Posts tagged ‘Neil Postman’
In Wired Nicholas Carr writes about UCLA professor of psychiatry Gary Small who outfitted six volunteers with goggles on which they could see the internet as they surfed with a hand-held controller. Then Dr. Small used whole-brain magnetic imaging on them to demonstrate not only that the internet “rewires” the way the brain works, but that it does it very quickly–after only a few hours in fact.
It’s an interesting story and well worth a read, but not a particularly surprising one. In fact, in Ad Age a couple of years ago, I pointed out that this is exactly what the internet would do to our brains. And somehow I managed to do it without access to millions of dollars worth of sophisticated medical equipment or time-consuming experiments. All I had was some knowledge of history and an ability to catch a lateral from Neil Postman and run with it.
Marshall McLuhan famously said that “the medium is the message.” Less famously (but more accurately, I think), Postman altered this to “the medium is the metaphor.” What he meant by that is that the dominant medium of an age defines how we believe the world is supposed to be. I’ll not go into a detailed explanation (though if you’re interested, you can read the original article here) of how that expectation changes the way we “consume” the world around us. I’ll merely point out that there is in fact a physiological reason (now confirmed by Dr. Small and his multi-million-dollar machines) that people no longer sit still for hours at a time to follow a complex argument (or, if you want to go way back, sit around campfires and listen to poets recite the Iliad from memory).
Does this change in the way our brains work make us smarter or kinder or more just? I have profound doubts. Does it make it easier to sell us things and distract us with whatever version of centrifugal bumblepuppy is all the rage at a given moment? Almost certainly.
Via the miracle of YouTube, I spent the last hour or so watching a lecture the late Neil Postman gave in 1998 at Calvin College in Michigan. In it he brought up a compelling idea (actually dozens of them, but here I’ll just focus on one) about how technology has changed our definition of community. Traditionally, communities have been united by broad commonalities (e.g., geography, culture, history, etc.) even as the individual members of the communities differed on many particulars. Indeed, the trick of making a community function was for the individual members to find a way to work around their differences and disagreements to create a socially cohesive unit. Take away the negotiation and compromise on the points of difference and the points of commonality would not be strong enough to hold the community together.
Yet when we talk about communities in the age of interactivity, we often mean something very different. More often that not we are referring to a group of people who are in near total agreement on a particular topic. Because technology makes it easy–indeed almost effortless–to create new communities, people who find themselves in any sort of disagreement in an existing community need not work through their differences. They can simply start their own community where they do not have to put up with the annoyance of dissent. This may seem like a dream for a marketer who will benefit from gathering together a group of people who are deeply loyal to a brand, but a community it is not. It is a fan club. (Indeed, in its political incarnation it can become something much more troubling–a walled compound of people who would rather enter into an infinite loop of mutual affirmation than engage in honest and thoughtful debate. Insert your favorite–or least favorite–cable news network here.) Remember that the word fan comes from “fanatic”–a person with extreme and uncritical enthusiasm or zeal.
But my purpose here is not to talk politics; I leave that for a different time and a different blog. In the age of social media, marketers throw around phrases like “online community” as if we all agree on what they mean. I submit to you than we don’t. As more and more brands venture into the interactive space, the ones who succeed will be the ones who are honest with themselves about whether they are looking to create a community or a fan club. Uncritical enthusiasm may seem appealing, but ultimately stronger brands are built on the support of those who see our warts and want to help us heal them.
Bob Garfield has written a reasonably good article in Advertising Age called “Future May Be Bright, But It’s Apocalypse Now.” It basically goes medium by medium and shows how current business models are being destroyed and not replaced with anything that generates the amount of profits we have become used to. Online advertising revenue, for example, has clearly failed to deliver on the scale that is necessary to foot the bill for the free media consumers crave. Google, for example, paid $1.65 billion for YouTube two and a half years ago. In 2008 YouTube generated $90 million in ad revenue. Granted, it’s enough to bend over and pick up if you saw it lying in the street, but it represents an extremely poor ROI for Google.
What Garfield doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about is what this will mean for the future of advertising agencies. If ads as we know them won’t be able to generate anything like the revenue agencies are used to, it stands to reason that agencies will turn to producing things that aren’t ads. We may find ourselves focused on creating content, entertainment, and tools that consumers genuinely need. Instead of merely selling our time by the hour–a model I have always despised because it penalizes skill and experience–we may create reusable marketing solutions that remain our intellectual property.
Moreover, if we are moving into a post-advertising era, agencies will need to begin employing a very different kind of person. As Neil Postman said, every tool has an ideological bias, and at the most basic level copywriters and art directors are tools of the advertising industry in its current form. The problem going forward is that if you continue to point the same tools at an entirely new type of problem, they will produce “solutions” that clients find irrelevant. Instead of writers and art directors, we may be hiring improvisational comics and set designers. Instead of account planners and media directors, we may be hiring filmmakers and game developers. The job will no longer be about creating advertising, but about creating branded or even sponsored marketing solutions that consumers will choose to experience because they fill a genuine need.
