Susan Sontag on the Need to Recover Our Senses

Susan Sontag on the Need to Recover Our Senses

“Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience… What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more. Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.” -Susan Sontag

In Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay, “Against Interpretation,” she provides a new framework for appreciating artworks, one that explicitly denies the need for critical assessments of the works in question. Sontag wants us to experience art and be enlivened by it. She argues that to overanalyze it is to diminish it.

Oddly, I sometimes find myself interpreting my paintings after I make them (as was the case with the new painting posted here). When I am in the act of making a painting, I don’t want to think too much. Ideally, I let the brush guide me and when this occurs and things go well, the paintings somehow have the power to inform me about their meaning.

Back to Sontag’s famous essay… I love that an esteemed writer and intellectual is advocating for less thinking and more seeing, hearing, and feeling. I think artists and all makers can learn from her. “What’s important now is to recover our senses.” Thus, when you’re making a painting, running for public office, or launching a new product, ask how you’re helping the people in your orbit to see, hear, and feel more.

Marketing is often described as an art and science. I’m good with this description, but I’d like to emphasize that the art part of the equation requires a different sensibility. Instead of looking for “triggers” that will “lock in” the “target,” you’re looking for big ideas that will touch and move people. Moving people to care and to believe comes before moving them to buy, vote, join, or give.

Sontag also makes a salient point about the need to cut back on content. We, the inhabitants of these Internets, have been sold a bill of goods when it comes to the call to publish persistently or perish. By flooding our readers, customers, or constituents with too much matter, we’re making it harder for them to discern what matters.

“More Content, Delivered Faster and Cheaper” Answers the Wrong Problem

The advertising agency business has been in one bind or another ever since the dawn of digital. Digital shook the industry to its core, and the reverberations are still being felt from top to bottom. The list of problems is long, but one problem we don’t spend enough time discussing is the problem of not knowing who or what we are, any longer. It’s a confusion that I find perplexing.

Read the full article on You Are Not A Machine. Resist!

Communications Arts is also promoting this piece on its Twitter page.

Since writing the article, another gusher of AI-positive news has flooded the system. Regarding WPP’s all-in bet on the technology, NVIDIA founder and CEO Jensen Huang said, “The world’s industries, including the $700 billion digital advertising industry, are racing to realize the benefits of AI.”

And what might these benefits be? More content and better personalization delivered faster and cheaper—these are the discordant bells chiming in the ad industry’s glass towers today.

AI may be a powerful new way to make money, but AI at present is solving the wrong problem for brands. The right problem to solve is creating one powerful and universal message and a singular means of communicating it.

For Better Results, Understand the Relationships Between Creativity, Productivity, and Accountability

For Better Results, Understand the Relationships Between Creativity, Productivity, and Accountability

People are being asked to do more with less. In the ad agency business, this has been going on since the first days of Digital Disruption. Today, with COVID-19 raging across the land and the globe, so-called “thought workers” who can work from home are doing so, but at what cost to themselves and the economy at large?

While it is true that some people excel in a home office and everyone saves on commute time, not all people, nor all teams are meant to work remotely.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development:

In the longer-term, productivity performance could improve to the extent that the crisis catalyses wider and smarter adoption of efficient telework practices, raising worker well-being and efficiency and lowering firms’ costs. This could speed up the transition into a “new normal”, which would have been more gradual in the absence of the crisis, given uncertainties and costs around the necessary organisational and management changes and other hurdles – cultural reluctance or legal constraints.

Emerging evidence provides support for this notion: 61.9% of hiring managers interviewed in a recent US poll stated their intention to rely more on remote work in the future. However, against these positive longer-term productivity effects stand potentially adverse effects arising from increased spatial distance among employees, e.g. impaired communication resulting in lower innovation or the fusing of work and personal, family and social life leading to hidden overtime.

“Hidden overtime” is a nice way of saying that with no division between work and home or work and play, We, the People are fast becoming automatons.

