Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Human Media in Sports

Time was, when athletes, coaches, and officials referred to the media, they meant TV, radio and print.  Now, in the era of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, plus iPhone, iPad and Android devices, media means so much more.

Professional sports thrived, of course, on coverage.  But their various personnel often seemed to have an uneasy relationship with the media.  They were the stars, and the harried souls who reported on their stardom were a kind of impersonal conduit for this.  A talking head, a mouthpiece.  When things that were reported made the stars look like even greater stars, then everything was ‘hunky-dory.’  When it was the opposite, then the media was blamed for taking things out of context or making a big deal out of nothing.

NBA Union Chief, Billy Hunter, is surrounded by reporters and devices (image credit)
But ESPN writer HenryAbbott offered us a personal view of these reporters, regarding the current standoff in the National Basketball Association.  Not an impersonal conduit, not a disembodied mouthpiece, they.  But real men and women who need a story to do their job.  Who need to eat something for lunch.  Who have to use the bathroom periodically.

So when we think about media, let’s not think of it merely as a tech device or an internet site.  But eating, breathing, living human beings like you and me.

Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!

Ron Villejo, PhD

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Too Much Technology Takes its Toll

I had a friend one time who programmed his apartment into a high-tech haven. His favorite music would play automatically, when he arrived home from work, and with the proper mood lighting of course. His coffee would be ready in the morning, at the precise time that he reached the kitchen and wanted a cup. And before she became a Google operating system, his 'android' housemaid would fix his tie on the way out, and kiss him goodbye, too.

The couple in this video has the same idea as my friend. They each want the new shower technology to operate with their individual preferences.

Well, you can’t exactly blame the installation guy for testing his work, belting out an opera, and enjoying how cool this shower is. “That should do it. Enjoy your new shower.” Drip, drip.

Don’t you just hate it, when your day is starting out good and then you get stuck on an escalator?

I mean, they really should improve escalator technology and safety. It must’ve been very early in the morning, as there was no one in the building yet. For all we know they could’ve slid into a panic mode for being stuck, and who knows what they would’ve resorted to, while in this state? “Would somebody please do something? Hhhelp!” 

Sometimes the pace of technology is way too fast, and we can hardly keep up, can we?

Time to slow down the ‘tech train,’ get off of it and get our bearing back, then hop back on board!

Remember when the future was literally bristling in our hands, and we could trade stocks at the park on our snappy portable telephone?

I mean, how cool was that! How awesome, too, to play a super-sophisticated electronic hockey game on TV. Life was never more convenient and enjoyable, was it.

Finally, I remember having an old mobile and writing a text message. I had to tap a particular key once, twice or three times, in order to get the right letter for the words in my message. No lie. You had a mobile like that, didn’t you? Well, fret no more. Here is the future of smart messaging technology in the way that Nokia, Samsung or Motorola can’t imitate. Its next generation devices are so nano, they’re practically subatomic!

Is technology sometimes too much? I say, no, we can never have enough of it!

Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!

Ron Villejo, PhD

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Apple, A Human Story

Declining health

We all know about the veil of secrecy that Steve Jobs has pulled over the goings-on at Apple. So the elements of surprise and wonder are all the greater, when he launches a new product. He was more forthcoming, however, with the reasons he has had to take one medical leave, after another, in the past few years:  pancreatic cancer. 

Still, when I first saw how heartbreakingly gaunt he looked, I wondered about something else:  AIDS.  (It wasn't, after all.)

Here he is announcing iPad2, in March 2011, while on his recent (current) medical leave. To me, he looked thinner than before, but he seemed more than able to speak to his audience. Then when I saw this photo montage of him, from an article by Raymond van Velzen, that thought pressed itself a bit more in my mind.

Habituating nature

Here’s a graphic, from an article by Erik Mack, which speaks to something fundamental about human nature:

(image credit)
Mack reports, 
The results suggest that Jobs’ previous absences have had an ‘inoculating’ effect that over time has allayed consumer concerns on whether the company could operate at the same level without Steve Jobs at the helm.  
Behavior psychologists observed a particular phenomenon:  Present us with a stimulus, and this elicits as response. Over repeated exposures to that same stimulus, however, we respond less and less. As an example, think about the first few times you wore a new pair of shoes or eyeglasses. You may have felt a bit awkward or self-conscious. Over time, you noticed it less and less, until it felt like hardly anything at all. You got used to it. It’s formally called habituation.

So, in a similar vein, we’ve gotten used to seeing Mr. Jobs take a medical leave and looking gaunt. One way to interpret the graphic above, then, is that people are just as likely to purchase Apple products, now that his resignation is official, as before. What must’ve been a dis-spirited feeling about buying Apple stuff, in light of his absences, has virtually dissipated.

