Too Many Fish in the Sea: The Search for Brand Love

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I still see – in a number of MediaPost articles and in other places – a lot of talk about “brand-love.” So let’s talk about that.

My grandfather Jack, who farmed on the Canadian Prairies for most of his life, loved John Deere tractors.

And I mean L-O-V-E-D. Deep love. A love that lasted 50 some years and never – not once – did he ever consider a rival for his affection. You could have given him a brand new shiny red Massey Ferguson and it would have sat untouched behind the barn. The man bled green and yellow. He wore a John Deere ball cap everywhere. He had his grime encrusted one for every day wear and a clean one for formal occasions – things like the christening of new grandchildren and 50th wedding anniversaries. He wasn’t buried with one, but if he had his way, he would have been.

My grandpa Jack loved John Deere tractors because he loved one tractor – his tractor. And there was absolutely no logic to this love.

I’ve heard stories of Jack’s rocky road to farm equipment romance. His tractor was a mythically cantankerous beast. It often had to be patiently cajoled into turning over. It was literally held together with twine and bailing wire. At the end of its life, there was little of it that originally issued from the John Deere factory floor in Welland, Ontario. Most of it was vintage Jury-rigged Jack.

But Jack didn’t love this tractor in spite of all that. He loved it because of it. Were there better tractors than the ones John Deere made? Perhaps. Were there better tractors than this particular John Deere? Guaranteed. But that wasn’t the point. Over the years there was a lot of Jack in that tractor. It got to the point where he was the only one who was sufficiently patient to get it to run. But there was also a lot of that tractor in Jack. It made him a more patient man, more resourceful and – much to my grandmother’s never ending frustration – much more stubborn.

This is the stuff that love is made of. The tough stuff. The maddening stuff. The stuff that ain’t so pretty. A lot of times, love happens because you don’t have an alternative. I suspect love – true love – may be inversely correlated to choice. Jack couldn’t afford a new tractor. And by the time he could, he was too deeply in love to consider it.

This may be the dilemma for brands looking for love in today’s world. We may be attracted to a brand, we may even become infatuated with it, but will we fall in true love? What I call “Jack-love?”

Let me lay out some more evidence of this Love/Choice paradox.

If you believe the claims of online dating sites like Match.com and eHarmony, your odds of ending up in a happy relationship have never been better than when you put yourselves in the hands of their matching algorithm. This just makes sense. If you increase the prospects going in the front end and are much smarter about filtering your options, you should come out the winner in the end. But according to an article from the Association for Psychological Science, this claim doesn’t really stand up when subjected to academic rigor. “Regarding matching, no compelling evidence supports matching sites’ claims that mathematical algorithms work— that they foster romantic outcomes that are superior to those fostered by other means of pairing partners.”

A study, by Dr. Aditi Paul, found that couples that meet through online dating sites are less likely to enter marriage than those that meet through offline channels and; if they do wed, are more likely to split up down the road. Another study (D’Angelo and Toma) showed that the greater the number of options at the beginning, the more likely it was that online daters would question and probably reverse their choice.

What dating sites have done have turned looking for love into an exercise in foraging. And the rule of thumb in foraging is: The more we believe there are options that may be better, the less time we will be willing to invest in the current choice. It may seem sacrilegious to apply something so mundane as foraging theory to romance, but the evidence is starting to mount up. And if the search for a soul mate has become an exercise in efficient foraging, it’s not a great leap to conclude that everything else that can be determined by a search and matching algorithm has suffered the same fate. This may not be a bad thing, but I’m placing a fairly large bet that we’re looking at a very different cognitive processing path here. The brain simply wouldn’t use the same mechanisms or strategies to juggle a large number of promising alternatives as it would do fall deeply in love, like Jack and his John Deere (or my grandmother, for that matter).

The point is this. Infatuation happens quickly and can fade just as quickly. Love develops over time and it requires shared experiences. That’s something that’s pretty tough for an algorithm to predict. As the authors of the APS article said, “these sites are in a poor position to know how the two partners will grow and mature over time, what life circumstances they will confront and coping responses they will exhibit in the future, and how the dynamics of their interaction will ultimately promote or undermine romantic attraction and long-term relationship well-being.”

