How Can One Change Their Present Situation? Part II — Information Nexus

In a 2013 This American Life broadcast titled Trends with Benefits, a reporter was investigating the trend of ballooning disability claims. Their investigation led them to Hale County, Alabama, where nearly one in four working age people were on disability. Chana Joffe-wait, the investigative reporter, was interviewing Ethel Thomas, one such resident on disability. Chana asked her, “In your dream world, if you could have a different job that you could do with your back, what would that be?” Ethel shook her head and responded, “Mmm. I hadn’t really thought about it.” Forty-five minutes later, after Chana had moved on to interview Ethel’s husband and was getting ready to leave, Ethel stopped her. Ethel told Chana that she had thought about her question, and that her perfect job was the one that the woman at the front desk of the Social Security Office had. This answer perplexed Chana. Why would Ethel’s dream job be to work at the Social Security Office? Was it that she thought she would be really good at weeding out the fakers? After a few more back and forths, Chana discovered that this wasn’t the case. Ethel wanted the woman’s job merely because she gets to sit. This realization left Chana even more baffled. Why that specific job instead of the myriad of others where one could sit?

In part I of this series, I introduced three fundamental keys to economic mobility — Financial Capital, Information Nexus, and Effort. Part I was dedicated on discussing the first key, Financial Capital. I concluded that although it is the most impactful of the three, it is also the most difficult to achieve since powerful vested interests will work to prevent the transferring of capital to those of lower socioeconomic quartiles. Therefore, while not abandoning the fight of providing financial capital to the have-nots of society, we must also explore alternative keys to economic mobility like information nexus and effort.

Being Aware of What Options to Think Of

In the most basic definition, information nexus means proximity and access to information. In a discussion about improving one’s current situation, it goes without saying that the ways to do so must be known to a given individual. As it turns out, this basic knowledge of opportunities is a scarce resource in many communities.

Throughout my short life, I’ve gotten the chance to be part of many communities. In chronological order, I’ve been part of a community of Abia State residents in Nigeria, a community of middle class youth and incredible basketball players in San Antonio, Texas (one member of which recorded a triple double in the NBA and another a current all-star in Europe), a community of University of Texas at Dallas students, one of Texas Tech university students in Lubbock, Texas, a community of artists, film-makers, and musicians in San Francisco, a community of programmers in Oakland, attorneys in the Silicon Valley, western and non-western expats in Chongqing, and African expats and businesspeople in Beijing, Suzhou, and Shanghai. Many of these communities exposed me to options that I previously never knew existed. This has been the common theme in my life; the pervasiveness of information gaps that exist across communities.

Witnessing these information gaps left me continuously fixated on a seemingly obvious, but illusively understated fact of reality — awareness of programming as a potential job opportunity might be high in certain areas like the Silicon Valley, but much less in others. I confided with a former classmate about my fascination with this topic and how blown away I was every time I learned of a new, seemingly obvious option that I was previously unaware of. He told me that he could relate coming from Midwestern United States to the Silicon Valley. In his words, he saw options that he was never even aware to think of until he went to law school in the Silicon Valley. He pointed me to the This American Life broadcast with Ethel. In the broadcast, when Chana asked Ethel, why the job at the Social Security Office? Why not any other job? Ethel answered that it was the only job that she could think of that she can sit all day and do. Like myself in various points in my life and my friend prior to moving to the Silicon Valley, Ethel was not even aware of what other options to think of.

More Than Just Awareness

Is this really possible? Can an adult anywhere in the world go their whole life without being aware of such basic options such as a job where a person could sit all day? If you’re feeling skeptical, you’re not alone. At first Chana could not believe it either. Then she took a look at the jobs listings in Ethel’s town which read, “Occupational therapist, McDonald’s, McDoanld’s, truck driver heavy lifting, KFC, registered nurse, McDonald’s.” I would bet that the jobs listings in the Silicon Valley where my friend and I had went to law school would look very different.

But even if Ethel had, perhaps on television, had passing exposure to a job where one could sit, does this type of exposure really amount to information nexus? No. A fact far too overlooked about information gaps is that true information nexus requires more than just passing awareness. It requires the type of awareness that is only possible through daily interactions. It requires being a routine witness to opportunities so that one may have a chance to understand, step-by-step, how to take advantage of such opportunity. It requires providing one’s imagination with more than just a fleeting chance to project oneself as possessing a particular skill, job, or desired outcome that they had previously not known of. This is one of the reasons why if you live next to many programmers, you’re more likely to be a programmer, and if you live next to many excellent basketball players, you’re more likely to yourself be an excellent basketball player. Not just because you are made aware of such opportunities, but in one part because you are a daily witness to the step-by-step process of achieving such desired goal.

