Access to ChatGPT’s new voice interface turned into a long conversation while Center strategic advisor Brad Berens walked in the summer sun. The results were mixed.

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To paraphrase and tweak a famous quote usually attributed to H.L. Mencken, nobody has ever lost money by overestimating the laziness of the human mind. To put it more generously, we humans have a lot of decisions to make each day and a limited amount of decision-making energy, so we hoard our cognitive resources and take shortcuts when we can. This is the idea behind Daniel Kahneman’s fast but inaccurate System 1 and accurate but lazy System 2.

Generative AI programs like ChatGPT take advantage of our innate human laziness because they instantly generate plausible-sounding answers to our questions, although those answers may not be accurate. This was already a problem when ChatGPT was only text based, but with its new voice interface the combo-platter of plausibility and laziness has become even more acute.

That’s my topic today.  (more)

Weight loss drugs like Ozempic will disrupt far more than just the waistlines of the people taking them. As Center director Jeffrey Cole explains, entire industries will shift, and some will not survive.


Morgan Stanley recently predicted that by 2034 ten percent of Americans (35 million people) will be taking semaglutide weight loss medications, the best known of which is Ozempic.

At a cost of $900-$1,300 per month (it’s as low as $200 in the UK), and with little insurance coverage except for diabetics and very obese people, the economic disruption to the healthcare system, and a growing list of companies (some obvious, others surprising) is already starting to be enormous.

In my last column, I looked at those who stand to gain as Americans lose weight. This time, I’ll look at those who will lose if tens or hundreds of millions around the world are able to safely and affordably move from obesity. While there would seem to be some obvious losers, many of the companies most threatened have already taken significant steps to mitigate what they can see as a rapidly shifting landscape.  (more)

Center strategic advisor Brad Berens explains how brands have different functions in our lives — some easy to understand, and some that deserve extra pondering.

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A few days ago, my friend Om Malik reached out with these questions about brands:

I am thinking about something and wanted to get a better idea of what it means to be a music artist or a media company as a brand. What defines a brand? Any thoughts on that? I am wondering what happens to traditional brands over time. What makes them retain or lose their value?

I have a lot to say on this topic, which will surprise nobody, some of which I shared with Om and which have now evolved into this piece.

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There is a lot of mystical, Three Card Monte misdirecting nonsense out there about brands.

Marketers tend to overplay brand loyalty quite a bit. Byron Sharp, in his magnificent book How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know, points out both 1) that even the most loyal customers will buy—without experiencing anguish—competitor brands when their preferred brand isn’t available, and 2) that brands grow simply when people are aware of their existence and able to purchase them. The awareness bit is the hard part.

I’ve written a lot about the roles that brands play in our lives, with this 2019 piece as one good example, but my thoughts have matured over the last few years.

Here are 13 overlapping ways of thinking about brands across a spectrum starting with the simplest and ending with the most complex.  (more)

Who are the big winners because of Ozempic? Beyond the people who lose weight, says Center director Jeffrey Cole, new drugs like Ozempic may benefit companies, industries, professionals, and families in unexpected ways.

Disney got it wrong with one of its most popular and enduring theme park attractions: it’s not such a small world after all!

Photo by Varnsi

The “Small World” ride premiered at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Built by Disney’s imagineers, it was such a sensation the company quickly moved it to Disneyland where it opened in 1966. Visitors sit in a small boat that moves through a shallow channel—viewing dancing dolls from around the world while being serenaded by one of the catchiest songs ever. It’s impossible to get that song out of your head, no matter how hard you try.

In 1966, the channel was deep enough for the boat to seat about twenty average sized riders, a mixture of adults and kids. But as love for the attraction grew, so too did the weight of the visitors to the park. By 2006, what had been normal weight for twenty people in the sixties now carried an extra 500 to 600 pounds. Often the ride would get stuck as the payload of the boat caused it to scrape the bottom. For a while, Disney dealt with the problem by only partially filling the boats. However, seeing empty seats angered people waiting in long lines.

In 2008, Disney shut down the ride to dig a deeper channel (among other renovations) that allowed the boat to move freely once again. Disney had to reconfigure “It’s a Small World” for the “average sized person” of the 21st century.  (more)

New weight-loss drugs such as Ozempic and Wegovy will do more than just shrink individual waistlines: the economic and social impact, says Center director Jeffrey Cole, may be incalculable.

Disruption, like people, comes in all shapes and sizes. But a new and extraordinarily powerful disruption is — for the first time — changing the actual shape and size of the human body. It is a true game changer, bringing profound impact on our health, life spans, psyches, social lives, economy, as well as how we relate to each other.

This disruption is just getting started.

Around the world, especially in prosperous countries, people are getting fatter. We in America, with our endless appetites and enormous portions, set a high bar, but the rest of the world seems determined to catch up or surpass us (no easy task). More than two thirds (69%) of adult Americans are overweight, and more than one third (36%) are obese. Globally, over 1 billion people are obese, and that number is rising fast.

The tools for fighting (or preventing) obesity are difficult to follow or stick to. It means eating less “fun” food, more healthy things, and smaller portions. Plus regular exercise. Some diets call for starvation-level intake or only consuming carbs, only proteins, or something else equally unrealistic. That is why so many quit diets and exercise, quickly gaining more weight than before they started.

Now disruption has come to our bodies. Although there are a number of similar-class (GLP) drugs, the best known of them all is Ozempic. I’ll use “Ozempic” generically, even though others Wegovy, Mounjaro, and Zepbound are similar.

For generations, we have dreamed of taking a daily pill to make or keep us thin. Now it is happening, but it is even better than that. You only need to take some of these disruptive new medications once a week!

The results have been extraordinary.  (more)

Will bad actors use digital duplicates of our dead loved ones against us?  Center strategic advisor Brad Berens explains.

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I recently shared a microfiction (1,000 words or less), a short science fiction story called “Hacking the Dead” about Trix, a corporate spy who influences the digital duplicate of an equity analyst’s beloved dead mother in order to change his mind about Trix’s company without him realizing it.

This time, I’ll explore how realistic the story is or isn’t. You don’t have to read “Hacking the Dead” (although it ain’t bad) to understand this week’s piece, but fair warning: Thar Be Spoilers Ahead!

Let’s dig in.

The idea behind “Hacking the Dead” is similar to the 2010 movie Inception, except instead of the covert persuasion happening in dreams it happens in the waking world with dream-like digital ghosts of departed family members.

Like Inception, in “Hacking the Dead” a small team of people (Trix and her unseen co-workers) create a false reality. This is the kind of thing that used to require whole government agencies dedicated to fake narratives and propaganda, but now technology has democratized it. (See also this earlier piece about the movie Wag the Dog and deep fakes.)  (more)

A recent Economist article about dying small towns inspired Center strategic advisor Brad Berens to think about Retro Futures, the failed promise of the hyperloop, and “sideshadows.”

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Typically, when I’ve written about retro futures, I’ve explored how old science fiction stories illuminate things happening today. This time, I’ll take a different angle.

One of the problems with being a futurist and seeing the transformative potential of new technologies is that, when those technologies fail, I’m still haunted by what might have been. In his brilliant 1996 book, Narrative and Freedom: The Shadows of Time, my friend Gary Saul Morson describes this sort of awareness as “sideshadowing”:

“Whereas foreshadowing works by revealing apparent alternatives to be mere illusions, sideshadowing conveys the sense that actual events might just as well not have happened. In an open universe, the illusion is inevitability itself. Alternatives always abound, and, more often than not, what exists need not have existed.” (117)

That’s abstract, so here’s a concrete example:

The April 20th issue of The Economist ($) had an alarming article, “Emptying and Fuming” about dying small towns in America. Cairo, Illinois was the test case:

“Cairo is on its way to becoming America’s newest ghost town. Its population, having peaked above 15,000 in the 1920s, had fallen to just 1,700 people by the 2020 census. Alexander County, Illinois, of which it is the capital, lost a third of its people in the decade to 2020, making it the fastest-shrinking place in America.”  (more)

New developments in Generative AI promise that we’ll all have digital BFFs to help us live our best lives.  But, asks Center strategic advisor Brad Berens, is this really possible?

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Last week, I read an intriguing Psychology Today piece about the next wave of Generative AI powered digital assistants. In “The Emergence of Private LLMs,” John Nosta argues:

“The role of Large Language Models (LLMs) is about to change. Two groundbreaking advancements are set to redefine the way we interact with personal assistants: the rise of private LLMs and the expansion of prompt memory. This powerful combination of memory and privacy in LLMs is poised to create the most sophisticated and influential personal assistants ever conceived, offering unprecedented insights while safeguarding user confidentiality. In the simplest of terms, you just might be finding a new BFF—best friend forever.”

To translate: Generative AI will change in two powerful ways. First, instead of folks logging into ChatGPT or Gemini (etc.), we’ll each own programs that work with our data to help us do what we want to do. Second, instead of those programs forgetting that they’ve ever spoken to us after each interaction (digital amnesia), our new digital pals will remember our interactions (Ars Technica has a handy explanation), becoming ever more personalized helpers.

Nosta’s conclusion is optimistic.  (more)

Teaser: In which your correspondent confesses to a weak moment that also has some interesting implications, or at least that’s what he’s telling himself.  Center strategic advisor Brad Berens illuminates.

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Bless me, Reader, for I have sinned.

La Profesora and I aren’t competitive when the stakes are real, but this mutual support does not apply to vicious games of Gin Rummy or to the daily Wordle puzzle from The New York Times.

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I resisted falling into the Wordle trap for years because I can—news flash!—get a little OCD about such things, which then sucks up time better spent on things like writing this column. What I didn’t realize was that, since NYT only releases one Wordle per day, I can’t lose too much time.

That also raises the stakes of the daily puzzle. (There’s a lesson about strategic scarcity in that.) In December, I fell. Nowadays, La Profesora and the kids and I share our daily Wordle scores via text. In a separate thread, three of my beer buddies and I also trade scores. This is serious.

