Re-branding: Postmodernism

We need a better word for ‘postmodernism’.

Why does it matter?

Understanding Postmodernism can help us understand the world we live in today and the forces shaping humanity. So in that sense, it is a powerful concept. Yet, because the word used to describe it is a mixture of two very broad concepts – post and modernism, it ends up confusing people more than it clarifies.

So if it is post something, what has already transpired? What was the cause if this is the effect? Is it a linear progression of events?

What is modern?  Wouldn’t anything that is ‘now’, be modern? So postmodern is the future? But then why are ‘modern arts’ almost a century old? Why do we still have modernist artists, postmodernist artists? How can they exist at the same time? Schrodinger’s cat?

You see why effective branding is important. Wouldn’t it have been better if modernism was called something else, something that better encapsulates what the people who coined the term were feeling? More-so with postmodernism, because in reality its a different beast, not a derivative or a descendant of the modern one.

About time we renamed these two concepts.

Here’s my attempt at distilling these complex concepts down to a few words.

Modernism is  ‘Hope of absolute meaning/ certainty of favourable changes’

Postmodernism is ‘acknowledgement of uncertainty in changes/ meaning making’

These terms are fairly restrictive, I agree. But it captures the unifying sensibility behind the movements/ changes that defined ‘modern’ or ‘postmodern’ artifacts/ events.

Modernism

Modernism essentially is blinkered optimism.

Modernism is about humanity’s optimism with technological changes (instant photograph, instant communication, plumbing), social changes (democracy, communism, cults). A thousand optimistic -isms proliferated in 20th century. What a time to live in for an intellectual! To think and to work towards utopias!). Communism, Capitalism, Maoism, Minimalism or even Taliban’s version of Islam – proponents of all these movements did actually believe in their -isms. They were working towards a positive change as they saw the world. These ideas affected art too and gave rise to many -isms that too have a strand of idealism that defines the art work. (Constructivism, Dadaism, Stalinist Totalitarianism) Even if a modern message was dark, it was full of certainty of one’s world view. That certainty was born out of a sense of ‘I now know what is right for the world. Only if we change these things.. the world will be alright.’ That is essentially a modernist’s mindset. Modernists essentially are optimist, because there is a certainty in there mind about their view of the world – science apparently has all the answers so do the politicians and the religious heads. There are authorities who are absolute.
The optimism of a modernist however, isn’t all roses. It’s in the nature of an idealist to attempt to change the world. And a single person can’t do that. You need to convince many people about your ideas of utopia to make it a reality. But when you can’t do that with honest and reasonable dialogue as two equal individuals (and you never can), you end up becoming a tyrant – forcing your perspective on others with threats, social boycott, death or even worse – rewriting history. In Czechoslovakia, a certain Mr. Clementis was simply erased from history. In India, the current government is busy forcing children to think that ancient India had flying planes and that a cow can solve all our problems. and so on. There are endless examples from antiquity to now of dangerously foolish people with simplistic ideas of change for a better world – unfortunately, the price of which must be extracted from a scapegoat – Mexicans in US, Guatemalans in Mexico, dalits in India, minorities everywhere. This is the price of ‘modernism’.

gottwald_clementis
Post-truth: History minus Mr. Clementis

Postmodernism

Postmodernism is the identification of this futility: The Sisyphean tragedy that we can’t escape. The tragedy itself is ‘modern’. (and as with Sisyphus, eternal) The recognition of which is ‘postmodern’.

The fall of Berlin wall, dissolution of Soviet union, Quantum physics, chaos theory, internet, crypto currency, refugee crisis, mixed race marriages, LGBTQ pride parades, vocal atheists, weak looking tech billionaires who didn’t wear suits, climate change threatening our survival….

The edifice of certainty has come crumbling down. Reasonable among us, can’t go on believing in simplistic ideals of utopias.

