Friday, July 23, 2010

Phone vexed

I was in the middle of that quaint old custom of reading the morning newspaper when the phone rang. I hoisted myself off the couch and shuffled to the next room to answer the ringing.

Receiver to my ear, I was greeted with silence as if something were being cued up. Then one of those computer-generated voices spoke in a slightly raspy, yet friendly tone:

“Hello. This call is experiencing difficulties. Thank you for your time. Good-bye.”


How odd.

What “difficulties” might the automated “call” be experiencing? A damaged computer chip in its voice simulator? A lapse of computer memory about what it wanted to tell me?

Could this be serious? “Difficulties” carries a troubling, fill-in-the-blank vagueness. Airline passengers know the feeling when the pilot announces, “We are experiencing difficulties with engine number 3.”

Oh really?

Should I worry about phone computer difficulties? Was the intended message important? “Your credit card shows five purchases exceeding $1 million each. Please call 1 (800) XXX-XXXX to inform us whether the purchases were authorized by you.”

After imagining several similar scenarios, I clung to one part of the message as a sign of hope. The voice was grateful for my time. “Thank you for your time,” said the computer.

Perhaps time — my time — was all the computer needed to reboot or clear its memory or do whatever computers do with time when they are having “difficulties.”

Could time address the problem? For all of the changes we’ve seen, time remains the constant that cures all.

At least let's hope so.

When time itself "experiences difficulties," the very last message for eternity may be, "Thank you for your time. Good-bye."

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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

"Bandwidth" and other unhelpful metaphors

I have a friend and colleague on a non-profit board who frequently complains that our organization “lacks bandwidth” to do this or that.

The image has limited his perception of our problem. I have the feeling that he isn’t alone — that the metaphor, and other computer images like it, are common in organizations.

The problem with the bandwidth image is that it suggests a solution that

a) requires money (one buys more bandwidth) and

b) is probably technological (in this case, the size of a data pipeline).

The fact is that our organization doesn’t require more money (although that would be nice) and its needs aren’t technological.

Simply put, we need more concerned, dedicated volunteers to join us. A simple invitation or an alluring event might do the job.

I’m increasingly sensitive to how our chosen metaphors narrow and distort our perceptions and hence our options. They cramp our understanding and bar us from solutions.

Warnings about the dangers of choosing the wrong metaphor are hardly a new. Vis George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their “Metaphors We Live By.”

When we find ourselves stuck in our thinking it is often because our defining metaphor has led us astray.

The answer to the problem often lies in asking more questions: What metaphor are we relying on? Is it helpful or misleading? Does it unduly narrow our options? Do we need to change the metaphor?

What would happen if we untethered ourselves and used no metaphor at all?

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