Evgeny Morozov is a scold. Little if anything about the direction in which digital technologies are moving these days meets with his approval.
Morozov is not alone. A small coterie of other like-minded critics – Nicholas Carr, Sherry Turkle and Jaron Lanier, chief among them – have added their voices to a Greek chorus of Cassandras chiding consumers that 21st century digital technologies are a Trojan horse imperiling civil society and personal well-being.
It goes without saying that digital technologies are upending all aspects of life. Every sweeping change like this, whatever its motive force – technology, demographics, the economy, politics – comes with challenges that menace the opportunities. But before we throw the digital baby out with the bath water, let’s put the apprehensions in perspective and ponder our digital futures in more constructive ways. Unlike public intellectuals who earn their keep by stoking our anxieties, brand marketers must fashion real-world solutions that negotiate trade-offs to deliver value propositions that measure up to our manifold hopes and dreams about the good life.
Fears that technological advances have unleashed a fast-approaching social apocalypse are at least as old as Mary Shelley’s 1818 classic, Frankenstein, originally sub-titled, The Modern Prometheus, which was published barely a generation after the first stirrings of the Industrial Revolution.
In his 1992 social history of the early years of the telephone, America Calling, University of California at Berkeley sociologist Claude Fischer noted that as this new technology was rolling out, critics denounced it as a threat to community life, social interaction, meaningful conversations, deep thinking, household privacy and personal safety. With a little cut-and-pasting of Internet for telephone, you’d pretty much have every complaint being made today. As Fischer observed, “[S]ome worried that the telephone would permit indiscretions…between unsupervised women and strange men; [and] would lead to inappropriate contact from…the lower classes.” The quaint naiveté of such breathless prophecies commends us to take a more thoughtful approach today than just rehashing the same old same old.
Even Morozov, perhaps without meaning to, has taken the venom out of his own biting critiques by showing that they are but the latest chapter in a long history of alarmist augury about technology. In a New Yorkerbook review entitled, “Two Cheers for Boredom,” Morozov cites Flaubert in 1864, Simmel in 1903 and 1911, Kracauer in 1924, Lefebvre in 1962 and Curran and Pask in 1982 as a few of the intellectual forebears of his modern-day devotion to “contemplative computing” in which, periodically, “for days on end,” he inters his smartphone and router in a time-lock safe as therapy for his self-confessed distraction addiction. It’s the same gripes, time and again, even as technology has yet to turn into the monster it is so consistently and so confidently said to be.
Josef Joffe, a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, has written that, oftentimes, narratives of decline turn into “mythic morality tales” that are, regrettably, “impervious to empirical validation.” This is not to tar every technology critique with the same brush; only to note that history shows that brand marketers would do better to scrutinize critiques for clues about opportunities rather than accept them as foregone conclusions about the future.
New technologies require adjustments and, often, compromises. But notwithstanding that, the advance of technology since the mid-18th century has ushered in a world that, for the average person, is richer, freer, healthier and happier than ever before. As we have learned from the trailblazing work of the late British economist Angus Maddison, until the technologies of the Industrial Revolution transformed the productivity with which we could harness natural resources, capital and information, the average quality of life worldwide was cripplingly poor and virtually unchanged throughout all of human history.
Admittedly, Morozov and others, at least for the most part, are not advocating a Luddite-like renunciation of technology. They’re just arguing for a more disciplined, less utopian approach to the deployment and utilization of digital technologies. This is good advice but not particularly profound. Discipline and practicality are exactly what markets bring to bear, and, thus, exactly what brand marketers do already whenever they tackle the complex of opportunities and challenges inherent to innovative technologies.
Again, Morozov recognizes this, although he gives little credit to it as the dynamic that always keeps problems in check. For example, his recounting of early 20th century activism to reduce urban noise insinuates that it worked even though he immediately qualifies his account by noting that real progress wasn’t made until a new generation of city planners reimagined city design. In other words, the politicization of noise changed consumer perceptions more than regulatory policies, which created pent-up demand for the innovative housing and neighborhood developments that soon hit the market.
The parallel today is social responsibility, and the increasingly recognized necessity of shifting consumer demand if lasting progress is to be made on these sorts of issues. Changing technology for the better is the same.
Technology is not a lumbering colossus stomping through our lives. It is an aggregation of individual choices made in the marketplace. Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and others are powerhouses because we like what they have to sell. They have won our loyalty, and they are nothing without it.
The big winners make it look like technology is an indomitable behemoth with a mind of its own, but plenty of technology has-beens are a reminder that success is only as secure as the ability to stay nimble and responsive to evolving consumer preferences. For every winning company, there are scores that tried and failed. Competition for our attention is fierce. Anything we don’t like about one product will be exploited quickly by another.
It is important to clear about agency. We choose what to use and how to use it. Technology doesn’t impose its will on us; we impose our wills on it. When we impose our wills for the better, technology is a force for good. When we impose our wills on technology for the worse, critics inveigh against it. If anything needs fixing it’s us, not technology. As Wired senior writer Mat Honan has written, “The [smart]phone isn’t the problem. The problem is us – our inability to step away from email and games and inessential data, our inability to look up, be it at an alpine lake or at family members.”
Many things affect what consumers need and want, one of which is greater awareness and salience of a problem. This is how social critics have an impact. They offer a new perspective on a product or a company or a behavior. Throw in a dash of hyperbole and a couple of handfuls of word-of-mouth and suddenly consumers are rethinking what they like and what they do. Brand marketers then see this shift among consumers and in response, bring new solutions to the marketplace.
