The Age of Documentation

This is probably the most adorable advert Apple has ever commissioned. The warmth and EQ is very christmasy, the message is subtle and the technology and features (did you notice the slo mo?) have been sprinkled ever so lightly. It is the perfect concoction of subliminal messaging and good storytelling and is bound to meet Apple’s expectations on the returns.

The advert aptly captures (and attempts to vindicate) our obsession with documenting our lives. Today’s technology has aided, and exacerbated, this nature. Before Instagram, Facebook and Twitter existed, people drew self-portraits, kept diaries, wrote letters and documented life as it happened, but the technology available was never simple and accessible enough to overshadow life itself. You didn’t kiss such that you could take a selfie at the same time, you just kissed (and someone else took a picture and made it the world’s most famous kiss).

Granted that photographs and videos are amazing ways to recall our most beautiful experiences, but somewhere between the Mona Lisa and hashtag we began replacing experiences with tokens of memory. We are so busy capturing the moment (and making it look beautiful) that we hardly enjoy it. Every experience reduced to a dead digital copy, like a thin slice of our life mounted on a microscope slide, labelled, sorted and stored. And let’s not even talk about how we make it even worse by sharing these “experiences” to the world in an attempt to gain approval and feel good about ourselves.

The Real Casualties

[This, is a rant.]

You had to hang him, I thought. I do not sympathize with Afzal and the people he stood for. I do not support their struggle. I believe they are fighting for a chance to jump into a dark chasm they neither understand nor have the capacity to deal with. I abhor them for inflicting pain at my countrymen and I feel quite righteous. But the death penalty was not only unjust, it was damaging for the integrity of this nation. That much I understand. So I winced in disbelief when he was executed. You want us to pay for your stupidities, I thought.

We are caught in a circle of a need that arises due to rampant insurgency and the corruption resulting from the power we have to wield to control it. The media is hand in glove with the government to create a haze of misinformation and bias. The end result is a collective conscience that tears apart this people into blind factions mumbling rhetoric. Or, so I thought.

How easy it is to blame it on “them”, as long as we are excluded. Media hides facts. Government does not act. Security forces misuse their power. What about us? We do nothing. Never in the history of this world has doing nothing felt more powerful. We ride these moral rocking horses, blindfolded, ear reverberating with reasoning and anecdotes that we take at face value, our mouths duct-taped to a continuous supply of intellectual faeces that bloats our minds, leaving it capable of only rousing into murderous rage for frequent but short-lived moments, whence we denounce the world for its mere existence, propounding our self-righteousness in the same breath, eventually subsiding into a state of greater incapacity than furniture. We are not even ornamental.

It does not matter what colour the terror is, because the colour of the blood it spills is always red. It does not matter if your loved ones are safe, because the survivors of a blast are those who get killed, the real casualties (of any terrorism) are the people who witness the massacre and (decide to) live in a world where another blast has been accepted and swept off as that dull, annoying, pestering thing called reality. It does not matter if and when are the terrorists brought to justice, because we, and our inaction, are creating them.

A Compulsory Choice

Joel Pett made this cartoon for the Copenhagen climate change conference in 2009.
Joel Pett made this cartoon for the Copenhagen climate change conference in 2009.

Head a hearty conversation with Anchal on the most cliched topic of our time: Sustainable Development. Posting the summarized conclusion here:

  1. We are trashing the environment and exhausting our limited resources. Our choices and lifestyle need drastic changes because they are continuously tipping the world towards the point of no return. Acting “Green” is not going to help any more.
  2. We are an irrational species by nature and hence the knowledge of the fact stated above is not enough to motivate corrective action. We already know it’s not all hunky-dory.
  3. The two most significant factors which influence our behaviour are: Money & Comfort. As long as the right choices are not cheap and/or easy, we will not change.
  4. Making the right choices appears to capture the entire picture, but it doesn’t. We should not forget that we can only choose from the options we are given.
  5. And this is where the people in power come into the picture, because they not only possess the ability to, but also actively manipulate the world around us to influence the available options.
  6. Globally the actual entities in power are not the governments or the policy makers, but the corporations. They are the puppeteers who run the puppet show called Governance.
  7. That said, even the big corporations are actually “people”, and hence are driven by their instinct to reap immediate profits even at the cost of long term loss. They, exactly like us, are driven by money & comfort.
  8. Two conditions which can change the current situation are: a) We achieve revolutionary technological breakthroughs which replace our limited resources with cleaner, cheaper and more abundant options, & b) Unsustainable practices and methodologies become economically unviable.
  9. The second condition is more or less inevitable; The scarcer our resources become the costlier they will get. But it can be artificially created right now by making policies which monetarily reward sustainable practices and punish unsustainable ones. Do note that this will in turn foster the first condition. The research money automatically flows towards ideas which help the companies cut cost.
  10. Policy changes will stop companies from externalizing the true cost of stuff, thus making business-as-usual uneconomical. And hence this is difficult [and almost impossible] to achieve as the corporations control the policy makers.