A postmodern worldview, understands that there is no easy solution to global or even personal problems. That there are no ‘final solutions’. But because one doesn’t know a solution, doesn’t mean one shouldn’t critically examine modernist solution of others. Because, the modernists often have final solutions that are worse than the problems they solve. Modernists (Hindutvawadi, Nationalists, separatists, Nazis, Marxists, Capitalists, Republicans, Democrats.. all identity groups) find this finger pointing inconvenient and get agitated. They are incapable of reasoning. And hence, most modernist movements end up as tragedies for the scapegoats and the intellectuals.

That is the way humanity functions, with a healthy dose of denials. The denial is essential to go on living with limited perspective; to go on living in service of the system at detriment to self. Humanity as a social group, thrived due to this very denial. We can’t let that go now, simply because we have instant answers at our fingertips due to internet. Hence fake-news. The denials is essential for maintenance of sanity of millions.

Postmodernism – When the pace of change became unbearable and humanity needed a carpet to dust away its confusions and dissonance under, it coined a term – postmodernism.

This is why post-modern work of art typically is confusing. Because, it is not meant to convey a singular vision. But rather, it is trying to show us some complexity, some chaos that the creator feels, we are blind to. Postmodern art is confusing because it is not about giving answers, but about raising questions.

Globalised world and internet = Frenzy caused by reality puncturing our denial

For those with the courage to look at reality objectively, Internet is a means to understand the complex interplay of events, motives, behaviors, resources etc. For the unreasonable among us, internet is an echo chamber where one goes to validate one’s own narrow worldviews.

Internet has short-circuited the natural course of ideas that humanity was geared to deal with. No modern ideals now have enough time and space to grow without the harsh jab of postmodern reality, puncturing its ideals. So either a person will go insane with the realisation of absurdity of life. Or drown himself in meaningless and eternally boring life that is validated by the system’s authority figures. Or react sharply with abuse, threats, anger to discomfort creators. Or as it rarely happens, listen and engage his flailing neurons in his brains to comprehend an alternate world view and in the process expand his narrow little world. The best among us embrace the absurdity and make themselves useful to others – hey if your existence is meaningless, might as well help fellow insignificant humans on their little journeys towards eventual deaths. Might as well, explore little corners of the vast world and grow as person. Might as well, do some good unto others. Might as well, not loose our shit over imaginary gods and abstract ideals.

The absurd life

There is no omnipotent god. Our existence on earth is a delicate affair. There is no judge with moral superiority.  Science only knows that we don’t know enough. There is no certainty of success/ happiness. There is no one true path of life. Relatives can’t be trusted with the child. There is no trust. There is no fixed price even. A shaving razor might be for Rs. 100 on amazon for me, Rs 74 for someone else… There is no certainty about anything.

Life essentially is absolutely absurd.
Earlier, only philosophers contemplated the absurdity of our existence. Now the world forces us to experience that absurdity in every instance. That is the postmodern experience. Post modernism, is our engagement with that big uncertainty.

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The absurdity of brands

The absurdity of brands

“They deify what crushes them and find reason to hope in what impoverishes them.”

So said Camus of Sartre and Dostoyevsky.  (and the postmodern me am quoting him not from his text but from a wisecrack video.)

He could just as well have said so about apple fan boys and enfield fanatics; essentially, all consumers in the capitalist society. At least Sartre identified the absurd so beautifully. We consumers, feel the absurd, but are not brave enough to identify the absurd.

So when Dove talks about real beauty, instead of identifying the absurdity of a brand attempting at becoming the authority of beauty, we get drawn into the farcical dialogue about beauty that Dove hosts, empowering itself for the benefit of no one else.

Each quality that we use to define ourselves by – beauty, desirability, potency, intellect, etc – is subjective. And hence it is up for hijacking by brands by giving consumers a random objective yardstick to measure oneself with, in the form of a brand or a product. Enjoyment in soda. self-worth in cell phones and sneakers. Power in suits. Beauty in moisturizing soaps. Freedom in horse-powers. Sociability in beer.

