Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Latest Challenger Disaster: When we repeatedly fail to challenge (c)overt bias

 “You’re obviously very technical”, said Rob. 
 “Thank you. But why do you say that?” I asked with some degree of (well, actually considerable) surprise in my voice.
“Well, you just seem to know your way around technology” said the editor of my new speaker reel. 

Now, I wrestled years ago with Sony Vegas ahead of my son’s Bar Mitzvah as I desperately wanted to make him a slide show but looking at all the equipment around me yesterday, I knew in that moment that iMovie would have been a challenge too. 

Rob clearly believed in my tech prowess as I said I’d try to retrieve my “shot list” spreadsheet from The Cloud; and yes, I’ve come a long way in the last few years as I have very intentionally sought to build preference in left brain thinking (to balance my passion for the right!).

I troubleshoot lots of complex technical issues on the computer (like how to create a new email signature) with my secret weapon (YouTube how to videos).

Without wanting to show off, I export QIF files using my online banking app to my accounts team to keep track of business expenses. 

I even had a breakthrough recently by investigating a possible port number for the outgoing mail server on my MacBook Pro (one of the true loves of my life apart from my family and a few significant others) to finally enable me to send emails when I’m interstate and overseas without having to dial into Webmail.

Now many of you will have worked out by now… I ain’t that technical! Not compared to someone who cuts code, builds their own computer or monitors the progress of space shuttle launches.

But in the editing suite yesterday, amidst jump cuts and backing track selections and studio close-ups and periodic lamentation about the vision of my blow waved air that seemed to be collapsing on set by the frame, Rob got me thinking.How easy is it for us to take a small shred of evidence or a brief moment of observation and infer things (albeit sometimes complimentary things) about others?That’s what we do when we stereotype. And is it always complimentary? Not so much.

Having listened to a podcast on this story (The American Life), I can only deduce that’s what must have happened in America when white police in Tennessee saw an African American riding across a bridge at night with a nine year old white boy balanced on his handlebar. They were sure they were on to something when they made the cyclist sit on the ground with his feet in the gutter while the boy was interviewed separately so that he could admit without coercion and collusion that the motives of his black adult companion were no good. They were dubious when the boy said Cleve was dating his mother and became hysterical when he realised the police insinuated in their questions that perhaps Cleve was molesting the boy because the boy did not want Cleve arrested again just for hanging around with a white boy. The police meant well. Their "crime" was surely a simple example of pattern recognition based on prior policing experience mixed with a dollop of unconscious bias and perhaps even a hint of racism.

The primitive ability we have to make decisions on a shred of data is why some women (and men) have their hair dyed every few weeks to ensure there is never any grey showing that would remind their executive boss they are over 50.

It is why many people now truncate their work history on LinkedIn so they can’t look as if they have 30 years’ worth of valuable experience.

And while I blogged recently about unscrupulous recruiters and will not rehash the same post, it is why some candidates are being invited enthusiastically for interviews and then find the recruiter cools considerably towards them in the first few minutes of the interview. 

Now of course most employers won’t even know about the systemic discrimination going on. They can conveniently hide behind the recruiter's seemingly youthful shortlist. Better not to ask any questions because a shred of data contained in the answer might prove very uncomfortable.  It is why some people are made spontaneously redundant, regardless of merit, because they are perceived to have been just too loyal to the outgoing manager to be perceived as willing to commit to someone else. I see. So now it's a crime to get on well with people. 

It is even why, in my opinion Adam Ladell who sings pleasantly but is no Jordan Smith (UK X Factor) did so well on The Voice this season. Because having a significant challenge (in his case Tourette’s syndrome) meant we made an automatic assumption he probably couldn’t perform and certainly wouldn’t be able to suppress his tics whilst doing so. If we hadn’t defined him by his Tourette’s - only one discrete aspect of this delightful young man - would anyone even have been as inspired as so many people claim to have been? He is courageous and I do believe he came on the show to make a point and to inspire others. He’s well and truly done that.

But what’s the aim of the hair dying applicant? To get a job. To put food on the table. To enjoy the psychological fruits of meaningful work and the important social benefits of employment that are denied anyone on the basis of a single attribute – their gender, their sexuality, their religion, their age or any other protected attribute that is elevated beyond reason and any semblance of ethics to be used as the sole criterion for acceptance or rejection.

What is the latest Challenger disaster? In my opinion it is the absence of challenge to overt bias in ourselves and others. 

