Tag Archives: progress

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...

 

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Lost in Meta-News

A very inspiring English Literature teacher once told me that all poems were about poetry, and all plays were about plays. Increasingly my newsreaders seems to be telling me that all news is about news.

Now I happen to think that poetry and plays should be about other things too, but what my teacher said stuck in my mind, because for literature by and large it is true.

The artistic process is inherently a meta-process, because any medium we engage, from blank page to blank canvas to blinking cursor, acts a mirror to ourselves. Ultimately when we engage with the world of imagination we only have ourselves as material to work with.

Great artistic works, like Proust, or Hamlet, or, are often acutely meta-textual, to an extent that they feel almost like organisms becoming aware of themselves. And in fact we almost define the trajectory of artistic progression as a medium’s path to supreme self-consciousness.

This is not a pipe. But it is a fantastic student poster.

But the news is different. Because the news, by and large, is one of the most essential tools we have in creating social cohesion and empathy, and to help people to understand real events in the world around them.

But it seems that finding out the news is just getting harder and harder. Because all anyone wants to tell me now is the Meta-News.

What do I mean by this exactly? Well, after reading this watch pretty much any TV news apart from the BBC World Service, or read pretty much any newspaper apart from the Financial Times, and you are likely to very quickly notice that about 50% of the airtime is devoted to coverage of the reaction to the news, or the process through which the news was obtained, or the difficulties in filming the news – with astonishingly little detail on what has ACTUALLY HAPPENED.

The modern news studio - a monument to Meta

Nowhere is this worse than in the world of 24 hour live news, in which the irregular flow of real news poses as significant threat to the much more regular flow of actual minutes and seconds. One thing that remains constant however is the speed at which people speak, film and report the news. That makes it a godsend to the rolling news editor.

This whole phenomenon went way beyond satire some time ago, though it has fed some of the very best, from Brass Eye to Charlie Brooker.

But that doesn’t make it any less disturbing to try to discover the details and impact of the Osama Bin Laden, and have to try to weed out a couple of actual facts from amongst the debris of people’s emails, footage of strange macabre people dancing in Times Square and a randomised selection of tweets.

This last area is particularly painful. News knows that email is important, and that there is every chance Twitter might be even more important. What is the response of TV news? Use it as filler. The ultimate, infinite time-filler of opinion. What’s more, a bottomless pool of opinion – which means you can easily find opinion to back the agenda of the broadcaster. Perfect.

The result – a relentless flow of jabber, which makes the angry angrier, the old-fashioned ever more befuddled, and which to the vaguely tech literate looks like an old-fashioned headmaster putting on sunglasses and trying to do some tricks on a skateboard.

All of which is silly, and infuriating, but worst of all, represents a collective shrug by the news broadcasting industry at the creative potential inherent in the most connected age of mankind, to get people to understand and empathize with news in ways never achieved before, in favour of the news equivalent of the music you hear in lifts.

It’s not all bad. Anderson Cooper on CNN is immense, and his fluency in the multi-screen world is awe inspiring – including the seamless interaction of international coverage and inside accounts on Twitter and YouTube into his reports. This is what the new golden age of newscasting could be all about.

In the meantime, the great majority of news coverage is still rather self-excited, and lost in a tedious and iniquitous spiral of-Meta News. Let’s hope it emerges soon.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.”

http://www.kenyon.edu/x57433.xml

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.

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/29/opinion/29franzen.html

 

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

10 things Bob Dylan taught me about progress

I’m jumping the gun slightly, but Tuesday is Bob’s 70th birthday. And unlike most 70 year olds, he remains the embodiment of change. In fact, to me he seems like one of the greatest chroniclers of change – technological, emotional, social.

I think Bob is like a shark. If he doesn't keep moving forwards, he'll die. He even looks a bit like a shark.

Here are 10 things that Bob Dylan know about progress and technology that I now also know, partly thanks to him.

1. Journalists are an unreliable source of understanding of what change is really happening in society. They tend to mainly chronicle the phenomenon of journalistic interest. Or rather, they know something is happening, but they don’t know what it is.

2. You shouldn’t define, who you are, or what you believe, by what technology you do or don’t use. And certainly not by what other people think of it.

