About a book

I've been musing on the idea of writing a book, and a thought occurred to me while reading something else.

Thames & Hudson approached me a few months back about the possibility (I don't know if it'll happen) of writing a book about printing. During that discussion, we talked about my views on physicality and its human connections, so I've outlined that to them as well. However, in scoping that out, a more intriguing idea emerged from all the bits I left out.

In this RSA Animate, renowned psychiatrist and writer Iain McGilchrist explains how our 'divided brain' has profoundly altered human behaviour, culture and society. Taken from a lecture given by Iain McGilchrist as part of the RSA's free public events programme.

I have long been fascinated by the notion, nature and role of human intuition, and more recently, what happens when it meets digital technology. For a bunch of quite personal reasons, it's been very present to me and something I've always been aware of, but I guess it's occurred to me quite late in life, that others don't quite see things the way I do. I recently came across this presentation from Dr Iain McGilchrist about the divided brain, which outlines the neuroscientific reasons why we have right and left brains and how that affects our perception, and in turn, shaped modern western culture. In short, McGilchrist says that, in evolutionary terms, the need for this division is so that we can be both aware and focused simultaneously, but also inherent in this is an asymmetric hierarchy: the right brain decides where the left brain focuses its (and our) attention. However, we have come (since the invention of modern printing, I realise) to revere knowledge, logic and reason (the domain of the left brain) and we have flipped this hierarchy so that we now believe our left-brains to be the master. He sums it up with a fable borrowed from Nietzsche:

“The left hemisphere, though unaware of its dependence, could be thought of as an 'emissary' of the right hemisphere, valuable for taking on a role that the right hemisphere - the 'Master' - cannot itself afford to undertake.  However it turns out that the emissary has his own will, and secretly believes himself to be superior to the Master.  And he has the means to betray him.  What he doesn't realize is that in doing so he will also betray himself.”

However, I realised one glaring problem the moment the shop assistant handed me McGilchrist’s book, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World — all 400,000 words of it. It is itself, a masterpiece of focused, logical reasoning; part of the very same intellectual hegemony he cites as the root of the problem. So, I wondered whether a more authentic approach to this subject might be to involve intuition in the process, to use its own imprecise, but intimately familiar perception, to explore what it might be.

I should point out at this point that the word, 'intuition' is a kind of lexicological / philosophical tautology — its meaning is as vague and uncertain as the thing itself. There is considerable disagreement about what it is, depending on who you talk to: to philosophers, it's something between an idea, insight and tool, but definitely within the realm of thinking. To behavioural scientists, it's part of the subconscious, or maybe all of the subconscious (though they conspicuously avoid using the i-word); to modern marketing people it's heresy (because you can't measure it); to creative people it's their proprietary tool — how they earn a living — and something 'gifted' to them and not possessed by mere mortals; to people of a more spiritual bent, it's a connection to something somewhere outside our consciousness — something above and beyond our selves; to others, it's just what-you-don't-think-about and for that reason, it remains in the margins of our consciousness. 

Taking McGilchrist's insight and adapting it slightly (right brain for intuition), this makes a whole bunch of sense to me. A real lightbulb moment.

I can remember long ago, attempting to debate with a design journalist, the value of the subtle, imperceptible signals that emanate from printed objects — a purely intuitive communication — and realised that the moment you attempt to bring this idea into the realm of logic and reason, it evaporates like a Will-O'-The-Wisp. So, this taught me that it's the opposite of reason, logic, thought and intellect. It's something else; thinking about it doesn't get you any nearer; you have to focus another kind of sense on it; you have to feel it with intensity. It usually makes itself clear when it takes the opposite view to cognitive thought  — "I think this, but feel this" — the typical head/heart dilemma we all recognise. 

So, how would I go about writing a book about it? It's not going to be very interesting or informative (or very long), if I just whittle on about "I feel this" and "I feel that", but equally I don't want to fall into the trap that McGilchrist and many other academics and philosophers fall into, by retreating into a mire of intellectual interrogation that — in this instance — is unlikely to capture its quarry. 

Penguin publish in the UK with a nicely conceptual cover

Penguin publish in the UK with a nicely conceptual cover

A case in point is Matthew B Crawford's, The World Beyond Your Head — How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction. I'd come across this via a very favourable review in The Guardian and was excited to read it as it seemed very close to what I've been contemplating — perhaps too close, I wondered. But, I'm halfway through and it seems a curious, but slightly disjointed and ultimately frustrating smorgasbord of philosophy (Crawford is a philosophy professor at the University of Virginia, but famously divides his time as a motorcycle mechanic in Richmond, VA — where I lived for a while) and more familiar vaguely Gladwell-esque illustrations.

