Tag Archives: evolution

6 old ads – they don’t make them like they used to

Advertising may get on your nerves in the here and now, but it can be a fascinating lens on how the world has changed. These ads from the 1930s-1950s show how advertising, and the world, has changed. Sometimes, but not always for the better. Spot the differences.

All images here are courtesy of the superb New York Transit Museum in downtown Brooklyn.

1. People used to assume that advertising was supposed to be useful.

This reminds me that in simpler times, advertising WAS useful.

2. And in fact, advertisers used to see it as their duty to fund stuff that people loved (and used advertising to remind them of the fact they’d done it.)

That is a good reason to change my brand of bread.

3. The design of many ads used to be truly BEAUTIFUL.

I am guessing Sunkist ads don't look this nice now.

4. Advertisers of the past were not afraid of wading into the gender war. (It’s a bit more subtle now, though no less pervasive.)

Is this powerfully political, or outrageously patronising? Hard to tell from these 8 words.

5. Health claims were not rigorously examined.

As a lifelong eczema sufferer, I can assure you that Cadium did not change the face of dermatology

6. But you were at least allowed to acknowledge that salt tastes nice.

I have no idea what this product tasted like. It doesn't sound great...


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The clash between the narcissism of technology and real love

A soul-enriching Memorial Day weekend, with minimal use of technology for anything but checking the weather, has reminded me that the Internet and Life are not the same thing.

And then I listened to this – a phenomenal diatribe on the incongruity of love and ‘being liked’, on the disjoint between technological narcissism and real experience, from the brilliant Jonathan Franzen speaking at a Kenyon College Commencement.

'Liking' is not loving.

Here is an excerpt – but listen to the full thing when you have some time for contemplation.

‘A related phenomenon is the transformation, courtesy of Facebook, of the verb ‘to like’ from a state of mind to an action that you perform with your computer mouse, from a feeling to an assertion of consumer choice. And liking, in general, is commercial culture’s substitute for loving. The striking thing about all consumer products — and none more so than electronic devices and applications — is that they’re designed to be immensely likable. This is, in fact, the definition of a consumer product, in contrast to the product that is simply itself and whose makers aren’t fixated on your liking it. (I’m thinking here of jet engines, laboratory equipment, serious art and literature.)

But if you consider this in human terms, and you imagine a person defined by a desperation to be liked, what do you see? You see a person without integrity, without a center. In more pathological cases, you see a narcissist — a person who can’t tolerate the tarnishing of his or her self-image that not being liked represents, and who therefore either withdraws from human contact or goes to extreme, integrity-sacrificing lengths to be likable.”


Not only are ‘liking’ and loving not the same thing – is there a danger that technology can turn us into a machine for ‘liking’ and being ‘liked’ – and forgetting to experience the real thing…or worse, becoming too afraid of rejection to even give it a try?

ADDITION: The related New York Times op-ed is also great if you don’t have time to listen to the full thing.




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Here’s to the great Indian/Nigerian trade wars of 2055

So when we tend to conceive future development, it is easy to get fixated on a US/China polarity. The new UN population projections create some pause for thought.

Looks like India will be number one by population by 2025, and Nigeria will be bigger by population than the United States by 2055.

Start looking for good real estate in Nigeria now.

Added to the news yesterday that apparently one third of Africa’s population could now economically be described as ‘middle class’, it helps to give some food for thought around future economic development.

And the UK better work pretty hard to maintain its role as an educator, entertainer and innovator…because pretty soon its population will be less than Yemen.

Plucky little island

More on this subject shortly…for the moment some useful resources…

Full data is here:


And some visualisations here:


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What are ‘locked in’ legacy systems doing to our ears?

I have found, over many years of painful experience, that the first time I do something, I do it wrong.

Quite frequently, I then do it wrong some more. Often up to 20 or 30 times. But eventually I get better at it.

