McLuhan on Print (Or why definition is death, and what it should mean for agencies)

“In this passage [Ivins] not only notes the ingraining of lineal, sequential habits, but, even more important, points out the visual homogenizing of experience of print culture, and the relegation of auditory and other sensuous complexity to the background. […] The technology and social effects of typography incline us to abstain from noting interplay and, as it were, “formal” causality, both in our inner and external lives. Print exists by virtue of the static separation of functions and fosters a mentality that gradually resists any but a separative and compartmentalizing or specialist outlook.”

– Marshall McLuhan

 

 

Replace the word “print” with either ‘structured’ or ‘definition’ and then read that back. What do you get?

 

Either

 

“In this passage [Ivins] not only notes the ingraining of lineal, sequential habits, but, even more important, points out the visual homogenizing of experience of structured culture, and the relegation of auditory and other sensuous complexity to the background. […] The technology and social effects of structure incline us to abstain from noting interplay and, as it were, “formal” causality, both in our inner and external lives. Structure exists by virtue of the static separation of functions and fosters a mentality that gradually resists any but a separative and compartmentalizing or specialist outlook.”

– Marshall McLuhan

 

Or

 

“In this passage [Ivins] not only notes the ingraining of lineal, sequential habits, but, even more important, points out the visual homogenizing of experience of ‘definition’ culture, and the relegation of auditory and other sensuous complexity to the background. […] The technology and social effects of ‘definitions’ incline us to abstain from noting interplay and, as it were, “formal” causality, both in our inner and external lives. ‘Definition’ exists by virtue of the static separation of functions and fosters a mentality that gradually resists any but a separative and compartmentalizing or specialist outlook.”

– Marshall McLuhan

 

 

So the structure imposed by language in our minds is important for cognition and for the processing of data, and for directing our actions. It should, however, be an aid to thinking, not a cage for it.

We too often tend to get caught up in the definitions and structures of things, and end up saying “we can’t” do that.

I was having a discussion on my role as a strategist, and the role of agencies in the lives of brands and of the firms that own/are them on twitter yesterday.

As “advertising strategists” go; in four years in advertising I’ve “planned” about 20 campaigns – ATL/BTL/Digital/etc, and many smaller brand initiatives — most of them have gone on to be very effective for their brands, and also generated large amounts of buzz and goodwill. But that isn’t anywhere near the most interesting bits of work I’ve done.

The interesting stuff is working deeper with your clients, understanding their business and helping them evolve, not just communicating that evolution. (As a media theorist one of the natural approaches to “understanding” would be “transmutability” — the ability of something to transform/evolve (lead into gold, perhaps?) and understand the pivots that can make it happen. Think of it as an accelerating and deliberate form of evolution.)

To that effect, I’ve worked on developing cognitive models for one client, done work on design and service anthropology with two others, worked on ritual and narrative development for another, and looked at mythic structures that another could tap into in the development of new products and services.

When I pointed this out, I was asked, “but why would anyone consider talking to an agency to do any of this?” And the answer is really simple. What is the role of a strategist in any environment — what are the “structures” that a strategist should choose to confine himself (or herself) within? The approach I follow with clients delivers an ad campaign when that’s what’s needed — but continuously looks to create larger platforms for business and process restructuring / re-engineering and cultural alignment (pardon me for the buzzword overkill, here and elsewhere in this post) 

I honestly think that the only one stopping agencies, or any other form of firm from creating value of all sorts is itself, and what it defines itself as. If we choose to be the last leg in the process of creation (communicating the product), we can’t complain about being just that and nothing more.

The other day a friend called me up saying her boss told her (verbatim) “you pay too much attention to stuff like the brand, let’s make some money on the production of a tv script or an event.” And she was wondering how to respond to that feedback. Really? It’s 2011. Living off the margins is * so * 1990. So is living on old definitions.

Digital agencies, platform agencies, BTL agencies all perform services that are needed, otherwise no one would be paying any of them any money — but is that what you’re interested in being for the rest of your life? Defining (confining?) yourself to a particular form/mode of delivery (medium) can be a dangerously specific thing.

