Sunday, December 12, 2010

Xmas inspired cut and paste creativity

Lovely home made re-mix/cut of the 1965 Rudolf the red nosed reindeer stop motion animation along with The Police Roxanne. All done by a guy at home with a simple piece of software (pro-tools). So far a quarter of a million views, likely a lot more by xmas.

I wonder how long it would have taken your average BDA to come up with something like this and how much it'd cost...

Except they wouldn't have made this because the ECD would have said it's been done before, the art director would have demanded we re-shoot the reindeer scenes, the client would have made us take out the abominable snowman (for the sake of the children and to be able to run it before the 9pm watershed) and the media guys would have said we can only afford a :20

Merry xmas everyone...

Thursday, December 9, 2010

What a leak of one of China's diplomatic cables might read like


From WikiChina

Published: November 30, 2010

While secrets from WikiLeaks were splashed all over the American newspapers, I couldn’t help but wonder: What if China had a WikiLeaker and we could see what its embassy in Washington was reporting about America? 
I suspect the cable would read like this:

Washington Embassy, People’s Republic of China, to Ministry of Foreign Affairs Beijing

TOP SECRET/Subject: America today.
Things are going well here for China. America remains a deeply politically polarized country, which is certainly helpful for our goal of overtaking the U.S. as the world’s most powerful economy and nation. But we’re particularly optimistic because the Americans are polarized over all the wrong things.
There is a willful self-destructiveness in the air here as if America has all the time and money in the world for petty politics. They fight over things like — we are not making this up — how and where an airport security officer can touch them. They are fighting — we are happy to report — over the latest nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia. 

It seems as if the Republicans are so interested in weakening President Obama that they are going to scuttle a treaty that would have fostered closer U.S.-Russian cooperation on issues like Iran. And since anything that brings Russia and America closer could end up isolating us, we are grateful to Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona for putting our interests ahead of America’s and blocking Senate ratification of the treaty. The ambassador has invited Senator Kyl and his wife for dinner at Mr. Kao’s Chinese restaurant to praise him for his steadfastness in protecting America’s (read: our) interests.

Americans just had what they call an “election.” Best we could tell it involved one congressman trying to raise more money than the other (all from businesses they are supposed to be regulating) so he could tell bigger lies on TV more often about the other guy before the other guy could do it to him. This leaves us relieved. It means America will do nothing serious to fix its structural problems: a ballooning deficit, declining educational performance, crumbling infrastructure and diminished immigration of new talent.
The ambassador recently took what the Americans call a fast train — the Acela — from Washington to New York City. Our bullet train from Beijing to Tianjin would have made the trip in 90 minutes. His took three hours — and it was on time! Along the way the ambassador used his cellphone to call his embassy office, and in one hour he experienced 12 dropped calls — again, we are not making this up. We have a joke in the embassy: “When someone calls you from China today it sounds like they are next door. And when someone calls you from next door in America, it sounds like they are calling from China!” Those of us who worked in China’s embassy in Zambia often note that Africa’s cellphone service was better than America’s.
But the Americans are oblivious. They travel abroad so rarely that they don’t see how far they are falling behind. Which is why we at the embassy find it funny that Americans are now fighting over how “exceptional” they are. Once again, we are not making this up. On the front page of The Washington Post on Monday there was an article noting that Republicans Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee are denouncing Obama for denying “American exceptionalism.” The Americans have replaced working to be exceptional with talking about how exceptional they still are. They don’t seem to understand that you can’t declare yourself “exceptional,” only others can bestow that adjective upon you.
In foreign policy, we see no chance of Obama extricating U.S. forces from Afghanistan. He knows the Republicans will call him a wimp if he does, so America will keep hemorrhaging $190 million a day there. Therefore, America will lack the military means to challenge us anywhere else, particularly on North Korea, where our lunatic friends continue to yank America’s chain every six months so that the Americans have to come and beg us to calm things down. By the time the Americans do get out of Afghanistan, the Afghans will surely hate them so much that China’s mining companies already operating there should be able to buy up the rest of Afghanistan’s rare minerals.
Most of the Republicans just elected to Congress do not believe what their scientists tell them about man-made climate change. America’s politicians are mostly lawyers — not engineers or scientists like ours — so they’ll just say crazy things about science and nobody calls them on it. It’s good. It means they will not support any bill to spur clean energy innovation, which is central to our next five-year plan. And this ensures that our efforts to dominate the wind, solar, nuclear and electric car industries will not be challenged by America.
Finally, record numbers of U.S. high school students are now studying Chinese, which should guarantee us a steady supply of cheap labor that speaks our language here, as we use our $2.3 trillion in reserves to quietly buy up U.S. factories. In sum, things are going well for China in America.
Thank goodness the Americans can’t read our diplomatic cables.
China Embassy Washington

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


Gabriel Garcia Marquez on Wikileaks...

Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future....

A lovely quote that I use in as many presentations as I can is from Arthur C. Clarke 

"If we have leaned one thing from the history of invention and discovery, it is that, in the long run - and often the short one - the most daring prophecies seem laughably conservative".

He wrote this in 1951 but it's never been more true.

Check out this Newsweek article from 1995 (Clifford Stoll) about how over blown the Internet was...

And I quote....

"They speak of electronic town meetings and virtual communities. Commerce and business will shift from offices and malls to networks and modems. And the freedom of digital networks will make government more democratic.

Baloney. Do our computer pundits lack all common sense? The truth in no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works."

Hee hee.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

In an increasingly networked (globalized) world, this is an alarming chart

We (the greater we) need the US economy to begin to bounce back properly - and, as such, this chart is scary.

Asia/fast growing economies are doing better than most, but if these huge developed markets fail to spark, it'll hold everyone back, encourage more trade barriers and hold back the very globalization that has fueled Asia's growth (and others) over the past decade.