I would, if I were to be honest, count myself to be reasonably intelligent — I'm not the brightest, but I'm no dunce — and if I have to read sentences and whole paragraphs three, four or five times to get their meaning, there must be something odd going on. But, that's what Crawford's book is like — not all of it, to be fair, there are some passages that flow really nicely, but then it soon comes up with some grinding, turgid language — a little like driving down the A303 in Wiltshire in the summer, if you know what I mean (if you don't, never mind).

So, is this Crawford's problem or mine?

OK, let's start from somewhere reasonable and polite — and if I'm going to venture out into the world of authorship, probably sensible — and let's say it's my problem. Crawford is an experienced writer with one accomplished title under his belt and plenty of accolades. I find it hard to believe that all the reviewers in the all the newspapers would have been so generous with their praise, if they'd had to read it over and over again to get its meaning. Is this just how philosophers write and everyone makes allowance for that? Is that what philosophy books are like nowadays? I've read a lot of quasi-business / neuroscience / philosophy / (pop)psychology books in recent months and this tendency for impenetrable density doesn't seem to be restricted to philosophy books; all books written by academics seem to suffer from it. But, who does it serve?

Both McGilchrist and Crawford reference the enlightenment and the desire for knowledge as the critical step towards the world we live in now, and Crawford talks at length about where knowledge resides — do things in the world ultimately exist only in our head? —  and how philosophical theories of consciousness have been corrupted for political ideologies — individual freedom to choose what we pay attention to as the foundation of political freedom. 

But, I think there's perhaps a more useful insight to be gleaned here. These books are perpetuating the very theory they set out to espouse. Intuitively (because intuition looks for intention), it feels like there's a(n irresistible) desire on the part of the author to flex their academic and intellectual muscle and claim ownership of these beliefs and to support them with facts, reason and epistemic justification, which maybe justified in their desire to sell more books — the essential 'brand' promise that I'll become wiser through reading them and that's the implicit transaction in me buying the book. But this also seems to fall foul of the very trap Crawford uses to summarise Enlightenment thinking, that "reality is not self-revealing"; that it needs people like him to enlighten us. 

To me, this seems like an unnecessarily double-edged sword. For sure, I'm wiser in gaining the knowledge, for which I feel the book is good value, but the language makes me feel stupid at the same time — and I don't like to feel stupid — that I am to remain in some kind of intellectually subordinacy. And this subordination is eerily similar to that outlined by McGilchrist: that our unquestioning reverence for knowledge makes our intuitive mind — what guides us through senses and feeling — is somehow not valid, worthy or useful. 

It doesn't have to be so. Malcolm Gladwell — a journalist — has proved that it's possible to convey these ideas in more simplified, accessible language. Even the web appears to have grasped this idea: Steve Krug summarised the challenge faced by digital designers and developers of engaging the split-second attention spans of modern humans in his book — Don't Make Me Think — a how-to guide to make the web more human-compatible. 

So, I've come to realise that if I'm going to write about the hazy, imprecise and ultimately unknowable nature of human intuition, it might be better to not attempt to dissect it with intellectual precision. I hope to reveal more about it by outlining it in its own terms. More specifically, I don't want anyone reading it to feel stupid. I'd like them to read it and think, "yeah, that kinda feels about right; that's kinda familiar, I could see how that could be so". So often, the success of these kind of books (which Mark Earls pointed out to me are rarely read to the end) is how you remember them; how you might sum them up to a friend. At the moment, I'm struggling with Crawford's book — beyond repeating its title to anyone, a deep insight has yet to emerge, but then, I haven't finished it yet. I'd like to write a book with a closer eye to how it might linger in your imprecise, hazy, intuitive mind afterwards. Life isn't an exam, after all.

The economics of physical objects

In a story in the Daily Telegraph (other news outlets are available), apparently, an antique bed that lay dismantled and discarded by builders in a hotel car park is now thought to have belonged to King Henry VII and could have been where his sons Arthur and Henry were conceived. 

The bed had previously been sold at auction before its royal provenance was established (by DNA testing) for £2,200 (quite why a two-grand bed of obvious ornate beauty and even casually obvious historic value would be left discarded in a car park seems hard to fathom, but hey), but is now estimated to be worth £20million in the light of its royal patronage. 