And there begins my sadness. (more)

Self-serve kiosks, self-checkout, and other sorts of automation aren’t doing anything for customer service or satisfaction. Center director Jeffrey Cole explains.

Self-service ordering stations, like this one in China, are a growing global phenomenon. .Photo by WindMemories.

It used to be easy. You went to the counter, ordered a drink or a snack, the cashier announced the total, you handed them cash or a credit card, and then waited for your change or signed for it. During the pandemic, it got even easier when the signature for most charges became unnecessary. You held your phone near the credit card machine, it beeped, you said thank you, and went on your way.

This process had become more and more streamlined over decades, culminating in the most efficient checkout possible short of telepathy. Now we are headed far in the other direction, taking more time and effort, and slowing the whole process down.

The process is making us go to work.

Last week, driving home from a conference in Las Vegas, I stopped at a McDonald’s in Primm, Nevada to buy a drink (and, of course, use the restroom). I went to the counter to buy a small drink. But I could not buy from the counter. It is closed. No one at the Primm McDonald’s provides any kind of service.

I had to go to a self-service machine.

Buying a drink meant moving through at least six screens. It’s only that simple if you are already familiar with the McDonald’s kiosk, enter everything perfectly, and do not have to go back or start over. During the screen journey, you must pause, go find an available table (each one has a number), trot back to the kiosk, and then enter the table number so a human can deliver your drink.  (more)

Generative AI makes it effortless to create photorealistic images (and soon videos), but sometimes, says Center strategic advisor Brad Berens, the question is more complicated than whether something is fake.

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I belonged to a fraternity in college. This often surprises folks until they learn that the house in question was a co-ed literary society that fans of the Revenge of the Nerds movies wouldn’t find credible. “Ah, that makes sense,” they say, eyebrows settling.

College—with its heady elixir of time, exploration, and other young people walking down similar paths before life focuses them—is a thicket of intense conversations. Recently, I remembered one such with my fraternity sibling Chuck, a physicist.

We were in the living room debating the nature of reality, as students do. An English major, I said that reality depends on context.

This irked Chuck, the scientist, like sand in bedsheets. He was adamant that reality is reality: the truth is out there.

I replied, “OK, so what you’re saying is that the number 10 always means this many” and held up all my fingers and both thumbs.

“Yes,” Chuck said.

“But what if we change the base to 2 or 4 or something else?” I said. “In Base 2, 10 is this many,” and held up two fingers. “Right?”  (more)

Headlines about a new report draw the wrong conclusions about what caused Tesla’s weak sales quarter and stock decline.  Center strategic advisor Brad Berens reports.

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Whoever runs PR for Caliber, the brand reputation consultancy, deserves a raise or at least a nice bottle of Scotch. Last week, a new “In tech we trust?” report from Caliber came out that contextualizes Tesla’s reputation among those of its Big Tech peers: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Uber, etc.

It provoked a flurry of headlines (hence the Scotch), including:

  • “Would-be Tesla buyers snub company as Musk’s reputation dips” (Reuters)
  • “Elon Musk’s reputation is probably turning buyers off Tesla, analysts say” (Business Insider)
  • “Buyers are avoiding Teslas because Elon Musk has become so toxic” (Futurism)

The Reuters article came first; the others piled on. All either contained or alluded to this provocative (albeit carefully worded) sentence:

“It’s very likely that Musk himself is contributing to the reputational downfall,” Caliber CEO Shahar Silbershatz told Reuters, saying his company’s survey shows 83% of Americans connect Musk with Tesla.

This is nonsense.  (more)

The right stimulus makes the present disappear, but how are analog and digital moments of time travel different?  Center strategic advisor Brad Berens explains.

Typically, we imagine time travel as deliberate, if often improvisational: Marty jumps into the DeLorean to escape the bad guys; the Enterprise crew kidnaps whales from twentieth century California; Sam Beckett puts right what once went wrong, and The Doctor does his Time Lord thing.

That’s how fictional time travel works, but in real life we’re all time travelers moving forward one second at a time…until we’re not. In a mere moment we can find ourselves in the past, at old destinations that can have any flavor: abrupt, sad, pleasant, happy, curious.

I time traveled twice on Friday; each trip had a different shape. It ain’t Proust biting into a cookie, but I want to share those experiences, how they were different from each other, and what that says about how analog and digital experiences work. (more)

How soon will technology start working for users rather than big tech companies when it comes to information overload?  Center strategic advisor Brad Berens investigates.

Recently, I shared a microfiction (1,000 words or less), a short science fiction story called “Fleeing the Emerald City,” about Calvin, a man who uses advanced filtering technology to lose weight but doesn’t much enjoy the experience. I also recorded an audio version of the story.

This time, I’ll dig into how realistic the story world is or isn’t. You don’t have to read or listen to “Fleeing the Emerald City” (although it ain’t bad) to understand this week’s piece, but fair warning: Ahoy! Thar Be Spoilers Ahead!

Let’s dig in.

In the story, Calvin subscribes to a service called Nudgetekk that provides smartglasses with connected earbuds to make it impossible for Calvin to see or hear about unhealthy foods. In Calvin’s local supermarket, the smartglasses connect to the inventory in the store so that the Nudgetekk AI knows which aisle has the Oreos and then steers Calvin down another aisle.

If Calvin blunders down an aisle containing sugary or fatty temptation, the smartglasses blur the packages. If an ad for Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey blares over the supermarket loudspeakers, the Nudgetekk earbuds filter the ads out.

How realistic is this? Not very, at the moment, but quite realistic in the middle-distance future—say, five to 10 years out.  (more)

When boos rang out about AI at SXSW (the most tech optimist gathering on the planet) it showed us that the birth of AI is the opposite of the birth of the internet 25 years ago, which helps us to see, says Center director Jeffrey Cole, where public sentiment about AI is headed.

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Last week at Austin’s South by Southwest (SXSW), several tech leaders extolled the virtues of AI and made positive predictions about how it would improve the world. SXSW is one of the leading tech conferences in the world, filled with fans, executives, and investors looking for the next new thing.

There is no audience anywhere that is more supportive of new tech. SXSW attracts enthusiasts who want to see, use, and invest in the newest technologies. Back in 2007, Twitter debuted in front of a SXSW audience who erupted in cheers at the new form of social media .

At this year’s SXSW, one tech panelist urged people “to be an AI leader.” And OpenAI’s Peter Deng shared his (self-serving) view, “I actually fundamentally believe that AI makes us more human.”

Rather than erupting in cheers and wanting to learn more, the audience started booing at all the positive talk of AI.

That’s the reaction we might expect when somebody starts boasting about AI at an organized labor convention, or at a Writer’s Guild meeting where people fear losing their jobs. It is extraordinary that it happened at a fanboy gathering like SXSW.

It is now becoming abundantly clear that AI is different. To a world that knew little or nothing about AI until last year (beyond fictional versions like HAL or Skynet), this is not just another great new technology that will enhance our lives (with a little collateral damage to other people who work on encyclopedias and phone books as happened with the internet). (more)

This year the media rights for the NBA will come up for auction: will the big tech companies scoop them up? If so, what does that mean for the whole media ecosystem, both today and when the NFL rights come up after the 2033 season? Center director Jeffrey Cole explores the issue.

Barbenheimer was an aberration — a lucky one, but a unicorn. It succeeded brilliantly because it emerged virally, not as the product of a studio marketing campaign. But there are no lessons to learn other than that people will flock to the theater to see original movies that appeal to them.

Little else in theatrical is working at the moment. With the extraordinary exception of Netflix, which did everything right, streaming has yet to find an economic model that works. Prices have risen. Advertising is now part of the basic tiers, but only Netflix has figured out a path to profitability. Consolidation is coming. Six years ago, I predicted that households will pay for 2.5 streamers, not seven. The jury is still out.

Cable is losing 20,000 subscribers a day, and broadcast television is entering its final phase.

What is working is sports, the only content that consistently attracts what advertisers crave: large and live audiences. This year’s Super Bowl was the highest rated program in U.S. television history. Of the top thirty programs of all time, twenty-nine are Super Bowls. February’s game between the 49ers and Chiefs was guaranteed to be in the top five. What made the difference and moved it into number one was the addition of Taylor Swift’s fans, some of whom watched a Super Bowl for the first time.

Sports have become so valuable to platforms and advertisers that the costs of those rights have shot into the stratosphere. (more)

Three times the media missed important context in the last week. Center strategic advisor Brad Berens digs in.

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I read a lot of High Quality News and avoid the Low Quality variety (see the helpful way that Ad Fontes Media defines these categories). Even topflight news can be so focused on short term events that they forget to ask context questions, by which I mean the questions that ought to follow who, what, where, when, how, and why. Those questions are so what? who cares? and says who?* These are the questions that dig deeper and look for underlying causes.

Over the last week, I ran into three frustrating examples of missed context. (There were more, but these are the three I’ll dig into.)

Where Wendy’s went wildly wrong

In an earnings call, new Wendy’s CEO Kirk Tanner talked about the fast-food chain’s plans to experiment with “dynamic pricing” (H/T Warren Pickett). Reporters then compared this to Uber’s much-loathed surge pricing (where rides get more expensive during busy times). A huge backlash ensued. Even Senator Elizabeth Warren took to X to decry this as price gouging. A day later, Wendy’s was in full crisis mode, denying the media account ($) and — in the first missing story – accurately pointing out that it had never used the word “surge.”  The comparison to Uber was entirely the creation of journalists.  (more)

The giant luxury goods company LVMH is getting into the entertainment business. Center strategic advisor Brad Berens asks: What are the opportunities and obstacles it faces?

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A few days ago, luxury conglomerate LVMH announced that it was getting into the entertainment business. In a joint venture with Superconnector Studios (a consultancy):

“LVMH will seek to bolster promotion of the group’s brands—which include fashion houses Louis Vuitton and Dior and jeweler Tiffany & Co—through projects ranging from advertising to product placement and original projects in TV, film, and audio that LVMH would co-develop, co-produce and co-finance.” (Financial Times, $)

Antoine Arnault, eldest son of LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault, and LVMH’s North America head, Anish Melwani, will lead the new entertainment venture, called “22 Montaigne Entertainment” (the address of LVMH’s headquarters in Paris).

