The Key to Saving our Species

What if I were to tell you that ads had become smarter than us and now they’re manipulating everything we do?

Mankind became tired of ads, so we kept inventing ways to make things “ad free.” We even created ad blockers. That’s when the ads had to adapt. They had to disguise themselves as news in order to survive.

I’m not sure I’ve heard a more succinct description of why the advertising arms race has become so annoying.

This comes from South Park episode #1908, Sponsored Content, that aired November 18. Jimmy, the school newspaper editor finds himself in competition with Internet news. Jimmy has the rare ability to spot the difference between news and sponsored content.

Can you?

Aspirational Web Searching

Call it advertising Jujitsu. We’re missing out on a great opportunity to turn web tracking to our advantage. We’re all used to the experience. You start online shopping for your Aunt’s birthday and within minutes, your entire Facebook feed is replete with ads for knitting supplies. You don’t see much else until it’s your daughter’s birthday, and then you can enjoy One Direction ticket offers for awhile.

We spend a lot of energy fighting these ads by opting out from web advertising, subscribing to ad blocking software, or pruning our Facebook interests. But it’s a ever-escalating arms race between advertisers and consumers.

What if, instead, we turned all this tracking to our advantage, stopped fighting, and started aspirational searching?

I hit upon this idea recently while wish-list searching for tube-based guitar amplifiers. Classic rock tone, harmonic distortion, and expensive. But seeing my web feeds fill up with all manner of tube amplifiers, electric guitars, and accessories, made me wonder if we couldn’t re-decorate our timelines and sidebars with more positive wallpaper.

I don’t mean just better consumer goods: Tesla Model S’s, luxury yachts, or designer fashion labels (unless that’s your motivation.) I’m thinking more along the lines of things to remind us that there’s a world beyond the keyboard: hiking trails, vacation retreats, great literature, sporting goods, healthy gourmet dining, art exhibits, or whatever will show you a better window to look out from your keyboard.

Give it a try. Spend some time digging around on shopping sites for things beyond consumer goods, and share in the comments if you’ve hit upon a great keyword phrase (e.g., peaceful retreats usa) for us to try. Maybe I should call it anti-aspirational web searching.

Image Credit: ukgardenphotos, Leonardslee Gardens, West Sussex, England (cropped from original)

Is Respect Earned?

Our language carries many examples of respect as a transaction.

“You have to give respect to get respect”

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We phrase it like  a transaction: Respect must be paid. Respect is due. Respect is earned.

And when you have the act of respect as a transaction, then the attitudes of commerce and entitlement follow. “I am owed respect.” “You don’t give me the respect I deserve.” “I gave you respect, now you have to respect me in return.”

I suppose this isn’t a problem if the two parties in the transaction have the same definition of respect. I think most of us though aren’t jumping into a gang or being hazed for pledge week. And maybe we think respect should be something greater than a token payment.

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So what does it really mean to pay respect?

Respect comes from the the Indo-European root spek-, which means to observe 1. You see it it words such as spectacles, suspect, and specimen.  Respect means to look back. In this context, to think about what you’ve seen.

When we ask others to respect us, we may mean to look back on what we’ve done as context for our present actions or attitudes. In this sense, we can respect others because we’ve taken a moment to look at what they’ve been through. We can respect their rights because we are aware of the trials it took to secure them.

We see this in the other meaning of the verb, to avoid interfering with, which is the result of  deference. We respect a person so we don’t intrude upon them, and the pause, if anything, becomes the payment of respect.

We reflect that in the noun form of the word:  regard,  honor, or the time we take to look back. So, we get a moment or a feeling of respect. Silent observation becomes the way we show respect. Therefore, the payment of respect, if anything, is the pause – the moment we stop and think about the other person before we act, speak, or judge. If you respect me, you stop before you violate my boundaries.

We owe that to everybody – our friends, our neighbors, our enemies, our selves. In that respect, it is not something to give or receive, but to demonstrate.

“We are sun and moon, dear friend; we are sea and land. It is not our purpose to become each other; it is to recognize each other, to learn to see the other and honor him for what he is: each the other’s opposite and complement.” —Hermann Hesse, Narcissus and Goldmund

1 American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. © 2011-2014. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company [back]

Image Credit: Brett Davies, Buddhist Respect (cropped from original)

Politics of Language

That’s not to say political language. One purpose of this site is to challenge the way we use language and our assumptions about it. The very word, politics, is charged and a good place to start. Because language is never neutral; it is always advocating, even when it proffers neutrality.

