Seeing through the looking glass – The most important skill of the 21st century.

I’ve had a bit of a bad week folks… I’ve had several people tell me that I need to be more politic if I wish to succeed. In response, I’m going to write a little something about what I think is the one cure for the society that actually makes that true. Truth is… I’m not saying those folks are wrong. “Stay on message” is a tried and tested way of getting ahead. Being nice to people in positions of power is a far better way of getting them to, say, appear on your show. But. but. I look at Oscar and I ask myself, do I really want you to have to keep giving a little of that honesty “i want that banana damnit” to get ahead. I know he’ll have to do some of it. I understand we have a social contract that doesn’t allow us to simply do whatever the hell we want… but I do think that there is something that education can do to make it so that “stay on message” ends up being a little less productive, and, therefore, less used. Man would I like to see honesty popular. Even a path to success.

Stay on message
Just to make sure that everyone knows what I’m referring to “stay on message” refers to the idea that if someone says the same thing often enough, regardless of how groundless, ridiculous or terrible that thing may be, it becomes true for the person hearing it. Traditionally, this is something that has played itself out more in military situations, in torture, in places where someone has enough power to force you to listen to something over and over again. Now, as the downside of ubiquity of communication, a french fry company can say “ha, i used to think that french fries were bad for me, i was so stupid” in earshot of me thousands of times, through the radio, through TV, through the internet… anywhere. Consciously, I don’t have to believe it… but those advertisers aren’t working on me specifically, they’re working on percentages. If 75% of the people are 2% more likely to eat french fries every fifty times they hear the ad, the company makes a fortune. If, to maybe bring up a touchier subject, someone says that “we went to Iraq to get rid of a dictator, and the world is better off without him” often enough… my conscious mind doesn’t have to believe it… but it’s just close enough to the truth to cut the edge off my anger. (Well… not mine, but apply the 75% – 2% thing I said earlier) So… stay on message, things become true-er.

A quick word about this word. Media, in the sense that I’m using it here, is a particular kind of sign. It’s a representation of a product, an emotion… anything really, anything that was created with the express intent to communicating something to you the viewer, with the intent of making some kind of gain…. so

  • A movie made to get you to pay to go see it
  • An image of a poor child trying to get you to ‘help
  • A t-shirt with a logo meant to make you buy the product
  • Music

One of the reasons media works
There’s a sense in which media reflects itself back upon the viewer. While I’m writing this post (second time… had to save it and come back to it… and I’m still not happy with the way the words are coming out) I’m listening to Bob Dylan’s Desire. As soon as I say that a few things probably happen in your brain… if you’re familiar with the album, maybe a bunch of things. But I have built a little bit of my character in your mind. And we all identify ourselves to other people in the things that we do, wear and say. What I’m trying to talk about here is one step further. What happens to ME when i listen to the song. Or, even better, when i sing along. Let’s take Isis

I was thinkin’ about turquoise, I was thinkin’ about gold,
I was thinkin’ about diamonds and the world’s biggest necklace.
As we rode through the canyons, through the devilish cold,
I was thinkin’ about Isis, how she thought I was so reckless.

For me, at least, there’s a certain identification that happens… a ‘getting into the story’ that i particularly like about this kind of Dylan song. I can, for a few moments, identify with the man who thinks about how reckless his journey appears to his ‘wife.’

There is a sense in which all media works this way. If I’m looking at a commercial for sporting equipment, or beer, the advertisers are creating a scenario to create the context to which they hope i wish to belong. “clean, easy drinking taste.” A woman in a cowboy hat. A bar with sports playing in the background. This what i represent when I hold some watery alcohol infused concoction with a label on it.

These things, however, are pretty easily identified. I know a commercial is a commercial… it comes between the shows I wish to watch. The internet, however, throws a whole ball of wacko into the works. Any given place, every given piece of text, all the media that comes out of it might be selling something. It’s selling ideas, it’s selling books, it’s selling ideas that might sell books. Now… brand placement in movies has been happening for years, funny how that bottle of COAK always seems to have its label pointing toward the camera. But at least when we’re watching a movie we’re suspecting it. If I see Joe Cool holding a coak, and have that sudden sense that I would be cool if I was holding a coak I can say “wait one gosh darned minute” and figure that I’ve been imprinted somehow. Or, more likely, when looking for something to drink in a store, gravitate to the coak for some reason i’m not entirely conscious of.

Oh but the internet. Is this thingy that I’m reading really someone’s opinion? Are they being told not to say something? Who pays their salary? What job are they trying to get? What is their business model? How are they trying to make me identify with them? How does what they say make me feel and why would they want me to feel this way? Why are they doing all this anyway?

How, in effect, is the particular piece of media trying to make me do something and why did the creators of it want me to do it?

Some tools…

The neologism, as you might imagine, is one that many people have adopted. The one I’m referring to is Nicholas Carr’s idea. That is referring to all the intermediaries that come between you and something you are buying online. Here is his article from 2000 and his follow up article on web 2.0. Take a quick read over them. He does a great job in the first one tracking his way towards buying a Harry Potter novel online.

