We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.

I’m told that brevity is the soul of wit. As such, I thought about just typing the word “politicians” in this article and calling it done. My goal is to demonstrate that communicators — good people by nature — are taught by the tools they use to believe that it is wisdom to be a liar. Politicians would seem to be the most obvious example. But I notice more and more that communications professionals and organizations are great perpetrators of this kind of lexical dissembling. In particular, I’m dubious about all the claims to “humanize” brands and communications.

If I am to convince you that communications tools teach users that it is wisdom to lie, I need to provide some explanation of how this could happen. The key concept to understanding this process is encapsulated in this nice little quotation of Marshall McLuhan (actually John Culkin summarizing McLuhan’s views🙂

We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.

Let’s say your feet are bare and you have to cross some terrain covered in sharp rocks. If you build yourself some shoes from whatever is handy — let’s say some wooden planks — those shoes may require you to walk in an unnatural way. If you’ve got to cross the terrain, what you won’t do is take off the shoes. You’ll walk unnaturally as the cost of protecting your feet. You won’t call it unnatural; you’ll call it wisdom.

The more something becomes known as wisdom, the more difficult it becomes to challenge it, even when it’s clearly unnatural. We could point out that while our intrepid cobbler may be able to cross the sharp rocks unharmed, he is doing other unknown damage to himself by walking in such an awkward manner. We could propose a complete rethink of the shoes he’s constructed and demand more “human” shoes. But his knowledge is wisdom. Rather than abandon wisdom, the likely outcome will be to cut the planks in foot-shaped units and simply call them “human” shoes. That wearers still walk unnaturally will be almost completely lost in the claim that the shoes are now “human.”

This is the origin of the “buzzword.” We recognize the cognitive dissonance that arises from the unnatural machinations we must undertake to use our tools, and it is frustrating. But rather than accepting the challenge of reimagining those tools, we are lulled by the wisdom we’ve derived from them. The result is to take the language of a new insight, graft it superficially onto the old tools and call it innovation.

But it’s not innovation. It’s a lie.

Currently, the biggest lie in communications is made manifest in the use of the word, “human.” It’s absolutely everywhere. The reason it’s everywhere is that we have become collectively aware of the fact that communications tools are only able to see the human participants as reductionistic parts in a machine. Audiences are called “targets” and are cynically manipulated as if they had no agency, as if they were just objects to be moved. We, unsurprisingly, don’t like that a whole lot.

The solution, largely, has been to double down on the machinery (big data anyone?) and claim that the increasingly sophisticated algorithms are making communications more human. Marketing automation tools will allow you to employ personas that, we are told, ensure that people have more personalized, human interactions through the channels into which the algorithms are pushing content. Engagement agencies (née marketing agencies) are throwing glitzy collaboration parties (because humans like parties, right?) and calling it engagement, which, we are told, will create more human businesses. Ads are more “human” now, which is to say that your online behavior is being constantly monitored by algorithms that reduce you to some bit of correlative data. Facebook reduces users to lab rats, evoking the ubiquitous insight that, “if you’re not the buyer or seller in the transaction, you’re the product.”

The trouble is, we’re still making an abstraction out of the audience (targets? personas? consumers?). We’re still ignoring the messy, qualitative parts of the human experience in favor of whatever we can shove into an excel document or graph search. That we call this stuff “human” doesn’t mean it’s not still the same awkward wooden planks strapped to our feet.

To truly “be human,” we have to start with the insight that humans have a unique constitution and unique needs and build from there. We need to imagine our communication tools in the context of the human, instead of the other way around. We need to demand that we should not be made to conform to our tools, our tools should be made to conform to us. We clearly want less convolution (going outside ourselves,) and more involution (coming back to ourselves.) This is not a trivial task; it may be nothing short of a step change in the way we understand these tools. What it isn’t, is an easy positioning strategy to sell more foot shaped wooden planks.

You communicators that are using algorithms and calling it human? I hear there’s a congressional seat opening up in your district.

See this post and others on making business more human at Be Human Project.