It is a basic principle of life. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again (as my mum used to say, ad nauseam.) Or indeed, how do you get to Carnegie Hall? (though I bet that if I went the wrong way to Carnegie Hall the first time, I would replicate the mistake at least two or three times.)


This is fine when you are acting on your own, but when you are in a position to persuade or be imitated, the results can be disastrous. Your attitudes, however ill-formed, are infectious to the people who observe you, particularly those under your power. Often with inhuman and disastrous consequences.

For anyone in a position of influence, this presents two constant challenges, with somewhat conflicting solutions.

1. Don’t start persuading until you are sure what you think (take the stick out of your own eye before etc etc). Failure to observe this is called ‘Clegging’.

2. Be prepared to change even these sureties on the presentation of new evidence (the only true wisdom knows in knowing that you know nothing). Failure to observe this is called ‘Thatching’.

So far, so difficult. But what happens when what you are creating is not an attitude, or an opinion, or advice, but a system.

Nothing has such a unique ability to change your worldview, attitudes or your psychology as the relentless reapplication and repeat of a behaviour. And these behaviours are totally reliant on shortcuts and systems, otherwise life would be an endless rotation of confused manual tasks (to experiment in what this feels like, go out and drink a vast quantity alcohol, sleep for too little tme and then attempt to do something tricky like cooking a full cooked breakfast.)

There are many types of these systems – language systems, software systems, etiquette systems – and whilst they all have some historical rational basis, they almost all have some glitches that make no sense. They were developed at a specific point in time, to the specifications of what seemed sensible or possible at that time, and then they got ‘locked in’ – socialized or codified to the point where it was impossible the change them.

Category 1 – fun, weird stuff that doesn’t matter, mainly language

Language is the classic legacy system – a form of communication that was always meant to be ever changing, but has been increasingly ‘locked in’ by such pesky inventions as the printing press and the dictionary. Legacy language can be dangerous, but there are many more examples of it being odd and funny. For example consider the category of ‘fruits’, which includes bananas (which I believe are technically a herb) but not tomatoes (because they tend to hang out with vegetables, in a category that might more usefully be called ‘salads’.)

Or maybe 'Salad Juice'?

Category 2 – little irritants that stop us from getting on with life optimally

I have talked about this area at great length before, being but one social grace and a lot of money removed from Larry David. For example inconsistent systems of measurement (like having to translate the weather across geographies/generations.) Or, to get back on a past hobby horse, different cultural practices in when the clocks change (yes, recently the US and UK were only 4 hours apart for two weeks again.)

Sometimes 4 hours difference, sometimes 5.

Category 3 – systems that degrade the way that people think

There is no doubt that the systems you use change the way that your brain works, and the way that you behave towards people and decision making (see the Nudge blog in the sidebar for more.) The danger here is that more new systems are being created than ever before, more rapidly, and since they are built into software and technology, they tend to become ‘locked in’ very rapidly.

And, given that many of these systems are created by megalomaniac geeks in California, you might want to think about what they might be doing to your brain. I don’t mean by this to rehearse the nonsense idea that using Facebook stops you from being able to talk to people. But the precise systems by which Facebook forces you define yourself could end up shaping the way that you think about yourself and what you like.

not a good description of what i 'like'...

However I just found a more elegant example in a highly provocative book I am reading, ‘You are Not a Gadget’ by Jaron Lanier…the example of MIDI.

MIDI was a casual experiment by a synthesizer geek in the 1980s called Dave Smith, who was trying to find a simple way to represent music in software. It is based on a ‘key-down, key-up’ methodology…great for keyboards, not good for the clarinet solo at the beginning of Rhapsody in Blue.

Dave Smith didn’t intend MIDI to become anything more than a good way of creating and capturing synthesizer music. But it rapidly became ‘locked in’. It spread through instruments, and computers, and is now in billions of phones around the world.

