In Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable, Clary Shirky writes:

When reality is labeled unthinkable, it creates a kind of sickness in an industry. Leadership becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en masse. This shunting aside of the realists in favor of the fabulists has different effects on different industries at different times.

On reading this, I started wondering: what might this look like in the advertising industry? And it occurred to me that it might look a lot like some of the largest advertisers in the world trying desperately (and failing) to apply traditional models to a new landscape. At risk of being moved to the Innovation Department (I work at an ad agency), some realism: broadcasting without listening doesn't work in systems designed for conversation. And fake listening doesn't scale. Back to Shirky, with some edits by me:

Round and round this goes, with the people committed to saving newspapers advertising demanding to know “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers advertising to replace the one the internet just broke.

 

Many articles about "the internet" are very wrong, and the flaws generally stem from a common source: implying, if not explicitly stating, that the internet does something. It doesn’t. It’s not sentient. It only allows people to do things.

As an example of this, Dan recently bookmarked an article from the Boston Globe subtitled "The turn to online research is narrowing the range of modern scholarship, a new study suggests". There's something interesting going on here, but this article completely misses it. It’s not that the turn to online research is narrowing the range of modern scholarship; it’s that people are narrowing the range of modern scholarship, and the internet is passively letting them do this.

By recognizing the actual actors here, we can ask much more useful questions. Did people always tend toward narrowing research, and only now are able? If so, why do people tend that way? And why weren’t they able before the internet? The answers to these questions might lead to improving the world, whereas assigning responsibility for what happens online to "the internet" is inherently defeatist. We can’t change what the internet does, because it doesn’t actually do anything.

 

Nelson’s knife-fork, © National Maritime Museum, London

Have you ever thought a knife-fork was a good idea? I’ll admit, I have. I don’t remember whether it was before or after I first encountered a spork that the idea to combine a fork and a knife first struck me. But I do know that after that moment, I looked on simple forks and knives with some disdain. Why was humanity wasting its time with two utensils when it could use just one? Isn’t the increased efficiency and simplicity of knife-forks obvious to all who eat?

Apparently not obvious enough. Decades later, knife-forks remain relatively rare. The problem with a knife-fork, it seems, is that it can easily cut your mouth. I expect this is why most cultures consider it rude to put a knife in one’s mouth.

Of course we could all be more conscious of our food as it enters our mouth, and indeed we should be for reasons beyond knife-forks, but we’re not. We eat with little regard to the food we’re consuming, much less the utensils we’re using to transport that food from plate to mouth. However, the mouth-cutting problem is apparently not insurmountable for knife-forks. When Horatio Nelson lost an arm in 1797, for example, paying more attention to avoid cutting his mouth must have seemed a small price to pay to avoid continuously swapping knife for fork, fork for knife, while eating a meal. So he used knife-forks.

Still, most two-armed eaters have proven unwilling to adapt eating behavior to accommodate the superior knife-fork. Alas, another brilliant idea brought down by an unreceptive society. I’ve since had many more such ideas. Men and women can share unisex bathrooms. Gender inequity: solved! Plumbing waste: solved! Rich people should give money to poor people. Poverty: solved! Abuse of power: solved! Everyone should vote for their favorite candidate. Democracy: solved! And so on.

Yes, I’ve had many knife-forks, solutions that work great as long as everyone is willing to change their behavior accordingly. But of course, these aren’t really solutions at all. Knife-forks are abstract ideas, fantasies that make us feel better about a hypothetical world in which they’re adopted, but don’t actually improve the real world in which they’re not.

Perhaps I’ve grown cynical, but where I once became excited by knife-forks, they now completely fail to excite me, and sometimes even annoy me. Some people are actually working, inventing chopsticks or something, to improve the real world, not some hypothetical world in which everyone pays more attention to their eating. And distracting them with your knife-forks hampers such progress.