3. The future is unevenly distributed, and that means that there’s a lot in the past that hasn’t finished its path yet. Like Woody Guthrie.

4. Sometimes, more interesting things develop when you hand things on to someone else, rather than trying to keep control of them. The intersection between Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix might be better than anything either could achieve alone.

5. Young people are braver and faster to embrace change. But you can do things to stay young, or even to think younger than you used to, which can only lead to good things.

6. Artists may be really good at defining a vision of where society should be going, or giving shape the the collective thoughts of a new generation. That doesn’t mean they should be in charge of making it happen.

7. Hard work and creative thinking gets you a long way. But inspiration is real, and is magical. It’s where all the really big leaps come from. If you experience it, don’t take it for granted – even if you are uniquely blessed it doesn’t last forever.

8. There is nothing more destructive in the world, or more likely to hold back the invention of exciting new things, than fear. Fortunately, there is also nothing more ridiculous, particularly to a posterity who have to look back at the era of Communist fear. Not many people saw this as clearly as Dylan.

9. It doesn’t how much technology there is in the world. And how messed up your throat gets. There is still no substitute for physical performance. Just keep singing through the pain. 50 years of continuous gigging is inherently admirable.

10. Progress isn’t everything. Some things are timeless. And sometimes it can feel like the whole of history is happening at the same time, if you really use your imagination. The latest technological developments are pretty irrelevant on Desolation Row.

Anyway, thanks Bob. His music gives me inexhaustible pleasure, and I think he’s said more useful things about what changes and what stays the same as time passes than pretty much anyone else. Happy Birthday.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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:

http://esa.un.org/peps/Preliminary-Results/tables/preliminary-results_2011-02-25.htm

And some visualisations here:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/interactive/2011/may/06/world-population-data-visualised

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

5 reasons why money can’t buy progress

I am not, despite some recent discussions, opposed to money. I like money. Who doesn’t like money? But there is danger sometimes of seeing money as an absolute, something than universally incentivises, shapes behaviour, and supports progress. Money isn’t the root of all evil. But neither is it the root of all progress. It fact often it may be a relatively weak incentive to progress…and sometimes a disincentive.

Anyway, here are 5 reasons why money can’t buy progress. And since I can’t set my blog to music, I am just going to suggest you play this for a few seconds to get you in the right mood.

1) Cash rewards can be a disincentive to performance

“For simple, straightforward tasks, rewards work. And the bigger the incentive, the more they work.

When a task gets more complicated, and requires conceptual, creative thinking (like genuinely progressive tasks) autonomy, mastery and purpose are all much better incentives than money.

…And when the profit motive is detached from the purpose motive. Bad things happen.”

2. A Fine is a Price (not a disincentive)

Often we try to use money, or more often the removal of money, to drive better behaviour. More often the opposite happens, because paying money is an excuse for acting like a jerk.

Clay Shirky spoke on this subject last week at the MIT Media Lab, describing how schools have experimented with enforcing fines for parents who are late picking up their kids. Rather than reducing late pick-ups, this fine increased them – because suddenly it was about the cost, not the basic lack of humanity towards teachers who have been cooped up with your kids all day and want to get on with their lives. And then even when the fines are removed, people continue to act like jerks.

If you want a more visceral example, spend some time in New York restaurants. People’s blood will boil with rage if you fail to leave at least an 18.5% tip for your waiter. But it is also entirely normal for people to not say thank you when waiters bring them things. Because a fine is a price.

Clay Shirky, auditioning for inclusion in watch people jump

3. The balance sheet is a scorecard, not a business plan

Every great company that I have come into contact with has a clear vision or mission that comes before everyone else. For example Google exist to organize the world’s information (and not be evil.) And IKEA have the wonderfully Swedish vision of ‘Creating a Better Life for the Many People.’

These vision-led companies are of course insanely huge and insanely profitable. But they didn’t start with the balance sheet. Their healthy balance sheets simply reflect that they are well-run companies with a powerful economic vision. Any company that starts its business planning with the balance sheet will mainly go backwards. Because the balance sheet is a scorecard not a business plan (copyright, the smartest guy I know.)

The IK in IKEA - amazing at making money, more passionate about getting well-designed furniture in the homes of low-middle income families

4. The design constraint of ultra-affordability

It is so easy to be stupid when you have lots of money. When you have no money, you have no choice but to be very smart.

