When I was a young reporter, perhaps 21 years old, I learned that New York City reporters were earning considerably less on their copies than other states. I began explaining factors that were pushing our rates down. I drew a diagram for some colleagues. It probably looked something like this:
This was in the course of considering building a company and competing in our market. Of course, my colleagues at the time were incredulous. I was about eight years away from publishing the data that proved we were being underpaid. We thought it might be wise to start a company, but we also believed the agencies we were taking work from might retaliate if we did. This, I now know, is an example of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, a model that provides a framework for understanding cooperation. It is often couched in criminal justice terms. Two suspects rob a bank. If neither cooperates the top charge might not be proven, and they could get as little as a year. If one turns the other in, the rat gets two years and the other guy gets ten. If they both turn each other in, they both get five years. With this kind of knowledge, both are heavily motivated to turn each other in just to avoid the possibility of being hit with ten years. There are many variations of this. How we see it play out in the court reporting field is “if I do not take this job for the rate that is offered, somebody else will, and then I won’t have a job, so I must take this job.” This environment puts reporters into a mindset where they are willing to accept shorter turnarounds, lower rates, and worse working conditions, such as more paperwork, being asked to work during Superstorm Sandy, or being asked to bring free snacks to a depo. I ended up very upset. They didn’t buy into my ideas and I never got my ideas off the ground myself because I didn’t have the social skills at the time to attract clients. But I learned the very important lesson that even in a situation where people would benefit from a choice, if they are presented with risk or the situation is framed in a way that appears risky, people are less likely to buy in.
Over the years I kept reading and learning. As I’ve described in other posts this week, I started to suspect that machine learning with regard to automatic speech recognition was not as good as it was made out to be. With Gartner predicting that 85% of business AI solutions will fail and IBM Watson finally admitting that it was not the industry-changing showstopper it was made out to be, again, it seems those suspicions are turning out to be true. But where did those suspicions come from? I started to see that the claims being made about ASR were numerous and constant. In 2016, Microsoft claimed that their automatic speech recognition was better than human transcribers. An awful lot of noise was being made about the abilities and exponential growth of technology even though the exponential growth of technology had already slowed. That’s around the time I read about the Empty Fort Strategy. In brief, it’s a story that’s part of the Thirty-Six Stratagems that describes a famous general who was defending a fort or city. He had no real garrison and was surrounded by the enemy. He goes up into the tower at the gate, throws open the gate, and starts playing his lute, beckoning his enemies to attack. The enemy army, believing a trap was waiting for them, fled. In real life, stenographers on social media were dejected and demoralized by the constant barrage of empty tech news. Would they run away? But news was breaking that companies like Facebook were secretly using human transcribers in ASR systems! And news was breaking that companies could be super weak financially but still stay in business for years. If behemoths like that were having problems, it was logical to conclude that nobody else was anywhere close. Could I show court reporters the fort was empty?
I had already read and written about the Pygmalion effect, and I continue to write about it often, because I see just how powerful that part of human psychology is. Robert Rosenthal went to a school, picked a bunch of random kids, and told the teacher they were expected to be intellectual bloomers that year. Rosenthal returned later that year and the children’s scores had increased. It was clear that the teacher had taken the idea that these were gifted children and subconsciously given them more support. You can listen to Robert Rosenthal talk about some of his associated rat studies at the start of the Learner Lab podcast. Our expectations cause us to make subconscious choices that lead to our expectations being fulfilled. Demoralized stenographers that expect the profession to fail will make subconscious choices to make it fail. Then there’s confirmation bias. Once people form a belief, they seek out information that supports that belief. Then there’s cognitive dissonance. When we get two conflicting ideas in our head, our mind seeks ways to reconcile them. This can blend into a phenomenon where even the brightest among us will fight for a belief that we have even where there is no factual basis. If multiple people come to form the same belief, it can evolve into an echo chamber. I could already see it happening on the court reporting front. I was getting into regular disagreements with court reporting colleagues that truly believed we would be done in five to ten years.
I knew from reading about war and conflict that the easiest way to win something is to get the opposition to give up without a fight. Once people start running from a battle, it encourages others to run. Could the barrage of bad news get stenographers to run even though our institutions and numbers were far better funded and far larger? As people, we are basically problem solving machines. Once we identify a problem we take the path of least resistance to solve it. The bigger the problem is to us, the more of our attention it takes up and the more motivated we are to solve it. It follows that in order to get people to cooperate, the issue needs to be framed in a way that they will understand it as a problem where the path of least resistance is the path you want them to take. I saw that some digital proponents understood these concepts as well, because there was a constant flip between trying to press the message that digital was the new steno and steno was the gold standard; sometimes even seemingly from the same sources. They were trying to frame the narrative in a way that the future was inevitable, and therefore stenographers should do nothing, because what could a bunch of stenographers do anyway? It’s kind of like standing behind someone whispering to them how wonderful they are while you stab them in the back. It’s a disarming tactic that got some stenographers to buy into the mantra of “there’s nothing we can do” that I destroyed on Wednesday. A new diagram popped into my head. It probably looked something like this:
In addition to all these other concepts, I found articles about Richter’s rats. In a study done by Curt Richter, rats were placed in water. Each died within minutes. A second group of rats was placed in the water, and just as they were about to drown they were taken out of it. When they were reintroduced to the water, they swam for days. As in some Rosenthal studies, rats were used because of the similarity their brains have to human brains. After all, drowning real live humans for science would be unethical! But we don’t need to do that. We can just look at how people facing impossible odds in history overcame the odds via hope and trying. It is fairly logical to extrapolate that given hope, people become capable of things that they otherwise would not be capable of. If my readers were capable of hope, they were capable of superhuman feats just like the mom who scared away the mountain lion with her bare hands.
