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With dark forces ex­ploit­ing tech for their own ends, Chris Clarke wants brands to fight back

Chris Clarke asked three years ago if the web was mak­ing ev­ery­thing shit. For many, re­cent months have pro­vided a re­sound­ing an­swer. Now, he says, it’s time to fight back

Three years ago, I wrote an ar­ti­cle for Mar­ket­ing provoca­tively ti­tled “Is the in­ter­net mak­ing ev­ery­thing shit?”. It was de­lib­er­ately narky be­cause I felt too many of my col­leagues were cheer­lead­ers for tech­nol­ogy and too few were pay­ing at­ten­tion to the dark side of what we’d all been build­ing. I was also send­ing up linkbait head­lines. It had be­come clear to me that many peo­ple were be­ing left be­hind as tech­nol­ogy, in­tox­i­cated by its own po­ten­tial, be­gan to gov­ern the lives of ev­ery­one, not just those who bought the de­vices and sold the ser­vices made pos­si­ble by the event hori­zon of Moore’s law.

The con­clu­sion then was that, de­spite the ben­e­fits of our con­nected world, dig­i­tal ad mod­els were putting down­ward pres­sure on qual­ity and that power was in the hands of a tiny num­ber of peo­ple whose world view made it im­pos­si­ble for them to spot the un­in­tended con­se­quences of dis­rup­tion.

Since then, it has all kicked off. We live, as Thomas Fried­man says, in a world of ac­cel­er­a­tion. Our val­ues, laws, po­lit­i­cal sys­tems and fal­li­ble hu­man minds have no hope of keep­ing up with ex­po­nen­tial change.

Bet­ter com­men­ta­tors than this one have laid all this out for you al­ready. So I only need to re­mind you that in the year 2000 the world’s big­gest su­per­com­puter was called Red. It was the size of an ad agency and it cost bil­lions of dol­lars. By 2006, the same pro­cess­ing power was avail­able in a Plays­ta­tion 3 for £200. The world is get­ting faster and faster and, as net­work ef­fects take hold, the hive mind of hu­man­ity is pro­duc­ing a world too com­plex for any one of us to fully un­der­stand.

Now in 2017, we live in a world where new tech­nol­ogy and glob­al­i­sa­tion have lifted mil­lions out of poverty, but that net win for hu­man­ity has come at the cost of ex­pected con­tin­u­ous progress for the work­ing and mid­dle classes of the US, the UK and Europe.

As Yu­val Noah Harari put it in Homo Deus: A Brief His­tory of To­mor­row: “A per­son who has lost his job at a Rust Belt fac­tory takes lit­tle com­fort in the knowl­edge that he hasn’t died from star­va­tion, cholera or the Third World War.”

Some very dark forces at play

The ben­e­fits of glob­al­i­sa­tion have been at a species level and the lev­el­ling of this new glob­alised play­ing field feels re­ally shit if you’ve been left be­hind. And even those of us who’ve been ap­par­ently at the bleed­ing edge of this mad­ness have been taken by surprise as the new world or­der we dreamed of has ap­par­ently am­bushed us and made ev­ery­thing a lit­tle choppy.

All this, of course, is what’s fu­elling the new crypto-fas­cist pop­ulism of Don­ald Trump. It’s also a key con­trib­u­tor to Brexit. Some very dark forces at play in the world are us­ing the con­fu­sion of our ac­cel­er­at­ing world to gain power by mak­ing false claims.

So has the in­ter­net made ev­ery­thing shit, then? Well, data com­pany Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica has built a data model off the back of free per­son­al­ity tests on Face­book and will pro­vide that data to politi­cians with a pen­chant for rightwing causes.

This con­ver­sion of light-hearted fun into a pow­er­ful po­lit­i­cal tool is per­haps the best ex­am­ple of how tech plat­forms can be ma­nip­u­lated. And it seems fair to say that, through these con­tentag­nos­tic, al­go­rith­mi­cally driven mega­com­pa­nies, one of the most ef­fec­tive ways of ma­nip­u­lat­ing opin­ion and bend­ing truth to break­ing point in the his­tory of hu­man­ity has emerged. Given that the dig­i­tal world goes round off the back of ad dol­lars, it seems that we ought to pay at­ten­tion at this point.