Obviously, this is an oversimplification of how things work, but it captures the broad outlines of a marketplace – particularly the technology marketplace – that is roiling non-stop with fussy, smarter consumers and unrelenting competitive fire. The failings of technology are not the future. Rather, they are the future opportunity, which is why the end times of technology, long foretold, will never come about.
Success or failure is all about what people will buy. The choices people make reflect an underlying desire for something. When technology fails to measure up to what people need or want, the marketplace will move to close that gap. A prime example is the very problem of distraction and shorter attention spans so earnestly deplored by Morozov and Nicholas Carr.
Demand is shifting as growing numbers of consumers look for a better balance of time on and time off. The opportunity to unplug is now being touted by some restaurants and summer camps as well as by wilderness travel companies, self-help books and more. Fast Company, the herald of all things digital, has posted a much-visited Web page with a step-by-step guide to unplugging. Many trendwatchers have declared unplugging as the next big digital trend.
Perhaps most emblematic of this churn in the digital marketplace is the announcement by Twitter co-founder Evan Williams that his next venture, Medium, will be devoted to “thoughtful, longer-form writing.” Williams sees a gap in the marketplace, and his entrepreneurial instinct is to develop a product to fill that gap. As The New York Times story about it noted, with the launch of Medium, Williams is “joining the mini-movement to celebrate long-form expression at sites and apps like Longform, Longreads and the Verge.”
We are not at the mercy of technology, feeble and defenseless, compelled to do the bidding of some mammoth force at work in the world. When technology goes too far, we switch to better alternatives. Technology leads, but only a little; mostly, it follows. The key for brand marketers is to focus on the gaps identified by critics, and then turn them into opportunities. Three top the list.
Privacy is the biggest worry of critics. Yet this is a tug-of-war for technology companies. The advertising payoff comes from more data. The consumer payoff comes from more confidentiality. This tussle has turned data into a negotiable commodity. As privacy risks have become more salient, consumers have become more demanding, and also more prudent about their digital footprints. Such exacting vigilance will continue to grow. But privacy is not all or nothing. Consumers want control and value. There is a price at which consumers will willingly unlock even their most guarded data, so new third-party services and data vaults are springing up to broker such exchanges. Brand marketers will have to come to grips with this as a consumer concern, but there is an opportunity as well to leverage this a relevant point of difference.
Social engagement is another big worry of critics, especially Sherry Turkle. However, the evidence on this issue suggests that this is a false alarm. Berkeley sociologist Claude Fischer conducted an in-depth analysis of the University of Chicago General Social Survey database, which goes back to 1972, and found no evidence of diminished social engagement over time. Similarly, the well-known Netville research of University of Toronto sociologist Barry Wellman and his then-doctoral student Keith Hampton found that greater use of the Internet increased not decreased offline social engagement.
There is a growing desire to make personal connections. This is often mistaken for anti-Internet backlash when, in fact, it is a broader trend of greater connectedness of every sort, offline and online. At The Futures Company, we refer to this as The Kinship Economy for which social currency is the new medium of exchange. This is a big, growing opportunity for brand marketers to build on traditional brand-to-consumer interactions by fostering and facilitating the people-to-people relationships in which consumers are investing more and more of their time and attention.
Finally, critics are worried about the effects of digital technologies on our cognitive capacities. For example, Nicholas Carr famously asked, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” in the title to a much-discussed 2008Atlantic piece. Again, the evidence points in the other direction. Technology and business writer Steven Johnson published an equally provocative headline as the title of his 2005 book, Everything Bad is Good for You. The reckoning of research compiled by Johnson shows that pop culture, digital included, is changing our cognitive styles for the better, evidence of which, contends Johnson, can be found in rising IQ scores.
In his 2013 book, Average is Over, George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen puts a sharper edge on the advantage conferred by technology. Cowen argues that facility with technology will be the great divide of the future. Tomorrow’s elite will be those with the requisite education, skills and commitment to work with intelligent machines. Those who can’t or won’t do so will find themselves at the threshold of subsistence, with few options but to radically downsize their expectations and lifestyles to fit a new, more severe social contract. The key takeaway is that technology will be a plus not a minus for people’s capacities to think, decide, manage and succeed.
For brand marketers this means a new landscape of consumption. Already, the middle market is being squeezed as a shrinking middle-class finds itself under greater financial pressure. Technology will widen the divide between the haves and the have-nots, thus necessitating brand marketing strategies that target a split marketplace rather than the great middle of decades past.
But this also means new opportunities to help people overcome the disadvantages they may have with technology, just as there are services today to help people with many things for which they lack the time or expertise.
The bottom line is that nothing about technology is preordained. Whatever shortcomings we see in technology today will be the long suit of technology tomorrow. There is much about digital technologies to critique. They present risks and possibilities for abuse that are new and unprecedented, and like every information and media technology of the past, they can waste our time and muddle our minds. But none of this is inevitable.
In 1961, then-FCC chairman Newton Minow delivered a speech at the National Association of Broadcasters annual convention in which he excoriated TV as a “vast wasteland.” That phrase lives on. But it’s been forgotten that Minow actually said more than that. He opened by reminding his audience, “When television is good, nothing – not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers – nothing is better.” Minow saw TV’s challenges as opportunities. For brand marketers, that is no less true of our digital world today.