As far as I could tell, we had the facts and numbers on our side. All that was left was to reverse the harmful messaging infecting our field and repeat all the more positive and true messages that would bring us together. I grew this blog. And now when I write something that’s good, about 2% of our entire industry tunes in on the day it’s written.
That 2%, we know from Rosenthal, Richter, and Margaret Mead, can change the world. And digital proponents like Verbit really helped get us into the world-changing mindset. According to some stenographers on social media, they told them they’d just have to stand aside for the new technology. Going back to my thoughts about conflict and risk, I knew that they were backing stenographers into a corner. I also had read a little about Sun Tzu. Sun Tzu figured out not to put your enemy in a corner over 2,000 years ago. Who wants to have to retrain and wonder what job they’ll do next? The path of least resistance for reporters was now to fight for the job stenographers had, and more people began to send me information to feed that fight.
Of course, this works both ways. You’ll note in my writing, I never ever take a position that a company is irredeemable. When I let Veritext know that, they put it in writing that technology will not take the place of the stenographer. Can’t walk that back too gracefully. That gave me a glance into the corporate psychology. There’s probably no cohesive strategy for the replacement of stenographers even if it is a vague goal. That doesn’t mean they won’t act against us if and when it suits them. After all, Veritext had a digital reporter posting up as recently as this week. But it does mean that if the company should come out and say digital is replacing us, 27,000 people can point out the blatant contradiction to the media. It also means that should they change their stance, reporters that are friendly will have an incentive to resist on every front legally available. Their lack of cohesive strategy versus our extreme motivation to keep our jobs secure is part of what gives us an edge here.
I’m pretty much doing the same with US Legal. I’m going to hit pretty hard until they back down off the inferior digital product. I can leave my mind open to the possibility that maybe they too just got caught in that echo chamber of “digital is the only way.” All I can do is point them to digital slime shops like Kentuckiana or CED and say “look, if this modality was cheaper, more efficient, and easily scalable, these companies would’ve beat us out a long time ago.” All I can do is try to get the big dogs to see that their belief in digital reporting can hurt their business and people in our civil and criminal justice system. If they refuse to see it, then we have a conflict. A conflict where, due to our reach and numbers, is impossible for them to come out of unscathed. Who in their right mind would go into conflict with someone that can reach 2% of the industry with a blog post? We’re at the point where I’m tagging them on Twitter. They’re not going to win this. They’re up against someone willing to murder a Stentura for the cause.
There’s that prisoner’s dilemma again. There is one rational choice that minimizes the risk, stenography. All other choices carry a risk. Sue me? Risk calling attention to my work, lose $400 an hour, maybe get sanctioned for a frivolous lawsuit, and lose the lawsuit quite publicly. Continue doing digital? Risk me being right about it. Attempt to refute my work? Risk calling more attention to it. Actually manage to refute my work? Risk my arguments becoming stronger and more logical. Ignore me? Well, then I can act with impunity. Go steno only? I can’t see a downside, especially if the company puts any good recruitment effort in for us. I go away, they make money, everybody’s happy. Steno is the easy win and the path of least resistance. There’s a special kind of irony to my life. If I had had a lucrative and comfortable freelance career, I would not have been as motivated as I am to help freelancers because I would not have viewed them as needing help. If the corporations in New York City had treated us like human beings instead of resources to be used and thrown away, Stenonymous wouldn’t exist. I wouldn’t be hanging out at an undisclosed location playing with dominoes. That last bit was a joke. The rest is dead serious.
This messaging and psychology stuff also works with our friends, the digital reporters themselves, who are not told that stenography is a viable career. Every single digital that is pulled to steno is someone these companies need to pay to replace. We stay in business five or six decades at a time. The average employee stays 1 to 4 years. Want turnover to decimate your bottom line? Transition to digital reporting. Meanwhile, reporters, when you tell someone they can have more money and opportunities by picking up a valuable skill and that digital reporting is risky, they strongly consider what you have to say. I have proof. Every now and then, I get an email kind of like this one, where I was asked by a very cool digital reporter how to get into stenographic court reporting and whether I believed the future was steno over digital. I let them know the truth. If we fail, the most likely outcome is the companies freeze the rates on them, and we know that because it was done to us 30 years ago.
