MIT Media Lab's 4Ps

I've been listening to Steven Johnson's excellent Wonderland podcast. [Shout out to the Storythings crew and our dear friend Kristen Taylor who produced it [we miss you Kthread!] 

It's a companion / prequel series to his new book Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World. [And as content marketing - it worked - it's now on my Kindle]. 

Each episode is a very digestible 20 minutes and they cover some fascinating topics.

Like how playing action games enhance your brain's develop cognitive flexibility that measurably speeds up your ability to task switch. 

And how games are the only medium that require you to make decisions, which makes them ideal for learning, since you are constantly making predictions and then testing them.

How rules are the universal language of a game. How games are perhaps better described as engagement engines than as pastimes. How learning by doing is fundamentally different to learning by reading.

The last episode features Joi Ito, the director of the MIT Media Lab, famed centre of innovation. He describes their 4Ps of learning:

Projects: learn by doing

Peers: learn from others and by teaching others

Passion: do things you are interested in

Play: make it fun and make time to play

And he talks about how the attempt to foster a culture that allows for and encourages these modes, especially play. Play, it turns out, creates hyper-neuroplasticity

When news articles hysterically proclaim things like "THE INTERNET IS CHANGING YOUR BRAIN" this is both true and utterly inane. Everything, every single thing you ever do, or see, or think, changes your brain. That's what learning and memory are. 

[This happens all the time when modern science, which is perforce complex, is reduced to clickbait. Often 'simplifying' actually complex things renders them wrong, not simpler.] 

The hysteria stems from a fundamentally broken belief - that your brain stops changing once you hit adulthood. This is completely false. The brain is plastic - it constantly rewires itself. Hence - neuroplasticity. 

[Check out The Brain That Changes Itself for more on this.]

Neurons that fire together, wire together is the aphorism that neuroscientists use.

The more you think about something, do something, the more that pattern gets hardwired in your head. That's the heart of cognitive behavioral therapy, and the idea of practice and 'muscle' memory. That's why depression can be caused by ruminating for too long on negative thoughts, and why affirmations can improve mood. 

Now we can analyze what's happening in people's heads when they play games, as children and adults, and it turns out something about the "play state" make our brains especially plastic, making it easier to learn. Hence hyper-neuroplastcity

So if you want to foster a learning culture, and learn something, make it playful. Or, as we say at Genius Steals

Won't be any good isn't any fun

And finally, speaking of podcasts and learning by doing, we've been learning to podcast, with our new PODCARD series. Check out Episode Two: Wish You Were Here, a Podcard from Goa & Hampi, below, and let us know how we're doing. 

Idea Archeology

One of the Genius Steals creativity exercises is demystifying ideas as combinations by exploring the inspiration elements that informed an idea. We call it idea archeology.

This is harder the further the idea takes the inspiration and easier the less far it has gone, but no idea comes from nowhere. “It’s not where you take things from - it’s where you take them to." - Jean-Luc Godard.

Good ideas are, to steal from Aristotle, "lucid, pleasing and strange", because the achieve clarity and satisfy the mind through the combination of non-obvious things. 

Remember, "A good poet [or idea] will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.” 

A few days ago I tweeted this: 

Since the embed doesn't resolve, it was quote Tweeting this 

This was the first time I had seen the zoom meme - and the amount of coverage it has received since suggest I'm not alone. Buzzfeed called it a new meme. USA Today covered it a week later, which often happens with online to offline. 

A few days before this zoom meme tweet, a parody account called Nihilist Arby's tweeted this: 

Arby's is a competitor of Denny's, so the social media team would be doing competitive monitoring of the brand and the brand term, which would include parody accounts.

Add the zoom meme to the Arby's tweet and voila - you have one of the most shared brand posts ever. The CMO even got this article in Adweek to explain the strategy behind the tweet:

“While we’re thrilled about the response we’ve received to our take on the ‘zoom’ meme, for us it’s just another great example of our social media team knowing our brand—and its audience—and using that connection to tap into timely topics that are trending online.”

Advertising is Not Voodoo

Mister squishy

Because the universe speaks to us through coincidence, or because of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon [also known as the frequency illusion] - whichever you prefer - I had a few Squishy encounters of late. 

I just read DFW's brilliant, remarkably disturbing, short[ish] horror story and comment on corporate culture Mister Squishy, and lo and behold it was recently adapted as a stage play

You should read the story for its merits as a story [it's available in the collection Oblivion] but for those in advertising, marketing and market research, it's remarkable for a whole different set of reasons.

It was published in 2000 but set in 1995 which obviously gives it a sheen of false prescience, but even so, his laser like analysis of market research, marketing and its future - its now - is amazing. 

On Targeting

"The 18-39 Male demographic, the single most prized and fictile demotarget in high-end marketing."

On Data

"The whole problem and project of descriptive statistics was discriminating between what made a difference and what did not."

On Advertising

"One of the first things a Field Researcher accepts is that the product is never going to have as important a place in a TFG’s minds as it did in the Client’s. Advertising is not voodoo.

The Client could ultimately hope only to create the impression of a connection or resonance between the brand and what was important to consumers. And what was important to consumers was, always and invariably, themselves. What they conceived themselves to be.