I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the phrase “brand-love” but I think it did provide a convenient and mostly accurate label for some brand relationships. I’m not so sure this is still true today. As I said in a previous column, branding is still aiming to engender love by latching on to our emotions but I suspect they may just be sparking infatuation.

Why Can’t Markets be Moral?

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Last week, I said there was an emerging market for morality. I painted that particular picture in a somewhat negative light. Andrew Goodman, a fellow Canadian who I have always admired for both his intellect and morality, called me on it (via my Facebook feed): Nice post, but I was hoping for a little more from this.” I paraphrase Andrew’s eloquent and lengthy reply by boiling it down to essentially this: extreme circumstances call for extreme measures and if that has to come from corporations and their advertising, then so be it.

It’s fair to say the last week has done nothing to dispel Goodman’s assessment of the extremity of the situation. Insanity seems to be accelerating at an alarming rate.

But on further reflection, I feel some further clarification needed here. I ascribed morality to markets, not necessarily corporations. There’s an important difference here. Corporations are agents within markets and will follow where markets lead. And increasingly, it looks like there is a market movement towards morality. Morality is becoming more profitable. So let’s look specifically at the morality of the market.

On one hand you could take the position of British economic historian Robert Skidelsky, who said in 2008 that there is an inherent dilemma when one looks for morality in economic markets. This was essentially the point I raised last week:

It has often been claimed that capitalism rewards the qualities of self-restraint, hard work, inventiveness, thrift, and prudence. On the other hand, it crowds out virtues that have no economic utility, like heroism, honour, generosity, and pity.

But let’s say for the moment that Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” is solely moved by greed. Does that mean that no good can come from it? New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof ran a column earlier this year stating that 2017 could be the best year ever. If you can set your cognitive dissonance aside for a moment, here were his reasons:

  • “Since 1990, more than 100 million children’s lives have been saved through vaccinations, breast-feeding promotion, diarrhea treatment and more.”
  • “Every day, an average of about a quarter-million people worldwide graduate from extreme poverty, according to World Bank figures. in the early 1980s, more than 40 percent of all humans were living in extreme poverty. Now fewer than 10 percent are. By 2030 it looks as if just 3 or 4 percent will be.”
  • “While income inequality has increased within the U.S., it has declined on a global level because China and India have lifted hundreds of millions from poverty.”
  • “Some 40 countries are now on track to eliminate elephantiasis. When you’ve seen the anguish caused by elephantiasis — or leprosy, or Guinea worm, or polio, or river blindness, or blinding trachoma — it’s impossible not to feel giddy at the gains registered against all of them.”
  • “85 percent of adults are literate. And almost nothing makes more difference in a society than being able to read and write.”

All these benefits come from the “trickling down” benefits of capitalism. Globalization and the opening of new markets have unleashed a tide that has raised all boats. Kristoff shows what happens when you look at a bigger picture and rely on facts rather than personally held beliefs that come from your own limited perspective. What we forget is that the very first mention Adam Smith made of his “invisible hand” was actually in a text called “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” in 1759. Here was the exact passage:

“The proud and unfeeling landlord views his extensive fields, and without a thought for the wants of his brethren, in imagination consumes himself the whole harvest … [Yet] the capacity of his stomach bears no proportion to the immensity of his desires … the rest he will be obliged to distribute among those, who prepare, in the nicest manner, that little which he himself makes use of. The rich…are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society.”

In direct contrast to the protectionist policies of the current U.S. administration, the western world (especially the U.S.) is the landlord in this scenario. As much as we may want to rely on our beliefs rather than facts, the average American is better off now they were 50 years ago as measured by almost any empirical baseline you may want to use: lifespan, economic well being, degree of civil freedom, measure of social equality or quality of our environment. And this American free-market drive to get ahead has dragged the whole world in its wake. Again, Robert Skidelsky concedes this point:

“From the ethical point of view, consumption is a means to goodness, and the market system is the most efficient engine for lifting people out of poverty: it is doing so at a prodigious rate in China and India.”

