Of Art, Science and Bullshit in the Cosmos… and Digital Marketing

The more our world goes digital, the less our previous limitations apply – as if we were stepping into outer space.
 
Open the pod bay doors, HAL, we are moving on. The weightlessness is exhilarating, but we haven’t got the air supply right yet. Over-oxygenated “experts” are making wild proclamations, while many of us have too thin a mix in our tanks, resulting in major confusion. Digital may be limitless in its appetite, but that doesn’t mean it is ready to digest everything. Simple work, like spreadsheets instead of accountants, is like launching a satellite. Mimic the moon, but not too hard.
Art Science BS Cosmos image
The Digital Marketing Galaxy
 
Then there’s a galaxy far, far away called digital marketing. Huge promise. But most of us are still Lost in Space. Warning, Will Robinson … 
 
So as the Enterprise (naturally) sails through digital markets, there’s an imperative to separate the science from the science fiction and understand areas where “state of the art” still requires heavy human involvement, even as we make digital progress. Above all, we need to take an honest look at what art is, what science is, and where we are confusing the two, yielding a great deal of bullshit.  
 
Cosmology itself can be our guide. Philosophy – a human art – dominated the field for most of its history. Ptolemy and Aristotle presented a neatly packaged geo-centric view of the universe. They were smart. Let us take their wisdom as truth!
 
Alas, philosophy, for all its wonder, is not a physical science. It is insufficient to describe our world in a logical framework. Hence: bullshit … with 2,000 years of staying power!  
 
Shame on the pope for telling Galileo to go to his room for life. Copernicus, Newton, Einstein, Hawking, and others dramatically advanced our understanding of the physical universe. Our knowledge of the cosmos was neatly summarized by Einstein: 
 
“We still do not know one-thousandth of one percent of what nature has revealed to us.” 
 
Nevertheless, it was creativity that vaulted our cosmic understanding light years forward. We’re landing on comets and planning trips to Mars. That’s good progress from a moon made of cheese.
 
Einstein also said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” So, if there is room for the human arts in space, there surely must be in digital marketing. But where is the line? And how do we know we are not traveling down a 2,000-year wormhole in the wrong direction?
 
Digital vs. Marketing
 
Digital marketing is a natural paradox, starting with the name. “Digital” standing as the bulwark of science, and “marketing”carrying the flag for art in the business world. They can be dysfunctional partners on the level of congress. But it hasn’t always been this way.  
 
For centuries, marketing stood proudly as art’s shimmering tower in science’s sovereign territory of business. There was a respectful co-existence, if not always partnership. Like Macau or a mime on Wall Street, marketing carried on unbowed in a foreign culture. But the art of marketing was passed out on Don Draper’s couch as the digital agenda took over business. The resulting assault has been merciless. Digital has promised to mechanize marketing, leveraging its latest and greatest art killer: big data. The result, as you might expect, doesn’t smell great.  
 
The creative avenues in digital media are without parallel, and yet the art of digital marketing is failing. Why?  
 
The depth of the printed word, the audio/visual richness of any broadcast medium, and the ubiquity of radio have all been surpassed – indeed, eaten – by digital channels. I know because Marc Andreessen says so, and he’s full of wisdom. (Quick tip: Don’t contradict him on twitter if you’re interested in seeing his posts – instant block party.)  
 
With all of these tools to create human connection, art, by all rights, should be a dominant force in digital marketing. There is limitless opportunity to explore and celebrate the human condition, then immerse any networked human in the creation. There can be a shared experience of beauty and truth. Yet art does not dominate digital marketing. That’s because the creative media are only a portion, the face of our digital reality.
 
Digital isn’t just delivered to you, digital is with you. It is present, listening, watching, and absorbing everything about you. You can interact – potentially an exceptional artistic experience – but you don’t have to interact. Digital will pull things out of you whether you offer them or not.
 
Here is where the assault of science has stepped aggressively over the line. The more aggressive it gets, the further science, specifically data science, encroaches on the art of marketing. The results of this invasion, as you might have noticed, are huge heaps of bullshit. 
 
Science Parading as Art
 
In addition to wildly over-hyped big data promises – wherein crunching limitless pools of historical data from unending sources is supposed to provide personalization on an individual basis – marketing is also under attack from the artificial intelligence camp. This is a classic example of science parading as art.  
 
Our excitement with infinite memory has confused us into believing that facts and thoughts are the same thing, that information is knowledge, and that data can accurately anticipate human behavior. All wrong.  
 
The enterprise wants to believe these are true because those are easy problems to solve. Just throw more compute power at it. (Luckily, we have “the cloud” to solve that problem!) The reality of an empowered consumer demands more human sensibility, not more machine power. That takes heavy, constant, and human attention – not at scale, in the sense of data center volume, but at depth, in the sense of understanding your customer.
 
Technology will play a meaningful role to a point. It is impossible to say whether we can get to a conscious, self-aware machine or whether that is even a desirable goal. We can, however, say this with confidence: We are nowhere near it today, certainly not in a practical business context. There is no human algorithm.
 
The Art of Conversation
 
As Doc Searls and company taught us long ago, the market is a conversation. Here’s an important reminder: Conversations involve at least two willing parties. How willing is the prospect you are spying on (or using Google to spy on)?
 
Conversations also require the nearly lost art of listening for comprehension. Your massive data warehouse – in the cloud or in the middle of nowhere – does not go for comprehension; it’s built for storage and answering queries. Conversation is still a human art. If you are looking for science to bail you out on that responsibility, you are betting on bullshit.
 
A Customer-Centric World
 
Technology will continue to play a major role in marketing, but there are important choices to be made and examples to guide us. Apple’s Tim Cook is making a strong stand for consumer privacy, clearly differentiating his world-beating business on this basis: “At Apple, your trust means everything to us.” 
 
Google’s chairman famously said, “If you have something that you don’t want people to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place …”; he stated this on his way to explaining that Google is absolutely using all available data, effectively spying on its customers. It is unlikely he would be so cavalier about the reality of Google’s business model again, which is to extract and profit from user data.
 
The reality is, true customer privacy, where the service provider is transparent and restricted from profiting off customer data, would kill Google’s business. Which of these models makes more sense in the era of customer-centricity: the leader or the stalker?
 
The Market Cosmology
 
Let’s go back to cosmology for a better perspective. Your organization makes a promise to the market, its core value proposition. That molten core is the center of your planet, with layers of talented people around it that make up your celestial body. Your planet has mass. It is hurtling through space and encountering infinite volumes of customers, each a unique piece of matter on its own wildly random path.
Fortunately, your planet gives off a powerful force, which draws customers into your orbit and creates a complete atmosphere. Trust is gravity in the market cosmos. The stronger your core promise, the better you deliver on it, the more mass you have and the more customers you draw into your orbit. Lose trust and you are just one in trillions of dead rocks floating aimlessly through the infinite.  
 
How does bullshit suit you now?