Reading between the lines of different articles, it looks like LVMH’s plans are still developing. In FT, Melwani said the group is “excited to formalize our approach to the promotion of our brands across entertainment formats… complementing [their] direct engagement activity.”

However, in a Fortune ($) article, Melwani said: “This isn’t LVMH coming to Hollywood with a big checkbook to say, ‘we’re going to go make movies’…. That’s not the intention.”

Two pieces of background information help bring this initiative into focus.  (more)

Center founder and director Jeffrey Cole explores what we’ve learned from asking the World Internet Project’s signature question for 25 years.

The World Internet Project (WIP) is about to turn 25 and is more vital than ever. In 1998, we believed that the internet would change the world, that practically every activity would be affected, and that most would be transformed. Although our predictions seemed excessive at the time, they turned out to be tame compared to the reality.

Our plan was to organize partners around the world and track digital developments in a way that had never been done for television: the most powerful media before the internet. At last count, we have thirty global partners. We have completely captured the rise of broadband, social media, smartphones, and—most recently—artificial intelligence.

WIP is the longest longitudinal study of the internet in the world.

While the focus of the project has evolved from early issues like digital divides, privacy, and ecommerce, there are a few things we have continued to track for all 25 years.

A long time ago, I was asked when the World Internet Project would call it quits. I had a simple answer: when it stops being interesting. By that standard, we will be tracking this and other questions for many years to come.

In future columns, I will examine how a few of the foundational questions changed as the internet grew from a digital novelty to an essential part of everyday life.

Only WIP can produce this kind of data. Now, a quarter of a century later , the story is so compelling that we want to share it.  (more)

Last week, WSJ reported that the grocery giant was in talks to acquire a TV manufacturer.  Center strategic advisor Brad Berens explains why this is a good idea, and how it helps Walmart compete with Amazon.

Editor’s Note: Since the writing of this article, The Wall Street Journal has confirmed that Walmart will acquire Vizio at a cost of $2.3 billion.

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Attentive readers will remember my earlier explorations of Experience Stacks, which are the idiosyncratic collection of prior experiences somebody brings to bear on later ones. Cultivating customers’ Experience Stacks can help a business distinguish itself versus competitors, or help an artist deepen audience members’ pleasure.

It’s often easier to talk about Experience Stacks around narratives (e.g., all the different MCU or Star Wars movies), but the idea applies to non-narrative products as well. This week, a good, non-narrative example presented itself.

On Tuesday, February 13, The Wall Street Journal broke the story that Walmart is in talks to acquire Vizio, the TV manufacturer that also has a built-in, Roku-like SmartTV platform called SmartCast. Walmart is already Vizio’s biggest customer. The cost would be almost $2 billion.

This acquisition has two sides: advertiser and customer.  (more)

A classic 1997 movie about technology-fueled misinformation shows how democratized deception has become in 2024, and why, says Center strategic advisor Brad Berens, we shouldn’t call them “deep fakes” in the first place. 

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Typically, when I write about retro futures I’m exploring what a classic work of science fiction got right and wrong about the future and what that says about life today. This time, though, I’ll dig into the magnificent 1997 political dark comedy Wag the Dog, which is hardly science fiction, but which incisively illustrates how much our world has changed in less than 30 years.

We’re all already exhausted by the 2024 election year, so Wag the Dog is both eerily timely and antiquated.

The Wag the Dog Story in Brief (ahoy, thar be Spoilers ahead!)

Eleven days before the election, a “Firefly Girl” (basically a Girl Scout) accuses the incumbent President of molesting her in the Oval Office. (We never find out if the accusation is true because nobody cares.) Winifred Ames (Anne Heche), an administration official, calls in a fixer, Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro), who decides to distract the public by pretending that the U.S. is going to war with Albania.* The pretext is that the Albanians have a nuclear “suitcase bomb” that they plan to send via Canada.  (more)

Yes, it’s dirty when anonymous partisans leak damaging information to the press, but Center director Jeffrey Cole says that doesn’t mean the press should ignore such information.

Claudine Gay (left), Elizabeth Magill, and Sally Kornbluth at a Congressional hearing on antisemitism, December 5, 2023.

Getting your opponent canceled has become one of the fastest growing sports in America. If you can uncover some past indiscretion or just a simple (and frequently ancient) misstatement (now that off the record no longer exists), you can eliminate a person you dislike from a cultural conversation.

So much for freedom of speech.

Does it matter who is doing the uncovering? If an opponent comes forth with accurate information—even if he or she has little regard for free speech and is exposing someone for purely partisan or, even worse, personal jealousy or petty reasons—does anything else matter?

What if the information emerges anonymously and cannot be linked to a source, so we can only suspect ill intent? Does that matter? Once reporters have thoroughly vetted the information and can attest to its veracity, do we even have to consider motive?

When I taught media ethics, this was one of our first topics: the moral quandaries that reporters and editors had to face. Although the decision about what to do with information is often not complicated, the path to that decision can be painful and traumatic.

In the last month, we have seen two good examples of accurate information coming from bad places for tainted reasons. (more)

When social media surfaced a clip of the late Friends star on West Wing, it activated crashing contexts that explain how Experience Stacks work, and why they can be powerful.  Center strategic advisor Brad Berens explores.

Experience Stacks are the different contexts that a customer, user, or audience brings to a product or story. People improvisationally shift from context to context during experiences, which is one of the key differences between analog (human) thinking and algorithmic (AI) thinking. That’s all you need to know about Experience Stacks to understand this article, but you can dig into all my pieces on this topic if the spirit moves.

I am more aware of Matthew Perry after his premature death last October than I ever was while he was still alive.

In part this is because Perry was among the last big TV celebrities. Friends started in 1994, after the fragmentation of television that started with cable television’s explosion of channels, but before the internet shattered those fragments into pebbles like a windshield after a car crash. The biggest TV stars of tomorrow will never be as big as Perry during 10 seasons of Friends and thereafter.

But Perry was a smaller TV star than those who had come before cable. Ratings for a typical episode of Friends in the 1990s and 2000s are smaller than ratings for a typical episode of M*A*S*H in the 1970s and 1980s. The easiest way to see this is to compare the two series finales. When M*A*S*H went off the air in 1983, 106 million watched. In 2004, when Friends went off the air, 52.5 million watched. That’s an audience decay of more than 50%, all because of cable fragmentation.

Perry’s bestselling memoir, Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing, which returned to the bestseller lists after his death, also kept him salient in my awareness.  (more)

At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, AI was unavoidable, even if many exhibits only used AI superficially.  Center director Jeffrey Cole asks: How will AI change in the coming months?

Early this month, I spent a couple of days at the Consumer Electronic Show (CES) in Las Vegas. In past years, most of the crowds (135,000 this year) were at the Central Hall looking at the latest big screens from Samsung, LG, and Sony. That hall was still full, and immovable as always, but many of the attendees made their way to the Automotive Hall, as well as the Health and Beauty pavilion, where they could see smart toasters, smart toilets, mirrors that diagnosed your health, and more.

I had also been at CES exactly a year ago. Twelve months made one massive difference. At CES 2023, you would have struggled to find any mention of artificial intelligence. While AI was in some of the devices a year ago, the words were barely heard in Vegas.

This year, AI was everywhere

Every product slapped on a “Powered by AI” label, whether it was warranted or not. The hotdogs in the snack booths were conceived and cooked by AI (almost!) A booth would have been naked had it not promised a new AI innovation.

All this in 12 months.  (more)

A new op-ed about the possible end of “peak TV,” says Center strategic advisor Brad Berens, misses the real story. 

Film historian and critic Peter Biskind’s op-ed in The New York Times hangs black crepe, mourning the end of peak TV. The funeral came at last week’s Emmy Awards, with an open casket where viewers could see the cast of Succession. Biskind’s piece went online with the headline “How Hollywood Lost Its Nerve” on 1/18, and it’s in today’s print edition with the headline “Peak TV Was Fun While It Lasted.”

Biskind argues that bare-knuckled competition among streamers for both subscribers and advertising dollars inhibits innovation because the different streamers are all chasing the least common denominator of programming that appeals to the broadest possible audiences. (more)

A new infographic tracking two decades of transformational companies and products.

By Brad Berens

Click here for full-size infographic

I had a ball leading StoryTech tours of the show floor at CES in Las Vegas last week. This year’s distinct theme was AI.

My favorite exhibit was Timekettle from China: it’s one of those “wait, wasn’t this science fiction just a few years ago?” companies. In this case, think of the Babelfish from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or the Universal Translator from Star Trek… only in real life! Timekettle makes gadgets (including ordinary looking ear buds) that feature real-time translation from one language to another.

The first time I saw it, I stopped moving. “This changes everything!” I thought. Imagine collaboration with colleagues who don’t share a common tongue, or travel in a country where you don’t speak the language. The implications are staggering. Timekettle represents true transformation.

As it happens, over the winter holidays my son, William Berens, joined me in updating the signature infographic on the front door of the Big Digital Idea Consulting website. I created the first version, “15 Years of Innovation,” for a D.A. Davidson conference where I presented at back in 2019, then put it on the Big Digital Idea site. That list ended with 2017, and several transformative companies have come into being since then.

It was time to revisit the list.  (more)

The 1928 first appearance of the character who became Mickey Mouse entered the public domain on New Year’s Day.  Center strategic advisor Brad Berens asks: Should anybody care?

On New Year’s Day, an avalanche of works from 1928 entered the public domain, their copyrights having expired after 95 years. Walt Disney’s almost eight minute Steamboat Willie cartoon earned a disproportionate amount of media attention because it was the first appearance of the character who later became Mickey Mouse. (You can watch the cartoon in its entirety here.)