In an ideal world, the second condition can be brought about by making the people aware and then using the power of the masses to pressurize governments into enforcing laws which make being unsustainable ridiculously costly. But in our real world, neither us nor the corporations would take any significant steps towards a sustainable future until the situation becomes so grim that taking corrective action becomes not a choice but a compulsion.

The world will never cease to be. But, we can either mend our ways and bear the uncomfort of change to prevent greater loss and irreversible changes to not just our ways of living but also to the planet we call our home. Or else we can wait for the inevitable to forcefully change our ways and put us into greater discomfort. Live long and prosper!

Death by Triangle

The appraisal season is almost over and most of us have received the results in our inboxes and paychecks by now. People who have been promoted or granted a reasonable raise this year might not agree but the rest [which means most of us] would concur that there’s something wrong with the traditional appraisal system followed by most MNCs in the service sector.

The system I am referring to is the one where your performance is appraised by your immediate supervisor by comparing the activities you did through the year to the objectives set by you at the beginning of the year. This appraisal is then laddered and moderated with other, similarly designated, employees of the organisation to make the judgement agnostic to your project or technology. The ratings thus obtained are then used to arrange the employees in a triangle, a sort of pyramid which puts the rare few achievers on the top and the larger set of underperforming employees at the bottom and the rest are crammed into the middle brackets in the order of their ratings.

The proponents of the system claim that it boosts productivity as it motivates the employees to compete. Without a ranking mechanism everybody would just bide their time and the company’s performance would come to a standstill. On the contrary, the system is not only principally incorrect, it also encourages practices which pull the organisation down. This system normally places a third or even lesser number of the employees in the top two rating brackets. In other words, every year, these organisations declare that two thirds, or a majority, of their employees are not good enough. So statistically speaking none of these companies are good enough, considering the performance levels of the people they employ. Customers, are you listening?

Why then are the employees rated as not-so-good retained? For two reasons: Firstly, most of these employees are actually pretty good and deliver as per the expectations. But then why are they ranked low? Well! Because, the simplest and honest [and disgusting to the core] answer is, someone has to be ranked low to maintain the triangle; limited seats on top. And secondly, the few who are genuinely non-performing are also important. Wait a minute!! Non-performers are important?! Yes!! The business of service is as much about quantity as it is about quality. The customers are charged for heads, not brains. So it doesn’t hurt carrying along a few laggards; the customers pay for them anyways.

But how do they manage to pull such atrocities in broad daylight? Well, this is where the wrong practices this system promotes come into picture. It is difficult to classify employees in multiple performance rating levels if the expectations from him are straightforward, objective and based purely on his performance in the work he has been assigned, the work he was actually hired for. SLAs, deadlines and escalations are easy to track and count. So, he is also assigned subjective goals like “value creation” and “people development”. Remember, it is impossible for an employee to do his job properly without implicitly creating value for the organization or developing the people around him, but those contributions cannot be pointed out. And the more tangible and countable acts of such kind are difficult to achieve because: 1. You are not assigned extra time to fulfill these goals. And hence, achieving them affects your routine work 2. You are not trained/equipped/interested enough. Some of us have taxing personal commitments which prevents us from “participating”. 3. Some of these tasks cannot be done on demand. You can’t write n papers or suggest some process improvement ideas every quarter; It happens when it happens.

This finally not only helps the managers to assign poor rankings to some employees who work hard and help the company earn customers, it also tricks these employees into believing that they deserve to be rated low, thus forcing them to either lose their confidence or gather a lot of stress and frustration, rendering the workplace significantly negative. But, the adoption of this system has an even worse result. Much like the evolution of species in nature, these practises have encouraged the growth of some specific type of employees who have adapted themselves to game the system. Every year, along with some really deserving candidates, these companies reward employees who have mastered one or more of these skills: 1. Feigning how difficult their work is, 2. Exaggerating the amount of work they are responsible for, 3. Not sharing knowledge with co-workers or 4. Doing everything other than the project work. This is the reason why you see some undeserving and incapable people around and at times even above you.

