Wednesday, July 10, 2019

how does it feel to feel?

People get terribly confused about what is meant by ‘emotion’.

For a start its not just one thing.

There are distinctions between the functional emotion (‘the emotional state’), the experience of the emotion, our ability to perceive and attribute emotions to other people (and to animals).

Also our ability to think and talk about emotion and, of particular interest to advertisers, the behaviours caused by an emotion state. The expressions and emotional responses.

But emotions are first and foremost about the states and everything else flows from that.

In essence, to understand what emotions are, and what they are for, requires a fundamental or ultimate explanation.

Your mind is a collection of evolved, domain-specific programs.

Whatever you are thinking and doing right now depends on which of these programs is currently in command of the ship.

It’s not neat. 

In fact, it’s a bit messy, not least because these programs, or modules, evolved at different times in our evolutionary history. Not only that, they are quite distinct from one another, and can (simultaneously) hold contradictory views.

Although, I'm in two minds about that.

Each of these programs is functionally specialised for solving a different adaptive problem that arose in what is called the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness, or EEA.

EEA describes the situational and external factors in which an evolved trait adapted from over time. And the collective influence of selection pressures that caused an adaptation to develop.

It's worth pointing out straight away that the EEA of early humans that produced our brain development – from around one million years ago until around ten thousand years ago - is obviously very different from our modern world.

Our brains and minds evolved to operate in hunter-gatherer and nomadic societies.

And so it's an important distinction to make. Being well adapted to a particular environment and being adaptable to environmental change are different.

This is why many psychologists are arguing that many of the problems we face in the modern world are down to modern society representing a 'mismatch'.

Evolutionary mismatch happens when people (or a species) are faced with a fast-changing environment to which their bodies and minds – their hardware and software – are not well-adapted.

We should be afraid of cars and electricity. But we're not. These are evolutionarily novelsources of danger. Too novel for our old equipment. Instead, our innate fears have more ancient sources. Among them, spiders, snakes and the dark.

And social exclusion (so I have so many followers on Twitter...but why don't they share my post?)

Each of these mental modules, our software or apps, is a specialised structure sculpted to carry out a particular function. But integrated into a complex whole, and activated by a different set of cues.

These functions include 'basic' things like breathing, heart-rate regulation, sleep management, and perception.

Alongside all-important social mechanisms designed for face recognition, mate choice and ‘reading’ other peoples minds. A more ‘recent’ adaptation would be language, of course.

Steven Pinker describes resulting social behaviour as the outcome of an internal struggle among many mental modules, and it is played out on the chessboard of opportunities and constraints defined by other people's behaviour.

Of course, this internal struggle between cognitive programs creates another adaptive problem.

Programs that are designed to solve very specific adaptive problems could, if activated at the same time, conflict with one another, interfering with each other.

For instance, a sleep mechanism has to be over-ridden if cues for self-protection are present. If the house is on fire you better get out.

To avoid misfires, the mind must then be equipped with other superordinate programs that can override some programs when others are activated.

At the same time, certain adaptive problems are best solved by activation of multiple mechanisms at the same time, running from the fire in the dark needs to pump up heart rate regulation and spacial awareness mechanisms.

A superordinate system is needed to co-ordinate the activity of neural systems, snapping each into the right configuration at the right time. Emotions are functional states that regulate behaviours.

This is what Emotions are for.

Orchestrating the mind’s many and varied subprograms so that at any given time the organism is functionally coordinated.

Emotions are adaptations that have arisen in response to the adaptive problem of mechanism orchestration.

Emotions arose and assumed their structures in response to conditions, contingencies, situations, or types of events that recurred during evolutionary history.

Mating and fighting are two big ones, for a kick-off.

Avoiding and escaping from predators, parenting, exchange of trade and favours, establishing rank and status, dealing with the death of family members.

Anger, revenge and love. Deciding what to eat (and not) and predicting other people’s behaviour. These are just a few.

Repeated encounters with these situations selected for adaptations that guided information-processing and behaviour.

Emotions are the superordinate programs that mobilise a subset of the mental mechanisms in any given configuration in response to recurrent situations.

