Tag Archives: Chris Metivier

Homeownership as Hazing

by Chris Metivier

Among the unique joys of home ownership.

Ah, the joys of homeownership.

I’m writing this as I wait for the air conditioning repair tech to call me back. He’s supposed to be here by now. I called the company office about half an hour ago to make sure he was still coming, and they said he would call when he’s on his way. I know that technicians get held up when they’re on call, but it’s late afternoon and if he can’t make it today, I don’t know when I’ll be able to reschedule. I’m about to start a new position at the university, a 9-to-5 office job, so today might be my only weekday off for a while. Luckily, it’s rainy today, and cool. So it’s comfortable in my house for now. But it’s only going to get hotter, and my air conditioning unit just runs, impotently, like a mouse on one of those wheels, endlessly turning but accomplishing nothing.

I don’t know anything about air conditioning, but I expect I’ll learn. Much the same way that I’ve learned about plumbing, wiring, and landscaping in the last 9 months or so that I’ve been a homeowner—by having it explained to me by a very capable and polite tradesperson as they repair it. Each time something goes wrong, I ask my veteran homeowner friends if there’s a repair person who they can recommend. They always offer suggestions, but with a tone of resignation that indicates they’ve been here too. Disappointed, financially stressed, unprepared, and even sort of victimized.

He’s happy because he knows the air conditioning works at HIS house.

He’s happy because he knows the air conditioning works at his house.

The thing that gets me is, all these same people were so enthusiastic about my decision to buy a home a year ago. They went on and on about how good of an investment it is and how I’ve been “throwing money away on rent all these years” and “it’s the grown-up thing to do”. Now that the damage is done, they smile wistfully when I complain that everything that can’t be detected in a pre-closing inspection has gone wrong since I’ve bought my house. “Yup”, they say, “get used to that”.

Where was their resignation before I saddled myself with a mortgage? Where was their jaded sincerity? My homeowner friends were all middle-class pride and upward mobility when I was in the market for a house, but now they scoff at my naivete when I complain that I no longer have any savings because every extra dollar goes into fixing my house. I feel like an inductee into some vaguely secretive and mildly abusive club. One that spends a lot of time bragging about the benefits of membership to outsiders, but conveniently neglects to mention the disadvantages.

I had friends in college who joined fraternities, and during their sort of probationary “pledging” period, they were made to carry awkward objects around campus, or recite obscure facts about the university at the command of the senior members. I never joined any such organization myself, but I imagine this hazing ritual is intended to inspire loyalty and demonstrate commitment. My experience as a homeowner feels a little bit like that. It’s not that other homeowners are intentionally abusing or embarrassing me. But they knew I would be abused and embarrassed, and yet they encouraged me to join their club.

Like this, except it only hurts your bank account.

Like this, except it only hurts your bank account.

It occurs to me that this behavior applies to a wider range of groups. Parents often encourage non-parents to have children. Religious folks often recommend spirituality to the non-religious. Even fans of a particular tv show will push their friends to watch the show too. It seems like people always think that their choices are the best ones, and that others would be better off if they agreed. This, of course, is no surprise. How could anyone get through life thinking that all their decisions were poor ones and they would have been better off doing otherwise. Perhaps there are people like this, but they would be miserable friends, and so I suspect not many of us are receiving advice from people like that.

I think there is a range of interpretations of this behavior. The most cynical is that misery loves company—that people who regret their decisions are resentful of those who chose more wisely and strive to bring cosmic justice into balance by luring the lucky or clever into ruin. Perhaps, again, there are some people like this, but it seems pretty unlikely that there are very many.

Slightly less cynical is the possibility that people want to feel justified in their decisions, regardless of whether they are actually good ones, and so they put the most positive spin on their choice to buy a house, have children, get married, etc., which has the dual effect of both convincing themselves that their decision was justified in retrospect, and possibly convincing others to join them, further validating the decision.

A "Shellback" initiation (as sailors cross the Equator for the first time).

A “Shellback” initiation (as sailors cross the Equator for the first time).

A sort of value-neutral psychological explanation is that people simply don’t think about the bad parts of their experience when they make recommendations. They don’t have any real agenda when they tell you that their lives have improved since they started watching Game of Thrones or became gluten-free. They really believe, at least in that moment, that their lives have improved, and their recommendation is more of a description of the benefits they have actually enjoyed. They simply are forgetting about the costs. I think psychologists call this confirmation bias. Or maybe I’m thinking of a different thing, but I’m confident there is a name for it.