And that’s why, when I say “death by triangle”, I am not talking about rating related employee suicides or miserable employees, who are worse than living because they have lost their personal lives and other passions to a system which rates them incorrectly. I am talking about the eventual demise of the companies which are not acknowledging the problems of their appraisal system. But do we have a solution? Definitely. And it is drastically simple and effective. Firstly, follow a binary rating system, track only the parameters which directly govern the employee’s job description. This way at the end of the year the employee hears one of the two outcomes: 1. You’re doing your job well. Keep it up!! or 2. You’re not doing your job well enough. You got 2/3/n months to improve. Sack up!! And secondly, to promote value creation and development of people, recognize and reward all the other non-work related stuff, White papers, presentations, process improvement, participation in events, innovation, etc., on the spot. The employee who amazes you for making it so far and high on the corporate ladder, despite not possessing any employable skills whatsoever, will get easily weeded out with such a system.

Bill Me Later

Bill Me Later, one of eBay’s fastest-growing businesses, offers credit to online shoppers, letting them pay a few months after purchases. Now, from a business point of view this is a fairly exciting update. The service will not only help eBay grow its sales, it will also help Pay-Pal evolve from a mere transactional service to a financial product. Though valid credit-risk issues exist. [Source]

But from a social perspective, it is a development which invokes two very different emotions within me. Firstly, I find it dull because it is nothing new; It is simply another way of offering credit to a hyper-consumerist society. Secondly, and for the same reason, I find it utterly disgusting; It gives us one more reason to consume beyond our economic and ecological limits.

India, traditionally, has not been a country where consumption is appreciated. Our religions, and ideologies, demand self control and discipline in the use of not just tangible material goods, but also intangibles like emotions and senses. Most of us, while growing up, observed our parents making the most of their money, running the household as efficiently as they could, yet spending adequately for important stuff like education or health, and still ending up with a handful of saving at the end of the month.

Why is it then, that despite such an upbringing, this generation, collectively, not only exhausts its entire income in the very first week of the month, but also has virtually zero savings. The situation would look normal, if our lifestyles were mundane. But on the contrary, we dabble in luxury; Everything about us (clothes, gadgets, entertainment, etc.) is branded and expensive. The reason why we do it can be explored upon. But, I want to focus on facilities and social artifacts like Bill Me Later which make it easier and “cooler” to spend more than we should.

The exhibit of desire!! Isn’t it weird that, unlike our parents, we never actually have a list of all the stuff we need when we leave our homes for shopping. We saunter into air-conditioned malls, pick a cart and walk like zombies along the aisles lined with stuff on both sides, filling our carts with not just things we need, but with also a lot of stuff we do not require. Even small shopkeepers have started opening up their display areas to invite customers in, enabling them to pick what they need. And here lies the first problem; The exhibition of stuff appeals to a mysteriously instinctual and very strong urge in human beings to hoard. It makes you believe in needs that you never knew even existed. Retailers are rapidly replicating this experience online, luring us by offering economically unviable rebates (Flipkart, we know what you are doing.). The ease of selection, payment & delivery makes it a better experience, and hence a larger threat.

The death of cash!! Now that you have filled your enormous carts upto the brim, it is time to pay. But you do not need a stash of currency, you just need to swipe your card [and in very near future, may be just tap your smartphone]. The absence of actual currency notes from our transactions numbs our sense of judgement regarding the amount of money we are spending. The use of credit cards worsens the situation as it makes our ability to shop agnostic to our liquidity, making debt an increasingly acceptable option.

The lure of approval!! Annie Leonard’s story of stuff [Link] is probably the best demonstration of the way the businesses use planned and perceived obsolescence to promote more consumption. But are we less responsible? Don’t we try to project ourselves through our snazzy gadgets to hide our imperfections and idiosyncrasies, substituting faster processors for slower wits and sharper displays for blunt manners. Do I really need to buy this thing? Can I find an alternate? Can I borrow it from someone? These are valid questions and we should ask them more frequently. Just because you can afford it doesn’t mean you should.

I am not advocating that buying groceries from small local stores, paying in cash, abandoning credit cards and justifying gadget purchases will magically rid us of our economic troubles. I am assuring that these steps point to a direction that leads to a debt and regret free future.