When a condition or situation of an evolutionarily recognisable kind is detected, a signal goes out from the emotion radar that activates the specific combination of subprograms appropriate to solving that type of adaptive problem(s) - and also deactivates programs whose operation might interfere with solving the most pressing problem.

In ‘simple’ terms, an emotion is a SUPERORDINATE program whose function is to direct the activities and interactions of the other mental subprograms.

Perception; attention; inference; learning; memory; goal choice; motivational priorities; categorization and conceptual frameworks; physiological reactions; reflexes; behavioral decision rules; motor systems; communication processes; energy level and effort allocation; affective coloration of events and stimuli; recalibration of probability estimates, situation assessments, values, self-esteem, estimations of relative formidability, relative value of alternative goal states, and so on.

Because emotions are clearly a product of adaptive design they cannot be irrational. In fact, emotions are super-rational adaptations, finely tuned to countering threats and recognising opportunities.

An emotion cannot be reduced down to any one category of effects because it contains evolved instructions for ALL OF THEM.

Consider this before reducing the assessment of advertising to ‘emotional’ or ‘rational’ appeals or entertaining 'new data' that claims to compare the emotional connection rankings of top brands.

There's either a response or no response. Your superordinate system of emotions decides.


Further reading: The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture - (Barkow, Tooby, Cosmides)

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

live and dangerous

I've not posted anything for a while.

I've been busy getting together the next book.

It's in the final stages and going through the mincer, with a bit of luck it will appear later this year.

In the meantime - and closing the chapter on 'Where Did It All Go Wrong?' - here's a video of the talk-of-the-book from the Mumbrella260 conference in Sydney in July of 2018.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

deeply superficial

Andy Warhol’s famous Brillo Boxes were first exhibited at The Stable Gallery on West 58th Street, Manhattan in 1964.

More than any other early works it was these boxes that shot Andy into superstardom, and prompt the Columbia University philosopher and critic, Arthur Danto to proclaim ‘the end of western art!’.

Those boxes posed this question. ‘What distinguishes a work of art from an identical looking object that is not art?’

In an amusing coincidence, the original commercial Brillo packaging as recontextualised by Warhol was designed by a fella called James Harvey.

Harvey was a lower league abstract expressionist painter – so far down he wasn’t even on the map - who (struggling to pay the bills through his art alone) had bitten the bullet and taken a job in advertising!

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, and advertising is still a business that few people really aspire to join. In particular, many creatives would much rather be directing movies or writing their novel than trying to get people to buy car insurance.

And so closing the irony loop, the striking Brillo logo had been designed by an action painter; a practitioner of exactly the kind of non-representational, raw expression art that Warhol’s was a reaction against.

Harvey wasn’t a fan of Warhol's work, although he did attend the opening of the 1964 exhibition and is said to have had a long chat with Andy. But didn't mention having designed the original Brillo packaging.

Never cross the streams.

This brings us to the much discussed Burger King/Warhol spot; probably the most interesting and important in this year’s #BrandBowl [sic].

Not because I think it was the best (I don’t) but because it is the most curious from a philosophy of advertising standpoint.

Not least in the way it spectacularly snatches defeat from the jaws of victory, as we shall see.

Warhol/BK is in effect a ‘readymade’.

Readymade was a term coined around the time of Marcel Duchamp’s notorious 1917 ‘sculpture’, Fountain.

Designed to shift the focus of art from physical craft to intellectual interpretation [sic], Fountain was a standard urinal purchased from Fifth Avenue hardware store and submitted into the first exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists at The Grand Central Palace in New York.

Often described as ‘the most influential modern work of art ever’, the original urinal was lost sometime in 1917 and is only known from one single blurry photograph.

To see it today, several ‘replicas’ - authorized by Duchamp Inc - can be found all around the world, including the Centre Pompidou of Paris, the Tate Modern in London and the San Francisco MoMA.

The film of Warhol eating a burger is essentially a readymade.

An existing non-advertising object, ‘found’ by Burger King’s agency and recontextualised as advertising.


This piece of film is an ad only insofar as it is not an ad.

It is what it is not – and this is why it is what it is.