This is a powerful illustration of the economic power of objects. More specifically, when multiple sources of value — scarcity, intrinsic and origin stories — combine, the value can be multiplied. The scarcity and intrinsic values were already established by its previous auction value of £2,200, but the establishment of its connection to King Henry added another layer of value. If the object had been something of less or negligible beauty, scarcity or intrinsic value — like a cup or a vase — the resultant value would be far less. 

To try and establish an economic principle, if we imagined it was a cup of negligible intrinsic value (£1), it wouldn't be unreasonable to assume that if it had a proven connection to King Henry VII, it could be worth £9,090 (I can imagine that sort of figure delighting someone on The Antiques Road Show). So by dividing £9,090 by 1, we can establish a principle that each source of object's inherent value might multiply together to create its ultimate value — i.e. the bed's intrinsic value was £2,200 but when multiplied by its origin value (£9,090), it then becomes worth £20million.

There's obviously much more thought to be put into these kind of calculations, and no doubt someone has already done the work, so I'll have a poke around and see if I come up with anything.

 

Predictions against the odds

As if perfectly timed to illustrate the abstracted predictive power of human intuition, a lorry driver from Leeds wins the lottery for a second time — the odds for which are 283bn to 1, in case you were wondering. 

Stories about intuitive predictions aren't uncommon around lottery wins — obviously it's impossible to scientifically verify and any behavioural economist would point immediately to hindsight bias, but there maybe some evolutionary advantage served by an uncanny ability to predict future events.

Physicality is everything — it's why we have brains

If I were to try and understand the nature of human communication by the current fascinations of the communications industry, I might conclude that we are 'digital animals'. The nature of what happens when humans meet computers is the subject for another day, but the idea that we might have any innate affinity for virtual media seems fanciful. Certainly, there is not much interest in physical stuff at the moment, yet it would seem that physicality is actually the essence of human intelligence.

As neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert explains in this film, we have brains to control movement in a physical environment. All animals have brains, plants and fungi don't. Simple.

Moving around, walking, picking things up and just existing in a physical environment demands that we are able to control our limbs and bodies. These basic activities we share with all other animals. As Wolpert explains at the end of the film, all other 'higher ambitions' — having children, intellectual exploration, language, figuring out the meaning of life etc. — are all enacted with movement. 

Prediction

The basic mechanic that operates in the brain is prediction. Movement has to have consequences — what happens when we place our hand on a table or throw a ball — and we use prediction to coordinate our movements to meet our objectives. These motor-related predictions are very short-term, fractions of a second, and our informed by our memories, a lifelong consignment of every experience we have: of textures, shapes and environments. Our brain makes forward predictions about what's going to happen and then monitors what actually happens. It matches the difference between the two to gain an understanding of the physical world (which is then also consigned to our memories) — as Wolpert shows, you can't tickle yourself because there is no difference between the predicted signals and the reported ones. 

Prediction is a very efficient way of running a brain — it need only make a series of educated guesses based on memory and beliefs, but remains open to last minute adaptation if something unexpected happens, like if you attempt to walk on something that gives way underneath you, you'll very quickly adjust your weight distribution and, more often than not, keep your balance. This ability is possessed by all animals, many to a higher degree than humans (e,g. cats can balance on the top of a fence).  Prediction enables us to live in an unpredictable, chaotic world ('bizarre domains') and is very different to the way computers work by holding huge specific databases and conducting vast numbers of computations to find matches to inputs, but that if confronted with errors in either the database or the inputs, are dumfounded. Treo inventor, Jeff Hawkins explains this in this TED talk film:

Higher level prediction

I'd written in an earlier post, my theories about human intuition (for clarification, let's assume the more generalist idea of intuition as a kind of pseudo-conscious gut-feeling, rather than the more general everything-you-don't-think-about). As I explained, within my model of intuition, there are several levels, the highest of which is long-term future prediction — visions, avoiding plane crashes, winning the lottery etc. Perhaps our most acute intuitive sensibility is figuring out the intentions of others. Many of the dangers faced by social animals come from others in their species (hence Chris Packham's shrewd and simple observation: "all social animals lie"), so it's necessary for us to figure out the intentions of others, by looking at their behaviour rather than what they say (our in-built bullshit detector). All of these higher-level mechanisms are very much more sophisticated than the split-second predictions needed to put one foot in front of the other, but they share the same predictive characteristics. Figuring out other people's intentions — what-do-they-want-(from-me)?— is an abstracted (outside of direct physical inputs) prediction. So good are we at figuring out what others intend that we can deduce it even when those intentions are acted out remotely via artefacts and objects (emissaries of intention) or if enacted via machines, like a racing car.

