We’re All Frogs Boiling in Water

The Hidden Impact of Technology on our Everyday Lives …

There’s an old (semi true) parable about frogs boiling in water.  While not literal it’s a fun and instructive metaphor for change.

It goes like this: if you put a frog in boiling water it will sense the hot water and immediately jump out yet if you put it into cold water and very gradually turn up the temperature in the water the frog won’t notice and will stay in until it has boiled to death.

There’s some metaphorical truth to this in our everyday lives.  When we’re faced with shocking changes the societal impact becomes immediate and obvious.  An example would be an economic shocks that caused mass job loss and unemployment as happened after the dot-com crash, 9/11 and again in Sept 08. In times like these we reflect more about life in general and about the impacts technology has on our lives and on our society.

But most technology impacts us in imperceptible frog-boiling like ways.  We struggle to remember the days when we had to coordinate via calling friends from pay phones or having to have an atlas in our car in case we got lost.  Or how about traveling to a foreign country and worrying about having a big stash of American Express traveler’s checks lest we find ourselves with no access to cash or credit.

Technological change is astounding and I think none more than the impact that social networks has had on our lives.  We begin linking up with friends and colleagues, communicating through chat or video and sharing personal thoughts in a public or semi-public way that has impacted recruiting (> 30% of employers use for background checks), divorce, dating and so many other aspects of life.

And what is interesting to me is that as we post our videos on YouTube, record our lives on webcams, upload location updates on FourSquare, search for restaurants based on the wisdom of the crowd – society is slowly changing.  I tried to capture a small slice of that in this post that explains how Twitter is changing the nature of relationship building and merging online & offline experiences.  If you haven’t read it I think it’s a pretty interesting piece on change in the era of Twitter (as distinct from previous social networks).

I’m not implying good or bad – it just is.  An old colleague of mine who has long since retired used to lament the fact that his kids never read the newspaper.  I used to tell him that it was HE that wasn’t keeping up with the times.  Before he’s had a chance to rub the morning ink off of his thumbs I’ve read op-eds from the NY Times and Washington Post as well as scanned Techmeme and read a few blogs.

It’s true on the one hand the with the fragmentation of the news media increasingly people choose to get their news from the perspective they want to hear (e.g. left wing, right wing) but it’s also true that curious people in the age of Twitter get a much wider purview of news stories through shared links.  So my message to my colleague was – it’s different, not bad.  Your kids are alright.

Interestingly David Brooks (my favorite op-ed writer) wrote this must-read counter-intuitive piece on children and computers.  The summary version is that there is data asserting that there is a correlation with children with access to broadband-connected computers in the home and lower test scores in math and reading.  There is a separate study showing that disadvantaged children given access to 12 free books to take home in the summer (and nothing else including no assignment) scored significantly higher in reading than a control group given no books.

It’s clear that our attention is being dragged in a million places at once and this lack of focus has an impact.  There is an argument to be made about the need for time to read, time to reflect and time to write.  As much as I love Twitter and love (and hate) my Blackberry – I need this time for reflection to really have insights.  Writing has a way of forcing focus and reflection.

Speaking of technology change and our acceptance into our everyday lives.  I remembered having read that Brooks post more than a month ago but hadn’t saved it anywhere (so much for delicious).  But simply remembering the key theme of the article I was able to retrieve in from a well-crafted 8-word boolean search (nytimes.com david brooks kids books summer learn focus).  Amazing how we take this for granted.  First result was the right article.  Frog.  Water.

So that brings me to the inspiration for today’s post.  I saw two movies recently that I would like to recommend to you that are thought exercises.  Watched on their own they’re entertaining but they’re worth seeing with a friend and then discussing afterward.

The first is called “Catfish” and was apparently a darling at the Sundance Film Festival.  It’s worth not trying to watch the trailer or discovering too much of the plot but the version for this blog that doesn’t give away too much is this: it is a documentary film of a photographer who builds an online relationship with a remote family who becomes interested in his work.  The relationship involves a mother (guardian), a young woman in her twenties (potential love interest) and a young girl (8 years old) who is a savant-like artist.

The documentary really challenges you to think about relationships, loneliness, desperation, identity and also about lives of obligation and dealing with people whose personal circumstances require you to subjugate your own time, needs and desires.  It deals with a care giver dealing with severely retarded children and that person’s life in the age of social networks and virtual friends.  As you can see it tackles a lot.  And it’s a documentary so it’s a slice of life.

It’s both a brilliant film that is captivating as well as a wonderful thought exercise.  It hasn’t been released yet (living in LA I was able to get a screener video … sorry).  But if you’re interested in the Facebook connected world this is a must watch for you.