This is called a dialetheia.

Or a 'true contradiction'.

(In philosophy this is the opposite of objectivism, in where contradictions cannot be true – check your premises!)

So Burger King’s spot is an ad that isn’t really an ad and a found object that is not just a found object, yet it is also both.

With Fountain and many of his other 'sculptures', Duchamp’s only contribution was to sign the object and exhibit it as art. Similarly Warhols only contribution to many of the works produced in his 'Factory' (including the Brillo Boxes) was to ‘sign’ or 'authenticate' them as art.

Using that logic, then, what are potentially true contradictions in media? Or advertising?

Burger King and their agency came oh-so-close to pulling off a great dialetheia.

Or a ‘true contradiction’.

What is media insofar as it is not media?

What could we simply label as advertising by ‘signing’ it?

However, BK snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by adding the superfluous #eatlikeandy hashtag.

Because that made it an AD.

It then ceased to be what it is not – and became only what it is.

To simply run the film and sign it with the logo would have been a masterstroke of postmodern meta-advertising and signaling.

What could be more of an all-American trilogy!

Andy, Burger King and the SuperBowl.

The balls to do that!

But they lost their confidence at the last second. They worried that we wouldn’t know who Andy was.

By the inclusion of self-conscious, self-contradictory and self-undermining element (the #hashtag), what could have been a piece of supremely confident branding on the big stage instead becomes more like slightly hesitant parody.

Parody is, of course, distinct from pastiche.

Unlike pastiche which celebrates the work it imitates, parody simply mocks (eg citing a convention only to ridicule it).

Compromise is often around when ideas have things taken OUT but sometimes the most dangerous compromises are the things you put IN.

It can be the difference between a great(ish) SuperBowl spot and THE greatest SuperBowl spot of all time.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

i can't see much of a future unless we find out what's to blame, what a shame.

The journalist Paul Morley said 'Buzzcocks came from the better side of punk, the bands who were aware of things like Faust and Can.'

He wasn't wrong.

By early 1976, and after building his own oscillator from scratch, Bolton Institute of Technology engineering student Pete Shelley had already completed a whole 'album' of experimental synth music, inspired by his love of Kraftwerk and other krautrock bands.

It was there that he first met Howard Devoto who was looking for someone to soundtrack an art movie he’d made. Howard was studying philosophy down the road.

Both Pete and Howard were avid NME readers and after reading a small review of relatively unknown London band, Sex Pistols, and inspired by a quote in the piece attributed to Pistols guitarist Steve Jones ('we're not into music, we're into chaos'), the new friends booked a small room at Manchester Free Trade Hall and invited the Pistols to play. This event June 1976 has gone down in history as 'the gig that changed the world' (among the 30 or 40 misfits in the audience were future members of Joy Division/New Order, The Smiths and The Fall.)

The day after the show the pair immediately formed Buzzcocks and booked the Pistols to play again six weeks later with their own combo as support. At the second gig the hall was full to its 150 capacity.

The rest is history, of course.

Billy Bragg once remarked that if everyone who claimed to have seen the Pistols in '76 really had they would have sold out a month at Wembley Stadium rather than a few one-nighters at assorted Soho strip clubs. Correspondingly, if everyone who claimed to be at one of the Manchester shows had attended it would have been a week of sell-outs at the G-Mex.

(If every ad planner and marketer who claim in-depth knowledge of Ehrenberg-Bass principles had bought 'How Brands Grow' then I reckon Byron and co would be kicking back on a private island next to the ones occupied by Richard Branson and assorted retired Bond villains rather than still pursuing their academic careers.)

Paul Morley is also on record as claiming ‘I remember delightedly screaming, “This is like...Ornette Coleman!” when I went to see the early Buzzcocks play.'

(But he was now just being a bit silly, albeit setting the tone for much of his subsequent writing.)

Shelley’s iconic deliberately inane minimal two-note guitar solo in Boredom (from Buzzcocks debut EP Spiral Scratch) was pretty conceptual. 

The solo consisted of just two notes repeated 66 times, ending with a single modulated seventh. One suspects that it was this last flourish that Morley interpreted as the free-jazz component.

