Is the internet making everything sh*t?

The effects of the digital revolution have not always been positive, but a brand, an agency and a great idea can still make an economic impact, says DigitasLBi's Chris Clarke.

During my 15 years in the industry, I’ve made my share of passionate arguments for the wonders of digital. When I started out, at 23, I was zealous in my belief that industries needed disrupting. I looked on the burning embers of once-arrogant giants such as Kodak and waved a warning finger at all who would deny the digital future.

There is no doubt that digital has brought us much convenience, beyond a ready supply of porn and videos of cats falling into custard. Let’s take it as a given that digital has happened and has done some wonderful things, and that many of us have benefited enormously.

But even before it dawned on me that something bad might be happening, I felt a sense of creeping unease that too few in the marketing community had anything truly perceptive to say about this revolution that we have been living through.

If I ever have to witness another slick presenter telling a somnolently nodding room that the internet is the biggest thing to hit publishing since the Gutenberg Press, I will invade the stage and do a Jarvis Cocker.

It is time, people of marketing, that we stopped and reflected on what is going on around us. Our lives are intrinsically digital, and any sensible comms plan should reflect that. But there is a point at which the digital community has a responsibility to stop the sales job, give a bit of thought to how digital is affecting the world at large, and acknowledge that technological progress is having all sorts of unintended consequences.

We should begin by putting a few silly untruths to bed. Let’s start with the internet’s gift of democratisation – and not just because it’s a deeply ugly word. We cannot call the internet a democracy just because it enables us to rate a product on Amazon, or forward an ironic tweet. We might be talking or complaining or protesting, even, but in a digital environment that is governed and enabled by what Jaron Lanier calls the "siren servers" of a handful of internet giants, let’s not imagine that we are voting.

Even the role social media may have played in the Arab Spring can hardly be credited with bringing democracy when we see the ongoing bloodshed apparent from Cairo to Damascus.

The myth of digital democratisation feeds into another flabby notion: that the consumer is in control. It is a slogan that chimes with our times – it makes a nice sound – but we should be very careful not to believe it.

Marketing directors might feel they have lost control, but that does not mean that the consumer has it instead. We can all tweet @BTcare and we might get a response, but it is a shallow illusion of control. Real control lies with those who own the biggest computers; we gave it to them in return for free search and a place to build a parallel self.

Good things do come of those and other free digital goods – this is no rant against Google or Facebook. Technology has served some of us very well, but the idea that access and privilege is any more open than it is in the wider world is naïve.

Power in the hands of the few

While we are being dazzled by the idea that we can get things for free, digital power and control have been ceded to a relatively small number of astonishingly influential organisations driven by an unregulated combination of self-interest, shareholder value and techno-utopianism.

Are free apps and services adequate compensation for such a massive migration of power? It depends who you ask, but I would like to see the digital industry talking about the cult of free, and whether free things, for all their consumer appeal, aren’t actually destroying quality and jobs.

The driverless car sounds like progress, unless you are a first-generation immigrant losing yet another possible path to middle-class security. In wiping out taxis, driverless cars might make the roads safer, but they will also undermine an important path to economic dignity. That does not mean that they should not happen, but let us at least examine the implications.

Our job should be to help businesses create new products, make money and pay people.

Take Instagram, for example. What a wonderful invention. Stupid old Kodak – it should have seen digital photography coming. But, as Lanier recently pointed out in his book Who Owns the Future?, at its height, Kodak employed more than 140,000 people and was worth $28bn. When Instagram was sold to Facebook for $1bn in 2012, it employed only 13 people.

An industry has gone, and what is left is an app and a vast number of consumers who may feel like clients, but who actually, with their data and traffic, have become the product itself.

The morality of progress

Those 140,000 Kodak employees were not asking to be disintermediated – and it is worth noting that some of them invented the digital camera. Likewise, for every job that Amazon creates, three evaporate somewhere else.

Meanwhile, we are already hearing about robots that can perform basic surgical tasks, while online learning has the potential to eviscerate academia, replacing the respectable and steady teaching profession with a small cadre of mega-teachers who are paid millions, while the staff they replace take a McJob from someone who will end up homeless. Technology exerts a powerful downward pressure on those who fail its tests.