Theodore Levitt of Harvard Business School wrote a paper in 1960 called ‘Marketing Myopia’. Which at its core warns of exactly this — structure, definition, short-sightedness — as the death knell of even the most “innovative” businesses in the best “growth” industries at any given time. It’s sad that 50 years later, we still need to cite that essay (on a side note, forget your HBR and McKinsey Quarterly subscriptions and any of the blogs on either until you get these basics right.)

 

 

I studied aerospace engineering for a bit, and simultaneously attended classes with the schools of electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, information systems management, computer science, French, German, Icelandic myth, psychology, sociology, political science, great power relations, Western European politics, the politics of South and South-East Asia, the challenges posed to civil society by terrorism, the role of technology in development, and many, many more, before I settled on Critical and Media Theory, which as a body of study leaned towards valuing what I do — approach over form. (A joke that occasionally went around was that I was keen on following in the illustrious footsteps of one George P. Burdell. :-) )

And that’s the important thing you need to have as a strategist today — versatility and a conception of approach and flow. You need to ask the right questions to find the right answers. And if your questions are limited by what you think you’re capable of doing, you’ll forever be confined to it.

I’m still relatively young, and shameless in presuming my role to be all of this, and just not planning ads. The audacity tends to work for me more often than not, and I do back it up and deliver on what I’m promising every time. The only one stopping you — the only one that can get in your way — is yourself, and the cage you choose for yourself.

#SaturdayMorningMusings

 

On the Machine-World and determinism in innovation and design

So if you’re around me a lot, you might occasionally here me saying, “well that’s a bit too much a ‘machine-view’ way of looking at the world.”

When I say “Machine-view”, I mean to say that the approach being critiqued tends to follow rational-choice theory a little too much to the tee. Rational-choice, of course overlooks free-will, mood, behavioral conditioning of all sorts, local and global mythic structures, informal networks of knowledge and data, and so on.

The natural extension of rational-choice in “creation” industries is “-er” innovation — better, faster, cheaper design rather than being about human centered design.

(Apple gets iPad right because it’s designed for slouch computing. Its competitors may not “get” tablets, because they’re trying to be “better” / “faster” / “cheaper” rather than defining their own “approach” to slouch computing (yes, there are many approaches possible, and no one’s taking them, in the market offerings I’ve seen))

The machine-world works when the zeitgeist is around risk-mitigation, where culture is inherently looking to stay alive, and not so much occupied with higher-order needs (self-expression, ‘fun’). But in a world better populated with alternatives, it’s likely to lead to a dead end, for the idea behind the concept, and likely your brand and your firm with it.

/Friday Ramblings

On the Machine-World and determinism in innovation and design

So if you’re around me a lot, you might occasionally here me saying, “well that’s a bit too much a ‘machine-view’ way of looking at the world.”

When I say “Machine-view”, I mean to say that the approach being critiqued tends to follow rational-choice theory a little too much to the tee. Rational-choice, of course overlooks free-will, mood, behavioral conditioning of all sorts, local and global mythic structures, informal networks of knowledge and data, and so on.

The natural extension of rational-choice in “creation” industries is “-er” innovation — better, faster, cheaper design rather than being about human centered design.

(Apple gets iPad right because it’s designed for slouch computing. Its competitors may not “get” tablets, because they’re trying to be “better” / “faster” / “cheaper” rather than defining their own “approach” to slouch computing (yes, there are many approaches possible, and no one’s taking them, in the market offerings I’ve seen))

The machine-world works when the zeitgeist is around risk-mitigation, where culture is inherently looking to stay alive, and not so much occupied with higher-order needs (self-expression, ‘fun’). But in a world better populated with alternatives, it’s likely to lead to a dead end, for the idea behind the concept, and likely your brand and your firm with it.

/Friday Ramblings

Chaos and the New Normal (new old blog post!)

(this essay was written when I was 19 or 20 or something, and rewritten for last years’ WPP Atticus brief. Came looking for it on here this morning and couldn’t find it. Figured it’s about time I uploaded it and had it done with. Be kind when reading. :) )

 

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function”: F. Scott Fitzgerald

 

Chaos and the New Normal

Chaos is the sine qua non of modern living. The 21st century had been years in the making, and today’s global society came to a head a little under a decade ago.