Pete played a Starway, a cheap Japanese brand of guitars sold in department stores. 
A rudimentary instrument, the Starway featured just one pickup and two control dials for volume and tone.

Shelley is said to have bought his in a Manchester branch of Woolworths. 
(While the guitars were sold there, Pete actually acquired his one - second-hand - in a charity shop.)

To be more exact, the four tracks on '...Scratch' were recorded using just TWO-THIRDS of a Starway.

Pete had accidentally smashed his axe into two pieces during a rehearsal.

The top part of the body snapped off but the guitar was still totally playable, and so continued to be his main tool until the band had a few hits and he could afford to upgrade to the (only marginally more sophisticated) Gibson Marauder.

If inspiring the DIY punk revolution with only two-thirds of a guitar was not minimal enough for you, Shelley's engineering chops learned back at Bolton Tech came in handy.

It's often been said that creativity can be propelled by constraints - even if the limits are artificial.

He rewired the insides of the Starway to bypass the volume and tone dials, sending the pickup direct to the jack - it was now two-thirds of a guitar with only ONE sound. It was a pretty good sound, though.

The economist Ernst Friedrich "Fritz" Schumacher once coined the term appropriate technology. Meaning the 'simplest level of technology that can achieve the intended purpose'.

Simplicity has never been a bad idea.

In a world of applied appropriate advertising technology, most of the links in our complicated and bloated demand/supply chain - SSPs, DSPs, exchanges, third-party verification systems and various proprietary reporting mechanisms - wouldn’t even have a business. They wouldn't exist.

So-called 'safety' tech vendors have even more mysterious incentives given that they DEPEND on the continued existence of botnets, domain-spoofers and malware fraudsters for their own business model.

But when every step in a web ad 'value' chain is deliberately opaque, they all do to some extent.
A cynic would call it a cynical exercise in deliberate obfuscation.

The funny thing is that we think we know how this advertising technology demand/supply chain works, and the more available information we have, the more our confidence grows.

This is the Illusion of Explanatory Depth (or IOED) - the persistent illusion people have that we know more about more than we actually do. IOED was coined in 2002 by cognitive scientists Rozenblit and Keil.

Rozenblit and Keil asked people to rate their knowledge of how mundane mechanisms worked – things like zippers, refrigerators and toilets.

Respondents rated their comprehension highly, but when pressed to explain their understanding, they tended to fail miserably.
Or the technological sophistication inherent to the adtech paradigm offers a veneer of profundity.
An illusion of explanatory depth.

As the old adage goes; where there's a mystery, there's a margin.

Fritz Schumacher also famously said; 'Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.'

But as the number of businesses between advertisers and publisher the advertiser grows - all claiming to do something - and 70 cents in every dollar gets eaten up by whatever that something is, we've never been further from sending the pickup direct to the jack.

But, you know the scene - very humdrum.

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

come on myelin, too-rye-ay

These people 'round here,
Were beat down, eyes sunk in smoke dried faces,
They're resigned to what their fate is,
But not us, no never - no not us, no never,

We are far too young(ish) and clever...

You're probably au fait with the ‘10,000 hours’ theory popularised by Malcolm Gladwell.

In one example from his bestselling book Outliers, Gladwell asserts that getting in 10,000 plus hours of practice in the relative obscurity of Hamburg strip joints between 1960 and '62 helped the Beatles to propel - fully formed and honed - to the toppermost of the poppermost in 1963.

Dexy’s too, I don't know if they are known to Malcy although he is on record as being a bit of an Anglophile and a fan of Billy Bragg and Elvis Costello.

Dexys Midnight Runners were formed in 1978 in by fellow Brummies Kevin Rowland and Kevin Archer from the remnants of punk band the Killjoys. Their first single hit the UK top 40 in '79 representing a transformation from one chord wonders to sophisticated soulsters in less than 12 months.

The band's name was derived from Dexedrine, a brand of dextroamphetamine. 'Speed' pills popular with dancers at Northern Soul all-nighters. Presumably, strategic usage would have been useful in enabling Dexy’s to get their 10,000 hours in a bit quicker.