Ayrton Senna's mesmerising drive in the 1993 European Grand Prix at a rain-deluged Donington Park clearly showed his intention to win the race was greater than that of his rivals or his own respect for the weather

In both its visionary and intentional modes, intuition is prediction separated from direct physical inputs — it's something we just feel in our guts or our bodies, but not from a direct sensory input.

If prediction is born of physicality and if it's the basic way the brain works then intuition is merely an extension or higher-level version of the same thing. While we are able to intellectualise our intuitions — a canny ability that takes skill and practise, since intellectualisation is the opposite of intuition and so tends to 'kill' the feeling — other animals probably posses similar predictive survival mechanisms that help them avoid earthquakes etc. by simply acting on these feelings by fleeing the area. 

The value of physicality

Whether we assume a high-level model of intuition (or the low-level everything-you-don't-think-about model that tends to fascinate behavioural economists), it would appear that its predictive component is inextricably linked with physicality and our relationship with the real world. I've long known from my experience in print, that physical characteristics of printed communications can have a powerful impact in how those communications are received and subsequently responded to. But, I've also known that they interact on such a subliminal level that their language is completely invisible, certainly to communication professionals, who are in the evolutionarily-recent realm of written and visual communication. 

Neuroscience seems to offer an explanation for both the observed power and the invisibility — that physicality is so basic and primitive to human communication that it talks exclusively to our subconscious and thus is invisible to our consciousness intellect. Far from being a peripheral component to humanity, physicality is fundamentally bound up with the very thing that makes us human — our brains. 

What's the true value of print media?

It's been a bit of an interesting week for print media. 

  Print media is only ever about the writing on the page and never about the physical page itself, yet research into books hints that the physicality of the printed object changes our response to the text.

 

Print media is only ever about the writing on the page and never about the physical page itself, yet research into books hints that the physicality of the printed object changes our response to the text.

Sir Martin Sorrell told The Broadcasting Press Guild last week he thinks the "shift online has gone too far", and hinted that newspapers and magazines may have hidden values that the rush towards digital may have overlooked — "There is an argument at the moment going on about the effectiveness of newspapers and magazines, even in their traditional form, and maybe they are more effective than people give them credit [for]."

As Adage and others pointed out, this looked like a U-turn from Sorrell, where only a week earlier, he had cited a stat from Mary Meeker's Internet Trends 2014 report that highlighted the disparity between time spent (5%) consuming print advertising and the amount of money spent on it (19%), versus internet (25% vs 22%) and mobile (20% vs 4%). 

The price differential between print and digital media trotted out by both Meeker and Sorrell (before his U-turn) — and just everybody else in the digital media world — has been used to justify what they see as underpricing of digital media, and therefore, by implication, that print is over-priced. But, this analysis is over-simplistic and deleteriously misleading.


In last week's episode (Series 21, episode 4) of Channel 5's The Gadget Show, e-readers were tested against physical books for both retention and engagement, where printed books trounced their digital counterparts  — on retention of key facts, print scored 74% vs 41% from the same content on an e-reader; emotional engagement, measured via a skin sweat analysis, revealed a clear and unequivocal advantage of reading a physical book over a digital one. The Gadget show findings echoed a study at Norway's Stavanger University in 2014 that showed similar results, where readers were given a 28 page story to read and afterwards, asked to place 14 events in the correct order — "Kindle readers performed significantly worse on the plot reconstruction measure" and paper readers reported "higher on measures having to do with empathy and transportation and immersion, and narrative coherence, than iPad readers" according to Anne Mangen, a lead researcher on the study.

  Comparisons between digital and physical separate the content from the object, isolating the physical qualities of the real thing to be measured. With shared writing, any differences in results can only stem from the medium.

 

Comparisons between digital and physical separate the content from the object, isolating the physical qualities of the real thing to be measured. With shared writing, any differences in results can only stem from the medium.

Before digital media, text and literature were inextricably linked with printing — it wasn't possible to lift the words off the page in order to see only the pages, nor understand their value in the communication. In fact, it was accepted wisdom that physicality had no value. Yet, as the Gadget Show experiments show, comparisons using the same writing can dial out its effects where it's possible to see the value of the physicality.

Should we be surprised?

In short, no, not really. Our intelligence systems are the product of millions of years of evolution in a physical world. Physicality is how we're tuned and what we read — via all our senses and via our basic ability to conceive. We have no evolutionary affinity for digital media and so it's likely that it will struggle to talk to us across a broad range of perception, as it's effectively talking to us via a very limited bandwidth. I'll write more about the mechanics of this, such as it's understood, later, but for now, let's accept that there's some evidence of value and use that idea to flip the Mary Meeker argument on its head.


