And, unfortunately for us, they are really quite good at it.
Tigers can magically blend in with their surroundings, giving us only glimpses of their true form.
But there’s much more to fear from tigers than simply being eaten alive.
It has to do with how we see them while they’re hiding in the grass.
If you’ve attended any of my public talks in the past, chances are you’ve heard me speak about the lesson of the “Tiger in the Grass.” Those of you will probably recognize many of the things I mention in this post. But I’ve never actually written about this lesson before, and I want to make sure I expand on it in this blog for a wider audience. I believe it is a very helpful lesson for pioneers exploring new technologies and mediums of expression.
Meet the Brain. The most amazing Pattern Recognition system in the world.
Pattern Recognition is defined as “the act of taking in raw data and taking an action based on the category of the pattern.” Our human brain is really good at pattern recognition, and it does it all the time.
The reason we’re so good at it is pretty simple. It’s a huge evolutionary advantage. The faster we can figure out a situation, the more likely we will survive.
Here’s an example.
Ogg and Throgg are two cavemen. They are wandering in the grassy plains. In front of them is a tiger, hiding in the grass.
Because the tiger is very good at hiding, Ogg and Throgg can only see a few parts of the tiger. A single yellow eye peering out of the foliage. The white tip of a tufted tail twitching on the ground.
Ogg looks and thinks, “Hmmm. I think there’s an animal over there. But I can’t see enough of it to know what kind of animal.” So Ogg walks closer to collect more data.
Meanwhile, Throgg looks and thinks, “Uh oh. That yellow eye and tufted tail. What does that remind me of? ” Throgg mind takes the partial data and extrapolates. In his mind’s eye he now sees a tiger in full form, with sharp claws and pointy teeth. He flips out, his limbic system kicking into high gear, and runs away.
Ogg is lunch. Throgg survives. And Throgg’s children inherit a bit of his cleverness in tiger pattern recognition.
There are many other examples of how quick and efficient pattern recognition can improve basic human survival. Like recognizing healthy things to eat, finding good mates, and navigating hostile environments.
The world is full of partial data. And as human beings observing the world, we spend most of our time filling in the gaps.
We do this all the time. And not just with things that physically exist. We also do it with more abstract concepts.
Here’s a fun example you try out for yourself. Try reading the following paragraph.
Aoccdrnig to rsecareh at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a tataol mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.
Pretty amazing, isn’t it?
Now, here’s the danger. Our brain’s first instinct is to fill in the gaps and decide as quickly as possible, “What does this remind me of?” But it can often get things wrong.
Our brain can completely blow it when presented with something that is completely new but similar to something it knows very well.
Many species exploit this weakness through mimicry. Just present a few visual or behavioral cues that are similar to another species, and you have a great survival strategy.
There’s a deeper lesson in all this. Especially for pioneers exploring new technologies and new mediums of expression.
The telephone is not the telegraph. A movie is not a play. The web is not a brochure.
Human beings are constantly inventing new media and new tools for communication. And whenever something new pops up, because of our brain’s propensity for speedy pattern recognition, we instinctively think “What does this remind me of?”
And this gets us into real trouble. Because, once we treat a new thing as something we’re already familiar with, we lose out on the uniquely new possibilities of the new thing.
History is littered with these mistakes.
When the telephone was first invented, people used it like the telegraph to convey mostly business messages. ”Hey, our business uses the telegraph all the time to send memos, and people can read memos out loud much faster!” The idea of the general population using the telephone as a way to have synchronous discussions and stay connected with family and friends was completely alien for many years.
When movies arrived on the scene, everyone noticed that the projected screen looked a lot like a blank set for a play. So filmmakers stuck a single camera on a pole in front of a stage and filmed plays. It took decades before pioneering directors realized they could create a rich new language of cinematography. Like filming scenes with multiple cameras at once, cutting and splicing the developed film to create different perspectives.
And most of you probably remember how the early days of the web were filled with sites that were little more than scanned brochures. ”Oh look, you can arrange text and pictures on an electronic page that millions of people can view. Our brochure department will love this. And we’ll save fortune on printing costs!” The revolution of Web 2.0, businesses like Amazon, and collaboratively created sites like Wikipedia took many years to unfold.
The real danger of the Tiger in the Grass is not the tiger, but the nature of our own mind.
I’ve written a lot about how important it is to remember those things that make us most human. And how, by creating tools and technologies that both leverage and augment what makes us human, we can unlock completely unique possibilities.
But there’s a catch. Sometimes, the things that make us most human can get us into real trouble. Like our over-eager nature towards pattern recognition.
The trick is to be aware of our human qualities. And that includes being aware of how they can sometimes cause us to stumble.
So the next time you are looking at a brand new technology or tool, take a step back to ponder the truly unique qualities of it. Ignore what it reminds you of. Don’t use it in ways that feel comfortably familiar and merely optimize things you are already doing.
You’ll have to work really hard at this. Your brain’s instincts will be fighting against you all the way.
If you persevere, you’ll come face-to-face with a much more desirable human quality.
-John “Pathfinder” Lester