On Dickens, Rashomon and Twitter

The following is a post from Frank Shaw, Corporate Vice President of Corporate Communications at Microsoft.

Since I’ve chosen a career in communications, it’s safe to assume that I love to write. But it also means I love to study stories, in all their forms and formats. Not just the disposable ones that pop up on my feed every 90 seconds (and yes, you can tell stories via Twitter), but the older ones too, the classics that have stood the test of time.

In the last few days, as I’ve read some of the quick-twitch stories, they’ve made me think of the lessons I’ve learned from some of the longer form stories over time.

For example, the variability in the coverage we received this weekend put me in mind of the opening paragraph from Dickens’ classic A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us.

It’s puzzling how this could be, how the same set of facts could possibly lead to such radically divergent conclusions on the part of so many writers, pundits and self-promoters.

And that’s when I remembered Rashomon, Kurosawa’s classic film from 1950. In it, four characters each recount widely varying versions of the same set of events, and the viewer is left to reach their own conclusion about what really happened. I had fun imagining what the running time of that film would have been in an era with Twitter and 24 hour news cycles. For a quicker, funnier film version, check out “Hoodwinked” which has much the same construct, plus an over-caffeinated squirrel.

Of course, the key thing that determines how we interpret a set of facts is the frame we view them through and what pre-existing beliefs that frame is built on.

Study after study shows we tend to focus on facts that support our beliefs, and ignore those that don’t fit neatly.

In research, this is known as confirmation bias, and it’s a very hard thing to overcome, even when you are aware of it.

So, if you really want to understand what’s going on with a category as complex as the one we operate in, you’ve got your work cut out for you.

In that spirit, there have been a few common themes in some of the coverage I’ve seen since Friday that are worth taking a moment to dissect and discuss.

One approach has been to focus exclusively on some of our consumer businesses, and then judge us harshly while ignoring the successes we’ve had elsewhere.

Another approach has been to go a step further, criticize our lack of “focus” and suggest that those other successes are actually a distraction from what they believe should be our single priority.

What these themes reveal is a single narrow frame through which the writers and pundits view the industry itself that leads them to reach these conclusions.

Since we have a different perspective that drives our strategy, we naturally see things differently.

So in the spirit of open and respectful dialogue, I’ll simply restate what we believe, and why we believe it:

We believe that technology is the key to unlocking human potential in all its forms, and that our job is to make it as broadly accessible as possible.

That people don’t stop being people when they go to work or stop making things happen when they go home.

That being human is at least as defined by creating as it is by watching, playing and sharing.

That evolution entails an ongoing, messy diversification of use cases, form factors and scenarios, not a simple clean progression from one thing to another.

That the intersection between hardware, software and the cloud services that connect them is the space where great things happen.

And finally, we believe that any attempt to isolate these activities from one another and treat the boundaries between them as fixed vs. fluid is artificial and limiting.

When you believe these things, as we do, you don’t choose OR. You choose AND.

Devices and services.

Enterprise and consumer.

Individuals and teams.

Cloud and on premise.

Infrastructure and line of business.

OEM and first party.

Work and play.

Why? Because we remain confident that in the future, as in the past, innovation forged in one crucible will find application in another.

That technology used to block spam in a free mail client can improve matchmaking within a gaming service, or serve as a way to think about finding a vaccine for HIV.

That a telescope for the world can visualize a world of business data.

That a map can give us directions and be the source of a climate information service.

That the input methods developed for high-precision engineering teams can help a child paint with a brush.

That analytical tools designed for Big Data can lead to optimizations for voice recognition on smartphones.

That the sensors that can evaluate dance moves can be used to control welding equipment on a factory floor.

The reason we have big ambitions is because we see big potential for us, our partners, the industry and most of all, our customers, the people who use our tools and toys to do more, go further and keep pushing us to do better.

So when people see the “worst of times” while we see the best still ahead of us, we know it’s simply because we’re not looking through the same frame or the same time horizon.