Category Archives: evolution

Dongle prisons, or how iPods pull society apart


On an American Airlines flight inbound to Chicago, light fading as wings shredded fog outside, we noticed about 80 passengers in various stages of reading, typing on laptops, punching numbers into smart phones (should be off? oh never mind), listening to Bose QuietComfort 15 Acoustic Noise Cancelling headphones, little screens glowing everywhere … and it occurred to us: We have entered a world of dongle prisons.

A dongle, as futurist Jaron Lanier explains on page 109 of “You Are Not a Gadget,” is a proprietary mechanical device that acts as a key to make software or content work. Think of the CueCat in the 1990s (a pen-like scanner that allowed early web users to tap magazine ads for more online information), or more recently Kindles or Google Droid phones (complete with hard key for booting Google Search) — all are gadgets meant to lure you into content prisons. “Prison” may be a harsh word, but the strategy is obvious: The aggregators who profit off the sale of information (Apple with iTunes, Google with search sponsored links, Amazon with print or electronic books) can only thrive if they convince you to become chained to their systems and avoid competitors. To lock you in, they convince you to buy a shiny piece of glass that unlocks their content. Lanier notes that all such material — music, ebooks, search results — really is just bits that could conceivably be accessed from any device with a headphone jack and screen, but “dongles” create the illusion of artificial scarcity. Laugh at CDs and vinyl records all you want, technologists: The iPod in your pocket is just as antiquated a delivery device, cleverly designed to limit access.

Societal costs

Attempts to build “sticky portals” are nothing new, but the proliferation of new dongles tied to content ecosystems is starting to cause rifts in how the Internet, and society, function. Trouble is, by limiting access to content, such devices create incentives for consumers to create self-centered feedback systems that in turn polarize society. Do you read the entire daily newspaper anymore, or just RSS feeds and blogs from people who think like you? Do you watch straight-up news, or a cable channel that leans in your political direction? Tech gadgets are bifurcating Western culture. We are building self-service walls, of political opinions or content tailored only to your specific needs that draw you into extremes of mental behavior at odds with your neighbor next door. No one wants the middle anymore; CNN is plummeting in the ratings as liberal MSNBC and conservative Fox News lap viewers up. The desensitization of consumers by free, limitless content means they require ever stronger stimulants; the fluid access of online tools makes it simple to find the content that bolsters preconceived prejudices; this hunger and access in turn drives polarization of content, as the producers of video, news and writing find that extremism builds audiences that might, with the proper dongle device, be tied down to pay.

More is splintering here than the Internet, as Josh Bernoff suggested: content portals are fragmenting society into isolated islands filled with groupthink opinions. The great irony of our age is that in the rush to build mass audiences, the economic winners are instead creating clans who want only to believe what they want, and ignore other opinions. Perhaps this is the next evolution in humans, a division of the gene pool guided not by speciation to survive the elements but by minds trying to weather the storms of too much content. We see macro shifts with the Taliban fighting Western culture; we see national shifts as the Tea Party and Democrats accuse each other of radicalism; we see relational shifts as moms, dads, and children get pulled into different gadget-fed virtual worlds personalized to their demos, insulating family members from each other.

Until we figure it out, plug in your earphones, and enjoy that dongle in your hand.

Image: Swami Stream

Evolution of theses: When technology pulls us apart


If technology is accelerating, and if technology is designed to fill niches, and if technology is adding appendages to your memory, motion and perception — is technology morphing you into a new species? A group incompatible with the rest of humanity?

Click between the chatter on MSNBC and Fox News and you may wonder. Speciation is the process by which new living types arise. In nature, this usually takes a while; humans and chimpanzees shared common genetic ancestors 4.1 million years ago, and we haven’t talked much since. But outside forces can accelerate speciation. If you own a golden retriever or a poodle, you have evidence that human intervention helped what were once plain gray wolves 12,000 years ago split into thousands of unique sub-species.

