Call me Ishmael. Our obsessive quest for precision and certitude via all things digital is a great white whale that -- like Ahab -- we chase at our own peril. Of course, great white whales aren't designed to be caught, only chased. But now -- fifteen years later and well past the point of no return -- we find that our ability to innovate in the overwhelming evidence of diminished performance across all media channels is likewise compromised and greatly diminished.
We need to disabuse ourselves ASAP of the narcotic but tragic notion that industry innovation is a byproduct of technology, and that every problem will be solved as better technologies inspire better metrics, better methodologies, and better management decisions. This blind and backwards faith in better business through better technology inhibits and truncates our true ability to innovate in much the same manner that our massive inventories of time-saving devices now consume and steal so much of our precious time. As Dr. Phil might ask: "How's it workin' for ya?"
In response to the above, I'd like to re-introduce my formula for innovation, the same formula I introduced several years ago when it was already painfully apparent that we had surrendered our individual and collective futures to swarms of youthful, well-funded technologists who -- predictably and without delay -- converted the financial, media, marketing and entertainment industries into ersatz extensions of global technology companies. So here's my formula for innovation: Ignorance + Intent = Innovation. Translated into less secular terms, the same formula might read: Uncertainty + Faith = Inspiration. Both are predicated on our willingness to embrace what we don't know as the path to wisdom.
Despite what those with vested interests in the vast, technology-driven knowledge industry may claim, few of the world's intractable problems remain so for a lack of knowledge, and in the end our failure to resolve them has little to do with how much we know or don't know. Our failure to resolve them is largely a failure of imagination. Some would say that we lack the will as well, and that may be perfectly true. But the will to do something assumes something to do, and we can't begin to do something that we can't imagine first. Contrary to the claims of experts (those who promote knowledge as the panacea for all things), the key to imagination and innovation is uncertainty, not knowledge.
Uncertainty, not knowledge, is the essential human condition for a reason, just as knowledge is the Godhead for a reason. The Big Bang and Creation were God's jobs. The tasks to imagine, explain and replicate them (albeit on a far more modest scale -- until recently) are ours. Imagination is our very own little big bang, and nowhere is our imagination more threatened than in the reductionist arrogance of our own digital media world, where -- for some reason -- we seem perfectly content to take our little big bang and render it ever smaller at every opportunity.
There are two great battles currently in progress in digital media: the battle for bandwidth, and -- more recently -- the battle for data. The battle for bandwidth is a face-first battle for brute power while the battle for data is a backdoor skirmish for knowledge that will translate into brute power. Neither, however, have much to do with marketing and advertising -- which are really all about wonderment and mystery, the offspring of uncertainty.
Consider the words of King Solomon, certainly among history's wisest of men, on his own mastery of knowledge:
I said to myself, "I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge." And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow. – Ecclesiastes 1:16-18
We shouldn't delude ourselves: The battle for data is -- first and foremost -- a battle to obliterate uncertainty via the attainment of absolute knowledge and absolute power. Now consider the words of Jacob Bronowski, author of The Ascent of Man, as he stands ankle-deep in the ash ponds of Auschwitz:
To this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.
Science, is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known. We always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error, and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: 'I beseech you in the name of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.'
...I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died at Auschwitz, to stand here by the pond as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.
The battle for data is nothing less than a battle to acquire the knowledge of gods, a battle to reduce the hearts, minds, and souls of men, women and children to commercially parsed and endlessly brokered bits and bytes. The battle for data -- like all great power struggles -- is a battle characterized over and over again by arrogance, dogma, and ignorance.
There's a far better, far more effective way. It begins by accepting that the true opposite of knowledge is not ignorance, but uncertainty, and that wisdom (the true opposite of ignorance) only begins to accrue when we fully embrace how little we can know with any certainty at all. Wisdom begins to emerge with a more explicit understanding that pride comes before the fall.
Those who wish to succeed in marketing and advertising in the years ahead will embrace and invest in uncertainty, not knowledge, as our most potent and plentiful resource for success. The best way to restore advertising and marketing performance to the media channels (now that we've polluted them so thoroughly with technologies that have so little to do with advertising and marketing) is to cure our itch for absolute power and knowledge, and pursue instead a more profound sense of wonderment in ourselves and others -- something that will only happen if and when we embrace our own uncertainty. Otherwise, we will lose our ability to touch people entirely (as witnessed by the current collapse in performance across virtually all media channels), and the only human act we are likely to encounter in our desperation to recover what we've already lost is the callous disregard that further reduces our hopes and dreams to oceans of faceless data.
Rather than devoting our time and money to technologies that target and hunt down those we want to engage, we should be devoting our time and money to the creation of things worth engaging in the first place. Translation: Stop thinking quantity and start thinking quality. Once we turn that switch between our ears we'll realize that we don't have to spend our time and money hunting down our audiences because they'll be hunting us down instead. We need only make ourselves easy to find, and set a nice table for our guests. The true feast begins when we embrace our uncertainty. Or we can settle for more table scraps and call it performance...
About Jeff Einstein and the Brothers Einstein
Jeff Einstein is one-half of the Brothers Einstein, a creative strategy and branding boutique. The Brothers Einstein work with select rapid-growth clients to help define and execute healthy brand strategies in a toxic media environment.