Place-centered Sociality
Conversations and Conversationalists in Social Media

Motivations, Conversations and Book-Centered Sociality

I attended talks by three authors last week - Daniel Pink, David Allen and Bryant Simon - all presenting their work in different formats, styles and contexts. Daniel Pink had a conversation with Warren Etheredge at a Biznik event on Tuesday night at Hotel 1000 Seattle about a range of topics, including Dan's latest book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. David Allen, who was in town promoting the release of the paperback version of his latest book, Making It All Work, was interviewed by Buzz Bruggeman at a dinner and discussion event at a cafe in Seattle on Wednesday night. Bryant Simon gave a lecture-style talk about his book, Everything But the Coffee: Learning About America from Starbucks, at Elliott Bay Book Company on Thursday night. Each of the authors offered valuable insights, but the format and style of each event affected my experiences, in positive and negative ways. Given my recent post on place-centered sociality, it strikes me that each of the events offered variation on a theme that I might call book-centered sociality.

Drive-DanielPink Lara Feltin, co-founder and CEO of Biznik, introduced Dan Pink and Warren Etheredge, briefly describing the three main themes of "Drive" - autonomy, mastery and purpose (AMP) - and noting the importance of this kind of social networking event for the independent business owners who make up Biznik: "we're all in this alone, but we're all in this together". Indeed, considerable conversation flowed throughout the event - between Dan and Warren, as well as with members of the audience - which was all the more appropriate given Dan's definition of a book as "a basket of ideas" that spread "conversation by conversation". Sometimes, though, the conversation seemed to veer into areas that didn't seem terribly relevant, or resonant (with me), as when Warren asked Dan whether being a speechwriter for Al Gore was sometimes like being a choreographer for Stephen Hawking (ouch!) and at one point Dan noted that the event seemed like the "poor man's Jerry Springer show".

I've long been intrigued by intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivations, and found many of Dan's examples to be interesting. Among the tidbits shared during the conversations were:

  • A study of incentives for parental pickup promptness at an Israeli day-care center showed that introducing fines to increase incentives for prompt pickups led to the unintended consequence of more parents arriving late, and this increased lateness did not diminish again once the fines were removed ["A Fine is a Price", by Uri Gneezy and Aldo Rustichini, The Journal of Legal Studies, Vol. 29 (January 2000)]. One possible explanation is that market incentives (fines) are less effective than non-market incentives (guilt). Another possible explanation is that the fines ($3) were too low - at least in comparison to the monthly day-care costs ($380) - to offer any real incentives.
  • A study at a Gothenburg blood center provided another example of how the introduction of monetary payments reducing the intrinsic motivation to behave altruistically or perform one’s civic duty ["Crowding Out in Blood Donation: Was Titmuss Right?", by Carl Mellström and Magnus Johannesson, Journal of the European Economic Association, June 2008, Vol. 6, No. 4, Pages 845-863]. Three conditions were setup for offering compensation for donating blood: no compensation, a $7 payment, and a choice to either accept $7 or donate it to charity. There were significant gender differences in the response rates: 52% of women and 29% of men offered no compensation donated blood; 30% of women and 37% of men offered $7 chose to donate blood; 53% of women and 33% of men offered the choice of $7 paid to them or charity (the Swedish Children's Cancer Foundation) donated blood, with 77% of women and 69% of men who donated blood choosing the option to donate the $7 to charity.

One of the most interesting developments during the evening was a debate that arose between Dan and one of the people in the audience regarding Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development, and specifically about the gender differences in responses to the "Heinz Dilemma":

Heinz Steals the Drug

In Europe, a woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to make. He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman's husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about $1,000 which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said: "No, I discovered the drug and I'm going to make money from it." So Heinz got desperate and broke into the man's store to steal the drug-for his wife. Should the husband have done that?

I'm not sure which study - or studies - were being referenced, but suspect one of them was "Gender Differences in Moral Development", by Geri R. Donenberg and Lois W. Hoffman [Behavioral Science, Vol. 18, No. 11-12, pp. 707-717, June 1988], in which girls were inclined to prioritize care over justice (i.e., more likely to support the husband's decision to break the law in order to procure the treatment to care for his wife) and boys were evenly split, though the priority of justice over care increased in both sexes with age.

One of the most interesting aspects of the debate was entirely tangential to the topic of discussion: shortly after the issue of which studies they were referencing arose, someone shouted out "Who has an iPhone?" Despite having enjoyed the use of some of the most advanced mobile devices produced by different technology companies for many years, the iPhone really is a game changer: with the Internet always in my pocket (or in my hand), there are no more rhetorical question ... and the shout-out at the event suggests I'm not alone in this assessment.

