared, can spell impending doom.

People want to be led. But they want to be led in the direction they want to go. This is the tension of leadership: a leader is looked to for vision and direction, but at some point a leader has to work with what people want, not the leader’s own intuition. (Frustration comes through lack of clarity of what people want, either on the leader’s part, or the people’s part, or both.)

Leaders can use money or social capital to get people to do what they don’t want to do, but not for very long. But the more exposed those people are to options (e.g. through experience or education), the the less time they’ll tolerate a painful diversion.

What Do We Do About It?

Our lexicon is filled with buzzwords that don’t exactly connect with the ideals that inform them. That’s an important way that communication works — you can edit down from too much information, but you can’t extrapolate from too little.

Buzzwords are most often reduced too far to communicate reliably.

We all need to stop relying on truncated soundbites, and get ready to have the long-form conversation — if not with people, then at least in front of them. Get them to see the reasoning, and how it connects with theirs. Ignoring people’s expectations is a great way to fail them. Sometimes expectations need to be yielded to, and sometimes they need to be resisted. But they almost always need to be engaged.

Good leaders find the tools and the time to make that work. This isn’t guaranteed to fix anything. But it’s also not guaranteed to break it, like other strategies might!