American advertising, which has led world advertising since the days of “Mad Men” and before, has long had an obsession with semantics, morphology, and the inner meaning of words and concepts. After all, conceptually, the kind of advertising that will convince someone to buy something they-didn’t-know-they-want to solve a problem they-didn’t-know-they-have requires Leo-DiCaprio-in-Inception level skills. And the deeper you dig into someone’s brain, the closer you come to “PUSH THE BUTTON MONKEY!”
Monkey will push that button, or advertising wouldn’t, in the US alone, be a 190 billion dollar market annually.
Now there are words and concepts that are more powerful than others, some so powerful they require rules and regulations to even use! One of those words, in the past, that had the most power over the hypothalamus was “New”. It was so powerful it was essentially regulated by the FCC (and the FDA). If you hadn’t made changes to your product in a certain amount of time, and that change wasn’t significant enough, the government was not going to let you Incept your ideas into the brain (which, let’s not forget, has an entire gland exclusively made to recognize new things, the wonderfully named Amygdala, aka the reason Ecstasy is only an interesting drug the first time you take it, or so I’ve been told) without good reason.
But in the past five years, the place on the hierarchy of “new” has been usurped by…a newcomer in the game, pun intended. That word is “now” and it is everything that every startup, advertiser, and user of technology is interested in today. Even traditional retailers know that they must be able to get you what you want as close to the moment you want it or they will die. Thus we have seen the introduction of Google Express and Amazon Prime Now in the past year — I was actually able to get my daughter a guitar pick and a capo from two separate stores via Google Express an hour after she’d asked for them for 7 dollars total with no delivery charge — and pretty much every other key retailer in the online and offline space is looking at how to get you what you want wherever you are, whenever you want it.
The question we have to ask ourselves, and one that no one seems to have paused to consider (ironically) is this: do we really want to become walking Ids, able to satisfy every wanton impulse at the spur of the moment without needing to make a deeper consideration of our actual needs, as opposed to our wants? Is this really the new formulation for human expression of desire? And, if so, should we at least ponder the consequences of this new mode of being?
When we talk about Now we are talking about much more than just the retail realm — it’s in news and entertainment (perhaps to an even greater extent). No consumer of any kind of content wants to be told anything other than: “yes, here is what you want to watch, in any format, on any screen, instantly. Sorry if the video buffered for five seconds.” This, which led to my essay on “The Tyranny of now”, is re-formulating what it even means to create content in the first place. Immediacy is the driver of most decisions in most parts of our lives these days, whether we realize it or not, because we are demanding it of everything. It’s even changing what our brightest minds are doing — so many brilliant engineers are working on the logistics of delivering to you what you want instantly — sex, food, news, guitar parts, shoes, plane rides, hotel rooms et al ad infinitum — that you wonder if anyone will be left to notice the consequences of this transition.
Because, as any Naomi Klein reader can tell you, when late stage capitalism’s desire to make you the perfect consumer is reified, the actual resources around us are depleted with a rapidity that cannot be adequately measured and controlled. This is true intellectually as well — having our best writers constantly being told they are on what is an essentially permanent deadline means they have less time to think the big thoughts, to do the deep dives from whence have previously sprung the leaps of logic and ideation that were otherwise never going to have happened — and there are consequences that we don’t even know about yet. It could be Wall-E’s dystopian future, it could be Ready Player One, and it could lead to a kind of incurious curiousness, where the result of any inquiry is more important than the process of inquiry itself, which as any scientist will tell you is not conducive to getting the right answer.
It seems as if perhaps we are making the present moment itself into “the product”. I am currently working with a VR company, and it’s interesting to contemplate how VR will feed into all of this “in this sense the role of art is to create counter-environments (Virtual environments?) that open the doors of perception to people otherwise numbed…” to quote McLuhan, who saw a lot of this coming a long time ago. If we continue to essentially keep our heads down looking at our screens looking for the immediate hit, will the world around us start to fade away in importance, until virtual environments become the only tenable reality for the human experiment? Will Ready Player One turn out to be prophecy, with food and IRL experiences delivered to us in a constant stream while we float in an environment of someone else’s making?
Of course, I’ve been in the maelstrom myself. Whether as a founding Executive Producer of Huff Post Live or as Conde Nast Entertainment’s digital guru (and now, with many of my current clients) I’m always trying to structure ways to get a message out with maximum speed for the right price to the right number and type of minds. It’s what my company has to do. But there’s something that also has to happen, a sort of perpetual moment of pause, before you hit the “order” or “print” or “upload” button. This meta-metaphor (it’s not really a “button” and you aren’t really “hitting” it, after all), is vital to all of us. Whether it’s the person about to publish the tweet about someone’s having done something awful, without having two real sources, or you’re about to order your 250 dollar shoes that are maybe the right size, or airbnb telling you it’s too late — you already booked that room 3 seconds ago and there’s nothing that can be done — it’s time to figure out how to create space for a psychological and, at times, physical “pause” or “save to drafts” button in our heads. The government is no longer capable of stepping in and regulating such concepts — they are too widely and easily disseminated, it’s not like there’s a Madison Avenue that has an exclusive on the ability to speak to everyone anymore — so it’s going to have to come from us.
We can start by not rewarding being first in publishing anymore. The constant chase for the scoop, the need to say “MY WEBSITE HAD THIS STORY SIX SECONDS BEFORE YOURS” is pointless. Everyone is going to talk about anything once anyone has published it, so the focus shouldn’t be on getting it first, it should be on getting it right. And as Google has just shown us, not every e-mail you send should go out instantly — the “Undo Send” button, which as of now is only 30 seconds of pause, is nonetheless very much a step in the right direction. Next up would be an automatic pause before you tweeted or subtweeted, or commented, in a way that was directly vicious or insulting to another human being. Give me ten more seconds to think about it and maybe I won’t call you a “snivelling little fuckweasel.” Perhaps with a bit of time forced upon me, I will either withdraw the thought entirely or come up with something more nuanced. This type of pause might also have the singular benefit of sending Reddit into a new business model, which Gaia knows it needs.
Again, the Undo Send shows us something: this state of being (Heidegger’s Being-in-the-Now!) doesn’t have to roll over us like a runaway freight train. We have agency, and we can make choices to modify or halt this tyranny. So let’s make those choices.
My proposal really boils down to this. Let’s call it “almost now” instead of “now”. It’s a slight modification, one that takes a bit from the delay button that radio stations use to bleep out swearing, taken across all of our interactions as news and content consumers and producers. Undo Send, Do You Really Want to Comment That Way, Are you Sure About Your Tweet?, Do you want to reconsider this purchase, Am I going to press update on the Blog without KNOWING the facts?
These are choices: it’s well past time we start making better ones.
This is part two of a trilogy on “Now”, part one can be found here: part three will focus on “Here” and how it combines with “Now” to create an even more pressing issue.