Within hours, we learned about two forthcoming horror movies featuring Willie, or at least a Scream-like character wearing a Willie mask. This follows the lead of Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey, a horror movie that came out shortly after the first A. A. Milne book went into the public domain a year ago.

In addition to the horror movies, Ruben Bolling announced that Willie is a new character in his long-running Tom the Dancing Bug comic; it features six hot takes on the character that the Walt Disney Company would never have allowed. Also, Randy Milholland (who creates the newspaper strip Popeye) launched “Mousetrapped,” a blog with more innocent (but still edgier than Disney) takes on the character.

While acknowledging that there’s no accounting for taste, so far my response to the different adaptations of the Steamboat Willie character is, “ho hum.” Sure, it’s early days, and it’s fun to make Willie say things that criticize Disney’s corporate practices, to put Willie and his girlfriend in bed together, or to use Willie in horror—the most distant genre from the Disney sensibility. But it didn’t make me think, “oh… nice.”

I don’t think it’s as big a deal that Steamboat Willie is now in the public domain as the media coverage suggests. This is for three reasons…(more)

Hollywood hearts went pitter-pat after the Warner Bros. Discovery and Paramount Global CEOs ate lunch together. But Center strategic advisor Brad Berens asks: would a merger accomplish anything?

After Warner Bros. Discovery (WBD) CEO David Zaslav and Paramount Global CEO Bob Bakish had a leisurely lunch together last week, the entertainment press exploded with “goodness, where’s my fainting couch?” speculation that the two companies would merge to create a bigger studio to compete with Disney and Netflix. (Cynthia Littleton’s Variety overview is a good place to start.)

In the near future, movies and television will be add-on features to other businesses rather than independent companies. The larger businesses will use entertainment to pull people into their overall ecosystems and keep them there. For media CEOs, this would be a benefit.

The situation

Paramount’s stock is at nearly a five year low, and its market capitalization is just above $10B, so it’s a good time for another company to think about acquiring the studio that has Paramount, CBS, Showtime, Nickelodeon, MTV, Comedy Central, and much more.

The combination of the two studios would put Captain Kirk, Wonder Woman, Cartman, and Harry Potter into the same family (mirroring how Captain America and Princess Leia can pal around with Buzz Lightyear and Minnie Mouse over at Disney), give the combined companies lots of broadcast and cable channels, merge Max and Paramount+ into a streaming powerhouse, and throw in some NFL rights.  (more)

How realistic is the idea that flesh and blood actors will soon find themselves performing alongside long-dead movie stars?  Center strategic advisor Brad Berens digs in.

Image created by DALL-E

Recently, I shared a microfiction (1,000 words or less), a short science fiction story called “The Only Living Boy,” about an actor, Tom, who is the only flesh and blood performer in a production of Shakespeare’s Othello. The rest of the actors are dead celebrities that Generative AIs have brought back to synthetic life and who perform in Augmented Reality—projected onto the stage where Tom acts.

This time, I’ll dig into how realistic the story world is or isn’t. You don’t have to read “The Only Living Boy” (although it ain’t bad) to understand this week’s piece, but fair warning: Ahoy! Thar Be Spoilers Ahead!

Let’s dig in.  (more)

Zoom, leisure travel, telemedicine, and cannabis use all exploded during the pandemic, but which of these continue to grow? Center Director Jeffrey Cole digs into the data from the COVID Reset Project.

In this column, using data coming out of the Center’s COVID Reset Project, we continue looking at the winners coming out of COVID in 2021, and how they have fared since.

Have the winners seen their positions improve, stay the same, or even become losers?

Zoom: No company rivaled the success of Zoom during the pandemic. Others, such as Amazon, may have made more money, but it was a trillion dollar company before we were all stuck at home. Zoom rose from an obscure service almost no one had ever heard of to the system that made work and school from home possible. Even though there were other services already established such as WebEx, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams, Zoom epitomized remote work. In four weeks, it went from anonymity to a verb. Nothing like that had ever happened before.

Of course, there was pushback against something we were forced to use, sometimes for eight hours a day. Zoom fatigue came fast. We tired of people showing up late, or refusing to turn on their camera, or turn off their microphones when they were taking to people not in the conference. Many could not wait never to do another Zoom call.  (more)

What the chattering classes missed about Musk’s very busy two weeks in November.  Center strategic advisor Brad Berens explores.

Image created by

There’s a recurring segment on Sesame Street called “three of these kids belong together” where the viewer’s job is to identify a fourth kid playing a different sport, not getting rained on, etc.


Let’s play that game with a slice of Elon Musk’s itinerary over the last two weeks of November:

11/15: Musk endorses an antisemitic tweet (that is, a post on X, formerly Twitter, the company he bought in 2022) with “You have said the actual truth.” The media goes berserk.

11/27: Musk visits Israel and meets with right-wing Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu in what is seen as a tacit apology for the antisemitic tweet. There is wall-to-wall media coverage.

11/29: In one segment of a long interview at The New York Times DealBook Summit, after explicitly apologizing for the antisemitic tweet (a rare thing), Musk tells any advertiser who pulls back from spending money on X to “go f**** yourself,” and that he won’t be blackmailed.

Advertisers and media execs clutch their collective pearls. Many advertisers vow never to return to X.*

Schadenfreude-laced profiles of X CEO (and former head of NBC ads) Linda Yaccarino pop up. Analysts wonder whether Musk is deliberately trying to reduce X’s value (and therefore his debt). Media reporters, pundits, and podcasters talk of little else.

The very next day…  (more)

How have Amazon, Disney, Netflix, and more fared since the end of COVID? Center director Jeffrey Cole explores their various fortunes.

In my last column, I looked at how the companies that came out of COVID as losers have fared in the two years since our first COVID Reset Project report. Some were able to gain ground and improve their standing, while others saw their futures stay the same or even decline further.

This time we look at how the COVID winners have managed since 2021.

Amazon: The Seattle-based disruptor of retail had become an essential part of everyday life before the pandemic. Today, all you have to do is look into mail trucks or mail carrier’s carts: about all you see are brown Amazon boxes (frequently much, much larger than they need to be).

In its retail and cloud businesses (there is also the streaming video service), Amazon has maintained its dominance. The annual fee for Prime Membership went up from $119 to $139, and there has been negligible cancellation. There are about 170 million Prime Members in the U.S. No other membership comes close to those numbers — a statistic even more remarkable considering the high cost.

Amazon has maintained the massive growth that came from COVID. Most households are so comfortable buying from the retail giant that they do not check prices before clicking and waiting for the “free” two-day shipping included with Prime.

In the past couple of years, Amazon has made significant moves into two of the biggest industries in the world: financial services and healthcare. Amazon’s advertising business has also grown so fast that some people in media are starting to talk about a digital advertising “triopoly” (Alphabet/Google, Amazon, and Meta/Facebook) instead of the duopoly of Google and Facebook.

However, there are a few clouds on the horizon. (more)

Calling Facebook, Twitter/X, TikTok and the rest “social media” downplays the negative aspects of those services and platforms. Center strategic advisor Brad Berens asks: What’s the alternative?

Image created by ChatGPT

We already know that words have power.

We know that non-Black people who use “the N word” are proclaiming themselves as racists. Decades ago, the LGBTQ+ community reclaimed “queer” as a positive identity tag instead of a slur. Today, we use “developmentally disabled” instead of “retarded.”

The startling recent rise of new pronouns is another example of how words can change reality, as is calling it “dead naming” when you use a trans person’s old name instead of the chosen new one in error or malice. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare has Theseus talk about how a poet’s words give to an “airy nothing a local habitation and a name.”

Why, then, are we still referring to the services and platforms that include Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Snap, TikTok, Threads, Twitter/X, and YouTube as “social media”?

The word “social” in the label is a misdirection, like a stage magician’s sleight of hand that pulls our gaze away from where the trick is happening. We don’t see the magician switch one playing card for another because she has caused a burst of smoke to appear in her other hand, and that’s where our attention goes.

Calling it “social media” distracts us from how everything that’s negative about these services and platforms has to do with the algorithms that seduce us into spending more time there than we planned, to consume and then spread misinformation, disinformation, and hate (e.g., the recent surge of antisemitism and islamophobia on Twitter/X), or to buy things that we don’t need and probably can’t afford.  (more)

We already live in a polarized society, says Center strategic advisor Brad Berens, so what happens when technology makes our filters even stronger?

Created with ChatGPT4

Recently, I shared a microfiction (1,000 words or less), a short science fiction story called “Filtered,” about a man, Phil, who found his wife Cynthia’s pet name for him so irritating that he put hi-tech smart filters into his ears to transform “Sweetie” to “Darling” in real time.

You don’t have to read “Filtered” (although it ain’t bad) to understand this week’s piece, where I’ll dig into how possible the world of the story is.

Synthetic Voice: The most realistic aspect of the microfiction is how convincingly the filters in Phil’s ears capture Cynthia’s voice and cadence. Today, “synthetic voice” is when an algorithm can seamlessly duplicate a speaker’s voice.

Podcasts already use synthetic voice to make it easy to alter advertisements that hosts read out loud. But this technology goes far beyond podcasters: for example, Apple’s latest iPhone operating system has “Personal Voice” as an option. After you read sample words for 15 minutes into the device, overnight your phone will churn through the samples and create a digital clone of your voice.

The scary version of this technology is how criminals can use voice cloning to pretend to have kidnapped a loved one, the cloned voice (“Mom, they want $50,000… please help!”) helps them to extort money from panicked relatives. If you ever get such a call, text your allegedly kidnapped loved one before you call the bank: it’s possible, even likely, that your loved one is happily sipping a latte at a cafe rather than in the clutches of evildoers. (more)

Two years after we first examined the transformative impact of the pandemic on American life, what has changed with shopping, travel, work, mental health and more? Center director Jeffrey Cole digs in.

Despite the devastating loss of life (more than one million) and the toll of COVID on the nation’s mental health (especially on those under 25), there were big winners coming out of the pandemic.