Apple's recent announcement of pricing ($349 - $17,000) for its eagerly-anticipated Apple Watch has highlighted the power of price discrimination — commonplace strategies employed by companies to provide choices for consumers and broaden potential markets. Rarely do the differentials reflect the actual cost of making, or the intrinsic values of the different grades of products. Usually, we readily accept these differentials — whether they're in cars, watches, fashion, coffee or just about everything you can think of — even when the price escalation is very poorly correlated in the increased functionality. Price discrimination also enacts complex communications about scarcity, exclusivity, status and social standing — the RS badge on your Audi or gold case on your Apple Watch speaks volumes about who you are. It's a simple market mechanism that allows self-selection — if we think the added features of the higher-priced version add up to a better value that we percieve, we buy the upgrade. If we don't, we buy the cheaper version. And, as economist Robert H Frank points out in an article on Vox.com about the Apple Watch pricing, differentials allow significant R&D costs to be recovered early in the product cycle and ultimately lower the costs of the lower-priced versions for the rest of us.


Back to Mary Meeker and the 'time spent' calculation, which is a pretty blunt tool, designed to give a comparison across different media. It's a very one-dimensional, purely quantitative measure; it can't make any distinction based on quality of time. Magazine trade bodies, like the PPA in the UK and the MPA in the US, appear to focus on variations of the reach-and-frequency argument, rather than claim there to be any qualitative advantage of reading magazines than looking at computers. Surprisingly, the MPA website includes a study that claims that better research doesn't improve performance, so maybe the magazine community isn't interested in defining or justifying any perception of value differential.  

So, perhaps familiar pricing differentials are implied in media pricing. Just like watches, cars, coffee and anything else, media is a commodity which is priced according to simple economics of supply-and-demand. Where price differentials exist, people will buy the higher priced version if they think it's worth it. Even if the numbers are declining, many advertisers are willing to pay higher prices for print media than digital. So, there must be some perception of value in the minds of the advertisers. Just as the content of an e-book is the same as a printed book, the inside tech is exactly the same between the $349 steel version and the $17,000 gold version of the Apple Watch. Apple aren't trotting out loads of stats to say why people might want to pay a premium of $16,651; they let those value perceptions come together in the minds of the consumer.

Is it OK to just leave it there? 

Probably not, is the short answer. It would be easy (and lazy) to say the argument is already settled — people are paying more for print and the quality is implied. Yet, for those of us who are fans of print and believe that it has hidden values, the book-reading studies hint at a tantalising prospect of there being something quite powerful lurking in the physicality of books. It would seem to be a missed opportunity to not look into this further and/or to tailor other research around the specifics of advertising to better understand how physical signals inform our perception. Ad agencies are talking a lot about subconscious mechanisms at the moment, but cannot resist digital's accountability. To compete, print will need to justify its quality with lots of fancy charts.


Digital is changing the world around us and re-shaping values including our relationship to print. There is a difference between the digital and physical experience. Time spent online is often just procrastination — time with which we know we probably should be doing something better. Reading a magazine or newspaper is fast becoming a genuine indulgence (prompted by the fact that we have to pay money for a physical good, but rewarded by the acquisition of a tangible thing to own and interact with). So, it's perfectly reasonable to expect these two 'time-spent' values to have different qualities — time spent with print is nicer than time spent online — and as advertising media, would be priced accordingly.

Rather than allowing the digital community to claim the price differential as indicative of their media as being a 'bargain' (which, unless you're a pound shop is rarely a compelling argument in the real world), maybe we — or more specifically, those with a vested interest in championing its virtues: print media owners and their representative organisations — could be pointing to the differential as an indicator of quality and start to gather the evidence that supports the claim.

As Marshall Mcluhan pointed out, it's impossible to isolate how a message reaches us from the message itself. We can now isolate physical signals and learn more about our own human relationship with physicality and its connections with our primitive intelligence. The ad industry is currently enthralled by Daniel Kahneman's System 1 / System 2 models and how our subconscious drives much of our everyday behaviour. Physicality is perhaps the purist subconscious communications language — a direct connection to our primitive, physical evolution. If we had more measurements, better research and clearer understanding, maybe we might be able to qualify print's true value.

Is Marketing becoming Autistic?

Nordic Noir's gripping thriller, The Bridge (Broen / Bron), revolves around the two central characters, detectives Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia), Saga Norén (Sofia Helin) and their very different approaches (literally coming from opposite directions across the eponymous bridge — Martin from Copenhagen, Saga from Malmo). Martin is fallible, emotional and impetuous; Saga — who has Asperger's syndrome — is cold, robotic and logical: cutting through the mysteries with her razor-sharp clinical intellect, but is completely incapable of reading the moods and social nuances of her colleagues. Much amusing awkwardness ensues. 

