The creative case for work-life balance

A while back I read an interesting NYT piece on how entrepreneurs often exhibit manic tendencies.  Most extreme was Scvngr CEO Seth Priebatsch:

To keep the pace of his thoughts and conversation at manageable levels, he runs on a track every morning until he literally collapses. He can work 96 hours in a row. He plans to live in his office, crashing in a sleeping bag. He describes anything that distracts him and his future colleagues, even for minutes, as “evil.”

Intense.  After reading this, I began to wonder about how crucial this sort of intensity and stamina is to success.  Is it possible to compete with this personality type while getting 8 hours of sleep every night?  While having a life?

I was reminded of this by a post by Matt Douglas, himself a startup CEO.  Douglas zeroes in on a number of Priebatsch quotes from various sources and argues the merits of work-life balance.  It’s well worth a read.

As I reconsidered Priebatsch’s case, I recalled a line from Steven Johnson’s latest book: Where Good Ideas Come From.

I’ll be posting more about the book – and on topics more relevant to this blog’s core focus – but I wanted to share a bit that I count as an argument against the Priebatsch model.

Writing about the importance of “exapting” ideas from one field to another, Johnson relates the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA, including this bit:

It is a fitting footnote to the story that Watson and Crick were notorious for taking long, rambling coffee breaks, where they tossed around ideas in a more playful setting outside the lab –a practice that was generally scorned by their more fastidious colleagues.  With their weak-tie connections to disparate fields, and their exaptative intelligence, Watson and Crick worked their way to a Nobel Prize in their own private coffeehouse.

An anecdote like that is hardly compelling evidence on its own, but the lesson here is consistent with the book’s larger thesis.

On the one hand, work-life balance recommends itself and doesn’t need to lean on arguments about fostering innovation.  On the other, I’d sure love to be able to work effectively on 3 or 4 hours of sleep every night.

But just in case other mere mortals are discouraged by stories of the Priebatsch’s of the world, they ought to take heart: a coffee break, a bit of pleasure reading, perhaps even a bit of day-dreaming can foster creativity. It seems at least possible that the very same focus that is helping Priebatsch succeed could also be holding him back.

Imagine a smart chair

Hearing others’ visions for the future of the Net can be inspiring.  But a lot of the time it’s not.  One thing I’m struck by with the explosion of social media, in particular, is the shallow nature of the industry’s ambition.  For every person writing about how Twitter can enable political change, five others are preparing slidedecks on how social media can offset your firm’s direct mail budget.  There’s a place for that, of course.  But one of the great things about the internet is that it invites us to consider more radical possibilities for change.

The Success of Open Source

As I was thinking about this I was reminded of a quote from the end of Steven Weber’s 2004 book The Success of Open Source, and I decided it was worth sharing.

(He’s just finished describing Wired editor Kevin Kelly’s vision of smart objects, priced in real-time.)  Weber:

Imagine a smart chair, connected to a lot of other smart things, with huge bandwidth between them, bringing transaction costs effectively to zero.  Now ask yourself, With all that processing power and all that connectivity, why would a smart chair (or a smart car or a smart person) choose to exchange information with other smart things through the incredibly small aperture of a “price”? A price is a single, mono-layered piece of data that carries extraordinarily little information in and of itself.  (Of course it is a compressed form of lots of other information, but an awful lot is lost in the process of compression.)  The question for the perfect market that I’ve envisioned above is, Why compress?  My point is that even a perfect market exchange is an incredibly thin kind of interaction, whether it happens between chairs or between people, whether it is an exchange of goods, ideas, or political bargains.  I want to emphasize that communities, regimes, and other public spheres can come in many different shapes and forms.  The “marketized” version is only one, and it is in many ways an extraordinarily narrow one that barely makes use of the technology at hand.

So there you are.  The point of this blog, really, is to take the internet up on its invitation, and to think more creatively about society and its future.

Who are you calling reduced?

Zadie Smith has a… I’ll say frustrating… essay in The New York Review of Books about Facebook, The Social Network and Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget.  While she raises some interesting questions, and while I look forward to reading Lanier’s book, there’s a lot I don’t accept.  Over at The Atlantic Alexis Madrigal has a smart and tempered response taking on, among other things, the charge that Facebook promotes homogenization.

Smith’s central point, as I read her, is this:

When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears.

Who among us has lost our messy feelings, our desires and our fears?  Anyone? Bueller?  I thought not.  As I keep pointing out, we use online tools to supplement our offline lives rather than to replace them.

That doesn’t mean that there’s no reason for concern.  Smith quotes Lanier:

Different media designs stimulate different potentials in human nature.

