Category Archives: Opinion

A view from 2179

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Extracts from Dawn of the Third Millennium, an analysis of the 1989-2053 period by Elena Ferris, published by Shandelgos University Press in 2179

Many of the people who lived in the 2010s and 2020s thought they were experiencing turbulent times and indeed the period is marked by a series of events that still divides historians today.

 

Some see the over-reaction to small-scale but exceedingly well publicised acts of terror in affluent countries as a blip in an otherwise remarkably long period of nations evolving and organising themselves peacefully – other analysts focus instead on the emergence of an entirely new dialectic in conflict management which occurred then, now often roughly summarised as “the Y2K culture clash”.

Noteworthy among these featured an upsurge of activity from a number of a wide range of extremist groups, claiming a legitimacy based on ideology and going by different (often tellingly aggressive) names. They generally operated in groups, guerrilla style, and also set the conditions for a number of similarly motivated individuals to act alone. Low budget low technology suicide bomb and knife attacks and vehicle ramming were all popular forms of terrorist activity.  Migrants were seen interchangeably as the perpetrators of terror or their victims. Indeed, “migration” was blamed for many things, even if those invoking it were generally in fact making reference to “cultural clashes.”

The intricate interplay of peoples, lands and cultures has always generated both tremendous creativity and wealth on the one hand and conflict on the other, often concurrently. The  violent events mentioned above brought to the fore deep, old and often painful racial and gender issues. At the start of the third millennium, humanity was still coping with these spectacularly incompetently. Progress in that field a few decades later did stabilise the situation somewhat, as evidenced for instance by new channels being created for the dissemination of science, trade and the arts; those were the fresh incarnations of the romantically named “silk route”, “caravans” and “silicon valley” of previous eras.

 

 

IMG_2437Other groups of historians single out the decision of one nation to remove itself from an international alliance it had joined 40 years previously as the most symbolic event of the period.

The Britons of 2016, who voted in a democratic referendum to arrive at that decision, certainly believed that this was the most critical issue of their time. Half the population (52%) hailed the fantastic new opportunity that this new found freedom would bring their country, enabling them to build on a glorious past and create an even brighter future; the other half (48%) insisted that this separation from a strong union of like-minded nations, which had a track record of improving the well-being and wealth of its members, was a grave mistake that Britain would repent at leisure. The prophets of doom were proved wrong: less than forty years later, in 2053, Britain (officially known until 2029 as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) re-entered the European Union, as a full member, whereas it had during its first period of membership refused to take part in several key measures such as a shared currency. In the meantime, the Union had consolidated its harmonisation programmes considerably and introduced some fairly revolutionary social policies.

 

Yet another kind of historian prefers to track the shadowy progress of a group of people who could be described as a type of illuminati : the environmentalists. Their story began practically as an underground movement way back in the 20th century and they gained steady momentum throughout the next century, spreading the gospel of environmental awareness and activism over the decades. Although they conspicuously failed to organise themselves as a political party, they did successfully introduce their agenda to mainstream political parties of varying creeds. This led to the achievement of a number of significant results in the safeguarding of planet Earth, to some extent minimising the impact of some of the worst depredations in previous centuries.

 

(…)

 

Today, as I transfer these words to you directly from my brain to yours via the communication interfaces located somewhere in the region of your left temple and mine, the events described in previous chapters can justifiably be described as ranging from the ludicrous to the criminal.

It seems barely possible that human beings, equipped with sophisticated sensory equipment and cognitive skills, should have been the ones to instigate these events. It seems incredible that the many worthies who had attained a remarkable level of scientific understanding and technological craftsmanship, took so long to turn the tide. It seems amazing that poets and thinkers had to struggle so much to acknowledge that  humans share planet Earth with one another and also with other species and organisms.

To get our brains round this, we need to remind ourselves of the following facts: at the start of the period we are considering, the human race found itself able to generate, store, process, retrieve and transfer hitherto unimaginable quantities of data of all kinds. This all happened in a very short space of time indeed.

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Engineers, technicians and computer scientists had barely started building machines and writing code and they were already startling their contemporaries with talk of internet, quantum computers, online social media, augmented reality, data science and artificial intelligence. They were forging ahead, ignoring the fact that most of the human activities they were serving and sometimes replacing were organised fundamentally differently. Industry, education, retail, healthcare, education and many other vital human activities had until then tended to rely on a combination of complete separation between specialisms, skills, disciplines, sectors, and so on, endless varieties of hierarchical structures and a strictly linear approach to change.