So here’s a question: What happens to humans if we accelerate our own path down specialized roles? Technology is making this possible, with laptops and cable networks and the Internet and iPad frames allowing us to push and pull only the data that reinforces our world views. This process is given momentum by marketers who seek to personalize content and offers to lift their response rates. Not everyone lives in the Internet bubble, of course, but media proliferation followed by fragmentation has been pulling aspects of society apart in other ways, both in the U.S. and across the globe. If you live in the United States, host a party with someone from Connecticut and Texas, then toss out “what do you think about healthcare?” and watch the sparks fly. (“It’s about time we helped the sick and poor!” “It’s a socialist ploy to destroy our Constitution!”) At the broader human species level, Western capitalism and Eastern communism fed the Cold War in the 1900s, and in this century Western liberalism and Islamic fundamentalism are causing the same terrifying rifts, a whiff that we might escalate violence to the point of destroying ourselves, all because people have differing mental perspectives.

Wars of perception are nothing new; the history of religion is filled with them. But what happens when mental perspectives can morph more rapidly, accelerated by the vast expansion in content, connections and memory coming from technology? People are becoming more than people, now with appendages called automobiles and keypads and mobile communications and Google replacing our feet, hands, voice and memories. As technology embeds itself further in our bodies, we can self-select the relational pathways that most interest us, and avoid all others who fall into differing perspectives. Your thesis doesn’t agree with mine, so I’ll shut you out and seek only those who think like me. Soon, as screens become more prominent than sunlight, I may decide to only see those who think like me. Sounds a bit like humans and chimpanzees headed for different sides of the hill, no longer interested in mating with each other.

Image: Express Monorail

Cavemen, Camel cigarettes and Christmas sales


This is a story about how holiday sales don’t really exist, but that’s OK, because you need the fiction to survive.

Communications designer and caffeine addict Hal Thomas found this classic Camel cigarette ad in a July 1952 edition of Life magazine. Ethics aside (for the record, our agency does not work with tobacco companies and has led anti-smoking campaigns), it reminds us of the basic strategy of framing value for your customers. If you have ever bought something on sale, marked “40% off” a higher price, you’ve been the recipient of framing. All those red tags with discounts in this holiday shopping season are simply attempts by marketers to follow Richard Thaler‘s advice: “frame” the price against another benchmark to convince consumers they’re getting a good deal.

Customers, as we’ve written before, are bad judges of value. We don’t know what a diamond should cost — but if the engagement ring is $3,000 marked down from $5,000, it feels fair. We’ll pay $3,000 perhaps if we see an illusory $2,000 above it in “savings,” even if that higher price point never really existed. This old Camel ad does the same thing to consumers of the 1950s, framing a cigarette choice as a safer alternative by juxtaposing it against images of doctors. Businesses fall for this all the time, too; take the marketing director who demands “30% in value-add” from any media buy; she’s likely getting the same amount of ad space within a given budget, but feels better because the vendors restructure the pricing of ads to give “some” away for free. (Hey, not that we negotiating don’t try.)

We shade truth because we need nuance

Why do people insist on this? It’s human nature. We all tweak communications in a way to make them more appealing to the recipient. If you call home late from work tonight, you will likely explain you’re on deadline or stuck in traffic (late due to outside forces, beyond your control, not really such a bad thing). The message arrives inside a context, and if we set the context appropriately, it sounds better. The dissembling tactic likely has an evolutionary benefit; no one survived in the wild by collecting all the data carefully and analyzing it — a wild lion would eat you before you ran the odds of where to run — so we had to make snap decisions based on what others told us about our environment. Comparing options to other choices also helped humans evolve; the caveman Ooga might not have been handsome by today’s standards, but if cavewoman Booga thought he was the hottest in all the tribe, she passed on the best genes.