The process was well underway prior to the pandemic. Now, it’s worse and the impacts are rippling through our society. Overworked and underpaid productivity hounds burn out and lose their edge and effectiveness. When this happens, we all lose. Unhappy and unproductive workers are not exactly the best shoppers or most pleasant people. No sustainable work practices, no disposable income, no stoking of the economic engines.

The Eternal Question: Where Do the Best Ideas Come From?

Question: Where do great ideas come from?

Answer: Great ideas come from the minds, hearts, and souls of people who are experts at connecting disparate dots.

To do this deep work and connect disparate dots, people must have the room to relax, and the room to let their minds wander. Ergo, I want to present to you what I consider the ideal office space for a creative worker today:

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Creative People Need Some Space to Think, Okay?

In a work environment where Slack, text, email, and project management software are always on and always dinging for attention RIGHT NOW, the team’s performance is bound to suffer.

Ad agencies can become pressure cookers where people have too many meetings and too many tasks on their plate. When this happens, people are not their best selves, which means their best ideas are not being sought, nor found.

People must be free to think, free to speak truth to power, free to go for long walks, and free to dream. When anyone or anything impinges on this creative freedom, trouble ensues.

Stress kills people and ideas. Ergo, the conditions that create stress must be managed successfully. You do this by becoming more accountable to yourself, to your team, and to your customers. When those are your north stars, you’re in alignment and when you’re in alignment you can do the “heavy lifting” required to achieve great things.

The Humanist In Our Midst

The Humanist In Our Midst

Do you know media theorist Douglas Rushkoff’s work? It’s intensely human. He’s intensely human.

Allow me to transcribe a couple of key segments from this powerful TED Talk…

Human beings are the problem and technology is the solution. We can’t think that way anymore. We have to stop using technology to optimize human beings for the market and start optimizing technology for the human future.

And this:

Then came the Dot Com Boom and the digital future became stock futures…the future changed from this thing we create together in the present to something we bet on in some kind of a zero-sum winner takes all competition. And when things get that competitive about the future, humans are no longer valued for our creativity. No, now we’re just valued for our data. Because they can use the data to make predictions. Creativity, if anything, that creates noise. That makes it harder to predict. So, we ended up with a digital landscape that repressed creativity, that repressed novelty. It repressed what makes us most human. We ended up with social media. Does social media really connect people in new intersing ways? No. Social media is about using our data to predict our future behavior, or when necessary to influence our future behavior so we act more in accordace with our statistical profiles.

Rushkoff is deep. He’s so deep, you may need to adjust to his waters, which are not quite as warm as the tourist beaches you’re accustomed to visiting. I recommend doing this slowly. Go over and over his passages. Because Rushkoff’s deep is where sharks and whales and eels swim. A place of mystery and truth.

Rushkoff sounds alarmist and he is a bit alarmist, to his credit. He is fighting for what he believes in and he believes in you and me. He thinks we can unlock ourselves from the autocratic rule of screens and once again connect in real life, where our innate human ability to truly understand one another is present and accounted for.

I am on Rushkoff’s side. I believe in Team Human.

People can be weak, ugly, and disappointing. At the same time, people can be strong, inspired, and grateful. Sometimes the same person can be all of this all in one day. To get to our better selves and to remain there—open, grounded, and ready to serve the needs of others—we need strong reminders that help shake us loose from the digital doldrums and bad habits that hold us back. For me, and I hope for you, Rushkoff provides these strong reminders.


The person who runs the Communication Arts Twitter account likes to promote my writing. I am grateful. CA is the creative industry’s standard bearer, and each Tweet sent from @CommArts is seen by a segment of the magazine’s 81,300 followers.

It’s an honor when anyone pays attention to my writing. Given that it’s CA who follows my updates and helps to promote my thinking, I feel particularly grateful for the recognition.

