30 Jul 2010

Amusing Ourselves to Death: No laughing matter, this

I am constantly amazed and humbled by the greats minds and the profound thinking that came ahead of us. We owe it to our generation and the coming ones to listen, learn and imbibe their wisdom. For, as George Santayana, the Spanish-born American author and philosopher said: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

The words of Neil Postman (March 8, 1931 - October 5, 2003) are most definitely worth remembering.

Postman was an American author, media theorist and cultural critic, who is best known for his 1985 book about television, Amusing Ourselves to Death. His works include Teaching as a Subversive Activity, The Soft Revolution, and The Disappearance of Childhood.

Neil Postman was professor of communication arts and sciences at New York University; held the Christian Lindback Award for Excellence in Teaching; and in 1987 was given the George Orwell Award for Clarity in Language by the National Council of Teachers of English.

A consumate humanist, Postman believed that "new technology can never substitute for human values".

Here, he holds forth on Technology and Society. (This is 1 of 7 videos.)

And the following is a speech that is at once lucid and inspiring, on the Manichaean life-paths that lay before a new batch of university graduates. Please read it. (The subheads are my vulgar additions... I apologise.)

Ladies and gentlemen...


Having sat through two dozen or so graduation speeches, I have naturally wondered why they are so often so bad. One reason, of course, is that the speakers are chosen for their eminence in some field, and not because they are either competent speakers or gifted writers. Another reason is that the audience is eager to be done with all ceremony so that it can proceed to some serious reveling. Thus any speech longer than, say, fifteen minutes will seem tedious, if not entirely pointless. There are other reasons as well, including the difficulty of saying something inspirational without being banal. Here I try my hand at writing a graduation speech, and not merely to discover if I can conquer the form. This is precisely what I would like to say to young people if I had their attention for a few minutes.

If you think my graduation speech is good, I hereby grant you permission to use it, without further approval from or credit to me, should you be in an appropriate situation.

Members of the faculty, parents, guests, and graduates, have no fear. I am well aware that on a day of such high excitement, what you require, first and foremost, of any speaker is brevity. I shall not fail you in this respect. There are exactly eighty-five sentences in my speech, four of which you have just heard. It will take me about twelve minutes to speak all of them and I must tell you that such economy was not easy for me to arrange, because I have chosen as my topic the complex subject of your ancestors. Not, of course, your biological ancestors, about whom I know nothing, but your spiritual ancestors, about whom I know a little. To be specific, I want to tell you about two groups of people who lived many years ago but whose influence is still with us. They were very different from each other, representing opposite values and traditions. I think it is appropriate for you to be reminded of them on this day because, sooner than you know, you must align yourself with the spirit of one or the spirit of the other.

The Athenians
The first group lived about 2,500 years ago in the place which we now call Greece, in a city they called Athens. We do not know as much about their origins as we would like. But we do know a great deal about their accomplishments. They were, for example, the first people to develop a complete alphabet, and therefore they became the first truly literate population on earth. They invented the idea of political democracy, which they practiced with a vigor that puts us to shame. They invented what we call philosophy. And they also invented what we call logic and rhetoric. They came very close to inventing what we call science, and one of them-Democritus by name-conceived of the atomic theory of matter 2,300 years before it occurred to any modern scientist. They composed and sang epic poems of unsurpassed beauty and insight. And they wrote and performed plays that, almost three millennia later, still have the power to make audiences laugh and weep. They even invented what, today, we call the Olympics, and among their values none stood higher than that in all things one should strive for excellence. They believed in reason. They believed in beauty. They believed in moderation. And they invented the word and the idea which we know today as ecology.

About 2,000 years ago, the vitality of their culture declined and these people began to disappear. But not what they had created. Their imagination, art, politics, literature, and language spread all over the world so that, today, it is hardly possible to speak on any subject without repeating what some Athenian said on the matter 2,500 years ago.

The Visigoths
The second group of people lived in the place we now call Germany, and flourished about 1,700 years ago. We call them the Visigoths, and you may remember that your sixth or seventh-grade teacher mentioned them. They were spectacularly good horsemen, which is about the only pleasant thing history can say of them. They were marauders-ruthless and brutal. Their language lacked subtlety and depth. Their art was crude and even grotesque. They swept down through Europe destroying everything in their path, and they overran the Roman Empire. There was nothing a Visigoth liked better than to burn a book, desecrate a building, or smash a work of art. From the Visigoths, we have no poetry, no theater, no logic, no science, no humane politics.

Like the Athenians, the Visigoths also disappeared, but not before they had ushered in the period known as the Dark Ages. It took Europe almost a thousand years to recover from the Visigoths.

They live among us...
Now, the point I want to make is that the Athenians and the Visigoths still survive, and they do so through us and the ways in which we conduct our lives. All around us-in this hall, in this community, in our city-there are people whose way of looking at the world reflects the way of the Athenians, and there are people whose way is the way of the Visigoths. I do not mean, of course, that our modern-day Athenians roam abstractedly through the streets reciting poetry and philosophy, or that the modern-day Visigoths are killers. I mean that to be an Athenian or a Visigoth is to organize your life around a set of values. An Athenian is an idea. And a Visigoth is an idea. Let me tell you briefly what these ideas consist of.