There is no beauty. Or rather more accurately, there is no objective standard for beauty. There is no such thing as ‘beauty’ as it relates to an individual  (inside or outside). We simply exist.  It is a subjective judgement imposed by others, relevant to us because we let it become relevant to our lives . And hence we need objective validation. And hence we need brands.

We can’t change ourselves. When it comes to our personal lives, our identity, what comes naturally to us is resistance to change, to fight for status quo, to not make effort in getting out of our comfort zones. But the problems we face in our lives need us to move in certain directions. Since we can’t marshal enough mojo to change ourselves, we change what we associate with instead. Hence brands.

I don’t want to actually write everyday to get better. So I install evernote on my phone instead.
I don’t want to actually run everyday to get fitter. So I buy Nike and a gym membership.
I don’t want to actually work at my relationships, hence facebook.

Since when has an app, a shoe or a website become a necessity for us to actually do something? It hasn’t. But since we don’t actually want to do those things, but want to believe that we are the kind of people who would do those things, we need brands.

ibrand.

OpenAI is not enough: On why Elon Musk must also disrupt the education system and ignite utopian imagination

OpenAI is not enough: On why Elon Musk must also disrupt the education system and ignite utopian imagination

Elon Musk is one of the few powerful people in the world who actually cares for the world, has a vision and has the ability to steer the world in conscientious directions. And Elon Musk is worried. He is worried about our probable future overlords – Artificial Intelligence (AI) , and rightly so. (“Not all AI futures are benign.“) And his response to that threat is characteristically ambitious and well targeted. He has started two new ventures in that field – Neuralink and OpenAI. Neuralink hopes to create ‘neural lace’ that removes the middleman of hardware between our thoughts and computing power. OpenAI hopes to democratize research about AI so that the advances of the technology are evenly distributed.
I am interested in this promise of OpenAI. Access to technology gives one power. And the currently powerful people, can buy access for themselves and create false barriers of access for others to technologies that are powerful. And OpenAI hopes to subvert that dynamic. The wish to democratise access to knowledge is at the very source of the Open movement. But for the wish to be fulfilled, much more needs to be done than OpenAI.

As it stands now, the two companies, by design, will only contribute to acceleration of AI adoption among elite without actual democratisation. OpenAI stops short at making the advances public, without ensuring that the public has the capability or intent of using those technologies. The current educational infrastructure is tremendously inadequate to educate enough people who could take the research at OpenAI and do something with it. Also, there is the issue of convenience and intent. Look for example, the promise of ‘sixth sense‘. Its been 7 years since that technology went open, but we don’t see people leveraging it widely. Or take the case of 3D printing. It was supposed to revolutionise manufacturing – but it didn’t.

Secondly, look at the world – everyone is building walls. To an extent that is inevitable.What happens to technologies in a world full of walls and xenophobia? Technology gets weaponized and secretive, not open.  

Like I said, there are two key issues here – capability and intent.

First, we need people to have skills in applied sciences with capabilities to leverage AI tech. Second, we need to show people the positive future that they can be a part of. We need people with imagination to dream of positive futures, before we can make the positive futures true. This will help in making it convenient and desirable for people to be part of this open alternate system for AI knowledge.

In both the cases of sixth sense and 3D printing, there simply was not enough public will to disrupt their existing lifestyles in favour of a more empowering tech that is less convenient. They were not emotionally moved by these tech’s promises. In absence of emotional will, people always choose convenience over empowerment. That is the great threat that Aldous Huxley warned us against in his ‘Brave New World’.   People will choose Soma that is detrimental over inconvenient though beneficial changes, because that is in service of prevalent power structures. Status-quo must be maintained, until it becomes unsustainable – That is the rule of the game. People and the power centers are geared for this behavior.

Musk understands the power of convenience well. His wealth is built with his ideas that made transactions convenient (Paypal), alternative fuel convenient and desirable (Tesla). So he is well positioned and capable to do the things necessary to make OpenAI’s promise a reality.

