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All Hail Our Annoying New Robot Overlords

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Humanity has accomplished some pretty impressive things. The Internet. Man on the Moon. The Sistine Chapel. War and Peace. Everything about Lego. But, for all our apparent cultural and technological sophistication, we remain a breathtakingly, almost suicidally, stupid species. In America alone, smoking kills nearly half a million of us each year – preventable deaths every one of them. Over three thousand people die in car crashes just by being distracted – so yes, that hilarious cat gif probably can wait. Nearly thirty people are killed annually whilst taking selfies. Selfies. And seventeen people die every year just trying to eat Baguettes. We do things that we know are dangerous, we consume things we know might kill us, we’re extremely poor judges of risk, we make epically bad decisions with little regard to their consequences and still we stride around like we’re invincible. Stupidity (and its preening cousin, arrogance) is as much a part of the human condition as breathing and falling hopelessly in love with someone with too many tattoos and a fast motorbike. Frankly it’s a miracle that humanity ever made it out of the prehistoric mud.

To be fair, though, it’s not entirely our fault. As the great E.O.Wilson has said:

“The real problem of humanity is the following: we have Paleolithic emotions; Medieval institutions; and God-like technology.”

The ever-increasing gulf between what we are (cavemen) and what we think we are (supermen) has put us in a spin, and lots of us are completely unable to cope. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the debate over Artificial Intelligence. This is the most God-like of our God-like technologies so, obviously, it’s got everyone spooked. Giants of the tech industry who should know better (you heard me, Musk) regularly issue dire warnings of a near-future in which humanity’s hopes are crushed beneath a ruthless robotic boot. Screaming headlines routinely remind us that machines are taking our jobs, taking us for a ride (literally and metaphorically), taking over and probably putting our children to work in giant WD40 factories whilst they’re at it. More often than not, it is AI’s lack of humanity that is blamed for these potential threats to our very existence. We live in an age where ‘Terminator’ is talked about as if it were a gritty new documentary rather than a highly speculative work of science fiction that somehow gave Arnie an acting career.

Unsurprisingly, like so many other things, we humans have got it entirely the wrong way around. The hard truth is that Artificial Intelligence is less an existential threat, more a blow to our collective egos. Machines are now capable of doing many things faster, smarter and more safely than we will ever manage – and that makes us behave like a sulky adolescent whose mum just told them to tidy their hygienically-challenged room. Not only do we resent AI but we also misunderstand how it’s actually affecting us. We lie awake at night worrying about military supercomputers with thousands of bullet-spitting drones at their command, when AI’s real impact is being felt much closer to home – like just downstairs. Smart bean-to-cup coffee makers already look and sound like a cross between Hal 9000 and Gordon Ramsey. They tell you when they need cleaning, emptying, refilling, de-assembling, reassembling, de-scaling, and they get angry when you don’t treat them with the respect they deserve. Before long they’ll probably make you comfort them when they get lonely at night. Just down the corridor, Amazon’s Alexa is constantly scanning conversations to see if there’s anything she can help you with, mostly resulting in items that you didn’t even know you needed being randomly added to your shopping basket. And soon this is all coming to relieve the aching tedium of your daily commute. Self driving cars are just around the corner, and given that almost ninety percent of all crashes are caused by human error, it won’t be long before driving yourself anywhere will be seen as the height of recklessness. It makes all kinds of logical sense, but that won’t stop most of us from hating the idea of passing control over to a machine. AI may have our best interests at heart, and will never become dangerously tired, drunk, cranky or just distracted by tonight’s big game, but we’re going to resent the hell out of it all the same.

The real value of Artificial Intelligence is pretty simple. We’ve inadvertently built a world that most of us simply can’t cope with and ironically enough AI, the ultimate product of that world, is the best chance we have of catching up and getting with the program. Artificial Intelligence is here to save us from our own stupidity, not enslave us, but that doesn’t mean we’re ever going to like it. Sure, computers will slowly get better at reading our emotions and, sure, they’ll become more empathetic. But the issue of control will never entirely go away. Our future will be less The Matrix more a profoundly banal version of Terminator where Skynet doesn’t want to destroy humanity, just order it around the kitchen. Safer, easier, more efficient, and deeply, deeply annoying.

I’m sorry, Dave, but that’s the way it’s going to be.

The Fake Truth Is Out There

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“Tell the truth, or someone will tell it for you”

Stephanie Klein

The Truth. Philosophers have fallen out over it, wars have been started because of it – and despite it, the entire legal system is based on it and Tom Cruise famously couldn’t handle it. It’s even, on occasion, found its way into Advertising. The truth clearly matters, but something seems to have happened to it. Trump, Brexit, Trump Jnr, the queasy Fake News rollercoaster, everything about that OJ guy, Trump again. Which begs several important questions, particularly for those of us in the business of communication. What is the truth? Is it getting faker? And, if so, what can we do about it?

