In Tony Kushner’s extraordinary 20th century epic ‘Angels in America’ (made into a stunning TV film starring Al Pacino and Emma Thompson) one of the central characters passes comment on how ‘The world only spins forward’. I’ve always found that ‘only’ to be both exciting and a little unsettling. The line is a brief yet poetic way of articulating how, in all walks of life, we should resign ourselves to the fact that over time progress is inevitable and – the unsettling part – unstoppable. But is progress always to our advantage? And can something that brings great benefit also stealthily develop serious and negative side effects?
Before I risk getting too philosophical, Nicholas Carr’s new book, The Shallows: How The Internet Is Rewiring Our Brains is an illuminating examination of exactly this issue but rooted in common sense as well as commercial business nouse. It would be foolhardy to attempt to summarise Carr’s core arguments into a few sentences here, indeed in a way it would be in keeping with the very trend he is rallying against. But know this: what The Long Tail was to internet economists and The Tipping Point became to business school students, I believe The Shallows will become to any business (or individual, for that matter) in the digital space with a social conscience. Whilst The Cluetrain Manifesto encouraged us to get with it and, in the spirit of the poet Ezra Pound ‘Make it new!’, The Shallows, like a wallflower at the school disco, urges us to hit pause and take stock a second.
One of the many messages I took from Carr’s book – though I strongly encourage you to read it and draw your own insights – was a concern for our ability to concentrate; the loss of depth of knowledge in favour of breadth of knowledge. The internet’s greatest gift is access to all – every nugget of information and entertainment we could hope for is but a click away. But you may have noticed, as I certainly have, that all this clicking is affecting the way we think. With so many interfaces before us (not forgetting the human ones of friends and spouses), we are inclined to flit from one thing to another (’skimming’ is Carr’s preferred term), rarely engrossing ourselves but happily dipping a toe into a pick ‘n’ mix of content. As Beck and Davenport wrote in their book The Attention Economy, ‘human bandwith is finite’ and as Carr points out, the likes of Google are in the ‘business of distraction’ to clog up this bandwith:
Google’s profits are tied directly to the velocity of people’s information intake. The faster we surf across the surface of the Web… the more opportunities Google gains to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements… it’s in Google’s economic interest to make sure we click as often as possible. The last thing the company wants is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought.
I return to my comment on The Shallows being essential reading for any business with a social conscience. I was bothered that advertising was singled out with an implied negative leaning. I would argue that advertising targeted on behavioural rather than broad ABC1 mass-style segmentation is a lot better way of communicating relevantly with potential prospects and existing customers. You piss off fewer people too. Yet, I finished this book feeling that perhaps we should question more carefully the social impact of marketing in the online arena, given how increasingly business and personal lives blend into one.
What I admire most about Carr’s argument is his refusal to be either for or against the Internet – that would be too simplistic. Instead, he provides chunks describing the history of communication in flux – his section on print is especially enlightening – that leave us facing questions. He simply recognises that as we grow ever more dependent on the web’s tools those who use it for commercial gain must acknowledge this increased intimacy between individuals online and the business messages we communicate.
Now we must not only be concerned with client objectives but take responsibility for how communications shape social opinions and behaviours, lest persuasion unknowingly slides down the slippery slope towards manipulation. David Ogilvy, the founder of Ogilvy & Mather, called for ad men to be ‘gentlemen with brains’. That calling has never been more pressing.
Tim Connor is an account manager for OgilvyOne, London. Part of Ogilvy’s BT home entertainment team, he has previously worked across account management, data operations and planning for a range of clients including IKEA, NSPCC, Novartis and LoveFilm. He is fascinated by all things digital, in particular how direct marketing business techniques can underpin the latest advances in technology.