November 29, 2012

The Wonderful Things We Used To Know

One of the ongoing qualities of mankind that you have to admire has been our ability to delude ourselves into thinking we know things that we don't know.

There are so many wonderful things we used to know that we don't know anymore.

We used to know what the universe was made of. It was made of protons and electrons and neutrons which were made of quarks and a whole bunch of funny little subatomic particles. And then a few years ago we found that about 94% of the universe is made of stuff that is a complete mystery to us. We call it dark energy and dark matter because we have no idea what it is. It's not the stuff that stars or people or protons are made of. It's... we don't know what the hell it is. We're not even sure how to look for it.

It was less than 40 years ago that our experts warned us about disastrous climate change. In 1975, Newsweek informed us that meteorologists "are almost unanimous" that “catastrophic famines might result from…global cooling.” That's right, cooling. On Sept. 14, 1975 The New York Times told us that this global cooling "may mark the return to another ice age." And on May 21, 1975 the Times said "a major cooling of the climate is widely considered inevitable" because it has been "well established" that the climate in the Northern Hemisphere "has been getting cooler since about 1950."

And then, to our dismay, we found out a few years ago that the Earth is actually warming at an alarming rate.

For hundreds of years we knew that diseases were caused by witches, or frogs, or bad vapors, or angry gods. It is only in our very recent past that we've learned about microbes and genetics.

You'd think that after thousands of years of being wrong about just about everything we'd have learned a little humility. But, of course, we never do.

Which brings me to the very mundane subject of advertising.

We used to know how interactive advertising worked. But then the more we studied it, the more we found that consumers have no interest whatsoever in interacting with advertising.

We used to know how social media worked. But the farther along we get, the more we find that our assumptions about the impact of social media on consumers' buying habits are way out of line with reality.

We used to know what was happening in media. And then TV didn't die. And TiVo didn't take over. And the computer and television didn't converge.

But being wrong doesn't stop us.

We still have people making a nice living going from conference to conference, from boardroom to boardroom, who know how it all works and how it will work in the future. They know what we need to do and how we need to do it. They know.

The only problem is this -- they know nothing. They are fools at best, and liars at worst. Anyone who takes them seriously is an idiot.

It's such a shame. We used to know so much.


dave trott said...

One of my favourite quotes is from Whitehead: "The problem with the world is that the ignorant are arrogant and cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt."

Chris Seiger said...

We used to know a snake oil salesman when we saw one.

Jimmy Gilmore said...

Not sure if you ever read William Goldman's books Adventure's in the Screen Trade or Which Lie Did I Tell? One of his refrains is "no one knows anything." (If you haven't read them, I'm sure you would enjoy them.)

There's more than a bit of alchemy to both businesses, and when we admit to not knowing everything, and approach our jobs with humility and at least a little respect for the Muse, we're a hell of lot more likely to succeed.

As always, keep up the good fight, Jimmy

Paul Benjou said...

“I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”
― Plato

Anonymous said...

Montaigne - "The only thing I know is that I know nothing. And I'm not even sure about that."

Katie Fritz said...

Hello Ad Contrarian!

I've seen this video circulating around and, knowing your thoughts on social media, would love to know what you think of it.

I did note that they didn't mention any statistics on actual SALES being made from social media interactions.

Ken said...

Given that one of America's two great political parties has institutionalised life in the parallel universe I'm not surprised it's flourishing elsewhere. A good salesman always believes his own bullshit, so it shouldn't come as a shock that there's an army of ignorant individuals deeply empowered by their motivational tapes running around telling us that something is true because, hey, they just know it is. If we all wish hard enough, Tinkerbell won't die. Science has been kicked off its pedestal, and truthiness and the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People have arrived to take its place.

Anonymous said...

The retreat from reason is everywhere.

Tony Hoad said...

Bob, I love your blog and agree with 97.24% of the stuff you say. But, if you don't reckon global warming is a problem, I suggest your read Deep Future by Kurt Stager. It scared the absolute shit of of me. Oh, and the line in your missive 'We still have people ... who know how it all works and how it will work in the future. They know what we need to do and how we need to do it. They know." I can't help feeling you might have been talking about yourself a bit there old son.

Chris Seiger said...

Well, Bob, it looks like you've graduated from spotty comments to no comments and now to comments from ad bots.

Is that irony or am I misusing the word like everyone else does?



I think you have misinterpreted my meaning. Pls re-read.