More troubling but equally interesting and certainly more provacative is “We Live in Public” the documentary of Josh Harris, founder of Jupiter Communications.  This film is both NSFW and not for the faint at heart.  But it is an important film nonetheless.  It profiles the life of Josh who became a multi-millionaire at a very young age by having a unique grasp of the social trends that the Internet would usher in.  Call Josh the frog in boiling water – he saw what we now see long before we knew about it.  With that vision comes a story of somebody also disturbed and troubled.

After making his riches he decided to wire up a building that would be housed by a large number of people who were to be filmed 24/7 in every part of the house (including bed, shower and even toilet … from the inside.  Yuck!).  This preceded Big Brother, Justin.TV, YouTube or social networks.  Josh had the view that we would all live in public and document our lives.  He went from that group facility to having a 24/7 public relationship with his girlfriend by wiring up his house.  He went from there to recluse.

But I won’t ruin it all for you.  If you have the stomach and want to tap into the important trends happening in our boiling water check out this film. Oh, and by the way, the film has lots of appearances by Jason Calacanis, Fred Wilson and Shawn Gold (none in any compromising situations – just as commentary on Josh).

And for my final bit of frog-slowly-boiling technology change – I watched it with my wife in bed on our iPad.  Wow. Nobody can tell me that the iPad isn’t subtly transformative.

Photo credit to Angi Nelson on Flickr.

*** end of post personal side note if you’re interested:

I first met Josh Harris in 1990.  He actually was the founding president of my fraternity at UCSD.  He flew in from New York and, as I was the president of the fraternity then, I met him up at the airport and drove around with him for the day.  He was such an odd and fascinating guy that the memory of my day always stuck with me even though I had no idea what his future held.  I never knew what happened to Josh until I saw the film recently.  The day I met him Josh had rented a convertible Mercedes, smoked a cigar incessantly and was this flashy “big city” guy.

This was strange for a 21 year old who grew up in a smallish town and had never really hung around flashy types.  He seemed so intent on showing me (and our fraternity members) how successful he had become but we were all oblivious to it all.  I remember then seeing his name in the Wall Street Journal the next year and that in itself was such a big deal (I knew a guy quoted in the Wall Street Journal! Wow!).  Anyway, funny about life that you come across characters that enter into your life for a brief moment and they go on their way without your ever really knowing what becomes of them.  This film was fascinating in its own right – but seeing Josh again was really a trip for me.

  • http://asalesguy.com Keenan

    Mark GREAT post. It reminds me of this quote I read, can't recall where. If anyone can help me attribute, I'd appreciate it.

    “As humans we overestimate the rate of change, but underestimate the impact of change”

  • http://kirstenwinkler.com KirstenWinkler

    The first thing I do in the morning is to switch on my netbook on the way to the bathroom so it's connected when I return. A couple of years ago I thought this kind of behavior would be totally antisocial and only valid for “nerds”.

    Two years ago 90% of my language teaching was “offline / in the real world” today it's maybe 5%.

    We are in a transition phase and depending on how old we are we will still keep certain kinds of behavior. I still prefer classic books when I want to read a novel but for my news I go online. I also buy a whole cooking book instead of looking up a recipe on the internet.

    There are many fields that will face a drastic change in the coming years, one of them education, of course. The newest trend here is that students are building the tools they want to use to learn with. Amazing.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I don't know who came up with that but I know the derivative was Bill Gates, “we over estimate the impact of technology in the 1 year timeframe and under estimate it in the 10 year timeframe” or something similar.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yeah, I didn't really even mention the fact that the changes we as consumers are enacting are behind the scenes changing industries. Obvious examples: music, books, newspapers, film, tv, education and financial services. Just to name a few.

  • Cynthia Brown

    I'm not sure this post would resonate for me more than it does in this very moment.

    The Brooks piece is fascinating, and I noticed he mentioned The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. The physical brain is far more “plastic” than people realize and how our minds retain information seems to be adapting to the volumes of soundbites, phone calls, e-mails, tweets, and on, and on. This definitely speaks to the example of children with books vs. children with computers – deep thinking is being impacted by technology. If anyone is interested in taking this a bit further there is an incredibly fascinating article in the New Yorker on the flexibility of the mind: http://bit.ly/sLdsW.

    Always a great read, Mark. Thank you.

  • http://www.victusspiritus.com/ Mark Essel

    Mark,
    Did you do something different with this post, the style of writing feels rhythmic and hypnotic. What an enjoyable read from beginning to end, well done.

  • http://jack.dempsey.myopenid.com/ Jack Dempsey

    If you look at the size of the paragraphs, they start slender and grow into a very consistent visual sized block, and almost wind down the same way. That combined with the absense of any lists, bold lettering, and intra-post pictures, and intentional or not, you definitely do get a very different sense of flow and style. I liked it as well–the diversity in topic and style is one of the things I enjoy most about BSotT.