Now there is no denying that some degree of resource is essential to invention, and quite a lot of resource is often essential for true innovation – because to go really big, you need some support.

But it is no accident that Larry and Sergey started in a garage, using Lego as a key building component. Or, on the flip-side, that the fat cats of tech are being gobbled up by geeks locked in basements. Starting with the assumption that money is not going to solve the problem makes you focus on what is really going to solves the problem. ie, you.

Dammit...got to buy a garage...

5. The poor man has the best tunes

Quality of creative output is inversely proportional to relative wealth status. Or…it is in your interest to keep your favourite bands small, because once they get rich they won’t be able to make good music any more.

There is a big caveat here, which is that the creative process requires freedom, basic tools etc. And DOUBLE caveat – once you get back to the beginning of this century, this is a pattern that obviously falls over. It is fair to say you had to be rich to be Proust. Or Tolstoy. Or that you had to be at least able to support a lifestyle at a royal or ecclesiastical Court to make any music or drama in Europe for many centuries. Almost too many caveats to make this meaningful…

BUT there is certainly a trend in pop culture of character learnt in adversity, great work done as adversity turns into popularity, and then decadence as wealth sets in. Because extreme wealth is distracting, isolating, and destructive of motivation. Which is one of the reasons you can go from the intensity of the band at the top of this post to the artist at the bottom in a little over a decade…

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Scientific progress without humanity – Monty Python healthcare in New York

If you want enough medication to tranquilize an elephant, CSI-style forensic testing, or the highest standards of litigation-proof risk management, the healthcare system in New York is for you.

If you want to have sane conversations with sane people, or retain a sense of emotional or spiritual welfare…or indeed combine both of these things with preparing for the birth of a child, I recommend you give it a wide birth.

As with many things, Monty Python explained this situation many years ago better than I possibly can.

“OK. Take her into the foetus-frightening room”.

“And get the most expensive machines, in case the administrator comes.”

“Don’t worry, we’ll soon have you cured.”

“NOTHING DEAR, YOU’RE NOT QUALIFIED!”

Of course, this clip is from 1983, and needless to say it was a bit of a shock to me (to say the least) to see that this is still the prevailing approach in New York hospitals. (And rather worse…for example there are hospitals near hear with a C-Section rate of nearly 50%, and rising.)

Why is this?

Well, lots of reasons. The first is that actually, in lots of respects, New York is actually quite an old-fashioned place, its psychology laced with a strong dose of 1920 gothic ambition and a prevailing undercurrent of 1980s materialism – which combine to support an undercurrent of faith in the power of money and pharmaceuticals and surgery that can seem jarringly antiquated. Also, more obviously of course, this is the most litigious place on earth, and everyone is absolutely terrified of doing anything wrong for fear of having these guys after you.

Do you find you frequently need to sue people for personal injury? Like, often enough to need an App on your phone? Come to New York.

But there is something else going on as well. The single biggest difference in being treated by the NHS vs the New York health system is the bias that money puts on the care you receive. The NHS is of course constantly strapped for cash, and thus trying to minimize the care you receive – particularly when it comes to testing and medicine. In New York, the only people who want to keep your treatment costs low are the insurers and the patients.

Thus it is in the interest of everyone who treats you to test you as often as possible, to interpret those tests in a way that requires further tests or treatment, to give you as much medicine as possible…but at the same time to get you through beds as fast as possible (because you don’t pay by the hour.) Honestly, for those guys who haven’t experienced this system, you would not believe how scary it feels to require medical treatment but feel like a walking cash machine.

If you sewed your wallet inside your body, these guys would find it.

Throughout of course, this money-driven compulsion to treat is presented as evidence of the extent of progress and capability in the health system – and in some cases this is true. It is certainly easier to get some forms of expensive and useful treatment in New York than in London. But overall, the system stinks. Because it is driven by money, not humanity (my next post will be on some other aspects of the flaws of money as an incentive to progress.)

I wanted to end with a thought, which has occurred to me a few times – which is that resource in this kind of area is a neat balance. There is never ‘enough’ money for health. Having more money in your health service is generally better for patient outcomes. But there is also something to be said for what has been elegantly described as ‘the design constraint of ultra-affordability.’ Because we shouldn’t assume that the right thing to do and the most expensive thing to do are always the same.