I enjoyed some of the conversations at this book talk, and all of the conversations before and after (Biznik has some of the most sociable, approachable and outgoing members of any networking group I've ever encountered). My interest was sufficiently piqued to put the book on my "to-read" stack (the book was included as part of the price of admission, along with some fabulous appetizers and wine ... reminding me of earlier posts I'd written about wine-centered sociality and people, food and other objects of sociality). Ultimately, though, I don't feel I came away with a good sense for what the book is about - beyond Lara's introduction, where she briefly noted the three themes of automony, mastery and purpose. In the online discussion about the event, I expressed this sentiment, but I appear to be in the minority. I suppose this is not so surprising, given that the main focus of Biznik is to provide business networking opportunities, and the conversational format was more aligned with other types of Biznik events than, say, other book talks I've been to where a longer, lecture-style presentation has enabled me to write a blog post about the book based [solely] on the author's presentation (e.g., as I did for Daniel Gilbert's book [talk] on Stumbling on Happiness). However, it's worth nothing that several people who expressed preference for this conversational format had already read the book, and/or had seen Dan Pink's TED talk (which I include below). [Update: Alan Alabastro has posted some great photos from the event.]

GTD I encountered a variation on the conversational format the following evening, at a dinner and networking event organized by Buzz Bruggeman, to which he'd invited David Allen, the time management guru who created a system for - and wrote the book about - Getting Things Done. I bought and read the book - and experimented with system, several years ago - but I consider myself a lapsed GTDer ... or at least I did prior to Wednesday evening. Buzz composed a set of 10 questions for David, and while there was some dialogue, it was more of a question and answer format than the conversational format I saw the previous night. This somewhat more structured Q&A portion was followed by a more informal session where others who attended the networking dinner were invited to ask questions. Perhaps it was because, in this case, I'd already read the book - or one of the books - but I felt I got more out of this instance of book-centered sociality than I did out of the preceding night's conversation(s).

Making-it-all-work Even though I got a lot out of David's talk, I'm not going to write much about it ... in part because this post is already getting pretty long, but mostly because the biggest thing I got out of his talk was a renewed motivation to give Getting Things Done another go ... in the hope of Making It All Work (which involves doing, not just writing [about doing]). I envision this as a manifestation of another dimension of book-centered sociality, aligned with the notion of book as knowledge object, a topic that I wrote about in my place-centered sociality post:

Knorr Cetina [author of "Sociality with Objects: Social Relations in Postsocial Knowledge Societies"] also speaks of unfolding. Later in her article, she looks specifically at knowledge objects, and how they are increasingly produced by specialists and experts rather than through a broader form of participatory interpretation. She argues that experts' relationships with knowledge objects can be best characterized by the notion of lack and a corresponding structure of wanting [emphasis hers] because these objects "seem to have the capacity to unfold indefinitely": new results that add to objects of knowledge have the side effect of opening up new questions. This perpetual unfolding gives rise to "a libidinal dimension or dimension of knowledge activities" - an "arousal" and "deep emotional investment" - by the person studying the knowledge object.

However my book-centered sociality with GTD may unfold, I will share a few tidbits from David's talk. He said that his two motivations for creating the GTD system were personal growth and laziness: by spending as little time as possible on the things he has to get done, he can free up more time for the more creative things he wants to do. He claims that once you read (and embrace) GTD, you never have another thought twice, you never have to rethink anything. As a chronic thinker - and rethinker - I find this prospect appealing, and yet last time I tried to use GTD, I encountered a great deal of resistance, and felt it didn't fit my style well. I asked David whether he believed in different personality types and/or the theory of multiple intelligences, and if so whether he believed GTD is useful to people regardless of their personality or learning types. He replied that he did, and some of his most creative clients in Hollywood are finding that adopting the structure of GTD is freeing them to be even more creative.

David also spoke about his embrace of social media, especially Twitter, where @GTDguy now has over 1.4 million followers, describing the service as "a global cocktail party". One of the most tweetworthy insights he shared was "A lot of people want to have it right before they express it, but you won't know if it's right until you start to express it" ... I don't know if he's tweeted this, but I have, as it provides a succinct summary of one of my primary motivations for embracing social media.