First off, the truth is basically a lie. A helpful fiction. In theory, it rests on a foundation of ‘facts’. Facts are to truth what gold is to money and Alfred is to Batman. They underpin it, give it credibility and keep its terrifying real identity secret. But facts are open to debate. Most people in most places would agree that the stars are distant suns, not holes in the sky; that gravity grounds us, not invisible fairy glue; and that Piers Morgan is an idiot. These are widely acknowledged and universally acclaimed. But the further we move away from personally observable laws of physics, the more debatable things become and the greater our reliance upon belief. You may believe that the moon landings were filmed by Stanley Kubrick on a Hollywood lot and that you really weren’t that drunk last Saturday night, but I may disagree. Trust me, you were a disgrace. Really what we call ‘the truth’ is largely a matter of personal opinion.

To make matters worse, it seems that the truth is becoming increasingly subjective, in places you’d expect it to show more backbone. Scientists across a variety of fields have noticed that all sorts of well-established, multiply confirmed findings enshrined in tedious text books are becoming increasingly difficult to replicate. It’s as if – to paraphrase Einstein – God got bored with science, abruptly hopped on a flight to Vegas and started playing dice with the universe. As it turns out, the fault probably lies not with science but with scientists, who are as guilty as anyone of unconsciously filtering the various truths they’re presented with to conform to their existing world view. The ones that reinforce it tend to be embraced, the ones that are discordant with it are discarded out-of-hand. Selective reporting and publication of scientific findings threatens to blur the line between science and pseudoscience, just as tailored news feeds keep Republicans and Democrats in a state of mutually uncomprehending rage, and Facebook groupthink makes Vegan Environmentalist Fidgit-Spinners assume everyone’s a Vegan Environmentalist Fidgit-Spinner. Technology may have exacerbated this phenomenon but it existed long before algorithms, filter bubbles and deranged chat groups called ‘The Earth Is Flat’. Even if the truth is out there, we’re often blind to it.

It’s no surprise, then, that the truth has always been open to deliberate manipulation for both relatively benign and vastly more sinister reasons – whether that means selling people more Captain Crunch by selectively highlighting its virtues or taking the truth out for a psychotic, power-hungry joyride. According to that delight of a man, Joseph Goebbels:

“Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth”

Psychologists call this the ‘Illusory Truth Effect’. Life gives us a million things to occupy our minds – like putting the washing on and avoiding Game of Thrones spoilers – so we don’t have much time to devote to putting our rational brains into gear. As a result, like the indolent bipeds we are, we use shortcuts. Repetition makes things seem more plausible, and the effect is more powerful when people are tired or distracted by other information. Like the entire internet. Welcome to the 21st Century, a place where our defenses against untruths are down, if not completely out.

So, we can’t trust the truth to be truthful. But where does that leave us? In a line at the drug store with noise-cancelling headphones and a prescription for Valium?

Happily, no. The reality is that it’s been a post-truth world ever since Adam and Eve promised they wouldn’t eat that apple. And whilst the truth has been taking a bit of a beating lately, it’s still the case that, sooner or later, bullshit tends to run into reality, wreck its car and end up in hospital with an eye-watering medical bill and zero flowers. It happened when Bernie Madoff decided to make money out of thin air, it happened when Pepsi decided that world peace was only a Kendall Jenner away, and it’s happening to Trump and Brexit. Just far too slowly. The truth’s simply having a hard time wading through the growing river of slurry to get to us. So, this isn’t an argument for resignation or complacency, it’s an argument for vigilance. Whether you’re tweeting to millions after a hard day’s golfing, selling 17-blade razors on national TV, or just arguing with a group of your closest 500 virtual friends, you have a responsibility to cut the crap. Those of us in marketing forget at our peril that great brands are built on their own truth, anchored in what their businesses actually offer, tethered to reality rather than vacuous hope or meaningless purpose. And however benign our actions might seem, we’re either adding to the growing pile of bullshit or we’re not. If we are then we’re complicit in an environment where it’s becoming OK to take reality out for a deeply irresponsible joyride. The truth may be fake, and we may never truly grasp it, but that only makes our efforts to get nearer to it more important than ever. 

 

Long Live Luddites

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Lud·dite –ˈlədˌīt/ – noun
a member of any of the bands of English workers who destroyed machinery, especially in cotton and woolen mills, that they believed were threatening their jobs (1811-16)
a person opposed to increased industrialization or new technology.
“a small-minded Luddite resisting progress”

Luddites. Those infamous, sledgehammer-wielding destroyers of industrial sewing machines. Ancient predecessors of all those who shun Tesla, abhor Drones, and refuse to Snap. Modern-day shorthand for anyone who thinks life would be better if we still foraged for food in sheepskins and died at the age of 15 from scurvy.