Web 2.0
Oh my… what a tangled web we weave when we use a marketing idea (web2.0) to describe marketing ideas… but here we go. Take a look at what I think is the single best educational tool on the internet right now… Amazon book reviews. At time of writing there are 51 comments on the Stephen Colbert “I am America (and so can you)”. Flipping through them you can see a bunch of folks who are part of the ‘Colbert Nation’ (CN) who have written things… “I picked up this book too fast and broke my wrist. There should be a warning label.” This, of course, written a month before the book was released, with assorted ‘CN’ signs all around it. The location of the author, for instance, is Unfiction HQ, USA. There are other folks who’ve written in saying they hated the book. But do they? Why are they writing it? Are they joking? What does the CN have to do with affecting the way that the book gets connected to other books? The comments are fascinating to me… and, I figure of the 51 reviews, there are only about 5 that are actual attempts at reviewing the book. The rest are simply performance of community membership.

What am I babbling about?
The description by Carr of shopping for the harry potter book and the Amazon book review are two examples of everyday life on the internet. We are constantly bombarded by subtle media signs that are trying to use our desire for belonging to get us to buy things, to get us to do things… If we aren’t careful, we do things to belong. I buy that MacBookPro so I can represent myself as the cool counter culture dude… not like Mr. Big Proprietary mainstream Microsoft. (Oh wait, Mac’s are the most proprietary system possible and have a fantastic grasp of marketing) That, and, of course, some people really like the product. The latter is perfectly fine, the former… not so good. The former involves us looking in the mirror that the Marketers are created for us. What we need to be able to do is see through that looking glass… see through the image that is being conjured up for us, that vision of ourselves that is being created for us to wear, to a practical evaluation of the thing that we are looking at.

Then… we need to teach it to our kids.

My challenge
This post started for me as a response to the flack I’ve received about my OLPC post from a few weeks ago. I’ve been awed… simply awed by the marketing genius that is the One Laptop Per Child project. I mean… they originally targeted $100 dollars (once the $100 dollars laptop project) because it was the price of a textbook (the youtube video describes this). Now… not so much… current price almost $200 bucks. So a new name, and brilliantly woven into the marketing. The webpage is lovely, all ‘we’re gonna save the world’ and ‘this is going to rock.’ The marketing has made me suspicious from the beginning… Do they really have a plan for teachers to teach with these? Why are they doing this anyway? Why does the 2 for 1 laptop thingy appeal to people so much? Is it just because they can then rationalize buying the cool new thing by saying they’re ‘donating a computer to the needy?’ I’ve been trying to see through this looking glass to try and find the ‘real product’ underneath. I have not found it yet.

So what now?
Well… hypermediation is something that can be practised. It’s just a question of getting accustomed to the ways that companies go about putting their marketing into things. The amazon study is a great way to get a sense of how communities work, how people’s backgrounds and ‘other work’ relate to the work they’re doing now. Nothing like finding an amazon reviewer, checking the other stuff they’ve written, and figuring out who they are and contextualizing their opinion. It’s a simple lesson plan, but i think an important one. We need our kids to be able to penetrate the pall of marketing that surrounds the internet and their daily lives so that their choices don’t get made for them too subconsciously. There’s a looking glass out there, staring back at us from most things we do… seeing through it is almost always more work… it can lead to a fair chunk of cynicism as well.

I just think that, media being what it is, being able to see through is going to be the most important skill Oscar is going to need to live in the world he’s going to find in 20 years. whatever that will be 🙂

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

6 thoughts on “Seeing through the looking glass – The most important skill of the 21st century.”

  1. Good post.

    “We are constantly bombarded by subtle media signs that are trying to use our desire for belonging to get us to buy things, to get us to do things… If we aren’t careful, we do things to belong.”

    Absolutely right. And ‘staying on message’ is a huge part of this. To get us to say the same things, to believe the same things (and hence, to buy the same things, vote for the same things). Which ultimately… hurt us.

    The only way to survive is to get to the root of the rot. To define clearly and for yourself what counts as ‘getting ahead’. Are the rewards they offer you enough to convince you to mouth words you know are false? Is the threat of loss of livelihood sufficient to force you to comply to the corporate myth?

    OPLC serves a noble cause, but it is not benign. It is an instantiation of a certain myth – one that might be titled “we produce, you consume” – but which is supported by media manipulation. We never read of other mini-computer initiatives. We never see an explanation of why places like MIT goe their own way – on MediaMOO, on OPLC, on Sakai, on DSpace – instead of supporting the international community that *already* exists. We don’t hear why UNESCO supports (Sun’s project) Curriki, instead of Wikiversity. We don’t read about open source mobile phone hardware and peer-to-peer communications networks. We see no discussion of why ‘personal pages’ (ie., pages that are non-commercial) are subjected to blanked filtering, as a class. Because “we produce, you consume”. And the wealth continues to flow in one direction.

