Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Apple Calls it Quits (a "what if" exploration)

It is never a good sign when a blog entry begins with a disclaimer. And yet, I offer up the following: I am not a technologist, but I love technology. My wife and I still use our VCR (sometimes). My iPhone was a birthday present, but I almost cried when I dropped it within the first week of having it. I do not have HDTV. Clearly not an expert, I am, I’d say, an observer. A lite-social-networking, twittering, blogging, account planner. I like the conversation. I am fascinated more by the social implications of technology than by the wizardry of the mechanism. I offer this up as a canvas, a backdrop for the conversation I’m keen on having.

In the unlikely event you’ve been living on a planet other than ours for the past couple weeks, you will have undoubtedly been witness to the launch of the iPhone3Gs (the greatest, fastest, most powerful of the 3G's, now with cut and paste!). The frenzy this launch stirred amuses and confuses me. People were once again lined up, huffy and aggressive outside of Apple and AT&T stores for hours. I mean, like 12 hours or more. And others have been expressing for months their plans to get the new device right away. Give their first gen iPhone to the missus, to a kid, to eBay. It didn’t really matter, so long as there was a place for it to go to justify the new purchase.

But as I sat there, with my own suddenly ancient piece of handheld networking iCapability, I wondered, what if the folks at Apple just closed their doors? What if Steve Jobs pulled a Wonka, and just…no more. Aside from the obvious economic ramifications (unemployment, the cost of switching various hardwares) and the disappointment of MacJunkies like myself who will miss out on new designs, and the feeling of “us” that comes with aligning yourself with this anti-PC community. Also, let’s limit this to personal technologies so that the discussion doesn’t meander into the need for medical advancements or better aviation. If we’re just talking about our everyday, humdrum hardware needs and usage, I wonder what we’d be missing. Aren’t our computers fast enough? Can’t we find what we hope to find? Don’t we have enough access? Enough games? Couldn’t we conceivably have full, prosperous, connected lives if personal technologies did not advance beyond this point?

I know Ray Kurzweil's answer. Help me out here, followers of Singularity. What would the argument be? That it is inevitable that technology must continue, must advance because the merging of humanity and machinery will bring about our best-self evolution. But I’m posing what if we put on the brakes at this point? What if we stop now?

What if we thought more about Sherry Turkle’s approach? What if we question what the relationships people are developing with technology? Turkle argues that:

Our new intimacies with our machines create a world where it makes sense to speak of a new state of the self. When someone says, 'I'm on my cell,' 'online,' 'on instant messaging,' or 'on the web,' these phrases suggest a new placement of the subject, a subject wired into social existence through technology, a tethered self. I think of tethering as the way we connect to always-on communication devices and to the people and things we reach through them.

Wow. Look at the big brain on Brett! (aside: I am fully prepared to be schooled on both Kurzweil and Turkle. I don’t mean in any way to dumb down or reduce their thinking. Both are worth studying and understanding in any way possible.) The truth is I wonder if we need new technologies to continue driving us toward a new kind of connection. Some would argue that the new connectivity exchanges human contact for honest conversation. That although we don’t see one another, we feel more free to express our truest thoughts, to let our id run free, to say what’s really on our minds because it’s not really us, it’s our online selves. The converse to that is that people need to learn to interact eye to eye. That our humanness is critical to our survival as a species. What I’m asking is shouldn’t we work on learning to make direct, personal, actual human connections, decisions, negotiations before lining up to get the next gadget that will do it all for us? It’s like Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcolm says in Jurassic Park: “Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should.”

Now the twist. Although it seems I’m arguing against the development of more technology, I am more trying to start a dialogue. Keep in mind, I love my laptop, my iPhone, the ability to text. To tweet. To post to tumblr. To videochat my wife and two kids from the road. To cleverly update my status on facebook. And so on. So, talk to me. Tell me. Instruct me. I could use it. I’m earnestly inquiring as to what we’d be missing if we could pause personal technology development at this point in time and make due with where we’ve arrived.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

two simple words

I just bought a new notebook. A return to the Moleskine blank page journal model after an ill-thought departure in which a sketch book took its place. (No bad-bad against the sketch book, but there's something about that hard black cover, the size, the experience of it.) Ach. This is all beside the point.

