By David Pring-Mill
There is a brilliant line of dialogue in HBO’s hit series “Succession.” Roman Roy, a somewhat self-aware, distractible character, delivers a scathing dismissal of news and literary traditions, along with religion, war, and world history. Then he proposes a more relevant business strategy: “Tasty morsels from groovy hubs.”
Lately, I’ve found myself discussing the essence and implications of this phrase. For anyone who is professionally familiar with marketing, media, or tech, it contains a lot.
“Tasty” could be interpreted as increased, algorithmically-driven personalization.
“Morsels” is a way of finding compatibility with modern attention spans (or appetites) that are both constant and dramatically reduced, seemingly the result of relentless digital stimuli, connectivity, and content over-saturation.
It isn’t cited as often but I have previously wondered if our craving for these morsels is also influenced by a deteriorated set of socioeconomic conditions, in which labor is often short-term, inconsistent, and devoid of the benefits and guarantees offered to previous generations of American workers. Furthermore, vital systems have failed to adapt (namely, the perverse linkage between private health coverage and employment), housing costs have outpaced inflation and pay, and the nature of modern work may be more likely to produce decision fatigue or burnout. Perhaps morsels are all that people can comfortably digest.
Continuing on with Roman’s breakdown, “groovy” acknowledges the role of social clout across social media activities, as users increasingly try to construct digital facades and define themselves by association and opposition.
And even “hubs” suggests that we have gone from more top-down approaches to new models that allow distributed players to participate in a digitized activity or environment.
I could be reading too much into this but the line seems relevant to multiple aspects of our increasingly digital, technologically-augmented/automated, mobile, and on-demand economy.
When the internet, a network of networks, was initially accepted into ordinary people’s lives, part of the original promise was that these new, digital pathways would allow information to spread faster and more democratically. The networks on these networks now include black box algorithms. Regardless of the visibility into these algorithms, they are ostensibly working in the service of incentives and functions that, at best, deliver mixed results for society at large.
To what extent should we be trying to align information and conversations with profit, or even personal preferences? Do some of these algorithmically-altered networks actually give rise to oversimplified, meme-inspired thinking instead of substantive, critical analysis (i.e., a nutritious, full plate)?
I founded Policy2050.com to meaningfully influence the future of tech policy and business strategy. We had our soft launch at the end of April, in the midst of a global pandemic. But as I carried out the initial research, design, and writing, I had to decide how willing I was to play into patterns of communication and behavior that I consider to be societal vices. Did I really want to be yet another groovy hub, creating gratifying but empty morsels for the masses?
Specifically, I didn’t want to compromise the depth of my analysis and, consequently, my own sense of integrity as a writer. A friend pointed out to me that perhaps pride and stubbornness are near enemies of integrity. With that awareness in mind, I scoped out a plan to be impact-first in all of these efforts.
Sometimes, that may involve providing different levels of depth that readers can choose from. But it also involves reaching the right kinds of readers, something that is often forgotten about during the race to scale, where popularity is conflated with quality and truth. If the goal is something more nuanced and meaningful, to be impact-first, then it’s important to deliberately and strategically align the actionable insights with the relevant action-takers.
Writers and information gatherers are taught to consider the who, what, where, when, why, and how when they’re developing an understanding of events and communicating it. But the entirety of our digital news media is subject to these same considerations, with great intricacies. The how affects the what. Arbitrarily truncated words on noisy channels with algorithmic filters, perhaps unsurprisingly, can lead to a fragmented appreciation of complex issues.
By determining a more specific who, I can determine a more specific how and what, and so on and so forth. We can all try our best to re-engineer around impact, even though a certain amount of failure will be inevitable.
In politics as well as in business, there is frequently an emphasis on winning. Compromises are made in order to win, and the systemic problems that necessitate those compromises are disregarded and neglected. Sometimes, the mere acknowledgment of these problems is treated as an obstacle to short-term victory.
It’s important to win… but on what timescale? Are we winning elections, while eroding democracy? Are startups raising capital by overhyping core technologies, distorting growth prospects, and deviating from value-creating, revenue-generating paths? Are they emphasizing flattering metrics but overlooking churn? Are their practices even sustainable?
In a world where characters like Roman Roy lack impulse control, there are plenty of feedback loops to gratify cravings and sustain egos. Then there is the entirely separate challenge of sustaining our global community, as the faultlines are increasingly exposed through pain and devastation.