Learning, Innovation & Tech

Bombs & Breakthroughs

We're All Frogs Boiling In Water

CJW, August 19, 2010 8:27 AM


(Ed. Note:  Mark Suster writes some of the best posts out there covering our culture through the lens of entrepreneurship, technology and venture capital on his blog,"Both Sides Of The Table".   Self-described  as " a 2x entrepreneur who has gone to the Dark Side of VC. He joined GRP Partners in 2007 as a General Partner after selling his company to Salesforce.com. He focuses on early-stage technology companies."  We liked this provocative post in particular as it relates to reading, writing and technology.   --  C.J. Westerberg)

". . .you only really learn topics when forced to write,
present or teach them. . . " 
-Mark Suster

We're All Frogs Boiling In Water

By Mark Suster

The Hidden Impact of Technology on our Everyday Lives . . .

There's an old (semi true) parable about frogs boiling in water.  While not literal it's a fun and instructive metaphor for change.

It goes like this: if you put a frog in boiling water it will sense the hot water and immediately jump out yet if you put it into cold water and very gradually turn up the temperature in the water the frog won't notice and will stay in until it has boiled to death.

There's some metaphorical truth to this in our everyday lives.  When we're faced with shocking changes the societal impact becomes immediate and obvious.  An example would be an economic shocks that caused mass job loss and unemployment as happened after the dot-com crash, 9/11 and again in Sept 08. In times like these we reflect more about life in general and about the impacts technology has on our lives and on our society.

But most technology impacts us in imperceptible frog-boiling like ways.  We struggle to remember the days when we had to coordinate via calling friends from pay phones or having to have an atlas in our car in case we got lost.  Or how about traveling to a foreign country and worrying about having a big stash of American Express traveler's checks less we find ourselves with no access to cash or credit.

Technological change is astounding and I think none more than the impact that social networks has had on our lives.  We begin linking up with friends and colleagues, communicating through chat or video and sharing personal thoughts in a public or semi-public way that has impacted recruiting (> 30% of employers use for background checks), divorce, dating and so many other aspects of life.

And what is interesting to me is that as we post our videos on YouTube, record our lives on webcams, upload location updates on FourSquare, search for restaurants based on the wisdom of the crowd - society is slowly changing.  I tried to capture a small slice of that in this post that explains how Twitter is changing the nature of relationship building and merging online & offline experiences.  If you haven't read it I think it's a pretty interesting piece on change in the era of Twitter (as distinct from previous social networks).

I'm not implying good or bad - it just is.  An old colleague of mine who has long since retired used to lament the fact that his kids never read the newspaper.  I used to tell him that it was HE that wasn't keeping up with the times.  Before he's had a chance to rub the morning ink off of his thumbs I've read op-eds from the NY Times and Washington Post as well as scanned Techmeme and read a few blogs.

It's true on the one hand the with the fragmentation of the news media increasingly people choose to get their news from the perspective they want to hear (e.g. left wing, right wing) but it's also true that curious people in the age of Twitter get a much wider purview of news stories through shared links.  So my message to my colleague was - it's different, not bad.  Your kids are alright.

Interestingly David Brooks (my favorite op-ed writer) wrote this must-read counter-intuitive piece on children and computers.  The summary version is that there is data asserting that there is a correlation with children with access to broadband-connected computers in the home and lower test scores in math and reading.  There is a separate study showing that disadvantaged children given access to 12 free books to take home in the summer (and nothing else including no assignment) scored significantly higher in reading than a control group given no books.

It's clear that our attention is being dragged in a million places at once and this lack of focus has an impact.  There is an argument to be made about the need for time to read, time to reflect and time to write.  As much as I love Twitter and love (and hate) my Blackberry - I need this time for reflection to really have insights.  Writing has a way of forcing focus and reflection.

