Commentary

Einstein's Corner: Unmanageable Complexity

First things first: A quick note of thanks to the many kind readers who took the time from their busy schedules to respond last week to the debut of Einstein's Corner. Apparently, my concerns about the adverse effects of digital technologies on our ability to conduct business or improve the quality of life are shared by more than a few of you.

Many of your replies dealt with the fragmentation of time, and the corresponding absence of quiet, contemplative time--both at work and away from work. Time starvation is a common and escalating symptom of life and work in the early 21st century. In fact, recent years have witnessed the emergence of an inverse relationship between technology and time.

Simply stated, the more technology we incorporate into our lives nowadays, the less time we seem to have for all the things we are now compelled to do by virtue of our enhanced ability to do them.

The irony, of course, is that almost all digital productivity technologies are sold on the promise to generate more time for the pursuit of other things. Nine times out of ten, however, those other things turn out to be other digital technologies--all of which are sold on the same promise to increase productivity and generate more time. It's a digital marketing version of the scam perpetrated by the fictional protagonists in "The Producers," wherein two con men hatch a scheme to sell 2000 percent of a horrible Broadway musical. We've done the same thing with our time: We've invested in so much time-saving technology that we now have no time whatsoever for anything except our time-saving technology. The resulting circular logic is a signature characteristic of addiction: unmanageable complexity.

Our lives--both in and out of work--have become unmanageably complex. We are simply required to manage too many relationships on a daily basis, many of which we never even imagined just a generation ago. This is due in large part to the rise of digital communication and customer relationship technologies in the 1990s, and the sudden ability for corporations to engender and manage relationships in unprecedented numbers and complexity.

The sheer volume of detail in our day-to-day routines shot through the roof as the number of digitally induced relationships multiplied like gerbils. Every new digital technology came with a closet full of new relationships to manage.

I've heard it said that God is in the details. Of course, I've also heard it said that the Devil is in the details. I don't claim to know who is or isn't in the details anymore, but I do know that we are all drowning in them. Life and work in the Age of Technoculture has devolved into one long, serialized act of force majeure: My car broke down; our server is down; my laptop died; my cell phone battery needs recharging; the cable repairman never showed up; the train was late; my car is in the shop; my ISP was down; ad nauseam. Eventually, obsessive-compulsive behavior and addiction always become the best excuse for their own failure.

Central to the promotion of unmanageable complexity is our fealty to the spreadsheet culture. And central to the spreadsheet culture--the same culture that now drives every institution on the planet--is a built-in and fundamental aversion to risk. So while the sheer number and complexity of relationships at work and at home increases, our tolerance levels for any aberrant behavior or failure within each relationship declines commensurately. The opportunity for error increases exponentially, while our tolerance for the associated risks all but disappears.

Zero tolerance is the result. Zero tolerance is risk management in the Age of Technoculture, the great Age of Addiction, and time starvation. Zero tolerance is what we impose when we can no longer effectively manage all of our relationships--and the many risks they bring with them.

Zero tolerance is deployed by corporations and consumers alike. Corporations deploy zero tolerance policies internally as first lines of defense, typically to force employee compliance with prevailing legal statute and reduce corporate exposure to potential litigation in an already hyper-litigious society. As consumers, we invoke zero tolerance as a means to get what we want, or--just as frequently--to jettison what we don't want.

Essentially, we have zero tolerance because we have zero time to address all of the things that might go wrong in our relationships. So we solve them instead the way Alexander the Great solved the Gordian knot: We axe them, quick and simple. We no longer take the time to ponder and appreciate the myriad challenges and opportunities they represent. When something breaks, we just get rid of it. Everything nowadays is utterly disposable, including our relationships with our customers and clients.

Brand/client loyalty and price-point integrity have taken real hits in recent years. Nowadays, a customer or client relationship of ten years can disappear in three minutes in the wake of a less-than-satisfactory customer support encounter. Nowadays, we are more inclined to eliminate or replace things (relationships included) than fix them. It's what happens when too many relationships--each laden with excruciating detail--collide with too little time.

Well, even if we have less time, at least we have increased productivity. Or do we? And at what cost? For instance, one might expect the cost of media to decrease as the sheer tonnage of commercial media explodes due to vastly increased access to vastly increased bandwidth. But while this might be true on a pure CPM basis--one that accommodates only the cost of the media itself--the cost of engaging the media as a meaningful part of a meaningful marketing campaign has skyrocketed. Of course, this has nothing to do with the cost of media, and everything to do with the cost of the expertise required to navigate the vastly accelerated complexities of marketing across myriad media channels in the Age of Technoculture.

Unmanageable complexity--when too many relationships collide with too little time--is one of the reasons that so many big client/agency relationships are now negotiated by procurement instead of marketing: It's the only way for big clients with big marketing campaigns to commodify and force down the cost of agency creative and media expertise to levels more commensurate with the cost of the media itself. It's the only way for big clients with big marketing campaigns to exploit and maintain the efficiencies of scale promised by the digital technologies and their proxies, the agencies.

Whereas creative culture and personality once dominated the client/agency relationship, maintained price integrity, and distinguished one agency from another, scalable fulfillment and price point--both digitally driven-- have now emerged as the primary relationship criteria. The result? Marketing and media agencies work much harder for less money, engender much less client loyalty en route, and find it all but impossible to distinguish themselves from the other 9,999 agencies making the exact same claims in the exact same space. Where is the increased productivity? Where is the ROI? Likely buried in unmanageable complexity.

Next week we'll discuss another signature characteristic of our addiction to technology and the media: paralyzing inertia. Over the next few weeks I will establish a listserv or equivalent to centralize and promote discussion on the topics in Einstein's Corner. Meanwhile, please keep your email replies, comments, experiences, and suggestions coming. Hit me with your toughest questions; I need all the help I can get! Many thanks in the interim, and all the best...

Jeff Einstein is a strategic marketing consultant and an early pioneer of the digital marketing industry. He was a co-founder of EASI, one of the nation's first interactive advertising agencies. His column, "Einstein's Corner," appears each Wednesday in MediaDailyNews.