The Athenian Vs. The Visigoth ...on knowledge
To be an Athenian is to hold knowledge and, especially the quest for knowledge in high esteem. To contemplate, to reason, to experiment, to question-these are, to an Athenian, the most exalted activities a person can perform. To a Visigoth, the quest for knowledge is useless unless it can help you to earn money or to gain power over other people.

The Athenian Vs. The Visigoth ...on language
To be an Athenian is to cherish language because you believe it to be humankind's most precious gift. In their use of language, Athenians strive for grace, precision, and variety. And they admire those who can achieve such skill. To a Visigoth, one word is as good as another, one sentence in distinguishable from another. A Visigoth's language aspires to nothing higher than the cliché.

The Athenian Vs. The Visigoth ...on tradition
To be an Athenian is to understand that the thread which holds civilized society together is thin and vulnerable; therefore, Athenians place great value on tradition, social restraint, and continuity. To an Athenian, bad manners are acts of violence against the social order. The modern Visigoth cares very little about any of this. The Visigoths think of themselves as the center of the universe. Tradition exists for their own convenience, good manners are an affectation and a burden, and history is merely what is in yesterday's newspaper.

The Athenian Vs. The Visigoth ...on community
To be an Athenian is to take an interest in public affairs and the improvement of public behavior. Indeed, the ancient Athenians had a word for people who did not. The word was idiotes, from which we get our word "idiot." A modern Visigoth is interested only in his own affairs and has no sense of the meaning of community.

The Athenian Vs. The Visigoth ...on art
And, finally, to be an Athenian is to esteem the discipline, skill, and taste that are required to produce enduring art. Therefore, in approaching a work of art, Athenians prepare their imagination through learning and experience. To a Visigoth, there is no measure of artistic excellence except popularity. What catches the fancy of the multitude is good. No other standard is respected or even acknowledged by the Visigoth.

To become one or the other
Now, it must be obvious what all of this has to do with you. Eventually, like the rest of us, you must be on one side or the other. You must be an Athenian or a Visigoth. Of course, it is much harder to be an Athenian, for you must learn how to be one, you must work at being one, whereas we are all, in a way, natural-born Visigoths. That is why there are so many more Visigoths than Athenians. And I must tell you that you do not become an Athenian merely by attending school or accumulating academic degrees. My father-in-law was one of the most committed Athenians I have ever known, and he spent his entire adult life working as a dress cutter on Seventh Avenue in New York City. On the other hand, I know physicians, lawyers, and engineers who are Visigoths of unmistakable persuasion. And I must also tell you, as much in sorrow as in shame, that at some of our great universities, perhaps even this one, there are professors of whom we may fairly say they are closet Visigoths. And yet, you must not doubt for a moment that a school, after all, is essentially an Athenian idea. There is a direct link between the cultural achievements of Athens and what the faculty at this university is all about. I have no difficulty imagining that Plato, Aristotle, or Democritus would be quite at home in our class rooms. A Visigoth would merely scrawl obscenities on the wall.

And so, whether you were aware of it or not, the purpose of your having been at this university was to give you a glimpse of the Athenian way, to interest you in the Athenian way. We cannot know on this day how many of you will choose that way and how many will not. You are young and it is not given to us to see your future. But I will tell you this, with which I will close: I can wish for you no higher compliment than that in the future it will be reported that among your graduating class the Athenians mightily outnumbered the Visigoths.

Thank you, and congratulations.

25 Jul 2010

4 ways to save a Client-Agency marriage

Search Consultants are the next swarm of carion-pickers in the Advertising industry. Some of them were recently brought together by the Advertising Club of New York; and Ad Age had a mercifully short excerpt of what they had to say.

But wade through the jargon; cut through the metaphors; ignore the obvious; dodge the verbiage; and we will find, I think, a few points well worth considering.

1. We need to get to know our target audience a little bit better everyday. The client expects it.

2. Being responsive is not enough. We need to proactively come up with creative ideas, new insights and innovative ways to reach our TA. Even if they aren't implemented, the client will know we're on our toes.

3. We need the courage to stick with our real strengths, and (tactfully) decline things that are out of our purview. If we insist on being treated as professionals, most likely, we will.

4. Clients almost never feel we are over-charging - they only ever find out if we're under-delivering.

(Don't worry, there's less than 4 minutes of it.)

20 Jul 2010

Vox populi

If 35,000 football fans can own, manage and take Ebbsfleet United all the way to the FA Trophy finals; If online entities like wikipedia.org, mumsnet.com, zopa.com, and TheyWorkForYou.com and innumerable other collaborative endeavours over the Internet can redefine the encyclopedia, parenting, finance, and politics as we know it; What else can we do together?

Could we de-construct the structure of the traditional government apparatus, and begin to govern ourselves?

