“Insights” as revealations of hidden optionalities

Terrace. say the word 50 times.
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

The gulf between rating systems and reality

Here’s the rating system used by Car servicing centers –

1-4 -unacceptable
5-7 – average
8-9 – Good
10 – Excellent

Once, after getting my car serviced from Hyundai, I gave an 8 rating… I got a call later from the service center asking to please improve the rating otherwise they would face trouble. they needed a 9 or 10.
I was astonished. Scoring 60% in school was ‘good’. scoring anything above 70% was a cause for celebrations. And here I had a panicking executive worried about getting a low score of 80%!

Then I remembered the JD Power awards! Companies have rigged their rating systems to pull themselves higher in the awards schema. But since everyone does that now, the advantage is gone and we are left with a nonsensical scale.

Here’s the rating system on swiggy

1 star – aargh!
2 star – Bad
3 star – Meh
4 star – Good
5 star – Loved it

If ola driver or swiggy delivery person does what he/she is supposed to do, I give a 5. i started doing that because i heard getting anything below 4 gets them in trouble. A friend of mine, as a customer, can’t use uber anymore. apparently, because her ratings have gone below 4! again 80%! I would have killed to consistently get 80% marks in my school/ college.

Here’s the rating system for appraisal in some companies.

1 – Did not meet expectations (Performed considerably below the required expectations. Definite improvement is needed)
2 – Partially met expectations (Performed slightly below expectations and achieved goals partially. Needs to focus on some areas and improve through consistent effort)
3 – Successfully met expectations (Performed on-target and met all expectations and goals. Achieved 100% of target)
4 – Exceeded expectations (Surpassed all expectations and goals. Achieved >100% and <110% of target)
5 – Far exceeded expectations (Surpassed all expectations and goals and is a role model of excellence to others. Achieved >110% of target)

After working hard, successfully meeting expectation, you get a 3! does that feel justified? does the scale seem a bit wonky?

I remember another company where the 100% expectation meeting was at 4, somewhat reasonable i would think. But even then, should it actually be at 5? we should be evaluated against what was expected. full marks for what was expected. for extra efforts, give extra! if you expect everyone to be a superstar, you are setting up everyone for a failure.

It seems as if the rating system has been rigged to bring down the worker’s ratings to justify low raises?

Obviously these rating systems matter. But should they?

some scales are linear, some are weighted at an end, some are exponential… reading any of these ratings would require an understanding of the context, and consequently fighting against that context.

ratings are just another battle ground where different interest groups rig the system for their benefit.

as such, ratings do not communicate the quality of experience/ work etc at all. they simply communicate the power dynamic.

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 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’.


Post-truth: History minus Mr. Clementis


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.