10 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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.)

PRACTICE!

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.

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Gilded Cage: Why inside every Apple user is a Charlie Sheen waiting to get out

It’s just possible that there a few people out there who think that being Charlie Sheen would be really great.

I certainly wouldn’t mind a crack at it for an evening, or maybe as a short weekend break. But ultimately, we can collectively agree (once we’ve finished pointing, staring and giggling) that overall Charlie Sheen is a figure worthy of pity rather than amusement.

Why?

After all, he is rich. And (just about still) good looking. And he knows lots of people that you would like to know. And talented (I’m no 2 ½ Men enthusiast, but I wouldn’t have minded being in Wall Street, or Platoon, or, for that matter, Young Guns.)

The fact is that Charlie may be rich, and good looking, and talented, but mainly nowadays he is defined by the kind of experiences he has (decadent, unrestrained, medicated) rather than who he is or what he does.

As a result, right now he is just FAMOUS. He is pretty much just a professional celebrity, and that is a pretty terrible thing to be. Because being a celebrity mainly means that people look at you all the time, and report what you do to others.

The people that have most in common with celebrities, therefore, are maximum security prisoners. Constantly observed, logged and restricted in movement.

Hollywood is no Alcatraz. It is a place of almost unrestricted money and pleasure (as well as a place where a lot of creative people do a lot of great work.) But when you reach the Charlie category of celebrity, Hollywood is a cage. A Gilded Cage, but a cage nonetheless.

Alcatraz - good location for a rehab facility?

And over the long haul, doesn’t pretty much everyone want to break out of the Gilded Cage?

An interesting question…and by no means an easy one to answer.

Politically, this is one of the most interesting long view questions out there. Until a couple of decades ago it was relatively usual to see the arc of history as a long march to political freedom, through economic and military hardship.

This has fallen out of favour during the last few years…though current events in the Middle East and the fate of Gaddafi are an interesting crucible to see where we are going next.What is certain is that the assumed link between wealth and political liberality is by no means certain. In fact it is not uncommon to see ‘progressive’ politicians like Tony Blair openly question the old paradigm of liberalism – effectively to assert that in a modern inter-dependent economy and society, it is out of date. In his infuriatingly readable memoirs, he asserts that it is about the social quality of your experience of life, not your absolute freedom.

Personally, I would say that freedom never goes out of date. It’s just the conversation that changes (as explored by my friend Ben Wilson in this excellent book.)

Good question, good book.

This conversation was always a lot simpler when it came to the Internet. The argument was that online users would always break out of the cage, no matter how gilded.

Having worked with AOL through its heyday as an ISP in the UK, I watched this in slow motion as its ‘Walled Garden’ approach became an anachronism in the digital economy – no matter how much content or how many services they created, no-one would accept life in the Gilded Cage.

Here we find ourselves, in 2011, gasping with anticipation at the launch of the iPad 2, giddily in love with Apple and all its shiny things. Apple is the most admired company in the world for the sixth year running, and the second most valuable.

And yet isn’t Apple’s model just another Gilded Cage? It is beautifully designed, wonderfully tactile, intuitively mobile, but isn’t Apple’s ecosystem basically a prison of corporate control and cross-sell?

Like many sane people, Charlie Brooker both loves and hates Apple

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/feb/28/charlie-brooker-pfroblem-with-macs

I’m just a month into my relationship with my iPhone, so for me the jury is out on the overall experience (it isn’t until you have at least two Apple devices that they really start getting to work on you.) But there is certainly something irritating, and, dare I say it old fashioned about their attempts to fence me in.

Certainly at the moment, the online world seems to be a balance between user freedom and the feel of the experience. New fault lines are breaking out, with Google appearing more and more the standard bearer of freedom and functionality, vs the curated experience of Apple.

Does this mean I think there is a crazed Charlie Sheen inside every Apple user, desperate to escape? Do I believe Steve Jobs is cowering in fear at the insurgency to come?

Of course not. Ultimately the technology user won’t choose between experience and freedom. They will demand both. So in the long term, I can’t see the Gilded Cage of Apple looking as secure in 10 years as it does now.

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized