Thursday, June 30, 2016

Agnotologically Speaking

Tell the truth and shame the internet.

Perhaps the greatest irony of the modern age is that technology which was created to propagate knowledge is used so often, and so effectively, to spread lies.

Tech aside, our species has always had a complicated relationship with the truth. In laws both religious and secular, truthfulness has never been categorically mandated. Specific types of lies are proscribed, such as bearing false witness or shouting about a nonexistent fire in that proverbial movie theater. But in no canon are we told we must always tell the truth, no matter the circumstances. Take it a step further–many Americans would claim that their right to lie is enshrined in the First Amendment, providing the lie wasn’t violating any other enumerated laws. And there’s an almost universal tolerance for the “white lie,” the harmless falsehood told as an expediency or to spare someone’s feelings.

Given that history, it shouldn’t be a surprise that when humanity is given bigger and better soapboxes, bigger and badder lies spew forth.

Technology, then, has always been an enabler. The dawn of broadcasting, radio and television, brought mass audiences, and before long, mass deception.

In the mid-1990s we the people first began accessing a fast-growing computer network that had been built for purposes almost directly antithetical to the duplicity of which we speak. The internet began as a resource for universities and researchers to share data and ideas.

Once it morphed into a more public forum, the sadly inevitable happened. Disparate groups took to the medium to spread untruths, half-truths, and self-serving fabrications. Their motivations have varied–politics and prejudice, conspiracy-mongering and the proliferation of crackpot ideas. But arguably the most common reason is also among the sleaziest: the pursuit of the quick buck.

The phenomenon is familiar enough that it’s spawned its own field of study: agnotology. The word was coined by Stanford historian Robert Proctor, based on his review of the tactics employed by the tobacco industry in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s to sow uncertainty in the public’s mind about the health risks of smoking. It refers to the deliberate, deceitful act of spreading doubt, or agnosis, usually for material gain.

And although this dark discipline came to the fore in the Reagan era, Proctor and his fellow agnotologists agree that our present information age marks the maturity of mass deception.

Make no mistake, these developments are every bit as grim as they seem. But take heart in this glimmer of hope: the very tools that are used to delude us can be leveraged for the sake of veracity.

By this we mean: the truth is in here. Despite all efforts of the dissemblers, the ‘net fulfills its purpose of sharing knowledge–sharing truth–but it is incumbent upon the seeker to find that truth.

Look then, for credible sourcing. Look for multiple sourcing. Consume content discerningly, and operate under the credo that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. Trust your instinct to know when you’re being led down the garden path. Rest easy in the knowledge that although they may lie to you, you can control whether or not you’re misled.

It’s a crying shame that we are where we are, that such a powerful resource for human connectedness is being used for such inhumane deceit. But crying never solved anything, did it? The only solution is our joint resolution to reject guile and hypocrisy, and to reclaim the global conversation, in the name of the truth.

The C4:
1. Lies are as old as mankind. We could try to excuse or rationalize that, but there’d be no truth in it.

2. Instead, by necessity, we’ve learned to live with the lies. They’re like viruses: undesirable and unhealthy; we convince ourselves they’re rarely lethal, and that they’re unavoidable.

3. If that is so, then we have here in the digital realm the most welcoming petri dish imaginable for perfidy. The information age might well be remembered as the Golden Age of B.S.

4. Liars gonna lie. We can’t put this poisonous genie back in the bottle. But rather than abandon the internet to the liars and the cheats, we can arm ourselves with the truth. We can become integral to the solution rather than contributing to the problem. Help us, please. A more honest internet–a more honest world!–depends upon us all.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Fractal Hunting

The human search for pattern

It took a mathematician to tell us why we love the art of Jackson Pollock.

That the subject is under discussion is evidence, we suppose, that not everyone is as enamored as we with the work of the great mid-century action-painter, expressionist. Where we see a hypnotic and original style of painting, others see disordered dribbles and splashes of pigment, more suggestive of a studio mishap than deliberate art. Why, one philistine of our acquaintance even threatened to haul his oft-used, crusty drop cloth out of the basement, forge Pollock’s signature to it, and try his luck selling it to MoMA.

Cretins like that aside, Pollock’s body of work is celebrated world wide by lovers of modern art. And art being art, it almost seems antithetical to examine the reasons why.

But there’s a hidden logic to aesthetic rules or at least guidelines that govern what we find pleasing to the eye or ear, even though we’re often quite unaware of it.

In the case of Pollock, there’s no overt symmetry or pattern we can cling to which would seem to explain the allure. Or is there?

Fractals are a relatively new (or newly recognized) family of geometrical designs, defined as patterns that repeat themselves at any scale. The most familiar ones, such as the Mandelbrot set, are purely imaginary, existing as computer models and born from complicated mathematical formulae.