Also, it’s a bit arrogant. Sure, the world would be a better place if everyone were, like me of course, willing to pay enough attention to their eating to use a knife-fork. But why should they? When presented with a world that refuses to eat with knife-forks, the humble knife-fork enthusiast asks why and starts working on a better utensil that addresses knife-fork problems. The more common arrogant knife-forker dismisses the world as inadequate to appreciate the brilliance of knife-forks.

American politicians are especially fond of knife-forks. Dennis Kucinich adamantly opposed the latest war in a Congress full of war-supporters. Now he can run for President on an "I was right" platform, even though he accomplished nothing. George Bush supported spreading democracy in a country unprepared to accept his generous gift. Now he can righteously claim democracy would have flourished if only the world had better supported his brilliant idea.

Technologists are pretty good at knife-forking as well. Every day there’s a new website that would eliminate world hunger, if only it had a million or so visitors. And the intersection of technology and politics is even better: sign my petition to demand people with real power start paying attention to internet petitions!

So now when I have great ideas (I could organize music events better than MySpace!), I try to ask myself: is this really a knife-fork? Does my great idea require people to fundamentally adjust their lives? Because if the answer is yes, it doesn’t really matter if I’ve just come up with a cure for cancer (I’ve got one too: avoid all known carcinogens). If the world doesn’t accept a great idea, it’s not a great idea. It’s just a knife-fork. Put it in the drawer, and get back to work making something the world will appreciate. Have you considered knife-chopsticks?

 

This picture is a picture of my whole life, in 8 1/2 x 11.

Ezra Kilty, Gizmos and Love

I completely forgot about quotes of the day.

 

I’m moving most of my tech geek posts to a new WordPress blog on my MakeDataMakeSense.com domain. No wait — not blog, log. A long time ago I had a blog. Here I have a weblog. Now I'm trying a log.

Anyway, for those of you interested in tech geekdom, find it over there now. And for those of you who have suffered through the tech talk in hopes I might get around to discussing what I'm eating or whatever (that's right, mom, I'm talking about you), suffer no more. I had cheese and crackers for dinner. The crackers were multi-grain, so that counts as a healthy dinner, right?

There's more exciting insight into the life of Scott where that came from! Stay tuned. Or retune. The choice is now up to you.

 

One of my pet peeves is the incorrect use of technical terminology in public. Sometimes I feel like I’m some sort of linguistic elitist when I point out that not everything interesting done in JavaScript is "AJAX." But unlike those who obstinately repeat “ain’t ain’t a word,” technically meaningless terminology actually affects people’s ability to communicate.

Case in point:

>> If I have a form element like
>> <input type="text" name="mydata">
>> Is there a way to select it in a similar manner to getElemntById()?
>
> var nameArray = document.getElementsByTagName('mydata');


I can' seem to get getElementsByTagName working. I am not sure what I am doing wrong.

This confused individual thought “TagName” referred to the “name” attribute. Why would anyone think the “name” attribute was a tag? Because hundreds of people go around referring to attributes and tags. Stop it. You’re confusing people. If you don’t know what a technical term means, don’t use it. Use plain English instead.

 

Now, I was about to say that this is a bad thing because peacefully dealing with incompatible people is important to living in a society. But that's not true. No, peacefully dealing with people you can't stand is society. That's literally all it is. People with opposite tastes and conflicting personalities sharing space and cooperating, through gritted teeth sometimes.

David Wong, 7 Reasons the 21st Century is Making You Miserable.

 

i hear that you don't change
how do you expect to keep up with the trends
you won't survive the information age
unless you plan to change the truth to accomodate the brilliance of man

Pedro the Lion, Letter From a Concerned Follower

 

I am motioning at the stereo, making a clicking motion. I am trying to rate the track so that my liking it will be remembered.

Ezra Kilty

I had a similar experience when I first started using my iPod. I would do key commands on my laptop to rate the song, not realizing that it wasn't playing on my computer any more.

