“Insights” as revealations of hidden optionalities

Terrace. say the word 50 times.
Slowly.
As if you are pondering over the word. Letting your tongue linger over the r’s and letting it bid adieu to the dimming sss sound at the end with a gentle flourish. Do this over and over again.

What happens?

You begin to doubt the meaning of word. Or imagine different meanings for it. The evolving sounds of the word nudging you towards different notions and worlds.

Something similar happens in pursuit of ‘insights’. either alone or in group, after a few hours of meditating and mining for the insight, we begin to lose the shape of the very concept of insight. we might have a list of contenders by then. But when you look back, the contenders stare back at you with a question. is this really an ‘insight’?

***

Insights sit at the edge of epistemic boundaries.


Epistemy is the kind of word whose meaning deserts our mind as soon as our focus shifts away from it. If intellectual pursuits are scaffolds, the concept of epistemy sits perhaps high enough where clouds obscure the vision of ground reality below. Which is to say, it is one of those concepts you brush away in an encounter out of confusion or being intimidated. But try and hold onto it for a minute here. I think it would be worth your while.

Epistemology is knowledge about knowledge. how we know what we know? what are the limits of what we know? how we know what we know is true? how we believe in something and what constitutes reality?

Epistemy deals with perception, memory, cognition, reasoning… things that advertising professional deal in. In that sense, we are itinerant traders of epistemic goods; chiseling out notions, transporting it from minds to minds, fertilizing beliefs, harvesting behaviours and preferences.

When we talk about insights, we are really talking with purpose of effective inception – an ‘a ha’ moment. So within the epistemic set, insight is purposive subset. An insight that cannot trigger a response is not useful.

Secondly, insight is relative. what is insightful to me might not be insightful for you. what is insightful for me now might not be insightful for me the day after. what is insightful for me when commuting might not be when I am drowsy with sleep.
In other words, insight needs to be TG, occassion and behaviour specific. I saw an ad recently by a footwear brand talking about woman empowerment. Nothing wrong with the politics. The insight is right for the politics, but not relevant to the brand at all.

thirdly, insight is epistemic. this is to say that it is relative to the knowledge, expectations, beliefs of the person we are trying to communicate with. The reader of this blog might enjoy this epistemic discourse. But this insight about insight is not of interest, concern or vocabulary of, say a parle G biscuit consumer. It is precisely of interest to a very narrow group of people interested in advertising, media AND who are intellectually curious. The latter group might have the vocabulary, the context and the interest in what I am saying, most others won’t.

Now is a good time to ask the question – so what?
Tthe thing is, to create an ‘a ha’ moment, we need to drive the person right beyond the edge of his knowledge, his beliefs, his perspectives.

So it is not enough to know what your consumer knows, feels, believes in. We need to know what are the limits of those ideas in their mind and heart. We need a humanist perspective to expand their boundaries of tolerance, beliefs, knowledge (Which is relevant to the brand in question).

***

Insights and optionality

Life is essentially a journey through optionality. We move ahead in life, only by making choices (knowingly or unknowingly). We are under the illusion that time is what pushes us ahead. But that’s a fallacy. Time just moves our mortality. We stagnate and solidify into inert calcified husks if we postpone choices and doggedly ignore them. We move in life if we take chances, if we make choices.

and the journey is outwards, expanding the boudaries of what and how we know, feel, belong etc.

so every insight can essentially be framed as a choice, as an option, as an invitation to expand the boundaries of our lives. These insights sit at the boundary of our cognition. Often unsaid or invisible to the consumer, until it is made apparent by an outside agency (hopefully us).

I think this conception of insight is beautiful and MECE enough to settle all ‘what do you mean by an insight’ debate. what do you think?

summary: insight = identify epistemic boundary + an option to explore the beyond

A black hole called mobile phone

Self-help books suggest that to gain control over ourselves, we must first clear our environment of distractions. But we now live a life where we depend on these distracting devices. If I earn my livelihood by being mediated through a laptop, what do I do? It’s some sort of Pavlov’s dog principle in action. We are so accustomed to servicing through the device that we stop noticing when we begin to serve the device itself. ‘Just say no’, won’t work. Simplistic solutions like these often don’t work.

