Paco Nathan
Mar 20, 2016 · 9 min read

A worrisome lot, let’s give a name to it. These are social systems based on marginalized attention, rallying around tools that ostensibly improve a workplace. Pay a little bit of attention, just enough, to keep group discussions moving forward.

For the record: I use Slack and enjoy using it for specific purposes. In one example, we use Slack in our online courses to provide a social channel for learning. Instructors hold office hours in Slack channels before courses start. They field Q&A during instruction. Participants can discuss with each other, for peer mentoring: answering repeated questions, sharing insights about topics, etc. Quite useful.

However, after a second experience watching Slack get introduced at a company — if you will, to modify the culture — a few observations stuck. About the same time, criticisms began to surface about the group chat service that “acts like your wise-cracking robot sidekick” and other of its ilk. Here are a few:

Good stuff. Quite a range of viewpoints and insights. Criticisms aside for a moment, there’s an inherent conflict on the table. In the book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman describes two systems — one that’s fast, intuitive, emotional; another which is slower, reasoning, deliberate. While both systems have their fair share of cognitive biases associated, we must recognize how both work together if we want to understand the dynamics that shape our collective judgments.

Slack’s been a game-changer for the fast component. Its features aren’t particularly new — at least not to those who’ve used IRC, Jabber, and other tools over the years to accomplish their work. The thing about Slack, at least to me, is how its features for using an established medium were simple to use, simple to teach. Read: less learning curve, less struggle. In other words, since group chat wasn’t relegated to the developer teams anymore, it could be rolled out across an entire company. That’s where the cultures of companies began to shift, not merely their engineering subcultures.

My main criticism about Slack is that perhaps it’s been too effective. Making Kahneman’s fast system approachable enabled some excellent use cases: adding a better social dimension to an online classroom lives near the top of my list, followed closely by enabling better customer service. However, the popularity of this tool emerged at a time when the slower thinking wasn’t quite getting a boost.

Email plays the antagonist for so many of the stories arguing on behalf of why organizations should adopt Slack. Rather, the overwhelming tyranny of the looming email inbox plays the unchecked threat. At this point, I judge the quality of a day at work by how close my inbox gets to a “tolerable ideal” — current about 50 outstanding messages. So, if we could all agree to use chat in lieu of the noisy email messages broadcasted to groups, then we’d suffer less at the inbox altar. Or something. Great point, if you squint your eyes enough.

Late in 1993, I got asked to give a closing plenary talk at a Virtual Reality conference in Vienna. It was a treat: chestnuts roasted by street vendors, amazing talks across a wide range of topics. I sat next to a young MIT professor named Pattie Maes who, arguably, was a couple years shy of launching the first large-scale commercial machine learning use case on the Internet. Leading up to my talk, there was a definite buzz in the air about technology and progress. Then I walked up to the podium at the end, to present summary perspectives.

By 1993 I’d been using email for work for over a decade. The talk presented estimates for how much time and attention was required to produce and consume various forms of media, and for the relative extent of immersion that resulted. For example, talk radio isn’t particularly difficult to produce, and it can broadcast across a huge audience. Listeners may be driving cars, busy at work, etc., not particularly absorbed in the medium — until some item piques their attention. On the other hand, live theatre takes much effort to produce — lots of time invested by the players, director, etc., while the audience at a good performance gets quite immersed. Not exactly the kind of thing you do while driving a car through freeway traffic.

Amidst some charts comparing these media, I placed email in for a tangible comparison of a new-ish medium— so that our VR audience could consider the implications of immersive, interactive media. My point was that answering email requires time and attention, which are fixed resources for an individual. After some threshold number of incoming messages per day, an individual can no longer interact effectively. In 1993, I targeted that threshold at roughly 200 email message per day that required thoughtful response. Given the asymmetric nature of receiving email, a person could get upside-down with a 200 msg/day threshold rather quickly.

Shortly before the talk, an executive from Alcatel approached me about possible consulting. Afterwards I was informed not to make further content with Alcatel. This an early-adopter crowd, in the early 1990s. They believed in future magic, how Virtual Reality would utterly transform society. Believing in email as a technological savior for distributed social systems — that was a given, a basic tenet. Assumed. Any questioning would represent heresy.

Even so, email hit the mainstream two years later, and spam became an social issue not much longer after that. In the US, it became a legislative issue with the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003. The text of that legislation was about “canning” spam, though in effect corporate attorneys lobbing to pass this law during the G.W. Bush administration were those who profited because as a result they can spam, in a legally protected way. Email clearly became the antagonist of many stories.

Which brings us back to thinking fast and slow. Features required for software to enable a fast system aren’t particularly daunting. Slack has executed on that quite well. An earlier generation had done similarly well for email features. In contrast, what software features would enable slow thinking? I’m not convinced that’d fit neatly into an API and a mobile app. Investors tend to prefer ventures that leverage mobile apps, not the other way around. Admittedly, we have a bias to fund the fast thinking, not the slow.

