Technology doesn’t always “improve” things

On beautiful objects, things built to last and advertising agency ‘OS.’

Part 1: Some things don’t need to be “disappeared.”

Last August I read an article by Michael Sippy here on Medium. I was going to respond to it at the time but life intervened. I still haven’t responded and just to confuse you this isn’t an actual response. Here is the part of his article that sparked some thoughts:

“A week or so ago @hunterwalk tweeted: Look around your house. Any object you own that you don’t absolutely love is a chance for an entrepreneur to build something better.

I’d suggest the following revision: Look around your house. Any object you own that you don’t absolutely love is a chance for an entrepreneur to make disappear.

Uber is disappearing cars. Postmates wants to disappear your refrigerator, your stove, your dishwasher. Washio wants to disappear your laundry machine. The Kindle disappeared books, Netflix disappeared DVDs…and the player. Hell, the iPhone disappeared your iPod, your camera, your video camera, your GPS unit, your Thomas guides and that’s just the built in apps. With the googledrone, demand drone-delivery of batteries, a drill, a hammer, whatever — could eventually disappear all your stuff. Everything will come to you from the sky, dropped on a tether.”

Entrepreneurs will disappear my stuff? Ok then. (Michael may be right; at the time of this writing it appears that the Facebook billionaire Chris Hughes is disappearing The New Republic.)

But not so fast though. Some things don’t require improving, fixing or disappearing. Entrepreneurs get the credit for their inventions but it is society, our good selves, that actually make something successful or not. Also aesthetics; I would never disappear my collection of hardback books into a Kindle for anyone. I doubt many hardcore readers would do that. I’m presuming they enjoy the feel and the heft of a good book.

Although the Kindle is a successful product I deeply hope that it acts as a secondary, more portable container for reading; not having to hump a ton of books around when you’re traveling is a convenience I know, yet when people visit my house and see my straining bookshelves I like the idea that they can surely get the measure of me. (I’m suspicious of people who don’t have straining bookshelves…) Yes the Google/Amazon drone could arrive at my house and drop off a book but I don’t want to rent it, I want to own it. I love books. So I act as if I’m an army of one single-handedly fighting the disappearing. And books on tethers.

Not long after reading Michael’s article I gave a lecture at the University of Oregon. Having taught there for four years I found that incoming students would enter my digital strategy class with preconceived ideas about the promise of new technology. I enjoyed debunking some of their ingrained myths.

Their preconceptions were fueled by jargon. Just think of the words and phrases that are bantered about in essays, meetings, media: disruption, innovation, authentic, game-changer, agile, the Next Big Thing (and now ‘OS’ more on that later…) Maybe you use them yourself. If you do, consider the context. Tech/entrepreneur/agency jargon is often associated with short-term thinking that is aligned with short term gains. It is a way of avoiding long-term solutions.

I enjoyed discussing with my students the idea that there’s rarely anything new in digital. By that I mean many new technologies have been built on the foundations of the past, and it shows up everywhere. A recent example: the new spacecraft Orion is a state-of-the-art supersonic machine yet it looks eerily similar to the spacecrafts of the Apollo missions of the late 1960's. In fact the craft’s heat shield is based on designs from earlier decades, except that engineers now use updated heat resistant ceramics. (They had to. When Orion eventually returns from deep space its re-entry through the Earth’s atmosphere will generate temperatures of up to 5,500 degrees Fahrenheit.)

New products that are truly innovative, come along very rarely and that’s because innovation is messy and expensive; the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad are examples of what I’d call almost unique products, products you can hang the title innovative on if you feel like it; beautifully designed and easy to use they are Apple versions of prior MP3 players, mobile phones and tablets (remember the Newton?) The Apple products arrived on the market as major improvements. In other words, they were built on the foundations of the past. (It could be argued that the iPhone was, in fact, built from the ground up.) Unlike their predecessors, users considered them deeply personal products, and that’s because of how Jonathan Ive considers our relationship to the products he designs, as he says in this recent interview:

“We’re surrounded by anonymous, poorly made objects. It’s tempting to think it’s because the people who use them don’t care — just like the people who make them. But what we’ve shown is that people do care. It’s not just about aesthetics. They care about things that are thoughtfully conceived and well made. We make and sell a very, very large number of (hopefully) beautiful, well-made things. Our success is a victory for purity, integrity — for giving a damn.”

Ive didn’t disappear MP3 players, cameras, or video cameras, he just packaged them in a beautifully designed housing that we personalized. In fact we love the iPhone, literally: it’s the neurotransmitter dopamine, baby!

Michael Sippy’s point about regarding unloved or unused tools and other artifacts that sit around our homes, things that we can have drone-lifted to and from our homes in the future should we ever need a hammer to hang a frame, feels like a good long-term solution. Although it might result in a massive fall off in the sales of hammers, it feels like an economical benefit on a large scale. It fits rather neatly in to the (look out! jargon!) “sharing economy” that includes AirBnB and Uber.

AirBnB and Uber have both struggled with my adopted home, the City of Portland, over their business models. AirBnB seems to have landed here under the terms of a truce. Uber apparently sidelines terms; with their typical immodest, bro-style Uber-brio, they started operating illegally on December 5th and were rightfully sued by the City. (Full disclosure: I wrote here on Medium about the benefits of Uber coming to Portland. I have to now say that I am appalled by Uber’s tactics, especially its recent sexist attacks on female journalists. I now use Lyft wherever I can when traveling.)

