Take Time

Picture me up in the air, at 35,000 feet, with a six inch screen inviting me to sit back, snack, and enjoy the entertainment. I would if I could, but I’m typically too busy gripping the armrests and being hyper vigilant about every little bump and dip the plane takes, which, as we all know, is a complete waste of energy. It’s safer up here than it feels, and it feels safer down there, on the ground, than it is. Statistically. Anyway, you’d think that I’d be used to this by now, having been somewhat of a frequent-flyer most of my life, but no. I mean, you can only be so comfortable hurtling through the sky in a massive metal, oil-burning tube. But hey, in 45 minutes, it’ll be bright lights big city for me!

The biggest advertising companies in the world make billions of dollars each year without doing one pitch, one comp, one commercial. It’s amazing! Check out this snippet from a WIRED piece last spring:

“In a call with analysts yesterday, Google CFO Patrick Pichette said that the money, more than $3 billion, the company spent to acquire smart thermostat and smoke-alarm maker Nest also dragged down the company’s bottom line. Pichette’s admission couldn’t be more emblematic of Google’s past year, during which the big story has been how a company built on internet search has decided to invent the rest of the future. Self-driving cars. Drones. Robots. Wearables. Internet-broadcasting balloons. Even as a key metric for measuring its ad business–the business it relies upon for nearly all its revenue–keeps faltering, Google has forged ahead under the guidance of CEO Larry Page to build a world that looks like every geek’s ultimate sci-fi fantasy. You could see these adventures in future-making as visionary, or as folly. But there’s another motive that could be driving Google: quiet desperation. Google hasn’t figured out how to make its mobile ads valuable enough, and there is growing suspicion that it never will. In the meantime, then, why not shoot for the moon?”

The article is ostensibly about the mobile advertising “problem” — the dragon that lots of people who might have, oh, I dunno, gone into the sciences or something a few decades ago are chasing today instead — and how Facebook seems to have “figured it out” by including “sponsored” content in our news feeds. Sponsored content, of course, is just another way of saying “ad” and “figured it out” is really just a matter of perspective. Because you could just as easily say “kicked the can.” Nobody wants ads in their news feed, and that enough of us are clicking on them now to merit Facebook’s “mission accomplished” is purely a manifestation of novelty and deception. On the novelty side: Oh, hey, what’s this new thing in my feed? Let me find out. Click. On the deception side: Oh, hey, there’s my friend Brian. Looks like he’s going on a trip. That sounds neat. Click. Oh, wait, this is Virgin Atlantic hijacking Brian’s face and status. I don’t like that.

So this will work for about a second. And Google might try to catch up to that second, but that would be silly. Google is better off taking a risk on the next second — whatever the next ad scheme is that will have its own second or two of mis-clicks before people realize that (yet again) they’re being tricked. I like how the author of the WIRED piece put it: “Self-driving cars are easier than mobile ads.” For sure! I mean, forget “mobile!” Let’s just say “ADS.” Self-driving cars are easier than ads because there’s no subtext to a car. You get in a car; it takes you somewhere. It’s the real thing! Not the idea of it. No matter how much we try to make ads look like something else, they will always still be ads because they exist to get you to do something other than what you’re doing right now. Even in it’s most subtle of forms, like: Hey, we hope you’re enjoying E.T.* right now but doesn’t a nice can of coke sound nice, or maybe some Reese’s Pieces?* But a car doesn’t exist to get you to do anything other than drive it. It is the end — a very tangible one — and after that, a means to all sorts of other tangible ends.

An ad is only ever a means to an end. It is never an end in and of itself, no matter what advertising agencies tell you. Or the Super Bowl. If ads are your business — which is true of just about every big online property in existence right now, whether it’s publishing or social media — you are always going to have a greater impression of value than any real, tangible value. And you’re always going to be propping up that impression on the basis of some future improvement to it: Soon, we’ll have even more people, and know even more about them. Then our advertising will be worth even more! That’s why companies like Facebook buy things like What’sApp. For the people! So that they can sell those people to advertisers; so that advertisers will believe that the ads they’re buying are worth something. It’s a confidence game all the way down. This is Google’s (and almost every other valley darling) problem, and why the only future for them is to get off of ads and on to something real. Ain’t no methadone for ad addiction. And anyway, if there was, it’d just be an ad amirite? And jeez, what about the poor advertisers? When are they going to realize that the more they pay, the less value they get? As the saying goes for us plebes, if you’re not paying for it, than you’re the product. Well, for the advertisers, if you’re paying for something the seller doesn’t really own, then you’re the stupid.