The Focus Groups made little difference in the long run—the only true test was real sales, in Schmidt’s personal opinion."

On Herd Behavior  

And if you wondered why your kid was wearing them of course the majority of the answer was simply that other kids were wearing them, for of course kids as a demographic market today were notoriously herdlike and their individual choices in consumption were overwhelmingly influenced by other kids’ consumption-choices and so on in a fadlike pattern that spread like wildfire and usually then abruptly and mysteriously vanished or changed into something else.

This was the most simple and obvious example of the sort of complex system of large groups’ intragroup preferences influencing one another and building exponentially on one another, much more like a nuclear chain reaction or an epidemiological transmission grid than a simple case of each individual consumer deciding privately for himself what he wanted and then going out and judiciously spending his disposable income on it.


And it goes on, in gloriously observed detail, about how we often start out in agencies full of passion, hoping to move clients and agencies to do the rights things, to be honest to consumers and drive brands to do better things for the world, but eventually we realize that companies are structured to only care about money; and how that affects people, and their relationships, as they run ever faster on that hedonic treadmill, hoping to get to the next level, to get a raise, but always with the sneaking suspicion that life is a hoax and worse that every human interaction is self-serving, political or mercenary because that's what business ultimately wants to teach us. 

As I said, it's a horror story. 

And finally, on what all that data of the web would do to advertising and market research:

But where most agencies still saw the coming www primarily as just a new, fifth venue* for high-impact ads, part of your more forward-looking type vision for the coming era involved finding ways to exploit cybercommerce’s staggering research potential as well.

Undisplayed little tracking codes could be designed to tag and follow each consumer’s w3 interests and spending patterns. 

Britton said that Focus Groups could be assembled abstractly via consumers’ known patterns—as in e.g. who showed an interest? who bought the product or related products and from which cybervendor via which link thing?—

that not only would there be no voir dire and no archaic per diem expenses but even the unnecessary variable of consumers even knowing they were part of any sort of market test was excised, since a consumer’s subjective awareness of his identity as a test subject instead of as a true desire-driven consumer had always been one of the distortions that market research swept under the rug because they had no way of quantifying subjective-identity-awareness.

Focus Groups would go the way of the dodo and bison and art deco.


Which isn't exactly what happened, but the market research industry itself tells itself that it has, despite knowing that it hasn't


Bump The Lamp

Who Framed Roger Rabbit was a fantastic film and was one of the first times I remember feeling oddly drawn to the female character Jessica. 

Part of that was my age but part of it was the incredible job the animators did - by hand and eye - of creating the illusions, especially the illusion of physicality and physical interaction between the Toons and the humans. 

This video explains how, the level of commitment to detail that makes this film stand up even today. 

It generated a phrase coined by Disney while working on the movie: Bumping the Lamp. It means going above and beyond what was expected of the animators, watch the video to understand why. 

"Seemingly superfluous details help sell the effect at a subconscious level".

Always take the chance to bump the lamp in your work. 

Moebius and The Martian

Moebius Martian

In 1979 the legendary French comic book artist Moebius did the conceptual art for Ridley Scott's sci-fi masterpiece Alien.

Some things of course weren't used for the film, like the illustration of an orange spacesuit above left. 

In 2015, three years after Moebius' death, Ridley Scott made The Martian. 

The above drawing sat in Ridley's "bottom drawer" for 36 years. 

For more on Moebius - here's a 19min BBC documentary on him and his incredible legacy. 

DDB's First Ever Ad Was a Cat Meme


Every time you think something is completely knew, you should remember that nothing is. 

From DDB's website:

N.M. Ohrbach knew Bill Bernbach when Ohrbach's was a client at Grey Advertising. Mr. Ohrbach, who was not happy with Grey, suggested that Bernbach launch his own agency with Ohrbach's as its first client.

Ohrbach even agreed to pay for the work in advance, enabling Doyle, Dane and Bernbach to pay their initial bills. The campaign transformed Ohrbach's from an unfashionable store in an unfashionable part of town to a "high fashion at low prices" boutique that attracted the attention of such people as the Rockefellers and drew "high fashion" coverage from Life magazine.

Darkest Night

Darkest Night

I don't watch horror movies. I don't like them, I don't enjoy being scared. Things get stuck in my head and I'd rather have nice things in there. 

So I also wouldn't listen to a horror podcast. However, I found a new podcast in my app. It was called Darkest Night

I assume I saw a Tweet recommendation and hit subscribe without realizing it was a horror anthology. I also didn't realize until after I had started listening. And now I'm hooked. 

To be honest, some of the gorier images still make me queasy, but the podcast is wonderfully produced and I'm enjoying it. 

It's a nice reminder for me that sometimes I need to do things that scare me [literally in this case].

I would never have opted to listen to it because of a label, a category in my head I've decided I don't want any part of.

But this is its own kind of filter bubble and since I prize diversity in my thinking, in my influences, in my inspiration, I can't just read, watch and listen to things I think I'm going to like. It's logically inconsistent. My preferences set parameters for the world. 

So I'm glad for the happy accident and recommend Darkest Night, if you like horror, and especially if you don't.