I encourage you to take a minute to do a simple exercise. Look at your business card. Read your title. Then ask yourself if anyone is going to need you to do that job in three years.
Dale Daugherty writes on O’Reilly Radar about a Stanford professor who tested his students by playing them the same piece of music from an MP3 file and then from a much higher quality source (of which there are many). The professor was dismayed to learn that the students prefer the sound of the MP3s. If you’ve read Neil Postman, you won’t be surprised by this, because as Postman famously stated, “the medium is the metaphor.” In other words, a dominant medium defines how the people who use it expect the world to be. Because we listen to music on iPods more than we listen to it any other way, we like the way music sounds on iPods best.
Of course, this discussion didn’t begin with the iPod. If you spent time in a professional recording studio when digital recording first reared its ugly head a number of years ago, you know that many musicians didn’t like it (and many still don’t). They thought its clarity and precision made it sound cold and antiseptic. They preferred the gentle distortion and tape hiss on recordings made with analog equipment.
While I suppose it’s useful to be able to tell the difference between good quality and bad quality sound, the student’s consistent preference for MP3s prove that Steve Jobs is more powerful than the discriminatory powers of the human ear. Oh, well. De gustibus non est disputandum.
This morning a friend sent me “Greg Rutter’s definitive list of the 99 things you should have already experienced on the internet unless you’re a loser or old or something.” On the whole, it is a depressing list. Perhaps even more depressing because I have experienced almost all of them. Is this what cultural literacy has come to? In 2009 you’re out of the loop if you’re not familiar with “Ms. South Carolina answers a question” and “tranquilized bear hits trampoline.” A generation ago you had to be ready to discuss “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” or at least “All In The Family” when you met your friends at the coffee pot. Before that, you were expected to be up to speed on what Walter Cronkite or Ed Murrow said. Before that functioning members of society kept up with the latest wisdoms of Franklin Roosevelt and Will Rogers. And at some point, I suppose, people actually talked about–what’s the word?–books.
Call me an elitist if you must, but I am happy to be in the company of another elitist, Neil Postman. Read Amusing Ourselves to Death, and you will tremble for the future of democracy in a society dominated by electronic media. I thought Obama was very good last night–or more to the point, very good on television. Given the scope of our current problems, the question is will that be good enough? I suspect that if you read the transcript of his speech, you will find nothing that merits comparison with Jefferson or Lincoln. Of course, you could say the same thing of every president since FDR, who was, coincidentally, the first president to use the full force of the media to enhance his grip on power.
Mere ad guys aren’t going to change the course of history, and questions of how media will affect our political future are, to borrow Mr. Obama’s unfortunate phrase from the campaign, “above our pay grade.” Nevertheless, I hope that you will take a look at Mr. Rutter’s list and at least join me in an effort not to hasten with the ads we make the devaluation of the coin of the realm.
The most serious flaw in advertising agencies today is their collective failure to understand the seismic shift in the media landscape. Interactive media don’t represent an incremental change to the media we already have. They are totally different, irreversible, unstoppable.
Neil Postman founded a department of Media Ecology at NYU because he understood that the media we consume form a kind of ecosystem, which, when altered, will have winners and losers. Cory Doctorow has written a very smart piece on exactly this subject that should be required reading for every agency person in America. It’s called “Media-Morphosis: How the Internet Will Devour, Transform or Destroy Your Favorite Medium.” Check it out with all possible speed.
(This article was originally published in the August 14 2006 edition of Advertising Age with the title “Electronic Media: Altering Our Intelligence.”)
Electronic media make you stupid.
It’s a common refrain we hear from educators, critics and barstool philosophers. And they’re not entirely wrong. Some very useful portions of our brains have, in fact, been sucked into the cathode ray tubes in our living rooms. Others have disappeared into a mysterious, unreachable place at the far end of our Ethernet cables.
The media-induced diminution of human intelligence is very real. The good news for those of us in the advertising industry is that, slowly, an entirely new form of intelligence is being born to replace it. Despite what the conspiracy theorists/anti-globalization zealots/subliminal advertising rabble may believe, obtuse consumers do not serve the interest of our craft.
Any medium, taken in large enough doses over time, is capable of changing our brains. I mean this quite literally. Because of television, because of the internet, the human brain works in a fundamentally different way than it used to. And I can prove it.
To do so, I take you back to the afternoon of October 16, 1854. On that day Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debated in Peoria, Illinois. Douglas kicked things off at 2:00 p.m. and spoke uninterrupted for three hours. When Lincoln rose to reply, he did something astonishing.
He told the crowd that they should all go home for an hour and have dinner, because he would be requiring just as much time as Douglas had used to reply to his arguments. Then, he added, Douglas would also need time for a rebuttal. So basically Lincoln told them to get ready to listen for another four hours.
