Doublethink – a problem of scaling?

Whilst drafting his novel 1984, George Orwell referred, in a letter to his publisher, to the “schizophrenia of thinking”. This famously turned, in the book, into doublethink, the ability of Big Brother, the state apparatus, to hold two contradictory opinions at once.

Not for the first time, Orwell was prescient. And in the social media age, we are bombarded with information, fake or not, at an alarming rate to which we respond seemingly immediately, usually emotionally, and not rationally.

Large companies’ loss of meaning

The largest and fastest-growing companies are technology related, and all have had well documented issues with this. All have started with well-crafted socially inclusive missions, but the speed of growth, and expectations from stakeholders, has caused, at best the lines to get blurred. The beautiful design and functionality of Apple products is somewhat compromised by the historical treatment of its subcontracted employees at Foxconn, and other companies in the Far East. Amazon has had well-documented data intensive methods of treating their employees, whether blue or white collar, just like the human machines of Victorian mill owners.

Facebook and Trump

Now Facebook has faced its own mea culpa moment. The avowed mission of Facebook has been to connect as many people as possible, to give them access to opportunity and social interaction. Before the last US presidential election, it supported Barack Obama’s two presidential campaigns. It did not support Donald Trump, but it facilitated, even won him, his election. How?

Trump recognised the importance of social media to his campaign. So, a non-descript office building in San Antonio became HQ for the social media campaign, codenamed Project Alamo. Apart from the large data analytics exercise that profiled 230 million Americans, and the relentless advertising via social media of up to 100 adverts a day with 35,000 to 45,000 variations, it’s spend was so big that it could demand embedded Facebook, YouTube, and Google support. The project manager readily admits that she believes Facebook pushed them over the winning line.

And for $85 million, just spent on Facebook (which took the lion’s share of the social media spend) you can understand how. Trump played on emotions, not facts. Owing to the relentless bombardment of messages, there was no time to check facts, and because the Clinton campaign relied on facts rather than engaging the emotions and temperature of the electorate, they lost.

The lesson - Facebook recasts its mission

What was Facebook thinking? It was going against its mission and ethos. In January 2017, Mark Zuckerberg penned an open letter recasting the Facebook mission and acknowledging error. He also said that social media rewards simplicity, discourages nuance…and pushes us towards extremes.

Does this mean that Facebook and other fast-growing and now very large companies have lost their meaning? Is it all too much process, structure, and data? It’s very easy, especially in a tech company, to get sucked into using lots of data. I’ve reflected on this using the Amazon example already.

As a business grows, it needs more structure, but there is a risk of loss of meaning. Without feeling there is no meaning, and it is the feeling – the entrepreneurial view of why the business exists, the drive and passion that comes from that – that provides the meaning which is then encapsulated in Mission and Value statements, which translates the culture and individual thoughts into actions.

Problems of scale

More stakeholders tends to result in more distance between elements of the organisation such that consequences can be forgotten or glossed over. Decisions can hide, in a fog of meetings, and justifications that do not pass the smell test. The trouble is, no one has the job of Smell Detector any longer. Rapid growth brings its own problems, and I suggest that dilution of meaning, and therefore feeling, contributes to an ability towards doublethink.

Small Businesses are not immune

Even in small businesses, it is very easy to find a reason for the end to justify the means. It doesn’t have to be as big as $85 million. At least in small businesses, if somebody is feeling uncomfortable, they are generally right. And can usually act on the hunch.

For large businesses, it’s much more of a problem redirecting the juggernaut. No wonder large businesses are increasingly thought to be untrustworthy. At least Facebook have recognised the problem and are making an effort. 

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