The Center’s COVID Reset Project has been tracking seven sectors of American life:

  1. Physical and Mental health
  2. Work
  3. Learning
  4. Shopping and Payments
  5. Homes and Communities
  6. Travel
  7. Entertainment

We started tracking just as the nation (or most of it) was getting vaccinated in January 2021, and we have been in the field ever since.

At the end of next month, we will have three years of data, with more to come.

The goal of Reset was (and still is) to see which pandemic changes were temporary and would quickly revert to the ways before COVID (this turned out to be Learning), which changes would revert but would take a longer time (Travel), and which changes were permanent (the move toward cashlessness).

At the end of Year One, we assessed the winners and losers emerging from the early days of COVID. Now, two years later, it is useful and interesting to see whether the winners have maintained their gains, as well as if the losers have seen their standing improve or decline further.

Let’s start with the losers and see if their fortunes have improved, worsened, or stayed the same since the end of 2021.  (more)

Center strategic advisor Brad Berens asks: How realistic is the idea that economic incentives will coax people to choose a single digital ecosystem?

Image created with Adobe Firefly

Writing near future science fiction lets me exaggerate a handful of features of life today to see what life tomorrow might look like. When I put these exaggerations into a story, it makes me get concrete in a way that looking at data doesn’t.

Recently, I shared a micro-fiction (1,000 words or less), a short science fiction story called “Bubbles,” in which I explored how our biggest tech and retail companies might nudge Americans into joining one community of products and services to the exclusion of all others.

You don’t have to read “Bubbles” to understand this week’s piece, but–spoiler alert–I will talk about the story in what follows because I want to dig into how possible my mild consumer dystopia actually is. In other words, I’m following the bubbles of the story to the surface of reality. (Hence this week’s illustration.)

In “Bubbles,” Dex is a member of the Amazon/Google/Apple* ecosystem. Dex is attracted to Lyla after they swim next to each other at the Stratford Gym, but he can’t find her contact information. At first, he worries that she is a member of the competitor Walmart/Microsoft/Meta ecosystem, but then finds that she belongs to neither.

Ultimately, Dex doesn’t pursue Lyla because it isn’t worth the trouble to figure out how to bridge the gap between his world and hers.  (more)

With streaming costs skyrocketing and inflation at painful levels, there are new methods for keeping monthly charges down or at least stable. Center director Jeffrey Cole explains.

The recent wave of inflation has been the most painful since the late 1970s. Rising costs leave many of us looking at our monthly bills for expenses that can be reduced or even eliminated. We can’t do much about housing, food, or transportation (the big expenses) without extreme change like moving or delaying the purchase of a new car.

One area where we can make significant changes in our monthly bills is with communication services and devices. In the past, these charges were relatively insignificant. Over the past 15-20 years they have continuously become more costly—to the point where they command an important part of our monthly budgets.

For ten years, the Center for the Digital Future (CDF) has been tracking how much American households spend each month on communication and media services that did not exist a generation or two ago.

In 2013, most of us spent about $246 per month on television (cable, satellite, or the early days of streaming), internet, mobile devices and service, music streaming, DVR charges, and more. Even households at or below the poverty level spent close to $200 per month on these services. Economists wondered where these households found the money and what essential needs were not being met. Mobile phones long ago moved from a novelty or convenience to “life support,” as did broadband.

Ten years later in 2023, the accumulated costs of these services is approaching $350 per month.  (more)

Sam Altman, Jony Ive, and Masayoshi Son have announced a new “iPhone of Artificial Intelligence,” but what will such a device actually look like?   Center strategic advisor Brad Berens explores.

Late in September, breathless stories hit about a new “iPhone of Artificial Intelligence” hardware device collaboration among Sam Altman (OpenAI’s CEO), Sir Jony Ive (the guy who designed the iPhone), and Masayoshi Son (the SoftBank CEO who has invested $140 Billion in AI).

But how will you take a selfie?

Altman, speaking last week at The Wall Street Journal’s Tech Live conference, was vague about details except that he has no desire to compete in a crowded smartphone market. But that only means he and his collaborators want to create an AI-powered device that will eat the smartphone—the way the smartphone ate the phone, camera, calendar, flashlight, notebook, MP3 player, and many other things we used to lug around.

Let’s call this new Artificial Intelligence Device an AID. It’s a mistake, though, to think that AID will be only one piece of hardware. Instead, AID will be the hub of a collection of devices that will form a Personal Area Network (PAN), all run by an AI assistant that makes Siri and Alexa look learning disabled.

To replace smartphones, AID needs to replicate the smartphone’s input and output functions. (more)

Think twice about the pervasive idea that Generative AI is going to make you more productive. Center strategic advisor Brad Berens looks back on how email transformed our lives, giving a hint about what’s coming with Gen AI.

Generated by the author using Adobe Firefly Image 2 (beta)

A notion that pops up in many conversations about the benefits of Artificial Intelligence (AI)—particularly Generative AI (Gen AI)—is that this exciting new technology will lead to increased productivity.

Here’s one of numberless examples from Gideon Lichfield’s recent farewell Editor’s Note as he ends his tenure at Wired:

Professors, economists, and legal scholars could boost their own productivity, much as software engineers already use ChatGPT to pump out code that they can then inspect and test.

That would be scanned.

Such productivity promises are hollow, which you can see by thinking about a similar case with the birth of email.

Back in the day, electronic mail (remember when that’s what we called it?) was going to increase our productivity because sending a digital message was instantaneous and didn’t require stamps, paper, or a Postal Service.

An early moment when I saw that email’s imagined efficiency wasn’t coextensive with reality came when my Italian professor in grad school moaned that email had ruined his ability to buy himself time.

He was running late on a journal article. In the paper mail days, he could send a question to the journal editor. The letter would take a week to get to the editor, who would take time to see it and reply, whereupon the editor’s reply would take another week. “But when I tried that with email I got a reply in minutes!” No sneaky extra time was to be had.

Sometimes friction in a system is good.  (more)

With the SAG strike perhaps about to end and Hollywood getting back to work, what can the entertainment industry learn from the unusual summer of “Barbenheimer?”  Center director Jeff Cole explores.

It started as a joke and turned into one of the most successful marketing moves in the history of the entertainment industry—or any industry for that matter. There was no mastermind behind the nonsensical pairing of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie with Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer into the awkward moniker “Barbenheimer.”

It just worked.

The unlikely linking of these two films was the most interesting development of the Summer 2023 movie season. There were other unlikely events that illustrated how much the theatrical business is changing while linear television and streaming struggle to determine their place in the media eco-system.

There are three major lessons for films in the Summer 2023 movie season… (more)

Without interaction, human relationships wither, but some interactions, says Center strategic advisor Brad Berens, are more powerful than others.

I don’t remember what prompted the question, but about a month ago I posted this on Facebook: “Hive Mind: Is there a word for a quip that comes to you far too late but that—if you’d thought of it at the time—would have been really funny? Asking for a friend…”

A Niagara of answers poured in. Mark, a college fraternity brother, posted a Wikipedia link to “l’esprit de l’escalier.” It translates to “the spirit of the staircase” for when you’re already all the way downstairs when a retort comes to you. Ted, my old fencing master, was right behind him with “downstairs wit.” Somebody shared the Irish “afterwit.” Merrick said the German version is “Treppenwitz.” Jodi shared “punburn;” RJ shared “quiperang,” and Mitchel won the day with “A bon motta been.”

The most interesting exchange was with Rebecca, a friend from grad school days who asked if I knew the out-of-print book In a Word; this is “a dictionary of words that don’t exist but ought to.” She thought the book might contain another word for the too-late reply.

A couple weeks later, a copy of In a Word showed up in my mailbox via Better World Books. There was no note (a flaw with Better World’s platform), but I remembered the exchange and pinged Rebecca to ask, “do I have you to thank for this?”  (more)

The trillion dollar ecommerce giant is adding ads to its Prime Video streaming service because everybody else is, but the secret story, reports Center strategic advisor Brad Berens, is about Amazon’s growing AI capabilities. 

On September 22, Amazon announced that it would follow Netflix, Max, and Disney+ and start running ads on Amazon Prime Video. Ad averse Prime subscribers can cough up another $36 per year to protect their tender eyes.

Here’s a snippet from the announcement:

“To continue investing in compelling content and keep increasing that investment over a long period of time, starting in early 2024, Prime Video shows and movies will include limited advertisements. We aim to have meaningfully fewer ads than linear TV and other streaming TV providers.”

The first sentence fails to persuade. Amazon can afford Prime Video without adding ads. At the time I’m writing this, Amazon has a $1.3 trillion dollar market cap. Amazon spent $16.6 billion on entertainment content in 2022, but even if it more than tripled that to $50 billion it would still be a rounding error in Amazon’s total business.   (more)

Although two industry strikes and a carriage dispute may look like business as usual, 2023’s entertainment fights are different and signal significant changes to the industry.  Center director Jeff Cole illuminates.

Credit: Fabebk

It used to be so predictable.

Every few years, one of two disputes (strikes or cable carriage wars) would routinely break out in the entertainment industry. After many threats and a lot of histrionics, issues would be settled (sometimes quickly, sometimes not), and then it would be back to business as usual.


But in the summer and fall of 2023 when both clashes broke out at the same time, it was very different. This time the disputes are existential.

It is not business as usual.

Now that both disputes have been settled (subject to a guild vote on the strike agreement), the business will never be the same. The year 2023 is a dividing line.  (more)

We spend so much of our lives split between our digital and analog worlds, but that changes, says Center strategic advisor Brad Berens, when somebody dies.

When the phone rings before 6am it tends not to be good news. Saturday, September 9. Mom. “Evan died.” My younger brother. He was 52.

In life, our attention bounces between digital and analog worlds, but death is just analog. When a person dies, those left behind don’t have the luxury of freezing into grief because they have to make analog decisions. The first is what to do with the body. Then there are all the possessions—some weighted with meaning, happy memories or sad, but mostly it’s just a lot of stuff, and you have to figure out what to do with it.