You cannot stand in the way of progress, but progress is an amoral force. We have a duty to understand it, to find an ethical base for the technological age. Pretty much everything we in the West base our way of life on comes from the biblical Ten Commandments and the Enlightenment – ideas forged over the centuries and updated on the crest of the last industrial revolution. We need to update ourselves.
Digital disruption, which many of us have championed as a ruthlessly efficient means of streamlining the world, often leaves a vacuum where previously there was humanity. Significantly, disruption often panders to our short attention spans and the feebler parts of our brains, feeding us something cheap and banal in the place of something that was comparatively expensive, but also comparatively good.

Ryan Holliday’s Trust Me, I’m Lying nails this whole phenomenon. "When the news is decided not by what is important but by what readers are clicking; when the cycle is so fast that the news cannot be anything else but consistently and regularly incomplete; when dubious scandals pressure politicians to resign and scuttle election bids or knock millions from market caps of publicly traded companies; when the news frequently covers itself in stories about ‘how the story unfolded’ – unreality is the only word for it. It is, as Daniel Boorstin, author of 1962’s The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Effects in America put it, ‘a thicket… which stands between us and the facts of life’."

Research tells us that 40% of news links on Facebook come from the Mail Online. If we are going to disintermediate paid journalism, we should consider what we are getting instead. When your biggest news provider is telling you, as the Mail Online has, that you can get cancer from sex, shaving, skiing, soup and space travel – well, maybe there is something of a Faustian pact at work.

In many respects, the die is cast. By 2020, 50bn devices will be connected, and 90% of the world’s data is currently less than two years old. Sitting atop this new industrial revolution – the first, it must be said, to destroy more jobs than it has created – is a tiny number of geeky masterminds. Most of them almost certainly believe that what they are doing is right and, in the case of Facebook, it is pretty clear that basic humanity lies at its core.

But there are many other tech businesses whose fundamental religion is that of singularity, which are willing forward a moment when humanity will cease to exist as the dominant intelligence. They may try to do the right thing – one of them at least implores itself not to be evil – but when you remove human agency from much of what we experience, what it means to be human dissolves.

Already, notions of who I am are different than 20 years ago. Back then, I existed as a body, in a few photos, in the feelings and memories of those who knew me, and in some dusty government records. Now, my "self" exists in parallel on servers the world over.

As agencies and marketers, we need to take our stories back, and technology – that double-edged sword – also offers ways of doing it. We are entering an age of real potential in the field of data – real insight, in real-time. It is time to invent services and products that take advantage of that. Let’s stop arguing, and let’s forget about "adland".

Research tells us that 40% of news links on Facebook come from the Mail Online.

Amid the wholesale transformation of supply and demand chains – which digital specialists have done their bit to usher in – our job should be to help companies negotiate the new economic conditions: to spot where disruption will come, disrupt where we can and help build businesses that can create new opportunities and products, make money and pay people. Google isn’t the enemy, but free search is not an automatic compensation for the disruption of industries that you or your children might one day work in.

As organisations built of teams that grasp every aspect of the digital world, we are in the right place to understand the human implications of technology and to help companies understand them too. A brand, an agency and a great idea together can be agents for economic regeneration, as long as we recognise that this, rather than disruption for its own ends, should be our aim.

If technology can create real economic value for the few, it can create equivalent value for the many. During the past three years, the American Express-backed Small Business Saturday shopping event has generated $5.5bn in consumer spending and come to the attention of 67% of people in the US. That is a brand identifying a problem and using its scale to do something to help.

With E.ON and its "Best deal for you" drive, we at DigitasLBi are trying to help the energy suppler create a utility that doesn’t just deliver gas and electricity and pump out bills, but adds value for customers, helping them to use less energy and reduce the size of their bills in the long term.

Campaigns such as this are not just about box-ticking or conscience-salving. They show how technology, with both its light and its dark side, can be manipulated, with care and an informed outlook, to create something valuable. The first step is to stop thinking of digital as a marketing channel and see it as something that affects the whole business.

Digital technology has the power to liberate. It also has the power to enslave. There is a strong argument that, if we are not vigilant or thinking clearly, we could unwittingly end up as economic slaves to algorithms. With the right support, funding and ideas from government and business, we can tame the beast and harness it for the good of the many, not just the powerful few.

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