My name is Susan, and I am a baby.
During his Ferris Bueller days Matthew Broderick did a skit on Saturday Night Live in which he dressed as a baby. Other passengers on the New York subway mocked him. I remember John Belushi. “Look at the BAY-bee!” he said. Mr. Broderick’s baby answers, “Well, yes I am a baby…”
Mr. Broderick has since revisited the theme: here he is, avec diapers and bonnet, with the much-missed Phil Hartman as a Fairy. As in a Tooth Fairy-like fairy.
Actually, Saturday Night Live makes a point more about social perceptions and diversity which I leave aside because humor is best left unexplained.
Besides, I’m serious here. I don’t mean to say I am an infant. Sure, I’m intelligent like an infant, but I have years of experience racked up that supplement wisdom I was gifted with. I possess a certain kind of analytical ability and persuasiveness. Yeah, sure, I’m not rich. Shut up.
I did not come to the realization that I am a baby on my own. I did know that I have a tender heart that requires some protection and nourishment. It was, however, a perceptive man of my acquaintance, someone whose father was an obstetrician and came from a family of eight siblings who gave my traits a persona. At first I recoiled, as though I had been called a bad name.
He gently asked me, “What do babies do?”
“They laugh, they cry, they play and learn by wandering away and putting stuff in their mouths. Also - sleep a lot, wipe food all over themselves, delight in a rubber duckie, and roll around on their bottoms.”
I immediately understood.
I want to be clear that this doesn’t mean I think less of myself. I am not a victim to be pitied. I am not socially or personally inferior. I simply recognize a facet of myself which helps me understand certain behaviors and thoughts.
Like babies, I do gutsy, sometimes even ill-advised things, like heading out to open territory without telling someone where I’m going. I grieve mightily when disappointed especially with myself, am betrayed by those I thought I could trust, or suffer a wounding loss. I also feel the pain of those who are hurt. Buffering helps.
I enjoy experiencing other realities – my imagination and natural curiosity lead to plenty of wonder. I enjoy getting “lost” and returning to my reality having been away. I require stimulation. Cooped up motionless in a small, dark, silent office cube = a coffin.
So why announce this in public? Why not jot these thoughts in my Moleskin?
Here’s why. Again and again startups are advised to have someone on board who expands the group’s creative thinking; a non-engineer, a non-MBA. Startups are told to expect things to be messy (read: inefficient), to involve all ideas, to expect unexpected outcomes, to ask the right questions and investigate, and to roll with the reality checks, to pivot and refine accordingly and rapidly.
Startups need Babies. Frankly, all companies need Babies.
Think of all the photos you have with people you don’t know in the background. Now imagine this - what if you could see all the photos others have taken that have you in the background. You when you’re not posing; just going about your life. What a story the collection would tell about your life. What are you wearing. Who are you with. What’s your common facial expression and posture. Do you remember when some of those photos must have been taken? It would be like seeing yourself in a documentary you're unaware of, literally through the lens of others.
One step further – to see photos of people you know well in the background of other people’s photos. You might learn things about them you couldn’t have imagined.
Maybe we’ll all get this chance to see ourselves au casual when online facial recognition is incorporated into search. Muy creepy but also enlightening.
As a student of human behavior it helps to be ultra-aware of oneself. So another idea occurred to me. In the user experience (UX) profession we have something called ‘personas’. These are characteristics and day-in-the-life stories that are rolled into an example person for the purposes of guiding product development and “user experiences”. These personas are given names, occupations, ages, education levels, experience and knowledge in certain areas, and specific behaviors and attitudes that have been observed in real life. In full disclosure, some have questioned the scientific validity of personas. Designers and others, though, consider them highly valuable even if they are flawed.
So imagine this – what if you could walk through a gallery of the personas that corporations think you fit into. For instance, due to recent disclosures I now know that Google thinks based on my search patterns that I am a 25-34 year old male. So in this gallery there would be a figure of this persona and a placard describing the persona’s traits. Google uses this persona to create products they think I would like. It’s actually not so important that these gallery personas accurately reflect who I am demographically – personas are about behaviors, interests, fears and desires. Again, how fascinating it would be to take in this collection of representations of who I am based on the trail of data I leave behind as I go about living my life.
What would I do with this information? Well, it would be like getting feedback, a way of capturing an unbiased data stream about myself. I might see disturbing things and hopeful things. Certainly here would be hints of how others might see me.
What if, in the future, corporations built androids with these persona traits and then observed them in daily life. That way, if the personas synch accurately to their human counterparts it would no longer be necessary to study actual humans for difficult or sensitive questions. So, say, these androids could be studied for research questions about sexuality or hygiene or mental health problems.
Recently I biked to the drug store about a mile from my place. This is where I get my pharmaceuticals and odd items between excursions to big box stores like Target. This day all I needed was to buy a roll of quarters. Do I have a bank account? Of course, but it’s a credit union HQ’d in another state with the only physical outlet I have access to being an ATM at a partner credit union. That partner credit union never has rolls of quarters at the teller. The pain point is that I need coins to do laundry and sometimes parking meters. I’m a quarter hog.