The other potential moral windfall of markets is that there is a second kind of “trickle down” effect that also happens – the driving forward of technology. Technology is a tool that is designed to advance the interests of humans. While there is much in technology that is misapplied to the human condition, we cannot deny that technology continually and consistently makes us better than we were yesterday. As Kristof notes in his column, today 300,000 more people around the world will get electricity for the first time. This will enable access to communication networks, clean water, higher levels of hygiene and many other spin-off benefits. All this happens because corporations see potential profitability in new markets.

But there is another piece to this. If we look only at the “trickle down” effects of capital markets, we have to keep a careful eye on what’s happening at the top of the pyramid. As Skidelsky said in 2008, “But this does not tell us at what point consumption tips us into a bad life.”

 

 

 

 

A Market for Morality

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Things are going to get interesting in the world of marketing. And the first indication of that was seen this past Sunday during the Super Bowl. As Bob Garfield noted, there were a lot of subtle and not so subtle undercurrents of messaging in the ads that ran in between the distracting sub-story that played out on the field. Things got downright political with a number of 167 thousand-dollar-a-second ad swipes at the current president and his policies.

I and many others here at Mediapost have been criticized over the past several months for getting political when we should have been talking about media and marketing. But as this weekend showed, we’re naïve to think those two worlds don’t overlap almost completely. And that’s about to become even more true in the future.

Advertising has to talk about what people are talking about. It has always been tied to the zeitgeist of society. And in a politically polarized nation, that means advertising’s “going to go there”. That’s normal. What’s not so normal is this weird topsy-turvy trend of for-profit companies suddenly becoming the moral gatekeepers of America. That’s supposed to be the domain of government and – if you believe in such things – religion. That’s in a normal world. But in the world of 2017 and the minds of 53.9% of America (the percentage of the electorate who didn’t vote for Trump) there is a vast, sucking moral vacuum on at least one of those fronts. It seems that Corporate America is ready to step up and fill the gap.

Suddenly, there is a market for morality. Of course, we have always had “feel-good” advertising and codes of corporate responsibility but this is different – both in volume and tone. It is more overtly political and it plays on perceived juxtaposition of the mores of the nation and the official stance of the government. Markets are built to be nimble and adaptive. Governments are seldom either of these things. Corporate America is sensing a market opportunity by taking the high road and the Super Bowl marked the beginning of what may become a stampede to higher moral ground.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. Around the turn of the last century, we saw the rise of welfare capitalism. In a rapidly expanding industrial market where there was a scarcity of human resources and little legislative regulation of working conditions, corporations became paternalistic. The reasoning was that no one could better provide stability for workers than the corporation that employed them. What is different about the current situation, however, is that this moral evangelism is primarily aimed at the market, not internal operations. We’ll come back to this in a bit.

This creates an interesting dynamic. In a free market economy citizens have the right to vote with their wallets. After a deeply divisive election the debate can continue in a market suddenly divided along political lines. This is compounded by the interconnected and interactive nature of marketing today. We have realized that our market is a complex system and plays by it’s own rules, none of which are predictable. Social network effects, outriding anomalies and viral black swans are now the norm. As I said in an earlier column, branding is becoming a game of hatching “belief worms” – messages designed to bypass rationality and burrow deep into our subconscious values. Our current political climate is a rich breeding ground for said “worms.”

You might say, “What’s wrong with Corporate America taking a moral stand? “

Well..two things.

There is no corporation I’m aware of that has as its first priority the safeguarding of morality. As economist Milt Friedman said, corporations are there to make a profit. Period. And they will always follow the path most likely to lead to that profit. For example, Silicon Valley has been very vocal in its condemnation of the Muslim travel ban not because it’s not right but because it jeopardizes the ability to travel for its employees from Muslim countries. And a century ago, welfare capitalism spread because it helped employers hang on to their employees and gave them a way to keep out unions. Even if morality and profitability happen to share the same bandwagon for a time the minute profitability veers in a new direction, corporations will follow. This is not the motivational environment you want to stake the future on.

