Our Digital Prison

Find challenge in business

If you’ve read many of my previous posts, you’ve heard me occasionally reference my favorite podcast, Philisophize This! By Stephen West. Stephen does a great job distilling important and sometimes complex philosophical concepts into language even reformed physics geeks like myself can understand.

There have been several episodes of the podcast over the last couple months on the concept of “Digital Panopticon”.  Without reconstructing all the great explanations that Mr West has provided, I’ll digest to say he’s talking about a digital prison. This prison is constructed specifically so that there is an asymmetry between those “watching over us” and us prisoners. In the digital version, the information flow is controlled and unidirectional.

This concept has so much relevancy in today’s information construct. The various social media algorithms, and biased media sources, are specifically crafting information flows that are intended to reinforce either our own preconceptions, or worse, a particular political, economic, or religious agenda. The new information net is so good at what it does that the receivers (us “prisoners”) are not even aware that the information is being groomed.

So, I’m not a conspiracy theorist, and I’m not (necessarily) stating that there is intentional “mind control” going on. But even if I don’t see a nefarious single mind or group (think “Illuminati” 😊) behind this grooming, it is clear that information is being groomed for our benefit. The most benign purpose would be to sell us something, e.g., an ad on killer skis soon after we read an article on Vail Resorts. And even if the algorithms are not necessarily intended to reinforce a particular agenda, they still are very good at reinforcing what we already believe (right or wrong).  The current Net is not designed to inform or better yet challenge our thinking — it is designed to reinforce what we already believe and think we know.

So, what does this “digital prison” have to do with business?

So, backing all this down:  What does this blog have to do with business? It is a simple as this. It is critical in any effective business to be able to make well-informed decisions based upon the best information we can gather. If we simply follow the self-reinforcing algorithms, we will find ourselves digesting information that is specifically crafted to reinforce what we already believe. One of the hardest challenges of being a business leader (or human for that matter) is to avoid allowing ourselves to fall into a rut. How many examples do you personally know of companies and their leaders failing because they “went down a rabbit hole”? They continued following a business path because “it is the way we’ve always done it” and missed a key change in the market. For us to be good at what we do, we must always seek out information that may challenge our preconceptions.  We must strive against the “echo chamber” of the social media and news media feeds.

I’ll conclude with a specific example — the “soft landing” or “doomed to recession” debate. There have been economists on both sides that were not only committed to one view or another but were sermonizing and selectively choosing data to support their view. If you already had an inclination to see doom and gloom, and this aligned with a particular political narrative, and if you only watched “news” channels that reinforced this gloom, then you were likely making business decisions based upon an imminent crash. However, if you were already optimistic of a soft landing (and again because you were inclined to want to give the current administration some credit), then you likely only found yourself listening to data in support of this belief — and may have made business decisions in line with this predicted outcome.

Either approach is flawed and risky. If I wish to make the best business decisions possible (for me or my clients), then I need to seek out information and opinions that contradict my current viewpoint.  If I am a typical CNN watcher, then I need to take a look at Fox occasionally — and vice versa. Of course, understanding that both are biased sources — but that we as leaders must consider various and sometimes contradictory data in order to make the best decisions for our businesses.