But, in my opinion, America needs to start to believe in itself and stop whining about the state of the world and its part in it. This changing of the economic guard (to a significant degree) should not be a surprise and if the developed world could find it in themselves to embrace and work with it rather than become more protectionist I think everyone would work out better in the medium to long term. Maybe if the dems and republicans stopped ripping themselves apart 24/7 on TV the general public might have a bit more confidence.....

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

WTF has happened to Obama the great communicator - and how the Democrats need a major overhaul of their messaging strategy

What has happened to Obama the great communicator and how the Democrats need an overhaul of their messaging strategy (in my opinion).

I'm shocked and saddened to say that I'm starting to give up with Obama - at least on his skills as a communicator and his ability to control the democratic message.

The dems seems to have a total inability to band effectively together, pick a few (only a few) winning talking points, stick to them and ruthlessly out the republicans on their nonsense.

The republicans are far superior at this and (with some exceptions from the teabaggers)  all sing off the same simple clear song sheet - smaller government, lower taxes, cut spending and strong on national security. They are also incredibly good at framing issues with language (read "don't think about an elephant" for the full story - great book by george lakoff) - pro-life/pro-choice, bush tax cuts, Obamacare, war on terror etc. 

The dems are all over the place on messaging and they are terribly divided - they need the old advertising lesson of throwing six tennis balls at someone vs. One...

As an interested viewer of the appallingly partisan state of affairs right now it seems obvious that the dems have a bunch of really clear strong points that are not getting through to the gen pub - unless they scour the political media and analyze it in great detail.

1.  Republicans don't care about poor people - while lobbying hard for continuing George bush's pro-millionaire tax cuts this week they voted down a bill for continuing unemployment benefits for struggling Americans. WTF? 

2.  Obama saved the American car industry and with it 1.3m jobs - GMs float on the stock exchange this week was the biggest in history (bigger than google). Right now all the big us car companies are back in profit for the first time since 2005. He took a tough decision that the party of NO mocked and it worked and yet they are still criticizing him for it. Why? And when are we going to out them on it?

3.  The republicans are using national security as a political tool and it's putting the American people in real danger. The party who started an illegal war, water tortured, wiretapped and extraordinarily renditioned while in power is screaming constitutional over reach (reach around?) over the TSA's new scanner/pat down procedures. Ridiculous hypocrisy. 100,000 troops are putting their life on the line every day, its time for the 99% of the population for whom they are sacrificing to do their part - in this case a slightly uncomfortable frisking only for those who refuse the scan. Surely a small price to pay and a welcome spirit of "everybody has a part to play" that has been forgotten. 

The republicans are also blocking the signing of the Start treaty against the advice of the chairman of the joint chiefs and other military leadership? Why? It's just politics and a chance to skewer Obama at the expense of American security.

4.  The republican party's intransigence and partisanship is holding back the confidence of the American people to pull out of this recession in the way the business community has - and the public needs to know this. 

The business community in the US has pulled steeply out of the recession in a way that ordinary people have not - 5 straight quarters of economic growth, corporate profits were the highest on record last quarter since the govt began recording in 1950 and corporate profits as a % of US economic growth over the last 3 decades are at nearly the highest point they've ever been today - up from the lowest point when when Obama took over. 

The constant sniping, criticism, blame gaming and painting of gloomy pictures can only leave the American public unsure, worried, cautious and unlikely to start spending, investing or employing. All of this politics is not harming business, it's not harming the republicans but it sure is harming the country's morale. 

At a time when the country needs to pull together and gee itself up, shame on the politicians who do the opposite for their own political gain.

5.  The deficit and W's tax cuts - the dems need to do much better job on this one. The right have succeeded in every occasion (normally unchallenged) in painting Obamas plans to let the tax cuts run out as "an Obama tax increase". This is rewriting history. I don't exactly remember the details, but I believe the only way W could get these tax cuts (in good economic times) through the congress was to agree to a term limit for them. So, this isn't Obama increasing taxes, this is the End of a policy written by bush and agreed by bush and supported by the republicans. The fact that Obama is willing to extend them for the middle class is a good thing. If it were me, 

I wouldn't extend them at all because then they are simply an extension of bush's policies. How about a brand new Obama tax cut beginning Jan 1? Reframe it like that and republicans would be fighting to increase the Obama tax cuts rather than extend the bush tax cuts. . . .

Grow some balls democrats, stop in fighting, learn to take and control the message and for christ sake read George lakoff's book about framing issues and stop letting the republicans run the communications board.

Happy thanksgiving and let's hope the witch of wassilla runs in 2012 - for all our sakes...

Thursday, November 18, 2010

It's not a fad

Ahead of the curve, disrupting, resisting the usual. All of these are what we talk about in our industry as rules to live by. And yet we rarely do. Nice to see a big serious (and likely stodgy) company such as the FT embrace new things. The FT is subsidizing iPad purchases for all it's staff and giving masterclass lessons to get people up to speed on this important new platform - which is, after all, what it is.

Who will be the first agency to do this? I bought an iPad very early on for my former agency and struggled to get it through the 'resist the usual' finance Dept. I guess it's resist the usual, to a point...

Click below for the story

There speaks a client who knows his business

"We have 100% awareness, we have been in all the big wars, what we have is a perception problem"
Bruce Jasurda, CMO of the US Army.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Churchill on Lawrence of Arabia....

I know a few people for whom I could say the same...

Bloomberg for president....

Mayor Bloomberg has a wonderful ability for telling things as they are, not as the press/politicians would have them be - I guess that's what comes of being worth $20bn. This is an interesting article concerning his comments about China in a recent trip to Hong Kong. His basic line is that America needs to stop blaming China for its troubles. He also has some harsh, but fair, words for some of Congress's recent recruits...