It's hard to ignore the metaphors in this pairing — Saga is the cold intelligent logic of computers; Martin is the rest of us.

Marketing's fascination with logic and technology is making it feel a lot like Saga Norén nowadays.

The industry press recently trumpeted yet another milestone for digital media — that the time spent online now exceeds that of TV, (3 hrs 41 mins online vs 3 hrs 15 mins for TV), so that's roughy 25% of time spent in front of non-TV screens, assuming people go to bed. A quick trawl of LinkedIn jobs, shows 901 in marketing and advertising, of which 613 include the word, 'digital' in the description; only 21 include the word, 'physical'.

So, if 25% of waking time is spent online, 75% is spent off-line (in a physical environment), we can deduce that marketing and advertising is over-representing the significance of digital by a factor of two and a half, (and under-representing physical by a factor of 22) roughly. And if we include the 184,000-odd decks on Slideshare that include the words 'digital' and 'future' and countless speeches, networking events, forums, blogs, TedTalks, white papers and books on the subject, we can further deduce that marketing is pretty vexed over the arrival of this technology and what it holds for their craft. I don't think consumers are confused at all.

So, in looking for an answer to the problems posed by technology, marketers are looking to, er, technology. The upheaval in media-consumption behaviours seen in recent years has made audiences very illusive to marketers. So they look to the data-trails from media interaction to give them a clue as to where to find their audiences. And because data trails are so rich and cheap to analyse, they believe that more information equals better-knowledge-at-an-affordable-price . 

When Chris Anderson triumphantly declared in his Wired article "The End Of Theory" (ironically, no longer available on the Wired website), “with enough data, the numbers speak for themselves”, it started to look like an overwhelming victory for logic. But, as Tim Harford writing in the FT and many others have pointed out, it might have been a victory in the style of George W Bush's declaration of Mission Accomplished in Iraq from the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln — i.e. far from it.

Famous painter and accomplished portraitist George W Bush in his previous job

Famous painter and accomplished portraitist George W Bush in his previous job

There are many problems with this hubris. Any idea that correlation could ever be a substitute for causality is ridiculous — all that means is that measurements, any measurements — are self-justifying. I witnessed this in action when judging the CLIO awards last year. We sat through hundreds of lovingly produced case-study films showing a staggering array of campaigns that all concluded with a sign-off detailing all the social media metrics — millions of views, likes, tweets etc. Of 750 campaigns, probably only a couple of dozen had any objective link to the metrics they were measured on.

Data always contains biases of self-selection — like Boston City's StreetBump smartphone app, designed to use the phone's motion-sensors and GPS capability to locate potholes (presumably so the city's engineers didn't have to leave the office), which gave a skewed impression because smartphone penetration isn't uniform across demographics, and so under-represented the pothole count in less-affluent neighbourhoods — or unforeseen influence — like Google Flu Trends' overstatement of the size of the flu epidemic by almost double (12% versus an actual 6%) because people were searching for flu remedies based on media stories (and fear of flu) rather than the virus arriving in their local area. 

And even if the data doesn't contain biases, the people running it will. Incredibly smart data analysts, planners and number-crunchers base all their decisions entirely on logic. But, they're also humans and they will inevitably get excited and passionate about their methodologies, which will in turn help them sell them to clients looking for answers (and reassurances). They will passionately and genuinely believe in the logic of what they're doing and in their power to find audiences based on their data trails, and to serve up relevant ads that will be attractive to them.

So, assuming the algorithms do their job and serve up ads that are timely and relevant, how does it feel to consumers? Do they feel flattered that such intelligence has been applied to serve up such scintillating offers just for them? 

Probably not. Normal people, consumers, living predominantly in their intuitive system 1 non-thinking processes primarily see behaviours. And as Mark Earls said, "Advertising is behaviour".

As I outlined in my previous post, intuition is a sophisticated sense of highly-social animals, evolved and perfected to sniff out the finest whiff of intention and motivation, and the first thing it looks for is behaviour. Because behaviour — unlike messages, which can lie — will usually betray intention and motivation. Intuition is a very good lie-detector. 

So, when the algorithms do their stuff and dish up precision-targeted ads from highly intelligent people and processes, consumers don't see ads, they see behaviours and they intuitively deduce the advertiser's underlying intentions and motivations — to track them across the internet — so, intuitively, consumers feel like they're being stalked.