Framing is everywhere, when you look for it. Are you buying stuff “on sale” for Christmas? (Suckers.) Does your business judge new potential vendors by their case studies? (If they succeeded there, they may help you here.) Do you get upset when your child gets a B at school? (If others get an A, then he is slipping by comparison.) Is your Twitter follower score above 2,000 yet? (If so, you must be really clever, because other clever people have lots of followers.)

Or — in the most obvious framing device of all — how is that fictitious number with zeros after it in your bank account doing lately; is the personal score we call “money” moving up or down?

So here’s a provocation for your marketing team’s next meeting: Explore all the ways you can compare your product attributes to something else to make it more appealing. Tactics include communicating discounts from other price points (think clothing sale), or bundling your product in an unusual configuration (think candy boxes at movie theaters or auto dealer option packages), or even framing it against other brands (Coke vs. Pepsi). If you focus on the product itself without putting it in context, customers may not get what you mean … or want what they’ll get.

(Thanks, Hal, for inspiring this holiday spirit.)

Blame flannel shirts on Wall Street and Narcissus


To understand the current flannel fashion, let’s walk over to Wall Street and Greek mythology. First up, market psychology. There’s a saying that investors don’t pick stocks based on what they think will happen (if you believe Google shares will rise in value, you buy them) or even what they think others predict will happen (if you think others think Google’s stock will go up, that will drive up prices, so you buy it). Instead, market investors are three steps removed — if you think everyone else believes that others think the stock will go up, then you buy the stock. We guess about others’ desires to stay ahead.

Self-reflection starts with vanity

And everyone’s desires are tied to Narcissus. As Geoffrey Miller recounts in the brilliant “Spent,” Narcissus was the handsome Greek lad who spurned the wood nymph Echo because he fell in love with his own reflection in a pool. (He drowned and turned into a flower or something, which is why you hear echos in lake valleys. Really.) Miller suggests that most humans consume goods we don’t need because we have bits of narcissim in our psychology: the craving of others’ admiration. This is why people buy fancy leather jackets or watches or purses. You probably already have ways to stay warm in the rain, tell time, or carry cosmetics, but we crave new things because they signal our value to others.

Which is all tied to sex, of course, because if others don’t find you attractive, you don’t breed and your genes die. You, dear friend, are alive today because your caveman and cavewoman ancestors wore sexy pelts that turned each other on. Signaling status, intelligence, and creativity also pulls communities around you, useful if you need a collection of spears to fight off a stampede of mammoths.

Prediction + need = trends

These two drives — needing to signal to others and predicting how others will see our signals tomorrow — explain most of fashion. We constantly adjust our self-projections to stay ahead of what others will crave. The only way for your sperm or eggs to beat your competitors’ is to outthink their game. Which brings us around to flannel shirts. Have you seen the damned things are back in style?

Image: American Eagle Outfitters web site.

The sex appeal of health care, cavemen and Ronald Reagan

It’s hard to remember now but what put Ronald Reagan on the political map was his ardent fight against Medicare in the 1960s. Medicare, which was eventually passed into law in 1965 and enrolled former President Harry S. Truman as its first participant, faced many of the same arguments as health care reform today: people without insurance need help vs. government is not the best way to run insurance; compassion vs. socialism; left vs. right.

Whatever your view, this old tape of Reagan is worth a listen for its sheer persuasive power. Reagan exudes an authenticity that amplifies his message, creating a Steve Jobsish reality distortion field; after 60 seconds, no matter your old opinion, you begin to believe.

Persuasion is not about logic, it’s about survival

Scientists have dissected the root of charisma as the psychological frisson you get when someone projects both toughness and empathy. Reagan did it. Obama does it. The feeling that you’re about to get hit yet helped, an emotional at-sea response that puts your receptors slightly off center. Persuasion comes from belief that the person trying to lead you has an overpowering ability to assist, to the point of slight danger. Charisma is the Brad Pitt you want to be, but wouldn’t want left alone with your wife. It’s what you’d need if you were running a cave clan.