Not only can we positively impact the lives of digital reporters through empathy and compassion, we can encourage the foreign transcribers that are being exploited to stand against their own exploitation. At the very least we can exchange ideas and information that will lead to greater understanding of each other’s position. If you think that sounds like a platitude, check out this conversation I had with an offshore transcriber.
What I wrote next will shock you.
And what I received back from this wonderful person shocked me.
Again, I can show that mathematically we are underpaid. So these corporations are paying our replacements about a fourth of what they pay us. Are they charging the lawyers a fourth? No? Then our next step is to tell the lawyers just how badly they and their clients are being ripped off. Get these leeches out of our industry and get their hands out of the pockets of our students. They have a choice to work with us. Anything that is not support of us is not working with us and we don’t have to tolerate it or be nice about it.
The most recent step in my thoughts about science and psychology was deep self-reflection. For a long time I was trying to play the corporate game by making everything nice and politically correct. That was my idea of what society should be like. I had disagreements with so many reporters because they weren’t diplomatic enough for my liking. I was a fool. We ended up in conflict because I couldn’t analyze the flaws of my own approach and realize that being polite gave me zero leverage. I can only apologize to those I might have hurt in my naivety. We are not up against nice, correct companies. The individual people in those companies might be nice people, but they are all working towards a goal of making the corporation more successful with complete disregard for who it hurts. We cannot allow them to control the narrative because then we all become a part of making the narrative come true. We must force them to respond to and become a part of our narrative. As I just showed you, all of the aforementioned principles of human behavior will coalesce into a situation where we prevail. Our only problem is we have an aversion to reaching out and seizing the opportunity. That problem, I wager, is solved through American’s constitution, free speech and information dispersal.
Now that you have my playbook, I hope you will use it for good. Just know there is some evidence to suggest that these principles can go haywire and a person can hold and defend a belief that is simply not true. This goes back to confirmation bias and our innate desire to avoid cognitive dissonance. US Legal had a bit of that after my Wednesday article. They blocked me on Twitter rather than face the uncomfortable truth that the company is headed in a bad direction. That put them at a disadvantage where they are now not monitoring someone who can reach out to the legal community and explain very cogently why their policies are going to hurt lawyers. Again, we’re looking at a company of people just doing a job. They don’t have the same motivation against having their profession permanently eliminated. If US Legal closes tomorrow every single one of its brilliant employees will find a better spot somewhere else. It’s likely very few of them really care what happens to the company the way we care what happens to steno.
We must defend against putting ourselves at the same disadvantage. We do that by building truth-seeking into our beliefs and reassessing them as often as is reasonable. As long as we don’t become Buridan’s donkey, the reassessment can only strengthen us. Failing to reassess beliefs can cause us to fall into an echo chamber mentality where we may become ignorant to something important or dangerous. Our institutions suffer greatly from this. They are so hesitant to spend money or take on liability that the things they do often end up half-baked or ineffective. Some projects we spend months on never go anywhere at all because everyone is looking at everyone else waiting for them to pull the trigger and yell “go!” Real world example? NCRA would not allow a vote on one of our amendments this year for the same exact reasons. A risk was presented that it was illegal, and that was enough for the board to back down despite very sound reasoning why it was not illegal. It’s not their fault. It’s how people work. And learning that helped me not take it personally and move on to the next big thing rather than obsess and stagnate.
I’ve seen reporters fall into that trap too, whether it’s “nothing can ever replace us” or “the sky is falling, we are irreparably doomed.” Any absolute statement becomes a chance for us to ignore important information. For example, reporters and people who believe digital is always cheaper will be most likely to ignore studies done where the costs of digital and steno were pretty much the same or that digital reporting has a high equipment replacement cost that our reporters typically eat out of their own revenue. Who is going to pay to replace equipment every five years once we’re out of the picture? Courts and lawyers! When the Testifying While Black Study hit the news, NCRA and PCRA went after the study itself, which was very similar to my own take on it. The news tore into us and we looked doomed. Then I reassessed my beliefs and ended up becoming the most knowledgeable stenographer in the country on the study; NCRA recognized that, which landed me on TV and eventually allowed me to call news organizations out for turning such an important story into clickbait — using clickbait!
The study showed we were twice as good at taking down the African American Vernacular English dialect and thousands of people missed that because they could not abandon their own preconceived notions. Meanwhile, one 30 year old with an AOS in court reporting figured it out. I’m not particularly bright. That’s just the power of open-mindedness intrinsic to healthy debate and reasoning, and it allows me to outwit the people messing with us. My message is that you, reader, have the same exact ability. For as long as I can remember, my favorite Latin phrase has been “a posse ad esse,” from possibility to actuality. Along those lines, if we admit to ourselves that any possibility can be an actuality, we no longer waste time running from truths we do not want to see, confront our fears, and meet our goals.