I'm sure many Boston StreetBump smartphone app users must have felt they were being used to do a job the city didn't want to.

So, what I find so unfathomable is the night and day difference between the sophisticated, multi-channel, nuanced, intuitive processes that humans use to make sense of the world, and the single-dimensional, clumsy logic of marketing.

All this logic is trained on the task of supposedly understanding consumers through their behaviour, yet very little thought is given to the idea that consumers themselves maybe doing exactly the same thing — looking at behaviour. But, the humans have a vastly more sophisticated and accomplished system for doing that, and more importantly, can look beyond correlation for causality — for motivation and intent. 

Saga Norén has a comedically hard time getting to grips with the social mores in her office — bluntly asking Martin how often he has sex — but that is nothing compared to the alien robotic behaviour of modern marketing. 

If marketers and advertisers want to be more attractive to consumers, they could do worse than paying more attention to what consumers' themselves pay attention to... and be more human in their thinking and behaviours . 

In other words, be less like Saga and more like Martin. Want to know how? Ask me.

What might Intuition be...(not) exactly?

Following up on my two earlier posts on this subject, I thought I'd have a go at exploring what Intuition might be. I know nobody really knows, and I don't expect to add anything to the debate other than perhaps simplification.

In here lies a primitive, yet highly sophisticated mechanism for making sense of people and the world around us

In here lies a primitive, yet highly sophisticated mechanism for making sense of people and the world around us

Firstly, I think it's probably many different things that are known by different names and different models, but whether we know what it is or could even make a stab at describing it, we're all aware of its existence. By its nature, we don't think about it; can't think about it, so it falls under the umbrella term of Feelings, which bleed into true emotions (mad, glad, bad, sad etc), and instincts, and generally, what we don't think about  — what Jung described as "irrational function" something in between sensation and rational thought.

Kahneman and others have described the mechanics of non-rational processes by revealing their flaws and biases, and all agree that the vast majority of human mental activity is spent in this non-thinking mode — some suggest tens of thousands of non-cognitive decisions are made every day, almost as frequently as breathing. 

Intuition is a smaller part of non-cognitive processing

Intuition is a smaller part of non-cognitive processing

So, does this provide a clue to what Intuition really might be? Well, first let's restrict this to the more traditional notion, rather than the broader System 1 / non-cognitive thinking, of which Pure Intuition might be a subset. 

Kahneman, interviewed on PBS, explains how the study of Intuition's flaws is more revealing than its magic

Curiously, in his Thinking Fast & Slow book, Kahneman (conspicuously) doesn't use the word Intuition, preferring his non-judgemental labels of System 1 / 2, but in interviews he does refer to it, both in a general sense that System 1 is intuitive in its nature — i.e. System 1 thinking is like intuition, with shared characteristics — but he also acknowledges that analysis of its flaws has revealed more about it than its magic. The idea of intuition-as-magic has kept it at arm's length from marketers and the business community.

Intuition is almost certainly a primitive function, but it's also very sophisticated, capable of making sense of fast-moving, complex and unfamiliar situations — indeed, this is what it excels at. Kahneman likened System 1 to a computer capable of processing large amounts of data in big, simple chunks. Certainly it's built for speed — it exists to make sense of fast-changing, unfamiliar, dangerous or high-anxiety situations.

So, perhaps we can deduce from this that it's a primitive alert — an evolutionary warning against existential threats, from a time when we needed to make snap decisions; where logical deliberation would be life-threatening — when there wasn't time to think. But, it's much more than the reptilian alarm bell that makes you jump when you hear a sudden loud noise. It has many more layers and nuanced functions.

I think Pure Intuition can be broken down into three basic levels of functionality: Self (internal; self-learning), People (external; connecting with others) and Time (future-looking). 

Three basic levels of intuition at three volume levels — from faint to very very faint

Three basic levels of intuition at three volume levels — from faint to very very faint

Self Learning: (literally, in-tuition) is the primary function — the self-serving sense. Some — e.g. creative — people have a high-functioning intuition that's in a dialogue with their cognitive brains to rate the quality and validity of their ideas — and this is probably how it works in everyone, even if they don't have to earn a living with it; we all have ideas and they have to be rated. For people who don't have to rely on it for their livelihood, it gets lost in the more general System 1 activity. Its signals are mostly very faint, occasionally speaking up as 'a strange feeling'. Its low volume makes it very hard to hear — easily drowned out by the much more voluble logic and emotion. 

It's a very faint voice, more audible to people who use it more often and those who know how to listen to it.