To be more optimistic, one more possibility is that people really do, on the whole, assess their lives as better in the light of the change they recommend. They judge themselves to be sincerely happier and they want you to be happier too. They reflect on the quality of their lives before and since their decision, they evaluate the impact of the change, and they believe that it has caused a net improvement. Of course, they may be mistaken in their conclusion that there is a causal link between their decision and their happiness (I’m referring to the work of Dan Gilbert here), but their motivations are benevolent.

While I lean toward the cynical in my explanations of human behavior in most cases, I suspect that my enthusiastic homeowner friends were not actually using me to justify their own bad choices or mollify their regrets. Probably they were reflecting on their current lives in a positive light, and perhaps mistaking correlation for causation.

xkcd552correlation

In any case, I don’t know if they really meant to initiate me into the exclusive club of homeownership through ritual hazing. But I have learned, since I started writing this a couple weeks ago, that there is nothing wrong with my air conditioning that is detectable by any tests that a professional technician is likely to perform. So now I just seem delusional. To this technician, like a bourgeois academic, mystified by the workings of the machinery that makes my comfortable life possible. And to you, like neurotic blogger spouting cautionary tales as though they are profound. Both you and he are probably right.

Brand Loyalty and Personal Identity

by Chris Metivier

This is not Christopher's haircut.

This is not Chris’ head.

I’m a traitor, a turncoat, a fence-jumper, and possibly having an identity crisis. Some of my friends feel betrayed, others feel like they’ve gained an ally, still others feel like they don’t know me anymore. I have mixed feelings of guilt, pride, defensiveness, and confusion. I don’t know if many of the people in my life will ever look at me the same way again. Certainly they won’t if they are looking at me in a recent selfie, since one of the advantages of my new life is that the front-facing camera on my new Android phone is much better than the one on my old iPhone.

I am a brand-betrayer. I’ve been “that Apple guy” for most of the last decade, an Apple evangelist even. I was an early adopter of the iPhone, and an apologist for it ever since. But no more. Now I’m an “Android phone guy”. Sure, I still use Apple computers (as well as a Windows computers, because they both have their advantages), but everyone knows that when you get a text message and pull out your handset that is simultaneously your connection to the rest of the world and a distraction from it, it’s either going to be an iPhone, or something else. People can tell a lot about you from your phone. They know how you operate, what’s important to you, what kind of person you are. They can tell whether you are a sophisticated, modern aficionado of contemporary industrial design, or a utilitarian, no-nonsense, all-business power-user.

Battle of the Brands.

Battle of the Brands.

People judge you on what kind of phone you use. I had no idea how much until I made the switch. As a member of team iPhone, I never noticed how much people believed in their iPhones. It seemed normal to me. Obviously iPhone is the superior device. I’m no fool, why would I have ever bought an inferior product? As one of these people, I had never been on the receiving end of the nose-wrinkling, smug disgust toward anything non-iPhone. Since becoming an iPhone outsider, I have been forced to wonder, have I been behaving that way all these years?

trusted-brandOf course I know, academically, that all this talk about judgment and character evaluation is superficial and not to be taken seriously. I even teach my business ethics students this very lesson. I use “consumerism” to indicate this kind of social behavior. I know “consumerism” is used lots of different ways in different contexts, but this is how I use it in that course. I’m covering that unit now, and just last week established the term. It works like this. Advertising comes in two flavors: transactional and branding. Transactional ads are ones that give you some information about some product or service. Branding ads don’t give you any information, but instead aim to change the way you feel about a brand. The danger of branding is that it asks you to identify with the values that a brand (ostensibly) represents. When lots of people internalize these brand values, they begin to understand themselves, their personal identity, through the brands that they buy. Their self-identity depends on their consumption. Hence, consumerism.

Here is an example that is both particularly easy to analyze and particularly relevant to my case.

PC -vs- Mac.

P.C. vs. Mac.

I’m sure you’ve seen one of the ads from this campaign, perhaps even a parody of it. It was, in terms of recognition, very successful. I often use it as an example in business ethics class. In it we see two characters who figuratively represent not just products, but brands. It’s important to notice that the two characters don’t represent specific products. The two options are Mac and PC. Not Mac and Windows, Mac and Dell, or something else. Apple has set up a dichotomy here between Mac and everything else. So you, the consumer, have exactly two options. Do you want to be like the hip, young, creative, relaxed, attractive Mac guy, or the stiff, nerdy, uptight, boring PC guy? The ad implies that there are “Mac people” and “PC people” and that they have personalities that can be identified by the products they use (or more importantly, buy).

apple-tat-girl-edWhen our culture becomes one (and it has) where people make purchasing decisions based not on the qualities of the products but on the whether or not they believe those products reflect the identity that they want to project, then it becomes a consumerist culture.