Bloomberg to America - lay off China
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, on a visit to Hong Kong and the neighboring city of Shenzhen, had some harsh criticism for his own fellow Americans: Stop blaming the Chinese for their problems.

As the debate rages over China’s trade and currencies policies, the 68-year-old Bloomberg, now in his third term as mayor of New York, was tough on China’s critics in the U.S. He spoke to reporters Saturday in Hong Kong after addressing a meeting of leaders from top cities around the world, dubbed the C40, focused on climate change and environment.
“I think in America, we’ve got to stop blaming the Chinese and blaming everybody else and take a look at ourselves,” he said.

A day earlier, Mr. Bloomberg visited several businesses (incluing a solar panel maker) in Shenzhen, a manufacturing hub that borders Hong Kong.

China’s big push into solar and other environmentally friendly energy technologies has begun to attract negative attention. Last month, the U.S. Trade Representative’s office said it would investigate China’s policies over complaints that the country was using tactics that violated its World Trade Organization commitments to shut other countries out of the burgeoning market for clean energy.

Mr. Bloomberg attacked the notion that using Chinese-made technology to promote green energy in the U.S. was politically objectionable. “Let me get this straight: There’s a country on the other side of the world that is taking their taxpayers’ dollars, and trying to sell subsidized things so we can buy them cheaper, and have better products, and we’re going to criticize that?”

Earlier, in an interview, the mayor was deeply, undiplomatically critical of provincialism and populism in U.S. Congress.

“If you look at the U.S., you look at who we’re electing to Congress, to the Senate—they can’t read,” he said. “I’ll bet you a bunch of these people don’t have passports. We’re about to start a trade war with China if we’re not careful here,” he warned, “only because nobody knows where China is. Nobody knows what China is.”

The mayor said his biggest impression from meeting his mayoral counterparts from China (the C40 includes about a half dozen heads of major cities in China) was their focus on environmental issues.

In the past, he said, “they have focused on jobs, jobs, jobs, economic development at all costs. Now all of a sudden they are realizing their rivers are becoming undrinkable, their air is killing people.”

China’s growing concern for the environment was good for Hong Kong, he noted, given how much of the city’s pollution problem wafts in across its border with the rest of the country. He recalled many years ago renting a helicopter (he’s a certified pilot) and flying it into the city’s mountainous New Territories district, only to get lost in the pollution.
“At one point I had to go down almost to tree level to figure out where I was, just to get out.”
Bloomberg, whose past business experience frequently took him to Asia, spoke highly of prospects for Hong Kong, where the stock exchange has dominated the global market for initial public offerings for a second year.

“The future of Hong Kong as a financial center is not going to be challenged by anybody else in Asia,” he said. Going in its favor were widespread use of English; a family-friendly, low-crime environment that attracts workers; and ease of commuting.

“The only other city that has the potential of doing that, of course, is Singapore,” he added, but not Tokyo. “I love Tokyo, but unless you speak Japanese, you can’t survive.”

An incredibly odd decision to make in 2010

First of all, I've nothing against FCB, I don't really know many FCBers (Rob Sherlock is a great guy), I don't know Mark Pacchini and I don't know Anil Kapoor - I'm sure they're all fine folks.  However, this announcement concerning the appointment of a new head of FCB Asia is astonishing to me.

First, how, in this day and age, can you run an Asian operation of a big network out of Chicago? And second, how do you get away with a supporting comment like "Mark has an extensive knowledge of the APAC region having travelled there frequently over the last 17yrs"? I'd rather just say nothing and let people presume you'd lived there at some point or another. To me this is a press release/announcement that didn't need to be made - at least not in the press!!!

Anyhow, best of luck. It's hard enough getting clients in China to take you seriously if you are based in Central HK, let alone Grosse Point.

Monday, November 1, 2010

FIFA - Football's very own 'Big-Government' problem

A nice piece on the FIFA's monopoly on the World Cup and assorted scandals that it’s currently facing.

FIFA is a Geneva based non-profit organization that had 2009 revenues of $1.06 billion and profits of $196 million.

"While equity of over a billion dollars seems high, it is necessary as the financial risks exceed it many times over," Franco Carraro, chairman of the internal audit committee, told delegates. "The figure is only enough to cover the next year and a half."

I bet there's a lot of not for profit organizations that might consider $1bn surplus to be more than enough for more than 18 months - especially if they owned such a lucrative franchise....

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Only consolidation can save us....part 2

Came across this in my files. A letter from David Ogilvy to a client 35yrs ago addressing the pro's and cons of global alignment.


Only consolidation can save us....part 1

When Sir M was in town for the Spikes he was on stage asking for questions to be emailed to him. He didn't get round to answering mine.

The gist of my question was why hasn't our industry consolidated more? 

Look at many of our clients. Much of the time, consolidation has reduced their categories to 3/4 big players and a handful of niche ones supplying specialist consumers. 

In the computer category - Dell, Lenovo, HP, Acer and Apple.
In the mobile phone category - Nokia, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, Apple, LG and Motorola
In the Accountancy category - The Big 4
In the toothpaste category - Colgate, Crest, Aquafresh,  Oral-B, Tom's of Maine, Darlie

I'm sure there's many exceptions to this rule, but in my mind they tend to be in categories where consumers actively demand greater choice - candy, drinks, food, cars etc.

So, back to my question. Why hasn't our industry consolidated more?

Our industry did undergo massive consolidation a decade or so back, but only at a holding company level - from dozens of brands to 4 or 5 (WPP, Omnicom, Interpublic, Publicis, Havas). 

But this wasn't really consolidation, it was merely conglomeration. Of course, some brands died as a result (DMB&M, BSB, Ayer etc.) but the vast majority of them remain today.

So, my hypothesis is that the industry can't sustain this many agency brands and if we are to get back to a more acceptable level of remuneration we need fewer brands with more business and a greater concentration of talent. 

