Mad Men against the Machine

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Last month, I was on a panel at a FutureM “Flying Cars Are Here” event. I talked about robots, which in retrospect turned out to be surprisingly timely: that same week, AdWeek ran “Machine-Built Brands” and AdAge wrote about “Glitch in the Coming Advertising Singularity“. The accompanying slides are on Slideshare and are also embedded at the end. Below is what I talked about.

Hi. I run the R&D practice here at Hill Holliday. It’s a really great gig because I get to read science fiction and think about robots.

I can easily name two reasons to turn to science fiction for insights.

One is that some of the kids who read science fiction grow up and go on to making things they’ve been dreaming about.

The other reason is that science fiction, just like advertising, reflects the collective dreams and fears of a particular era.

We fantasize about giant machines laying destruction on entire cities, or brains of metal that farm humans for energy, or a disembodied artificial intelligence that provokes a nuclear holocaust.

On the other hand, you have Rosie the Maid from The Jetsons, a show that launched right in the middle of the Mad Men era, the golden age of American advertising.  And if there is one thing that Rosie can tell us about our collective dreams it’s that we really would love a chance to slack on our chores.

A New York Times spread from the early 1980s sums up the duties the humans have been eager to relinquish: “In the distant future robots may scrub toilets, wash the dishes, and mow the lawn. Made to order robots can already be adapted to serve drinks at cocktail parties or vacuum on their own.”

Ever since the Mechanical Willie, a robot that Westinghouse unveiled in 1934 and that crooned in a “mellow baritone and manipulated a vacuum cleaner with almost human skill” – ever since then, the civilization has been trying really hard to stick the broom into some else’s mechanical hands.

The broom, of course, is both very literal and very symbolic, a metaphor for all the things humans have long sought to outsource.

A 1978 book called Exploring the World of Robots introduced the world to the “Maid Without Tears“, but also mused about the bigger picture of the future where humans are being cared for by a nurturing robotic brain:

“The robot brain will suggest meals for the day. It will order our shopping, finding out from other robots in the local shows where the best buys are.”

We wanted a machine that would not only wash our socks and do our dishes but that would also know us so intimately that it would relieve us from deciding which socks to purchase and what food to eat in the first place and let us, humans, concentrate on nobler pursuits.

If we look at our technology dreams that do come true, we’ll see that while they retain the core functionality, their physical appearance is often different from the way we’ve imagined it, dictated by what is commercially practical at the moment. We wanted a life potion and got pills and vaccines. We wanted a magic carpet and got the 31 inches of seat pitch on the economy class. We wanted a “Maid Without Tears” and got a Roomba.

We wanted a machine that would take care of our daily odds and ends, a brain that would help us navigate the abundances of capitalism. We got what we wanted.

Only instead of a white shiny plastic humanoid rolling around a house we got server farms.

We got hundreds of thousands of computers sitting in fortresses of reinforced concrete. They hum quietly and analyze every single choice we make so that they suggest something we are likely to enjoy even more.

What started with “if you like this book, you will love that one” a decade ago now spans a wide range of human choices, from running a family budget (oh, it looks like you are spending too much on food) to finding a life partner (“how about Jelly Penguins who lives 4.35 miles from you?”).

The machines gently guide you towards new restaurants, recipes, exercise routines, business associates, friends, dates, movies, music, potato chips, mutual funds and underwear.

There are many different companies carving out their own niches in the business of making recommendations.

One company, Hunch, has an ambition to help us make all of those decisions at one place.

And then there’s Google that, in Time’s words, is “a massive recommendation engine advising us on what we should read and watch and ultimately know”.

We, the ad people, used to be the ultimate recommendation engine, the ones who told others what to crave, what to buy, who to look up to, what to aspire to.

We told others how to think: Think Small. Think Different. Think Outside the Bun.

We were the ones who defined tastes and influenced choices.

And now all these recommendation services create an extra layer around customers, a cocoon that is becoming increasingly harder to get through.

This year, we as an industry will spend more than two billion dollars on “search engine optimization”, which is to say that we are paying a lot of money to convince the machines that what we have to say is what people actually need to hear.

Two billion dollars is the kind of money that can buy some 800 Super Bowl spots; that’s every single spot in every Super Bowl for the next decade.

And we’d better get used to it. The machines aren’t going away.

Over the course of several recent interviews [1,2,3],  Google’s Eric Schmidt outlined the company’s vision for what he called a Serendipity Engine.

Search occurring in the background.

The machine learning from not only your active interaction with it, but also, passively, from your behavior, from the comfort of your pocket as you go about your day.

A brain that suggests what you should do next, what you care about.

Imagine a future, Schmidt says, in which you don’t forget, because the computer remembers.

Imagine this future, and then brace for it.