We're so focused on big data in 2016. What are we doing to stop small data sets from wreaking havoc on fairness, justice and the diversity payoff?

It did feel nice to be told yesterday I was technically savvy. But what singular judgment will we make about someone today and what will be the myriad of outworkings of such selective attention?

Monday, July 4, 2016

Election Nightmares: When both sides fail to clear the bar

Those who will take up broadsheet and digital column inches analysing voter sentiment today in terms of beliefs, quite frankly, will be missing the mark.

The young woman who I saw run 200 metres to catch her train and gave up with 30 metres to go didn't change her beliefs when she stopped. She'd reached that spontaneous split second trigger in decision making between struggling to breathe and her assessed probability of catching the train – in other words physical discomfort against the likely payoff. Perhaps it was factoring in the rummaging around in her handbag for the Myki that did it. But her belief that it was important to be on time for work didn't change in that split second. Just her behaviour did.

Let’s exclude for a moment those who would always have voted Labour or the Coalition, because they're not relevant in this election mayhem (or this blog post). Perhaps all those who were in love with Malcolm Turnbull 8 months ago had reached their threshold. Yes, you could argue they changed their beliefs about him but I've not heard one person suggest that to me. The job of trying to stay in power and please everyone is seemingly harder than first thought. Just ask all recent PMs! Sending up test buoys on new policies and registering the voter impact turned them into crash test dummies. You can try to stand for something but if you’re imprisoned by the fatal flaw of politics (get in power, stay in power), you end up standing for nothing much more than flip flopping on important stuff. And leaders exist to make sense of things. Not to create confusion or doubt.

Some of those who thought Bill Shorten engaged in unethical "Mediscare" mongering, voted for him anyway. If they thought he sat on the questionable side of ethics, it didn’t deter them. More interestingly to me, some of those who had previously believed they could never turn on the Coalition may have reached their threshold of tolerance and fear on Medicare and superannuation. That’s not to say they switched sides and voted Labour. But there was a tantalising array of independents, wasn’t there?

The Threshold Model of Collective Behaviour was first postulated by Mark Granovetter in 1978. Intellectual tradition until that point explained our behaviour as being largely driven by deep-seated beliefs. But, Granovetter said: Get enough low threshold typically non-violent people to turn up to a demonstration, and they may just turn violent if enough other people have done so. And that decision is made on impulse, not belief. So if lots of my friends are talking about switching sides or more importantly lots of “undecideds” are leaning towards Labour and my threshold is low, I might act uncharacteristically for me at the polling booth.

Rick Barry was an NBA basketballer and Hall of Famer with an extraordinary shooting record. His free-throw style meant that he averaged a .9 record on free throws for his career. His technique was legal, albeit unconventional. Malcolm Gladwell’s analysis of why Barry was willing to throw underarm from the free throw line to crowd taunts that he was “throwing like a sissy” (the underhand style is also called a “granny shot”) pointed to a low resistance threshold, that is, having a willingness to do it differently if it brought about a better result. He was more intent on the result than how he was perceived. The fact that he was not hugely popular and was often branded “arrogant” adds strength to the theory. This can't happen in politics if your primary objective is getting in/staying in power. It automatically dictates the need for an acute sensitivity to others’ perceptions and, as an extension, to their likely behaviour. That’s why Malcolm Turnbull begged Australia not to “waste” their vote on independent candidates. Bill Shorten also knew that when he made Medicare an issue. Fear and mortality are primary motivators even if the fear may turn out to stand for False Evidence Appearing Real. Not that it can’t work on both sides of the political divide. John Howard dined out on a fear strategy (border protection) for two successive campaigns.

Politicians aren’t exactly up there in voter perceptions as pillars of community. We are sceptical borne of vast experience. So what they’re prepared to do to meet their strategic objective – get in, stay in (and possibly do some good things) is to be anticipated even if we’re not impressed by it. But our reactions to their actions are far more interesting and unpredictable.

Shaquille (Shaq) O’Neill, rated one of the top 10 NBA players ever, said he’d rather never score than take free throw shots underhanded. Neither of our two main political parties was prepared to throw the granny shot, so maybe that’s why no one has won. No mandate. And little focus in the foreseeable future on running the country.

We’ve heard in the last week about Brexit regret. Will our nation with a rejuvenated dose of One Nation live to suffer our own full measure of “bet regret” because our collective thresholds on healthcare, superannuation, immigration and refugees were well and truly triggered.

Comments on the thoughts expressed in the post are soooo welcome but no rants for or against any side of the political divide, please.