“Once you begin to understand the nature of side effects, you ask a different set of questions before you make decisions and projections and analyze what’s going to happen.”
I mentioned a while back that I’d gained a reputation over the years for being a “No.” guy, seemingly quick to reject half-baked Underpants Gnomes schemes, and then I very recently learned that my particular way of looking at things, especially business challenges, has a name: Systems Thinking.
I’ve been reading up on it ever since and it’s been an incredibly clarifying experience, personally and professionally. Bateson’s 2018 essay is a long read, touching on everything from climate change to AI, and it’s one of the most interesting and illuminating things I’ve read on the subject so far.
I’m still wrapping my head around formal definitions and applications, but it’s basically about looking at the big picture and seeing how various parts intersect and work together — or against each other — rather than zooming in on one part in isolation. I think the opposite of systems thinking results in new shiny solutions searching for problems, incredulously championed by people who either have no interest in the big picture, or worse, want to obscure other people’s view of that picture.
And lastly, they told me they combat that culture with their curation. Given that we were on the call due to a curatorial problem this was, perhaps, the most disappointing aspect of their answer. Annotations are not lawyers. The time of a single employee is not an investment. And their curation efforts are clearly problematic. Scholastic is a billion dollar company with a unique reach and impact in the education market. Their directive as purveyors of truth and literacy must be held to a higher standard than other publishers because of that unique position and privilege. They simply must do better.
From systems thinking to systemic racism.
Last month, Tokuda-Hall publicly outed Scholastic for asking her to remove the word racism from the author’s note of her children’s book, Love in the Library, in order for them to distribute it in an Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (AANHPI) narratives collection that would reach thousands of schools across the country. The book is about her grandparents, who met in a WWII incarceration camp, so racism is kind of an important part of the story.
She came with receipts and Scholastic quickly and publicly apologized in a full statement rather than the usual screenshot of a note on Instagram, offering to restart the conversation with her in hopes of including her book in their collection “with the author’s note unchanged.” Unfortunately, and somewhat predictably, they were clearly just hoping to shove it all under the rug and move on, but Tokuda-Hall set a higher bar that they failed to clear — so she called them out again.
Publishing is a small, incestuous industry, so although she had a lot of vocal support online (and probably within Scholastic itself), she’s taken a huge risk, twice, to expose the systemic racism that’s embedded in the industry’s DNA.
You can be sure that variations of this have happened to many other authors in the past, and it will continue to happen. The only way to fight it is to expose it every time — publicly. DEI initiatives and whisper networks only protect the villains and the well-connected authors who have the ability to navigate around those villains, leaving the majority of aspiring authors as easy prey.
As the coronavirus has spread and hopefully now plateaued in New York, I’ve kept on playing for a different reason: because I want to win at something, instead of feeling entirely powerless. I can solve every problem in The Division 2 with a bullet, but against the coronavirus my armory is all but empty.
The Division and its sequel, The Division 2, are among my all-time favorite games. A cover-based looter-shooter initially set in NYC, you play as a deep cover agent activated to restore law and order when society collapses under the strain of a devastating pandemic. In 2016 and 2019, when both games were released, respectively, the storyline seemed far-fetched, and not only because of the influence of Tom Clancy’s techno-thriller fetishes.
I played nearly 500 hours between the two games, finally bouncing off The Division 2 in March 2020, just as a real pandemic was starting to happen in the real world. It was coincidental at the time, but I definitely thought about potential parallels a lot, especially in those first few months of worldwide quarantine.
I picked up the game again a few weeks ago, and while it’s still great, it hits different now. In talking about that, someone sent me a link to Bajracharya’s essay from April 2020, which coincidentally published a week after my father died alone in a Hoboken hospital, and it was a really tough read that brought back a lot of memories.
Thankfully, the real world didn’t completely fall apart like in the games, despite what appears to have been a far more robust federal response, but in some ways, I think we ended up in a far darker timeline where we’ve decided to downplay or even ignore the severity of what happened, or even admit that it’s not over.
“And I’m not pointing at anybody but myself. At some point I’ll have enough knocks against me that it’s somebody else here, but I think it’s transparency in what we’re building, what our aspiration is for the game, what it’s going to look like, what the features are. And it drives me crazy when we [have] self-inflicted wounds of putting things out there and communication that’s confusing or misleading about what the actual end product is going to be.”
I’ve always had a lot of respect for Phil Spencer since back when he took on a more prominent role in the wake of Xbox One’s shaky launch. Ironically, everything most people hated about that launch is how I ended up getting a Day One edition despite having just bought an Xbox 360 a year earlier, because they’d sold my wife on its — ultimately underwhelming — non-gaming features. (Except for Xbox Fitness, which was great, and I still miss all these years later!)
He always comes off as a candid straight-shooter, authentically passionate about games, and a seemingly awkward fit at a massive, greedy corporation like Microsoft. He makes several smart points about Xbox’s position in the gaming space, though; where it’s made mistakes, where they need to improve, and I’m really hoping he doesn’t get sacrificed to the stock market gods over it.
I’ve owned (and still have) an Xbox from every generation — including two versions of the much-maligned Xbox One — and think Game Pass is one of the best things to happen in gaming in a long time, but that’s partly because I don’t typically care about anybody’s AAA exclusives. Although I can’t imagine ever owning a PlayStation console or dealing with the hassle of maintaining a good gaming PC, I would definitely jump back into Nintendo’s world because the Wii was probably my favorite console ever, and I still have fond memories of Wii Sports, not to mention discovering Pokémon on the Gameboy in my late-twenties!
Until then, though, I hope Microsoft will keep calm and move forward with the Xbox ecosystem.
“There’s a headache in being large, and there’s a headache in being tiny and scrappy forever.”
I’ve been a fan of The Bitter Southerner for years — including owning several of their books and too many t-shirts! — so it’s always nice to see them getting attention in media business circles. I learned a lot about their small operation (only 6 people!), and it’s an inspiring reminder that a passion project can evolve into a sustainable business if you’re serving a distinct audience in an authentic way.
I particularly felt her comment about headaches from “being tiny and scrappy forever” deep in my bones. Deep. In. My. Bones.
They’re one of the few things I really miss since leaving Twitter last year because their site doesn’t have an RSS feed, but I still follow them on Instagram and get their emails and listen to their podcasts whenever they pop up, which has kept me from completely losing touch.
I’d somehow missed that Chuck Reese, one of the co-founders and the editorial voice I first connected with there, had left early in the pandemic, though. His new gig, Salvation South, looks interesting (and has an RSS feed!), so I’ll be giving it a look over the next few weeks.
PS: I’ve been a fan of Morrissey’s since his time at Digiday, and I’m glad to see him attempting to spotlight more independent publishers, but there’s a subtle unseriousness in his tone at times that really irked me. It felt like it was a fun little diversion from his usual “real” media business conversations, despite the fact that many of the businesses he usually covers are all smoke and mirrors.
I’m not bitter, just disappointed.