Now it wouldn’t have spread so fast if the software hadn’t been useful. But along with the software, something else got ‘locked in’ – the concept that all of music can be reduced to ‘absolute notes’, that exist not only in theory (ie on manuscript paper) but in reality. Now many millions of musicians around the world spend 90% of their musical creative life playing with systems that are fundamentally rooted in MIDI…and it cannot help but change the kind of music they create (and not for the better.)

The ultimate end point – is this legacy software system, now easily improvable, changing not only the way that we make music – but also the way that we hear it?

This makes new design not just a craft, but a moral discipline, particularly when it comes together with software to create scalable locked in systems. Having spent much of this week at the MIT Media Lab however, there is an optimistic conclusion to this – many of the people creating this future are acutely aware of this…and are determined to make a better future for people through healthier systems…not just brighter and shinier ones.


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Why basing a movie on a media tycoon is unlikely to win you an Oscar

Is The Social Network the new Citizen Kane? They certainly have one big thing in common – both probably should have won big at the Oscars, but didn’t.

Citizen Zuck

This blog has written before about the great difficulty of making the internet dramatic, whether as theme or plot device (http://wp.me/pR2Nu-c). But the genius of The Social Network was that it defiantly wasn’t the movie I feared it would be – a eulogy to/apocalyptic vision of the world created by Facebook. To paraphrase Zadie Smith’s great review, it was written by the wizards of 1.0, not 2.0 hipsters, and concentrated on the compelling central figure that a movie mogul can present.

As a result it inhabited the same territory as Kane – they are both the story of young men, with masses of talent and ambition to change the old order, who are transformed by the experience of building a media empire. Both stories hinge on a craving for love, that warps into a craving for attention. Both mix the adrenaline of triumph with the tragedy of megalomania.

In fact there are scenes that are pretty similar, and character dynamics too. Swap the dusty newsroom of the early twentieth century for the glossy funk of a San Francisco nightclub and there is not a lot different between this:

And this:

The Oscar reward of both of these movies ended up focusing on their screenplays – both, in another similarity, fictionalised accounts that were pretty close to the bone. In the Social Network’s case, this is hugely deserved. Personally, I find the screenplay of Citizen Kane one of its least appealing aspects – whereas the failure to recognise the brilliance of the direction is more of a mystery. After all, shots like this were not common in cinema at the time…

But when it came to the big gongs, both fell short. In the case of Citizen Kane, this has generally been laid at the door of William Randolph Hearst, whose influence in Hollywood was huge and who was not amused at seeing himself in Kane. There have been few whispers about similar influence by Mark Zuckerberg, so I’m not going to invent a conspiracy theory here (but, maybe…?)

Certainly the competition for Best Picture this year was unusually hot. Citizen Kane on the other hand lost out to John Ford’s turgid exploration of the politics of Welsh mining culture, How Green Was My Valley. Heavy-going stuff.

When you look at the movie that did win this year, however, you see an interesting parallel. The King’s Speech, like The Social Network, uses as its dramatic backdrop the rise in power of a new medium – in the case of the King’s Speech, the radio (again written of before in these pages.)

There is something intangible about The King’s Speech that somehow makes it much more Academy appropriate. It is much easier to feel comfortable with the heroic struggle of a man to rise the the challenges of using the medium, rather than being the person who creates it. Quite simply, it is much more straightforwardly heroic – and the Academy loves heroes.

Media tycoons on the other hand are not viscerally lovable characters. Both in fiction and in real life, they tend to be egotistic, obsessed by attention and a strange kind of power. At the best they are complex heroes – and my feeling about The Social Network is that whilst it is a sceptical movie, it is not a cynical one. It felt a little sad…but to me ‘Zuck’ felt like a better man at the end of the movie than the start, which makes him at least a kind of hero. Which obviously cannot be said of Kane.

And in someways his journey to self-discovery, happening as it did in the full glare of the world during a period of adolescence, is what gives this movie its strange power.