I’d be very happy to see a more humble, legal Uber and a more successful Lyft disappear cars. In my Uber article I outline the benefits, both economically and environmentally, of not having to own a second car. Using one of these services almost every day is cheaper for me than running that second car. Disappearing cars is a long-term benefit. I don’t need AirBnB to disappear my guest room but it can put my double-lot to work when I put an Airstream on it in the Spring.

Part 2: Products can be built to last. (How about that?)

The Vipp waste bin is an example of a functional product, that in my mind (and everyday use,) has yet to be bested. Yes there are new versions of waste bins — ones almost always made out of plastic — and the cheap stainless steel bins don’t pass muster either. They are so fragile they are soon covered in dents and dings. The new versions are not an improvement on the long-lasting, sturdy Vipps. They are just inelegant badly designed commodities.

The Vipp story is almost unremarkable except for the company’s humble beginnings:

The year is 1939, and Holger Nielsen and Marie Axelsen have just married. Marie is a haidresser, and she decides to open her own salon in Randers, a small town in Denmark. Money is tight so she asks her husband to help furnish her salon, with among other things a practical and beautiful waste bin. After many hours in the workshop he is ready to present the Vipp pedal bin to Marie — and she is thrilled.”

Holger Nielsen wanted to redefine the idea of a container that went beyond just collecting waste; perhaps he asked himself — what is it? what will it do? who will use it? how do I make it better? Whatever the origins of his design plans, he succeeded.

That attention to detail, the simplicity of the request, the functionality of the final product feels akin to the design aesthetic that Dieter Rams’ brought to Braun. Rams was five years old when Nielsen produced the Vipp waste bin. Ive has been heavily influenced by Rams. It appears that there’s some kind of lineage linking these three product designers.

Product longevity is something to strive for still.

Part 3: Disappearing the advertising agency, or at least its ‘OS’

I came across another Medium article. This one from the very smart Edward Cotton, entitled ‘Our OS is Killing Us.’ Edward attended a Google Firestarters event where a panel of smart advertising agency folks opined about the challenge facing their companies in a more complex marketing world. (I know, it seems a bit late in the game now, but still.)

What struck me first was the use, in the context of both the event and by the agency execs, of the term OS or operating system. Of course it was a Google event which might explain things, but it seems a stretch to me to use OS as a metaphor for the business model of an advertising agency, where ad agency can be defined as ‘a service business dedicated to creating, planning and handling advertising for its clients.’ It comes across as anthropomorphic to me; an attempt to humanize inanimate software and computer systems while hijacking a term to be deployed in support of a business plan or the lack thereof.

Edward paraphrases one of the panel participants, Sarah Watson, and her thoughts about agency ‘OS’ — “In Sarah’s mind the OS is something of monster that’s challenging to confront and even harder to transform. She suggested that only by being brave enough to take on the OS directly, could you make change happen and rewrite the OS.”

I’m not doubting Ms. Watson’s intelligence or her passion for change in a the shifting world of ad agencies, I just think she is adding to the list of jargon; agency ‘OS’ as monster; taking on the ‘OS’ directly; rewrite the ‘OS.’ The correct words or phrases in my mind would be ‘agency legacy,’ and ‘myopic thinking’ as the monster. ‘Lack of confrontation’ and ‘an unwillingness to transform the business at a critical juncture,’ for brave enough to take on the ‘OS’ directly (something that should have been done fifteen years ago,) and the fact that ‘rewriting any ‘OS’ requires an actual, well-performing, well-distributed ‘OS’ in the first place.

Look, I know that in the context of the event, ‘OS’ is used as metaphor, I just believe it is a terrible metaphor. Also, invoking brave in this context strips the word of most of its power.

In a short summary at the end of the article, Edward mentions this: “A consequence is that those fighting the battles leave the agency to go create their own new OS, an obvious talent drain.”

What does that look like? Is there evidence that any new agency’s ‘OS’ is better than the prior agency ‘OS’? According to Edward, Noah Brier of Percolate may be the one who could answer that question.

There may be a better way to recreate the advertising agency; don’t work at one for a while. As an analogy, here’s a response to a question that was posed to Nell Zink regarding her debut novel The Wallcreeper and her writing methods:

What kind of jobs have you had? Do you write full-time now, “living the dream”?

I was always a bit concerned about purity of essence. I never wanted a job that might affect the way I wrote or thought. I remember how in college I was very proud of having finagled a job in the English department, where I spent most of my time collating and stapling. I didn’t major in English, obviously, because I preferred being challenged in courses where I might get bad grades. Once, Gordon Lish came to speak there and warned us explicitly against going to work in publishing, because it forces you to read bad prose all day every day and spoils your style. After his talk, all the other student writers jumped up to beg him for jobs in publishing while I wandered off strengthened in my resolve to do manual labor.

Perhaps wandering off with strengthened resolve to do something fresh for a while may be the answer for frustrated agency folks. Or asking the right questions: what are we doing? why are we doing it? who will use it? how can we make it better? Anything less seems to point to the disappearing of your agency.

The members of the orchestra that played on as the Titanic sank into the icy depths were brave. It was the ‘OS’ that failed them.

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