Archive | February 2015

Smart Technologies…may need some EQ (emotional intelligence)

There is always tension between wanting to be apart from others, asserting our individual identity, and desiring to belong to a collective, be it an organization or a culture. And this tension is more evident and acceptable in some societies than in others. For instance, in Chinese culture, the desire to be more individualistic is certainly not encouraged and often actively suppressed, whereas in the States, coexistence of individualism and belonging seems to be ubiquitous. Perhaps it is inevitable that the need for individual expression and our collective penchant for conveniences brought about by high tech would clash from time to time. Particularly in computer software where the algorithm is all about finding and creating a platform of commonalities, how does individualism come through?

While most of us welcome the conveniences technology has afforded us, both at work and in our social world, some of us also yearn for a few truly smart technologies that would provide us with more individual design…something that’s uniquely “me.” Yet, however fast the ever-improving technologies are, or however “smart” the devices are, they still cannot satisfy some of our basic emotional needs. Sometimes, these supposedly smart things are downright annoying. Nothing new here. So now a trend is developing in “positive computing” to address individual needs. Rafael Calvo and Dorian Peters of University of Sydney propose a higher calling of technology “to support well-being, wisdom and human potential.” A few universities and Google have begun to take on the challenge.

Gourds are only useful when they are empty...unless you turn them into object d'art.

Gourds are only useful when they are empty…unless you turn them into object d’art.

“Positive computing” responds to the harassed feelings most of us seem to have acquired regarding the growing and expanding technologies. I think part of that stressful feeling comes from the constant demands from every direction with little regard to “who we are” individually. Since technologies seem to make everything happen instantaneously, we want not just something now, but something that I need or want now. In this cacophony of “I want,” “Listen to me,” “Now,” “Where is mine?” we paradoxically feel lost as individuals. It’s not blatant; it’s subtle, but the loss is palpable. I mentioned computing algorithms supporting finding and tapping into the commonalities among humanity. These may try to give us some individual control over a few areas but they require us to behave repeatedly the same, in order for the software to work.

When Facebook provided the “Year in Review” at the end of 2014, the majority of its users probably either welcomed it or shrugged it off as another marketing ploy. However, in some unfortunate and exceptional cases, souls could be crushed by this little “innocent” app. Surely it is not that unexpected for people whose year might have been marred by serious illnesses, injury, or death, to not want this particular feature. Would you like this app to hit you with the “smiling face” of someone whose life was yanked out of your existence? One web designer, Eric Meyer, lost his young daughter that year. The picture of the daughter on Mr. Meyer’s FB page under the banner, “Year in Review,” did not exactly lead to happy feelings.

Mr. Meyer penned “Inadvertent Algorithmic Cruelty” on his blog. As a web designer, he did not lambast FB’s people as others might have; he understood their business priorities. However, his own personal grief allowed him insight that obviously escaped most software designers. He offered two measures to modify the assumptions that everyone wants to share their year of pictures on FB. First, “don’t pre-fill a picture until you’re sure the user wants to see the pictures from their year.”   Second, offer people the option of not wanting the app, and honor it (and don’t pester them at interval periods). Mr. Meyer further proposes that perhaps the computer designers should use “worst case scenarios” as base instead of assuming best cases for everyone. Not knowing much about computer programming, I cannot say. However, knowing human nature and logic, I think the fundamental problem is that algorithm doesn’t give much space for individual discretion, best or worst scenarios.

lucky symbols

lucky symbols

What’s more heartening about Eric Meyer’s story is the follow-up, a somewhat unexpected turn of events. His original blog post created a firestorm for FB, especially the “Year in Review” team. It wasn’t Mr. Meyer’s intention. The FB “Year in Review” product manager personally apologized to Mr. Meyer, and in turn, Mr. Meyer was even more humble with his own apology. He did not mean to dump it on FB; the problem with algorithm is its “thoughtless” nature that defines the industry. (sidenote: Would your or my case elicit a personal apology from the product manager?) And Mr. Meyer took time and space to actually defend FB against some very nasty comments/reactions to his first post. The irony he pointed out was this: In attacking FB for being insensitive and inflicting blind imposition, many commenters “inadvertently” made assumptions about FB programmers that might or might not be true. How was this different from the algorithm’s blind assumptions?