". . .you only really learn topics when forced to write,
present or teach them. . . "
  Suster in Comments Section

Speaking of technology change and our acceptance into our everyday lives.  I remembered having read that Brooks post more than a month ago but hadn't saved it anywhere (so much for delicious).  But simply remembering the key theme of the article I was able to retrieve in from a well-crafted 8-word boolean search (nytimes.com david brooks kids books summer learn focus).  Amazing how we take this for granted.  First result was the right article.  Frog.  Water.

So that brings me to the inspiration for today's post.  I saw two movies recently that I would like to recommend to you that are thought exercises.  Watched on their own they're entertaining but they're worth seeing with a friend and then discussing afterward.

The first is called "Catfish" and was apparently a darling at the Sundance Film Festival.  It's worth not trying to watch the trailer or discovering too much of the plot but the version for this blog that doesn't give away too much is this: it is a documentary film of a photographer who builds an online relationship with a remote family who becomes interested in his work.  The relationship involves a mother (guardian), a young woman in her twenties (potential love interest) and a young girl (8 years old) who is a savant-like artist.

The documentary really challenges you to think about relationships, loneliness, desperation, identity and also about lives of obligation and dealing with people whose personal circumstances require you to subjugate your own time, needs and desires.  It deals with a care giver dealing with severely retarded children and that person's life in the age of social networks and virtual friends.  As you can see it tackles a lot.  And it's a documentary so itís a slice of life.

It's both a brilliant film that is captivating as well as a wonderful thought exercise.  It hasn't been released yet (living in LA I was able to get a screener video . . . sorry).  But if you're interested in the Facebook connected world this is a must watch for you.

More troubling but equally interesting and certainly more provocative is "We Live in Public" the documentary of Josh Harris, founder of Jupiter Communications.  This film is both NSFW and not for the faint at heart.  But it is an important film nonetheless.  It profiles the life of Josh who became a multi-millionaire at a very young age by having a unique grasp of the social trends that the Internet would user in.  Call Josh the frog in boiling water - he saw what we now see long before we knew about it.  With that vision comes a story of somebody also disturbed and troubled.

After making his riches he decided to wire up a building that would be housed by a large number of people who were to be filmed 24/7 in every part of the house (including bed, shower and even toilet . . .  from the inside.  Yuck!).  This preceded Big Brother, Justin.TV, YouTube or social networks.  Josh had the view that we would all live in public and document our lives.  He went from that group facility to having a 24/7 public relationship with his girlfriend by wiring up his house.  He went from there to recluse.

But I won't ruin it all for you.  If you have the stomach and want to tap into the important trends happening in our boiling water check out this film. Oh, and by the way, the film has lots of appearances by Jason Calacanis, Fred Wilson and Shawn Gold (none in any compromising situations - just as commentary on Josh).

And for my final bit of frog-slowly-boiling technology change --- I watched it with my wife in bed on our iPad.  Wow. Nobody can tell me that the iPad isn't subtly transformative.

Photo credit to Angi Nelson on Flickr.

*** end of post personal side note if you're interested:

I first met Josh Harris in 1990.  He actually was the founding president of my fraternity at UCSD.  He flew in from New York and, as I was the president of the fraternity then, I met him up at the airport and drove around with him for the day.  He was such an odd and fascinating guy that the memory of my day always stuck with me even though I had no idea what his future held.  I never knew what happened to Josh until I saw the film recently.  The day I met him Josh had rented a convertible Mercedes, smoked a cigar incessantly and was this flashy "big city" guy.

This was strange for a 21 year old who grew up in a smallish town and had never really hung around flashy types.  He seemed so intent on showing me (and our fraternity members) how successful he had become but we were all oblivious to it all.  I remember then seeing his name in the Wall Street Journal the next year and that in itself was such a big deal (I knew a guy quoted in the Wall Street Journal! Wow!).  Anyway, funny about life that you come across characters that enter into your life for a brief moment and they go on their way without your ever really knowing what becomes of them.  This film was fascinating in its own right ñ but seeing Josh again was really a trip for me.


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