Which brings us back to organizations and media. What happens when the fast outpaces the slow? Clearly, we have popular tools that can make fast thinking become part of our required business process. Look at the number and variety of plugins available for Slack. Having tools, to some, implies a compelling need to leverage said tools. To institutionalize their use, preferably. That’s what’s happening now, as companies tilt toward Slack en masse. Which is where we apply the #ASAPcultures label.

That VR Vienna 93 report examined attention in the context of asymptotes and diminishing returns. A later version published in FringeWare Review pushed its satire as a system of partial differential equations. The serious subtext is about human scale and limitations, about the realities of marginalized attention.

For one thing, when cultures shift and begin to enforce marginalized attention, that presents a gawdawesomelyacute condition for toxic workers to seize the day. If you work in HR at a company which recently adopted Slack, I dare you to examine the discussions and swear to me that the relatively toxic types aren’t having an absolute field day. Double dare you. Not holding my breath.

That’s important. Software features that enhance one segment of a group likely diminish other segments. However, there’s a larger issue brewing…

Who exactly in an organization has the time to be engaging in Slack? Sure, there are plenty of excellent use cases, but people who tend to dominate conversations in group chat are those who’re skilled at trolling, intimidating, gaslighting, along with any of a number of cognitive biases associated with fast thinking — or simply those who have a bunch of time to kill.

One rather disturbing aspect of institutionalized group chat is the notion of “democracy” in the workplace. I watched, horrified, as one organization practiced their idea of democratizing workplace decisions. If someone popped up in a Slack channel claiming to be an authority on a subject, and no one else shot down their claim then BOOM! they became christened as an authority. If there was a process or policy debated at work, people would vote on Slack for some indeterminate period, then BOOM! policy changed. Slack as town meeting … assuming that everyone participates in Slack. However, other people in the company were out doing their jobs. Out working with customers on location, presenting on stage at conferences, closing sales deals in calls. Those people, the doers not the talkers, didn’t have time to waste on the noise of group chat. Even so, the doers — even the executives — soon found their business policies out-voted via Slack.

That example may appear extreme, but it illustrates the trend:
institutionalized ignorance by the fast outpacing the slow. Not merely that duality of fast and slow, but also consider the contrast between talkers and doers. Quotes saved from those Slack discussions above would fit well within scenes in Mike Judge’s 2006 film Idiocracy. All too well.

This is where a redux from 1993 enters stage left. The current “given” for social systems based on group chat introduces a fallacy. Based on human scale, on human limitations. The systemization of group chat across companies is leading toward a kind of workplace discrimination. Not everywhere. Many companies are being proactive, with execs describing good chat practices versus bad chat practices. Leaders step in to level-set what kind of company culture should be in place. Those represent positive examples. The misuse of a medium is based on organizational issues, not technology features, so let the organizations fix them. In a perfect world, yes that’s quite apropos. However, the negative examples will continue to surface — where companies simply don’t have time or understanding about how to “fix” their organizational issues. Some of the negative examples will turn ugly. Employees will get demoted, placed on PIP, walked out the door. Soon.

I’m placing 4:1 odds that within 2–3 years we’ll begin to see workplace discrimination lawsuits based on group chat practices. Lawsuits against employers that institute harmful practices. Because chat. Rather, because chat is no longer just a tool for the developer subculture, instead it’s becoming a requirement for the workplace.

That’s not to say that Slack, Basecamp, HipChat, etc., are necessarily at fault. People have a right to misuse tools (and media) as poorly as can be imagined. Even so, I question some of the business models around group chat services. If a venture deliberately chooses to monetize a feature because it emphasizes discrimination — in aggregate — then at what point does their business practice cross over into willful negligence? Those who create the group chat services are also those who have optics into the good and the bad resulting from their use, at scale.

I work at a media company, leading a group of a few dozen people. In turn we work closely with several dozen other people every day. About 30% of my work day is scheduled in meetings, sometimes 3–4 deep. During those meetings, co-workers open private chats on G+, Slack, Skype, etc., to clarify critical points about the subtext of the meetings. Meanwhile, other people in my group are texting, sending email, leaving voice mail, scheduling more meetings. Piling on. We’re supposed to be experts at leveraging media, and frankly our use of these tools is nowhere nearly as heinous as what I’d observed at the past couple of A16z portfolio firms. Where’s the asymptote for that kind of culture? Or its breaking point?

Meanwhile, for #ASAPcultures apologists out there, those espousing a tyranny of fast thinking over slow, I have two words: brace yourselves. Or rather, five: “May we approach the bench?” Welcome to one of the more powerful realities of slow thinking. To paraphrase another recent article about abusing email: looking at what’s ahead, I’d much rather be on the side of what works than what doesn’t.


"In the loop…" https://derwen.ai/

Paco Nathan

Written by

evil mad scientist https://derwen.ai/paco ; co-chair https://rev.dominodatalab.com/ ; lives on a tiny orchard in Ecotopia



"In the loop…" https://derwen.ai/

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