Right now, clients have a dizzying choice of agencies who are willing to cut costs and anything else that gets them the project (and IT IS increasingly just a project). I don't blame clients, it's only natural, and besides, they have their own issues to deal with.

Do the holding companies really need so many mainline adverting brands, and can those brands realistically sustain themselves over the long term? Does it make sense for a WPP or an Interpublic to have 10+ offices in each city they operate in? I don't think so.

The response I usually get when I ask this is "We have no choice, we can't consolidate because of client conflict...". 

They are right. 

This, in my opinion, is at the heart of what needs to change.

If the issue of 'client conflict' were removed, the door would be open to real consolidation in the industry.  This could lead to the kinds economies of scale that would allow the remaining agencies to HIRE MORE, attract young talent (vs. other categories to whom we lose graduate talent - like banks & law firms), hire the best and pay them accordingly, TRAIN the rest, satisfy shareholders and the City and put some of the pride back into our great industry (I recall a story that advertising execs ranked somewhere between traffic wardens and second hand car salesmen in a recent study - although Mad Men has likely pushed us up or down on that scale depending on your perspective). 

But, to do this would mean convincing clients that 'client confidentiality' is really possible. And why not?  Let's face it, Bain, McKinsey, Accenture, the Banks and many other service industries manage - and some clients even see it as an advantage (McKinsey clients for example). The notion that, because you have a bunch of people working on a Coca-Cola brand in your office, a group of totally autonomous people can't be thinking about a mineral water, seems outdated and outmoded. 

One other point in support of my premise is that it's hardly like 'confidentiality' is the titanium clad thing that it used to be; with clients moving from competitor to competitor with increasing speed (what's a marketing director's average length of tenure these days? 18 months, less?) and agency revolving doors are revolving as fast as ever they have there's a veritable merry-go-round of illegitimate information and knowledge that circulating around.

I've witnessed agencies chasing their tails to try to hit increasingly difficult to achieve numbers; more often that not, chopping their tails off in the process. Clients playing one agency off against the other to drive down costs. The increasing role of procurement. Contracts coming down to auctions between agency CFO's - one a few years back being realtime online! This doesn't strike me as a situation that, in the long run, really benefits clients; let alone agencies.  It stretches agency teams, often resulting in sub-standard work, hampers agency's ability to attract the best new talent and can often disuades an agency from telling clients what they really need to hear. All dangerous stuff.

Phew, that's a load off my mind. I can get back to thinking about something else now.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Political correctness gone mad, racial profiling or just stupid?

I'm a big fan of Juan Williams  - although I wish he'd lay off appearing on the Fox Network.

That said, his comment about being scared when he sees muslims in their 'garb' when he's boarding a plane did not show his best side.

What's alarming is less what he said and more what the right said in response; that this is an example of political correctness gone mad and an affront to freedom of speech. A very Fox News spin.

Surely if there's an affront here it's to the 'garbed up' people on the plane who's freedom of speech (in this case 'speech' through what they're wearing) as well as freedom of religion was being eroded.

Juan Williams has a right to feel scared on any plane he chooses for whatever reason he feels, that's his unassailable right. Arguably, he also has the right to tell people that he felt/feels that way. As a political analyst it was a slightly silly thing to do on Fox News but, in my opinion, not really a firing offense.

I don't think it's about political correctness or freedom of speech, I think it's something closer to the kind of christian family values that the likes of Fox talk about endlessly; respect, tolerance, understanding and a live and let live attitude.

My prescription for greater tolerance and understanding is to get to at least page five of this website...

Thanks Sima and Sophina for posting this link....

Sunday, October 24, 2010

US confirms biggest arms deal ever - $60 billion to Saudi Arabia...

So, building an Islamic cultural centre in downtown manhattan (to replace the one there for 30yrs) funded by a shady Saudi businessman (Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal - except he's not a shady businessman unless you call being the second largest shareholder in Murdoch's NewsCorp being shady...) is an outrage? 

But selling $60 billion worth of weapons technology to the Saudi govt. isn't something of an outrage?

I understand that there's a desire to prop up (or at least aid) the Saudi regime against fundamentalists, but haven't we learnt that f-15s and attack helicopters aren't the answer when it comes to asymmetric warfare ? 

If this is a warning shot to Iran, maybe it'll work. One thing it certainly is is another great recruitment tool for Islamic fundamentalists as it paints the Saudi Royal Family as a pseudo-puppet of the US government - funny, I thought we were their puppets!

I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but you don't have to watch too many episodes of The West Wing to realize the best time to drop a news story like this is in the middle of something bigger and louder....Wikileaks anyone?

Friday, October 22, 2010

John Stewart nails the difference between Republicans and Democrats...

"Republicans love America but seem to hate 50% of the people who live there and Democrats love American but just somehow wish it were a different country..."

The Galt Peters projection

If you're interested in how big continents really are relative to each other, try going by the Galt Peters projection.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Next growth markets are in Africa...

Interesting article in WSJ about the opportunities presented by Africa. Sadly the tone set by Martin Sorrell and Richard Pinder in the article is very much like Alex the lion in Madagascar who sees every animal around him as a juicy steak. How big can a holding company get before it get before it gets bad...oh, I think we already know that.

Innovation isn't big things, it's small things - just more of them

I'd rather my beer brand did this than produce a blight on the culture with another also-ran advertising campaign...brands should be useful and this small indent beneath the ring pull is just that...especially after you've had a couple of their tasty beverages...

Credit Card innovation

An interesting article about what, in many ways, is a commodity business - CC transactions. One good thing about having little difference between you and a competitor is it forces innovation - or hastens death if you don't!  Some of my previous clients would do well to think about that - you know who you are!!!

RIP the BBC World Service

No longer funded by the Foreign Office, the BBC World Service is destined to become middle of the road news nonsense like BBC World....terrible shame....

