Real life is analogue
In 1970, Otis Johnson was arrested for assaulting a cop. Not a good idea for a black man in America. The charge was upgraded to attempted murder and Johnson was jailed for life. He didn’t see the outside world for another 44 years. In 2015, he was let out – he was given two bus tickets and $40. He was 25 when he went inside, he was 69 when he came out. I watched a video about his release. The world took some getting used to, as you can imagine. But what we can’t imagine is what fascinated him about the modern world. It wasn’t self-driving cars or space travel. It wasn’t the fall of the USSR or the first black president. It wasn’t GPS or the internet. It wasn’t drones or digital technology. It was seeing what was on the supermarket shelves. He picked up a jar and looked through the glass at the swirls of grape jelly and peanut butter and shook his head.
He said: “I ain’t never seen nothing like that before: peanut butter and jelly in the same place in a jar. That’s strange.” He began to try drinks he’d never seen before.
“What do you call it: that gator stuff? Pink and blue, all these different colours. I like to try it just because it looks so funny.” And Aunt Jemima – not just the traditional pancake mix he expected but Cinnamon French Toast. He said: “I eat different things now. I’m looking at all the crazy stuff they got.” These were the changes that amazed Otis Johnson. His only encounter with technology was trying to use a public phone. He found it was a dollar, not 25 cents like he remembered. So did any modern digital technology impress him? Just one example. He said: “I ain’t never seen no videos on no shop windows before.” And he stood watching. The only other digital technology he noticed was “people talking to themselves. They had these things in their ears. Everybody done became CIA agents – that’s the only thing I can think of.” Of course, he was talking about iphones.
But what was the most amazing thing about iphones for Otis?
“The way they control themselves to walk and talk without even looking where they’re going.” We’d expect Otis to be amazed by digital technology. But he wasn’t, because none of that had any relevance to him. What had relevance was the way the things he knew had changed. That’s the difference between the visceral and the intellectual. Real life is analogue, not digital. That’s what separated Steve Jobs from all his competitors. Steve Jobs didn’t start with technology, he started with the consumer. A digital solution to an analogue problem. We could learn from Steve Jobs. Start with understanding the consumer, not just understanding the technology. I know that’s heresy. So let’s give the last word to Bill Bernbach. “Human nature hasn’t changed for a million years. It won’t change in the next million years. Only the superficial things have changed. It’s fashionable to talk about the changing man. A communicator must be concerned with the unchanging man – what compulsions drive him, what instincts dominate his every action, even though his language too often camouflages what really motivates him.”
“His only encounter with technology was a public phone”