In the second half of 2001, we had Mir – the Russian space station – crashing into the Pacific. China shortly thereafter gained admission to the United Nations. Enron, an old-world firm filed for bankruptcy, and amazon.com lived up to the promise of the web and posted its first ever profit. Apple brought out Mac OSX, the Titanium Powerbook, the iPod and the Apple Store. Microsoft presented Windows XP, and its business enterprise group to the World, and entered the gaming console market with the Xbox. Google received its patent for the PageRank algorithm. BMW released The Hire, a campaign that for the first time brought high-production value to the web, using it as a primary medium. The Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movies came to the silver screen, communicating both darkness and hope.

These instances all reflect and reverberate in our lives today in many different ways, but none with the intensity of the one incident I haven’t mentioned yet – 9/11, and the consequent War on Terror. Since 8:46 a.m. on that fateful September morning, we are all chasing daylight, to paraphrase Eugene O’Kelly, over and above all else. Eugene O’Kelly was the ex-Chairman and CEO of KPMG, when he was diagnosed with a form of cancer and given only three months to live. Chasing Daylight is the story of his last days, in trying to live out a fulfilling life. On 9/11 we all became painfully aware of both the value and the transitory nature of our lives, and that we needed to make meaning in the here and now, not as an investment for some vague time decades from now.

As some worlds drew apart in outlook, others drew closer in relationships. The creation of the social networks – Facebook, MySpace and the like addressed the problem blogs had – active readership and active participation. Breaking away from grand narratives, they created smaller communities with ever so slightly varying versions of history.

If you are trying to tap into today’s zeitgeist – make sense of it all – those are the two words it comes down to – chasing daylight. It’s about trying to live your life to the fullest. It’s a yearning, a sehnsucht, for a memory of something that never really was – a yearning for an idyllic, peaceful world – a yearning for a dream. It’s embodied in essays/books like Tom Peters’ re-imagine[1], or Umair Haque’s Awesomeness Manifesto[2].

It’s embodied in the words of Jack Kerouac: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes Awww!” and Mary Oliver: “Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

The modern hive mind – the social media revolution and the Now Network is ultimately (and seemingly counter-intuitively, considering how it adds to the entropy) an attempt to make meaning out of all the madness that occupies us today.

Which brings us to Fitzgerald, and the notions of intelligence. I propose that the modern interpretation of intelligence is far greater than managing simple paradox. The world is inherently more complex. Today, intelligence starts with the ability to bring order to chaos – to make sense of the deluge of data and opinion – separating the wheat from the chaff. It then has to synthesize the paradox(es) inherent in all that data, weaving two, three, or ten opposing views into a larger narrative. It needs to put all this together to (to paraphrase Haque) produce insanely great stuff in an ethical manner of production, which transcends social, political and cultural sensitivities.

Intelligence today understands that there are no right or wrong answers. Ideas – all ideas – are points in space, waiting to be strung together, woven into intricate patterns that add value to our lives. It recognizes and finds solutions taking into account the environment and employment. It recognizes that it is an industry in itself – the human evolution industry. It understands that it can only matter if it engages society and takes it forward.

For today’s world, Fitzgerald’s words don’t set the bar high enough. In a world where we are all chasing daylight, all the world’s a stage. Welcome to the New Normal.

 

Chaos and the New Normal (new old blog post!)

(this essay was written when I was 19 or 20 or something, and rewritten for last years’ WPP Atticus brief. Came looking for it on here this morning and couldn’t find it. Figured it’s about time I uploaded it and had it done with. Be kind when reading. :) )

 

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function”: F. Scott Fitzgerald

 

Chaos and the New Normal

Chaos is the sine qua non of modern living. The 21st century had been years in the making, and today’s global society came to a head a little under a decade ago.