But then fractal hunters noticed something amazing: Fractals do exist in the real world, and they’re far from rare.

Look at that tree outside. The trunk sprouts limbs, from which sprout branches, then twigs. Zoom in on any of those twigs, and see how it mimics, in its abbreviated way, the propagation of the greater tree.

Or pick up a rock, one no bigger than your fist. Bring it in close and get a good look. Then try to imagine what would distinguish it from a multi-ton boulder sitting a few yards away.

The scales change. The patterns do not.

Which brings us back to Pollock. The man shuffled off his mortal coil back in 1956 so we can’t be sure if he was aware of it, but turns out, he was making fractals too.

Dr. Richard Taylor from the University of Oregon’s Department of Physics was the first to demonstrate this back in 2011. Lacking the ability to mimic Pollock’s technique by hand, he built a paint-spattering rig (he calls it the “Pollockizer”) that fairly accurately reproduces this signature style. And he found that what makes a Pollock a Pollock is the depth of saturation. And the randomness? It’s illusory. Patterns assert themselves. Perhaps most importantly, like fractals, they do so at scale. Slice out one square inch of a Pollock canvas (actually, please, don’t)...enlarge it, and compare it the original. You’ll find they’re twins.

There is indeed a point here, and it’s as relevant to business and human nature as it is to art. We are pattern-seeking creatures. Unlike most mammalians our olfactory prowess is pretty feeble. Our hearing likewise leaves a lot to be desired. We rely instead on sight. We depend upon our eyes to provide timely input on whether that face down the block is a familiar one, and whether it belongs to a friend or foe. We need to know if a vague shape in the leaves where we’re walking is a stick, or a deadly viper.

This has evolved into an amazingly versatile faculty. We’re not just able to see shapes and faces floating in the clouds, we can find revelation and courses of action hidden in reams of raw data. We can wade through noise, through chaos, and find that no, it’s actually information.

Savants like Jackson Pollock need not understand the theory behind the pattern-making. Neither do we. This is our natural element. And just as easily as he dipped his hands and splashed the paint, we too can dip into the seeming tumult, and make sense of it.

The C4:
1. Chaos Theory (a close cousin of fractal theory) tells us that chaos itself is a rare bird indeed. Nature abhors randomness. Order asserts itself, even when, on the surface, disorder seems to abound.

2. Just knowing this offers an advantage—in the business realm, certainly, but just as certainly in every other realm of human endeavor.

3. Finding signals in the noise takes a bit of a knack, perhaps, but no special training or aptitude. All it really requires is the willingness to try, and the conviction that doing so will be worth it.

4. Jackson Pollock (Jan. 28, 1912 - Aug. 11, 1956) was an American painter and one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century. He may or may not have consciously pioneered the aesthetic use of fractal design. Does it matter? You can lose yourself in his Full Fathom Five without ever needing to know exactly how he created it.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Purple Gain

Sincere mourning or more pall than we can bear?

Prince passed away on April 21 of this year.

It was a sad but remarkable day, wasn’t it? Remarkable in the way that the feelings of shock and loss were very nearly universal. People who hadn’t realized how much they enjoyed the Paisley Park sound were suddenly and sadly aware: We were all Prince’s fans, and none of us were ready to see him go.

Prince was an extraordinarily talented performer, who’d wielded outsized influence on pop culture since the early 1980s. This is perhaps why his death felt so much like a watershed, a moment in time, indelibly marked. WWE personality Chyna passed away the day before, and we lost Merle Haggard just a couple weeks earlier. Both events were notably sad, yet neither somehow felt as ground-shifting as Prince’s death. Prince himself would have been unlikely to claim that his life was worth anything more or less than anyone else’s, yet his death was more of a world-wide event, felt by all.

There’s a tendency, maybe even a need, to reach out during such events. Always has been. The difference now is that we have the ability to reach out much more quickly, to a much wider audience. Another consequential development is that businesses, corporations, and brands share that ability, and they tend to exercise it with the same kind of individualized voice as do the rest of us.

Which is generally a positive thing–we’ve examined before the value of vibrant social-media brand presence. It’s fairly straightforward in ordinary times. But in extraordinary circumstances, such as the death of an icon, some brands perform better than others.

Our vigilant friends at Adweek did a roundup of the best and worst brand tributes to Prince; we won’t rehash it here except to say the companies that temporarily purpled their mascots, or tweeted some shaky connection between Prince and their product, did themselves no favors. The ones that emulated the millions of regular people who took to social media simply to share their grief were on the mark.