So what potentials are we stimulating with today’s web tools?  Smith seems to think we’re not stimulating much worthwhile. Ezra Klein has a different take:

…if you’re someone who likes to spend Saturday in a quiet room with a good book and a long time to think about it, you might find Facebook unnerving. And Zadie Smith and Ross Douthat do. Sometimes, I’d guess, we all do. Conversely, if you’re someone who likes people but has trouble meeting them, or gets shy in unfamiliar social settings, you probably don’t think the Internet has made you less human.

It’s worth reading Ezra’s whole post.  He references “Alter Ego”,  a book matching photos of online gamers with their avatars.  Ezra’s post highlights a particularly compelling example of “becoming human” online, so please give it a read.

For a more philosophical examination of how the web is contributing to human self-actualization, I recommend Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks.

Benkler argues persuasively that the ‘net is enhancing our autonomy and enabling our individuality.  This is not guaranteed by the technology.  And so many of Smith’s concerns end up being important to guaranteeing that the net continues to improve human welfare.  Yet, we have not been reduced and little has been lost.  Rather, much has already been gained.

Code is law, and also romance

Alexis Madrigal has an interesting column in this month’s Atlantic on the use of algorithms in online dating.  If data mining and algorithms can help people more efficiently find matches, what could be wrong with that?  Plenty, says Madrigal:

The company can quantify things you could guess but might rather not prove. For instance, all races of women respond better to white men than they should based on the men’s looks. Black women, as a group, are the least likely to have their missives returned, but they are the most likely to respond to messages.

I asked Yagan whether OkCupid might try tailoring its algorithm to surface more statistically successful racial combinations. Such a measure wasn’t out of the question, he said. “Imagine we did a lot of research, and we found that there were certain demographic or psychographic attributes that were predictors of three-ways. Hispanic men and Indian women, say,” Yagan suggested. “If we thought that drove success, we could tweak it so those matches showed up more often. Not because of a social mission, but because if it’s working, there needs to be more of it.”

So perhaps it’s a bit tricker than we might think.  Moreover, it’s hard to disagree with his basic point:

Algorithms are made to restrict the amount of information the user sees—that’s their raison d’être. By drawing on data about the world we live in, they end up reinforcing whatever societal values happen to be dominant, without our even noticing. They are normativity made into code—albeit a code that we barely understand, even as it shapes our lives.

We’re not going to stop using algorithms. They’re too useful. But we need to be more aware of the algorithmic perversity that’s creeping into our lives.

Quite so.  This point is in line with Lawrence Lessig’s argument that “code is law”, and I certainly agree that we need to care, as a society, about the values underlying our code.

That said, Madrigal points out that dating algorithms are 1) not transparent and 2) can accelerate disturbing social phenomena, like racial inequity.

True enough, but is this any different from offline dating?  The social phenomena in question are presumably the result of the state of the offline world, so the issue then is primarily transparency.

Does offline dating foster transparency in a way online dating does not?  I’m not sure.  Think about the circumstances by which you might meet someone offline.  Perhaps a friend’s party.  How much information do you really have about the people you’re seeing?  You know a little, certainly.  Presumably they are all connected to the host in some way.  But beyond that, it’s not clear that you know much more than you do when you fire up OkCupid.  On what basis were they invited to the party?  Did the host consciously invite certain groups of friends and not others, based on who he or she thought would get along together?

Is it at least possible that, given the complexity of life, we are no more aware of the real-world “algorithms” that shape our lives?

None of this takes away from the salience of Madrigal’s point: we should want to know more about the algorithms that dictate our online behavior.  Not because we aren’t used to the opaque complexity of circumstance, but because we are.

(FWIW, I highly recommend OkCupid’s blog, OkTrends.  They put the scary amount of data to which they have access to consistently interesting use.)

Facebook and face-to-face

I’ve blogged about this before, but I wanted to share a great post from Ed Glaeser at NYT’s Economix on how social networking – in this case Facebook – supplements in-person interaction, rather than replacing it:Facebook-icon

it isn’t clear if Facebook will increase or decrease the demand for face-to-face interactions.When theory is ambiguous, we need to turn to the data, and it seems empirically that Facebook supports, rather than replaces, in-person meetings. For example, surveys of Facebook users have found that the use of “Facebook to meet previously unknown people remained low and stable” and that “students view the primary audience for their profile to be people with whom they share an offline connection.” In other words, Facebook seems to be typically used to connect people who have connected through some other medium, like being in the same class or meeting at a party, which seems to suggest complementarity between meeting face-to-face and connecting on Facebook.

Another paper looks at whether people who are good at face-to-face interactions made greater use of social-networking sites. The study examined a group of 13- to 14-year-olds in 1998-9 and rated their ability to connect well in person with a close friend. In 2006-8, those same people were asked about their involvement with social-networking sites.

The people who were better at interacting face-to-face in adolescence had more friends on social-networking sites as young adults. Again, electronic interactions seem to complement face-to-face connections.