Black Mirror Is The Clearest Mirror of All

Black Mirror, the Netflix series now in its fourth season, makes an indelible impression on the soft parts of the brain. Season 3, episode 1, in particular, is perfect TV programming for the Digital Age. Vox calls the “Nosedive” episode a social media nightmare dressed like a pastel daydream.

The episode imagines a world where Instagram-friendly perfection reigns, with disastrous consequences. The main character, Lacie, like everyone around her conducts herself according to the points system. When you manage to please people, your score goes higher. When you fail to please people your score falls. In this dystopia, your aggregate score isn’t just an ego boost, it determines access to services.

I highly recommend watching “Nosedive.” We are already captives of our screens and therefore we are controlled to a degree by our impulses and by corporate and political forces that are not always plainly evident. Digital media, like traditional media, can be a means for implementing a system of control. By owning a particular point of view—true or untrue—the media owner helps shapes the story and imparts meaning.

In a totalitarian state, the draconian nature of media’s role is even more dangerous. According to Wired, people in China are living the “Nosedive” reality, today:

In China, the government is developing the Social Credit System (SCS) to rate the trustworthiness of its 1.3 billion citizens. The Chinese government is pitching the system as a desirable way to measure and enhance “trust” nationwide and to build a culture of “sincerity”. As the policy states, “It will forge a public opinion environment where keeping trust is glorious. It will strengthen sincerity in government affairs, commercial sincerity, social sincerity and the construction of judicial credibility.”

Forget all about, “smile on your brother.” It’s time to report on your brother, sister, coworker, and neighbor.

How long before the American government wants to implement a social scoring system like China’s? Some would argue that we have it now thanks to Facebook. One thing is for sure, we do already have a credit score that determines what kind of car you drive and what kind of home you live in. Adding a social scoring system to existing points-based awards programs would allow good citizens to downgrade people like me, who point to societal problems and fixate on the solutions. What an ingenious and insidious way to further isolate dissidents, activists, artists, and intellectuals.

The man is no joke. But the man can be beaten. You’re in control of your screen time and how you use it. For some, it’s important to turn off location tracking, disable cookies, and keep privacy settings on Facebook or Instagram tight. For those who actively court a wider audience via digital channels, keeping privacy on lockdown isn’t as important. I’d argue that all users of digital media platforms can benefit from a periodic detox and digital media check-ups. If the way you use Facebook today makes you anxious or sad, delete your account. If you have to fend off trolls on Twitter, report them, block them, and keep doing what you need to do.

On an individual level, we can lift our heads up toward the sky and sun and moon. The default position with neck craned and eyes strained is embarrassingly poor form. Let’s ask more of ourselves and each other. Let’s look each other in the eye and speak honestly. It’s not too late and you’re not the only one who longs for phone calls from friends and family, instead of an email or text. Short bursts of writing are lazy. Step up and write a handwritten letter and send it in the mail. The receiver will be surprised and pleased that you took the time.

The Humanist In Our Midst

The Mixed Up Men Behind The Obfuscator In Chief

When I was 18 years old, I walked into the offices of The College Reporter in Lancaster, PA and soon thereafter my work as a reporter commenced.

My time as a college journalist was difficult but educational. The administration threatened to sue me and frat boys banned me from their parties and wanted to kick my ass. Their anger and outlandish behavior drove me to dig deeper and write better news stories. That’s how journalists operate. They seek the truth in the face of massive resistance and obstruction, no matter what. It can be a highly adversarial occupation—so much so that dozens of journalists are murdered each year.

The truth hurts. In fact, truth sears the flesh of fascists. According to The New York Times, senior liar to the president, Steve Bannon, gave the press a tongue-lashing this week:

“The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States. That’s why you have no power,” he added. “You were humiliated.”

This is the criticism of a savvy media manipulator who ran Breitbart, a hate site far right of Fox News, until Don officially added him to his team last summer.

Could it be that am I too far removed from the Heartland of my birth to now understand the dynamic at work in America? Am I humiliated, as Bannon claims? No, I am embarrassed for the country, a sentiment shared by media pros from coast to coast.