His­tor­i­cally, of course, ad­ver­tis­ing agen­cies have been “morally neu­tral”. Like the hooker from cen­tral cast­ing, we were “what­ever you want us to be, baby”. And our clients were keen for us to help them gain the broad­est pos­si­ble ap­peal. This cer­tainly made busi­ness sense in the era of mass com­mu­ni­ca­tions, when ev­ery­one saw the same shows, read the same pa­pers and, of course, got ex­posed to the same ads.

That’s gone now. 2016 was the year that peo­ple be­gan to re­alise they’re in a fil­ter bub­ble. Dig­i­tal al­go­rithms choose our con­tent for us and huge earth-shak­ing events such as Brexit and Trump’s elec­tion vic­tory were able to take mil­lions of peo­ple by surprise be­cause the buildup was hap­pen­ing in some­one else’s bub­ble.

This is one of the ar­eas where the in­ter­net re­ally has made ev­ery­thing a bit shit. When you spend your life in a fil­ter bub­ble, where most of the con­tent you get is de­signed to make you feel good and to “like” it, you lose em­pa­thy and crit­i­cal fac­ul­ties. Along­side the im­pos­si­ble speed of change, many peo­ple’s brains have shut down, lead­ing them to be­come like self­ish tod­dlers; pure sus­pi­cious id.

In this con­text, fake news, spread by in­ter­net trolls, fu­els in­cred­i­ble anger.

This is how modern fas­cism has sur­prised us and it could not have hap­pened with­out the un­in­tended con­se­quences of our net­worked world.

Carl Sa­gan, in this ex­cerpt from 1995, fore­cast this mo­ment with ter­ri­fy­ing fore­sight: “Sci­ence is more than a body of knowl­edge; it is a way of think­ing. I have a fore­bod­ing of an Amer­ica in my chil­dren’s or grand­chil­dren’s

time – when the US is a ser­vice and in­for­ma­tion econ­omy; when nearly all the key man­u­fac­tur­ing in­dus­tries have slipped away to other coun­tries; when awe­some tech­no­log­i­cal pow­ers are in the hands of a very few, and no-one rep­re­sent­ing the pub­lic in­ter­est can even grasp the is­sues; when the peo­ple have lost the abil­ity to set their own agen­das or knowl­edge­ably ques­tion those in au­thor­ity; when, clutch­ing our crys­tals and ner­vously con­sult­ing our horo­scopes, our crit­i­cal fac­ul­ties in de­cline, un­able to dis­tin­guish be­tween what feels good and what’s true, we slide, al­most with­out notic­ing, back into su­per­sti­tion and dark­ness.”

Stand up and be counted

This aw­ful pre­science might lead us to despair. But it needn’t. In 2017, more of us than ever be­fore have been shocked out of com­pla­cency. WB Yeats wrote in The Sec­ond Com­ing: “The best lack all con­vic­tion, while the worst are full of pas­sion­ate in­ten­sity.” That has al­ways felt de­press­ingly true, but there are signs that it’s chang­ing.

Face­book, long re­sis­tant to the idea that it is a me­dia com­pany, has pledged to tackle fake news. Move­ments such as Stop Fund­ing Hate have had suc­cess in get­ting brands to pull ad­ver­tis­ing from the Daily Mail, a news­pa­per that con­tin­ues to grow by ap­peal­ing to the nas­tier side of or­di­nary peo­ple. If more brands fol­low Lego’s lead, it will be­come harder for ha­tred and in­dif­fer­ence to spread like a can­cer through so­ci­ety. I would hope this year, as more peo­ple wake up to what’s hap­pen­ing, ad­ver­tis­ers will recog­nise the huge re­spon­si­bil­ity that rests with their bud­gets. What brand wants to be as­so­ci­ated with news­pa­pers ac­cused by the Coun­cil of Europe of hate speech, as the Mail and The Sun were?

