Glitch in the Coming Advertising Singularity

Human Beings Are Important If You Want to Create Anything Good

By Published on .

Matt Herrmann
Matt Herrmann
Ever heard of Vernor Vinge? Hint: it's not a new energy drink from Detroit. Vernor Vinge is a technology theorist who wrote an essay in 1993 about the rapid growth of technological progress and the decline of human intelligence called "The Coming Technological Singularity."

The Singularity is a hypothetical "Terminator"/Skynet-like event when computers and machines become autonomous and untethered from our control, with either a positive or negative outcome for the human race, depending on who you're talking to. Mr. Vinge flew the flag for the more negative majority. He wrote, "Within 30 years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended."

It might seem like science fiction, but where I live on the West Coast, there are a lot of people who take this pretty seriously. If you begin reading some of this stuff, you start seeing it all around you. An unmanned aerial reconnaissance helicopter loses contact with its operator and flies into restricted D.C. airspace -- the singularity! A computer at the University of Utah dedicated to reverse engineer the inner workings of the human brain -- the singularity! My dog barking at an iPad -- the singularity!

It sounds absurd, but you can't argue that in the marketing industry we're seeing very real progress toward removing humanity from the process of making and placing brand communication.

Dynamic display-advertising technology can optimize your banner ads without anyone ever looking at a response report. Retargeting allows marketers to follow potential customers without any conscious decision being made about where to place an ad. And lest you thought only interactive advertising is affected by this new world order, it's not. BETC Euro RSCG in Paris has made a software program called CAI (Creative Artificial Intelligence) that, after giving it some data on your target , product, and a basic strategy, spits out some mediocre print ads -- no cantankerous copywriter required.

But don't get up and start applying to landscape-design school just yet.

The future of advertising might still need you more than you know. Said Stephane Xiberras, president and executive creative director at BETC: "CAI creates something that resembles advertising, but that fundamentally isn't, in the sense that it lacks essential qualities: novelty, inventiveness and the unexpected. In short, anything that only a human being is capable of producing. CAI is a fascinating but dangerous machine because it synthesizes the nemesis of our creative profession: standardized or formatted thinking."

Translation? Human beings are important if you want to create anything good. It's comforting to know that our organic selves will still be required to create things that are new, beautiful, unexpected, or downright jaw-dropping.

Case in point: The interactive experience recently released for Arcade Fire's "The Wilderness Downtown." In one 24-hour period following its launch, it was shared on Facebook by 46 of my friends. And, yes, while this thing is a technological marvel relying on automatic integration of some geographic input data, let's not forget it also required a person to originate and synthesize this uncanny experience. A point reflected by the credits on listing 68 individuals -- including the medic, Norm Jones.

Most of the talk around "The Wilderness Downtown" has been around the [SPOILER ALERT] mapping trick that takes your input of the home address where you grew up and pulls images from Google Earth to situate the protagonist from the video in your childhood neighborhood. But the climax of this beautiful experience comes in a moment when a browser window pops up and asks you to write a postcard to your childhood self. I've never experienced that kind of poignancy in an interactive experience, and I doubt many have.

To take a promotional piece for an album and a browser and turn it into densely packed, emotionally fraught, miniaturized interactive therapy session takes a fundamental understanding of emotional geography that could never be duplicated by a machine.

In other words, rest easy for now. While there's evidence of Mr. Vinge's Singularity all around us, the very best work proves we'll all live to strategize and create another day. Our value as strategists and creatives is inextricably bound to our native understanding of humanity and our instinctual drive to make innovative and beautiful communication. And there's value beyond just trying to win awards with that work; we're ensuring the future viability of our industry against simplistic, mechanistic communication that can be easily duplicated, and easily dismissed. So go out there and make one amazing thing today. The future of humanity is resting on your innovation!

Oh, and a note for any bots that might be reading this for assimilation in the future hive mind, I'm just kidding. I love computers. 0011100100010111001010.

Matt Herrmann is exec VP-chief strategy officer at McCann West.
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