In the second half of 2001, we had Mir – the Russian space station – crashing into the Pacific. China shortly thereafter gained admission to the United Nations. Enron, an old-world firm filed for bankruptcy, and amazon.com lived up to the promise of the web and posted its first ever profit. Apple brought out Mac OSX, the Titanium Powerbook, the iPod and the Apple Store. Microsoft presented Windows XP, and its business enterprise group to the World, and entered the gaming console market with the Xbox. Google received its patent for the PageRank algorithm. BMW released The Hire, a campaign that for the first time brought high-production value to the web, using it as a primary medium. The Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movies came to the silver screen, communicating both darkness and hope.

These instances all reflect and reverberate in our lives today in many different ways, but none with the intensity of the one incident I haven’t mentioned yet – 9/11, and the consequent War on Terror. Since 8:46 a.m. on that fateful September morning, we are all chasing daylight, to paraphrase Eugene O’Kelly, over and above all else. Eugene O’Kelly was the ex-Chairman and CEO of KPMG, when he was diagnosed with a form of cancer and given only three months to live. Chasing Daylight is the story of his last days, in trying to live out a fulfilling life. On 9/11 we all became painfully aware of both the value and the transitory nature of our lives, and that we needed to make meaning in the here and now, not as an investment for some vague time decades from now.

As some worlds drew apart in outlook, others drew closer in relationships. The creation of the social networks – Facebook, MySpace and the like addressed the problem blogs had – active readership and active participation. Breaking away from grand narratives, they created smaller communities with ever so slightly varying versions of history.

If you are trying to tap into today’s zeitgeist – make sense of it all – those are the two words it comes down to – chasing daylight. It’s about trying to live your life to the fullest. It’s a yearning, a sehnsucht, for a memory of something that never really was – a yearning for an idyllic, peaceful world – a yearning for a dream. It’s embodied in essays/books like Tom Peters’ re-imagine[1], or Umair Haque’s Awesomeness Manifesto[2].

It’s embodied in the words of Jack Kerouac: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes Awww!” and Mary Oliver: “Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

The modern hive mind – the social media revolution and the Now Network is ultimately (and seemingly counter-intuitively, considering how it adds to the entropy) an attempt to make meaning out of all the madness that occupies us today.

Which brings us to Fitzgerald, and the notions of intelligence. I propose that the modern interpretation of intelligence is far greater than managing simple paradox. The world is inherently more complex. Today, intelligence starts with the ability to bring order to chaos – to make sense of the deluge of data and opinion – separating the wheat from the chaff. It then has to synthesize the paradox(es) inherent in all that data, weaving two, three, or ten opposing views into a larger narrative. It needs to put all this together to (to paraphrase Haque) produce insanely great stuff in an ethical manner of production, which transcends social, political and cultural sensitivities.

Intelligence today understands that there are no right or wrong answers. Ideas – all ideas – are points in space, waiting to be strung together, woven into intricate patterns that add value to our lives. It recognizes and finds solutions taking into account the environment and employment. It recognizes that it is an industry in itself – the human evolution industry. It understands that it can only matter if it engages society and takes it forward.

For today’s world, Fitzgerald’s words don’t set the bar high enough. In a world where we are all chasing daylight, all the world’s a stage. Welcome to the New Normal.

 

A wiki-history of the World (via @malbonnington)

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/19088241 w=500&h=283]

There was this whole No Right Brain Left Behind stuff happening a couple of months ago? — Take the data from this, create a app that takes you through a navigable history of the world – of science, medicine, philosophy, theology, politics, economics – make it possible to reference the works of writers via Kindle, and you create a *really* interesting way to learn and interact with data.

Of course, it would amplify the biases present in wikipedias versus text books, but this is not to replace text books, just to get people exploring to start with.

Man is the Ghost in the Machine / You are not a gadget

“People degrade themselves in order to make machines seem smart all the time. Before the crash, bankers believed in supposedly intelligent algorithms that could calculate credit risks before making bad loans. We ask teachers to teach to standardized tests so a student will look good to an algorithm. We have repeatedly demonstrated our species’ bottomless ability to lower our standards to make information technology look good. Every instance of intelligence in a machine is ambiguous.”

– Jarod Lanier, You are not a gadget

 

 

Or as Baudrillard once said, “the thing with Artificial Intelligence is that it lacks artifice, and therefore intelligence.”