| |

Smart wrong people; rampant drivel; foolish bookstore investors: Newsletter 29 May 2024

Newsletter 46: Curiosity beats animosity, OpenAI trains ChatGPT-5, Google spreads fakery, plus three people to follow and three books to read.

The value of principled argument

When I was a media analyst, companies often brought me in to hear my perspective. Many of the companies who hired me also intensely (and sometimes very publicly) disagreed with me. Still, they paid good money to hear from me and calmly discuss the future state of the media industries I covered.

TV networks hired me to hear why I thought the television schedule was going to become irrelevant (it did) and why people would increasingly skip their commercials (they didn’t, at least not as much as I thought).

Record companies hired me to hear how downloads and streaming would eviscerate their sales model (they did).

Consumer electronics companies hired me to hear why I thought that HDTV would fail (it didn’t).

Marketers and agencies hired me to hear how social media would transform their efforts (it did).

One major media company hired me to explain what lessons the collapse of the music industry would have for the properties they owned. The resulting report, “Music Lessons,” ended up getting a fair degree of publicity. When I visited the company to present it, they listened intently. I’m not sure it made a difference.

On television and in social media, we see lots of arguments among people who intensely disagree. They tend to be characterized by lots of shouting and name-calling. It seems as if people who disagree are supposed to very visibly hate each other.

But the disagreements I had with these clients were very different. I was respectful of the clients — after all, these were some of the most important executives in the biggest and most influential companies in their industries. And they were respectful of me, since they actually wanted to hear what my research had revealed (and didn’t actually want to piss me off, since I was often quoted in media).

They brought me in to challenge their thinking, not their existence or their character. They wanted to fairly evaluate the arguments against their strategies. They wanted to know how to defend themselves against a world that might not turn out to their advantage. And they wanted to know what evidence to look for that might change their minds. Among their questions, my favorite was this: “If this future you predict was actually going to happen, what signs should we be looking out for?” They wanted their eyes and minds to be open to signs that they were wrong.

Sometimes they did change their minds and their strategies, although, being managers of big, entrenched, slow-moving companies, usually not as quickly as they needed to.

These discussions were extremely helpful to me as well. I wanted to hear the best logic and strongest evidence for viewpoints different from my own. This enabled me to create richer, stronger arguments for my own positions, to modify the timing of my predictions as necessary, and in some cases, to identify when I had actually been wrong, and to change my viewpoint.

These discussions took place behind closed doors. In public, I still would tell people these companies’ view of the future was wrong, and they would tell people I was wrong, too (and that as a result, their company was still worth investing in).

I still have relationships like this — my public disagreements about big idea books with Jeevan Sivasubramaniam come to mind — but in general, it makes me sad that on any issue of importance, people still want to pick sides. I miss the principled arguments.

If you want more enlightened discussion and less vitriol, here’s how that can happen:

  • Critique strategies and actions, not people. No ad hominem attacks. Criticizing people rarely illuminates anything.
  • Gather data and evidence on all sides, rather than starting with a conclusion and working backwards.
  • Focus on logical analysis, not emotion.
  • Build the strongest possible case for the conclusion opposite to the one you are making, so that you can fairly evaluate it in your analysis. Beware confirmation bias.
  • Instantly admit when you are wrong. Do not cling to a clearly outdated idea.
  • Do not hesitate to speak your truth clearly and logically, even when it contradicts what important people think, and regardless of whether the people it might offend are your friends or not.
  • Hold truth, not winning, as your highest value.
  • Prize curiosity, in yourself and in those you interact with.
  • Do not fear people or ideas. Fear only ignorance. Ignorance is the common enemy we can all unite to challenge. When ignorance is replaced with knowledge, that is progress.

News for writers and others who think

Barnes & Noble Education (BNED) operates college bookstores. Given what’s happened to the textbook industry (first the bloating and insane pricing of required textbooks, followed by the move to digital textbook rental), this debt-laden company with an obsolescing business model is in trouble. BNED’s recent financial release stated, “Our losses and projected cash needs, combined with our current liquidity levels . . . [raise] substantial doubt about our ability to continue as a going concern.” But mindless meme-stock idiots are bidding it up (subscriber link). Name recognition plus sentimentality for bookstores isn’t an investment strategy.

OpenAI announced it’s training its next model — and a “safety committee” will make sure it doesn’t turn into SkyNet and take over the world (gift link). No word at all on where the training data will be stolen, er, I mean, sourced from.

Google is getting really good at spreading AI-generated drivel (free subscriber link). According to an article in 404 Media, “The advent of AI image generators has created a problem not just with AI-generated disinformation but also with AI-generated spam. Fact checking websites often only have bandwidth to check images that go viral or are otherwise being widely spread. But we have seen that AI image generators allow for the mass creation of many variations of a given image, not all of which go viral.”

Three people to follow

Guy Kawasaki , former Apple Evangelist, investor, author, and all-around provocative thinker.

Nick Morgan, deep thinker on how we communicate.

Henna Pryor, PCC , who will help you embrace awkwardness and make it a strength.

Three books to read

To Be Honest: Lead with the Power of Truth, Justice and Purpose by Ron A. Carucci (Kogan Page, 2021). How to communicate fairly with your staff without losing your investors . . . or your integrity.

The Subversive Copy Editor: Advice from Chicago (Or, How to Negotiate Good Relationships with Your Writers, Your Colleagues, and Yourself) by Carol Fisher Saller (University of Chicago, 2016). How writers can balance absolute correctness with warmth and meaning.

You Look Like a Thing and I Love You: How Artificial Intelligence Works and Why It’s Making the World a Weirder Place by Janelle Shane (Voracious, 2021). A witty look at machine learning’s triumphs and flaws with oddball examples.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.