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    This is the personal blog of Simon Kendrick and covers my interests in media, technology and popular culture. All opinions expressed are my own and may not be representative of past or present employers
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Reading the wrong books

Bookshelf at the British Library

Towards the end of his (excellent) presentation at the Google #Firestarters 3 event, Martin Bailie said something along the lines of “It’s not enough to read the right books; you have to go out and do something”.

While I agree with his sentiment, it reminded me that I don’t really read books. In fact, this book is the only one I’ve finished this year. This isn’t a conscious choice; merely a result of prioritising other forms of media during the day, and making very slow progress with a fairly large book on the occasions I do read.

As a child, I was a voracious reader, and fondly remember my weekly trips to Tewkesbury Market to spend my pocket-money on the next Three Investigators book (It wasn’t until years later that, to my horror, I discovered that they weren’t actually written by Alfred Hitchcock). At school I diligently read the set texts in full for my various English assignments, while others were seemingly content to read to watch the film (though now I suspect that less engaged students suffice with reading the Wikipedia synopsis)

I wonder the extent to which I’m missing out by not reading more long-form, particularly when people such as Mitch Joel talk up the benefits of reading multiple books a week.

Because it is not as if I’m missing out on any revolutionary thinking; I’m simply consuming it in a different way.

For instance, I’ve read chapters from both Groundswell and Predictably Irrational this year, only to find that their (original) thinking and findings seem outdated as I’d listened to and read so many different people quote and build upon their arguments in the time since they were published. Even at the Firestarters event, the speakers quoted at length from books such as The Lean Start-Up and Creative Disruption.

Should I still read them? I’m not totally sure (particularly when factoring in opportunity cost) but I suspect I should still try to make the time. A second-hand précis isn’t as powerful as digesting the full, coherent text and experiencing the subsequent inspiration first-hand. While the core arguments of some titles may now be beyond familiar, there would be value in following the author step-by-step through his or her logic, rather than skipping to the end with only a superficial understanding.

Indeed, if anything, my experiences don’t suggest there is no value in reading books. Rather, it seems there is value to be had in reading different books. While I would gain additional understanding through reading a book that I’ve already seen widely quoted; this seems an inefficient means to simply catch-up with my peers. Instead, it would surely be better to augment my second-hand consumption with books that aren’t being regularly quoted elsewhere, so that I can move my thinking in a different direction to the crowd.

One way of doing this would be through “conflict reading” – forcing myself to read books containing ideas I expect to my be contrary to my own thoughts, in a similar way to how I read the Daily Mail as a student to know thy enemy. Rather than engaging in group-think, I would be forced to re-assess my own views in light of opposing theories with their own justifications. When successful, this can help add nuance to ideas since beliefs are placed in the context of what they aren’t, in addition to what they are.

Rather than reading the right books, it might be worth reading the wrong books.

sk

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/swamibu/2868288357

Considering the collective opinion

Life is not logical. The whole is different to the sum of its parts.

Yet the majority of quantitative research is not structured to reflect this.

It assumes that survey respondents are considered and rational individuals, able to make an informed choice when asked to consider a series of options, or able to adequately communicate their thoughts, opinions or attitudes.

Yet, in most instances this isn’t true

  • The school of behavioural science, currently championed by Rory Sutherland at the IPA, portrays humans as mannequins to be manipulated by an invisible hand, or nudged to predictably irrational conclusions
  • Those who believe Google makes us stupid talk about the rise of distributed memory. We are now more wired to remember a wide range of data superficially, rather than a depth of informed knowledge
  • Our hectic lives preclude a degree of considered choice on non-special occasions, so we blink, “thin-slice” and make gut reactions
  • The paradox of choice and analysis paralysis mean we prefer to make choices on a more limited number of options than are perhaps available – this screening process is by no means optimal
  • The individual is not an island, but part of a community

This latter point in particular has been on my mind recently.

There have been attempts to engineer research by identifying influentials or mavens (link is a pdf) but I’m not aware of any technique that satisfactorily conveys the intertwining impact that our personal relationships and media exposure have on our thoughts and actions.

We might follow Herd behaviour. So, if the media constantly mentions Facebook, it leads people to try it. And if Academy Members hear that the Hurt Locker is the favourite to win best film, then they will vote for it.

But then there doesn’t appear to be a guarantee that this prophecy is self-fulfilling. A Labour victory at the 1992 election was seen as a foregone conclusion, yet people stayed at home or kept their Conservative biases hidden until the day of polling. And the hype surrounding Second Life didn’t convert us all to living vicariously through an online avatar.

So why not? Duncan Watts has worked extensively on this. He argues in favour of randomness, where an initial option gains some traction that is in turn exacerbated as people validate it. This makes some intuitive sense – if I am searching on Amazon, I might initially limit my search to the highest rated items, even though those rating them might have highly different needs for the product to my own.

Is it possible to predict which ideas or concepts will eventually succeed? I know Brainjuicer have had some success with their predictive markets, but it appears to be an area open for innovation.

Would we need to run full simulations (either controlled experiments, or computer models) to judge which environmental factors will have the largest influence?

Or would it be possible to infer a “herd multiplier” to frame a concept in the likelihood of it being adopted by a community or the media?

Or could we go back and question people on their expected behaviour in the context of what their actual behaviour was, in order to get them to post-rationalise the differences?

Or, will this always be a problem with quantitative research, and instead we should look to smaller sample groups of people to test how ideas and preferences disseminate and iterate through a group of likeminded people?

I don’t know the answer. But it is certainly something worth thinking about.

sk

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/28191556@N02/3160824946/