    When you start ‘staying on message’ to appease your employers and your funders, you begin to support this message, this one-way flow of wealth, this undermining of your your own independence, your own livlihood, our own freedom.

    You can’t make me ‘stay on message’ because it costs too much. The minute somebody realizes they can take away your freedom – they do. And nothing you believe or own is yours again.

  2. My childhood suspicions about media first arose from a different Amazon. In the second grade (~8 y.o.) a cinematographer from National Geographic came to our class. He showed a film (it was film back then) about piranhas devouring a capybara. They seemed to eat the poor beast in seconds, much to the delight and horror of the kids and teachers.

    Then he told us about how that sequence was filmed. Almost shamefully he seemed to admit that it was all staged in an aquarium. They put the partially cleaned caracass in for a few minutes, shoot a few frames, then remove it and flens some more meat off. They repeated that until they got to the bones. They weren’t really in the river. The vicious fishes really weren’t so ferocious.

    So my advice would be to show more nature films at an early age. And then show the kids how they are really made, foley artists and all.

  3. Hi Dave,

    You’re right – the ability to understand important messages in a climate of manipulation is an increasing vital skill. I think you’d find this series on CBC to be of interest: – they explore the spin cycle of traditional media. An excellent series. Or consider Stuart Ewen’s “PR: A social history of spin”. Simply, the manipulation of messages has a long history…and if history provides any insights into our future, as we become more distributed, so do the “creation of mirrors”.

    A quick example. Over the last few months, I’ve been getting several PR messages a day…stating “we have a new product” or “your readers would like to…” or whatever. We are now in an age of micromarketing. Bloggers are approached by marketing firms in the same manner that press releases used to be issued to newspapers/radio/TV. My question: Does the increased distributed nature of marketing make us more or less immune to false messages? When a large percentage of a distributed informal information ecology is saying “think this…vote for her/him…have this opinion”, is that message more powerful than seeing it on TV or hearing it on the radio? i.e. are we better off to be distributed in purity of message? or centralized? or does it become the old telephone game where messages are obscured as they move through the chain?

    You’ve highlighted an important point here Dave…


  4. Hi Dave,

    As one who marketeers, I’d agree that some of the bunch are smarmy money and influence pedlers. But some of us tell people about good things in an honest way and make inroads by rooting the message in something truthful and real. The problem with micromessaging as I see it in my work day to day is that the vast majority of people get so overwhelmed by the info flying at them, or so overwhelmed at what they feel is pressure to make “the right” choice, that they give up and end up choosing whatever they can find, or they ask a community of family/ friends/ co workers… and for them they’re almost un-marketeered to in the end. I’m supposed to approach that as a challenge to overcome I think, to keep my clubhouse pass, but actually I like a little rebellion and like to whisper “it’s all a lie” randomly to shoppers. I think we see it – all the subtle marketing – the problem is that it all takes up so much of the air around us there’s not much alternative awareness unless we find it and share it ourselves.

    As for the OLPC, I got to play with one last week and almost dropped it as it’s super top heavy. The corporate telecoms company rep showing it off (did I know he had the first Blackberry in the UK and the first iphone and the first blah blah blah…) told me that it won’t do that in the developing world because they’ll PUT THEM ON STUFF. Hmmm. On stuff. How will it get onto the stuff? And where will this stuff sit? And if the only other way to make it not topple is to flip the screen down into tablet mode how do you then type? And we weren’t to touh the wireless antennae – they’re really breakable. Oscar would have had it in bits in about the length of a radio ad.

    As for the need to be politic to succeed – I’ll relate a story I grew up with. My mom was the first woman to work in the research lab at a big sugar refinery in her hometown. She was highly qualified, keen to work, had great references, and the man who eventually hired her told her she was his last choice. He’d never hired a woman and he wasn’t convinced they had the mental stamina to be researchers or weren’t just working to find a good husband. You’ve met my mom. She’s fierce when needs be. But she smiled, took the job and peed in the mens room for a year until they assigned the women (!) a room of their own. Her view – she could have stayed outside the building and screamed at the walls, or gone inside and made the changes by hook, crook and guile. Diplomatic yes. Effective, absolutely.


  5. I agree that being able to spot seductions and lures propagated to influence our behavior is a crucial skill. The majority of people have been pulled in by half truths or spin since the beginning of time. It started with Eve and the serpent. In fact, the message has remained the same. The product(fruit) is better(desirable) and some how will improve or flatter our image(wisdom). Knowing who we want to be like and what we want to follow or let influence us is also essential for one not to be swept away by the winds of political or brand correctness. (For example all the iProducts and all the iMarketing focused on flattering or satisfying all our iDesires.) In the first paragraph of this post, truth is mentioned and I believe that continually discerning truth is the only defense we have against what the author calls the media’s “staying on message.” The author’s mention of Dylan caused me to try and find out a little about him. I found this article that seem to tell a lot about him over time.
    It seems that Dylan has always displayed a certain caginess when dealing with “the media.” He also seems to be continually on a path to discern the truth

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