There’s this thing I’ve noticed. Maybe you’ve noticed it too. In some environments projects and ideas thrive. And in other environments it’s like nothing can take root.
Sometimes the difference between these two environments has to do with cultures or specific personalities. But not always. Or at least not consistently enough to make it obvious upon first glance which environment is the one that fosters projects and ideas.
I believe that efficiency is at the heart of this issue; efficiency plays a large role in thriving or not thriving. In particular, efficiency having to do with individuals vs efficiency of an entire system.
Efficiency, at first glance, is probably a good thing. Getting more done with less is one of those concepts that everyone understands and agrees upon. But it’s interesting to note that biology doesn’t work that way.
In the documentary Death by Design (a very entertaining and geeky documentary) we learn something about efficiency in nature. In the natural world, things are produced in abundance and then die off to leave what is useful. For every seedling that survives, a plant will produce many more seeds.
This is incredibly inefficient. Tremendous resources are gathered and deployed on the part of the plant in order to produce hundreds of seeds which will not become plants.
Some human systems work this way as well. When building a skyscraper, for example, a scaffolding is erected. When the building is complete, the scaffolding is removed leaving just the building.
In digital marketing there are also incredible inefficiencies at work. People clumsily work their way through search or asking people they know in order to bounce across many websites looking to solve their problems. Thousands of people may go through a website for every one person that clicks “add to cart” or “submit contact form.”
Business owners are constantly looking to make this more efficient. And, seeing as I make my living helping them in this cause, I agree that this is a good course of action. Get more ROI. Get more ROAS. Do more with less. Convert more visitors into loyal customers.
But there comes a time when efficiency is no longer helping. In fact, there are times when efficiency is detrimental.
Let’s look at efficiency and the use of technology for human communication.
The shift from desktop to mobile
Digital technologies and communication are in the midst of a shift in devices used for access. Once upon a time, all digital communication and interaction was done with through a large screen and a keyboard. Today a shift is well underway to a smaller screen and maybe no keyboard at all.
Communication through screens
The large screen is incredibly inefficient for the kinds of communication that people have been having online. Of the approximately 200 square inches on my computer monitor perhaps only two or three square inches are used for a tweet or status update.
The inefficiency of the screen leaves ample room for website owners to attempt to make a business by selling advertising. There are maybe 100 square inches available to the business owner for every inch that my communication takes up.
People, it turns out, really like communicating with one another. In fact, they like it so much that they aren’t especially interested in having companies insert messages into the conversation.
This is why people develop a “banner blindness” and manage to ignore all those square inches of a desktop or laptop screen containing advertising and focus instead on the part that they care about: their status update.
So far companies have been able to be successful with a ratio of 100:1 not-communication vs communication pixels. Many haven’t of course, but some have and that at least proves it’s possible.
What happens as we migrate to the size of screens used on smaller mobile devices? My status update on a phone is suddenly more like 10:1, maybe less. The efficiency of the display to help me communicate with someone just increased ten times. The business owner must now learn to thrive on ten percent of their available resources or increase the cost of their product ten times.
In addition, since there is so much less excess screen any advertising or distraction feels more intrusive to people using the service for communication. A single “sponsored tweet” in my Twitter stream on mobile would be the equivalent of ten square inch ad on my monitor–and it would be positioned right in the middle of the stuff I care about, making it hard to ignore.
In other words, not only is there not much room left for advertising but the advertising that does appear is exceptionally irritating.
There’s an inverse relationship in efficiencies here. As the device becomes more efficient for people to communicate with one another it becomes much less efficient for advertisers to insert themselves into the conversation using methods that are currently existing. Screen ratios suggest that this inverse relationship is heavily weighted against the advertisers.
So that’s the side of digital technology that gets ideas into the heads of people trying to communicate with one another. What about the other part? What sort of efficiencies are at play with how people using digital technology to communicate with one another get their ideas into someone else’s head?
Communication through keyboards
The keyboard is a large, expensive and very inefficient way of getting stuff into the digital world. The layout of the keyboard, back in the day, was specifically designed to slow people down so that the typewriters wouldn’t mash their impression-making metal rods together.
Typing is a not a real-time activity. We stop and think while typing. We consider what we’re going to say. We go back and massage the text a bit. If we spoke the same as we typed then we’d sound very awkward. I’d sound a bit like William Shatner.
While using a keyboard there are many opportunities to stop, pause and look around. When we look around we have a 100 to 1 chance of seeing an advertisement, as noted above.
Mobile communications don’t use keyboards in the same fashion. The virtual keyboards that are used are certainly more inefficient than physical keyboards. But they also take up space on the screen. Our pauses in typing are unlikely to result in us seeing an ad. In fact, for most mobile tool UI design there is zero chance of seeing an ad while we type–when entering into text input mode we see just the keyboard and just the text we are typing.
The efficiency, in terms of our ability to focus on our task, while using a mobile virtual keyboard is nearly 100%.
Moving even further, new interfaces based on voice commands and audio are being introduced. These interfaces further increase people’s ability to stay focused on their communication task and allow even less room for distraction-based advertising models to thrive.
For distraction-based advertising businesses and businesses who rely on distraction-based advertising to generate revenue, the shift from desktop to mobile computing represents an environment so efficient that there is no room for their messages to take root and thrive.
Mobile communication tools represent a dreadful efficiency for advertising as it is commonly practiced.
Dreadful efficiency occurs whenever the path of energy or interest or attention is so straight and so clear that there is no room for the survival of anything else. It’s like the difference between a city water main and a stream. The water main may pass thousands of gallons of water for years before any significant life takes hold in the pipes. The stream would be supporting life within days.
Dreadful efficiency can occur anywhere. Any system that develops in which everything moves so cleanly that nothing that is unrelated to the core task survives is developing dreadful efficiency.
But what makes it so dreadful anyway? In the case of mobile technology outlined above the dreadful efficiency doesn’t seem that bad for most people.
What makes efficiency dreadful is that it prevents the insertion of new ideas, new life and new direction at a system level. The car is functioning flawlessly moving at 100mph…towards a wall. In a dreadfully efficient system even if there is awareness of a shifting landscape there is no ability to adjust or pivot.
For the mobile technology and communication issue outlined above, people are getting new ideas directly from one another so the risk of losing situational awareness isn’t a problem. At least until the services they use can no longer support themselves and have to shut down.
Research involving the use of hookworms to treat asthma suggests that contemporary society’s obsession with sterility in all things has created a dreadful efficiency in the immune system of some individuals. The immune system, left with nothing against which to work, begins to work against itself.
In any situation where systems interact, where attention and interest interact, the potential for efficiency to make the system function well exists. But the potential for efficiency to turn dreadful and lead to the destruction of the system also exists. And then new structures and systems will form to solve the problems and serve the interests of those who remain.
Some additional reading relevant to dreadful efficiency
The iPhone of 2022 discusses many of the technologies that will continue to make mobile devices dreadfully efficient for facilitating communication between two people, leaving less and less room for distraction-advertising business models. It takes a fairly linear approach–more the same stuff but amped up a bit–and so it’s use for understanding disruption etc is limited. But it does a great job of identifying where the phone will end up if everyone operates on auto-pilot. And it will be dreadfully efficient.