Secondly, there is no democratic mandate behind the stated morality of a corporation. There are a lot of CEO’s that have robust ideological beliefs, but it is fair to say the moral proclivities of a corporation are necessarily tied to a very select special interest group: the employees, the customers and the shareholders of that corporation. Companies, by their very nature, should not be expected to speak for “we, the people.” Much as we would like morality to be universally defined, it is still very much a personal matter.

Take just one of these moral stakeholders – the customers. According to Blend, a millennial messaging app, their users loved the Coke, Budweiser and Airbnb ads that all had overt or thinly veiled moral messages. But there was a backlash from Trump supporters asking for boycotts of all these advertisers along with others that got political. The social storms stirred up on both sides were telling. Reaction was quick and emotionally charged. In a world where branding and beliefs are locked together at the hip, we can probably expect that morality and marketing will be similarly conjoined. That means that morality, just like marketing, will be segmented and targeted to very specific groups.

The Winona Ryder Effect

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I was in the U.S. last week. It was my first visit in the Trump era.

It was weird. I was in California, so the full effect was muted, but I watched my tongue when meeting strangers. And that’s speaking as a Canadian, where watching your tongue is a national pastime. (As an aside, my US host, Lance, told me about a recent post on a satire site: “Concerned, But Not Wanting To Offend, Canada Quietly Plants Privacy Hedge Along Entire U.S. Border.” That’s so us.) There was a feeling that I had not felt before. As someone who has spent a lot of time in the US over the past decade or two, I felt a little less comfortable. There was a disconnect that was new to me.

Little did I know (because I’ve turned off my mobile CNN alerts since January 20th because I was slipping into depression) but just after I whisked through Sea-Tac airport with all the privilege that being a white male affords you, Washington Governor Jay Inslee would hold a press conference denouncing the new Trump Muslim ban in no uncertain terms. On the other side of the TSA security gates there were a thousand protesters gathering. I didn’t learn about this until I got home.

Like I said, it was weird.

And then there were the SAG awards on Sunday night. What the hell was the deal with Winona Ryder?

When the Stranger Things cast got on stage to accept their ensemble acting award, spokesperson David Harbour unleashed a fiery anti-Trump speech. But despite his passion and volume, it was Winona Ryder, standing beside him, that lit up the share button. And she didn’t say a word. Instead, her face contorted through a series of twenty-some different expressions in under 2 minutes. She became, as one Twitter post said, a “human gif machine.”

Now, by her own admission, Winona is fragile. She has battled depression and anxiety for much of her professional life. Maybe she was having a minor breakdown in front of the world. Or maybe this was a premeditated and choreographed social media master stroke. Either way, it says something about us.

The Stranger Things cast hadn’t even left the stage before the Twitterverse started spreading the Ryder meme. If you look at Google Trends there was a huge spike in searches for Winona Ryder starting right around 6:15 pm (PST) Sunday night. It peaked at 6:48 pm with a volume about 20 times that of queries for Ms. Ryder before the broadcast began.

It was David Harbour that delivered the speech Ryder was reacting to. The words were his, and while there was also a spike in searches for him coinciding with the speech, he didn’t come close to matching the viral popularity of the Ryder meme. At its peak, there were 5 searches for “Winona Ryder” for every search for “David Harbour.”

Ryder’s mugging was – premeditated or not – extremely meme-worthy. It was visual, it was over the top and – most importantly – it was a blank canvas we could project our own views on to. Winona didn’t give us any words, so we could fill in our own. We could use it to provide a somewhat bizarre exclamation point to our own views, expressed through social media.

As I was watching this happen, I knew this was going to go viral. Maybe it’s because it takes something pretty surreal to make a dent in an increasingly surreal world that leaves us numb. When the noise that surrounds us seems increasingly unfathomable, we need something like this to prick our consciousness and make us sit up and take notice. Then we hunker down again before we’re pummelled with the next bit of reality.

Let me give you one example.

As I was watching the SAG awards Sunday night, I was unaware that gunmen had opened fire on Muslim worshippers praying in a mosque in Quebec City. I only found out after I flicked through the channels after the broadcast ended. Today, as I write this, I now know that six are dead because someone hated Muslims that much. Canada also has extreme racism.