We landed at Burbank Airport at 6:30pm that same day.

Death is analog, but over the 10 days I was in Los Angeles part of me kept noticing how digital tools helped us to manage numberless abrupt unwelcome choices, some short term, some long.  (more)

How one Batman cartoon from 1992 demonstrates the strategic value of looking for what makes your business impossible to compare to the competition.   Center strategic advisor Brad Berens explores.

The most important question in business isn’t “how does your offering compare to the competition?” Instead, the question to ask is “how is your offering incomparable?” What is it about your business that the competition simply doesn’t have and cannot duplicate?

If the answer to that question is “nothing,” then your product is a commodity and your customers will construct consideration sets within which they’ll make arbitrary decisions.

At the moment, Tesla’s incomparability in the EV market comes from its vast network of Superchargers, which is why I find it shortsighted that Tesla will open the Superchargers to other EVs in 2024.

Often, incomparability comes from context. This is easiest to see with narrative products, but the phenomenon exists with other offerings. Amazon Prime, for example, is strategically incomparable: subscribers get so much for it that keeping the service is a hard to think about no brainer.

One helpful illustration of incomparability comes from a 1992 Batman cartoon. . .  (more)

The world’s most valuable company won’t buy Disney anytime soon, but there’s a giant caveat. Plus, what else will the e-commerce giant do with Amazon One, its new biometric payment platform?  Center strategic advisor Brad Berens weighs in.

Being a futurist can be glum when other writers breathlessly announce new-to-them ideas that I’ve been talking about for years while missing the broader implications. This happened twice in the last few days.

#1: Will Apple Buy Disney? (Answer: no time soon, but…)

A spate of writers (e.g. here, here, and here) have predicted that Apple will buy the Walt Disney Company. Argh! I started writing about this in 2018, having talked about it on keynote stages even earlier. Today, with Disney CEO Bob Iger needing to turn profitable, with even more studio consolidation inevitable, and with Apple having entered the entertainment biz, acquiring Disney would instantly make it the biggest entertainment company on the planet.

On top of Disney’s immense content library and theme parks ripe for hardware and software integration, every TV show and movie set in the present or near future would become opportunities for product placement (like in Shrinking on AppleTV+ where key emotional moments happen via iPhones).

The missed broader implication? I still think this will happen someday, but in the short term, Apple really only wants ESPN.  (more)

The organization on the other side of the negotiating table from the striking writers and actors is the AMPTP.  But how, asks Center strategic advisor Brad Berens, can one organization represent studios with such divergent interests?

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) is a mysterious Hollywood trade association. Its website contains no list of member organizations: just some technical documents, a contact form, and links to a collection of terse press releases.

The association’s president, Carol Lombardini, has a page on the AMPTP site that you can find via diligent Googling, but there is no way to navigate to that page directly, the copyright date at the bottom of the page is 2010, and most of the links on that page are broken. The website lights are on but nobody’s home.

AMPTP is the organization on the other side of the negotiating table from the Writers Guild and the Actors Guild that are both on strike. In contrast to AMPTP, the websites of the other guilds overflow with useful information.

AMPTP’s reticence is important because the interests of its different members (the ones we know about) don’t seem to align, which is one reason why the negotiations aren’t going anywhere.

A Wikipedia page has a partial list of AMPTP members: Amazon, Apple, Comcast, Disney, Netflix, Paramount, Sony, and Warner Bros. Discovery (WBD).

Put simply, it’s ridiculous to talk about Amazon, Apple, Comcast, and Sony in the same breath as Disney, Netflix, Paramount, and WBD.  (more)

The algorithmic rabbit holes of Facebook, Instagram, and Snap can isolate us.  Center strategic advisor Brad Berens asks: Could we use both today’s and tomorrow’s digital technologies to connect In Real Life (IRL)?


Both in its etymology and our common practice “social media” is oxymoronic, like “jumbo shrimp.” The Latin root socius means ally (or similar words like comrade) and is a shared root for society; media is the plural of medium, which means in the middle or between. In an oddly literal, etymological way, therefore, social media stands between people and prevents them from making contact.

You see it on every subway, bus, and plane, in every coffee shop and restaurant, on park benches, in checkout lines: people stare into their phones, checking Facebook, Snap, Instagram, and that-thing-that-used-to-be-called Twitter, and do not interact with the physical beings around them.

I love public transportation and take it whenever I can. Riding the subway when I visit New York, I often gaze out the window instead of into a screen. Sometimes people look uneasy—in a “did somebody fart?” way—because we’re so accustomed to our elective isolation.

The difference between social media contact and In Real Life (IRL) contact is like the difference between chewing cherry-flavored gum and eating cherries. The gum is available on demand, requires no work, always tastes the same, and has neither pit nor nutrients. Cherries are only around during the warmer months. They vary in taste and quality, can stain your shirt if you’re not careful, have fiber and sugar, and watch out for that pit. Gum is easier but cherries are better.  (more)

The ingredients for Digital Transformation, says Center strategic advisor Brad Berens, are institutional pain, inflection points, and tools lying around.  But you also have to get the people part right.

Credit: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Usually, when we talk about Digital Transformation, we focus on the physical: paper and ink newspapers dissolve and go online; albums become cassettes then CDs then MP3s then streams; physical books vanish into Kindles; videotapes become DVDs then Blu-Rays then streaming services; a taxi service that you call to explain where you are turns into a smartphone app that already knows where you are.

But Digital Transformation is really about people, not things. You can put anything into the Transmogrifier from Calvin and Hobbes, but if you can’t change people’s behavior then you’re just wasting a cardboard box.   (more)

Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is three hours long. So is Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon. Those are among the longest. What’s going on? Center director Jeffrey Cole digs in.

(Note: You don’t have to read my last column about movie length to understand this one; but click here if you’d like to check it out.)

Let’s start with Martin Scorsese.

There isn’t a more talented or respected film maker. He started directing films in the late 1960s. At 80, he is as productive as ever.

As Scorsese built his reputation, his films got longer. His first film, Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967) was 90 minutes. His second, Boxcar Bertha (1972) was shorter at 87 minutes.

Those lengths seem tiny compared to his last four films. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) was 180 minutes. Silence (2016) came in at a relatively short 161 minutes. The Irishman (2019) is his longest film at 209 minutes. This year’s Killers of the Flower Moon is almost as long at 206 minutes.

Scorsese finished The Irishman before the COVID pandemic; it was intended for movie theaters. When all theaters closed, it was sold to Netflix, where it became a major prestige film. The web was full of guides sharing—depending on whether you wanted to watch it in one or more parts—the best points to break for the bathroom or until the next day. During COVID, we didn’t care if The Irishman was four and a half hours! With a pause button and the ability come back whenever you want, there are different rules for length in streaming.  (more)

There have always been long movies in Hollywood. But, as Center director Jeffrey Cole points out, all of a sudden many more are getting even longer.

How do you know when a movie is too long?

Harry Cohn knew.

The legendary and much-feared head of Columbia Pictures in the 30s and 40s shared his secret: when sitting alone in a projection room, he could always tell when a film was too long and not good “if my fanny squirms…it’s as simple as that.”

That led to Herman Mankiewitz, the great co-writer of Citizen Kane, grumbling, “Imagine, the whole world wired to Harry Cohn’s ass!”

A lot of fannies should be squirming in movie theaters these days.  (more)

Center strategic advisor Brad Berens explores the Hollywood strikes versus what makes experiences special in the first place.

Credit: ufcw770

Bad products can yield positive experiences, but we don’t have useful tools to describe the difference because we tend to focus more on products than the context in which people use and experience those products.

This is what I mean by overfocusing. It’s not only true of bad experiences. However, the gap between a product and the experience of that product can be helpfully vivid with great experiences around bad (or even mediocre) products.

Here are some examples… (more)

Center strategic advisor Brad Berens describes how an aural invasion led to a meditation on what makes experiences memorable.

What are the ingredients for a memorable experience? One recent event has some clues.

My scintillating compadre in nerdery, Benjamin Karney, and I have been friends since we were eight. A few days ago, we had a chance to catch up while he was on a long commute and I was working from home. I don’t get great signal on my iPhone in my home office, so I grabbed my trusty Bose noise-cancelling, over-the-ear headphones and wandered up our long driveway towards the gigantic climbing structure in our front yard that my kids loved when they were little. These days, it mainly supports my phone calls with friends, particularly on beautiful Oregon summer days.

When we work to create memorable experiences, we typically focus on the first ingredient (the experience itself). After the isolation of COVID lockdown, we’re more attuned to the value of shared experience, both in real time/different places and especially real time/same place. The hardest ingredient and the one that gets the least attention is comparison, the connection to the past that then leans into the future.

As I left the house, I felt something momentarily prick at my left ear. A few steps later, it happened again. I whipped the headphones off to glance at the left cup. Nothing. I had just replaced the cushions on the headphones, so as Ben and I were chatting a tiny background part of me wondered if I’d screwed up somehow and caused a short circuit. I sat on one of the swings. We kept chatting as he drove and I swung.

It happened again. “Hold on a sec.” I took the headphones off, popped my iPhone onto speaker mode, and said to Ben, “there’s something wrong with my headphones.”

The next thing Ben heard was a loud scream of “Aaaah!”

“What happened?” Ben asked…   (more)

Colliding Trends: as the Supreme Court changed college admissions, Chief Justice Roberts argued that personal essays will be more important.  But, asks Center strategic advisor Brad Berens, are applicants learning to write in the age of ChatGPT?

Affirmative Action rally at Harvard. Credit: Majxuh.

When I give sharpest-edge trend keynotes, I often use the phrase “colliding trends” to describe how I approach peering into the future. As a species, we overfocus on head-to-head comparisons and fail to see threats coming from our blind spots.

At first, trends run parallel, so we focus on our direct competitors. “I’m Canon, and I sell a cute little digital camera called the Elph; my competitors are Olympus, Sony, and Kodak” (this was in the late 1990s). When we do this for too long, we dodge urgent, colliding trends questions like, “what happens to the Elph if the cameras inside smartphones get really good?”