So Elon Musk, please invest in world’s (not US alone, since the promise is that of equality) educational infrastructure.
And secondly, propagandists/ strategists like me can help in making OpenAI a part of our cultural fabric, so that its adoption becomes easy. We need utopian ideas that people get motivated with – ideas that people want to be part of, to participate in. And this is where the strategy would be very different from any of the Elon Musk companies before. You would actually need to do propaganda/ marketing for this to work. We need utopian ideas that ignite people with imagination, for this to work.

The triad of Consultancies, FB and Google will neuter creative agencies globally, unless…

The triad of Consultancies, FB and Google will neuter creative agencies globally, unless…

First: The digital disruption.

Globally, Facebook and Google now dominate advertising dollars, not WPP or Publicis or other agency companies. (For comparison about the market muscle – Combined market cap of FB and G was $812Bn as of June 2016. How did WPP, Omnicom, IPG, Publicis stack up? The four combined were at $70 Bn. And the less said about the growth, the better.) So there’s that.

And now consultancies are entering the fray to steal the lunch from agencies. And agencies have largely been too busy in denial to notice their impending irrelevance and gutting of their margins.

Second: The value of ideas.

Adweek recently wrote about the trend of Global consultancy goliaths buying up small agencies to make inroads into the branding industry. And similarly, creative agencies have also been trying to make inroads into consultancy businesses.

Who is more likely to succeed? Which industry will prevail, which will shake-up?

To me the answer is obvious. Why? Here’s why –

  1. Relative Value: Consultancy’s service is typically valued at higher valuations than creative agencies. In another world, where creative agencies didn’t get too complacent early on and put more emphasis on effectiveness beyond awards, perhaps, creatives would have earned more, grew bigger by creatively solving newer and varied problems and given bigger business growth for brands. But we don’t live in that world. Consultancies are good at convincing with numbers how they affect businesses positively.
    P.S. – There should be a research done in success rate of consultancies versus agencies in actually delivering growth.
  2. Positioning: Consulting is positioned as a house of experts. Consultancies typically house ‘domain experts’ that the CXO knows he can access. So, it is not a big stretch to imagine that consultancies house creative experts too. It is a stretch to imagine the chaotic agency to house a supply chain expert though.
    So even if a CXO trusts a creative mind’s judgement in his/her field, I doubt he/she would extend the assumption of competency to other matters of business growth.  As against a typical consultant – no matter how dumb/ smart he/she might be, the CXO trusts him/her to create access to competent people for most business needs.
  3. Ear of CXOs – Both agencies and consultants get to interact and influence CXOs. But, agencies only cater to propaganda need, while consultancies can affect change in almost all facets of a business – supply chain, production, legal etc. So consultancies have a better view of the business and what it needs, and hence better opportunity to offer more services.
  4. Plurality of ‘closed thinking’ projects – Pardon the generalization, but while consultants are masters of ‘closed’ thinking, creatives are masters of ‘open’ thinking. I estimate that there are more ‘closed thinking’ services that a company typically needs help with, than ‘open thinking’ services.
  5. When you can’t innovate, advertise!: Growth in 21st century is about innovations – consolidative tech innovations (FB and G consolidating the ad and comm tech market) or fragmenting tech innovations (innovations in CPG that is creating new breed of many niche players – online or offline.) There is no substitute for actual, real innovation to grow in 21st century.
    While agencies are known for their ‘big ideas’, they are not known for path-breaking ideas that inform a business model or product development. Most of the time, the idea comes from within the company for it to be truly adopted with conviction. And to execute these ideas, they go to the consultancies for help, not to advertisers.
    Can advertising agencies create new business ideas? sure they can. But the evidence is lacking as of now.
    Advertising agencies instead are now becoming home to companies that fail to innovate and then want the advertising to push the ship stuck in the muck.

There have been attempts by agencies to get into consultancy shoes – most recently by R/GA. I wish them best of luck. I really hope someone cracks it and in the process, ‘pivots’ to a higher value service. But so far the trend has not been encouraging.

Here’s an idea for a better future for the industry – start putting your money where your ideas are.