Stop. And think. Daydream. Go for a walk. Play a game. Go find someone to talk to. Anything. Just don’t spend another second in front of that screen multi-tabbing. Here’s another clip, this time from Heidi Hackemer — on doing great work and living great lives.

“Creativity is how we’ll survive as an industry. Yet, the norms of our industry completely contradict the conditions necessary for creativity. Creativity requires space, new inputs, rest, time off, pointed timeframes and goals. Our industry is pretty crap at all those things.”

Can I get an amen? All good work requires contemplation. And there’s really nothing less contemplative than the way we work. What do we do about this? Well, we definitely don’t wait for software to fix that problem. Don’t tell me there’s an app for that. The solution to this is the anti-app. It’s the turning off, the powering down, the getting up out of that chair and embracing your embodiment and lifting one leg up and then the other and feeling the rush of air over your face as you move your cell-home through space again. Software is the anti-world. It’s the un-place. It’s like being in a casino — cut off from the cues the universe has given us to stop, recharge, and rest and caught in and endless cycle of dopamine binging and purging. What’s another crank at the slot machine? I don’t even know what time it is! What’s another email? I haven’t seen the sun in days. You know how there’s that cliche about inspiration coming in the shower? I mean, there’s something to that, isn’t there? It’s one of the last few places you can’t bring your smartphone. All you’ve got is millennia-old embodiment stimulation. Water falling on skin. Sounds like rain. My god we live on a spinning hunk of rock flying through space. We are minds and bodies. We are flesh. Nerve endings being woken up. Repetition. It cleans your mind out. So look, whatever Apple or Google or Microsoft or whoevertheheck offers you in the way of a smart shower, DO NOT DO IT. Keep your shower a place of disconnection. Keep it in the 19th century for God’s sake. The 21st can have your TV, your fridge, your thermostat, your car. But let the 19th century keep your bathroom. Oh, and your bedroom, too. And as for all your (absolutely legitimate) CHRIS-BUT-WHAT-ABOUTs… bring ’em on :)

Meanwhile, here’s a smattering of loosely related reading on stopping the madness and restoring some time to think: What Happened to Downtime? The Busy Trap. Another The Busy Trap. Jerry’s Map, because that guy could never do what he does without space to contemplate.

“Advertising geeks are busy learning every detail about their little world.
The creative thinkers are thinking bigger.
They’re thinking about the outside world.
We Need a Vision Beyond the Geeks

Heavy Rotation: The other day I listened to Marc Maron interview Rivers Cuomo from Weezer — which was pretty interesting; you should listen to it, too — and they talked a bit about Pinkerton, Weezer’s second album, which was apparently a disaster. I wasn’t listening to much Weezer back in 1995, but my friends were, and in between that and their third album, my girlfriend at the time played Pinkerton A LOT. It never occurred to me that Pinkerton was some huge departure from The Blue Album and I certainly had no idea that half of their fanbase hated! Pinkerton. So I went back and listened to it a few times this week. It’s a great album. And in hindsight, it seems like such an obvious departure for them. Their first album was a perfectly engineered piece of pop (thanks to Rick Ocasek), and Pinkerton is kind of like the matured tastebud experience we’ve all had as we realize that maybe we’d rather have an omelet for breakfast instead of Frosted Flakes. Now, I love The Blue Album — I think it’s the greatest! — but Pinkerton is interesting because it’s a band’s self-awareness emerging (they produced it themselves) and represents the discovery of more complex sounds and textures and tastes. It’s growing up. Joker critics at the time called it “juvenile” and “a collection of get-down party anthems for agoraphobics.” But they were just WRONG and most of them have admitted as much since. Some things just take time to set in and do their work. And there it is again. Time. Take as much as you need!

Recent Tabs: Are you a narcissist? Take this 40-question test to find out. We know the brain is an incredibly adaptable organ, but wow, even if it’s missing a huge chunk of it, like, oh, I dunno, its entire cerebellum, it can roll with it while it’s 24-year-old owner has no idea it was never there in the first place.

Written by Christopher Butler on October 4, 2014,   In Essays

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