Outside of photography enthusiasts, how many people carry an independent digital camera in their pockets these days?

Last week, the Supreme Court issued two decisions against Affirmative Action admissions policies in higher education. One part of The New York Times coverage caught my eye from this colliding trends perspective… (more)

The newest product from the world’s most valuable company will transform the world, but not, says Center strategic advisor Brad Berens, for quite some time.

I’ve been hesitant to write about Apple’s new “spatial computing” device: the thing that the world’s most valuable company doesn’t want to call an Augmented Reality (AR) headset. However, since there are things that I haven’t seen others talk about, here goes…

Who is the real competition?

It’s a distraction to compare the Vision Pro to the Meta/Oculus Rift, Microsoft’s HoloLens, HTC’s Vive, or any of the other Heads Up Display (HUD) rigs, whether those devices are fully immersive Virtual Reality (VR) or two-worlds AR (or MR, XR, or any of the other spoonfuls of alphabet soup).

The Vision Pro isn’t competing with other HUD: it’s competing with all the other hardware in your life:

  • Smartphone
  • Laptop/Desktop
  • Television
  • Stereo System
  • Game Console

If you add up the costs of those five appliances, then suddenly $3,500 for the Vision Pro doesn’t cause the same level of sticker shock.  (more)

Cole recognized for “pioneering digital strategies important to the security of the nation,” and “leadership in technology and emerging media.” 

Center director Jeffrey I. Cole, who has tracked the history of media and the future of digital technology for more than 40 years, has received the Ellis Island Medal of Honor for professional contributions to American society.

Cole received the Medal of Honor at the organization’s annual awards ceremony on Ellis Island on May 13.

Under Cole’s leadership, the Center’s World Internet Project is the longest-running longitudinal study of the effects of digital technology on Americans and in partner countries around the world. The Center has conducted deep examinations of entertainment, sports media, transportation, and banking to identify where the next wave of disruption will occur.  (more)

Nineteen years before COVID, the 9/11 attacks gave Center strategic advisor Brad Berens a sneak peek at how quickly we can change if the right three ingredients are in place.

“Turn on the television.” 6:00am. Urgency in my brother-in-law’s voice cut through the grogginess as I held the bedside phone to my ear and clutched for my glasses. Our six-month-old daughter had slept poorly, and so had we. I was in no mood for jokes.

“What the hell?” I croaked.

“The World Trade Center has been attacked,” he said. “It’s all over the news. Turn on the television.”

Baby in our laps, jaws hanging in shock, we watched CNN. From 3,000 miles away in Encino, we saw the Twin Towers collapse after hijacked jets hit them, people falling to their deaths.

Organizations are too busy with today’s known problems to change in anticipation of tomorrow’s mysteries, so it takes a meteor strike or the like to make people willing to try something new.

It was my first digital transformation and still the scariest.

On 9/11 and in the days thereafter, I had a sneak peek at how quickly we could change everything about how we worked.  (more)

As Center strategic advisor Brad Berens points out, people decide with their hearts and justify with their heads. Knowing that, and knowing what to do with it, will make you a more effective communicator. Also, a lesson that Beren’s old boss, Rick Parkhill, taught him about persuasion.

The word “persuasion” gets a bad rap because it sounds like a con job where the persuader pulls one over on an unsuspecting mark. P.T. Barnum famously had a sign that read “This Way to the Great Egress!” that fooled circus goers into going through a door to see another carnival exhibit, “the egress,” only to find themselves having exited the carnival. They had to pay again to get back in.

That’s not persuasion. That’s just lying.

The most important aspect of persuasion is empathy. You have to know about the other person’s life, job, likes, dislikes. The more you know, the easier it is to co-create a reality that includes things that you both want.

Usually, businesspeople talk about friction as a bad thing, but with persuasion friction is your friend. The more embodied and immersive a conversation you have when you’re trying to convince somebody to do something, the more likely you are to get their attention, and attention is the first step towards persuasion.

It sounds like I’m only talking about one-to-one persuasion, but I’m not. Advertising works by taking categories of things that lots of people want and then constructing narratives around how their products might fit into those desires. The more friction in the environment where somebody experiences a narrative, the more likely they are to engage.

You are, for example, more likely to buy a souvenir t-shirt at a concert than to order one online later because you want to remember the concert and be able to show off that you were there when you wear the t-shirt. Disneyland is a massive exercise in immersive persuasion that people pay big bucks to visit. It’s not one-to-one.  (more)

We’ve never watched more content and less broadcast television. The death of a once-dominant medium, long predicted, is finally at hand. Center director Jeffrey Cole elaborates.

When I was growing up, the arrival of September, in addition to the beginning of autumn, cooler temperatures and getting dark earlier, meant three things: one was not so good, one didn’t matter much, and the third was exciting. The not-so-good annual September event was going back to school; the one that didn’t matter much was GM, Ford and Chrysler introducing their new cars. The exciting one was the premiere of the new network television shows.

Broadcast television is in a devastating downward spiral. It has been this way since the 1990s and each innovation makes it worse. People under the age of thirty do not even think about network television (except for big sports). The audience is getting older and older, leading to an inevitable conclusion.

It’s hard to remember how powerful the three broadcast networks—ABC, CBS, and NBC—were. Much later, after they were already significantly weakened by cable (the first of many technological and social trends that would diminish network importance and profitability), Fox, introduced a fourth network.

More than anything else, far more than movies or literature, the broadcast networks defined our culture. Nothing else came close.  (more)

By now, says Center strategic advisor Brad Berens, it is common knowledge that programs like ChatGPT say things that just aren’t true, but why do we believe the lies so readily? The answer is F.A.B.S. 

Most people writing about generative AI (ChatGPT, DALL-E, Bard) focus on what the AIs can do, which is understandable since these algorithms are still new. With ChatGPT, our conversational aperture widened to include worries about how kids might cheat on their schoolwork.

Then the aperture widened again because ChatGPT suffers from “hallucinations” (the euphemism AI boosters use for “lying”): it makes stuff up and then presents its fictions so confidently that people accept them as fact.

It’s that last bit that interests me. While I care that ChatGPT is, to put it mildly, an unreliable narrator, what I really want to know is why we humans accept algorithmic misinformation so easily?  (more)

Center Director Jeffrey Cole analyzes five emerging issues for theaters breathing sighs of relief after hits like Top Gun: Maverick and Super Mario Bros.

Movies theaters won.

If ever they were going to disappear, it was during COVID when all the theaters shut down, one major chain declared bankruptcy, we got out of the habit of leaving the home to see films, and even our grandparents learned how to stream.

The theaters survived disruption. The audiences won, too.

Something magical would have been lost if motion pictures had only survived on television sets (even large ones) at home.

Before the pandemic, studios and other producers wanted to experiment with different ways to release films. They wanted to try shorter than 90-day windows between theaters and the home, sell directly on the internet without a streaming service, sell directly to streamers (some of which they owned) as part of subscriptions, and sell via streamers with an extra fee (around $30). They also wanted the biggest experiment of all: releasing to the theater and the home on the same day (Day and Date) in order to understand whether the two environments could co-exist.

Nothing less than the survival of movie theaters, the locale of our first dates, and an essential part of our culture were at stake.

All of the experiments failed.

Led by Tom Cruise and Top Gun: Maverick, followed by Spider-Man: No Way HomeAvatar: The Way of Water, and, most recently, Super Mario Bros., people have gone back to the theater.

Movie theaters are here to stay. There cannot be billion dollar movies without theaters. As COVID ended, the movie house reclaimed its place at the apex of the film distribution chain. Movies are not the same on a television at home, even a very big one. The majesty of a great movie comes from watching it in a theater with other people.  (more)



Center director Jeffrey Cole joins Llewellyn King and Adam Clayton Powell III on White House Chronicle in a discussion of the future of communications in a post-pandemic world. (more)

Watching the series finale of “Star Trek: Picard” was a lonely exercise because most of the value of experiences comes from sharing them.  Center strategic advisor Brad Berens explains.

Regret seldom punctuates my day-to-day life, but if I had Prof. Peabody’s Wayback Machine handy I would jump back a few days and then schlep up to Seattle or down to L.A. for the IMAX Live Experience of the final two episodes of Star Trek: Picard.

Picard’s third season and particularly Thursday’s finale were an exciting and nostalgia-filled bye bye to the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG). I’m not writing a review of the good and bad bits because plenty of other folks have done so. Instead, I’m digging into my regret.

I didn’t go to the IMAX thing because I’m busy and because the Q&A with the cast was prerecorded, so I didn’t feel I could justify the time. That was a mistake because I wound up watching the finale solo, very late on Thursday night after La Profesora and our son had gone to bed.

It was lonely, lacking eventness—that special quality that comes from sharing experiences with other people in real time. On the other hand, I knew that if I waited until the next day much of what was unquantifiable about that night, when the finale was new, would drain away and turn something special into an obligation(more)

When the Twitter owner and Tesla CEO wrongly labeled NPR as “state-affiliated media,” NPR fought back in a powerful way, but it’s only a start. What, asks Center strategic advisor Brad Berens, needs to happen next?

Money has no morals. Money erodes morals because it washes away context and specificity in favor of interchangeability. Think about the differences among giving a friend a birthday gift that is…

1. An exchangeable thing from a local store
2. A gift card from a local store
3. Something from Amazon with a gift receipt
4. An Amazon gift card
5. Cash, a check, a gift card from VISA or MasterCard.

The first two options pull double duty: they convey to your friend that you remembered the birthday and also invest in your community because they support a local store. You’re also saying to your friend, “hey, if you don’t already know this local store you should wander in because there’s a lot of cool stuff in there, and I know you well enough to think that you’ll dig it.”

