Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Only Truth - Perception is Everything


This simple statement is perhaps the definition of American life in the early 21st century. It haunts me. It infuriates me. Every moment I spend awake, every personal and professional interaction I have, every piece of information that manages to penetrate my consciousness reinforces this simple truth. We do not care what is. We only care what we think it is.

I sell and support a piece of software. It's a simple program but contains a great deal of functionality. When I train my clients in its use, I often end by telling them two things. 1) If you can't remember or can't figure out how to do something, don't spend an hour trying to find the answer. Call me and I will give it to you. 2) If you find yourself thinking that there has to be an easier way to do something, there probably is. Call me and I'll tell you. Of course, when they do call, I charge them for my time. My time is about 100 bucks an hour. Their time is worth considerably more, and it is this aspect I try to impress upon them. Don't waste several thousand dollars' worth of your time to save (usually less than) a hundred bucks on mine. Don't scour the net trying to figure out why this function is not interacting with that program. I've already done that, or I can do it faster than you. I tell them these things to nurture the relationship and hopefully turn it into many more direct and indirect sales and services. I also need to combat the dangers of perception. If they think the product is worthless, then it is. It doesn't matter that 10 minutes on the phone will correct their mistake or remind them of the training or (too rarely) help them understand why the software won't do what they think it should do. As soon as that one deal gets screwed all to hell because Mary the temp couldn't figure out which buttons to press, I've lost them. And I've lost everyone that they'll tell about it. When someone can type a keyword and find a hundred other programs that claim to do what mine can, I have to make sure that those keywords never find their way into the search engine.

And so it goes with every aspect of our existence. No time to read the paper at home, I'll do it at work. No time to read EVERYTHING at work (and not supposed to be doing it anyway), so I'll just scan the headlines and read what's interesting. Usually sports and gossip, right? If there's a disaster, maybe tune in to check on those poor people. Everything else is just the headline.

You know that secondhand smoke increases your chance of lung cancer by thirty percent, right? Surely you've read that. But what you didn't read is that the average probability for a nonsmoker (in the absence of other factors) developing lung cancer is about 0.5% to begin with. So you don't go from 0% to 30 % risk by sucking down smoke fumes at the bar. You're increasing your risk of 0.5% by thirty percent OF THAT (0.15%), which puts the actual increased risk at 0.65%. Amazingly, with that bit of information, your risk of getting cancer from some asshole's cigarette just went down from 3 in 10 to less than 1 in 100. Not to mention that the increase only applies to those who consistently (as in, most of their time) breathe second hand smoke. But the headline/scan method that the media encourages only provides the 30% INCREASE(!!), which is what leads to to all the crap I have to take when I'm standing outside trying to enjoy a goddamn cigarette.

The best part of the above example is that I just made those numbers up. I read something like that somewhere recently, but who's going to check? Who has time? Especially if it's coming from the NYT or MSN or (God forbid) AOL. Surely we can believe THEM. Of course we can. That's why I continue to get email encouraging me to boycott gas companies on a certain day or warning me about the latest threat to my income or well-being. You might run out and check my numbers and comment and criticize, but an actual journalist working for an actual publication? And even if you did, who's going to read it? Who's going to scan through a thousand comments to find yours - the REALLY truthful, unbiased one?

It doesn't matter what IS. There is no single TRUTH, only infinite variations of perception and no way to change it.

It torments me. We live in a time and place in which we have access to SO MUCH information and we still surrender our reason to those who exist solely to twist it in one direction or another.

At least, that's the way I see it.

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