Good piece from the Guardian...

Journalist a very BBC sort of a way

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Murdoch on theft. . . . .

Seeing things differently

Putting things into perspective

Texts Without Context By MICHIKO KAKUTANI

In his deliberately provocative — and deeply nihilistic — new book, “Reality Hunger,” the onetime novelist David Shields asserts that fiction “has never seemed less central to the culture’s sense of itself.” He says he’s “bored by out-and-out fabrication, by myself and others; bored by invented plots and invented characters” and much more interested in confession and “reality-based art.” His own book can be taken as Exhibit A in what he calls “recombinant” or appropriation art.

Mr. Shields’s book consists of 618 fragments, including hundreds of quotations taken from other writers like Philip Roth, Joan Didion and Saul Bellow — quotations that Mr. Shields, 53, has taken out of context and in some cases, he says, “also revised, at least a little — for the sake of compression, consistency or whim.” He only acknowledges the source of these quotations in an appendix, which he says his publishers’ lawyers insisted he add.

“Who owns the words?” Mr. Shields asks in a passage that is itself an unacknowledged reworking of remarks by the cyberpunk author William Gibson. “Who owns the music and the rest of our culture? We do — all of us — though not all of us know it yet. Reality cannot be copyrighted.”

Mr. Shields’s pasted-together book and defense of appropriation underscore the contentious issues of copyright, intellectual property and plagiarism that have become prominent in a world in which the Internet makes copying and recycling as simple as pressing a couple of buttons. In fact, the dynamics of the Web, as the artist and computer scientist Jaron Lanier observes in another new book, are encouraging “authors, journalists, musicians and artists” to “treat the fruits of their intellects and imaginations as fragments to be given without pay to the hive mind.”

It’s not just a question of how these “content producers” are supposed to make a living or finance their endeavors, however, or why they ought to allow other people to pick apart their work and filch choice excerpts. Nor is it simply a question of experts and professionals being challenged by an increasingly democratized marketplace. It’s also a question, as Mr. Lanier, 49, astutely points out in his new book, “You Are Not a Gadget,” of how online collectivism, social networking and popular software designs are changing the way people think and process information, a question of what becomes of originality and imagination in a world that prizes “metaness” and regards the mash-up as “more important than the sources who were mashed.”

Mr. Lanier’s book, which makes an impassioned case for “a digital humanism,” is only one of many recent volumes to take a hard but judicious look at some of the consequences of new technology and Web 2.0. Among them are several prescient books by Cass Sunstein, 55, which explore the effects of the Internet on public discourse; Farhad Manjoo’s “True Enough,” which examines how new technologies are promoting the cultural ascendancy of belief over fact; “The Cult of the Amateur,” by Andrew Keen, which argues that Web 2.0 is creating a “digital forest of mediocrity” and substituting ill-informed speculation for genuine expertise; and Nicholas Carr’s book “The Shallows” (coming in June), which suggests that increased Internet use is rewiring our brains, impairing our ability to think deeply and creatively even as it improves our ability to multitask.

Unlike “Digital Barbarism,” Mark Helprin’s shrill 2009 attack on copyright abolitionists, these books are not the work of Luddites or technophobes. Mr. Lanier is a Silicon Valley veteran and a pioneer in the development of virtual reality; Mr. Manjoo, 31, is Slate’s technology columnist; Mr. Keen is a technology entrepreneur; and Mr. Sunstein is a Harvard Law School professor who now heads the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Rather, these authors’ books are nuanced ruminations on some of the unreckoned consequences of technological change — books that stand as insightful counterweights to early techno-utopian works like Esther Dyson’s “Release 2.0” and Nicholas Negroponte’s “Being Digital,” which took an almost Pollyannaish view of the Web and its capacity to empower users.

THESE NEW BOOKS share a concern with how digital media are reshaping our political and social landscape, molding art and entertainment, even affecting the methodology of scholarship and research. They examine the consequences of the fragmentation of data that the Web produces, as news articles, novels and record albums are broken down into bits and bytes; the growing emphasis on immediacy and real-time responses; the rising tide of data and information that permeates our lives; and the emphasis that blogging and partisan political Web sites place on subjectivity.

At the same time it’s clear that technology and the mechanisms of the Web have been accelerating certain trends already percolating through our culture — including the blurring of news and entertainment, a growing polarization in national politics, a deconstructionist view of literature (which emphasizes a critic’s or reader’s interpretation of a text, rather than the text’s actual content), the prominence of postmodernism in the form of mash-ups and bricolage, and a growing cultural relativism that has been advanced on the left by multiculturalists and radical feminists, who argue that history is an adjunct of identity politics, and on the right by creationists and climate-change denialists, who suggest that science is an instrument of leftist ideologues.

Even some outspoken cheerleaders of Internet technology have begun to grapple with some of its more vexing side effects. Steven Johnson, a founder of the online magazine Feed, for instance, wrote in an article in The Wall Street Journal last year that with the development of software for’s Kindle and other e-book readers that enable users to jump back and forth from other applications, he fears “one of the great joys of book reading — the total immersion in another world, or in the world of the author’s ideas — will be compromised.” He continued, “We all may read books the way we increasingly read magazines and newspapers: a little bit here, a little bit there.”

Mr. Johnson added that the book’s migration to the digital realm will turn the solitary act of reading — “a direct exchange between author and reader” — into something far more social and suggested that as online chatter about books grows, “the unity of the book will disperse into a multitude of pages and paragraphs vying for Google’s attention.”

WORRYING ABOUT the public’s growing attention deficit disorder and susceptibility to information overload, of course, is hardly new. It’s been 25 years since Neil Postman warned in “Amusing Ourselves to Death” that trivia and the entertainment values promoted by television were creating distractions that threatened to subvert public discourse, and more than a decade since writers like James Gleick (“Faster”) and David Shenk (“Data Smog”) described a culture addicted to speed, drowning in data and overstimulated to the point where only sensationalism and willful hyperbole grab people’s attention.