If the Internet is any judge then there are still a vast number of Luddites around. Maybe not wandering the Google campus with a crowbar, but certainly complaining about online banking, hover boards and teenagers. And spoiling things for clear-thinking technophiles whilst they’re at it. Who are these neo-Luddites? Let’s list a few:

Old people = Luddites
Middle-aged people = Luddites.
Babies = Probably Luddites.
Advertising people who still make TV commericals = Definitely Luddites.
Millennials = Definitely not Luddities. (Unless they are. In which case they’ve probably just gone off the grid in the pursuit of authentic experiences. They’ll be back)
Futurists, Tech Journalists and Marketing Bloggers = Luddites pretending not to be Luddites by talking bollocks.

In a society where technology has become everything, everywhere, there’s almost nothing worse than being associated with the ‘L’ word. It means that you’re out of touch, behind the adoption curve, backwards in going forwards, an enemy of progress, a friend to reaction, and you certainly lack the kind of vision that only a helicopter can provide. Get out of that old fashioned box, man, it’s constraining your thinking. Might as well kiss your job goodbye, give your seat up to somebody who knows how to code, and go back to writing with a quill by candlelight, grandpa. Goddamn Luddite.

Which is all, as they say, simplistic bullshit.

It should be possible to applaud as IBM Watson crushes another puny human at something creative, and geek out over the Martin Jetpack, whilst still acknowledging legitimate concerns about the impact of technological change and the unevenly distributed benefits of progress. And, as it turns out, the real Luddites from 200 years ago had a point to make on this that almost everybody has forgotten. A damn good one.

Far from the shouty, rabid mob of the popular imagination, constantly foaming at their proletarian mouths, in reality the Luddites were skilled, middle-class workers who simply wanted fair pay for honest work. They were totally cool with new machines, they just weren’t totally cool with manufacturers who used new machines as a handy excuse to screw their employees. And when they started smashing up looms in 1811 it was very much a last resort, once they realised that the supremely entitled one-percenters of the time weren’t big on giving ground to anyone without a mansion, a title and twenty three butlers. So the Luddites weren’t anti-technology, they were pro-fairness and they knew how to get people’s attention. Destroying machines created the click-bait of their time: “10 Things You Didn’t Know About Taking A Sledgehammer To A Spinning Jenny” was the kind of headline they were after.

They were also way ahead of the curve when it came to branding. The fact that the name of their short-lived protest movement is still remembered is testament to some progressive marketing thinking that would probably win a slew of creative awards today, including a Cannes Grand Prix for Industrial Deconstruction and the D&AD Wrought Iron Pencil. Perhaps the most interesting thing about them is that the eponymous founder of the Luddites, Ned Ludd, probably never even existed. An apocryphal story about a machine-flattening apprentice from Nottingham called Ludd or Ludham became the movement’s inspiration a quarter of a century after his probably fictitious act of defiance. They realized that if you say something untrue often enough it’ll eventually become fact – centuries before George Orwell and Donald Trump jumped on that particular train. So Ludd’s name was signed at the bottom of ‘official’ documents, creating the appearance of cohesion and scale where none really existed and, meanwhile, protesters took to marching in women’s clothing as ‘General Ludd’s Wives’ – symbolizing the topsy turvy new world in which they had found themselves. In an era when Punch and Judy shows were considered the height of entertainment, these things got noticed.

Better wages and dubious drag aside, though, what really lay behind the Luddite philosophy was something simpler and more fundamental. Whilst many people at the time appreciated the benefits of the industrial revolution they also worried about it effects. As Thomas Carlyle pointed out in his 1829 essay The Sign of the Times:

 “Men are grown mechanical in head and heart, as well as in hand”

Ludditism at its core was a plea for humans to be given equal weight next to all the shiny new technology. Far from being the heroic defenders of a pre-technological way of life, the Luddites were the pioneers of a more symbiotic, empathetic approach to progress. And we’d do well to remember it. In a world where social media has polarized whole societies and helped install a narcissistic, orange, game show host as President; where programmatic advertising stalks us mindlessly around the web, offering us things that we’ve already bought; and where AI threatens to go all Skynet on entire industries, it pays to underline the value of humanity amid all the dizzying change.

The fact is that we need more Luddites, in the original sense of the word. Because our businesses, our marketing, our advertising, our everyday lives are all made infinitely better when we put the gleaming new technological baubles we create at the service of people rather than the other way around. It’s time for the term Luddite to be reclaimed for what it is, a proud badge of simple humanity in an ocean of advanced technology.