To form an us

To form an us

Summary: The easiest way to get people on side in an argument is to cast it as us vs. them - simply because group membership, for most people most of the time, easily outweighs all rational factors together.


As regular readers know one of the big problems I see IT management facing every single day is the inability to identify and correct the misinformation senior executives pick up from the media and then unconsciously rely on to override our carefully researched and thought through recommendations.

Your boss may, for example, frown on a MySQL deployment on Solaris in part because Forbes has just told him that Sun is new to this business. But here's the problem: even if you know that he's wrong, and you know what he's wrong about, and you know the source of his misinformation, you still won't be able to do anything about it because in his eyes you're a concerned party with an agenda and Forbes isn't.

Basically it's a catch 22: he's making a bad decision largely because he's been misled, but if you try to correct the mistakes underlying his thinking he'll generally prefer reducing his faith in you to questioning the source of the mis-information.

The root cause of this is a human drive that's more powerful than sex: it's the urge to submerge: to form an us; the drive to form communities whose membership separates "us" from "them". Technically shallow but pretentious magazines like Forbes cater to this by getting your boss to believe that preferring their judgment to yours makes him a member of the business elite - and your attempts to educate him will rebound against you precisely because his commitment to that us forces him to categorize anyone questioning anything bound to that grouping as "them."

We do exactly the same thing among ourselves. Ever listen to a couple of junior suits talk to group outsiders during the run up to a serious meeting? Behind the desperate search for commonalities: whether couched in terms of loyalties to sports teams, the horrors of traffic, or problems with laptops, the real message they're exchanging is always the same: "I'm like you, not them" or, more cynically, "Trust me, I'm an idiot too."

It also spills over in both direct and subtle ways into the stuff we read and trust. Consider, for example, this bit of lusty cheering for data processing's recent successes in taking control of corporate IT back to the nineteen sixties:

MacBook Air could increase risk of laptop loss

By: Briony Smith

ComputerWorld Canada (17 Jan 2008)

While the form factor of Apple's MacBook Air caught the industry's attention this week, experts say Canada's many Windows shops might not want them, and those that do might encounter another year full of dangerous data breaches and IT manager headaches.

According to Eddie Chan, an analyst with the Toronto-based research firm IDC Canada, of Apple portable computers that were shipped in 2006, fewer than one per cent made it into the large business (500-plus seats) space. First-quarter through third-quarter results from 2007 show the number sinking even lower, with only 0.4 per cent representing enterprise purchases. "The market is pretty much non-existent", said Chan. "It's a PC world."

On the surface the claim being made here is that you can avoid "another year full of dangerous data breaches and IT manager headaches" simply by not buying Apple's MacBook Air. Having put this nonsense into the reader's mind the author then changes the subject and laces the new material with emotional subliminals whose effect is to coerce belief by inviting the reader to join his us and stand united against "them" and their unholy Mac.

He does this first by simultaneously invoking group membership and therefore group credibility. Thus the otherwise irrelevant note that the analyst he quotes is employed by a Toronto firm is intended first to appeal to regional chauvinism and thereby establish that the analyst cheers for the right team. Next he builds the analyst's credibility first by quoting impossibly precise numbers: a "0.4 percent" market share and secondly by tying in another appeal to group membership - only "large business" or "enterprise" purchases count.

This would, I think, have been a perfect example of authorial misdirection if he hadn't gone somewhat over the top in the next bit: repeatedly invoking the power of us to reinforce his anti-mac message: "experts say... It's a PC world" while emphasizing the puniness of the "pretty much non-existent" "them."

To see this in a longer term context, look at his key point: that you can avoid "another year full of dangerous data breaches and IT manager headaches" by not buying a Mac Air in the context of what happened with the MacXL back in 1984. At the time the PC-AT outsold the Mac by a factor of about 40 mainly because the data processing people in control of corporate IT budgets bought only from each other despite the fact that the IBM PC cost more, lacked software, and was three to five years behind Apple on both hardware and software.

Back then, for data processing, IBM was part of the us - and Apple was "them". For Briony Smith that situation hasn't changed: Apple is "them", the PC is us, and the facts have nothing to do with membership. To misquote the macalope who said something like this in this same context what you're hearing in this review is the 1984 data processing community vocally tarring and feathering a product for 2009. That's the data processing us at work - and the problem isn't that it hasn't advanced since the mid 1920s, the problem is that this is the other voice your boss hears in his head at night.

Topics: Apple, Data Centers, Hardware

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  • How would you write for luddites?

    Seriously. I've read articles in business magazines that make me absolutely fume at the gross inaccuracies. But the bottom line is, aside from maybe changing a little phrasing, I usually don't think I could do that much better of a job (maybe a different job, biased towards my own views, but not better) than the authors of the article.

    So how would you write about pure technology for a business audience?
    Erik Engbrecht
    • Apparently not that well..

      as in Brief.

      However, if i were advising better writers, I'd suggest focusing on what things do and, most importantly, on always giving the reader two key pointers:

      1 - by placing whatever it is in a historical context; and,

      2 - by clearly separating fact from speculation or interpretation.

      and, of course, by not intentionally using emotional cues to mislead.
      • Building excitement.