Let’s face it, all computers (and all smartphones) do pretty much the same stuff. When we decide which one to buy, it’s rarely based on the properties of the device itself. They just aren’t very different. Sure, you might be used to doing things one way or another, and it would be inconvenient to have to learn new methods for getting things done (another strategy companies use to create an artificial barrier to switching once you’re in), but certainly you don’t think so little of yourself that you believe you couldn’t learn. When you decide to buy a Mac instead of a PC, Apple hopes that it’s at least in part because you think of yourself as the kind of person who uses a Mac. That’s where brand loyalty comes from.

Coke or Pepsi?

Coke or Pepsi?

Sure you might come to believe that the product you chose is objectively superior, or that it will provide tangible benefits to you over the alternative. But those are ad hoc justifications for a decision you made based on how you felt about the product and what kind of person you want to be. Cognitive psychologists call it “confirmation bias” when we cherry-pick evidence to support the position that we’ve already adopted. As consumers, we don’t want to feel foolish for having bought an inferior product (I’m going to stick with the example of computers or smartphones), so we insist that our choice was the best in the face of criticism from those who happen to have bought a competing product for the same feelingsy reasons. And because none of us want to admit (or are maybe not even aware of) our underlying motivations, we get into esoteric fights about megapixels and gigahertz, or when these measurements are not on our side, we can use more abstract metrics like “user experience” or “software ecosystems.”

…which is a croc.

…which is a croc.

I’ve taught this lesson for years, and it never occurred to me until now that I was as guilty as anyone else. So I decided to put my money where my mouth is and turn in my iPhone, to abandon the comfortable hegemony of Apple’s walled garden for the untamed, shifting Otherness of Google’s Android platform. I admit, I had a period of homesickness when I discovered that some of the conveniences I had enjoyed would take some work to reestablish.

"I've made a huge mistake."

“I’ve made a huge mistake.”

But on the whole, as I should have expected, my life has continued largely unchanged. I don’t regret my decision. And as I write this, it occurs to me that this shouldn’t even be a big deal. It wouldn’t be if consumerism wasn’t such a strong force, both internally and externally, in my life.

So I guess that’s the lesson, which I’m still learning. Consumerism is ubiquitous, insidious, and powerful. I’ve resisted the desire to detail the arguments I’ve heard in just the last few days for why my decision to change camps was either foolish or inspired, and to analyze all the ways in which these arguments are misguided, selfishly motivated, or just mean. I know my decision was neither a blunder nor an epiphany. It was an experiment. And it’s value in self-reflection alone was worth the price.

Brand-logo alphabet. How many do you recognize?

Brand-logo alphabet. How many do you recognize?

How Self-Driving Cars Could Change Our Lives in Unexpected Ways

by Chris Metivier

Who's there?!

Who’s there?!

A couple of weeks ago an unusual thing happened to me. One of my neighbors knocked on my door. I haven’t lived in my current house long, and he just wanted to tell me that his lawn mowing had blown some grass clippings in my driveway and to assure me that he intended to clean it up. I certainly wasn’t worried about grass clippings in my driveway, but it was a polite way for my neighbor to introduce himself, and I was glad that he did. He’s a nice guy.

Afterward, my housemate remarked that it was strange for someone to just knock on the door. Typically when that happens it’s some sort of solicitor, and I’d just as soon pretend I’m not home as answer it. He said that he’s actually annoyed when someone knocks on the door unexpectedly. If it had been a friend, he said, we’d have known they were coming.

We considered how we came to have this attitude of preferring to avoid unannounced visitors. It occurred to us that this is the same way we feel about receiving calls from unrecognized phone numbers. I don’t know about you, but I usually ignore those calls, because again, it’s typically a solicitor. The unexpectedness of a visit or phone call implies that it’s likely to be unwanted. That small bit of information is what we’re acting on when we decide to ignore a knock on the door or a ringing phone.

Just Dropping By

Just dropping by. Remember when that used to happen?

He mentioned that when he was young, it was common for family friends to drop by unannounced. It was a normal social practice. But it doesn’t happen any more. We concluded that the ubiquity of cell phones is at the root of this change. We know now when someone is on their way over because they—knowing that I always have my phone with me and they theirs—will call (or more typically text) to let me know they’re coming. I usually don’t even need to answer my door. If I’m expecting someone, I just make sure the door is unlocked so they can just walk in.