The sign over the photo development counter says, “Customer Service”, and so I ask to buy a roll of quarters. No deal. They don’t change money, I’m told. Although I’ve done it before at this very store. No matter. I bike back home, drive 3.7 miles to Whole Foods, and they sell me a roll of quarters. While I’m there I pick up $21.56 worth of other stuff. And I check in on foursquare.
Drug stores need to wake up if they’re going to compete against The Big Boxes. What they can and should offer is a community resource. Stop thinking of themselves as a white-tiled brick and mortar retail outlet and more a center of all things a community needs.
I know what they’re thinking. Before you know it they’ll have people out front asking for signatures on ballot initiatives and dogs on leashes waiting for their owners to reemerge. Traffic would be so bad.
To jack up the activity, I propose local drug stores think of themselves as the flex points in our new economy. Offer to be the essential location for the things that location needs. Attract return, incidental traffic. Stop being a cookie cutter store from 1978.
Here are some ideas to pump up. I'm talking to you CVS.
· Be the local plastic bag recycling location
· Host the Humane Society cat adoption program once a month
· Have those dog water bowls out front
· Put the convenience products in front, not the seasonal crap
· Make the rest of the store so inviting customers will want to explore
· It won’t kill you to sell me a damn roll of quarters
Some who comment on social media have postulated that the Young appreciate online social interaction more than the less-Young. ‘Ha’, they say. "We’re the young generation, and we’ve got something to say." - The Monkees circa 1970. The more experienced, they say, aren’t socially agile enough to grasp the satisfactions of the new concepts of social interaction.
This past week I commented on facebook about the decline of geo-located social interaction with the final closing of Borders Books. I was taken to task by an acquaintance I “met” on Consummating a few years ago. Bradley just turned 30 and lives in Eastern Tennessee. He countered that social networks have expanded his world. He attributed his enlightened stance to generational experience that, like blanket radiation, imbues the lot with an easy acceptance of the new paradigms of social media.
Here’s my thread-killing post in its entirety.
"Bradley values communities online for their social diversity and quantity - getting beyond the immediate geographical environs. I live in a place with plenty of social diversity, and I value bonding and social commitment. Case in point - when a person shatters their ankle into toothpicks, a social network isn't going to run errands for you or bring you a pot of chicken soup or hang out and play video games. In fact, the social network hasn't a clue that such acts are even needed. So values determine whether social institutions are benefitting each individual."
"It's not about generation. I interacted with hundreds of thousands in a three-state area as a top rock radio DJ in
Nashville by 1981 and yes, I did get to know a number of the listeners. I regularly used ATMs, computers, starting in 1979. I would have totally been on social media then if it had been available and I would have had much the same
relationship with my network as I did with my audience, just as I am on all kinds of social media now. All that said, I'm pleased that online communities are doing so much for so many. It’s just not the same as local in-person relationships."
I mention the years to make a certain point: Bradley was born in 1981.
Were I to comment further on the point, I’d add that there are plenty of 20-somethings who are not active on social
media. And guess what – they’re not speaking up about it on social media.
I’ll agree that people 39+ are generally less exposed to the grand technical evolutions of our era. Younger people tend to maintain that connection with age-peers after their school years until personal life changes the social dynamic. Complexity sets in. One tends to interact with a wider age contingent and maybe self-identity is more apparent in whether you own a dog and what kind of dog, whether you drink coffee and what kind, or other beverages, whether you hang with standard social institutions like religious or sports team-based. Later, work cohorts are not like school cohorts; though you may have closer interactions at work there’s something to be said for professional distance. Social isolation becomes a very real state of being. And thus the continuation of such gathering places as beer gardens in Germany.
And so, what roles will social networks fulfill as we age? Can a social network be as satisfying as repeated singular face2face interactions? It’s easy to adopt facile explanations for the effects of emerging technologies, like emphasizing apparent dicotomies. But really, online social networks have their own purposes and support the purposes of real-life social networks. The Eames' said "Eventually, everything connects."
This happens all the time. People ask me if I’ve run across some big thing that people sorely need. Never mind that if I knew that I’d already be rich.
I understand why they ask. I bill myself as an explorer in the magnetic field between people and everything else, usually high technology or delivery thereof. But the way it works is that I’m not walking around with a handful of packaged, unused ideas.
I’ve found plenty of friction in the flows of life. Just – we expect to do some crunching; some deeper diving, some sanity checking, some big-time brainstorming. Idea refinement. Even in this Age of Agility, R&D still happens in contexts for optimal results.
Here’s a tip. Turn the entrepreneurial-idea machine off sometimes and just listen to people ramble about their lives. Listen to them talk about their pains and their aspirations. Listen for things to build on, including realms that seem outside your your usual domain. Collect them, trade them, write them down, draw them, sing them, cook them, sleep on them. If you don’t you might not be serious about landing on good ideas. You never know where an idea comes from. There’s time to focus on diving deeper later, and you’ll be better acquainted with your idea for eventually describing it to investors.
Experience researcher of built environments with an anthropology provenance. Copyright 2004-2017