[And speaking of tweets and getting things done, I can't help but mention an anti-GTD tweet I recently retweeted by TalkingPointsMemo, about a reaction to the election of Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts this week:

Dem Senate staffer: Now they're relieved bc 'they have a ready excuse for not getting anything done' ]

Here's a video of David Allen giving a talk on Getting Things Done at Google about two years ago:

Everything But the Coffee: Learning About America from Starbucks, by Bryant Simon On Thursday night, I attended a more traditional book talk by Bryant Simon, a history professor at Temple University who wrote a book about Starbucks - Everything But the Coffee: Learning About America from Starbucks - that I'd already read ... and used as the launching point for a [long] blog post about coffee, conversation, community and culture at Starbucks (Bryant recently launched a new web site for the book, Everything But The Coffee).  Ironically, in some ways, my blog post had focused on only a subset of the themes that Bryant writes about in his book, whereas his book talk at Elliott Bay Book Company provided a broader overview of these themes (vs. the Dan Pink talk / conversation earlier in the week, which focused on a subset of themes in his book, whereas I was looking for the broader overview ... in order to write about it on my blog).

In a special case of book-centered sociality, I had an opportunity to meet with Bryant the morning of his book talk, along with my friend Jason Simon (@CoffeeShopChat), who writes the Caffeinated Conversations blog. We originally planned to meet at Roy Street Coffee, one of the new mercantile / street-level coffee shops recently opened by Starbucks in Seattle, but he was there the previous evening to meet with / be interviewed by Starbucks Melody (who also showed up later to his book talk). So we decided to a meet at one of my favorite independent coffeeshops, Tougo Coffee, in the Central District, which has one of the strongest senses of community of any coffee shop I've been to in the Seattle area.

To help compensate for the narrower focus in my earlier post about Bryant's book, I will share some of the broader themes that he highlighted in his talk. Bryant's initial motivation was to write a book about place, exploring the differences between Starbucks stores in cities, suburbs and other types of places, as well as differences across different cities, states and countries. But after several years of compiling interviews, observations and analysis from the 425 stores in 9 countries he'd visited, he felt that he really didn't have much to say about these differences ... but he did have a great deal to say about what we wanted in our lives, what we were lacking, and how Starbucks fulfills - or doesn't fulfill - those wants and needs.

He decided to re-organize the book based on where these desires have come from, and how or why they weren't being met - or perhaps shouldn't be met - by Starbucks (and/or other large corporations ... including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting):

  • Our desire for authenticity
  • Our desire for safety and predictability
  • Our desire for real community and connection
  • Our desire for easy discovery
  • Our desire for political correctness, social justice, environmental justice

If I were to summarize these tensions, it would be our increasing preference for homogeneity over heterogeneity: our inclination to stick with the people, places and things we know, and our disinclination to explore new frontiers, e.g., strike up a conversation with a stranger, visit a new place, listen to new music ... and our unwillingness to invest much time or energy in moving outside of our comfort zones.

It's not clear to me how much Bryant sees Starbucks as a cause vs. an effect of these trends. In many cases, it seems that Starbucks is simply giving us what we want. At one point, Bryant read a passage from his book about the legendary cleanliness of Starbucks bathrooms, which included a quote by a New York mayor who once said that the city didn't need to provide more public bathrooms because there were so many Starbucks around. Bryant noted the significant disparity in the relative number of Starbucks in Manhattan vs. the Bronx (i.e., only some parts of New York, and the socio-economic classes in New York, were being served by the growth of Starbucks), but I think that the larger issue is a failure of public officials and public policy, rather than the fault of a private corporation.

Someone in the audience said that she'd been involved with Starbucks since the 70s, and she believes this is the best book ever written about the company. I've only read one other book about Starbucks, Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time; while Bryant expresses rather cynical views on that book (and its author), I was inspired by Howard Schultz' promotion of passion, partnership and perseverance. Although it may seem somewhat incongruous, I also really like Bryant's book, and while I do not share his cynicism about Starbucks (or Schultz), I think he raises a number of really important issues, about Starbucks and about America ... and about culture, community and commerce.

In fact, I hope Bryant's book will help instigate conversation and debate about the broader issues I see as lying at the heart of his book: how do we motivate more of the pioneering / exploratory / frontier spirit that was once such a core part of the American ideal, how do we provide the kind of community support - which involves a mixture of encouragement and dissent - for that spirit, and how do we integrate market and non-market incentives in ways that promote social and economic wealth?  His book offers an opportunity for greater awareness, reflection and discussion about what's really important to us ... and that's the kind of sociality I look for in a good book ... and a good book talk.

Just to round things out on the video dimension, here's a YouTube video of Bryant Simon at the 2007 Taste3 conference:

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