We are mortal

I’m sure many of us don’t spend our days and nights wondering when we’re going to die. Dying may be one of those things we deny so fiercely that we don’t really think it’s going to happen at all. We live healthy, vibrant lives. Not a single gene of illness seems present in our bodies.  Whether he intends to or not, Jobs reminds us otherwise.

His cheeks, more sunken. His customary black shirt, draping over his body more loosely. His pace on stage, slower. Illness or not, Mr. Jobs is what all of us will become.

I pray that his health improves. I hope for many more years of innovation coming out of this gifted man. I wish he could continue as CEO of Apple. But here are two ultimate ironies in life: that dying is very much a part of it, and that death is really the only certainty we know.

Its brilliant technology notwithstanding, Apple is above all a human story. It is our story.

Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!

Ron Villejo, PhD

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Piano Stairs

Sometimes I’m in a rush, and I come to a fork on the road. I can get to my destination faster by bounding up a flight of stairs. Instead, the ‘road’ I choose, more often than not, is the slower-moving escalator. I am the rule, not the exception, as far as this choice is concerned. In a way the escalator brought a sedentary lifestyle on the move, and kept it sedentary.

You can pepper me (us) with messages about how much healthier it is to climb the stairs. You can billboard me or banner-ad me with sexy ultra-fit models, and even dole out tips on how exercise can easily be embedded in our day-to-day lives. Result? I’m still on that escalator, baby.

Then, comes the piano staircase.

Well, what results from this? 66% more people than normal chose the stairs over the escalator. Young and old, singles, couples, and families are on this thing, man. At first they’re hesitant. Then they’re curious enough to check it out. Once they do, they’re hooked. Now there’s play involved in climbing up and down the stairs, and who doesn’t like a bit of playing around at unexpected stretches in our tedious routines?

Ah, what’s more, the secret that we don’t have to tell any of them is that they’re also exercising and getting a bit healthier (hush).

How about the deepest trash bin?

Cool, eh. Passersby are invariably so curious when they hear that falling sound that they look inside the trash bin. More importantly, they’re throwing out their trash in the bin, just for the sake of hearing that sound again. In fact, one gentleman was looking for additional trash to throw out, just to figure this thing out. Imagine that!

Result? More than double the amount of trash was collected in one day alone. And, of course, a cleaner park for everyone to enjoy.

You want to see more, don’t you?   

The bottle bank arcade.

I lived in Dubai, and there was at best as a scattering of recycling bins. In Chicago, we had the privilege of living in a nice house in the suburbs. There, the waste management company provided us with a large bin, expressly for recycling things. Newspapers, glass bottles and plastic containers, tin cans and cardboard boxes. We had the convenience of just tossing it all in the bin, and the company sorts it out.

Well, not every city can provide that kind of convenience. So why not get people to go through a frank inconvenience, just to hear that familiar arcade sound and see the numbers go up, when they toss used bottles in the bin? In just an evening, this novel idea was used by nearly 100 people, while the old idea was used by just 2 people.

This is called the fun theory.

I’ve watched these videos several times now, and each time I smile. I’m not even participating in these cool social experiments, and I’m feeling the fun, baby! It’s clear I’m not the only one. These videos have garnered millions of views, and gone viral.

How does this work?

Decades ago, psychologist BF Skinner constructed a model for understanding behavior, called operant conditioning. Not just understanding, but also influencing it, even determining it. Simply put, anything we do that results in us feeling better or getting some kind of good, benefit or value, we keep doing. This is the process of reinforcement. Think: eating yummy ice cream, watching your favorite sport, or shopping for shoes.

Conversely, if the result is noxious, painful, or just tedious, we won’t keep doing whatever that is that turns out this way. This is of course punishment in its essence.

So the piano staircase, the deepest trash bin, and the arcade bottle bank are all reinforcers for behavior that has personal, civic and environmental value. OK, that much is clear.

What I’m most impressed by, though, is the thinking behind the fun theory. Someone (or some people) has a fine grasp of human nature. We suburban families in Chicago basically had an inconvenience taken away, so it was no bother really to recycle. Technically, this is negative punishment, as we’re also more likely to do things that take away unpleasant things (i.e., inconveniences).

But the fun theorists understood much more of us, and they’ve given us a forum for revealing things about our nature we don’t always remember or acknowledge. A curiosity, when something unusual occurs. A desire to explore it, and give it a try, and try it some more. A penchant for smiling. A kind of group contagion that ripples out widely and positively.

Another thing is, there was absolutely no sophisticated technology or innovation required to make these appliances. Yes, Apple can boast of the rapid sales uptake of their iPhone or iPad. But these cool things had remarkable and immediate results, at a fraction of the time, cost and know-how to make. In fact what’s really innovative here has to do with utter simplicity, the simple willingness to reflect more on human nature, and the discipline to follow through and effectively motivate people to change their behavior.

Please feel free to read more about the fun theory, a cool initiative by Volkswagen.

So, people, are we having fun, yet?

Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!

Ron Villejo, PhD