Exposure to Goal-Relevant Information

Everyday exposure to options continuously primes the brain to be able to form the cognitive strategies required to achieve the desired outcome presented by the option. Many people are aware, at least on a basic level, that to be a basketball player takes practice. But understanding exactly what that practice entails, and having frequent exposure to it so that the steps are readily primed and recallable in memory are a very different beast. When it comes to motivating factors that lead one to engage in the actions necessary to become the next Lebron James, the latter type of awareness is necessary. Similarly, many people are aware that resources like MOOCs exist, but might lack the immersive environment necessary to understand 1) why a particular subject is relevant to me, 2) what are the possible rewards (so that one might have explicit motivation), and 3) what affective (emotional) responses does this option produce in me.

Number three is especially important. As I will discuss in more detail in part iv, most of the endeavors that allow us to improve our position in life are cognitively effortful. And being humans, we have a strong aversion towards cognitively effortful tasks. Motives are what energize us to make the moment to moment behavioral choices to choose cognitive (and physical) labor over cognitive leisure. Between implicit and explicit motivation, implicit motivation is easily the more powerful and sustainable of the two. Implicit motivation is what allows people to engage in spontaneous behavior in pursuit of goals.

My Journey in Becoming a Programmer

A good example of the understated advantages of information nexus that go beyond mere awareness is my own journey in becoming a programmer. During my second year of law school I worked for a social media company. I got the opportunity to spend two months in Istanbul with the development team. This involved partaking in daily scrums and watching them program the various parts of the company’s social-networking sites. It was the first time in my life I got to see actual programmers doing…well, programming. It was the first time that the concept of “a programmer” was more than just an abstract idea. And it was the first time I formed a vague goal of someday becoming a programmer.

When I returned home to the Silicon Valley, I started seeing the world completely different. I started noticing programming everywhere, in the apps I used, in legal cases I was reading, and the hi-tech companies all over the Silicon Valley. This change to how I saw the world is a well studied phenomenon that occurs as a result of being exposed to new information. Various findings suggest that “the activation of goal in memory, whether by conscious or nonconscious means, implicity influences how [a] person sees and acts in the world.” I, for the first time, had some basic knowledge accessible in memory about what a programmer is and as a result was seeing the world differently. Greater accessibility of goal-relevant knowledge makes one more likely to notice goal-relevant objects in the environment. And indeed I all of sudden started noticing meetups relating to programming, tech events, and so on. However, while I had a desire to someday in the future become a programmer, it was still a far-away, not quite “real” desire. I still was not adequately motivated to engage in the actions necessary to actually become a programmer.

The next great motivating force would be watching my brother become a programmer. After I took the bar exam, I lived with my brother while I waited for the results. During this time he was working in insurance benefits. I watched him leave for work everyday, come home around 6pm, and then get to work on his desire to become a software developer. I watched him go to Noisebridge, the local hackerspace in Oakland. And I would watch him and a friend get together every weekend, set up the table in the living room, and hack away on a given project.

This repeated exposure had a profound effect on me. It repeatedly linked specific situations (after work and on the weekends) and specific behaviors (work through the programming book “Python Cookbook”) to a specific goal (become a programmer). The biggest push however, was seeing him land his first job as a programmer. I helped draft and negotiate his employment contract. That was the moment that this whole become a programmer thing finally came full circle. The process I watched him do everyday was finally connected with the desired outcome, land a job as a programmer. At this point I had plenty of exposure, plenty of goal-relevant memories, and could engage in effective goal-pursuit spontaneously without feeling like I was doing effortful cognitive work.

Why Do We Frame the Advantage of Information Nexus As Mere Awareness?

It is not too difficult to paint a persuasive picture of the importance of information nexus and an immersive environment in goal-pursuit. Goals are mental representations in memory. Usually, the more exposure to a given stimulus, the more readily activated the memory is. The more a goal is repeatedly linked with a specific situation and a specific behavior, the more likely one is to engage in spontaneous goal pursuit. Simply put, the more accessible a goal-relevant memory is, the more effective the goal pursuit.

Being that the accessibility of goal-relevant knowledge has such a strong effect on implicit motivation, and that exposure to goal-relevant information in one’s environment is strongly related with accessibility of a goal in memory– why do so many intelligent people continue to wrongly insinuate that merely letting someone know of a given opportunity is equal to real information nexus? Why do we not talk about information nexus with this type of detail that it deserves and instead only speak as if merely being aware of a given option, or having a few hours of someone advising you about an option is enough? The answer is simple. It is very easy to overlook a privilege and advantage that one has and information nexus is no exception. We have to do a better job espousing the issue of information gaps across communities and making it known that mere awareness does not equal true information nexus.

In part III of this four-part series I will discuss potential solutions to the problem of information gaps amongst communities.