Monthly Archives: January 2015

In a networked age, nice guys win

A wide variety of marketing tools have been developed to fool customers into buying products that are more expensive than they need. A huge volume of psychology research has created departments of precision marketing staff whose main skill is tricking customers. Coupled with accounting trickery, pricing, packaging and phantom special offer tricks are often used to disguise price hikes or pretend something is a bargain when it simply isn’t.

This is not clever. It is dumb. It reaps an apparent short term gain at the expense of overall customer spending and customer loyalty. If you want proof, Tesco is proof. Even the dumbest Tesco customers eventually noticed that the company had changed from one that was looking after their interests and giving excellent service and excellent prices to one that seemed to be trying hard to trick and fleece them at every opportunity. Since marketers share ideas, the other big supermarkets used many of the same practices, with the same result. When new entrants arrived that didn’t try to trick people, customers walked and profits dived.

Using the very latest psychology and neuroscience is not the problem. Nor is honing marketing and sales tools to the Nth degree. It is using those top level skills while forgetting the basics that is bad, or worse still, using them quite deliberately to abuse customers.

Customers like to feel they are getting genuinely good products at genuinely good prices. If they are used to that in a shop, they come to feel safe there and more willing to spend. They don’t feel on their guard all the time, feeling they have to do hard sums to work out which one is the least rip-off, and buying only what they need, saving the rest for elsewhere. When they feel safe, they spend more, they buy things they might not otherwise have bought, and they’ll come back again and again, so your profits will be sustainable. They take far more notice of your marketing too. They won’t look at something and then go and shop around for it online. They come to trust you, and they’ll do more business with you. That is so simple and obvious it doesn’t need years of training to learn. Being simple doesn’t mean it is untrue. Basics are easy, but still important.

Good marketing lets customers know about your product and its relative merits. It can even be honest about its limitations. Good marketing is that which customers would seek out themselves if you didn’t deliver it to them already. Bad marketing is trying to fool someone into buying something they otherwise wouldn’t. You can fool someone once, maybe twice, but in the end it is you who loses a good customer. Social media exposes trickery quickly and effectively and tricksters lose. In the networked age, nice guys win.

If you use sophisticated marketing to fool customers, the fool is you. If you want a friend, be a friend.

Increasing censorship will lead to increasing loneliness

Like many people reading the news, I am rather baffled at the new wave of apparent offense caused by another perfectly innocent use of a word that has simply gone out of fashion. Benedict Cumberbatch accidentally used the word ‘coloured’ when referring to a black person. He intended no offense and it was presumably a simple slip of the tongue based on his early education on good manners. People use all sorts of words and grammar when speaking that they would filter, rearrange or translate when writing.

When I was young in 1970s Belfast, ‘black’ was considered impolite and ‘coloured’ was considered more respectful. Fashion has changed and ‘black’ is the current polite word in the UK, I think. People adapt and learn eventually, but occasional accidental reversion to earlier terminology in real time interactions ought to be accepted by reasonable people. But it isn’t as simple as that.

The US-based civil rights organisation the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People evidently still uses the word ‘colored’. It is initially hard to understand why an organisation that represents black people would use a word in their actual title that is actually considered offensive elsewhere, in the internet age. There is a feasible explanation though, thanks to Aisha (@aisha_rsh) for the link:

That’s fine, I sort of understand, but even so, it does seem that alleged hurt feelings are somewhat exaggerated. Those who claim to be offended by it are presumably not offended when the largest black rights organisation uses it, even if for reasons of honoring tradition. If it is only offensive when spoken by a non-black such as Cumberbatch, then that is a form of mild racism against whites. Racism is bad in either direction. We should all have the same rules and have equal access to the same vocabulary. I’m all for full and true equality, but against any group claiming superiority, even via alleged victim-hood and deliberate offense-taking. In any case, my parents taught me about sticks and stones and the lesson stuck well. I’ve experienced plenty of name-calling but never lost any sleep over it.

People can be hurt by words, and when that hurt is genuine, then apologies are justified and Cumberbatch has apologized for any offence he caused. However, let’s also remember that taking offense when no offense is intended can be and often is an offensive act. It can be a form of aggression, of putting down the other while putting oneself on a pedestal. In this case, some of the comment certainly falls in that category.

However, after a 400 word intro, I am becoming aware I am drifting off my intended point. Which is:

At the moment, we are seeing worldwide a growing conflict between sub-communities. With too much genuine misery and genuine discrimination and genuine oppression in the world, there is also a great deal of parallel abuse of those good people who want to stop it and ensure a fairer world for all. It is one thing to be freed from oppression and exploitation; it is quite another to use someone else’s oppression to advantage yourself. Having genuine victims in a community does not justify a free pass for that entire community any more than prejudice is justified against an entire community because of the actions of a few.

However, that seems to be the road we have been travelling. In trying to fight prejudice, sometimes we end up with privileged treatment for certain social groups. A small temporary overshoot is fine, as long as a level playing field eventually comes. The problem is when overshoot and privilege produces lasting barriers. When special treatment is available, it inevitably becomes a source of tribal competition and conflict and reinforces barriers instead of removing them.