 

Underpinning all this was a critical difference in the communication method used by the different players: those who clung to human languages only, some even quaintly insisting on the maintenance of arcane spelling, grammar and pronunciation rules, and those who were also capable of communicating in code, binary or otherwise. Incredibly, communicologists only finally took over from linguists in the 2070s.

 

 

With this in mind, it is perhaps a little easier to understand how humans required the best part of a century to assimilate these new functionalities, as it were, and use them to address the old problems that seemed to be felt particularly acutely by our predecessors in the 2010s and 2020s. Here they were, facing the same historical cycles of problems and progress that generations before them had faced (a favourite pastime of erudite people was to quote texts from ancient Roman authors proving this), here they were with the tantalising possibilities offered by amazing achievements: a peaceful international collaboration existed in space! a computer had beaten a go master! electric driverless vehicles had revolutionised transport! The disappointment and frustration of not being able to solve old problems, despite all these wonderful new feats, grabbed attention for a number of years.

 

 

In the next chapter, we will explore how a comprehensive and systematic review of these and other issues, starting from the 2030s, paved the way for the Bionic Revolution that was to follow. Brief histories of space travel and ball games in that period will serve to illustrate this analysis.

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Photos: Richard Wilkinson

Talking At Cross Purposes

My news feeds at the moment are filled with articles and papers on how and why people are increasingly disregarding facts, evidence, the scientific approach and preferring to believe what they hold to be true. What I read and hear ranges from incredulous reactions (only last week, I heard a podcast contributor for whom the light had only just dawned: “And you know what, they carry on believing Donald Trump! It’s really scary.” I felt like throttling her and yelling where have you been hiding? Do you walk around with your eyes shut and your hands over your ears?) to far more thoughtful analyses, including in some fairly meaty and academic research. A quick flick through this week’s New Yorker, for instance, offers this article by Elizabeth Kolbert, which reviews several pieces of research on just that topic.

But at the risk of sounding cynical, I am acutely reminded of the 1980s, when for a while you were submerged  with advice on how to avoid the then brand new bogey: AIDS. After a spate of adverts, awareness raising campaigns, sexual health promotion initiatives, a raft of articles came out. They all boiled down to this: when people are about to have sex, they’re not necessarily focused on being prudent and wise and cautious. Duh.

Coming back to the topic I introduced above, it’s not that amazing that people cling to their world view. It’s depressing, it doesn’t show us humans in a particularly favourable light, but it’s not difficult to understand. We like our comforts, and one of them is to maintain a belief system that feels right and fitting.

So I’m going to add my two pennies’ worth by writing a few pieces like this one. I’m starting with this essay on miscommunications, which is kind of tangential to this issue of the so-called post-factual era (a term I prefer to “post-truth era” because surely we can all at least agree that truth is eminently subjective?). Never mind misleading soundbites, quotes stripped of any context, pure inventions and fake news, we humans are not always that great at communicating in the most general sense.

It’s something I’ve been aware of for a long time. I have often thought to myself “that’s not what they said exactly!” when involved in or overhearing a conversation or other communication. I often used to pick up on linguistic differences when French or English were used by non-native speakers and the habit extended to what I saw as blips in communication even where language proficiency wasn’t an issue. And when I felt involved enough and legitimate to clarify what I thought was unclear, I did so. I do so less nowadays, at least for anything other than what I feel are the more glaringly obvious misrepresentations. And even then I only do it when I think my reaction will be noticed, which sadly excludes most of the nonsense that is currently being bandied about.

Fundamentally, the main reason I don’t often try and “correct” miscommunication is that I’m very aware that my assessment of what is or isn’t a clear message might not be the only valid one…

All Marketers Tell Stories by Seth Godin

“The lie a consumer tells himself is the nucleus at the center of any successful marketing efforts.”

Wow.

“Why did John Kerry lose against an incumbent with a near-record-low approval ratings after spending more than $100,000,000 on his campaign? Simple. He didn’t tell a coherent story, a lie worth remembering, a story worth sharing.”

Ouch. It hurts to read that now, so easy is it to transpose to a recent event.

And mee-ow. How catty can I get, opening this post with an out-of-context quote taken from a book written over a decade ago?

img_5749Well, I’ve just done precisely that and I’m not going to apologise for it. This post isn’t really going to be a review of “All Marketers Are Liars Tell Stories” (I’m not being sarcastic, that is its actual title). It’s going to be my reaction to it, which I summarise like this: it makes me foam at the mouth. Yes, my friends, I will be going for the moral high ground in the lines that follow, quite deliberately.