Today, health care is ringing our help-danger bells. Darwinian psychologist Geoffrey Miller explains in “Spent” that humans are trained by evolution to both project and receive signals for reproductive safety — vital to pass your genes to the next human generation. When you wear an expensive watch or necklace, you are projecting signals that you have fit genes for sex (even though you’re probably married, your DNA can’t help itself). When the sky grows gray at night and suddenly you feel like retreating to a warm restaurant or bed, you are receiving signals to seek shelter from genes that once might have been eaten in the dark. Because we need sex and shelter, we chase leaders who give off the same vibe.

You oog-ah. We like-ah.

Brands and causes can also project charisma, if they signal both strength and empathy. This is why nations rush to war when wronged (we’re hurt, heal us by fighting an enemy in a tough-guy stance) and why health care is now such a hot topic among conservatives (we’re hurt, heal us by fighting an enemy in a tough-guy stance). The message causes the same frisson of a danger avoided, an injustice righted. Get behind it, because in your heart you’re afraid and need help.

Health care evokes emotion because our great-great grandparents followed clan captains who would guide them from danger to safety, from famine to rich harvests, who exuded brawn that led to copious mating and future generations. It’s a good lesson for marketers as the U.S. ad industry contracts by $10 billion. To persuade a skittish audience feeling fear, you need tough-guy love.

Inspired by our frequent debates with Ken Wheaton.

What blood-powered cell phones mean for the future


A year ago we wrote about engineer Jim Mielke’s design for a wireless cell phone that slides under your skin and is powered by blood. Since then social networks have continued to scale — Oprah joined Twitter, Twitter saved Iran, Facebook got the stream — yet as they continue to fail to make money, advertisers are starting to wonder what gives. Facebook, the No. 2 darling child of the media, has projected U.S. ad revenues in 2009 of about $230 million, which works out to less than half a penny per hour per user.

Advertisers can understand the challenge of social media if they play the game all the way forward. In a few years, wireless internet devices will be so small they will plug into your body, like Mielke’s prototype above. This isn’t science fiction. Humans are already cyborgs — you already know people with fake breasts, false teeth, glasses, contacts, laser eye surgery, hip and knee replacements. You drive a car, a mechanical extension of your legs, and you fly like a bird on vacation. Yesterday we had lunch with a fine man who had a valve in his heart mended and was back up walking within a week. There are now 4.1 billion mobile subscribers on the planet and their radio toys are getting smaller. Andersonian free-pricing logic says the cyborg conversion is inevitable.

Telepathy is coming. Really.

When human crutches turn into human connections, people will have incredible control over sharing content. Your eyes might record a scene; you’ll touch your earlobe to send the video to a friend. As data transmission moves back to pure human-to-human contacts, social media will revert to our native, pre-history connections. Advertisers face a barrier because in social media, human bonds do not require third-party sponsorships. There is no external content to sponsor. Data collectors, who now hope to turn Facebook’s social streams into the Experian of the future, also may hit a wall when human connections can no longer be intercepted.

All is not lost, of course. People have always craved outside entertainment. You can’t talk all the time, so we’ll watch TV for a while yet. And gadgets with shiny chrome or glass will be around for a while, meaning marketers can track data being sucked through the devices that fulfill our hunter-gatherer-sexual-status-signaling instincts. But the irony of these inevitable media shifts into human minds is they will take us back to where we were in 10,000 B.C.: outside TV, radio and print washing over us to fulfill the campfire entertainment role, and human-to-human social media in which we control the intercourse ourselves. Marketers, like storytellers from a clan far away, will be welcome in one place and not the other.

Chris Anderson on Google: Something wicked this way comes?


We’re attending the OMMA conference in New York City this Thursday and Friday, which basically puts a bunch of hip marketing types in sports coats and jeans in rooms with managers from wireless companies and web search marketing firms. The Pareto concept holds true for the quality of the presentations; about 80% of panel speakers defend their business models as brilliant, and about 20% offer brilliance on business models.