You have your pick of resources that discuss the conventions of language – grammar, mechanics, usage. I’m pretty fond of the following resources because they’re for both new and lifetime learners:

Language is Manipulative

But writing that moves, that engenders action or feeling, requires direction and control from the author. Language is always manipulative, in that it wants to evoke something from the audience. Otherwise, why say anything at all? Even in the most academic literature, you want to communicate, clearly and succinctly, the subject matter so that the audience is aware, understands, and applies information all up Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Just as a journalist needs to become aware of their biases in order to avoid writing from their bias, all writers who wish to master their craft must be aware of the bias implicit in language. We study word origins to know their context and how context has changed over time, not only to avoid embarrassment, but also to put ourselves in the best position to use language to make our communication clear.

Clarity is a Choice

My grad school mentor, Stephen Geller, often said that the hardest thing to write is the simple, declarative sentence. He said it of screenwriting, but it applies to all communication. We often hide our charged words in a thicket of other words. Corporate speak is one phrase that comes to mind. Political doublespeak is another where we manipulate ambiguity to hide our true intention.

Politics 1 comes through Greek (citadel) from the Sanskrit (fortress.) From it we get the rules for living together (policy) and the methods of enforcement (police.) Exploring the politics of language gives us the ability to read on and between the lines of communication. It helps us gain perspective not only on what we say, but also how different audiences might hear it. And while we all want to be heard, what we really want is to be understood.

1 American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. © 2011-2014. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company [back]

Image Credit: LastOneIn, Soapbox waiting for your speech (cropped from original)

Do you enjoy writing?

I enjoy having written. That’s my usual response. We writers like to talk up the challenges of process. We have our ways of avoiding the “pain” of putting words on paper. But procrastination is part of every profession. Writers are no different, but they make more movies about frustrated writers than frustrated doctors or lawyers.

A lot is made of writer’s block, but often it’s the case that writers block – we block our creativity, our momentum, or our progress.

Writing on Purpose

When you’re writing for someone else, whether an assignment, a contract, or a commission, that obligation weighs heavily on you. When you’re a creative writer, it’s easy to blame your lack of inspiration on the patron.  But that’s just a diversion.

My definition of writer’s block is lack of preparation. New writers working on assignment think they can just start typing. And then they’re surprised when the words don’t flow. If you are good at just starting without an idea, you can type yourself into content, or a corner.

Free writing is a fine technique, but be prepared to edit.  It’s lousy for contracted work. You need instead to do some research, and if you have trouble figuring that out then start by writing questions. It’s easier to write questions than answers; and it’s easier to answer questions than it is to think of things to say.

Writing for Purpose

When I’m doing creative work, I heed the words of one of my writing professors, Richard Wiley, who said, “Writers write to discover what they have to say.” You don’t have to know your thoughts in advance. You have a perfectly blank space to fill with all your thoughts, which you are free to winnow later.

In my work for businesses, I built a career being a great first-draft writer. I’m excellent at editing in my head. You can imagine how difficult it is to shut that editor off when trying to discover something new.  The discipline of writing rests on knowing when to apply a particular technique, and it won’t surprise you to know that the best way to develop that discipline is practice.

So, you can see free writing is helpful for either creative or business writing, so long as you adjust your goal for each. Research also is important when you remind yourself to research to get started not to avoid starting.

Writing for Fun

When it’s challenging, I remind myself that’s the process. For an experience to feel like a breakthrough, you have to feel thwarted at some point. When you apply technique to break inertia and gather momentum, that’s when it starts getting fun. Because who doesn’t enjoy it when things start to fly.

 

Image Credit: Beyond Neon, Twisted (cropped from original)

Creative vs. Professional

For sake of convenience, on this site I’ll use the term creative to mean my work for me and professional to mean my work for others. However, I always strive to make my professional work creative and for my creative work to be professional.

Remember, writing is a craft. It’s one reason I love the word playwright. A wright is an Old English term (wryhta) from an even older Indo-European root (werg) meaning work. Playwright and shipwright are pretty much the only modern words to retain that meaning – mill and wheel wrights having been pushed out by “Big Tire,”

It’s very romantic to think of yourself as something like a cabinetmaker, shaping airtight dovetail joints, carving intricate inlays, and hand polishing burls with linseed to buttery sheen. It’s much better than the image of the hack writer, tapping away madly on an Underwood, pulling out the onionskin to set on the growing stack, only to roll in another and begin again.

There’s an assumption with creativity that it’s something that just happens – it’s magic. One time when I lead a custom courseware development team, our director loved to bring customers on tours past our area with the declaration, “This is where the magic happens!” And afterward (more than once) I would meet with him to correct that line.”

“You can’t keep calling it magic.”

“Why not? It’s a compliment.”

“Because, magic takes no effort. Magic just happens. Nobody will pay for magic. But they always pay for craftsmanship. And they know it takes time.”

Want more proof? What’s the icon for high-paying professional? Doctor. What do they call their work? A practice.

So, while it may be convenient to use terms like creative and professional to differentiate our work, keep in mind, it should always be both.

Image Credit: Henti Smith, Wagon Wheel (cropped from original)