January 12, 2010

Thinking Inside The Box

Last week I spent several days in a drug-induced stupor as a result of a dental calamity.

During one period of semi-consciousness, I had a moment of perfect perspective about our lives and our universe. Of course, there is no such thing as perfect perspective, but with the aid of powerful pain-killers, the mind can do marvelous things.

It occurred to me that we have lost all perspective on who we are and what we do. This has happened in all aspects of our lives. Let's start with the largest and go down to the smallest.

Our Universe
One thing we have learned in the last hundred years is that our universe is enormous beyond any ability of the human mind to comprehend. There are no words to describe how vast the universe is or how small our world is. To say that our planet is a speck of dust is to exaggerate its size a billion fold.

And yet all our creation stories are ridiculously local. The creator comes to this one infinitesimal grain and disregards all others. Here he pays detailed attention to the goings on of a few families and tribes.

I suspect our place in the universe is not quite as central as we believe.

Our Planet
The controversy over climate change often devolves into hyperbolic arguments about whether we are destroying the planet.

We are certainly capable of destroying species -- and have done so with alarming regularity. We are probably capable of eradicating our own species. But destroying the planet? I doubt it.

Earth has been orbiting the sun for about 4.5 billion years. Our species has been here about 200,000 years or .00004 of that time. We are barely a footnote in the life of the Earth. The idea that we will be determining the fate of this planet seems like the most self-important kind of hubris.

There have been many mass extinctions of species in the history of our world. The planet seems to have taken no notice whatever. There will no doubt be more in the future. If we are foolish enough to precipitate our own mass extinction, I am pretty certain this will have not the slightest effect on the ultimate fate of our planet.

Saving the planet may be a nice catch-phrase, but the real challenge is saving ourselves.

Our Country
Those who don't understand evolution think that it is purpose-driven. That is, that there has been an inexorable march from slimy little mud-puppies to noble humans.

This is not at all how evolution happens. It is random and purposeless. Species mutate arbitrarily. Sometimes these changes are useful and help the individual survive or reproduce better. Mostly the changes are neutral or harmful and die out.

Many Westerners feel the same about their form of government. They believe that the arrow of history is inexorably pointed toward liberal democracy, such as we in the West currently enjoy. There is no guarantee that this is the case.

Democracy as we know it has been around for a few hundred years. There is little evidence that this system has any kind of long-term viability, and may just turn out to be a brief anomaly in the history of brutal, repressive regimes that have dominated human existence.

We are particularly arrogant in our attitudes toward the Chinese. American politicians like to lecture China about its system. We pompously point out that if they are to become a successful modern economy like us they need to adopt our political values.

Meantime we owe them trillions of dollars. Our homes and cars and flat screen tv's are bought with the money our government has borrowed from them and loaned cheaply to us. If they suddenly demanded their money back, we'd be in deep snow.

It's like your brother-in-law giving you sermons about his fabulous success while he owes you thousands of dollars.

From last weekend's New York Times Review of Books
China was the wealthiest, most unified and most technologically advanced civilization until well into the 18th century.... It lost that position some 200 years ago as the industrial revolution got under way in Europe. Scholars once viewed China as having crippling social, cultural and political defects that underscored the superiority of the West. But given the speed and strength of China’s recent growth, those defects have begun to look more like anomalies. It is the West’s run of dominance, not China’s period of malaise, that could end up being the fluke....
Our Profession
I have a very bad habit of judging books not by their covers, but by their titles.

There is a certain type of book that I particularly despise. It is entitled "The End of -------," insert subject.

We've had "The End of History" and "The End of Physics" and "The End of Art" and "the end" of just about everything else you can imagine.

Meanwhile, history and physics and art seem to be going along just fine.

This type of book is always a fraud. It is either wrong, or it is not really about what it says it's about.

If it's really about "the end" of something, it's invariably mistaken. But if it's about the end of something "as we know it," it's really about changes in that something. Which is just an indication that the something is very much alive and not at all at an end.

Well, now we have The End of Marketing As We Know It, by Sergio Zyman, who is a big-shot marketing brain. I haven't read it, so I can't comment on the content. But I have read the title, so I can comment on that.

As I've said a thousand times in this blog, advertising isn't dead or ending and neither is marketing.

Did marketing change when the computer was invented? Yes. Did it change when cable was introduced? Yes. Did it change when the internet became popular? Yes. This is what shit does. It happens, and it changes.

But to say that it's ending is just baloney.

Here at The Ad Contrarian we're in the business of fighting hyperbole, hypocrisy, and bullshit.

If you think we're at the end of marketing, all you have to do is look at any blimp, t-shirt, dry cleaning bag, stadium cup holder,  grocery receipt, license plate frame, or bus bench to understand that every square inch of the fucking planet is covered in marketing.

The end of marketing as we know it? Sorry, no such luck.

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