  • http://www.missi.com/ Peter Beddows

    In a very good way Mark, your excellent, yet prolific, blogging is subtely contributing to our information overload by your consistent delivery of a stream of such interesting and informative blogs that we eagerly await the next post and put all on hold while we devour its contents, making “cliff” notes for future reference or saving to delicious! {grin}

    Your blogging is a great exemplar of what blogging is about and of the great value that can be derived from it when it is well done. Thank you.

  • http://twitter.com/MorningDew777 Jag

    It's all about timeframes. Does any of us imagine the change after the Bigbang or closer the Renaissance. Our lives are to short to experience changes. As we Industrial ganeration lives in 3D our kids are living in 4D.

  • David Bloom

    I am thinking about your friend lamenting the shift from newsprint to electronic media. As much as there is amazing value in this shift there is lamentable risk. My Grandfather read a handful of newspapers every evening and consumed most of the available information and opinion. All across Brooklyn others did the same forming a shared base of information. Perspective on that news may have differed but there was at least a shared experience and exposure to alternate viewpoints.

    Today we are flooded with thousands of choices for news and opinion. In the face of so much choice most of us (me included) default to familiar sources. I read the NYTimes and Huffington Post, not Fox and Rush. If you haven't done so, checkout Barry Schwartz at TED (http://bit.ly/4pl1qg) on why too much choice is no choice at all. I love that I have a million sources for information, but I think we are losing something precious in the exchange.

  • http://www.davidblerner.com davidblerner

    I thought it was feeling hot around here! Thanks pal… another great, insightful post…
    dave

  • http://twitter.com/IvanGaviria Ivan

    On the subject of children and the impact of these ever accelerating societal changes, here is another film to add to your list if you're able to get to a screening http://www.racetonowhere.com

    While not directly tied to the impact of technology and media specifically, I think the issues you describe in your post are completely entwined with the culture of super over achievement (particularly in the SF Bay Area and parts of LA and SD) that is really fucking with kids today. There are lots of people in the Silicon Valley doing interesting work on this topic Especially in the wake of the string of suicides and near suicides at the vaunted Gunn High School in Palo Alto over the last year and a half.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks, Mark. I dunno. I was typing one Sunday night when I had a bunch of time and was feeling reflecting rather than on a week night where I thought “I want to post on a given topic tomorrow” so maybe that influenced things. I wrote 3 posts that way – the third I'm publishing later today or early tomorrow.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thank you. I didn't actually even think about that but now that you mention it I went back and looked at it visually. Yes, I guess you have to commit to reading it novel style since I didn't give any lists, bolds, or other eye-helping devices. But the stories were still heart felt ;-)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Ha, thank you Peter. Well, now that Hear-a-blog does podcast version maybe you could just listen on your commute rather than contribute to the constant drain on our attention span! ;-)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I don't disagree. In fact, part of the article was talking about that exactly. David Brook's piece talks about how our distractions are leading to less cognitive development. And I agree that too much choice is a problem. But 2 things:

    1. My argument isn't that change is necessarily good – it's that change is change and we need to embrace it and figure out how to channel positives and blunt negatives. My broader theme is that change is so incremental that we often don't fully perceive it.

    2. In a Twitter world I choose whom to follow and thus I can narrow the points-of-view a bit. But the Twitter stream opens my eyes to articles I otherwise would have missed. I read a great piece this morning on the relationship between China & Iran that I otherwise would have missed.

    Thanks for commenting – I appreciate your adding this perspective.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks for the movie tip – heading over to Netflix to add to my queue. Thank you.

  • http://www.victusspiritus.com/ Mark Essel

    Your state of mind lead to a writing flow that was noticeably smoother reading, if you can bottle it, I'd like to buy some. A smoother style is something I strive for while writing, but it doesn't show up on command, so I keep practicing.

  • http://twitter.com/cindygallop1 Cindy Gallop

    Mark – great post.

    One of the most pervasive manifestations of the 'frogboiling' phenomenon, but the one very few people consider, talk about or tackle in any way, because of its nature, is the one I am trying to address with my venture http://www.makelovenotporn.com, and which I speak about here:

    http://fora.tv/2010/05/14/Cindy_Gallop_Make_Lov

    - the single biggest impact technology is having on one of the most fundamental aspects of human behavior.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I saw your Ted speech online and loved it. Well done. Love the thought-provoking nature of it.

  • EAKorman

    I think its interesting that here you rightly point out the growing body of evidence that constant multitasking drains the ability to focus and have “think time”, but that in your referenced Twitter blog you extol the virtues of Twitter by using it to organize meetings for the scant open moments in your schedule.

    Day end, new communication and media platforms have benefit/utility curves which approach diminishing returns as one heads towards overuse, and then declining returns as one hits overuse. Kind of like old media platforms for that matter…

  • Geoff Graber

    Mark, I always like your blog posts but this one stands out for me in many ways. I see you transcending technology and business and offering perspective with a much deeper context. Your blog about your partnership with your wife had a similar impact on me. In both cases I see humanity–something that is easily forgotten in the supersonic startup universe. It never should be. Here's to consciousness!