Now, with the ubiquity of instant messaging and e-mail, the growing popularity of Twitter and YouTube, and even newer services like Google Wave, velocity and efficiency have become even more important. Although new media can help build big TV audiences for events like the Super Bowl, it also tends to make people treat those events as fodder for digital chatter. More people are impatient to cut to the chase, and they’re increasingly willing to take the imperfect but immediately available product over a more thoughtfully analyzed, carefully created one. Instead of reading an entire news article, watching an entire television show or listening to an entire speech, growing numbers of people are happy to jump to the summary, the video clip, the sound bite — never mind if context and nuance are lost in the process; never mind if it’s our emotions, more than our sense of reason, that are engaged; never mind if statements haven’t been properly vetted and sourced.

People tweet and text one another during plays and movies, forming judgments before seeing the arc of the entire work. Recent books by respected authors like Malcolm Gladwell (“Outliers”), Susan Faludi (“The Terror Dream”) and Jane Jacobs (“Dark Age Ahead”) rely far more heavily on cherry-picked anecdotes — instead of broader-based evidence and assiduous analysis — than the books that first established their reputations. And online research enables scholars to power-search for nuggets of information that might support their theses, saving them the time of wading through stacks of material that might prove marginal but that might have also prompted them to reconsider or refine their original thinking.

“Reading in the traditional open-ended sense is not what most of us, whatever our age and level of computer literacy, do on the Internet,” the scholar Susan Jacoby writes in “The Age of American Unreason.” “What we are engaged in — like birds of prey looking for their next meal — is a process of swooping around with an eye out for certain kinds of information.”

TODAY’S TECHNOLOGY has bestowed miracles of access and convenience upon millions of people, and it’s also proven to be a vital new means of communication. Twitter has been used by Iranian dissidents; text messaging and social networking Web sites have been used to help coordinate humanitarian aid in Haiti; YouTube has been used by professors to teach math and chemistry. But technology is also turning us into a global water-cooler culture, with millions of people sending each other (via e-mail, text messages, tweets, YouTube links) gossip, rumors and the sort of amusing-entertaining-weird anecdotes and photographs they might once have shared with pals over a coffee break. And in an effort to collect valuable eyeballs and clicks, media outlets are increasingly pandering to that impulse — often at the expense of hard news. “I have the theory that news is now driven not by editors who know anything,” the comedian and commentator Bill Maher recently observed. “I think it’s driven by people who are” slacking off at work and “surfing the Internet.” He added, “It’s like a country run by ‘America’s Funniest Home Videos.’ ”

MSNBC’s new program “The Dylan Ratigan Show,” which usually focuses on business and politics, has a “While you were working ...” segment in which viewers are asked to send in “some of the strangest and outrageous stories you’ve found on the Internet,” and the most e-mailed lists on popular news sites tend to feature articles about pets, food, celebrities and self-improvement. For instance, at one point on March 11, the top story on The Washington Post’s Web site was “Maintaining a Sex Life,” while the top story on, a user-generated news link site, was “(Funny) Sexy Girl? Do Not Trust Profile Pictures!”
Given the constant bombardment of trivia and data that we’re subjected to in today’s mediascape, it’s little wonder that noisy, Manichean arguments tend to get more attention than subtle, policy-heavy ones; that funny, snarky or willfully provocative assertions often gain more traction than earnest, measured ones; and that loud, entertaining or controversial personalities tend to get the most ink and airtime. This is why Sarah Palin’s every move and pronouncement is followed by television news, talk-show hosts and pundits of every political persuasion. This is why Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh on the right and Michael Moore on the left are repeatedly quoted by followers and opponents. This is why a gathering of 600 people for last month’s national Tea Party convention in Nashville received a disproportionate amount of coverage from both the mainstream news media and the blogosphere.

Digital insiders like Mr. Lanier and Paulina Borsook, the author of the book “Cyberselfish,” have noted the easily distracted, adolescent quality of much of cyberculture. Ms. Borsook describes tech-heads as having “an angry adolescent view of all authority as the Pig Parent,” writing that even older digerati want to think of themselves as “having an Inner Bike Messenger.”
For his part Mr. Lanier says that because the Internet is a kind of “pseudoworld” without the qualities of a physical world, it encourages the Peter Pan fantasy of being an entitled child forever, without the responsibilities of adulthood. While this has the virtues of playfulness and optimism, he argues, it can also devolve into a “Lord of the Flies”-like nastiness, with lots of “bullying, voracious irritability and selfishness” — qualities enhanced, he says, by the anonymity, peer pressure and mob rule that thrive online.

Digital culture, he writes in “You Are Not a Gadget,” “is comprised of wave after wave of juvenilia,” with rooms of “M.I.T. Ph.D. engineers not seeking cancer cures or sources of safe drinking water for the underdeveloped world but schemes to send little digital pictures of teddy bears and dragons between adult members of social networks.”

AT THE SAME time the Internet’s nurturing of niche cultures is contributing to what Cass Sunstein calls “cyberbalkanization.” Individuals can design feeds and alerts from their favorite Web sites so that they get only the news they want, and with more and more opinion sites and specialized sites, it becomes easier and easier, as Mr. Sunstein observes in his 2009 book “Going to Extremes,” for people “to avoid general-interest newspapers and magazines and to make choices that reflect their own predispositions.”

“Serendipitous encounters” with persons and ideas different from one’s own, he writes, tend to grow less frequent, while “views that would ordinarily dissolve, simply because of an absence of social support, can be found in large numbers on the Internet, even if they are understood to be exotic, indefensible or bizarre in most communities.” He adds that studies of group polarization show that when like-minded people deliberate, they tend to reinforce one another and become more extreme in their views.