In the latter category was Chris Anderson, the type of guru you’re sure you could debate if he just slowed down his brain by about 50%. Chris, a guy who once flunked out of school and played punk rock but went on to work at Los Alamos and become top editor of Wired magazine, discussed emerging “media platforms” with his pal Josh Quittner, Editor-at-Large of Time, Inc.

Chris and Josh riffed a bit on the iPhone, raising the specter that the ultra-sexy portable device could become a new “portal” that replaces the magazine front pages / home pages of Wired.com et al, but then went further to raise the fear that Google might be turning evil. Chris had tongue firmly in cheek, since he lives in San Francisco and visits the Googleplex often, but asked the audience whether they thought Google was making its Chrome/cloud expansion moves to (a) do what’s right for the web or (b) be a dastardly, leering, profit-at-whatever-it-takes even-if-it’s-your-wife-too business. Most of the East Coast audience leaned toward (b). Chris smiled on stage in a dark coat and crisp white shirt, a little glare from the lights bouncing off his tanned, shaved head like a halo, and for a second we thought he knew the secret but just wasn’t going to tell.

And then the meat: A discussion on “platform wars.” The deal here is that the layers of commerce are reforming, and the ground that guides the new flow of profits is being shifted by yet another god-like owner. Chris gave a simple description: A platform is a layer controlled by one company that creates an ecosystem for other companies who make that layer usable. Past versions include Amazon.com (which allows many other companies to sell things), EBay (ditto), and Microsoft (whose Windows gave birth to millions of software products). Platforms aren’t necessarily bad; when they work, users get what they want, the platform company makes money, and every other company that jumps aboard can make profits, too.

Ah, but Google is building a new platform, and this is a bit different. Chrome. A browser that is a portal to the web. Is it a good thing to have the company who organizes all of the world’s information online now own the platform that enables every other company to turn information into commerce? Chris said it may be simple Darwinian evolution; maybe in the end, consolidation leads to one giant that makes information flow seamless. But the audience squirmed a bit in their seats.

The end game may be unstoppable. If technology continues to become faster, easier, and more transparent, eventually all data sources will become compatible. Your layout program and writing program and spreadsheet program and email program and bank-tax-finance-video-music-telepathy programs all become commodities, a lingua franca shared by all other software, which creates the need for one system. Just as major nations eventually develop one currency, the Internet-data-software cloud may need only one Google.

This decade may have witnessed more than the birth of an internet giant. We’re welcoming the Matrix. Here’s hoping Google comes in peace.

Political attack ads and the end of the world, explained


Back in 1950 a physicist named Enrico Fermi was chatting up UFOs with his colleagues at the Los Alamos nuclear research lab. There had been a spate of flying-saucer sightings recently, which the scientists laughed at. Fermi was pretty good at doing quick calculations in his head. He ran the odds, explained that with 70 sextillion stars in the visible universe aliens should be on other planets, then asked, so “where are they?”

This statement, called the Fermi Paradox, revealed the basic contradiction that extraterrestrial intelligence probably exists, but if it did, we’d probably hear about it. There are several logical retorts as to why we haven’t: we’re alone because Earth won the lottery; the timeframe for intelligent species using radio waves is too tiny for us to notice signals elsewhere before they move on to, say, telepathy; other life forms are perhaps too intelligent for us to understand; or, a personal favorite, the Zoo Hypothesis which suggests extraterrestrial life exists but is just leaving us alone, because, sniff, we Earthlings are like dumb animals in a zoo.

But the scariest idea is probably the most real, called the Doomsday argument. This theory holds that because Darwinian aggression is required for a species to compete for scarce resources and win, winning species are thus too aggressive and destroy themselves. Thus intelligent life comes and goes in the universe, constantly snuffing itself out with guns and bombs. Doomsday theorists prove this mathematically: in any series of random events, like a bunch of pennies tossed on the floor, a single member of the group is most likely to be found in the middle. So if you think of your birth order in the human species, the second you were born you were about the 60th billion human to arrive on the planet. If you are somewhere in the middle of all humans born, there probably won’t be more than 100 billion humans total.

