Navigating Attention-Driving Algorithms, Capturing the Premium of Proximity for Virtual Teams, & New AI Devices
When we lose the reins of our attention, we compromise our judgment. And, why should hybrid teams miss out on the benefits of proximity and spontaneity? Let's explore the implications of these topics.
Edition #12 of Implications.
This edition explores forecasts and implications around: (1) new laws emerging in the era of AI-powered algorithms that evolve our natural human tendencies, (2) the premium of proximity for teams and new methods and technologies that get teams aligned and culturally connected in a distributed world, and (3) some surprises at the end - including my take on a few topics of note...
If you’re new, here’s the rundown on what to expect. This ~monthly analysis is written for founders + investors I work with, colleagues, and a small group of subscribers. I aim for quality and provocation vs. frequency and trendiness. We don’t cover news; we explore the implications of what’s happening. My goal is to ignite discussion, socialize edges that may someday become the center, and help all of us to connect dots.
If you missed the big annual analysis or more recent editions of Implications, check out recent analysis and archives here. A few highlights include strange ways that AI will disrupt business models, collapsing the talent stack and persona-led growth, much needed sobriety for venture investors, and what’s next for creativity. OK, now let’s dive in…
The new era of AI-powered algorithms will evolve our natural human tendencies and influence our daily lives.
No doubt, technology influences us in many ways we don’t fully understand. But one area where valid concerns run rampant is the attention-seeking algorithms powering the news and media we consume on modern platforms that efficiently polarize people. Perhaps we’ll call it The Law of Anger Expansion: When people are angry in the age of algorithms, they become MORE angry and LESS discriminate about who and what they are angry at. While this isn’t directly related to TikTok or Twitter/X algorithms or the Middle East crisis or rising antisemitism (and everyone becoming more anti-something), it does help explain how these factors are all building blocks for a rather efficient engine of hysteria. So, what are the implications worth exploring?
Algorithms that optimize for grabbing attention, thanks to AI, ultimately drive polarization. Let’s start with understanding how these algorithms work at a conceptual level. When you’re engaging with content that reinforces anything you’re passionate (or angry) about, the algorithm not only feeds you more similar content but also widens the content queue with variations of content from adjacent people. The algorithms are designed to keep and intensify your attention. As a result, the surface area of topics or reasons that stoke and feed your anger increases - and this often includes manipulated media and fake news that was tailor-made to do so. As you get amped up, you click, watch, share, and engage even more (and an even wider array of reinforcing content is queued up to serve to you - and to people similar to you). The AI learns quickly that a rational or “both sides” view is less likely to sustain your attention (so you won’t get many of those, which drives the sensation that more of the world agrees with you). But the rage-inducing stuff keeps us swiping. The outcome of all this is expanding the surface area of what triggers you (along with the opportunity to serve you more ads). As you can see, this technology works wonderfully when you love football and seek camaraderie and endless stimulation about your favorite team, but it is dangerous when you’re angry about a polarizing topic and going down a rabbit hole.
Our feeds are being sourced in ways that dramatically change the content we’re exposed to. Until 2018 our feeds were largely sourced from our social network (see the left side of the graphic above). While the content we saw was arguably less diverse in origin, we actually got a wide range of content about a wide range of topics determined solely by who we were connected to. Ironically, our feeds in the era of the social graph provided more diversity in viewpoints and discovery of nuance. The anger expressed was more narrow, as it was presented evenly alongside pictures of your friends’ kids and other innocuous and somewhat random topics. But in the age of sophisticated algorithmic feeds, our feeds are now sourced from a subset of everyone’s social network (see image on the right, above) in ways that grab our attention far more efficiently than our own friends - most often in ways that reinforce or broaden the surface area of our strongest views. These modern feeds are constructed in ways that bring us further and faster down the funnel of our deeply held passions and beliefs. Again, this is amazing when it’s a hobby like football, but polarizing and brainwashing when it is something far more triggering.
Old-school algorithms targeted our ego, but the newest algorithms target our id. The first wave of algorithms driving our feeds were driven by our social graphs and interests we’d tell anyone about ourselves – “I love soccer, I’m a hiker, I play piano” – and would serve up content about those interests (as well as updates about our friends’ dogs, etc.). In contrast, this new generation of algorithms seem to burrow deep within our ancestral lizard brain to the raw emotions – hate, fear, anger, lust, envy – that don’t make us proud but are hard to resist. And then these algorithms expand on these ultimately destructive emotions – “If you’re afraid of this, maybe you should also be afraid of this” or “If you hate those people, maybe you should also hate these people.”