Steve Bannon holds his false staff in a sea of snakes. His divining rod is no good.

Many Americans are in the dark. At the same time, we are in the Age of Radical Transparency, which means it’s nearly impossible to hide the truth. For all the recent talk of fake news and how it threw the election, it’s important to realize that Bannon’s fakes are not at all convincing. MIT Media Lab professor, Ethan Zuckerman, reports:

Preliminary analysis conducted by the Media Cloud team at MIT and Harvard suggests that while fake news stories spread during the 2016 US election, they were hardly the most influential media in the dialog. In tracking 1.4 million news stories shared on Facebook from over 10,000 news sites, the most influential fake news site we found ranked 163rd in our list of most shared sources. Yes, fake news happens, but its impact and visibility comes mostly from mainstream news reporting about fake news.

Bannon has also gone on record as a Leninist who seeks to dismantle all American institutions. Will Bannon’s venomous lies topple the press and the way we govern in this “free country”? I am doubtful. The fact is Bannon’s lies that flow from Don’s mouth on a daily basis are mostly noise, and now that the press is calling a lie a lie, and getting their backbone back, the fight is on for real. “The Steve and Don Show” might be the greatest reality TV program ever made, but like all reality TV programs, it’s a highly produced show that can and will be cancelled.

In related news, last Christmas President Obama quietly signed into law the Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act, a bill introduced by U.S. Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Chris Murphy (D-CT). “Our enemies are using foreign propaganda and disinformation against us and our allies, and so far the U.S. government has been asleep at the wheel,” Portman said.

Perhaps we need another law to protects us from the propaganda emanating from the White House and Republican “leaders” on Capitol Hill. In the meantime, I will rely on journalists to dig, learn and reveal on our behalf. We the people have our own role to play as readers who subscribe to our nation’s best newspapers and magazines, as citizen journalists, as neighbors, friends and colleagues. Lies do die out, but right now in America the lies must be killed.

Digital Distortions of Epic Proportions

The commercial Internet has been “a thing” for just over two decades. It’s new technology with no official, or agreed upon, manual. Many people don’t know how to use this network of nodes; nor how it can be used to distract and mislead.

Media literacy is sorely needed in this country today, along with a much better sense of personal online security and an understanding of the cyber terrorism threats facing our society. So-called “black hat hackers” can attack many of our most important systems—banking, transportation, communications, even weapons systems—all brutal hacks that could cripple our economy and our ability to fight back.

Messing with our election is a more heinous crime than we realize, and we need to respond swiftly with punitive action. A show of digital force! It’s also high time that we more fully grasp why China, Russia, Iran and other states are working against us. We’ve been so focused on the terror threat from radical Islamists that the new arms race (for the world’s remaining natural resources, including water), that we’ve taken our eye off the global threats ball.

Don can pretend to “Make America Great Again” in his dreams. Meanwhile, strong actors on the global stage are licking their chops at how stupid, confused and vulnerable we appear to be at this juncture in time. Do you think leaders in China and Russia admire Don’s bluster or confuse it with strength? Don’t kid yourself. Don’s playing checkers while our enemies play chess.

To effectively guard against real harm, Americans of all political preferences better find a way to get on the same national security page, or things could get very bad before they get better. Don can skip all the intelligence briefings he wants. We the people can’t afford to be that willfully ignorant.

One idea to strengthen our digital defense is to make a greater investment in talent. The New York Daily News is suggesting a digital talent “draft.” The writer notes that brilliant techies go to work in corporate jobs for big money, which presents a recruiting obstacle for the federal government. How do we convince people to serve? I’m not sure we need a draft, although I like the option of public service for graduating high school students. At the rate we’re falling from grace and prominence, the need to serve is now self-evident.

