Brain Food: Be Creative. Be Brave. | Part II

How does one revolt against the digital world?
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Posted September 27, 2019

Rage against the machine – not the band, but the 1811 revolt against technological progress by the Luddites during the English Industrial Revolution, was described in Part 1 of this blog. We looked at the influence that the pace of change has on an economy of skilled workers and introduced the idea that we are in the midst of another extraordinary change in the development of a digitally enable economy where the pace of change far out runs anything human kind has ever experienced before. The challenge at hand is that both companies and individuals are ill equipped to get out in front of the curve because it is exponential in nature rather than linear.

Let’s explore more as we look at the implications of the pace of change.

At a lecture I attended in the early ’80s I recall famed American architect Peter Eisenman discussing De-constructivist architecture and the philosophy of Jacques Derrida from whose work the architectural movement sprung. The phrase “…the absence of a future presence and the presence of a future absence…” has remained rooted in my thoughts all these years later. My recollection of that micro-moment of a much longer lecture is in no way an understanding of Derrida’s philosophy, yet it does nevertheless remind me about the impermanence of things. While the details of the lecture have since escaped my memory, the idea of being “in between” was fascinating to me then, and resonates even more so today within the context of our digitally enabled world.

It might likely come to pass that companies will be on a continual “where’s Waldo” search for the customer because they are fast and transitory, moving fluidly between brand experiences on a rolling wave of ones and zeros. Every time you do play catch up and think you’ve found Waldo, he won’t be there. In addition, you have to decide whether they will chase the real embodied version or the digital avatar that has been manufactured through algorithmic genetic reengineering; a composite creation that has been left behind while customers have engaged in the “digisphere” weaving together a digital proxy of themselves that hovers somehow above the embodied world in the cloud.

In the previous blog, we discussed how Luddites revolted against the machine, a physical object, but how do you revolt against the intangible breathless pace of the digital world where the real action happens in the cloud? A place where algorithms define our future opportunities? The phones we all hold in our hands seem innocuous enough, they are a mediators of content. The algorithms whirring away in tall black closets filled with servers, stacked hundreds upon hundreds in non-descript locations, and the code they employ to define what you watch, read, hear and buy, are removing free choice. This is because recommendation engines continue to serve up content that defaults to things that stimulate a part of our brain that is best described as reptilian. The race to the top of digital engagement dominance is run by finding the fastest route in the race to the bottom of the brain stem. In short, overwhelmed consumers want easy solutions. Those that trigger basic brain functions are best at engaging customers because they connect to instinct and emotion, brain process that rapidly connect to the reward system.

Moore’s law suggests that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles about every two years. At this rate, “we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate)," wrote futurist Ray Kurzweil in 2001. Where we are today comes on the heals of a trajectory of tech advancement from mechanical calculating devices used in the 1890 U.S. Census and Alan Turing’s relay-based Robinson machine that cracked the Nazi enigma code to the CBS vacuum tube computer that predicted the election of President Eisenhower and  the transistor-based machines that where used to break the bonds of gravity and allowed man to walk on the moon.

Over the years, integrated circuits have decreased in sized and increased in storage capacity. What used to fill a room can now go missing in a small bowl of rice. The 130 years since the creation of the mechanical counting device used in the 1890 U.S. Census has brought us Summit, a creation unveiled by the U.S. Department of Energy in June 2019.  The calculating colossus can crunch a dizzying 200 quadrillion calculations per second. While it is difficult to say precisely, in the 500 million years (give or take a few thousand years), human evolution has resulted in a human brain that can do about a billion calculations per second. That sounds like a lot. However, if you asked every human on Earth to do one calculation per second, it would take 305 days to do what Summit can do in a second. For those who are math inclined, what Summit can calculate in one second would take a single human brain, hypothetically, about 2.3 trillion days, or 6.35 billion years. Now, that’s really a lot. We are moving exponentially beyond IBM’s Watson computer winning “Jeopardy.”

The Luddites faced an increased pace of change in the years of the Industrial Revolution in England. They were able to slow the use of this new technology by setting out to destroy as many stocking frames as they could. In the end, leaving machines in ruins was only a temporary solution to their plight. They stood in the way of progress and may have won skirmishes but they eventually lost he war as emerging technologies made their jobs, in the traditional ways they viewed them, obsolete.

Today it is algorithms that are transforming businesses and every other form of consumer life.  “No traditional organization, defined by silos, departments and static job titles can meet the scale of that challenge, without a profound digital transformation,” says futurist Mike Walsh. But it won’t be just a digital transformation that will maintain a company’s viability in a digitally enabled future. A wholesale mindset change will also have to take place in the leadership of companies. The burden of change will not just be on workers but on organizations as a whole. Individual leaders will have to abandon fixed mindsets about traditional approaches to what they do and adopt a growth mindset where, instead of looking for real possibilities, they need to turn to embracing (new) possible realities. This is more than thinking outside the box. It is thinking that the box doesn’t even exist.

Navigating the future of customer experience, and crafting new approaches to providing guests with relevant engagement opportunities, will require a rethinking of the metrics by which we define success of business initiatives. Traditional views of ROI will have to shift. Today there are no columns in an ROI accounting system that allow for metrics that quantify integral parts of the experience economy. No spreadsheet has columns for categories like emotion, novelty, creativity, innovation or experience. These factors, as intangible as the cloud, nevertheless will drive the viability of brand experiences and the companies that provide them.

In a recent meeting with a hotel developer, I was asked whether or not a new feature to a guestroom that created a remarkable experience of cast shadows, as if walking under the canopy of the tree, would drive a two-dollar increase in average daily rate. My somewhat flippant response, born out of a frustration of working with a mindset that continues to find every reason to not do the thing that is risky and unproven but will change the world of experience, was; “I don't know because I haven’t yet been able to define an equation that adequately accounts for emotion, memory, awe and the incremental marketing value of Instagram pictures taken and posted to the social media sphere. But I can tell you that people will pay more for a view of the ocean then they will a brick wall.”

More and more these days I continue to recite the famous John F. Kennedy quote: “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.” Taking on the challenge of change requires the courage to think differently. Courage is not the absence of fear but to recognize our fears and go forward anyway. Creating experiences that matter will ask of us who design them to recognize that little bit of crazy in an idea and do it, because it just might work.

You won’t be able to lead a company into the future by looking in the rearview mirror. What is ahead is uncharted territory and it will be like trying to summit Everest using a map with a big smudge on it. The true test for both companies and individuals navigating the future of brand experience place-making will not be in how we muddle through the mundane, but in how we navigate the unknown of the in-between, the uncharted and mysterious, where wonder replaces fear and a passion for discovery propels us forward without the certainty of knowing the destination.


Be sure to check out David Kepron's breakout session during VMSD's International Retail Design Conference (IRDC) in Boston this Sept. 30-Oct. 2. His session entitled "Be Creative. Be Brave." will take place Monday, Sept. 30, at The Westin Copley Place hotel. Attend this session to learn how the digital world around us can be used to foster connection and human interactions. For more information, please visit irdconline.com.