The things that you look at determine the choices that you make.
Except, if you’re a Westerner, you look at nouns. If you’re Chinese, you look at verbs. If you’re Japanese, you look at relationships.
This comes down to us from researchers who first began to wonder what it is that makes us learn or not learn in particular ways. It was really late in the piece that one researcher realised nobody had actually watched mums and kids.
It turned out that Western mums spend loads of time with the kids getting them to identify nouns: Cat, dog, fence, bucket, red, blue, green, girl, boy. Chinese mums spend more time getting kids to identify verbs: Having, doing, running, making, following. Japanese mums spend more time getting kids to identify relationships: I give this to you, you give this to me.
So what, right?
Doesn’t make a f*ck, really?
Well, actually it does.
In later studies, eyeball tracking indicated that Westerners focus on things. If a horse is in a picture, you’ll spend more time looking at the horse than the whole picture. In fact, many participants had no idea if the picture was changed if the same horse appeared in a series of images, flipped through at reasonable speed (say, 30 seconds).
The same studies showed that Chinese participants focused on context. Taking our horse from above, you’ll spend more time looking at the background and context than the object.
Participants on both sides often said that they’d never seen the picture before if the background was changed. Chinese because the background was different. Westerners because the horse was the same.
It says a lot about how you approach intelligence-gathering, data, and decision-making as a Westerner.
According to Joshua Cooper Ramo, author of The Age of the Unthinkable, this explains a lot about failures of intelligence campaigns, failures of military campaigns, failures in politics, failures in decision-making more generally.
Westerners look at a thing.
You gather information about a thing.
You make a decision about a thing.
Easterners look at the context.
You gather information about the context.
You make a decision about the context.
So what would it mean for you if you changed your view?
First, it means loads of effort, because simply changing how you look at things requires conscious intervention. You have viewed the world, and learned, in a particular way for your entire life. That takes a superhuman level of effort to unlearn.
But imagine if you managed it, what you could do.
You’d be President Trump saying look at this photograph! versus Democrats saying we want to be in power.
Trump is looking at context. Dems are looking at the thing.
Anyway - here’s how this has played out for me in the past week.
In the past week here at Brutal Pixie I’ve been doing a lot of reading about this stuff, listening to podcasts about the nature of choice and outcomes. And I’ve been modelling the company’s information domain ahead of making a massive shift in systems.
It looks relatively simple:
But it gets very complicated very quickly:
My original question was vanilla. It was something like, Is it possible not to use Google products?
Of course, the answer is ‘yes’.
You can use Microsoft products. Or open source products. Or a bunch of other proprietary systems. I did all the usual types of mapping, including feature lists, pros and cons, data management, support, and so on.
But then I realised it was the wrong question.
The question is actually: What is information here?
It became: How does it relate to other things that are also information? If I see one thing, how do I know where else it links and why? What might that mean for how information is then handled?
You’d think I would have come to the information domain model a lot sooner, being a content strategist!
But it’s like the bicycle mechanic with a shed full of greasy parts and no pretty bikes within cooee: You just start building a business. You don’t know where it’s going to go or why or how. And then you end up in a place where you know there’s a better way. During that journey, you do what you’ve always done, which is put files into folders.
But what if I could put a file into a network map?
What if I could keep information the way my brain keeps information?
Thus it was that I came to understand that all of my questions about tools can be solved by TheBrain: Cloud management, open source formats, collaboration, multiple devices, the works.
It will only work, however, if the model is right.
Otherwise it will become a tangled mess, only useful via search. Gross.
It’s a weird loop of the question informing the map informing the answer informing the model informing the question.
Coming back to where we started today, with how we see the world, there is also a question of context.
You don’t need a platform like G Suite when your 99% of your documents are used by 1 person, and your clients almost exclusively use single files in Microsoft environments.
So why would a micro business like mine even want to go there?
When you start a business, you’re focused on the thing. Once you know the business works, context is everything.
The challenge is whether or not you can zoom out, and stay there.