Sadly, a blizzard of distractions is used by Don and his ilk to confuse and diffuse. Don will continue to Tweet nonsensical and insulting things and the media will continue to run with it as news, instead of explaining what these Tweets truly are—digital distractions purposefully placed there by an autocrat (obsessed by his Putin-like race for ill-gotten fortunes).

The longer we remain divided and dysfunctional, the weaker we become as a nation. We can get stronger as individuals by learning how media, including digital media, is being used against the interests of freedom. We can get stronger as a nation by removing blame for how this happened, and refocus now on how we save ourselves from disaster.

It won’t be a political effort that saves America. It will be a post-political coming to our senses. We live on one planet with limited resources that must be shared, or chaos and death reign. Lines between nations, between states, between parties, and between people are artificial constructs. There’s one planet, and one people living on it. For now.

Creative Mornings Features Its Audience Members On Instagram

Creative Mornings provides a monthly talk on a chosen topic (for free) in cities around the globe. Unlike Ted, it’s not exclusive. You can sign up or walk up and enjoy a donut, coffee, and interesting ideas about architecture, design, culture, and so on.

Creative Mornings is also an excellent marketer. The organization is featuring members from around the world on its Instagram page. I am fortunate to be one such featured member.

The answers I provided were in response to a prompt in the submission form. I now have more room to elaborate. I wasn’t happy working in the traditional agency structure, because of the daily diet of shit sandwiches that are required of most ad agency workers.

When you can’t be honest with your clients or with your peers in the agency, you can’t deliver what’s required—thinking and doing that provides a path for greater growth and a fuller understanding of brand value.

An Unsavory Look Inside The Media’s Sausage Factory

“Information without context strikes the mind but peters out before the heart.” -Sarah Smarsh

Creative nonfiction is a form I find myself increasingly drawn to. In the hands of a great essayist, we see a real writer struggle with real life.

Sarah Smarsh, for instance. She is a Kansas-born journalist, public speaker and educator, and her recent piece of media criticism in Aeon struck a nerve.

In a media landscape of zip-fast reports as stripped of context as a potato might be stripped of fibre, most news stories fail to satiate. We don’t consume news all day because we’re hungry for information – we consume it because we’re hungry for connection. That’s the confusing conundrum for the 21st century heart and mind: to be at once over-informed and grasping for understanding.

In her essay, Smarsh exposes the mechanics of reporting and the news business as one culprit in the dehumanization on news. She also explores the need for real story, versus packaged up text masquerading as coherent content. Regarding what is sometimes called “hard news” she writes:

…in J-school my peers and I learned never to call 10 inches of lede, nutgraph and body an ‘article’ – true journos, we were told, call them ‘stories’

I hear and admire Smarsh’s call for a higher standard in today’s metric-fed mediascape. Media enterprises need page views, subscribers, events, merchandise and ad dollars to survive. I get that, and most writers get that. We also get that there’s a need to make a product or service out of our writing, and for the most part, we are happy to abide by these terms. Perhaps publishers, editors and writers can begin to work towards more equitable outcomes all around.

Smarsh writes about how we’re “hungry for connection” today. I agree. Imagine hiring a great chef, sous chef, line cooks and prep cooks and outfitting them with all the best kitchen equipment. But then you tie their hands when it comes to ingredients—all this talented crew can make is pork and beans, onion soup and tater tots. Publishers are in a hurry to be mass feeders of media. Conventional wisdom says that’s where the money is.

Brands want a return on content. B. Bonin Bough of Mondelēz International argues that “without the metric of monetization, there really is no way for you to determine whether content is good or bad.”

Media companies also want a positive return on their investment in content. Meanwhile, people find it hard to pay attention, can’t sit still, can’t take it all in. A lot of smart people are working on answers to the media conundrum. I am glad, because it’s easy enough to see the connection between junk media and an unhealthy citizenry.

As a writer, I want to answer Smarsh’s call for more substance and more heart in the pieces we put into the world. As a reader and consumer of media, I want to scroll less and read and think more.