It's a common refrain we hear from educators, critics and barstool philosophers. And they're not entirely wrong. Some very useful portions of our brains have, in fact, been sucked into the cathode-ray tubes in our living rooms. Others have disappeared into a mysterious, unreachable place at the far end of our ethernet cables.
The media-induced diminution of human intelligence is very real. The good news for those of us in the advertising industry is that, slowly, an entirely new form of intelligence is being born to replace it. Despite what the conspiracy theorists/anti-globalization zealots/subliminal-advertising rabble may believe, obtuse consumers do not serve the interest of our craft.
Any medium, taken in large enough doses over time, is capable of changing our brains. I mean this quite literally. Because of TV, because of the internet, the human brain works in a fundamentally different way than it used to. And it can be proved.
I take you back to the afternoon of Oct. 16, 1854. On that day Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debated in Peoria, Ill. Douglas kicked things off at 2 p.m. and spoke uninterrupted for three hours. When Lincoln rose to reply, he did something astonishing.
He told the crowd they should all go home for an hour and have dinner, because he would be requiring just as much time as Douglas had used to reply to his arguments. Then, he added, Douglas would also need time for a rebuttal. So basically Lincoln told them to get ready to listen for another four hours.
Then something even more astonishing happened. The crowd did exactly that.
Today we wouldn't even consider sitting still for seven hours of political debate. In fact, the only politicians who can command the attention of an audience for that long in 2006 are totalitarian dictators, and that's because their audiences are afraid to get up and walk out.
Defining the world
The citizens of Peoria were perfectly happy to listen for seven hours, however, because they lived in an age whose dominant medium was the printed word, and-this is the critical point-the dominant medium of every age defines the way humans expect the world to be. Marshall McLuhan said, "The medium is the message," but Neil Postman came closer to getting it right when he said, "The medium is the metaphor."
When the printing press reigned, communication was about exposition and long, subtle arguments, because that's what the printed word does well. People's brains were conditioned to understand the world in that way.
If the medium is indeed the metaphor, what does this mean to the advertising industry today? It possibly means that the central challenge has become to understand the changes that are being wrought on the brains of the consumers by rapidly evolving electronic media. In other words, what is the metaphor we must conform to in order to ensure that the messages are heard? It's certainly not as simple as the printed word. It's not even as simple as the internet, which, of course, isn't simple at all. It's more like a combination of electronic and interactive platforms that are constantly rearranging themselves to fit together into a new, complex, protean super-medium.
Think for a moment about the basics of how electronic media work, how they communicate. TV and the online space are not well-suited to lengthy, logical arguments. They're much better at amusing than informing or educating. Electronic media - especially the internet - also tend to chop communication into smaller and smaller pieces. Political discourse is a prime example. Today the only political "arguments" most people ever hear last 30 seconds.
These smaller pieces of communication are also delivered in increasingly random order. Click through the bookmarks on your browser. Chances are you'll be able to go through a dizzying number of subjects - all absolutely unrelated to each other - in under a minute. There's a sort of entropy going on in the world of communication. Disorder will only increase. Creating orderly, understandable messages in this entropic universe is the job of advertisers, and it will only get more difficult, because the definition of "orderly" has become a moving target.
Electronic media are doing to communication what Georges Braque and Marcel Duchamp did to painting. As a result, we are all grappling with the rise of what can be called "electro-cubism." The logic of how communication is expected to work has been shattered and reassembled in a way we are only beginning to grasp. The people who figure out a way to make sense of "electro-cubist" communication will in essence be inventing a new form of intelligence to replace the old one that TV and the internet have been destroying.
If you don't find the thought of electro-cubism particularly reassuring, take comfort in at least one hopeful development new media bring with them to offset the trend toward chaos in communication. Oddly enough, to find a clue to what it is, we have to go back some 2,400 years to Socrates.
Socrates left no writings of his own, of course. We know of him from the writings of others, principally Plato. There's a reason for this: Socrates was deeply suspicious about displacing the spoken word - which is a medium, make no mistake about it - with the written word. He believed in the process of question and answer, dialogue between teacher and student - what we know as the Socratic method.
In "Phaedrus," he spoke against writing on the grounds that it would weaken our memories and degrade the quality of education. Writing, he believed, forces a student to follow an argument rather than participate in it. When we replaced speaking with writing, information, wisdom and knowledge began to flow exclusively in one direction.
The internet has finally changed this. Consumers are no longer consigned to following the arguments brands make; they are full-blown participants in them. The means of mass communication are in the hands of virtually everyone. The individual, if his ideas are compelling enough, can touch as many people as the global corporation.
Ultimately this means the challenge is not only figuring out how to articulate messages in a chaotic, electro-cubist world; it's learning how to listen again, and in an entirely new way. In the 21st century, rediscovering the purpose of our ears will make us better marketers than devising new ways to use our mouths. When one talks about listening to consumers, one does not mean simply jumping on the dangerously overloaded consumer-generated-content bandwagon. The point is that one has to go deeper than the interactive buzzword of the month.
Advertising and marketing decisions tend to be made by a dozen people sitting around a conference table. The 13th man has to be brought into the room. The 13th man is the consumer. There is a group of loyalist consumers who care just as much about every big brand as the people who are paid to make the marketing decisions. (Check out Google "Mountain Dew" and all its fan sites.) If we want to be smart marketers, we need to make sure the voice of the 13th man is heard.
No need for research on the 13th man; consult with him. There is an enormous difference. The 13th man is not a subject of experiments; he is a partner in inventing brands. Ask him to sample new flavors at the same time you do. Take his ideas for new products seriously. Get his thoughts on your next ad campaign. Technology has made it ridiculously easy to do all these things and more, yet very few companies have tapped into the enormous brainpower of this willing partner.
You may not always take the advice of the 13th man, but if you don't listen to him at all, rest assured that he will find someone else who will.