Archive for May, 2009
The International Advertising Festival at Cannes, the mother of all boondoggles, the week-long orgy of mildly inebriated self-congratulation and sloppy drunken regrets, is about to open its arms and welcome into its loving bosom thousands of ad monkeys with questionable grooming habits from around the globe. And though at its heart it is most certainly a boondoggle, at the heart of it there remains a fierce competition that can make or break careers. On any given night you will find 900 people drinking at the Gutter Bar; every single one of them would slice you from ear to ear if it meant getting rewarded with a bronze lion. You don’t want to know what they would do for gold.
As I pondered the impending scene on the Côte d’Azure, I couldn’t help being reminded of the introduction to Jonathan Swift’s Tale of a Tub:
WHOEVER hath an ambition to be heard in a crowd, must press, and squeeze, and thrust, and climb with indefatigable pains, till he has exalted himself to a certain degree of altitude above them. Now, in all assemblies, though you wedge them ever so close, we may observe this peculiar property, that over their heads there is room enough, but how to reach it is the difficult point; it being as hard to get quit of number, as of hell.
A better description of award show competition has not been written.
The excerpts below are from a speech Neil Postman gave in 1990–well before 99.9% of the people on earth had ever heard of this thing called the internet–to a group of German computer scientists. Though Twitter, Facebook and the rest were still far over the horizon line, this piece sounds as if it could have been written yesterday. And while I am not naive enough to think that we can somehow turn back the tide of technological change, those who are prone to run towards every new interactive gimmick with open arms should read the speech in its entirety.
It’s smart, brilliantly written, and provocative. Advertising professionals who read it should ask themselves if consumers are making purchase decisions that don’t benefit their clients because they lack information. I suspect the answer will be no.
Enough of me. Here are a few samples of the wisdom of the great Professor Postman:
…anyone who has studied the history of technology knows that technological change is always a Faustian bargain: Technology giveth and technology taketh away, and not always in equal measure. A new technology sometimes creates more than it destroys. Sometimes, it destroys more than it creates. But it is never one-sided.
The invention of the printing press is an excellent example. Printing fostered the modern idea of individuality but it destroyed the medieval sense of community and social integration. Printing created prose but made poetry into an exotic and elitist form of expression. Printing made modern science possible but transformed religious sensibility into an exercise in superstition. Printing assisted in the growth of the nation-state but, in so doing, made patriotism into a sordid if not a murderous emotion.
Another way of saying this is that a new technology tends to favor some groups of people and harms other groups. School teachers, for example, will, in the long run, probably be made obsolete by television, as blacksmiths were made obsolete by the automobile, as balladeers were made obsolete by the printing press. Technological change, in other words, always results in winners and losers.
In the case of computer technology, there can be no disputing that the computer has increased the power of large-scale organizations like military establishments or airline companies or banks or tax collecting agencies. And it is equally clear that the computer is now indispensable to high-level researchers in physics and other natural sciences. But to what extent has computer technology been an advantage to the masses of people? To steel workers, vegetable store owners, teachers, automobile mechanics, musicians, bakers, brick layers, dentists and most of the rest into whose lives the computer now intrudes? These people have had their private matters made more accessible to powerful institutions. They are more easily tracked and controlled; they are subjected to more examinations, and are increasingly mystified by the decisions made about them. They are more often reduced to mere numerical objects. They are being buried by junk mail. They are easy targets for advertising agencies and political organizations. The schools teach their children to operate computerized systems instead of teaching things that are more valuable to children. In a word, almost nothing happens to the losers that they need, which is why they are losers.
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The tie between information and action has been severed. Information is now a commodity that can be bought and sold, or used as a form of entertainment, or worn like a garment to enhance one’s status. It comes indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, disconnected from usefulness; we are glutted with information, drowning in information, have no control over it, don’t know what to do with it.
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The message is that through more and more information, more conveniently packaged, more swiftly delivered, we will find solutions to our problems. And so all the brilliant young men and women, believing this, create ingenious things for the computer to do, hoping that in this way, we will become wiser and more decent and more noble. And who can blame them? By becoming masters of this wondrous technology, they will acquire prestige and power and some will even become famous. In a world populated by people who believe that through more and more information, paradise is attainable, the computer scientist is king. But I maintain that all of this is a monumental and dangerous waste of human talent and energy.
Believe it or not, Memorial Day was not invented so you could get 60% off select queen mattress sets
Of all the things advertising can be despised for–and there are many–perhaps the worst is its custom of taking monuments to the noblest achievements of humanity and reducing them to a starburst at the top of a bill-stuffer. Days we set aside to honor courage, righteousness and statesmanship are systematically drained of their meaning to sell a few more station wagons and washing machines (“Oh, and by the way, ma’am, have a good time at the barbecue after you finish your shopping!”)
On Memorial Day weekend, I make it a point to revisit an extraordinary column by Mark Steyn that originally appeared in the Chicago Sun Times in 2004. He explains that the holiday wasn’t always called Memorial Day:
“Before the First World War, it was called Decoration Day – a day for going to the cemetery and ‘strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.’ Some decorated the resting places of fallen family members; others adopted for a day the graves of those who died too young to leave any descendants.”
He follows this with a heartbreaking story that lies beneath three of the headstones in the cemetery of his New Hampshire town.
This weekend take a few minutes away from grilling hot dogs and perusing the free-standing-inserts in your newspaper to read Steyn’s piece. You will remember it the next time someone asks you to do a Memorial Day ad.
As evidence that the interactive space continues to trend more towards utility and away from Flash-heavy animation, I give you runpee.com, a site whose sole purpose is to identify the best times during movies to leave your theater seat and, as John Foster Dulles used to say, shake the dew off your lily. Above is the site’s scouting report on Star Trek.
What’s more, runpee.com will give you the low-down on what you missed while you were away. Despite excellent reviews, you will see that Star Trek nevertheless has multiple pee times available. Ridiculous though this all is, would you bet against the idea than an advertiser to step up to sponsor it? 7-11’s Big Gulp, perhaps?
If our civilization should last a thousand years, let men look back and say “this was their finest hour.”
You may have seen it reported yesterday that the pallid, painfully thin man-boys developing Facebook apps in their mildewed geek caves may very well make more money than Facebook itself in 2009. $500 million is a figure that has been bandied about. That this is even possible is yet another testament to the fact that Mark Zuckerberg cannot manage his way out of a wet paper bag. But let us not expend our energies kicking Mr. Zuckerberg in the stomach. Plenty of time for that later. Instead, let’s take a look at exactly what sort of Facebook apps we’re talking about.
TechCrunch has posted a story and lovely video that explains all. Examine them and then tear at your flesh with your bare hands in anguish that you did not come up with the ideas first.
Israeli entrepreneur Shai Reshef has started something truly remarkable in the online world–it’s called the University of the People. Its purpose to put a college education within the reach of those who cannot afford it. It’s stunning to think about the collective cognitive power this idea could eventually release into the world. The greatest natural resource on the planet isn’t oil; it’s the brains of the humans who live here. Increasing the productivity of those brains is almost certainly the best investment we can possibly make. Reshef started the University of the People with an investment of just $1 million and is hoping to raise another $5 million from private sources.
The university is currently pursuing accreditation in the United States and offers degree programs in business administration and computer science and hopes to be serving 15,000 students within four years. I hope they blow past that goal and are educating hundreds of thousands within a decade.
Thanks to the great Steve Fedorko for the heads up on this story, which you can read in its entirety here at Technology Review.