But one suspects that giving a body like the Academy a movie about a media tycoon to judge is never going to end well. One suspects they are somehow more comfortable with another kind of movie media tycoon – the straightforward villain. Not that this performance by the otherwise excellent Jonathan Pryce really troubled the scorers…

But I still think The Social Network is the most compelling movie I have seen in a long time. It is great in all those conventional ways – script, humour, music, emotional core etc – but it is also a movie that encapsulates our time in a way that is far more compelling than the ‘Facebook movie’ I feared would have done.

And for me, this is specifically because of the difference in its treatment of the very same subject matter that helped make Kane such a landmark film. The media tycoons of our age may be geeks craving social success, they may be megalomaniacs just like all those other grizzled veterans  – but they are also young guys who really want to create things that people love and that haven’t existed before. And that doesn’t make them villains – in fact it makes them imperfect but compelling heroes.

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Honest little nudges from the rubbish bins of California

So it’s been a big week for this blog. Firstly, it is on tour in Northern California – and if you want to immerse yourself in the world’s current prevailing view of progress, whether technological, cultural, ethical and environmental, this is where you want to be right now. I am also currently staying somewhere that looks roughly like this, which will tend to help give you some good perspective on just about anything.

yosemite valley. you can't fail but take a good photo of it.

Secondly, and just as importantly down in the long tail of the blogosphere, my stats have gone crazy. After several months plowing a steady furrow in worthy examinations of technological progress, I wrote a piece airing my point of view on the peeling of bananas and racked up about 1,000 hits in the last week. About 95% of this is thanks to a link on the blog of one of my favourite books of recent years, Nudge.


For those that have not had a chance to read Nudge, one of its major preoccupations is with ‘choice architecture’ – broadly speaking the effects on human behaviour that can come from relatively small changes in the way that choices are laid out in front of people.

Putting California and Nudges in the mental blender with my wife’s eagle eyes for intriguing minutiae, and my mind is on the choice architecture of rubbish bins.This particular bin is from the thoroughly inspiring Exploratorium in San Francisco:

It's not where it comes from, it's where it's going that matters

I have never seen a bin like this before, but now I cannot work out why every bin in the world doesn’t look like this. I defy you to want to put anything in the slot furthest to the right. Because the choice being put before you is a simple one – do you want your rubbish to organically decompose, to be turned into something else, or to be buried in the ground for future generations to sort out? Your choice!

The fact is, of course, that this is ALWAYS the choice in front of you. And whilst I know the recycling issue is not as simple as the banana-peeling issue (see below) this choice is in fact pretty damned simple. But it is almost never the one that is presented. Normally the choice is something like ‘recyclable waste’ (poorly defined list of plastics etc) vs ‘general waste’ (a default choice for whenever you aren’t sure, or in a hurry, which if you are in front of a bin is almost always.)

And that’s if you get any kind of choice. In Britain we are generally still so pleased that people don’t just drop shit on the ground that you still see this fella in quite a lot of places…

yes, you too could be like this admirable stick character, if you can only manage to land your rubbish in a container

Now don’t get me wrong. This bin didn’t have it all cracked. As is customary, they still managed to make the ‘Recycle’ option look a bit like a man trap, as remains customary. And no amount of ‘Choice Architecture’ is going to over-rule irrational fear of losing a hand, or the ability to resist a great big gaping hole when you have rubbish in your hand. As also evidenced by this fine example at the launching dock for Alcatraz:

hmm...which to choose?

But what’s great about the choice between Compost, Recycle and Landfill is its ability to look at a set of legacy behaviours and language through a completely new set of eyes – and come up with something that reframed the action in a way that was nonetheless 100% honest and direct.