Disclaimer, I’m not a marketing fan, I never was and in fact, I wrote an essay about this a few years ago, trying to explain why. I looked at it recently, tweaked it a bit, ummed and ahhed about updating it with more recent examples and then decided to leave it pretty much as was. I feel a second essay coming on… (It does me good to write these things, whatever the readership. Writing is such a great way of clarifying your thinking.) However, I’d like to make it crystal clear that whatever my lack of enthusiasm for marketing, I am in no way denying that it is a highly effective tool.

And Seth Godin makes a very persuasive case for his particular approach to marketing, the storytelling strategy. I know he’s written many other books since this one and I might read a couple of the more recent ones, so thought provoking is he. In the meantime, this one about the marketers who “lie to consumers because consumers demand it” is still out there, the storytelling thing is still very much in vogue and I want to make my point about it.

Much of this book’s message is unassailable. We do indeed buy most things because we want rather than need them. We do indeed turn a story told to us by marketers into lies we believe because they conform to our worldview. I do both those things all the time, disdainful of marketing though I am. If I were going to spend serious money on a car it would be on a Mercedes; all my fountain pens have been Sheaffer ones ever since I bought one with my own money as a teenager; I pretend I’ve done a thorough survey of coffee capsules, whereas I buy Nespresso for a complex array of reasons that in truth do boil down to a story well told. (And you can tell from these pictures that I also own some Apple and Playmobil stuff, more stories…) So I get it, I really do. This strategy works, big time.

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My objection to its endorsement is a moral one (I warned you!) The heavy use throughout the book of the word “lie” is a red rag to my bull. As of course it’s meant to be. Indeed, the author acknowledges that it is part of the “going to the edges” aspect of marketing. But beyond offending whatever values it may be that make me object to lying on principle, the constant use of the word triggers my deepest misgivings about storytelling in this context.

The fact that we turn stories we are told into lies we believe is a fundamentally human trait, which I am not for one moment disputing. But recognising that this is a natural human mechanism and that marketing by storytelling is therefore a powerful and in fact consumer-led strategy and then saying: “So please, don’t hate me. Hate them. (the customers)” is surely disingenuous. And by the way Mr Godin, I don’t hate you. I’ve read my Voltaire. Free speech and all that.

The author touches on the ethics of the use of storytelling in two other ways but I vehemently disagree with the point of view he presents in both cases.

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First, he talks of the importance of being “authentic”. But he may as well have written “consistent”. In fact, he uses that word a lot too. But the two are not synonyms. For me, “authentic” implies some kind of substance, some kind of “realness” if not reality, something genuine, if you like. So I kind of object to “authentic” being used here: “The only robust, predictable strategy is a simple one: to be authentic. To do what you say you’re going to do. To live the lie, fully and completely.”

Second, after coming across a promising start in the “Keeping Promises” section that states: “The danger of writing this book is that will enable and embolden the deceitful stories”, I thought to myself “A-hah! Maybe I’m going to be able to sign up to this whole storytelling thing, after all.” So I read on eagerly, confidently anticipating an explanation of why it wasn’t deeply unethical. Oh dear. In the next breath, Seth Godin asserts that “selfish marketers” are in a minority. OK, maybe. He then surmises that “once consumers are able to see the effect that stories have on them, they’ll be in a much better position to believe the good ones and avoid the bad”, a point of view that can only be described as wildly optimistic at best. And then to cap it all, he offers a two-question “simple test for separating the honest stories from the deceitful ones” and goes on to demonstrate how it helps him determine that “SUVs don’t pass my test. Nor do some sorts of life insurance.” Well that’s all right then, I don’t think.img_5748

How about Presidential candidates? “Like him or not, George W. Bush did an extraordinary job of living the story of the strong, certain, infallible leader.” With the benefit of hindsight, it is so tempting to change the adjectives in that quote to “volatile, misogynistic, racist” and to replace the name of the 43rd President of the United States with that of the current President-Elect. After all, the latter did an outstanding job of telling a story: “No, not a story in a speech, but living a story, consistently telling us the story in everything he did and said. From the clothes a politician wears, to his spouse and his appointees, he’s telling a story.”

Yep.

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Photos: Hélène Wilkinson