As algorithms stoke anger and widen the surface area of rage, boundaries (between who and what we are - and aren’t - angry at) will blur. What if these algorithms that increase and widen engagement are also skewing the way we judge and understand the world around us? Much like searching Google for anything health related with the word cancer will - if you follow the trail long enough - convince you of impending death, these AI-powered algorithms will reliably extend your anger around any topic by serving up polarizing content from the long-tail of adjacent stimulating content (and blur many boundaries in the process). As this happens, we become increasingly susceptible to conspiracy theories because of the deluge of adjacent and especially polarizing content that is served to us and loosely connected to our anger. (And because once we become convinced that black is white and up is down in one area, it’s much easier to make that leap in other areas.) We also become increasingly convinced that our viewpoints are widespread. This all prompts some important questions, namely:
Are we becoming less able to delineate between people and their policies and political parties, or acts of terror from regional conflicts? When our spectrum of anger widens, our views intensify and a greater variety of sources of anger appear correlated.
Our brains seem to be losing the ability to manage opposing truths and see both sides as polarizing content pulls us away from any middle view. As my friend Dr. Becky Kennedy likes to remind all of us parents, “two things can be true.” Good people can do bad things. People who were wronged can also do wrong, without it being justified. The problem with content representing two sides to any story is that it loses our engagement. We struggle with anything that contradicts our anger because we are generally uncomfortable with any sense of hypocrisy in ourselves or ambiguity in the world. These are human weaknesses every psychologist knows, and attention-seeking algorithms capitalize on.
How will we navigate this new world? While I agree TikTok is a major culprit here, let’s not pretend that every other social platform isn’t playing the same attention-seeking game. And while there are legitimate concerns about such a powerful mind-altering and polarizing machine like TikTok under the presumed control of a foreign government, I personally believe that we are inflicting much of this damage on ourselves based on our own usage of this technology. Instagram, Twitter/X, and other social platforms work very similarly. So, what do we do? It starts with modern education for digital literacy. Just as third graders now learn how to use a keyboard, we must help children understand how algorithms manipulate us and what questions we must ask ourselves. For us product designers and leaders, what is our Hippocratic oath for the modern era? Should we be designing constraints into the system that purposely diversify feeds and viewpoints at the expense of engagement? Should we be suggesting breaks to social media users after a certain period of rabbit-holing at the expense of optimal engagement? I (cautiously) think this is one of those areas where regulation could help, and it becomes increasingly clear why TikTok as we know it doesn’t exist in China. In China, a different app called “Douyin” owned by the same parent company of TikTok, is a more child-friendly app with educational videos and a time limit. It has been described as “spinach” compared to our “opium.” While I hesitate to resort to moderation and regulation, I am deeply concerned about the long-term implications of letting these algorithms continuously get more effective at polarizing us as they run loose.
Positive use cases of attention-driving algorithms that improve our health and happiness can compete for our attention. Another solution is using the AI to help us. What if AI - perhaps some “agent” in our ear - informs us when we’re viewing something that may be manipulated media? What if these same algorithms can be used to surface insights about ourselves - or supply opposing viewpoints to the anger/conspiracy posts we’re seeing? Perhaps we’ll stop surrendering so much time to attention-sucking algorithms when we are better able to track and quantify the value and return on time spent on other endeavors - like relationships, friendships, developing life skills as a parent, absorbing knowledge, and improving your health and wellness.
How do we know when we’ve been polarized? This is the most important question of the day. Algorithms will only get better, and anger only festers. We are exposed more than we realize and need to develop the self-awareness to recognize our susceptibility and the mental muscle to feel ourselves sliding down a funnel of polarization. One sign is when we begin to rationalize content and viewpoints that would be, on their own, despicable. When the volume and ubiquity of a view drives rationalization, we should be cautious. As my friend and former Behance board member Albert Wenger recently stated, “If your position leads you to defend atrocities, you should question your position.” We must proactively scan ourselves for widening anger and recognize the tendency to be polarized as it is happening. As a preventative measure, we must seek balanced context as we make decisions and learn to verify what we see (and understand why we are seeing it) before we trust it. Hopefully the triggers of social media become as noticeable as the scam texts we get asking us to click links. Whatever is inflaming you is likely an algorithm-driven expansion of anger and an imbalance of context.
The premium of proximity will spawn a new era of private curated conferences, retreat centers, and company norms.
Yes, the benefits of remote and flexible work have been covered at length. But anyone who has built culture and led innovation knows the advantage of bringing leaders together, cultivating circumstantial conversations and creative collisions over meals, and the great dividends from physical proximity. We are social animals with pheromones and a whole lexicon of non-verbal cues that we know exist but barely understand. There are undeniable (albeit hard to quantify) advantages to bringing people together physically to fuel serendipity, build relationships, tackle problems, brainstorm solutions, and build a company’s unique vibe. As every company becomes increasingly remote-friendly, physical proximity - and entirely new digital equivalents - will become a competitive advantage. Aside from the obvious “return to the workplace” happening across sectors, my forecasts here are (1) entirely remote companies will start building or leasing physical “annexes” that are designed for short-term intensive physical gatherings that great innovative cultures require, (2) new technologies will emerge that make remote work FEEL more physical, and (3) managers will need to augment themselves with AI to drive high performance in this new hybrid world.