I find it hard to think about that. It’s easier to think about Winona Ryder’s funny faces. That’s not very noble, I know, but sometimes you have to go with what you’re actually able to wrap your mind around.

Branding in the Post Truth Age

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If 2016 was nothing else – it was a watershed year for the concept of branding. In the previous 12 months, we saw a decoupling in the two elements we have always believed make up brands. As fellow Spinner Cory Treffiletti said recently:

“You have to satisfy the emotional quotient as well as the logical quotient for your brand.  If not, then your brand isn’t balanced, and is likely to fall flat on its face.”

But another Mediapost article highlighted an interesting trend in branding:

“Brands will strive to be ‘meticulously un-designed’ in 2017, according to WPP brand agency Brand Union.”

This, I believe, speaks to where brands are going. And depending on which side of the agency desk you happen to be on, this could either be good news or downright disheartening.

Let’s start with the logical side of branding. In their book Absolute Value, Itamar Simonson and Emanuel Rosen sounded the death knell for brands as a proxy for consumer information. Their premise, which I agree with, is that in a market that is increasingly moving towards perfect information, brands have lost their position of trust. We would rather rely on information that comes from non-marketing sources.

But brands have been aspiring to transcend their logical side for at least 5 decades now. This is the emotional side of branding that Treffiletti speaks of. And here I have to disagree with Simonson and Rosen. This form of branding appears to be very much alive and well, thank you. In fact, in the past year, this form of branding has upped the game considerably.

Brands, at their most potent, embed themselves in our belief systems. It is here, close to our emotional hearts, which mark the Promised Land for brands. Reid Montague’s famous Coke neuro-imaging experiment showed that for Coke drinkers, the brand became part of who they are. Research I was involved in showed that favored brands are positively responded to in a split second, far faster than the rational brain can act. We are hardwired to believe in brands and the more loved the brand, the stronger the reaction. So let’s look at beliefs for a moment.

Not all beliefs are created equal. Our beliefs have an emotional valence – some beliefs are defended more strongly than others. There is a hierarchy of belief defense. At the highest level are our Core beliefs; how we feel about things like politics and religion. Brands are trying to intrude on this core belief space. There has been no better example of this than the brand of Donald Trump.

Beliefs are funny things. From an evolutionary perspective, they’re valuable. They’re mental shortcuts that guide our actions without requiring us to think. They are a type of emotional auto-pilot. But they can also be quite dangerous for the same reason. We defend our beliefs against skeptics – and we defend our core beliefs most vigorously. Ration has nothing to do with it. It is this type of defense system that brands would love to build around themselves.

We like to believe our beliefs are unique to us – but in actual fact, beliefs also materialize out of our social connections. If enough people in our social network believe something is true, so will we. We will even create false memories and narratives to support the fiction. The evolutionary logic is quite simple. Tribes have better odds for survival than individuals, and our tribe will be more successful if we all think the same way about certain things. Beliefs create tribal cohesion.

So, the question is – how does a brand become a belief? It’s this question that possibly points the way in which brands will evolve in the Post-Truth future.

Up to now, brands have always been unilaterally “manufactured” – carefully crafted by agencies as a distillation of marketing messages and delivered to an audience. But now, brands are multilaterally “emergent” – formed through a network of socially connected interactions. All brands are now trying to ride the amplified waves of social media. This means they have to be “meme-worthy” – which really means they have to be both note and share-worthy. To become more amplifiable, brands will become more “jagged,” trying to act as catalysts for going viral. Branding messages will naturally evolve towards outlier extremes in their quest to be noticed and interacted with. Brands are aspiring to become “brain-worms” – wait, that’s not quite right – brands are becoming “belief-worms,” slipping past the rational brain if at all possible to lodge themselves directly in our belief systems. Brands want to be emotional shorthand notations that resonate with our most deeply held core beliefs. We have constructed a narrative of who we are and brands that fit that narrative are adopted and amplified.

It’s this version of branding that seems to be where we’re headed – a socially infectious virus that creates it’s own version of the truth and builds a bulwark of belief to defend itself. Increasingly, branding has nothing to do with rational thought or a quest for absolute value.

Back to the Coffee House: Has Journalism Gone Full Circle?