One result of this nicheification of the world is that consensus and common ground grow ever smaller, civic discourse gets a lot less civil, and pluralism — what Isaiah Berlin called the idea that “there are many different ends that men may seek and still be fully rational, fully men, capable of understanding each other and sympathizing and deriving light” from “worlds, outlooks, very remote from our own” — comes to feel increasingly elusive.

As Mr. Manjoo observes in “True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society” (2008), the way in which “information now moves through society — on currents of loosely linked online groups and niche media outlets, pushed along by experts and journalists of dubious character and bolstered by documents that are no longer considered proof of reality” — has fostered deception and propaganda and also created what he calls a “Rashomon world” where “the very idea of objective reality is under attack.” Politicians and voters on the right and left not only hold different opinions from one another, but often can’t even agree over a shared set of facts, as clashes over climate change, health care and the Iraq war attest.

THE WEB’S amplification of subjectivity applies to culture as well as politics, fueling a phenomenon that has been gaining hold over America for several decades, with pundits squeezing out reporters on cable news, with authors writing biographies animated by personal and ideological agendas, with tell-all memoirs, talk-show confessionals, self-dramatizing blogs and carefully tended Facebook and MySpace pages becoming almost de rigeur.

As for the textual analysis known as deconstruction, which became fashionable in American academia in the 1980s, it enshrined individual readers’ subjective responses to a text over the text itself, thereby suggesting that the very idea of the author (and any sense of original intent) was dead. In doing so, deconstruction uncannily presaged arguments advanced by digerati like Kevin Kelly, who in a 2006 article for The New York Times Magazine looked forward to the day when books would cease to be individual works but would be scanned and digitized into one great, big continuous text that could be “unraveled into single pages” or “reduced further, into snippets of a page,” which readers — like David Shields, presumably — could then appropriate and remix, like bits of music, into new works of their own.

As John Updike pointed out, Mr. Kelly’s vision would in effect mean “the end of authorship” — hobbling writers’ ability to earn a living from their published works, while at the same time removing a sense of both recognition and accountability from their creations. In a Web world where copies of books (and articles and music and other content) are cheap or free, Mr. Kelly has suggested, authors and artists could make money by selling “performances, access to the creator, personalization, add-on information” and other aspects of their work that cannot be copied. But while such schemes may work for artists who happen to be entrepreneurial, self-promoting and charismatic, Mr. Lanier says he fears that for “the vast majority of journalists, musicians, artists and filmmakers” it simply means “career oblivion.”

Other challenges to the autonomy of the artist come from new interactive media and from constant polls on television and the Web, which ask audience members for feedback on television shows, movies and music; and from fan bulletin boards, which often function like giant focus groups. Should the writers of television shows listen to fan feedback or a network’s audience testing? Does the desire to get an article on a “most e-mailed” list consciously or unconsciously influence how reporters and editors go about their assignments and approaches to stories? Are literary-minded novelists increasingly taking into account what their readers want or expect?

As reading shifts “from the private page to the communal screen,” Mr. Carr writes in “The Shallows,” authors “will increasingly tailor their work to a milieu that the writer Caleb Crain describes as ‘groupiness,’ where people read mainly ‘for the sake of a feeling of belonging’ rather than for personal enlightenment or amusement. As social concerns override literary ones, writers seem fated to eschew virtuosity and experimentation in favor of a bland but immediately accessible style.”

For that matter, the very value of artistic imagination and originality, along with the primacy of the individual, is increasingly being questioned in our copy-mad, postmodern digital world. In a recent Newsweek cover story pegged to the Tiger Woods scandal, Neal Gabler, the author of “Life: the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality,” absurdly asserts that celebrity is “the great new art form of the 21st century.”

Celebrity, Mr. Gabler argues, “competes with — and often supersedes — more traditional entertainments like movies, books, plays and TV shows,” and it performs, he says, “in its own roundabout way, many of the functions those old media performed in their heyday: among them, distracting us, sensitizing us to the human condition, and creating a fund of common experience around which we can form a national community.”

However impossible it is to think of “Jon & Kate Plus Eight” or “Jersey Shore” as art, reality shows have taken over wide swaths of television, and memoir writing has become a rite of passage for actors, politicians and celebrities of every ilk. At the same time our cultural landscape is brimming over with parodies, homages, variations, pastiches, collages and others forms of “appropriation art” — much of it facilitated by new technology that makes remixing, and cutting-and-pasting easy enough for a child.

It’s no longer just hip-hop sampling that rules in youth culture, but also jukebox musicals like “Jersey Boys” and “Rock of Ages,” and works like “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” which features characters drawn from a host of classic adventures. Fan fiction and fan edits are thriving, as are karaoke contests, video games like Guitar Hero, and YouTube mash-ups of music and movie, television and visual images. These recyclings and post-modern experiments run the gamut in quality. Some, like Zachary Mason’s “Lost Books of the Odyssey,” are beautifully rendered works of art in their own right. Some, like J. J. Abram’s 2009 “Star Trek” film and Amy Heckerling’s 1995 “Clueless” (based on Jane Austen’s “Emma”) are inspired reinventions of classics. Some fan-made videos are extremely clever and inventive, and some, like a 3-D video version of Picasso’s “Guernica” posted on YouTube, are intriguing works that raise important and unsettling questions about art and appropriation.

All too often, however, the recycling and cut-and-paste esthetic has resulted in tired imitations; cheap, lazy re-dos; or works of “appropriation” designed to generate controversy like Mr. Shields’s “Reality Hunger.” Lady Gaga is third-generation Madonna; many jukebox or tribute musicals like “Good Vibrations” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” do an embarrassing disservice to the artists who inspired them; and the rote remaking of old television shows into films (from “The Brady Bunch” to “Charlie’s Angels” to “Get Smart”), not to mention the recycling of video games into movies (like “Tomb Raider” and “Resident Evil”) often seem as pointless as they are now predictable.

