Two joys have recently entered my life.
The first is a subscription to The Criterion Channel: $99 a year for unlimited access to many of the greatest films of all time. Not so much the western ‘classics’, such as Casablanca or Citizen Kane (although some of those are included); more the global greats from Fellini, Godard, Sembene, Ozu etc.
I grew up with a movie-fanatic brother, so I saw a lot of those films when I was a teenager, but I hadn’t seen as many in recent years. It’s been easier to experience whatever America’s studios have to offer, especially when taking the kids, but newly housebound, I decided to check out this alternative source of cinematic brilliance, and it’s been a delight.
These films were generally made by artists whose intention was to connect humanity to itself. Super-powered Avengers have been swapped for terminally ill Japanese bureaucrats and I can’t tell you how good that feels.
Beyond the plots, these works of art were all shot on film, usually without special effects, in some form of reality, with actors conveying relatable emotions. And that’s left me feeling connected to the humanity of it all, to the shared experience of being alive with the rest of you.
The second joy is radiooooo.com (article about why it is amazing here), a website that allows you to select any decade and country to hear the music that, for example, was popular in 1965 Mozambique or 1948 Colombia.
It’s been equally fulfilling, as I’m now discovering an unexpected love of Nigerian cha-cha and the prog rock of 1970s Iran.
Perhaps it’s the confirmation that I’m in some way connected to people who lived thousands of miles away from me before I was even born. Perhaps it’s the idiosyncrasies of music played by real people on real instruments, not autotuned and compressed to sound like last week’s chart success. Whatever it is, it feels closer to something essential about being human.
These two portals entered my life around the same time that I read an article by Paul Burke on the benefits of the account management department. I commented:
Excellent, as usual. In addition, this is now heading towards the inevitable use of AI and algorithms to do the ‘Project Management’ job. You can see the spreadsheet you’ll fill in at each stage of the creative process, until all the work is ready to be sent to the client’s dedicated ShareTransferBox, where they deliver their annotated feedback based on another algorithmically-designed set of agreed-upon criteria. (None of that is an exaggeration or joke, by the way. It’s really coming to an ad agency near you.) Suicide emoji goes here.
Shit! My wife just showed me Jira, which is exactly that.
To which Paul replied:
Account handlers brought creative and strategic empathy to a “drop in” whereas project managers don’t. Unless you bring humanity, you will get automated.
It felt like an interesting coincidence.
I don’t know how lockdown has been for you, but I think for many of us it has meant a literal distancing from other people. Lots of us have therefore been reminded of how fundamentally we need contact with the other members of our species; a dose of humanity. Sure, there’s the obvious way of making that happen – a drink or a walk with a friend – but art exists because it can connect us to millions of people at the same time. That’s why it means so much to us.
But the last 10-15 years have left us sinking further and further into a kind of android existence, where we’ve become part computer to experience a regular life (the ubiquity of mobile phones, social media, Zoom, Kindle, Spotify, Airpods etc.). Each one of these alone isn’t necessarily problematic, but they have all encouraged us to trade connection for convenience, and when you put them all together, that trade takes a lot out of us.
Yes, albums, letters, landline phone calls, books etc. are more inconvenient to use or produce, but that’s what makes them great. The corollary of ‘easy come, easy go’ is ‘difficult come, difficult go’, where you treasure things that are earned, or hard-won. Of course, having every song ever made in a little box in your pocket is much ‘better’ than having to spend £12 on a CD, hoping that the other nine tracks are going to be worth the expense. But it’s also worse, because you don’t give the whole album enough of a chance for the songs to grow on you. Pressing a button is easier than going over to a shelf, finding an album, removing it from its sleeve, placing it on a record player, dropping the needle and having to get up and flip it over after every five songs. So why do I prefer playing records?
If you read a book on Kindle you can carry 500 hardbacks in your handbag, but… no one knows what you’re reading, so you no longer have that moment of connection on the bus or by a hotel swimming pool, where you can go up to someone who’s reading the same book you just finished and have a chat about it. You have became more remote from all those people. You experienced less humanity.
So now we also have remote connections at work, where we use algorithms designed by someone in Silicon Valley to decide how we should relate other people, a skill many of us had mastered over years of trial and error: no more than 20 words on a social post image, no more than six seconds of content lest people get bored, the message must appear in the first three seconds because that’s when uninterested people switch off… Never mind that billions of people have enjoyed more than 20 words, sixty seconds of content and messages that come as a punchline/surprise at the end. The algorithm has spoken, and we are now just blobs of organic matter whose job is to obey the computer-ordained diktats of consumption.
And the point Paul was making, that more ostensibly ‘efficient’ systems will drain the creative process of humanity, is the final part of the circle. Use Jira and fill in boxes one (three second intro) through seventeen (algorithmically-approved endline of no more than seven syllables). Then wait for for client feedback on Slack, or the junior strategist’s notes on the Google Doc, and act upon them before the prescribed three-hour deadline or your surgically-implanted microchip will deliver a ReminderShok® at five minute intervals until the AI ProjectBot® deems your response sufficiently optimised within agreed-upon guidelines.
Will such distance from humanity improve anyone’s ability to connect to other humans, the better to enroll them in liking a product or service?
No. That’s it. No. Nope. No way. Uh-uh. Not a chance. No hope and Bob Hope, and Bob Hope Just left town. Norfolk and Chance.
So here we are, deep inside the removal of humanity from all areas of life. If you’re wondering why it’s been happening, it’s simple: people (particularly creative people) are messy, unpredictable, uncontrollable, difficult, inconvenient and sometimes lazy. So if you’re a company who wants to maximise profits, you’ll want to minimise tedious, expensive, annoying idiosyncrasies and turn your staff into compliant robots, churning out exactly what Big Brother requires, exactly when he requires it.
We’re also imaginative, inventive, brilliant, charming, funny, smart, unpredictable, warm, humane, happy, sad, boring, exciting and everything else that makes us want to spend time with each other.
We are life, and that means taking the difficult with the easy and the rough with the smooth, for you don’t get the highs without the lows, and those ups and downs are always better than the straight line of nothingness that android life provides.
So what can you do? Well, there are myriad ways of sneaking the analogue world into the digital universe. My favourite is refusing to work on Slack because it’s distracting (it is! How does anyone get any work done with the constant bings? What’s wrong with email?). Same with Google Docs. Make a pdf and have a separate communication with your CD, or go and find him or her and have a chat IRL (as the kids say). Lean towards albums. Go and see a real old movie at the NFT (or local/lockdown equivalent). Enjoy a real live gig (or lockdown equivalent). Buy a Super 8 camera or an old SLR and explore light, depth and human expression.
Then go and hug someone. Or kiss someone. Or have some good old fashioned sex (or some new-fangled sex).
The more humanity you experience, the better you’ll feel.