It seems the moral com­pass and brand val­ues of many of our most­loved big brands are dra­mat­i­cally at odds with the tone of some of the big­gest me­dia own­ers. At least in print, they know where their ads are go­ing and there are signs they are pre­pared to act. Those brands that take the lead will in the long run reap the re­wards.

In the heat of Trump’s egre­gious travel ban, Uber found it­self on the wrong side of his­tory, los­ing 200,000 sub­scribers as Airbnb took the moral high ground by of­fer­ing to house stranded refugees. In a quick volte­face, Uber boss Travis Kalan­ick has pulled out of Trump’s busi­ness com­mit­tee, af­ter re­al­is­ing it’s bad for busi­ness, and Star­bucks has promised to hire 10,000 im­mi­grants. Now, within a few weeks of Trump’s ex­ec­u­tive or­der, tech com­pa­nies have formed an al­liance against the Repub­li­cans, point­ing out that the US in­no­va­tion econ­omy is pow­ered by im­mi­gra­tion.

It seems that, all of a sud­den, brands are pre­pared to stand up and be counted. The best have found con­vic­tion and seem pre­pared to sac­ri­fice those cus­tomers whose val­ues don’t align with the busi­ness.

The time is now to work to­wards a re­con­fig­u­ra­tion of the web. This is not im­pos­si­ble. Most of what we are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing has come into ex­is­tence since 2007. Brands can ask ques­tions of how their money is spent. To­wards the end of last year, led by our client Kel­logg, com­pa­nies pulled ads from Bre­it­bart, sig­nalling a more thought­ful ap­proach to on­line ad­ver­tis­ing.

In a barn­storm­ing speech last month, Ran­dall Rothen­berg (pic­tured, top), chief ex­ec­u­tive of the In­ter­ac­tive Ad­ver­tis­ing Bu­reau, said: “There is no such thing as a neu­tral tech­nol­ogy. Ev­ery­thing has con­se­quences.”

This is the kind of lead­er­ship our in­dus­try needs. It is our brands’ money that pays for Face­book and Google, so it’s in their gift to push for changes. As Rothen­berg put it: “The line of code writ­ten by a ju­nior pro­gram­mer in a mo­bile ad­ver­tis­ing start-up in Cu­per­tino is de­ter­min­ing the length of future nov­els, the at­ten­tion span of future con­sumers and the cul­tural her­itage of a gen­er­a­tion of kids com­ing of age in a vil­lage in ru­ral In­dia.”

Up un­til this point, the web has grown with­out enough se­ri­ous ques­tions be­ing asked of its mo­tives, with­out any­one fully ex­am­in­ing the un­in­tended con­se­quences of re­plac­ing rig­or­ously re­searched news with the short-term dopamine re­ward of what­ever story, real or fake, makes the reader feel good and keep com­ing back.

In this age of in­cred­i­ble, be­wil­der­ing change, it’s right for brands to in­ter­ro­gate their role in the de­vel­op­ment of the in­ter­net, the plat­forms that de­fine it and the so­ci­ety that pro­duces. The an­swer is not to switch off and walk away but to em­brace these tech­nolo­gies, seek to un­der­stand them and con­fig­ure your or­gan­i­sa­tion’s use of all this won­der into some­thing that ben­e­fits not just the bot­tom line but the world that is in­creas­ingly shaped by the money your com­pany spends.

Tony Blair said in 2015 that Bri­tish pol­i­tics is won from the cen­tre ground. This is no longer true. Driven in no small part by so­cial me­dia, we have re­treated to our cor­ners. In Yeats’ words: “The cen­tre can­not hold.” Brands are be­gin­ning to re­alise that they may have to po­larise if they want to es­cape with their soul. Some brands would profit from help­ing the best from both sides of our di­vided so­ci­eties to gain the con­vic­tion that we’re stronger to­gether. In­cred­i­ble op­por­tu­nity lies ahead for com­pa­nies with the abil­ity to help peo­ple thrive among all this mayhem.

Chris Clarke is the chief cre­ative of­fi­cer, in­ter­na­tional, at Dig­i­taslbi

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