This change in attitude toward visiting someone’s home is sort of an unexpected side-effect of cell phone technology. I wouldn’t have guessed that the portability of telephones would lead to a shift in attitude toward something that isn’t obviously related to telephones. It made me think: what other technologies might have unexpected effects on our attitudes toward common social practices?

Google Self-Driving Car

Google Self-Driving Car.

Some days later I was driving on the highway. There was some traffic and I got to thinking, if only everyone would drive exactly the same speed, there would be no traffic. Then I thought, those Google self-driving cars could do that. In fact, those Google self-driving cars could probably do it much more safely and efficiently, with smaller gaps between cars even at high speeds. I suspect they could merge in and out of traffic with flawless precision. There would be no traffic bottlenecks at major junctions. Maybe I’m expressing more confidence than the technology merits, or maybe anyone who doesn’t is a technophobe. (There. I said it.)

Then I got to thinking about how different traveling by road would be if every car on the road was self-driving. Not only would you probably get where you’re going faster, because of the elimination of most traffic problems (like some idiot doing 55 in the fast lane), you’d also know exactly and reliably when you would arrive at your destination. No longer would “traffic” be an excuse for showing up late. And you couldn’t fudge it. If you left behind schedule, there would be no making up the time by driving extra fast. The self-driving cars would always move at the same speed. Robot cars have no sense of urgency.

Nissan Autonomous Drive

Nissan Autonomous Drive Vehicle.

Furthermore, since there would be no driving extra fast, there would be no breaking the speed limit. Maybe the notion of a speed limit would become nonsensical, since the self-driving cars wouldn’t travel at some range of speeds with an upper limit, they would travel (except while merging) at exactly one speed. Probably other kinds of traffic laws would become obsolete as well.

Think about how common it is to exceed the speed limit, and think about how you feel when you suddenly notice a police cruiser on the road behind you, or on the side of the highway. Maybe you don’t do this, but I immediately feel tense, nervous, guilty. Maybe your stomach lurches a little. Maybe you reflexively take your foot off the gas. I do all those things, even if I’m driving below the posted speed limit. I feel like a criminal, who will suffer or avoid punishment, only on a whim of some guy in a uniform. (Who does he think he is?! Ugh! Cops!)

Well ... rats.

Well … rats.

Now think about how you react to seeing a police officer while you’re both on foot. You don’t feel guilty. You don’t feel nervous. You probably feel safe. You might even smile or nod. You don’t have to avert your eyes for fear he’ll memorize your shifty face so as to apprehend you later. When you’re on foot, police are there to protect you, not to persecute you. The only trouble is that this doesn’t happen all that much. The bulk of a typical (non-criminal) person’s experience with police is on the road, where we’re suspicious of them, the threat of punishment implicit in their mere presence.

It's a beautiful evening to be on a foot beat at the park!

It’s a beautiful evening, isn’t it?

I suspect this is a common attitude toward police. When you’re on foot, they’re your allies. When you’re behind the wheel, they are symbols of authority who are only out to enforce laws against you. My prediction is that if self-driving cars were common, people’s attitude toward law enforcement would change dramatically. Most people’s negative experience with the police are over speeding tickets. Since self-driving cars would make the very concept obsolete, the negative experiences (including anxiety) about contact with police would be eliminated (except maybe for parking tickets).

Sure, there are other reasons people might have negative attitudes toward law enforcement. But I’m willing to bet that most folks are like me. If I didn’t think that all cops were out to give me speeding tickets (because of some insidious quota program that the state will obviously deny, but I know better), I’d be likely to have a much more positive attitude toward them.

I know this isn’t really a big deal. It’s not going to change our lives in any really significant way (more than self-driving cars would already). I know attitudes toward police aren’t a serious societal problem that many people give much thought to. And I know that self-driving cars are technologically possible now, but economically a long way off. This is just an exercise in thinking about the ways technology might change our lives in ways we don’t expect at first. It’s an exercise about excitement for the ways in which our lives might be different, and better, due to minor, indirect effects of new technologies. Sure, I’m being optimistic, and sure, you can be be a future-dreading techno-pessimist if you want. But the future will arrive in spite of pessimists, and there will be myriad benefits for those of us who embrace it.

Who's Driving this thing?!

Wait … who’s Driving this thing?!