Virtual companies will need the benefits of a physical offsite annex on a regular basis, and this could breed a new form of hospitality offering. No doubt, many of the “unplanned benefits” from people working together are found in a team’s unscheduled, circumstantial conversations and experiences. Relationships build trust and give structure to whimsical ideas and curiosities that become breakthroughs. For modern hybrid teams that work in a distributed fashion, such “unplanned benefits” cannot fully be left to circumstance. As a result, regular off-sites have become an essential part of the cadence for teams with a distributed workforce. The only problem? Hotels aren’t really optimized for the goals: circumstantial collisions and relationship building. There is a need for a new line of “retreat properties” that are the opposite of hotels, designed for collisions with people as opposed to isolation and privacy. Imagine the facilities of the ultimate retreat center: Meeting spaces that are not random rooms but rather immaculately designed creative spaces with digital whiteboards to capture every thought, plug-and-play projection, seamless wifi, a wide array of snacks and fidget toys, and various options of rooms and lighting architected for focus or expansive thinking. Lodging would not be a random room but rather a cluster of rooms around a shared common area and snack kitchen. The gyms and activity spaces would flow into one another - making fitness circumstantially a group activity without needing to plan ahead. The dining facilities would be hands-on - teams could make their own meals together as bonding activities or sit in one of many private rooms for intimate team conversation. And the concierge would help with programming activities that prompt the spontaneous conversations and insights that make all the difference. Unlike most hotels that are designed to keep people apart, a virtual company’s physical annex must bring people together in wonderful and unexpected ways. From efficient brainstorming (writable walls and crevices, transcription on demand, notepads on your bedside tables, etc) to fostering serious focused conversations on strategy, trade-offs, and the hard work of culture-building, the world needs an ultimate annex experience for modern teams.
New technologies will emerge that offer the benefits of physical interactions for remote workers. What else do we lose in a virtual workplace? We miss seeing who’s around, we miss circumstantial run-ins, we miss laughter around the water cooler. I’ve seen a growing number of start-ups that I would classify as “compensatory workplace services” that use technology to help distributed teams recapture the lost benefits of in-person work. Among my favorites is Roam, a “virtual cloud headquarters” that has discovered and productized a series of breakthroughs to bring JUST the right amount of “face time” and office visibility and spontaneity to virtual and hybrid teams, alongside critical functions that could replace products like Zoom and Slack. At a recent dinner in Palo Alto with Roam founder (and former Yext CEO/co-founder) Howard Lerman and ~15-20 leaders (many of whom were customers) there was ample customer love for this product. For culture building and “spontaneity as a service” (aka the water cooler or ping pong table where people build comradship), there is also a cool cohort of companies like Luna Park that host virtual social games and icebreakers to boost team engagement. Such products bring dispersed teams together in fun and engaging ways that build trust and belonging in an era where such team chemistry is hard to build.
AI-augmented management will help managers objectively assess employee performance, thus empowering employees with MORE flexibility. In a perfect world, where every employee is aligned with the mission and priorities - and works at an optimal level — there would be very little concern about flexible work. But the reality is that people and interests become less aligned as any organization grows, and we tend to respond by adding process. As I like to say, process is the excretion of misalignment. Unfortunately, processes are liable to slow people down and often outlive their usefulness. So, how do managers run a high-performing team that is distributed without killing productivity and morale with too much process? Can AI help provide peace of mind with more objective analysis of employee performance? We discussed the role that AI may play in management in a previous edition of Implications. I noted that, “while it sounds crazy at first that we might work for a hybrid human-computer manager, I firmly believe that management will become a hybrid discipline. One thing the startup and corporate worlds have in common is being plagued by inexperienced and bad managers who have no idea how to monitor and measure performance, have no idea how to lead without micromanaging, no idea how to run a 1:1 or manage careers responsibly, and struggle to figure these mechanics out. Why not assist these managers with AI that crunches the data and suggests what to ask and do when? (and yes, I could use some of this support as well!) Imagine an AI assistant that partners with you throughout every management experience — from giving feedback to your team, identifying red flags in performance, suggesting goals to set and motivational advice to share, and making decisions about rewards. Such an AI assistant would help remove cognitive bias and inform such management practices with real data.” By mining the data associated with employee performance and offering objective metrics, perhaps employees will become MORE empowered to work on their own terms, so long as they are delivering results.
Ideas, Missives & Mentions
Finally, here’s a set of ideas and worthwhile mentions (and stuff I want to keep out of web-scraper reach) intended for those I work with (free for founders in my portfolio, Adobe folks…ping me!) and a smaller group of subscribers. We’ll cover a few things that caught my eye and have stayed on my mind (including the new AI-first pins and amulets that are hitting the market - and what’s behind the haters, the rise of what I’ve come to call “microagents",” the shift of power to small businesses in the age of AI, and a data provocation for my VC friends), as well as areas of interest as an angel investor. Subscriptions go toward organizations I support including the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. Thanks again for following along, and to those who have reached out with ideas and feedback.
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