Indeed, are we doomed to want to impose on others standards from which we ourselves want to be excluded?

The central feature of all this back and forth, between Meyer’s blog posts, his readers’ comments, FB’s responses, and our desire to have our unique features in the universe of algorithms, is Eric Meyer’s humility. In his grief and sorrow, he still found sympathy for the programmers and offered lessons for all to contemplate. I think that’s the ultimate challenge for “positive computing/technology:” How to capture that uniquely humane spirit in a world of sameness? Personally, humility and creativity rank the highest for me. What would be you yours?
Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Machiavelli & Lao Zi

I am truly behind in my reading, more than 500 years in some cases. I have heard of Machiavelli’s The Prince for years, and I have certainly used “Machiavellian” often enough to be curious about its origin. It’s only recently that I read the thin but impactful manuscript. What a read. It’s also amusing to follow up on Lao Zi’s non-intervention principles, of last week, with Machiavellian’s downright meddling principles. I contend that skillful and effective leaders and managers employ both Lao Zi’s and Machiavelli’s ideas.

Regardless of historical speculation regarding whether Machiavelli wrote The Prince as satire or as earnest advice for princes in their governing, the convergence of analysts’ opinions is that he was pragmatic. Machiavelli focused on the governing of actual kingdoms rather than imaginary or theoretical governing bodies. Lao Zi’s The Way is both philosophical and idealistic, almost poetic, and with little reference to any governing bodies.


To be “Machiavellian” is to be manipulative, calculating, and downright cold- blooded, and it isn’t just applied to politicians but to anyone who plays politics in any environment. However, there are Machiavellian principles (somewhat oxymoronic?) that hold true in today’s organizations. For instance, one of the recurring themes in The Prince is this: If a prince acquires his kingdom through easy means, such as, by inherence, quick conquer, or by appointment, he has to work much harder to earn his subjects’ support and/or loyalty. On the other hand, if a prince has won a state by arduous methods, he would have an easier time to gain his new subjects’ respect. Isn’t that true in modern organizations? Those new managers who appear on the scene having more charm (or rich relatives) than actual credentials usually have to work much harder to win the direct reports’ respect…if they care to win such respect. And the ones who reluctantly accept their promotions, probably after some persistent persuasion, generally would be on better footing for winning respect from others.

The book is unnerving because Machiavelli lays bare the side of human nature that most of us call ugly, not just concerning princes, but their minions, soldiers, townspeople, etc. Yet, the most disturbing aspect of reading the book is that it doesn’t disturb me that much. Though an optimist and idealist in general, I am also a realist who has studied human behavior and psychology. Machiavelli made a penetrating study and his sparse writing exposed our dark side quite accurately; it is that he makes this exposure without any apology that makes it unnerving.

What fascinates me is the application of some of the Machiavellian principles in modern management. The really successful managers – though not quite rendering their positions pointless (see last week’s post) – often anticipate obstructions and detect bumps ahead of others. They head off these traps for their people to ensure better and smoother operations…yes, by manipulating a few people, bypassing or maneuvering around a few rules. As a result, people reporting to these managers can do their jobs more effectively and even joyfully. The managers with humility would not expose their manipulative techniques, and as a result, on the surface, their people might not realize all the behind-the-scene work. Managers in such category are both Machiavellian and Zen (It’s Zen because they massage the work environment without seemingly doing much).


Though a fictitious figure, Dumbledore of the Harry Potter series is consummate in mixing some Machiavellian methods with Zen principles. For real figures, look at Presidents Lincoln or Roosevelt (FDR). Indeed, Dumbledore manipulates many things and many people, particularly Harry, but he does so to lead the willing ones toward their own enlightenment. Yes, Dumbledore teaches his students how to fish instead of giving them fish. In the final encounter between Potter and Dumbledore at King’s Cross, I find Dumbledore’s words particularly apt for modern management:

It is a curious thing, Harry, but perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it. Those who, like you, have leadership thrust upon them, and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well.” In another context, at an earlier and happier time in the story line, Dumbledore imparts other words of wisdom, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

It is in such spirits that I find often it’s those “reluctant” leaders who do best for all.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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