        The audience eager for information about the history of computing probably already knows some of it, accurate or inaccurate. And "facts" in computing have a short shelf life and must be seen in an elaborate context, including technical comparisons.

        Prose leading people to storm the barricades usually takes a very different approach, no?!
        Anton Philidor
      • focusing on what things do...

        ...especially in terms of end-user functionality, generally leads to Microsoft technologies looking pretty good relative to their upfront cost.

        Which is why Microsoft is so good at selling to businesses.
        Erik Engbrecht
  • Catch-22.

    The hostility to Macs in the article quoted is not expressed as us/them. It's No one uses Macs because No one uses Macs.

    That loop can't be refuted. Even if the reader has a Mac at home.

    Particularly because Apple has not been aggressive about the business market. Perhaps because business has demands which would change the experience of using a Mac. Business use would be drudgery to Apple, I suspect, and what fun is designing for that(?).
    Anton Philidor
  • Stating a guess as fact

    The "analyst" Who stated the "fact"
    about Mac sales to enterprise has no
    way to know what he states.

    Apple does not publicly breakdown its
    sales into consumer, small business,
    and enterprise markets. Neither does
    Dell. Like Dell, Apple's enterprise
    sales are generally direct to customer
    so there are no independent 3rd party
    seller stats either.

    Companies do not broadcast their
    computer brand or OS usage to the
    world because there is no benefit to
    them, but there is risk to publicly
    stating the info. Have you ever read
    that some huge company made a
    public announcement that they're
    buying more Dells, or HPs, or even
    Macs? You haven't.
    • Shocked! I'm just shocked and appalled

      You don't believe the analyst's 0.4%! but he's from <EM>Toronto</EM>...

  • And the biggest problem management faces

    is IT people who think they're the smartest people on the
    face of the planet and have all the answers.

    It has been my experience that IT recommends based on two
    factors: 1) familiarity, and 2) job security. Well thought out
    research is always subordinate to those two principles.
    • Totally agree

      Unfortunately IT people have a very narrow field of expertise (or in Rudy's case - extremely narrow). If they also have a Microsoft is the AntiChrist attitude, then their internal customers are guaranteed to have a frustrating time while the IT priests fuss over their *nix machines.

      The purpose of IT is to support the company they're in - not to run personal crusades. If over 90% of the world (and even greater in the business world) uses one OS then it makes business sense to use it as well rather than extolling the purity of a *nix approach.
      • sheep (nt)

        Erik Engbrecht
        • Clever sheep are a problem...

          ... for themselves and others. Better to let the sheep find their own way than suffer the risks of innovation.

          Here's confirmation, which may be considered an extended metaphor about the difficulties of a clever individual attempting to regress Windows shop to Unix:

          City Gent ... I say, those are sheep aren't they?
          Rustic Ar.
          City Gent Yes, yes of course, I thought why are they up in the trees?
          Rustic A fair question and one that in recent weeks has been much on my mind. It's my considered opinion that they're nesting.
          City Gent Nesting?
          Rustic Ar.
          City Gent Like birds?
          Rustic Ar. Exactly. Birds is the key to the whole problem. It's my belief that these sheep are laborin' under the misapprehension that they're birds. Observe their behavior. Take for a start the sheeps' tendency to 'op about the field on their back legs. (off-screen baa-ing) Now witness their attempts to fly from tree to tree. Notice that they do not so much fly as...plummet. (sound of sheep plummeting) Observe for example that ewe in that oak tree. She is clearly trying to teach her lamb to fly. (baaaaaa...thump) Talk about the blind leading the blind.
          City Gent But why do they think they're birds?
          Rustic Another fair question. One thing is for sure; a sheep is not a creature of the air. They have enormous difficulty in the comparatively simple act of perchin'. (crash) As you see. As for flight, its body is totally unadapted to the problems of aviation. Trouble is, sheep are very dim. Once they get an idea in their heads, there's no shifting it.
          City Gent But where did they get the idea from?
          Rustic From Harold. He's that sheep there over under the elm. He's that most dangerous of animals, a clever sheep. He's the ring-leader. He has realized that a sheep's life consists of standing around for a few months and then being eaten. And that's a depressing prospect for an ambitious sheep. He's patently hit on the idea of escape.
          City Gent Well why don't you just get rid of Harold?
          Rustic Because of the enormous commercial possibilities should he succeed.

          True, the metaphor does break down at the end. There are no commercial possibilities for Unix.
          Anton Philidor
          • Baaaaa....d (NT)

          • If Harold were truly clever...

            ... he wouldn't be standing under a tree amidst the plummeting.

            Efforts to innovate (or regress) do have fallout.
            Anton Philidor
    • Agree, sort of

      I agree that having a technical staff that's religiously devoted to a set of technologies because of group affilliation is a problem, but that doesn't excuse executives from doing the same thing. Thanks for providing some balance to PM's argument, but I think PM still has a point.

      A problem I see with some news outlets is they get caught up in validating existing viewpoints, rather than trying to objectively report on what's happening.
      Mark Miller