At this week’s Mediapost events during Advertising Week, I was stuck by a number of persistent themes, many of which had to do with the tension among humans, data, technology and the enormously complex media and ad ecosystems we have built. I am not myself sure yet how all of them hang together, but they seem of a piece in their engaging the problem of the technological and the personal.
To wit: I was astonished by the degree to which many in the ad technology industry are now willing to concede that large shares of media buying and selling will be consigned to automation at some point in the coming years. At the end of one panel at the OMMA Display show, the panelists were asked to speculate what share of digital display would got to RTB-like systems of exchange in coming years. One executive said 100% -- and others partially agreed, saying that direct sales between humans would become more the exception than the rule.
This was a fairly common theme even among the top agency execs who were on the main stage panels at OMMA Global. It was mentioned more than a few times that the atomization of media was becoming so extreme it would be truly impossible for buyers to deal with all of the individual platforms. The rapid acceleration of RTB in display seemed to have a persuasive effect on many in the industry. Digitization tends towards automation, one exec argued. It has a momentum all its own.
To put on my historian’s hat for a second, this rush towards mechanization recalls a similar era in American culture of the '20s and '30s that some labeled “The Machine Age.” Automation was penetrating everyday American life (appliances) and the workplace (assembly lines) at such a pace it raised serious questions about what defined the human element. Not coincidentally, it was during this same era that American popular literature and culture fixated on terms like “the human spirit” and “personality.” One of the cultural responses to automation is the compulsion to redefine what constitutes the human.
According to literary historian Leo Marx in his classic book "The Machine in The Garden," the dialectic goes back further than that. The tension between natural bucolic visions of ourselves and mechanization was a defining feature of American 19th-century literature. Negotiating the conflicts between the human and the mechanical is a centerpiece of the national culture. If American culture is grounded in notions of individuality and self-reliance, then mechanization in all its forms and in all areas of our lives represents a challenge to a core value. To be sure, the machine is never truly turned out of the garden. Instead we rationalize new human relationships with it. We continually reimagine what the human is as we see the machine take on more of our earlier tasks.
This impulse can be seen playing out today in the ad technology industries. Some speakers this week welcomed the prospect of relegating a mass of tasks to machine. They saw automation opening up a new era of creativity, in which agencies could focus on crafting better campaigns and restore greater focus on creative. This may be so in the end, but in some ways it mimics the response to a former machine age, romanticizing and celebrating the uniquely “human.”
The machine vs. man meme surfaced again in the Future of Media Forum when Arianna Huffington promoted her favorite topic: unplugging. The ubiquity of connectivity, now made personal by mobile technologies (the machine in or pockets), was putting a premium on the value of disconnecting. Others including Facebook’s David Fischer concurred, pointing out that the rise of social networking underscored how technology was really serving very human ends: one-to-one connections.
All this talk of mechanization made me flash back and romanticize my own roots in the ad world of the late '60s and early '70s, when my father ran a small agency in northern New Jersey. A creative through and through, he was shackled to his drawing board. His was adept at turning car dealers’ chubby mugs into cartoon kings and super-heroes in the back pages of the sports section of the Bergen Record, Herald News and Star-Ledger. It was cheesy, aimed more at stroking the client than actually selling to consumers. But in the midst of algorithm-driven “calls to action” and dynamically created ad units, fat salesmen in cartoon hero tights seem like a kind of comfortable folk art.
All this may or may not be true. Again, our tendency is to react to the prospect of mechanization by asserting the “human” in many different forms, perhaps reimagining our superiority to the very machines we designed and built. If nothing else, the themes of unplugging from the great media machines, of asserting our human identities outside of it, will be one that marketers, culture critics, self-help gurus and all the usual wagon-riding suspects will exploit.
But for people in the media industries, the processes of automated content aggregation (even creation), targeting, ad buying and even planning, inevitably raise the question: What are the unique domains of human agency here?