Writing in a 2005 Wired article that “new technologies redefine us,” William Gibson hailed audience participation and argued that “an endless, recombinant, and fundamentally social process generates countless hours of creative product.” Indeed, he said, “audience is as antique a term as record, the one archaically passive, the other archaically physical. The record, not the remix, is the anomaly today. The remix is the very nature of the digital.”

To Mr. Lanier, however, the prevalence of mash-ups in today’s culture is a sign of “nostalgic malaise.” “Online culture,” he writes, “is dominated by trivial mash-ups of the culture that existed before the onset of mash-ups, and by fandom responding to the dwindling outposts of centralized mass media. It is a culture of reaction without action.”

He points out that much of the chatter online today is actually “driven by fan responses to expression that was originally created within the sphere of old media,” which many digerati mock as old-fashioned and passé, and which is now being destroyed by the Internet. “Comments about TV shows, major movies, commercial music releases and video games must be responsible for almost as much bit traffic as porn,” Mr. Lanier writes. “There is certainly nothing wrong with that, but since the Web is killing the old media, we face a situation in which culture is effectively eating its own seed stock.”

Soft in the middle

Fascinating article about the increasingly soft space in the middle of the market.

by James Surowiecki

Apple’s launch of the iPad next week is a gamble in more ways than one. To start with, it’s obviously a bet that there are millions of people looking for a new way to surf the Web, watch movies, and read magazines. But it’s also a more fundamental gamble; namely, that people will pay for quality. Starting at five hundred dollars, the iPad is significantly more expensive than its competitors. But Apple’s assumption is that, if the iPad is also significantly better, people will happily shell out for it (as they already do for iPods, iPhones, and Macs). That’s why when Steve Jobs first introduced the iPad he said that, if a product wasn’t “far better” than what was already out there, it had “no reason for being.”

For Apple, which has enjoyed enormous success in recent years, “build it and they will pay” is business as usual. But it’s not a universal business truth. On the contrary, companies like Ikea, H. & M., and the makers of the Flip video camera are flourishing not by selling products or services that are “far better” than anyone else’s but by selling things that aren’t bad and cost a lot less. These products are much better than the cheap stuff you used to buy at Woolworth, and they tend to be appealingly styled, but, unlike Apple, the companies aren’t trying to build the best mousetrap out there. Instead, they’re engaged in what Wired recently christened the “good-enough revolution.” For them, the key to success isn’t excellence. It’s well-priced adequacy.

These two strategies may look completely different, but they have one crucial thing in common: they don’t target the amorphous blob of consumers who make up the middle of the market. Paradoxically, ignoring these people has turned out to be a great way of getting lots of customers, because, in many businesses, high- and low-end producers are taking more and more of the market. In fashion, both H. & M. and Hermès have prospered during the recession. In the auto industry, luxury-car sales, though initially hurt by the downturn, are reemerging as one of the most profitable segments of the market, even as small cars like the Ford Focus are luring consumers into showrooms. And, in the computer business, the Taiwanese company Acer has become a dominant player by making cheap, reasonably good laptops—the reverse of Apple’s premium-price approach.

While the high and low ends are thriving, the middle of the market is in trouble. Previously, successful companies tended to gravitate toward what historians of retail have called the Big Middle, because that’s where most of the customers were. These days, the Big Middle is looking more like “the mushy middle” (in the formulation of the consultants Al and Laura Ries). The companies there—Sony, Dell, General Motors, and the like—find themselves squeezed from both sides (just as, in a way, middle-class workers do in a time of growing income inequality). The products made by midrange companies are neither exceptional enough to justify premium prices nor cheap enough to win over value-conscious consumers. Furthermore, the squeeze is getting tighter every day. Thanks to economies of scale, products that start out mediocre often get better without getting much more expensive—the newest Flip, for instance, shoots in high-def and has four times as much memory as the original—so consumers can trade down without a significant drop in quality. Conversely, economies of scale also allow makers of high-end products to reduce prices without skimping on quality. A top-of-the-line iPod now features video and four times as much storage as it did six years ago, but costs a hundred and fifty dollars less. At the same time, the global market has become so huge that you can occupy a high-end niche and still sell a lot of units. Apple has just 2.2 per cent of the world cell-phone market, but that means it sold twenty-five million iPhones last year.

The boom in information for consumers has also severely weakened middle-market firms. In the past, these companies were able to charge a premium price because their brands were taken as signals of reasonable quality and reliability. Today, consumers don’t need to rely on shorthand: they have Consumer Reports and J. D. Power, CNET and Amazon’s user ratings, and so on, which have made it easier to gauge differences in quality accurately. The result is that brands matter less: a recent Nielsen survey found that more than sixty per cent of consumers think that stores’ generic products are equal in quality to brand-name ones. In effect, the more information people have, the tighter the relationship between quality and price: if you can deliver a product or service that is qualitatively better, you can charge top dollar. But if you can’t deliver the quality you can’t get the price. (Even Apple, after all, couldn’t make Apple TV a hit.)

This doesn’t mean that companies are going to abandon the idea of being all things to all people. If you’re already in the middle of the market, it’s hard to shift focus—as G.M. has discovered. And the allure of a big market share is often hard to resist, even if it doesn’t translate into profits. According to one estimate, Nokia has nearly twenty times Apple’s market share, but the iPhone alone makes almost as much money as all Nokia’s phones combined. But making money by selling moderately good products that are moderately expensive isn’t going to get any easier, which suggests a slight rewrite of the old Highland ballad. You take the high road, and I’ll take the low road, and we’ll both be in Scotland afore the guy in the middle. ♦