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Exclusive Interview With Freakonomics’ Stephen Dubner At InfoComm16

Sound & Communications’ editorial team scored an exclusive interview with Stephen Dubner of Freakonomics right before his keynote address at InfoComm16. Although his keynote explained the general nuances of human nature through poignant, and entertaining, anecdotes, our interview was focused on more AV-related issues, taking to task Dubner’s own unique, personal views on common problems our industry is currently facing.

The below transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Some of the hot product trends in the AV industry are collaboration systems and the use of personal devices in corporate offices. Why do you think people prefer to do business in this way?

That’s a really interesting question. I would, of course, challenge the premise a little bit. I’m not sure people do prefer it. And I think this really gets to the core issue of a lot of new technology. If I’m running IT at a company and I decide to institute a new system, I then expect everyone to participate in this technology.

This is tricky because, even if you believe that it’s the perfectly optimal system, people have what social scientists like to call heterogeneous preferences. Not everyone likes the same things, not everyone is good at the same things, and people have different strengths and weaknesses that technology can show off in either a poor or good way.

So, in meeting culture, it’s the noisy people, the obnoxious people, like me, who do well. They’re not shy. They speak up. They don’t worry about sounding ridiculous. Then there’s the self-conscious, quiet, maybe brilliant people who are not encouraged to speak up. Their ideas just go unheard. And, similarly, I think that, with technologies, there are some people who will never adapt.

Therefore, when you’re instituting a new system, especially a communication system, you need to be flexible and allow people to opt-in or opt-out, so everybody can optimize their own flow.

Do you think there will be an oversaturation point with media in public places?

I’d say yes, and we reached it 10 years ago. For example, I don’t like CNN much to start with (no offense if you have friends or family at CNN). I certainly don’t want CNN blaring in every airport gate waiting area. If I want it in my home, I have the choice to opt-in.

But, I have my ways to cope. I wear really wonderful noise-canceling headphones that play what I want to hear: music, spoken word or whatever. But then, if I look at my kids, who are 14 and 15, and the generation that comes after them, I realize that people get accustomed to what is available very quickly.

People can adapt very, very quickly and well. I do think, however, that it’s hard to predict growth in demand for omnipresent media. I think of it sometimes like this: If you think of human beings as hardware, our hardware is pretty good. It’s sturdy, but it’s old. It’s been evolving, but very slowly. The software we’re trying to run on it changes a lot more quickly than the hardware is able to keep up. I think there’s a lot depending on our hardware, including our cognitive bandwidth…the fact that we apparently can listen to about 1.5 simultaneous conversations before we get agitated. We can close our eyes to things. We have eyelids, but we don’t have “earlids.” If there’s enough going on auditorially, you can overload. A lot of people do overload and opt-out, so I think you do have to be careful of the maximum there.

Do you think there’s an untapped need that people have that AV integrators can capitalize on right now?

Yes, but if I knew what it was, I would have told the world already. Steve Jobs is famous for many, many things, including saying, “People don’t know what they want. I’m going to tell people what they want and then they’ll realize that they wanted it.” And I think that’s very true.

I look at my own life. We are actually moving into a new apartment in New York City relatively soon (we’re renovating it), so we’re figuring out “What’s the AV?” Just 10 years ago, we know what it would have been: a bunch of hardwired, big stuff on the walls. But now, I would say, we consume about 90% of our media on individual screens. Sometimes, we’ll watch together on one screen, but how often do we actually sit down in a “media room?” The house is the media room now, so it’s totally different.

I think there’s a ton of untapped desires and potentials. If you had said to us, 20 years ago, “Here’s the way I see you behaving,” I don’t think we would have believed it. But here’s the other thing: Change is always tricky. Many people, when forced to embrace change, do okay, but new things are almost always universally criticized. This is especially true in areas of modernism: architecture, art and so on. We now look at the Eiffel Tower, and the general feeling is “Oh my god, the Eiffel Tower.” Originally, it was hated; everybody hated it.

The big Ferris wheel, the London Eye, was roundly hated by everyone who had a voice, and it was meant to be temporary. It was a publicity stunt. Now, the London Eye is the first thing that everyone who goes to London wants to see. And Londoners love it, too.

So, we’re not very good, we humans. I love our species. We’re great. We’ve done a lot of good stuff. Pasta alone…as human accomplishments go, that would have been enough. Dayenu for pasta. And we’ve come up with a lot more, but in terms of really knowing what we want and where we’re going, it’s big trial and error there.

The innovations that seem like the sure thing often don’t work and the ones that no one would have guessed would be successful often are. Humans are tricky. We respond to incentives. And what we try to do with Freakonomics is find data that reflects how those incentives really work, how people really respond to them. That’s how you measure behavioral change…but it’s much trickier than you think.

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