A physically non-remarkable flat surface (and we have gone to great lengths to make it unremarkable. The portal itself shouldn’t distract from what it portals to!) has become the focal point of all our attention – work triumphs, work anxieties, deadlines, cat videos, video calls, meetings, movies, songs, news, friends, memories, sex, commiseration, plans… all through a screen. The screen is a singularity around which our every action, concern, decision, and of course attention converge.
Our brains were not made to work with such transparent magic. We think in spaces, distances, physical efforts, causes & effects. But everything collapses at the edge of these modern-day black holes. The singularity FEELS endless, of indeterminate consequence, immediate yet all-encompassing. And indeed, the compression is in our feelings, not the actual world of consequences. Our thoughts and feelings are separated from reality and focused in this singularity. And how does this singularity feel? A whirlwind that rifles through many nerves one after another – Neurotic. Anxious. Elated. Aroused. Bored. Excited. Jealous. Sad. Potentially, all at once.

This is somewhat similar to the Uncertainty inherent in the quantum realm, isn’t it? A state of a particle is always potentially something and it manifests a certainty only when influenced by an observer. When no one’s looking, it could be anything (the cat being potentially dead and alive.) Perhaps something similar is at play here too. The feelings we feel depends on the observer in this panopticon. So, the question is, who is the observer?

The observer is the one whose attention we are considering – it could be ourselves or an imagined someone else. Our, imaged outside-in view.
We potentially feel everything, the actual feeling manifest depends on the observer we are imaging doing the observing.

So, in a sense, the device turns us into an actor, forever performing for this variable observer. At times the observer is the idealized us, at times the imagined judgemental gaze of friends, our colleagues, our partner, or an imagined stranger who somehow holds a string tied to our life.

We are actors for an imagined audience playing variable parts not knowing when the spotlight is on us and when the curtains are down. In this uncertainty, we keep acting. That’s the real transformation engineered by our mediated-ness.

The quality of our attention is not without judgment, not without displacement. In a mediated world, our attention has that actor’s quality to it. It is once removed – hedged for the observer, enacting an idealized version of ourselves, looking in from outside – wondering how may we look, wondering what is expected of us.

Since that other ‘looks’ at us through mediated devices – phones, laptops, surveillance cameras… the gaze that matters to us is not our own, but the one that emanates from these devices. We perform for our devices, not the other way around.
We were not made for this. But this is our Sisyphean boulder now – performing forever for the screens. There’s no easy escape from it.

So how can a modern person, carrying this Sisyphean boulder all the time, even begin to think about reclaiming her agency, regaining control over her own attention? How can she make sense of the world, fight against powers trying to steal her attention?

***

This text is part of the draft of a book I am writing. Don’t know when (and if) I will finish it.
I have started a new blog relevant to this topic – rewiringchaos.com Do check it out.

Perils of specialism

In the age of specialism, everyone’s an expert.
And when everyone’s an expert, no one listens to others.
And when no one listens to others, the human collective cannot work together consciously. It can only work together through the specialist narrow systems of incentives and capital.

Narrow systems of incentives are a recipe for disaster. For instance, when growth is the only incentive, climate & communities become the ‘externalised’ victims. And the bubbles of specialism do not let emerging threats and opportunities be addressed by humanity with an united front. Look at climate scientist crying hoarse with urgency, while wall street bankers go on griping about growth as if without a ‘skin in the game’ of human survival.

End of the world as we know it.

Specialism creates bubbles of concentrated wisdom that does not cross-pollinate with ideas from other stream and adoption of those ideas with appropriate urgency (or not). Any resilient system needs diversity, and specialism doesn’t allow for that diversity to bear fruits.

The only way out of current challenges of polarisation of societies, increasing inequality & climate crisis is through incentivising multiplicity of perspectives, capabilities, functions, goals and enabling cross – communications & intermixing of work streams.

Must embrace multiplicity and diversity in our lives, economic systems and work culture.