    Thanks for your awesome contribution. You are right up there with David Brooks and Frank Rich for me.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thank you, Geoff. I appreciate it. I always struggle with what readers want to hear: practical advice, industry analysis, leadership lessons, VC tips or more generalized though pieces. So I try to bounce around a little bit between them.

    I've been a bit light on the tech industry / product analysis pieces since the “App is Crap” assessment of Apple. I think it got a bit heated for me and as one who has to work in the industry I try to offer commentary without being too offensive. That said, I have some pieces on Facebook and Hulu that are brewing. They're in my brian but not yet down on paper.

    Thanks again for the kind words.

  • Chris Hudson

    Hi Mark

    Great article. I first heard the term from a book by the Scottish writer Christopher Brookmyre, called… “Boiling a Frog”.

    But the post resonated with me, as I'm still plugging away at the whole collaborative thang for with the construction and engineering sectors and to me, it seems that 'new' technology and its introduction is speeding up and the average person is struggling with it. That is, they have trouble keeping up. It never ceases to amaze me that people don't understand the basic process of the tasks they perform every day and expect technology to take care of it for them.

    To my mind, there is way too much choice for people and this is distracting. The older generation struggle to grasp this choice and the younger generation take it as normal, but lack the focus.

    My drive at the moment is trying to blend old-fashioned process with new technology.

  • http://www.stealthmode.com hardaway

    Wow Mark, this post really hits home in many ways. It is truly remarkable. I loved it. I always wanted to see We Live in Public, and now that I know it is Netflix, I will:-) And Keenan's comment is equally great. Experiences like this give me a reasons to come back to blogs instead of just RSS feeds (don't tell Winer).

  • CJ

    I don't always agree with you but you always make me think and have some fun with it. . . Would like to post this to tomorrow on The Daily Riff since it does directly link to education (doesn't everything really?). Love the metaphor and since we deal with academia all the time, it is fitting and well, haven't really heard it recently so it's fresh – – – But, actually it is your thought about writing which is key, key, key – forces one to reflect and focus. Which sports writer said writing isn't difficult . . . just sit down and open a vein?
    (it goes something like that). Thanks, Mark.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Hey Chris! Great to hear from you. Would love to trade emails on how things have changed and what things are the same. Do you have my email address? Ping me! Let's catch up.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Hey! I saw your GOAP video. It was great. I should have linked to it here – you talked about a lot of the same issues! And I wish I shared your view that technology would end wars – seems that it is more likely to be mis-used rather than used for benevolent purposes.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thank you, CJ. I don't mind people disagreeing. Most things that I post come after numerous in-person debates on topics. And through all of these verbal and then online debates I refine my points-of-view and understanding of topics.

    I always tell people that you only really learn topics when forced to write, present or teach them. You're welcome to use any of the content in the post.

  • http://twitter.com/Ovurmind Viktor Ovurmind

    We invite people into our ideology, we turn up the heat and then we wonder why the world is boiling over. Wisdom is a truly great thing but for one caveat. That we are wise. A frog falling into boiling ideology will quickly see the danger of it. If we see that the cool waters of freedom are very different to the hot waters of ideology, we can be human and not frogs.

    [v.o.M.]

  • http://notesfromtheninjabunny.tumblr.com/ Emily Merkle

    A couple things I do to manage the avalanche of information available for digestion effectively and processing it properly to put it into perspective, into the larger picture.

    1) stick to blogs for mentorship, learning, etc. I start by checking out the blogs of people I admire – then look to whose blogs they link to or mention frequently. Mark, I found you via Fred Wilson. I use Twitter to monitor industry individuals who post frequent, valuable info, then see who they are following. I glance at the trade rags occasionally but they are typically 5 steps behind. I follow the back threads of stories, companies, deals. I try to imagine how things might be executed logistically and in tandem or with synergy for a down-the-line outcome, then experiment with my theories. I conduct little social experiments in social media forums like LinkedIn or on Facebook to see how people think and react – and unfortunately, most cannot debate objectively or without taking offense or hold two opposing ideas in their skulls at the same time and consider the merits of each. That tells me which modes of discourse I should eliminate, freeing up time.

  • luvvy

    josh here. lmao. nice piece.

  • Chris Queen

    If this lack of focus and this is just frivolous frolicking as this article in essence suggests then why is the Congress and Mr. Obama trying to add a kill switch? I think the media advances have put more facts within our grasp and engaged the citizens in regard to what actually is and is not. The facts are there and it is up to the people to devide what is fact and fiction? So far I am liking the result. That there are lunatics who desire power above all things is a fact of life. I hope they burn their eyes out.