 

I just sent the following to an email list that has recently been discussing various anti-spam technologies:

Spam is fundamentally a social problem, not a technological problem. No amount of clever technology can end spam as long as there are still significant numbers of people out there who indicate through their purchases that they want to receive spam. The BBC reports: According to a survey conducted by security firm Mirapoint and market research company the Radicati Group, nearly a third of e-mail users have clicked on links in spam messages.

Imagine it costs $100 to send a million spam messages (though it doesn't cost nearly that much), and each message is selling a product with a $20 markup. Only six of those million messages need to get through to a willing consumer to keep spam profitable. And those six people will never be using Bayesian filters or whatever other nifty tools we can come up with, because they don't even recognize a problem with spam. And those six people will also never self-identify, because they are embarrassed about their purchases.

So spammers can only reach them through mass emailing, and the rest of us suffer the consequences. I don't know of any current anti-spam technology that does anything to deal with those six people.

I'd like to see more economists and sociologists look at changing the factors that make spam the most desirable way to purchase certain products. Why do people buy propecia via spam rather than at their local pharmacy, and what could be done to change that? I think that's a more useful question to answer than how to quickly recognize "v14gr4" as a variant of "viagra."

 

From Wired, What Would Jesus Blog:

Topics included God bloggers' relationship with the traditional church, their growing influence on mainstream politics and how to manage outsiders' perceptions.

Just when I thought the gap between Jesus and Christians couldn't get any bigger.

 

Yesterday I found myself drawn into a discussion I may have been wiser to avoid over on gapingvoid. I work as a web developer at an advertising agency, so I have a particular interest in how technology changes the advertising game, and until this discussion, I was watching what Hugh McLeod is doing from a distance and finding it interesting. But then he pointed to someone criticizing the whole thing, and the criticisms made some sense.

But I wouldn't likely have spent much time thinking about it if Hugh hadn't launched into the now cliché diatribe about how large organization X is just attacking the little guy because it knows technology is empowering the little guy and larger organization X is doomed. In this case, large organization X seemed obviously irrelevant to the conversation.

So I pointed this out, as did others, but Hugh didn't make any movement away from the ridiculousness, saying I'm being paid to piss Big Money off. I think this is just a few steps away from saying "if you don't like my business plan, the terrorists have already won." It's just dragging out a boogeyman to drum up support. So I lost some respect for Hugh there.

Tom Coates was involved in this conversation too, and writes:

I'm totally fed up of people standing up and waving a flag for the death of institutions based on sketchy information and a vague belief in the rightness of their cause - and I'm also slightly sick of more moderate voices being drowned out under the revolutionary fervour of people fresh with their first wave of excitement about user-generated content on the web.

Me too. But I'm not sure what to do about it, nor even how to avoid participating in the cycle myself. A few weeks ago I got involved in one of these discussions and found myself on both sides in different contexts. A friend of mine who is not particularly interested in technology started an email discussion about how she doesn't think new technology like Tivo is really improving anything. I don't use Tivo, but I pointed out how I think Tivo is part of a larger trend of empowering the audience to participate more and passively consume less, which I think leads to more niche marketing.

She was pointing out everything wrong with technology, so I started pointing out everything great about technology. The same day, Kathy Sierra wrote a post about how marketing is being improved by technology and I found myself taking the exact opposite position, pointing out that marketing remains a dangerous game even online. So in the same day I took opposing positions on the same issue, neither of which really represented my opinion.

If someone had asked me what I think about technology and marketing, I would have given an answer somewhere in between. I think technology is slightly altering the marketing game in ways which could be exploited to make large positive changes, but like any other tool, the responsibility lies with the users to make something positive happen.

But even something so neutral as this gets read as complete disagreement by both sides. Disagreement pushes opinions away from each other and we end up with extremes. I think I'm as tired as Tom of the drowning of moderate voices, but I don't see much floating in this sea of all-or-nothing discussions.