On a related ethical subject, I was immediately put in mind of a fantastic South Park moment, which speculated on the effects on the veal industry of a little bit of renaming as the ‘little baby cow’ industry. The same job on foie gras might be a good idea too (though they can leave black pudding as it is, thank you)

I think genuine innovation in language is often underestimated, compared to innovation in gadgetry for example. The real experts tend to be marketers or demagogues. Supporters of religious and racial harmony in the US had no answer to the brutal linguistic elegance of ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ (in reality not a mosque, and not at Ground Zero.) Perhaps a fresh, honest look at some of the language around political, ethical and social issues, big and small, would help us to rethink some things.

For today, I am just happy that California keeps nudging me to remember to question little legacy phrases of an age of greater carelessness – like ‘throwing away’.

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Sometimes, people prefer to talk by pigeon

In April 1912, the sinking of the Titanic created the first ever SOS radio signal – and, through the accidental pickup of amateur radio enthusiasts, the first live broadcast news event.

The Titanic: not enough lifeboats, but a state-of-the-art radio system

Originally radio was a ‘point to point’ medium, with entrepreneurs in the USA taking a little while to pick up on its broadcasting potential (but then rapidly accelerating and creating NBC, RKO and CBS). But even as a ‘point to point’ medium it was still immediately comprehended how important it was. So important in fact that the Navy and  military in the US spent a couple of decades pressuring the US government to restrict use to the armed forces. With this new medium, a commander could instantly be in touch with his units, discuss the emerging situation, and re-deploy.

And yet, throughout the First and Second World War, the most violent and destructive conflicts in man’s history, the preferred method of military communication looked like this.

Less portable than a Blackberry, but friendlier

This reminds me that whilst new technology creates a Jump in human behavior and psychology, it’s rarely immediate, and never comprehensive. There is little doubt that radio is a better way of communicating than a pigeon. But the people responsible for running the war(s) still stuck to pigeons for anything really important.

There are a couple of good functional reasons. One, of course, is security. Shooting down a lone pigeon over enemy lines is trickier than intercepting a radio signal. In fact I’ve seen some good arguments that the Allies’ victory in the world wars had a lot to do with superiority in encryption – the subject of a reasonably good movie (Enigma). The other is speed – a pigeon is fast than you think. In fact, in September 2009, a South African IT company pitted a pigeon with a memory stick against ADSL over a 50 mile distance to see which arrived first. By the time all information had been taken from the memory stick, ADSL was 4% of the way through…

What I find most fascinating, however, is that a big part of the attachment to pigeons was emotional, not functional. This was a communications technology that the forces and the people back home had a lot of trust and emotion tied up in. For evidence, see the aura of heroism that was built up around these noble pigeons. Take, for example, Cher Ami.

Cher Ami was one of many pigeons that was merely the greatest of a series of pigeons given medals or treated like heroes during the two World Wars – the full story is well worth reading here:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cher_Ami.

So I guess one reason to use the pigeon is that you can’t imbue a radio with a sense of heroism…nor even really a radio operator. Whereas a pigeon, just about, can be anthropomorphized into a hero. Which is important in times of war I guess.

This thought and many others have been triggered by this great book, ‘Hello, Everybody!” by Anthony Rudel. It covers the early days of American radio, and is funny, interesting and revealing. Highly recommended.

books about radio are like pigeons about films (or something)

It reminds me just how fundamental the early phase of the rise of radio was, representing as it does the whole invention of one-to-many live communication. It changed the way we think of news stories, like the wreck of the Titanic. It created modern politics, through the fireside chats of Silent Cal Coolidge. It generated the whole concept of celebrity, in the person of Charles Lindbergh. It is responsible for almost every form of entertainment you see on TV every night. It represented the golden age of advertising and brands. It made sportspeople like Babe Ruth globally famous for the first time.

In fact, so much happened so fast as radio emerged, that it’s like we can see reflections of that age in the 1920s everywhere around us, frozen in time. We are in the later days of the broadcasting age, when the gleeful populism of the 1920s is fading, but maybe having its final flourish. The digital age will do a lot to change all these things, and is doing so. But it won’t happen over night.

After all, sometimes people prefer to talk  by pigeon…

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