Brand social-media presence is about selling, sure. If it were only about that, though, we’d replace the retweet link with a “Buy Now” button. The true, overarching goal is to make connections and engage in conversations. People connect with brands in which they detect a relatable human face. This means being entertaining, informative, and approachable on a day to day basis, and being solemnly empathetic when the worst happens.

Look at it this way. If a great tsunami were to wipe out a major city, causing unspeakable loss of life, would you try to slip in there and leverage it for a promotional opportunity? Most of us wouldn’t but don’t be naive, plenty would. Assuming you’re one of the good ones and would never contemplate such a thing, that same sense of social conscience is all you need to guide your social-media presence. The analogy works because every death is a tidal wave for someone.

There aren’t many hard and fast rules in marketing, and the rules that exist are frequently broken. We could tell you that your social-media activity should be something like 70 percent conversational, 30 percent promotional. Maybe that’s the right mix for you, maybe it’s not.

But we’ll stake our reputations on one absolute and irrevocable rule, which we’ll never break and we’ll encourage all others to follow faithfully: Do not market on the back of a tragedy. It’s doesn’t just look bad, it is bad. And the damage it does to your business does not compare to that done to your very humanity.

The C4:
1. It’s been long postulated that tragedies bring out the best and the worst. We can all testify to the truth of this in terms of social media. In the worst of times most of us go online to discuss and console and commiserate. And then there are those other people.

2. Corporate and brand social-media presences are rarely offensive on purpose. Usually, in the worst cases, they’re merely tone deaf. They’re driven to leverage their presence for self-promotion, and they’re liable to do so at the most inappropriate times. People notice this, and their resentment lingers.

3. Promotion has its place and its time. That time is not when people are grieving. At times like those forget about selling, and just be another voice in the conversation. Or stay quiet.

4. This harsh lesson comes our way from a death we still mourn, and really are still trying to process. Rest in peace, Prince. You gave us decades of fantastic music, and we appreciate it, but we know now it wasn’t nearly enough.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Most Interesting Lawsuit in the World

Staying thirsty has been numero uno since 2006.

The judge stands when he enters the courtroom. Opposing counsel submit motions to recognize his coolness. He brings his own gavel, and no one minds when he uses it.

He doesn’t always drink beer, he doesn’t always fly to Mars, and he doesn’t always file suit. But when he does any of these things, he makes them very interesting. 

He’s the most interesting TV pitchman in the world. His name is Jonathan Goldsmith, but you have known him as the dashing, silver-bearded guru who called you his friend, and encouraged you to stay thirsty. His 10-year, wildly successful run as Dos Equis Beer’s Most Interesting Man in the World recently wrapped. He left, epic as ever, on a one-way solo mission (he made it look more like a jaunt) to Mars. It was a compelling end to an awesome ad campaign, but the question must be asked: Was the iconic character allowed to fade away gracefully, or was he forced out due to a rancorous series of lawsuits and countersuits lobbed between Goldsmith and his erstwhile talent agency?

Like many a nasty breakup, this one has a fiscal component. The agency, Gold-Levin Talent, allege that they haven’t received their contractual commissions from Mr. Goldsmith’s work since 2014. Goldsmith retorts that Barbara Buky, the agent who landed him the Dos Equis gig, never worked for the agency in question, and she’s in fact now married to Mr. Goldsmith (how could she possibly say no to his proposal?). His countersuit contends that the agency violated a confidentiality clause, and damaged his reputation by disclosing elements of his contract.

Heineken USA, owners of Dos Equis, called the legal contretemps, “a personal matter for Jonathan that does not concern” the brand. Off the record, and before the announcement that the campaign was ending, sources close to the company struck a cautious note, saying that since the legal fight is a business matter only, not a “salacious lawsuit,” they were holding out hope against any brand blowback.

Just weeks later The Most Interesting Man was on his way, some might say exiled, to Mars.

Although it seemed at first that the brand was standing by their Interesting Man, it very well could be that the suit and countersuit (and more importantly, the press thereby generated) was an unacceptable risk. These brand managers, like most, are smart enough not to buy into the dubious “any publicity is good publicity” theory (just ask Chipotle how accurate that trope is).

Under the circumstances, and given that in a lot of people’s minds Jonathan Goldsmith is Dos Equis, they’ve probably made the right call. But the position they found themselves in demonstrates the lurking peril hiding deep inside every successful advertising campaign: Associating your brand too closely with any one person, place, or idea means that your brand rises and falls with the fortunes of the same.

The C4:
Uno. Actor Jonathan Goldsmith represented Dos Equis beer as The Most Interesting Man in the World from 2006 to 2016. It has been one of the most successful TV advertising campaigns of the 21st century, and has made Goldsmith’s character one of the most recognizable in modern pop culture.