Home

Moving

I recently moved to my eighth house in ten years across five cities. Now that I look back at our movement, I am in awe of the amazing ability of my home in accommodating that frenzy and turning it into a simple peace. I moved with economic currents, with multiplying of love, with refusal to be taken advantage of. Every move was an emotional decision. To move so often, to have emotionally charged decisions to be made so frequently, points to a world in a flux, a world spinning at the end of the rinse cycle – manic, moving at breathtaking speed, unnerving. I am but a little flotsam, floating with the currents, trying to ride the wave, instead of being swallowed whole and spit out bitterly.

The first four houses were witness to my loneliness, my listlessness, my daydreams, my attempts at finding love and bouts of creative diarrhea. It was a place where time stretched out and wrapped around me like an anaconda; moving slowly and then suddenly. Sleep came from exhaustion from waiting, absorbing the cold bright light from glowing rectangles… that too slowly and then suddenly.

Gods

I come from hill country. Since childhood, hills, lakes and wide expanses were my gods. It was a spiritual necessity to return to them every evening. In an extended sense, hills were my home. When that was no longer possible in Mumbai, I turned to trekker groups for that necessary pilgrimage every other weekend. With Gurgaon, the hope was to experience the majestic Himalayas every month. But as it turns out, the travel doesn’t come cheap and there are only so many extended weekends in a year. So it became a yearly pilgrimage. I slowly lost my gods but thankfully found love in the meantime too. With that, the home changed from being a base camp to our own little haven.

Love

Love makes life worth living. Love turns a house into a home. A warmth, a lightness, a happiness permeates the air in the home. Things start to have a shared meaning. Milestones get etched into walls, refrigerators and scratched/ stained furniture. Things multiply. The meaning they carry weigh more than the utility they serve. The line between ‘mine’ and ‘yours’ gets smudged, obliterated, redrawn depending on how many of the chores were shared that day.

A triangular universe

Between the triangulation of homes of childhood and home we make together lies the entire universe. We can reach the farthest reaches of our capabilities, we can survive the deepest of falls and find unlimited happiness and weather new sorrows within this triangulated safe place.

Salmon

I am a salmon.

Talisman

Homes are not homes until it gets anointed with a few ‘things’ that must find the right and proper place in the house. For me its the books. The only constant in my luggage through all of our homes have been my books. Over the years, i have given away many and bought many. But there are always books in our home.
My wife is an artist and some of her beautiful and priceless artwork adorns our walls and display cabinets. Our home cannot be complete without the bowls, cups and platters made by her. So some of it travels with us in the in-between times. I can’t bear to drink tea/ coffee from any cup that is not made by her anymore. It just won’t feel right.

My books, her bowls and the two of us complete the home.

The lighthouse

Our hope is to build ourselves a home in the next few years that will stay with us, get old with us, that we won’t have to give up with vagaries of life. To make that a reality, we are planning on saving some money, which we have been terrible at so far. The roots of our future home is being laid in a habit of watching our expenses and being prudent with money, new territory for us.

Here’s to the hope of rising above the waves pushing us this way and that way. Cheers.

Enamored with ‘simplicity’

Simplicity is good. A Simple message is more readily understood, more readily spread. So I am all for the final expression of ideas being simple – the tag line, the copy.. simpler the better, generally.

Even if we look under the hood, the thinking behind the ad, the strategy – simplicity often helps prioritise, helps clarify. The search for simplicity helps us frame our questions better, zero-in on key questions quicker.

However, simplicity has also become an excuse for the ignorant not to learn. Simplicity has become a tool that helps older generation remain in denial. The simplicity mantra has allowed the advertising industry leadership to remain complacent in the face of existential crisis.

Life is not simple. Understanding life is not simple. To arrive at a simple clarity, one typically has to go through fairly complex experiences and a conscious effort to engage with that complexity. Engaging with complexity to unearth meaning is the bedrock of human evolution. We are evolutionary deadwood if we don’t engage with emerging complexities and strive for relevance in the new world.