If people have to stick to special vocabulary on pain of losing their career, if they are forced to censor everything they say or write or do to avoid causing offence to the easily or intentionally or even professionally offended or attracting criticism from sanctimonious busybodies or even the police, then instead of tribal boundaries being wiped away and social cohesion and inclusion  improving, communication between groups and between individuals drops, barriers grow and are reinforced, stresses rise, and social inclusion drops and loneliness increases.

Protection of the disadvantaged is a noble cause, but it must be restricted to those that are actually disadvantaged and it must stop once protection is effective. If it is allowed to increase beyond equality or extend to entire social groups, or if privilege remains permanent, then it causes division and reverse oppression.

This matters. Tribalism is a big problem. Loneliness is a massive social problem. People need to communicate, they need friends. If they don’t feel free to speak due to (possibly exaggerated) fear of possible condemnation, then they may self-censor, keep their thoughts to themselves, restrict their social activities, withdraw and become isolated and lonely. That is not a healthy trend.

Censorship is increasing rapidly. Surveillance is increasing rapidly too, especially including social surveillance in media such as twitter and Facebook by both police and random busybodies. Quality of relationships online is generally lower than face to face relationships, and loneliness is already increasing. Adding to that will make it worse and worse.

Left unaddressed, this problem looks set to worsen. Barriers are growing, and being locked in place, then cameras and microphones are being added to the barriers. Meanwhile, penalties are increasing. A single word that is merely out of date and otherwise innocently used can destroy a career.

All nice people want a nice world where everyone is treated fairly and oppression has vanished. We should avoid offending people unnecessarily, but we must also be forgiving when no offence is intended or a word is no more than an innocent slip of the tongue. We need to be far better at dealing with specific instances of disadvantage or oppression and far less willing to grant long-term privileges to entire social groups. And most of all, we need to restore true freedom of speech or suffer some pretty big social problems.

Make no mistake. The busybodies and the deliberately offended are the new Spanish Inquisition. We really don’t want them in charge.


Suspended animation and mind transfer as suicide alternatives

I last wrote about suicide in but this time, I want to take a different line of thought. Instead of looking at suicide per se, what about alternatives?

There are many motives for suicide but the most common is wanting to escape from a situation such as suffering intolerable pain or misery, which can arise from a huge range of causes. The victim looks at the potential futures available to them and in their analysis, the merits of remaining alive are less attractive than being dead.

The ‘being dead’ bit is not necessarily about a full ceasing of existence, but more about abdicating consciousness, with its implied sensory inputs, pain, anxiety, inner turmoil, or responsibility.

Last summer, a development in neuroscience offered the future potential to switch the brain off:

The researchers were aware that it may become an alternative to anesthetic, or even a means of avoiding boredom or fear. There are many situations where we want to temporarily suspend consciousness. Alcohol and drug abuse often arises from people using chemical means of doing so.

It seems to me that suicide offers a permanent version of the same, to be switched off forever, but with a key difference. In the anesthetic situation, normal life will resume with its associated problems. In suicide, it won’t. The problems are gone.

Suppose that people could get switched off for a very long time whilst being biologically maintained and housed somehow. Suppose it is long enough that any personal relationship issues will have vanished, that any debts, crimes or other legal issues are nullified, and that any pain or other health problems can be fixed, including fixing mental health issues and erasing of intolerable memories if necessary. In many cases, that would be a suitable alternative to suicide. It offers the advantages of escaping the problems, but with the advantage that a better life might follow some time far in the future.

These have widely varying timescales for potential delivery, and there are numerous big issues, but I don’t see fundamental technology barriers here. Suspending the mind for as long as necessary might offer a reasonable alternative to suicide, at least in principle. There is no need to look at all the numerous surrounding issues though. Consider taking that general principle and adapting it a bit. Mid-century onwards, we’ll have direct brain links sufficiently developed to allow porting of the mind to a new body, and android one for example. Having a new identity and a new body and a properly working and sanitized ‘brain’ would satisfy many of these same goals and avoid many of the legal, environmental, financial and ethical issues surrounding indefinite suspension. The person could simply cease their unpleasant existence and start afresh with a better one. I think it would be fine to kill the old body after the successful transfer. Any legal associations with the previous existence could be nullified. It is just a damaged container that would have been destroyed anyway. Have it destroyed, along with all its problems, and move on.

Mid-century is a lot earlier than would be needed for any social issues to go away otherwise. If a suicide is considered because of relationship or family problems, those problems might otherwise linger for generations. Creating a true new identity essentially solves them, albeit at a high cost of losing any relationships that matter. Long prison sentences are substituted by the biological death, debts similarly. A new person appears, inheriting a mind, but one refreshed, potentially with the bad bits filtered out.

Such a future seems to be feasible technically, and I think it is also ethically feasible. Suicide is one sided. Those remaining have to suffer the loss and pick up the pieces anyway, and they would be no worse off in this scenario, and if they feel aggrieved that the person has somehow escaped the consequences of their actions, then they would have escaped anyway. But a life is saved and someone gets a second chance.