On the Arrival of Rough Beasts

One of the things I find most interesting about the history of advertising is the long-running conflict between the “creatives” and their more quantitative, data-driven opponents within ad agencies. It’s a long-running, widespread opposition between a more humanistic, intuitive, interpretative style of decision-making and professional practice and a more rules-driven, empirical, formalistic approach.

The methodical researchers are generally always going to have to create advertisements and construct marketing campaigns by looking at the recent past and assuming that the near-term future will be the same. In an odd way, I think their practices have been the analog equivalent to much of the algorithmic operations of digital culture, trained through the methodical tracking of observable behavior and the collection of very large amounts of sociological data. If you know enough about what people in particular social structures have done in response to similar opportunities, stimuli or messages, the idea goes, you’ll know what they will do the next time.

My natural sympathies, however, are with the creatives. The creatives are able to do two things that the social science-driven researchers can’t. They can see the presence of change, novelty and possibility, even from very fragmentary or implied signs. And they can produce change, novelty and possibility. The creatives understand how meaning works, and how to make meaning. They’re much more fallible than the researchers: they can miss a clue or become intoxicated with a beautiful interpretation that’s wrong-headed. They’re either restricted by their personal cultural literacy in a way that the methodical researchers aren’t, and absolutely crippled when they become too addicted to telling the story about the audience that they wish was true. Creatives usually try to cover mistakes with clever rhetoric, so they can be credited for their successes while their failures are forgotten. However, when there’s a change in the air, only a creative will see it in time to profit from it. And when the wind is blowing in a stupendously unfavorable direction, only a creative has a chance to ride out the storm. Moreover, creatives know that the data that the researchers hold is often a bluff, a cover story, a performance: poke it hard enough and its authoritative veneer collapses, revealing a huge hollow space of uncertainty and speculation hiding inside of the confident empiricism. Parse it hard enough and you’ll see the ways in which small effect sizes and selective models are being used to tell a story, just as the creatives do. But the creative knows it’s about storytelling and interpretation. The researchers are often even fooling themselves, acting as if their leaps of faith are simply walking down a flight of stairs.

This is only one manifestation of a division that stretches through academia and society. I think it’s a much more momentous case of “two cultures” than an opposition between the natural sciences and everything else. If you want to see this fault line somewhere else besides advertising, how about in media-published social analysis of this year’s presidential election in the United States? Glenn Greenwald and Zaid Jilani are absolutely right that not only have the vast majority of analysts palpably misunderstood what was happening and what was going to happen, but that most of them are now unconvincingly trying to bluff once again at how the data makes sense, the models are still working, and the predictions are once again reliable.

The campaign analysts and political scientists who claim to be working from rock-solid empirical data will never see a change coming until it is well behind them. Up to the point of its arrival, it will always be impossible, because their models and information are all retrospective. Even the equivalent of the creatives in this arena are usually wrong, because most of them are not really trying to understand what’s out there in the world. They’re trying to make the world behave the way they want it to behave, and they’re trying to do that by convincing the world that it’s already doing exactly what the pundit wants to the world to do.

The rise of Donald Trump is only the most visible sign of the things that pundits and professors alike do not understand about which way the wind is blowing. For one, Trump’s rise has frequently been predicted by one set of intuitive readers of American political life. Trump is consequence given flesh, the consequence that some observers have said would inevitably follow from a relentless disregard for truth and evidence that’s been thirty years on the making, from a reckless embrace of avowedly instrumental and short-term pursuit of self-interest, from a sneering contempt for consensus and shared interests. He’s the consequence of engineering districts where swing votes don’t matter and of allowing big money to flood the system without restraint. He’s what many intuitive and data-driven commenters have warned might happen if all that continued. But the election analysts can’t think in these terms: the formal and understood rules of the game are taken to be unchanging. The analysts know what they know. The warning barks from the guard-dogs are just an overreaction to a rustle in the leaves or a cloud over the moon.

But it’s more than that. The pundits and professors who got it wrong on Trump (and who are I think still wrong in understanding what might yet happen) get it wrong because the vote for Trump is a vote against the pundits and professors. The political class, including most of the Republican Party but also a great many progressives, have gotten too used to the idea that they know how to frame the narrative, how to spin the story, how to massage the polls, how to astroturf or hashtag. So many mainstream press commenters are now trying to understand why Trump’s alleged gaffes weren’t fatal to his candidacy, and they’re stupidly attributing that to some kind of unique genius on Trump’s part. The only genius that Trump has in this respect is understanding what was going on when his poll numbers grew rather than dropped after those putative gaffes. The content of those remarks was and remains secondary to his appeal. The real appeal is that he doesn’t give a shit what the media says, what the educated elite say, what the political class says. This is a revolt against us–against both conservative and progressive members of the political class. So of course most of the political class can’t understand what’s going on and keep trying to massage this all back into a familiar shape that allows them to once again imagine being in control.

Even if Trump loses, and I am willing to think he likely will by a huge margin, that will happen only because the insurgency against being polled, predicted, dog-whistled, manipulated and managed into the kill-chutes that suit the interests of various powers-that-be is not yet coalesced into a majority, and moreover, is riven internally by its own sociological divisions and divergences. But even as Trump was in some sense long predicted by the gifted creatives who sift the tea leaves of American life, let me also predict another thing: that if the political class remains unable to understand the circumstances of its own being, and if it is not able to abandon its fortresses and silos, the next revolt will not be so easily contained.

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1 Response to On the Arrival of Rough Beasts

  1. David Porush says:

    Yup. Except that Hillary doesn’t have a chance for all the reasons you brilliantly define. It’s just unimaginable, and the mind quails and retreats from the reality, but here we are. As Shirley Temple sang, “Happy landings on a chocolate bar.”

    Thought you would appreciate “Trumposaurus Rex” on my blog. We think alike.

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