According to Alan Cox: "It is only by making people feel that they are actually involved and they can make changes and they actually own the environment around them, it is not owned by some faceless bureaucracy. They will actually care to think they can improve it."

But is society truly ready for participatory governance?

Us Now, a documentary film project explores the possibilities as new technologies enable ever-higher degrees of social engagement and collaboration.

Us Now from Banyak Films on Vimeo.

There is also a website featuring material from the making of the film.

17 Jul 2010

11 Jul 2010

"Young and foolish" takes on new meaning

The Creativity Crisis by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman is a must-read article over at newsweek.com.

The authors explore the inverse correlation between measured Intelligence and Creativity Quotients over the last two decades.

It seems that tests that have been running since 1958 have near-conclusively proven that although IQ has been rising continuously in this time, CQ has begun to fall in the US since about 1990!

There is doubt as to why it is happening, but there is definitely no doubt that creativity matters. In fact, 1500 CEOs recent surveyed in an IBM poll, identified creativity as the No. 1 “leadership competency” of the future, according to the article.

However, bearing in mind that the median age of the world population is a mere 28.4 years (according to The World Factbook), I fear that it's not the "future" but the "present" that most urgently needs the intervention of ingenuity and creativity!

The future might simply be too late.

By the way, scientists now believe it isn't just a "right brain vs. left brain" quirk either. Read on, if you are over 20 and can stay awake...

"The lore of pop psychology is that creativity occurs on the right side of the brain. But we now know that if you tried to be creative using only the right side of your brain, it’d be like living with ideas perpetually at the tip of your tongue, just beyond reach.

When you try to solve a problem, you begin by concentrating on obvious facts and familiar solutions, to see if the answer lies there. This is a mostly left-brain stage of attack. If the answer doesn’t come, the right and left hemispheres of the brain activate together. Neural networks on the right side scan remote memories that could be vaguely relevant. A wide range of distant information that is normally tuned out becomes available to the left hemisphere, which searches for unseen patterns, alternative meanings, and high-level abstractions.

Having glimpsed such a connection, the left brain must quickly lock in on it before it escapes. The attention system must radically reverse gears, going from defocused attention to extremely focused attention. In a flash, the brain pulls together these disparate shreds of thought and binds them into a new single idea that enters consciousness. This is the “aha!” moment of insight, often followed by a spark of pleasure as the brain recognizes the novelty of what it’s come up with.

Now the brain must evaluate the idea it just generated. Is it worth pursuing? Creativity requires constant shifting, blender pulses of both divergent thinking and convergent thinking, to combine new information with old and forgotten ideas. Highly creative people are very good at marshaling their brains into bilateral mode, and the more creative they are, the more they dual-activate."

8 Jul 2010

India: Advertising's Walmart?

What's with India and "cost-cutting"?

A little paranoid, but this article by Jim Edwards on bnet.com looks at the possible consequence (ok, it's a more than a little remote) on the Advertising industry globally of the WWE-style combination move executed by heavyweights, Unilever and Reckitt Benckiser in recent days.

The equivalent of a well-timed double-drop-kick off the top rope. (Perhaps a steel chair to the back of the head is coming next.)

For those who entered the arena late: The Unilever was up on the red corner, and Reckitt Benckiser went up the blue corner.

'Advertising' walked in and... WHAM!

Hilarity apart, there may be an opportunity in all this for the Advertising industry - especially in India. Instead of doing 'cheap', 'fast' and 'mass', what if we did 'intelligent' and 'objective'? I know there is no scope for a 'Lion' in it - but may be we can charge a 'Premium' for it. Just a thought.

Meanwhile back to the action...

6 Jul 2010

Uniform Project: When social activism meets social media

One restless girl + Seven identical dresses + 365 days = $103,325 in donations + 287 kids in school

Simple Maths from the Uniform Project.

Why did they do it? Watch.

The Uniform Project Trailer from The Uniform Project on Vimeo.

How did they do it? Watch again.

Uniform Project Picture Book from The Uniform Project on Vimeo.

3 Jul 2010

The real Hurricane Alex

The man behind this video, and many such "new breed" creatives that took advertising by storm; the controversial and iconic 'B' in CP+B, Alex Bogusky, has quit advertising.

There's more from Crispin Porter + Bogusky here.

Adios, Alex. Or should it be au revoir?

1 Jul 2010

RAK-ing things up

I heard good things about a brand, and like any average potential customer, I googled (it's a verb now) looking for a dealership, after I find none on their website.

Halfway down Page 1, and probably the only coherent and useful link on the brand, is this post.

Now I know that the company:
a) is comparatively quiet expensive,
b) is not very reliable in terms of delivery,
c) is not responsive to customer feedback, and
d) employs individuals who seems arrogant, and vindictive,
Needless to say I won't be rushing to Page 2 looking for a dealership.

But I am curious to know if one - or considering the unfortunate second commentor, two - negative experiences posted on a blog can effect a change in business attitude at a global corporate entity.

I thought I'd give it a nudge, and see where it goes.