Then something even more astonishing happened. The crowd did exactly that.
Today we wouldn’t even consider sitting still for seven hours of political debate. In fact, the only politicians who can command the attention of an audience for that long in 2006 are totalitarian dictators, and that’s because their audiences are afraid to get up and walk out.
The citizens of Peoria were perfectly happy to listen for seven hours, however, because they lived in an age whose dominant medium was the printed word, and—this is the critical point—the dominant medium of every age defines the way humans expect the world to be. Marshall McLuhan said “the medium is the message,” but Neil Postman came closer to getting it right when he said “the medium is the metaphor.”
When the printing press reigned, communication was about exposition and long, subtle arguments, because that’s what the printed word does well. People’s brains were conditioned to understand the world in that way.
If the medium is indeed the metaphor, what does this mean to the advertising industry today? I think it means that our central challenge has become to understand the changes that are being wrought on the brains of our consumers by rapidly evolving electronic media. In other words, what is the metaphor we must conform to in order to ensure that our messages are heard? It’s certainly not as simple as the printed word. It’s not even as simple as the internet, which of course, isn’t simple at all. It’s more like a combination of electronic and interactive platforms that are constantly rearranging themselves to fit together into a new complex, protean super-medium.
Think for a moment about the basics of how electronic media work, how they communicate. Television and the online space are not well suited to lengthy logical arguments. They’re much better at amusing than informing or educating. Electronic media—especially the internet—also tend to chop communication into smaller and smaller pieces. Political discourse is a prime example. Today, the only political “arguments” most people ever hear last 30 seconds.
These smaller pieces of communication are also delivered in increasingly random order. Click through the bookmarks on your browser. Chances are you’ll be able to go through a dizzying number of subjects—all absolutely unrelated to each other—in under a minute. There’s a sort of entropy going on in the world of communication. Disorder will only increase. Creating orderly, understandable messages in this entropic universe is the job of advertisers, and it will only get more difficult, because the definition of “orderly” has become a moving target.
Electronic media are doing to communication what Georges Braque and Marcel Duchamp did to painting. As a result, we are all grappling with the rise of what I call “electro-cubism.” The logic of how we expect communication to work has been shattered and reassembled in a way we are only beginning to grasp. The people who figure out a way to make sense of “electro-cubist” communication will in essence be inventing a new form of intelligence to replace the old one that television and the internet have been destroying.
If you don’t find the thought of “electro-cubism” particularly reassuring, take comfort in at least one hopeful development that new media bring with them to offset the trend towards chaos in communication. Oddly enough, to find a clue to what it is, we have to go back some 2,400 years to Socrates.
Socrates left no writings of his own, of course. We know of him from the writings of others—principally Plato. There’s a reason for this. Socrates was deeply suspicious about displacing the spoken word—which is a medium, make no mistake about it—with the written word. He believed in the process of question and answer, dialogue between teacher and student—what we now know as the Socratic method.
In Phaedrus, he spoke against writing on the grounds that it would weaken our memories and degrade the quality of education. Writing, he believed, forces a student to follow an argument rather than participate in it. When we replaced speaking with writing, information, wisdom and knowledge began to flow exclusively in one direction.
The internet has finally changed this. Consumers are no longer consigned to following the arguments our brands make; they are full-blown participants in them. The means of mass communication are in the hands of virtually everyone. The individual, if his ideas are compelling enough, can touch as many people as the global corporation.
Ultimately, what this means is that our challenge is not only figuring out how to articulate our messages in a chaotic, “electro-cubist” world; it’s learning how to listen again, and in an entirely new way. In the 21st century, rediscovering the purpose of our ears will make us better marketers than devising new ways to use our mouths. When I talk about listening to consumers, I do not mean simply jumping on the dangerously overloaded consumer-generated-content bandwagon. The point is that we have to go deeper than the interactive buzzword of the month.
Advertising and marketing decisions tend to be made by a dozen people sitting around a conference table. What I’m talking about is bringing the 13th man into the room. The 13th man is the consumer. There is a group of loyalist consumers who care as much about every big brand just as much as the people who are paid to make the marketing decisions. (Don’t believe me? Google “Mountain Dew” and check out all the fan sites that have sprung up like weeds through a sidewalk.) If we want to be smart marketers, we need to make sure their voice—the voice of the 13th man—is heard.
Don’t do research on the thirteenth man; consult with him. There is an enormous difference. The 13th man is not a subject of our experiments; he is a partner in inventing our brands. Ask him to sample new flavors at the same time you do, take his ideas for new products seriously, get his thoughts on your next ad campaign. Technology has made it ridiculously easy to do all these things and more, yet very few companies have tapped into the enormous brainpower of this willing partner.
You may not always take his advice of the 13th man, but if you don’t listen to him at all, rest assured that he will find someone else who will.