It's a very faint voice, more audible to people who use it more often and those who know how to listen to it.

But, some people hear it, and some are more predisposed to it than others. You can learn to listen — astute self-awareness is a good place to start and a life of tragedy and heartbreak helps. 

Intuition is like radar (it's always on); lots of individual radars make a network

Intuition is like radar (it's always on); lots of individual radars make a network

People: One way to picture the external functionality is to think of everyone's individual intuition as radars all working together as a network.

Human beings pay attention to behaviour — what others do (not what they say). Our Intuition is fine tuned to look at and beyond behaviour to try and figure out intent — what are people doing, what do they want and what is their motivation. It's very sensitive — looking at the slightest of inputs; a mechanism designed for survival amongst social animals where threats were more likely to come from other people. In the BBC2 series, Inside The Animal Mind, Chris Packham points out that the most intelligent animals are social animals, and social animals lie and manipulate to gain superiority amongst their peers.

Intuition is our in-built bullshit detector.

So, with everyone's radar on all the time, all looking at each other and the world around them, seeing the same situation and inputs, it begins to act collectively as a network. 

If you're so attuned, it's possible to tune into the network — to feel the buzz of other people's collective intuition. Jung described this as Collective Unconsciousness:

 “My thesis then, is as follows: in addition to our immediate consciousness, which is of a thoroughly personal nature and which we believe to be the only empirical psyche (even if we tack on the personal unconscious as an appendix), there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals. This collective unconscious does not develop individually but is inherited. It consists of pre-existent forms, the archetypes, which can only become conscious secondarily and which give definite form to certain psychic contents."

An example of this might be how a crowd reacts to danger or the vivid judgements you make about towns and even countries from just through driving through them — the feeling you get from an inhabited place without ever meeting or talking to the inhabitants. 

One theory about Autism and Aspergers syndrome is that they're caused by a failing or weakness of intuition and are often associated with over-functioning or very specialised intelligence like painting pictures from memory or unfathomable mental arithmetic. It maybe that Intuition, like other System 1 processing, is an evolutionary adaptation that allows our intelligence to actually work by relieving it of having to think about the tens of thousands of decisions we have to make in the course of an average day. Intuition provides the freedom for intellect to be applied sparingly, thus preserving it.

Time: the third — most contentious — function of intuition is to look into the future. Of course, there are plenty of stories of about people predicting plane crashes, disasters or winning the lottery — inviting derision and wariness from logical folk. Yet, we look in amazement at animals' uncanny ability to get to safety ahead of earthquakes while our best intelligence and technology is blindsided. BBC's Horizon: How To Make Better Decisions told the story of a mysteriously elite group of US Top Gun pilots who are believed to have such fast reactions, their superiors believe they're reacting to a situation before it actually happens.

BBC Horizon looks at Intuition's ability to look into the future

My belief is that this is certainly possible and could be explained like this: Intuition is how we process the uncertainty of the future; that the concept of the future being ultimately unknown and unknowable is gravely calamitous to a mind that, for survival reasons, has evolved to fear and avoid uncertainty at all costs. There are many, many examples of people making hasty decisions where waiting for more information would have had a better outcome. But, we cannot bear the waiting and the not knowing (flight MH370, financial market collapses and the entire insurance industry being just three examples), and when we don't know, a powerful cocktail of imagination and fear sweeps in to fill the void of knowledge, very quickly wrecking any hope of making a good decision. So, intuition certainly has a complex relationship with the future and it could be that one of its functions is to act as a brake on our imaginations and anxieties — to tell us that the future is most likely to be like the past; that the sun will rise and the bus will come. However, somewhere in amongst this artificial construct of reassurance is a tenuous link with the actuality of the future — it's not all made up just to keep us sane. Natural selection perfected it so our ancestors survived on the days when the sun didn't come up.

Intuition and religion

Which neatly, if paradoxically, brings me to spirituality and religion. Putting aside individual belief systems for a moment (or the prickly idea that religion is a construct), most religions contain many similarities to the model outlined above — an inner voice, connection with others and something external and otherworldly and of course, a willing embrace of the (un)certainty of existence and (only certainty) of death through the idea of something beyond it. The thread that unites all these is the concept of Grace — the divine connection between the individual and God, channeling strength to overcome adversity:

"Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see."

Amazing Grace — John Newton (1725-1807)

Or, to express it in more secular terms — an unthinking connection between people and the world and an uncanny ability to survive.

And perhaps for marketing people struggling with how to connect with their audiences in the brave new world, lessons learnt from religion might actually be very prescient — religion is, after all, the oldest, most powerful marketing exercise of all.