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First, let’s consider two facts about Facebook that ran in Mediapost in the last two weeks. The first:

“A full 65% of people find their next destination through friends and family on Facebook.”

Let’s take this out of the context of just looking for your next travel destination. Let’s think about it in terms of a risky decision. Choosing somewhere to go on a vacation is a big decision. There’s a lot riding on it. Other than the expense, there’s also your personal experience. The fact that 2 out of 3 people chose Facebook as the platform upon which to make that decision is rather amazing when you think about it. It shows just how pervasive and influential Facebook as become.

Now, the next fact:

“Facebook users are two-and-a-half times more likely to read fake news fed through the social network than news from reputable news publishers.”

There’s really no reason to elaborate on the above – ‘nuff said. It’s pretty clear that Facebook has emerged at the dominant public space in our lives. It is perhaps the most important platform in our culture today for forming beliefs and opinions.

Sorry Mark Zuckerberg, but not matter what you may have said in the past about not being a media outlet, you can’t duck this responsibility. If our public opinions are formed on your private property that is a unimaginably powerful platform then – as Spidey’s Uncle Ben said (or the French National Convention of 1793; depending on whom you’re prefer to quote as a source) – “With great power comes great responsibility.” If you provide a platform and an audience to news providers – fake or real, you are, ipso facto, a media outlet.

But Facebook is more than just an outlet. It is also the forum where news is digested and shared. It is both a gristmill and a cauldron where beliefs are formed and opinions expressed. This isn’t the first time something like this has happened, although the previous occurrence was in a different time and a very different place. It actually contributed directly to the birth of modern journalism – which is, ironically – under threat from this latest evolution of news.

If you were an average citizen London in 1700 your sources for news were limited. First of all, there was a very good chance that you were illiterate, so reading the news wasn’t an option. The official channel for the news of the realm was royal proclamations read out by town criers. Unfortunately, this wasn’t so much news as whatever the ruling monarch felt like proclaiming.

There was another reality of life in London – if you drank the water it could possibly kill you. You could drink beer in a pub – which most did – or if you preferred to stay sober you could drink coffee. Starting in the mid 1600’s coffee houses started to pop up all over London. It wasn’t the quality of the coffee that made these public spaces all the rage. It was the forum they provided for the sharing of news. Each new arrival was greeted with, “Your servant, sir. What news have you?” Pamphlets, journals, broadsheets and newsletters from independent (a.k.a “non-royal”) publishers were read aloud, digested and debated. Given the class-bound society of London, coffee houses were remarkably democratic. “Pre-eminence of place none here should mind,” proclaimed the Rules and Orders of the Coffee-House (1674), “but take the next fit seat he can find.” Lords, fishmongers, baronets, barristers, butchers and shoe-blacks could and did all share the same table. The coffee houses of London made a huge contribution to our current notion of media as a public trust, with all that entails.

In a 2011 article the Economist made the same parallel between coffee houses and digitally mediated news. In it, they foreshadowed a dramatic shift in our concept of news:

“The internet is making news more participatory, social, diverse and partisan, reviving the discursive ethos of the era before mass media. That will have profound effects on society and politics.”

The last line was prescient. Seismic disruption has fundamentally torn the political and societal landscape asunder. But I have a different take on the “discursive ethos” of news consumption. I assume the Economist used this phrase to mean a verbal interchange of thought related to the news. But that doesn’t happen on Facebook. There is no thought and there is little discourse. The share button is hit before there is any chance to digest the news, let alone vet it for accuracy. This is a much different atmosphere of the coffee house. There is a dynamic that happens when our beliefs are called on the mat in a public forum. It is here where beliefs may be altered but they can never change in a vacuum. The coffee house provided the ideal forum for the challenging of beliefs. As mentioned, it was perhaps the most heterogeneous forum in all of England at the time. Most of all it was an atmosphere infused with physicality and human interaction – a melting pot of somatic feedback. Debate was civil but passionate. There was a dynamic totally missing from it’s online equivalent. The rules and realities of the 18th century coffee house forced thoughtfulness and diverse perspectives upon the discourse. Facebook allows you to do an end run around it as you hit your share button.