Dos. What could possibly go wrong? Well, quite a lot, actually. Dos Equis hitched its wagon to Goldsmith’s star (it’s usually the other way around in advertising). Once the brand was indelibly linked with the visage and personality of The Most Interesting Man, any negative publicity for him equaled negative publicity for them.

Tres. And not to be terribly insensitive, but the incomparable Mr. Goldsmith is in his late seventies. Lawsuit or no, could the campaign have gone on much longer? Had it not ended gracefully, would the future have brought us a parade of comedians in fake beards reprising the role, a la KFC and Colonel Sanders? Good lord, no.

Quatro. This curtain call for The Most Interesting Man might have come in the form of some testy lawsuits between an actor and his talent agency. It’s the sort of thing that happens all the time, and amounts to little more than a pixel or two in the big, big picture. But it was news, and that starkly demonstrates how easily one person can come to stand for an entire brand. Let that be a lesson to all of us who’d try to tame the twin beasts of brand management and public opinion. 

Adios, amigo. The cerveza won’t taste quite the same without you.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

A New Impression of Renoir

The Power of Crowdsourced Evaluations

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841 - 1919) was one of the most famous artists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and is considered one of the founders of the French Impressionist movement. His paintings form the cornerstones of some of the most prestigious modern-art collections, including those at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the British National Gallery, and the Louvre.

We might think it safe, then, to assume that a noble and enduring legacy has been sealed for the artist who once said,

“The pain passes, but the beauty remains.” Renoir could turn a phrase, but a small, very vocal minority is convinced, and they want us all to know, that Renoir sucked at painting.

And this sentiment isn’t lukewarm; it isn’t mildly griped about over wine and arrays of fine cheeses. Oh no. This has brought people into the streets.

Renoir Sucks At Painting (they’re so angry with the man they’re still slagging him in the present tense) is perhaps the most fervent art-critique movement of our lifetimes. It is the brainchild of citizen-critic Max Geller, who sparked the revolt on Instagram before it morphed  into an IRL picket-line phenomenon.

“Aesthetic terrorism,” is how RSAP partisans refer to the various Renoir collections. Actually, that’s one of their more civil epithets. The somewhat less generous “empty calorie-laden steaming piles” has also been voiced.

As a prolific Impressionist pioneer, Renoir did indeed develop a distinctive, unconventional style. We’ll leave it to others to determine whether that style deserves veneration or Geller-esque vitriol.

What we’ll comment upon, instead, is the supremacy of perceived value. And actually, that qualifier is almost redundant: Value is always perceived. Renoir is a Very Important Artist, whose paintings regularly sell in the eight-figure range, because popular perception has made it so. The same is true for Monet, Manet, and Matisse. And the same principle explains why it feels about right to pay two bucks for a tube of toothpaste, and twenty grand for a new car.

Consumer revolt has a place in this paradigm, as a way of counteracting the tendency for costs to outpace value. Toothpaste vendors would love to hike their per-tube profit, but shoppers will stand for only so much of that. Value disintegrates just as soon as consumers decide that the worth of the product is no longer equal to their dollars spent.

Few of us will ever shell out for a Renoir original, at whatever going rate they might be fetching. But it’s important to understand we still, nonetheless, contribute to Renoir’s valuation. Our patronage at museums, purchases of reproductions, even our opinions and discourses in the public spaces will help determine whether Renoir’s body of work maintains a lofty spot in art hierarchy, or is relegated to the level of flea-market Elvis-on-black-velvet.

Max Geller and his boisterous band of Renoir haters may or may not succeed in pulling poor old Pierre-Auguste from his posthumous pedestal, but they’re determined to make their voices heard. And in doing so, they’re reminding us all that value, or lack thereof, remains a decision we make together.

The C4:
1. Renoir Sucks at Painting. Or does he? This is infinitely subjective but you wouldn’t know it by checking out the collections of the world’s major art museums. Curators seem to have made our choice for us: Renoir rocks.

2. But for every dictum, let there be backlash. Max Geller looked at Renoir, and did not like what he saw. Others agreed. They groused online, then moved outdoors. Anti-Renoir demonstrations raged earlier this year on the steps of museums in Boston and New York.

3. Beyond art and aesthetics, this is about value. Renoir paintings have sold for as much as $78 million. This can only be so because a critical mass of consumers believe Renoir is worth that kind of dough. Should Geller’s fellow-travelers reach a comparable mass, then your average Renoir will be worth its weight in garden mulch.

4. So where do we stand? As always, we honor and respect popular opinion. We salute Max Geller and his folk for their commitment, yet we understand and appreciate Renoir’s importance in art history. That said, he sure did make this kid look funny, didn’t he?