This is entirely plausible. Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols claimed to have learned guitar this way. Going from scratch to developing his unique power-chord style and recording the first Pistols demos in about 3 months by playing along - in marathon amphetamine assisted all day sessions - to the first New York Dolls album and the Stooges Raw Power.

Gladwell’s piece was based on the research of K. Anders Ericsson, a Swedish psychologist and professor at Florida State University.

Ericsonn specialises in the science of peak performance and, while probably grateful for the exposure Gladwell gave his work, is careful to add that not just any old practice counts towards the 10,000-hour rule.

It has to be deliberate, dedicated time spent focusing on improvement.

For Ericsonn, deliberate practice means getting outside of your ‘comfort zone’ and pushing yourself to improve beyond your current abilities.

This is important because just being able to competently reproduce skills you’ve already mastered might feel good, but it’s not enough to make you get better.

But what happens physically, as we learn?

As it processes information, your brain makes connections growing and strengthening the synapses that connect neurons. Making new connections and breaking old ones.

But once a circuit is made, it needs to be used if it is going to stick around.

This physical process is myelination - the process whereby a circuit that is stimulated enough times grows a covering of membrane called myelin.

The wrapping of myelin increases conduction speed, making the circuit work more efficiently. The more the circuit gets exercised, the more it wraps and the stronger the connection becomes.

What, then, is the best way to learn things and retain them?

Deliberate practice, focused attention and actively recalling the learning causes your brain to strengthen the new connections as does linking new bits of information to what you already know.

There’s a great myth – mostly perpetuated by youngsters - that we stop learning as we age. There’s no physiological reason why this should happen.

It’s more likely that many people just spend less time learning new stuff as they get older, and even when we do, we maybe don't do it with the same enthusiasm as we did when we were younger, so the neural connections don’t get made, the myelin doesn’t wrap. Too-rye-ay.

Ageing can also bring about the loss of some brain tissue, but this may have more to do with lack of exercise. Regular physical exercise has been shown to increase the size of the hippocampus area of the brain - crucial for learning and memory – in people of all ages, improving connectivity and making it easier for new things to stick.

Keeping that in mind, it makes sense of the new look adopted by Dexy’s mk2 of 1981-82, a move away from the young soul rebel ‘street cleaner/docker’ chic to the Rocky garb that included hooded tops, boxing boots and a corresponding strict fitness regime.

Kevin had the band working out together and running to the recording studio for 8am starts.
The band would also do group exercise sessions before shows and needless to say, alchohol and recreational pharmaceuticals were also strictly verboten.

Whilst not exactly textbook rock’n’roll behaviour the now ripped mk2 band shortly went on to produce - via another costume change, this time to an Okie farmhand/Irish gypsy hybrid - the gazillion-selling Too-Rye-Ay album and global number one hit Come On Eileen, at the same time pushing their sound into a new genre-defying combination of horns and fiddles driven blue-eyed-soul and celtic-folk crossover.

As far as science knows, no brain has ever run out of hard-drive space.

But some neuroscientists do agree on another reason cognitive skills may often slow down with age, not because the brain deteriorates, or fills up, but because it does need the occasional defrag.

So probably just as important as continuing to push yourself and your learning to develop new skills, is having a clear out of the crap you don’t need.

Come on myelin.

In this business that's probably never a bad idea. Even better, start young.

Keep quoting Cabaret, Berlin, Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, Duchamp, Beauvoir
Kerouac, Kierkegaard, Michael Rennie,
And I don't believe you really like Frank Sinatra...

Monday, December 24, 2018

when those blue snowflakes start falling

Merry Christmas from Never Get Out Of The Boat.

Extra special thanks to everyone who bought my book this year.

Watch out for the new one coming in early 2019.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

is it art?

A couple of New York-based Russian artists, Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid conducted a ‘conceptual' art experiment back in the mid-1990s.

To begin, they appointed market researchers Martila & Kiley Inc to conduct surveys on aesthetic preferences and tastes in painting in over a dozen countries.