Here’s a few anecdotes of what I want to convey –

A client wanted to create a ‘platform for X’: a very promising and untapped area. But they had obviously not thought through yet. I thought of Scott Galloway’s insight that lists 10 factors that affect chances of success for a global platform company. The fact is, even this list of 10 factors would be considered over simplification by wiser folks. But it could help us help the client see the obvious areas of improvement in their business plan. Climbing up the value chain for us – from simply brand identity to strategy consultancy.

But unfortunately, the agency leadership did not understand and did not have the time to understand the basics of the new economy. They didn’t want to dabble into things they don’t understand, fair enough. But that means sidestepping a fair amount of opportunities.

Their desire for simplicity meant tremendous opportunity costs.

Second anecdote –
This was a typical NGO project related to changing certain health habits. Creative team jumps onto a morbid ‘shock treatment’ idea. Why not do something like ‘dumb ways to die’? The death part, not the fun happy jingle part. Never mind the context.

Fear works! they pronounce.
I show research saying that it is not very helpful. Some people rally, but a vast majority of TG would perceive it as an attack on their identity and pull up their defenses, strengthening their bad habits. It is a fairly well documented effect – the backfire effect. But sharing the knowledge of backfire effect, backfired. Creatives pulled up their defenses and held their morbid deathly idea even tighter to their bosoms.

They responded by ridiculing the research – there are so many conflicting researches. No point in listening to it. We ‘know’ fear works, they pronounced.

Fear to engage with unknown psychological complexities held them back from doing what could have been amazing work.

I feel that people who analyse ads often put far more thought than the people who make those ads. Because it is their job to deconstruct complexities with the first group. And to simplify and elicit a reaction for the latter group.

How do you learn if you don’t engage with the complex?
We need ruminations over complex matters to achieve the essential simplicity.

The ones who don’t engage their grey cells and their heart with real complexities, won’t find the elegant voice of truth that shapes great creative work.

The truth about bullet riders

This was written in response to a Quora question.
 The question was “Why trend to purchase bullet bikes increased in India?

I think bikes (as most other things) are bought not only for its functional relevance but for its psychological relevance. (If you can commute ably with a 35k bike, why would you spend a lakh more on a bike which essentially is a bulkier, less advanced machine?)

The purchase of bullet is purely a matter of fulfilling a psychological need. So the question is – what is the psychological need being met by Bullets and why are more people in India feeling that particular need?

Bullet is uniquely manly. While Pulsar is ‘definitely male’, it is also immature. Pulsar is boyish, bullet is manly.
Most fared bikes are positioned to younger audiences. They answer the need of adrenaline rush.. what we call ‘potency needs’. Its the quintessential teenage need to feel on the edge. Bullet is not for these men (boys).
Bullet has been traditionally used by people in armed forces, government services.. so it has a connotation of authentic power. When modern bikes were introduced as being ‘definitely male’ and such for the teenagers-at-heart, the bullet automatically got positioned as the ‘authentic’ men’s bike, due to its lineage. Substance v/s show.
Bullet – less advanced, heavier, slower, louder.
New fared bikes = advanced, lighter, faster, refined.

Bullet has a stronger ‘physical presence’. slow, heavy  and loud = a more assured and solid rider imagery.
New bikes, even if they are technologically better, being quick and light – they seem (to people with masculine anxieties) as less robust and less manly.


The reality is most Indian men are still boys. not completely responsible for themselves, and proud of it. afraid of women, yet dreaming of ‘conquering’ them. Depending on parents well into late 20s (if not later too.) essentially, incomplete men. Pose them a real challenge in life and they would rather leave for Himalayas.

In a world of youngsters facing identity crisis, Bullet gives an unambiguous Indian identity of rugged macho.
In a world of sanitised skyscrapers and sedentary lifestyle, Bullet fills the need to belong to the rawness of Bharat, the earthen macho.
In an increasingly risk-averse society, the bullet lends an identity of the ready-for-any-reality macho, to the rider.
The signature loud (annoying) sound of the exhaust, announces presence of the rider. It fills the need of the less-loved men to imagine them having a ‘presence’.

Essentially, a bullet enables a person to feel good about himself when he is concerned about the inauthenticity and emasculation of his modern identity. Bullet frees him from masculinity anxieties.