Einstein's Corner: The Last Digital Frontier

Greetings, and welcome to Einstein's Corner. My mission statement is simple: To explore the adverse effects of digital technologies on our ability to conduct business, and to offer practical suggestions on what we can do to improve our business practices accordingly.

For many companies--especially the small and midsize players--business has become a function of diminishing returns. We are simply working longer hours, and investing more of our precious time and resources in exchange for fewer professional and personal returns every day. The Age of ROI has spawned an evil twin, the Age of DROI: Diminished Return on Investment.

How is this even remotely possible with all of the technology at our disposal?

Albert Einstein once suggested that no problem can be solved with the same thinking that created the problem. The digital ROI mantra of faster, smarter, better is merely an extension of the thinking that created the problem, amplified by the speed and power of a billion microchips. But as such, it can never be fast, smart, or good enough. What next? Where do we go from here?



My mission statement suggests that the answers are waiting for us to discover in the vast frontier just beyond our current thinking, in the active and diligent exploration of the digital downside. Simply stated, instead of exploring all the things digital technology can do for your business, Einstein's Corner will explore all the things digital technology is doing to your business.

Our exploration will invert the claims invoked to sell digital technologies in the first place. Thus, instead of exploring how digital technologies can help you and your company engender new business, Einstein's Corner will explore how digital technologies inhibit new business development. The same basic technique will be applied across the entire enterprise: How do digital technologies...

...threaten your mission statement?
...commodify the value of your creative and strategic assets? down your price points?
...inhibit account growth and client loyalty?
...erode accountability?
...inhibit meaningful change?
...promote obsessive-compulsive behavior?
...inhibit meaningful dialogue and relationships?
...inhibit freedom of choice?
...promote insecurity and uncertainty?

My intention is in no way to discourage the adoption and application of digital technologies. But how can we possibly expect to understand the full benefit and potential of digital technologies in our businesses and lives unless and until we explore the potential downsides and risks associated with them?

How can we possibly hope to get where we're going when we only look at half the digital map?

What's in Charge Here?

Our exploration of the digital downside begins with a simple question: Why haven't we explored the digital downside yet? The answer to this question will provide the answer to another essential question, this one embodied in our tragic obsession with ROI and accountability: Who's in charge here? In response to both questions, I quote from my most recent work-in-progress, a new book entitled High Wired: the Essential Guide to the Quality of Life in the 21st Century...

"We are all born as crack babies in the Age of Technoculture, the great Age of Addiction. How can it be otherwise when the short list of 21st-century obsessive compulsive behaviors includes addictions to media, work, alcohol, credit, licit and illicit drugs, sex, food, and gambling? Who do you know whose life isn't somehow touched by at least one addiction or at least one addict?

Individuals in recovery already number in the tens of millions, serviced by thousands of 12-step fellowships and related organizations. The number of undeclared addicts waiting in the wings--many living lives of quiet desperation and denial--likely dwarfs the number in active recovery.

You can't throw a brick and not hit an addict nowadays. Not in the school room, not in the locker room, not in the laundry room, not in the boardroom, not in the courtroom, not in the confessional, not even in Congress or the White House. What more proof do we need before we admit that addiction in the Age of Technoculture is the default condition, the rule rather than the exception? Faster smarter better is the digitally-induced mantra of addiction."

We haven't explored the digital downside yet because we are addicted to our technology and its offspring, most notably the media. There simply is no other plausible explanation for our escalating and highly ritualized obsession with the media.

Respondents to a recent MediaPost survey indicated an average 7+ hours of media consumption each and every day, rain or shine. The recent Middletown Media Studies, however, indicate an average 11.7 hours of daily media consumption. More alarmingly, they conclude that media consumption is typically underreported by at least half. But then again, all addictions are underreported. This may reflect not only an innate fear of the social stigma associated with the disease, but a signature characteristic of addiction at work: denial. Perhaps we haven't explored the digital downside yet because we just don't want to admit that there is one.

Ponder: If the medium is the message, what happens to the message when the medium is addictive? Functionally, addiction always assumes the role of moderator in our inner dialogue, and takes control over all internal debates--especially those central to the survival of the addiction itself.

Perhaps we haven't explored the digital downside yet because our addictions monitor and control the debate. I offer the following example, also from High Wired:

"Consider for instance the War Against Drugs as portrayed across commercial media: The near-exclusive focus on illicit substances in the War Against Drugs conveniently precludes any focus on the media itself as an abused substance, despite overwhelming evidence. It also conveniently diverts critical attention from any of the legitimate and equally addictive products--like liquor, gambling, consumer credit, pharmaceuticals, fast food, or other forms of media--offered by the same advertisers who keep the television networks and media players in business. Our addiction to the media has stepped in like a military junta and seized control of the debate.

"Regardless of how we may feel about the War Against Drugs as a matter of social policy, paying media professionals--the advertising agencies and television networks--to promote drug awareness is more than a little like paying the corner drug dealer to attach a warning label to every dime bag he sells. How much meaningful dialogue about addiction can we expect while the drug dealers themselves are moderating the discussion?"

Much the same thing has happened to us in our addiction to technology both in business and at home: Our addiction has seized control of the debate. There seems to be no "who" in charge anymore, only a "what"-- our addiction, and denial is always its first and last line of defense.

The same addiction-induced denial that permits a cigarette smoker to ignore the surgeon general's warning twenty times per pack permits the advertising and marketing community to deny the barrage of warning shots now being fired across our bow from every conceivable direction. While we engage in a manic race to deploy every new technology in our efforts to increase both the volume and efficiency of advertising, consumers and corporations alike are investing billions of dollars in technologies designed to eradicate it. How can we be so at odds with our own audiences? And how much does that variance add to the cost of doing business?

Here's the bad news: Freedom is the first casualty of all addiction, and the first freedom we surrender to addiction is always the freedom to say no to it--to opt out of it. There is no way to deactivate the addiction gene once we have activated it; there is no off switch, no do-not-call registry.

Moreover, addiction almost always escalates; it gets worse with time, as do the compulsive behaviors associated with it. Therefore, we have every reason to expect that we will be required to work harder and longer for fewer and fewer returns in the Age of DROI, assuming we do nothing more than follow instructions and work increasingly faster, smarter, and better.

Now for the good news: Recovery is absolutely possible. Addiction has much to teach us about ourselves, and while we may not be able to cure it, we can certainly learn to live and work better because of it. But only if we first accept it as a default condition in our lives, both at home and at work.

Recovery begins with an end to denial. Opportunity begins at the exact same moment.

Next week we'll begin to examine the signature characteristics of our addiction to our own technologies--obsessive-compulsive behavior, dishonesty and denial, unmanageable complexity, and paralyzing inertia--and how they adversely affect our work.

I implore you, dear reader, to join with me now as we begin this journey, a pioneering effort every bit as profound and transforming to our businesses and lives as the introduction and global adoption of the electronic spreadsheet. Your feedback is an essential part of the journey. Please email me at with your related thoughts, experiences, hopes, and fears. Many thanks in the interim for your gracious time. Best to you and yours,

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," will appear each Wednesday in MediaDailyNews.

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