The Calcification of a Columnist

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First: the Caveat. I’m old and grumpy. That is self-evident. There is no need to remind me.

But even with this truth established, the fact is that I’ve noticed a trend. Increasingly, when I come to write this column, I get depressed. The more I look for a topic to write about, the more my mood spirals downward.

I’ve been writing for Mediapost for over 12 years now. Together, between the Search Insider and Online Spin, that’s close to 600 columns. Many – if not most – of those have been focused on the intersection between technology and human behavior. I’m fascinated by what happens when evolved instincts meet technological disruption.

When I started this gig I was mostly optimistic. I was amazed by the possibilities and – somewhat naively it turns out – believed it would make us better. Unlimited access to information, the ability to connect with anyone – anywhere, new ways to reach beyond the limits of our own DNA; how could this not make humans amazing?

Why, then, do we seem to be going backwards? What I didn’t realize at the time is that technology is like a magnifying glass. Yes, it can make the good of human nature better, but it can also make the bad worse. Not only that, but Technology also has a nasty habit of throwing in unintended consequences; little gotchas we never saw coming that have massive moral implications. Disruption can be a good thing, but it can also rip things apart in a thrice that took centuries of careful and thoughtful building to put in place. Black Swans have little regard for ethics or morality.

I have always said that technology doesn’t change behaviors. It enables behaviors. When it comes to the things that matter, our innate instincts and beliefs, we are not perceptibly different than our distant ancestors were. We are driven by the same drives. Increasingly, as I look at how we use the outcomes of science and innovation to pursue these objectives, I realize that while it can enable love, courage and compassion, technology can also engender more hate, racism and misogyny. It makes us better while it also makes us worse. We are becoming caricatures of ourselves.

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Everett Rogers, 1962

Everett Rogers plotted the diffusion of technology through the masses on a bell curve and divided us up into innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards. The categorization was defined by our acceptance of innovation. Inevitably, then, there would be a correlation between that acceptance and our sense of optimism about the possibilities of technology. Early adopters would naturally see how technology would enable us to be better. But, as diffusion rolls through the curve we would eventually hit those for which technology is just there – another entitlement, a factor of our environment, oxygen. There is no special magic or promise here. Technology simply is.

So, to recap, I’m old and grumpy. As I started to write yet another column I was submerged in a wave of weariness.   I have to admit – I have been emotionally beat up by the last few years. I’m tired of writing about how technology is making us stupider, lazier and less tolerant when it should be making us great.

But another thing usually comes with age: perspective. This isn’t the first time that humans and disruptive technology have crossed paths. That’s been the story of our existence. Perhaps we should zoom out a bit from our current situation. Let’s set aside for a moment our navel gazing about fake news, click bait, viral hatred, connected xenophobia and erosion of public trusts. Let’s look at the bigger picture.

History isn’t sketched in straight lines. History is plotted on a curve. Correction. History is plotted in a series of waves. We are constantly correcting course. Disruption tends to swing a pendulum one way until a gathering of opposing force swings it the other way. It takes us awhile to absorb disruption, but we do – eventually.

I suspect if I were writing this in 1785 I’d be disheartened by the industrial blight that was enveloping the world. Then, like now, technology was plotting a new course for us. But in this case, we have the advantage of hindsight to put things in perspective. Consider this one fact: between 1200 and 1600 the life span of a British noble didn’t go up by even a single year. But, between 1800 and today, life expectancy for white males in the West doubled from thirty eight years to seventy six. Technology made that possible.

stevenpinker2Technology, when viewed on a longer timeline, has also made us better. If you doubt that, read psychologist and author Steven Pinker’s “Better Angels of Our Nature.” His exhaustively researched and reasoned book leads you to the inescapable conclusion that we are better now than we ever have been. We are less violent, less cruel and more peaceful than at any time in history. Technology also made that possible.

It’s okay to be frustrated by the squandering of the promise of technology. But it’s not okay to just shrug and move on. You are the opposing force that can cause the pendulum to change direction. Because, in the end, it’s not technology that makes us better. It’s how we choose to use that technology.