Trouble is, humans are now being born at a rate of one billion every 7.5 years. So if we only have 40 billion more of us to go, in about three centuries the gig should be up. Cheers, mates.

Combine these stats with the history of us fighting over resources — oil, anyone? — and the very aggressive traits that helped humans survive for millennia now put our race at risk.

Which brings us around to marketing. The act of stimulating demand for product consumption is really that of channeling survival instincts — to align the animal urges of your potential customers into thinking that your service is required to improve their shelter, alleviate their hunger, or give them the tool they need to ward off competitors. We’re not suggesting manipulating the urge of consumption is wrong; the flow of commerce has built hospitals, discovered drugs and rid the world of disease. But it’s worth remembering the baser instincts marketers must trigger if they want a response.

One hopes that humans will evolve beyond our fighting instincts. But for the moment, messages that stir the blood are still common tools to get attention. All of which is our way of predicting: The U.S. political ads are about to get really, really nasty.

Intelligent life tends to destroy itself. Marketers take note.


Back in 1950 a physicist at Los Alamos named Enrico Fermi was chatting up UFOs with his colleagues. There had been a spate of sightings recently, and Fermi was pretty good at doing quick calculations in his head. He ran the numbers, explained that with 70 sextillion stars in the visible universe life should be everywhere, then asked, so “where are they?”

This statement, called the Fermi Paradox, points to the contradiction between the idea life could be everywhere but we don’t see it anywhere else out in space. There are several logical retorts: Earth won the lottery; the time frame for intelligent species using radio waves is too tight for us to notice signals elsewhere; other life forms are way too intelligent for us to understand; or, a personal favorite, the Zoo Hypothesis which suggests extraterrestrial life exists but is just leaving us alone, like dumb beasts in a zoo.

But the scariest idea is probably the most real, called the Doomsday argument. This theory holds that life is common but because Darwinian aggression is required for a species to compete for scarce resources and win, winning species are thus too aggressive and destroy themselves. Doomsday theorists prove this with a simple math exercise: Think of your birth order compared to all the people born before you; you rank about the 60th billionth human ever to exist. So it’s very likely that you’re somewhere in the middle of the birth order, so only about 100 billion humans will ever live, and at our current population rate we’ll kick out another 40 billion babies in just a few decades, therefore we’re close to the end of the human race. Cheers, mate.

So the very aggressive traits that help humans survive put our race at risk. Which brings us around to marketing. The act of stimulating demand for product consumption is really that of channeling survival instincts — to align the animal urges of your potential customers into thinking that your service is required to improve their shelter, alleviate their hunger, or give them the tool they need to ward off competitors. We’re not suggesting manipulating the urge of consumption is wrong; the flow of commerce has built hospitals, discovered drugs and rid the world of disease. But it’s worth remembering the baser instincts you must trigger if you want a response.

One hopes that humans will evolve beyond our fighting instincts. But for the moment, messages that stir the blood are still common tools to get attention.

Time to satisfy a hungry woman


This holiday weekend think about sex, food and shelter. We know you will, because Angela Natividad points out today’s advertisements have not really migrated far from the sexist assumptions of the 1950s. Women’s magazines, for example, remain filled with food ads showing women how to cut meat, bake pies and sneak snacks — especially if their husbands leave them unsatisfied.

Which makes us wonder: In an efficient marketplace, advertisers will choose messages that generate the highest response. The women and men who respond to food and sex messaging are thus, well, responding in quantities high enough to keep this stuff coming. So do we still fall into the same old homemaker / sex-seeker roles?

In the millions of years of human evolution, the Western culture shifts of the 1960s to 2000s are a small aberration. Beneath our new, open, fair-minded facades, maybe we still want the same thing. Something hot from the kitchen.