A mile wide, an inch deep

Meandering the inner workings of the human psyche

When I started Conversation Agent (the blog) 17 years ago, people began sending me all sorts of things.

I got tons of press releases and requests to review sites. I got added to site aggregators, and started receiving solicitations for calls (no, thank you) and link exchanges (ditto.)

The intensity only increased over the years. (Now unsolicited emails get a free subscription to On Value in Culture.)

People sometimes send me useful things. But most of the time, I discover those myself as I observe. The human mind on digital is a funny thing—we do things we’d never dream of doing face-to-face.

Few of those things are useful. In fact, most are activities that turn ‘use more’ into ‘useless.’ I think we can use more value. Without proper context, it’s hard to tell which is which.

Four ideas to go beyond the surface.

Measuring miles or inches?

This question about what to measure to understand direction and organize for success is a tough one. Media, marketing, and the running of organizations rely on proxies that may or may not reflect actual value.


Attention is a popular—yet imperfect—form of measurement. We use numbers to protect ourselves from thinking more deeply about questions. For example, back when Ev Williams cared about Twitter:

If you think about the impact Twitter has on the world versus Instagram, it’s pretty significant. It’s at least apples to oranges. Twitter is what we wanted it to be. It’s this real time information network where everything in the world that happens on Twitter — important stuff breaks on Twitter and world leaders have conversations on Twitter. If that’s happening, I frankly don’t give a shit if Instagram has more people looking at pretty pictures.

Well, we know how that went one year into Musk’s tenure as the new owner. Ev’s article has an interesting bit about, “the problem with time, though, is it’s not actually measuring value. It’s measuring cost as a proxy for value.”

“Advertisers don’t really want your time — they want to make an impression on your mind, consciously or subconsciously (and, ultimately, your money.)” By extension, we’ve trained people to want reactions in social.

When what we really want is that which we cannot get online —connection. The internet is a mile wide and an inch deep for that. Social energy is still very much what we do with what we read and learn —in real life.

Does any digital proxy tell you what impact you are actually having on the world?

‘Known truths’ and ‘known lies’

Up until the ’70s, as a society we had ‘known truths,’ and ‘known lies,’ and no duplicity or pluralism about the things we believed in. That started to break down rapidly in the ’70s and the idea became that there are always two, three, four, five sides to every question.

Interview with Jeremy Paxman of the BBC, 1999.

It was the backdrop for a medium such as the Internet to be created and show the fragmentation of society. The potential of what the Internet is going to do to society —both good and bad—was unimaginable in 1999.

“The actual context, and the state of content is going to be different.”

Bowie said the role of music had shifted from one of creating the excitement for rebellion to a more niche and fragmented role of quasi-co-creation with different communities.

The Internet would take up the job of becoming an instrument of conversation, which music played in the past. His comments on fragmentation and dissolution of the old ways to make room for a new way of connecting artist with audience—the gray space in the middle.

“I think we’re actually on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying.”

More than 20 years ago, this artist talked about sub groups, genres, and rave culture and why there aren’t any rock stars anymore. Bowie’s frame of reference was art and music-making. In that he was prescient.

Is the terrifying part what the ‘net is doing to society?

Fiction is where you can find truth

About the human mind’s inner workings.

Louise Penny’s stories take place in Canadian province of Quebec, centered on the work of francophone Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. “But correct and right were two different things. As were facts and truth.” The Madness of Crowds.

In good works of fiction, the art of storytelling moves undisturbed by the worry of lessons and quick tips. It focuses wholly on composition, just like master musicians select the notes to populate a score.

They make you feel something by bringing it to life. Fiction is a path to things and ideas we might not consider or accept in other forms.

Most people embrace new ideas only after they’ve become widely accepted.

In his forward to On Writing. A Memoir of the Craft Stephen King says:

One thing I’ve noticed is that when you’ve had a little success, magazines are a lot less apt to use that phrase, ‘not for us.’

Take a look at the S&SF magazine (site) mentioned in King’s book and you find a reference to his classic work right off the bat. After a little success—i.e. discovered and appreciated by others and, yes, a rewrite of the very same manuscript from the earlier submission—his work was accepted with open arms.

If we only embrace artists once they’ve become successful, how can new ideas break through? For 160 years culture’s motion was forward. What’s the reason why culture has lost velocity, or even slowed to a halt?

Perhaps like an unexpected guest on my gas meter, ‘just trying to fit in.’

For example, how about discuss, “And here we are now in a world where almost every element of public discourse and social interaction has been gamified.” We are a casino, says Amanda Guinzburg. Our inability to have an actual conversation is the result.

We should be asking better questions.

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