Information and Insight
Steve Jobs hated Power Point. He’d break into the smoothly crafted slide presentations with fancy graphics and force the presenter to speak to him directly.
No doubt he chafed under someone else’s control, but he had a point. If a person is forced to speak his own words, he gives a more reliable sense of the validity of his ideas. He also makes a connection with the person he is speaking to, and out of that connection new ideas can flow.
In an age where digital media drive more and more of our communications and actions, it is useful to be reminded of some basic facts about the mind. The reason ascetics searching for god retreated to deserts and mountaintops was that minds seldom work well in a vacuum. Other minds are too much of a stimulus, and that can be a distraction if you want to escape the world.
But if you want to stay in it and change it, you need the interaction with other minds to refine your ideas and come up with new and better ones. If you want to create a new product or figure out which investment advisor to choose, the personal connection makes a big difference.
You could think of it in terms of bandwidth, the amount of data that can be squeezed into the channels of communication. Telephones and televisions have sufficient bandwidth to convey an amazing amount of information. They can make it seem as if the other person is actually present. Powerful computers can do even better. But person to person has virtually no inherent limitation beyond the capacity of each person’s mind to give and receive. And it’s not just the words, the conscious message that is being sent. It’s the emotions behind the words, the tone of voice, the body language, the gestures and eye contact that tell so much about what that message implies. Without that our minds are deprived of the information that enables them to trust that the communication is authentic — or to be engaged and respond fully.
You could also think about it as the difference between perusing a musical score and attending a performance. Watching musicians play gives you so much more information about the meaning of the music, more even than listening to a CD. To be sure, concert audiences can be distracting with their coughs, whispered conversations, and restless movements. But the problem, then, is that they stand between you and the musicians. With a CD you don’t have the annoyances, but then you don’t have the connection.
When Jobs was working on the design for the Pixar headquarters, according to his biographer, Walter Isaacson, he wanted only two sets of lavatories. He believed that if people got up and walked around they would interact more, and in the process they would discover what others were doing and thinking. He was convinced that would raise the level of creativity in the company. And, despite some grumbling about the inconvenience, the people who worked there came to agree.
Sometimes we don’t need so much information. But if we want to push ourselves beyond what we already know, we need the contact.