The goal was to find out what a ‘people's art' might look like. When the results of these surveys came in the dynamic duo would make the paintings to reflect the results. The resulting artworks were billed as ‘Most Wanted'. In contrast, they also produced paintings to reflect the ‘least wanted'.

Melamid described their concept for the project in this way:

In a way it was a traditional idea, because faith in numbers is fundamental to people, starting with Plato's view of a world which is based on numbers. 
In ancient Greece, when sculptors wanted to create an ideal human body, they measured the most beautiful men and women and then made an average measurement, and that's how they described the ideal of beauty and how the most beautiful sculpture was created. In a way, this is the same thing; in principle, it's nothing new.
It's interesting: we believe in numbers, and numbers never lie. Numbers are innocent. It's absolutely true data. It doesn't say anything about personalities, but it says something more about ideals, and about how this world functions. That's really the truth, as much as we can get to the truth. Truth is a number.

In just about every country, the favourite – the most wanted - was some kind of landscape featuring a few human figures going about their business, some animals in the foreground, with a big blue sky and some coastline or a path extending into the distance, and some water - a river, the sea or a lake.

(Just about every country wanted this - only the Italians deviated slightly, although the ideal was still heavily figurative.)

And almost universally rejected – the least wanted - were abstract compositions, featuring geometric or angular shapes. That's not to say non-figurative or non-narrative painting although can't still be appealing. Humans have a permanent innate taste for virtuoso displays. Spectacular giant Pollock's or the Rothko room at the Tate, for example. Rothko was influenced by Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence.

But science still has no agreed explanation for why anyone should claim to enjoy 'conceptual' art, 'installations' or participating in art-speak. Some kind of pretentious trait counter-signaling is likely.

The disappointed artists remarked ‘in looking for freedom, we found slavery.’


Of course, one of the great mysteries of art is why it even exists in the first place.

Although every culture draws and paints, dances, sings, makes music and tells stories the origins of human aesthetics are still mostly a puzzle.

But the origins of visual art might be a wee bit clearer.

As our Russian friends found out, across all cultures humans tend to prefer representations - visual experiences - depicting environments where they have; a vista - an advantage in height, there is an open terrain, diverse vegetation and a nearby body of water. Because a landscape such as this was ideal survive-and-thrive habitat for our ancestors who lived on the African Savannah.

This doesn’t sound much like modern cities, of course.

Although it does explain the price of an apartment in a block overlooking Central Park in New York or Hyde Park in London – there’s a nice one on Bayswater Road on the market today for 18.5 million.

Some problems in the modern workplace may also result from this kind of mismatch.

An evolutionary mismatch occurs when evolved traits or mechanisms that were once advantageous become maladaptive due to changes in the environment, particularly when environmental change happens fast.
Most of human evolution took place in hunter-gatherer groups of 50-150 individuals that worked together to find food and protect the village.

There was no middle-management, HR departments, unconscious bias training, or strategy away-days. There was not even any real distinction between work and life.

If you look around the typical modern office if there's virtually no greenery and it's challenging to get sunlight (windows don't count, you need to actually get outside in the sun for at least half an hour a day).

Vitamin D deficiency is a huge problem, even in countries like Australia, where I live.

Goodness knows what the situation is like in places inside the Arctic circle, like parts of Sweden and Finland where it’s basically dark for 6 months of the year.

Our psychology - and our physiology - are still primarily aligned for the Pleistocene era, but we're in an environment that's very different.

Lush green landscape and blue skies are an innate, evolved preference, present in human nature since that time, the two million or so years during which modern human beings evolved.

Apparently, Arthur Danto, a Columbia University phil­osopher and postmodern art theorist, suggested that the results of the ‘Most Wanted’ experiment were a product of the hideous worldwide 'calendar' in­dustry (reproductions, poster shops etc) – toeing the cultural relativism party line, he means our tastes (as uneducated plebs) in art are purely a product of social construction or ‘culturisation’.

But the calendar industry [sic] has not conspired to influence taste, but rather any success it has experienced is because it caters to universal, deep-rooted, prehistoric, innate human preferences. Aesthetic taste is an evolutionary trait, and is shaped by natural selection.

Something we’d do well to remember in the advertising business, from time to time.