When I open it up, I write the same two words on the first page as I've written on my notebooks for the past few years: "what if..." (the ellipses is optional)

I daresay these two words are potentially the most powerful two in all of the English language. They hold more potential energy than any I can think of. They ask us to consider. They go beyond the norm, expanding our sense of what's possible.

A much, much, much smarter man than myself, Sandy Goldberg, Professor of Philosophy at Northwestern likes these words too. When I met him at last year's Idea Festival, I was struck by our shared devotion to these two small words. He led a too-short discussion about the power of "what if..." in which he described the phrase as an important tool in a philosopher's arsenal of possibility.

The problem of not indulging our ability to wonder and allowing "what if" thinking to seep into our processes is that "we end up taking the efficient cognitive path in substitution for imaginative thinking." Professor Goldberg's words there. And his example was walking through a forest for the first time. We can either explore and take paths untaken or we can go where we clearly see others have been. Typically, we take the path we see others have been and soon our footsteps have worn a path through the woods that becomes visible and clear, which is helpful in some regards, but it is hazardous in others. You see, with a well-worn path through the woods, the next interloper tends not to consider a new path, and instead walks safely to the other side without a second thought.

Our brains work in similar ways. In thinking in ways that have worked well for us in the path, not only do we stop considering the untrod possibilities, but we actually have a hard time forcing ourselves to explore the non-path should we so much as force ourselves to try.

I work as a strategic planner. It's the dreaming of ideas that makes my job interesting. The past months in particular, I have had cause (good fortune) to offer up my thoughts about a couple of several brands' (to remain unnamed) current and future positions. As I presented the "what if" directions to them, they were met with various reactions. For the most part, they were received with "we like the way you're thinking about this", which is great, but a couple of responses were more like "no. that's not us." Which is fine. My ideas are far from perfect. My batting average on these things is somewhere along the Mendoza line, so I'm hardly in a position to disagree.

I think I'm not bothered by the rejection of the ideas as much as the velocity in which a couple of them were administered. I wish I could get clients to pause and consider. To ask "what if" a lot more. As I've said, rejection is not my issue. I'm fond of the ensuing conversation. I'm interested in getting us after the pursuit of the thing; the collaboration that whittles the idea down or morphs it or (yes, truly) sinks it altogether.

Here's my challenge to you: if you're on the agency-side of things, I dare you to include in every strategy brainstorm, creative brief, client presentation, and concepting session (yes creatives - you glorious, misunderstood geniuses too); I dare you to include one moment or slide or devoted, focused consideration to "what if..."

If you're on the client-side of the map, I implore you to contemplate. Have vision. Consider. Challenge. Discuss. But most importantly, allow. Allow "what if..." to have its moment. Give it a beat. Allow for the possibility of something different. Allow for magic. For "my god, I never thought of that." Allow for absurdities that translate into consumer consideration that translate into commitment that translate into staunch declarations and onomatopoetic rapture. But also allow for the unthinkable. The horrendous. The belly-flop. Give some space to experimentation. Not committed dollars. Not even a greenlight. Just allow for the idea that something not found in flowcharts, graphs, and telephone surveys might be alarmingly relevant and staggeringly effective.

To each of you, I say good luck. I hope you take me up on my "what if" challenge. I happen to think the unknown is where innovation lies. And I think you'd be surprised at what can be inspired by opening up a conversation with two simple words. If you'd like to see them again, they're written on the first page of my Moleskine.
the thoughts and opinions expressed below are entirely my own, and are not necessarily shared by my friends, family, or employer. (though they very well might be...)