Designing for the One Percent. Thinking for the 99 Percent.

August 5, 2012

I  remember when my family moved back to America from Brazil, where we lived for a while. My teacher in the local Campinas school recommended a tutor. I was a “cabeça óssea” or stupid. No kidding. After three days in Brazil, I was unable to read or speak Portuguese. At age 11 or 12, I was a 99 percenter.

I went to special Portuguese lessons, picked up trash talk from the kids in the neighborhood, and supplemented the Estado de São Paulo schools with something called the Calvert Course. My Calvert Course “teacher” was a missionary of a fervent ilk.

As luck would have it, he stepped on a spider, became delirious, wandered into the scrub which in the 1950s surrounded Campinas, which is now a suburb of the city of São Paulo. “A selvla comeu” or something along those lines. So I missed those Calvert Course lessons. I think I missed  a couple or three “traditional” US educational hurdles. When I returned to the US, I popped into the American school without having “taken” the classes my peers enjoyed. No problem. I was plonked into what was called then the “advanced class.” Instant one percenter. Magic.

I zoomed through college and graduate school. I was dragooned by Halliburton Nuclear and three years later, I was recruited by the blue chip consulting firm of Booz, Allen & Hamilton. The “old” BAH was different from the azure-chip outfits sporting the name today. I don’t recall brushing shoulders with the “real” 99 percent, but in Brazil I was not just one of the 99 percent. I was one of the stupider 99 percenters.

I learned one thing about being stupid: A log depends on context and point of view.

What’s happening in the digital world is that the one percent are making the world which they want. The problem is that the 99 percenters don’t have a clue about that world. There are some interesting examples of what I call “one percent think.”

ITEM: “Reversing the Decline in Big Ideas” explains that the Silicon Valley “thing” has eroded innovation. Here’s the passage I noted:

But now much of the transformational potential of the “pure information technology” possibility space has been exhausted to the point of terminal differentiation…Now I look around and see lost opportunities for collaboration everywhere.

ITEM: “The Naked and the TED” is a clever and coruscating (if the New York Times writing covering automobiles can use the word obdormition although I would prefer paresthesia, I can employ a form of coruscate). The write up by a one percenter tackles baloney from two other one percenters, Parag Khanna and Ayesha Khanna. The précis for the review of the Khanna monograph “Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human Technology Civilization”, only $2.99 is, “Baloney.” One percenters criticizing one percenters is probably not going to have much of an impact on those in the 99 percent.

ITEM: “The Linguistic Interface” explains why a command line interface is not such a bad thing. After all, the article says, “We live in a Kingdom of Nouns.” Here’s the ace quote:

There does come a time when all you want to do is pick up a pencil and draw a cat. But we must remember that we aren’t using an application in which one draws cats, we’re simply acknowledging that paper is a thing we can draw on. There is still no application harness set up to isolate us from the rest of the world, and the pencil is not inextricably bound to the paper. The terminal — a record of the conversation we’ve been having with the shell — happens to be one thing to look at, but even as we scribble over the page we can still talk to the shell, and it can do things to the drawing just as it can anything else. “Now add to this all the pictures I drew of kittens. All of them.”

I can see the folks at the bar in Harrod’s Creek arguing over this insight and not the University of Kentucky football scrimmage.

What’s this have to do with search? For me, what’s going on in search and other knowledge pursuits is that those in the one percent group live in a weird world which has tenuous connections with the world of the unemployed, dull normal, and non technical people.

This morning I read a classic of “real”, edutainment journalism. Navigate if it is still online to “Don’t Fear the Cybermind.” You can find the write up in the New York Times, August 5, 2012, Sunday Review Section, page 6” on a former tree. The main idea is that it is okay to let Google be one’s memory. I am not in sync with this statement:

We have all become a great cybermind. As long as we are connected to our machines through talk and keystrokes, we can all be part of the biggest, smartest mind ever. It is only when we are trapped for a moment without our Internet link that we return to our own humble little personal minds, tumbling back to earth from our flotation devices in the cloud.

I will ignore the categorical affirmative because“all” means Harvard University and probably some of the one percent. (Yes, the calculus of arrogance exists even for the one percenters.)

What I found thought provoking was this small sample of one percenters’ viewpoints. We have the end of innovation. We have techno-babble baloney. We can enjoy the benefits of graphical interfaces AND a command line. These “arguments” are likely to find their way into:

  • More money for start ups which eliminate the need for 99 percent of the people to understand or critique
  • Cutting funding for basic education. Hey, we have Google. What could possibly be wrong with that?
  • Stimulating arguments which make Talmudic scholars develop deeper frown lines
  • Eliminating the capacity of those not in the one percent to have a clue about the manipulative power of online content, systems, and services.

Institutions are asleep at the switch or in La La Land. Search and content processing vendors are starting to wake up and sniff the coffee molecules. Forget precision and recall. Grab that predictive analytics stuff. Focus on text mining. Who worries or cares that the content has been shaped. If you check out two recent articles–”Mathematician Predicts Wave of Violence in 2020 and “Asimov’s Psychohistory Becoming a Reality”—you can see that the fancy math does produce agreement about the trajectory of some 21st century societies.

The axiom of choice is alive and well. Moral: It is good to be a one percenter. I am not sure those 99 percenters are likely to plug in, drop in, and let Google think for them.

Stephen E Arnold, August 5, 2012

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