In contrast, while the last three options are still kind, they lack the additional dimensions of investing in your community and testing your knowledge of your friend’s taste in a way that says, “I see you.” These options neither create nor exploit context. Instead, they put a small, generalized burst of economic power into the world: “go buy yourself something special.” The paradox of that gesture is that specialness comes from the intimacy of the gift from a friend—the context that cash lacks.

The difference between the words moral and immoral are contextual, geographic: they depend on where you stand.

Generally, you only accuse other people of immorality. You would only call yourself immoral if you broke your own code. “I’m a vegetarian who just ate a steak: that was immoral.” Even then, you’d probably only call that particular act immoral rather than condemn your entire being because, as Stephen Covey observed, “We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behavior.”

If you have typical, mid-twentieth century values around gender roles and relationships, then you might think that sex before marriage is immoral. On the other hand, if you have feminist views about those typical gender roles, then you might think the roles themselves are immoral. Context matters with morality.

Amorality is different. If you are amoral, then you are not interested in context. Everything is the same to an amoral person except what makes them feel good in the moment or advantages them in the near term.

It is therefore no surprise that one of the richest individuals on the planet, Twitter-owner Elon Musk, is amoral. Having that much money has pulled him away from any grounding context.  (more)

A new book explains how we got to our age of giant culture companies shaking down artists, why it matters to the rest of us, and what we can do about it.   Center strategic advisor Brad Berens explains.

It baffles me that Rebecca Giblin and Cory Doctorow’s book Chokepoint Capitalism isn’t on top of The New York Times bestseller list. It’s an important book about how big companies have captured most of the value in the creator economy, leaving artists, musicians, and writers of all sorts struggling to make ends meet.

There are also clear harms to the rest of us, the audiences who want to enjoy all forms of art but whose options are shrinking while prices skyrocket. Plus, artists are only one set of workers watching big companies extract disproportionate value. As the authors make clear, chokepoint capitalism is also suffocating gig workers of all kinds, suppliers, and professionals.

None of this is news to anybody who has been paying attention, nor is it news to the creators themselves, but Giblin and Doctorow pull open cultural curtains to let blazing sunlight into deliberately darkened rooms in ways that are bracing and appalling.

They tell arresting stories, like how the Recording Industry Association of America paid a Congressional staffer to surreptitiously insert four words into a law between when it was written by legislators and when the President signed it. This change stole millions of dollars from musicians by turning some recordings into work-for-hire that therefore did not earn royalties. It took a concerted effort on the part of musicians to expose this theft and get the amendment rolled back. The congressional staffer who perpetrated what the authors call a “dead-of-night maneuver,” Mitch Glazier, later became the RIAA’s CEO and Chair.  (more)

Apple is preparing to cannibalize its most profitable product, the iPhone. It’s a pattern, says Center strategic advisor Brad Berens, we’ve seen before. Remember the Newton?

This week in The New York Times, we learned about uncharacteristic debate in the executive ranks at Apple around the long-awaited Augmented Reality (AR) glasses that the company will release in June. Some execs worry that there is no market for these glasses, that the price point is too high at $3,000, that there aren’t enough uses for it, and that they’ll gather dust like Meta’s Oculus Rift Virtual Reality (VR) headsets.

Apple CEO Tim Cook, however, is all in on AR: “you’ll wonder how you lived your life without augmented reality, just like today you wonder: How did people like me grow up without the internet?”

Cook is right and the skeptics are wrong. What’s going on is that the skeptics are confusing temporary market realities (have you noticed the economy is a little shaky?) and technical challenges (mapping meat space and digital space onto each other is hard; our current battery technology is Flintstonian) with inevitable technology and behavior trends.

The lack of massive uptake on VR is not a bellwether for AR: that’s the wrong comparison. VR anemia is more like the brief vogue for 3DTV that was all the rage at CES a decade ago and then faded. 3DTV isn’t different enough from 2DTV for most folks to bother upgrading, and the work you have to do to enjoy 3DTV (wear glasses, sit in a particular place) is a drag. Likewise, VR can be amazing, but you need have space to move around blindfolded and not be paranoid that some halfwit family member is going to play a practical joke on you while you are, in essence, wearing a paper bag over your head with an inviting target on your back.

AR is different: it’s not just another world (VR), it’s also a smart window into the real world.  (more)

The CEO of OpenAi is on a path that few have ever walked. As Center director Jeffrey Cole points out, he could end up as the most loved or the most hated person in the world. Or both.

Sam Altman better get ready. He is about to get very rich and, more importantly, very famous.

There is nothing that could ever prepare him for what is about to happen.

Altman is one of the initial investors and now CEO of the most talked-about company on Earth: Open AI, a leader in artificial intelligence and creator of ChatGPT. Already the recipient of multi-billion-dollar investments (including $10 billion from Microsoft, which also integrated ChatGPT into Bing and its Office suite), Open AI has burst into the public consciousness faster than any other company in history. In a few short months, it grew to 100 million users.

That’s just the beginning.

AI has been talked about in laboratories and science fiction for generations. Skeptics have argued that artificial intelligence has a great potential… and always will. Those days are over. It is here. We are about to discover its potential. For better or worse. Probably both.  (more)

“Paying attention,” a common metaphor, is misleading because there are different sorts of attention, and the relationship among them isn’t reducible to numbers.

By Brad Berens

If you’re in the Attention Business—and whether you’re selling movies, cars, toothpaste, whoopee cushions, sex toys, health insurance, a ride hailing service, or a new ointment for that embarrassing rash, every business is in the attention business—then understanding that there’s more than one sort or attention is a good first step towards getting the right sorts of attention for your business.

Attention creates experience. In Principles of Psychology (1890), William James wrote, “my experience is what I agree to attend to.”

Context amplifies and changes experience so that two people with different contexts can experience the same moment in distinct ways. Here are two examples from entertainment, but the phenomenon holds true across the experience of many products.  (more)

In the A.I. revolution, figuring out the contours of our human intelligence has never been more important. Who, asks Center strategic advisor Brad Berens, is best equipped to do this work?

I give keynote addresses all over the planet about digital transformation and sharpest-edged technology trends. One of my themes is that anything that can be digital will be digital. The counterintuitive corollary to this is that the value of what you’re up to will come from the bits that can’t be digitized—the leftovers.

This is like grade school division: you learn that eight goes into 60 only so many times (seven), and you’ve got four left over. That’s the remainder. When you get to junior high and learn about decimals, the leftovers acquire an illusion of tidiness: instead of 60÷8=7 r4 you get 60÷8=7.5. This disappears the remainder, but remainders are important because what doesn’t fit into tidy equations is what we call culture.

The quantification of life started with the Industrial Revolution, sped up with the Digital Revolution, and now the next revolution, Artificial Intelligence, is hitting the gas — whoops! I meant to say, “the acceleration pedal on the EV.”

Sure, more people are making more culture more of the time than ever before, but the experience of that culture takes up less geography in our lives. We get most of it on the six inch by three inch piece of glass in our hands. Algorithms decide what we see, and as I’ve written previously those algorithms are increasingly able to create things that look like culture.

Figuring out the remainder—what can’t be digitized, what only humans can do in an age of evermore powerful A.I.—is the project of the humanities.  (more)

Like “The Mandalorian” or “Loki,” the Paramount+ series “Star Trek: Picard” is unlikely ever to attract new viewers. But, asks Center strategic advisor Brad Berens, is that a problem?

Credit: Paramount+

Here’s a newsflash to no one who has met me.  I’m a nerd.

One piece of evidence from a vast jigsaw puzzle of nerdery: Friday night, I watched the third episode of the third and final season of Star Trek: Picard on Paramount+.


I loved it. However, it would be unthinkable for me not to love it.

I’ve been watching Star Trek in all its incarnations since I was a teenager, starting with reruns of the original series after school on Channel 5 in Los Angeles. I took my grandfather to see Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in Westwood, California in 1982 because Papa was a Trek fan, too.

A few years later at university, I gathered with other fans for the collective nerdgasm that was the premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG, 1987). In the 1990s, my patient wife, La Profesora, watched Star Trek: DS9 and Star Trek: Voyager with me in our courting days, and more recently she watched the first two seasons of Star Trek: Discovery. (She dropped out in Season 3. Fair.)

Picard brings Patrick Stewart (82) back to his iconic role as retired Admiral Jean-Luc Picard, former captain of the Starship Enterprise, which he played across seven seasons on television and four movies, ending with Star Trek: Nemesis in 2002. The first season of Picard came out in 2020, 18 years after Nemesis. I enjoyed Season 1, thought Season 2 was meh, and think that Season 3 is a different animal altogether.  (more)

Fifty-nine years ago the Supreme Court made it exceedingly difficult to win a defamation case against the media. A plaintiff had to prove the media deliberately falsified the facts and did so with malice. Coming out of the 2020 election we now see a case that threads that narrow needle. Center Director Jeffrey Cole digs in.

It has always been an easy call.

The press should be, now and forever, free of any restrictions, impediments, or laws that hinder its ability to cover news. Its rights should always be placed in a preferred position when balanced against any others. Any law, tax benefit, or effort supporting the stability or growth of news, whatever the political flavor, is a good thing. John Stuart Mill’s 19th century argument for the free marketplace of ideas is more vital today than ever.

Equally clear is that the disappearance of newspapers and the weakening of broadcast and cable news is a bad thing. Had a strong local newspaper not folded in Long Island, New York, George Santos would not be sitting in Congress today. His obvious lies would have been quickly detected by a paper able to focus on one local campaign rather than a national newspaper like The New York Times reporting on hundreds of political contests.

The Supreme Court was correct in its 1964 landmark New York Times vs. Sullivan decision that made it almost impossible to win a defamation case against the news media. That’s as it should be. Anything else would create so much fear of retribution that the news media could not do its job. Then, just like the citizens of Santos’ congressional district, we would all pay the price.

I always root for the media.  (more)

Older sci fi can help us see the difference between where we are as a culture and where we thought we’d be. As Center strategic advisor Brad Berens points out, a look back at Isaac Asimov’s 1940s robot stories can help us make sense of AI today.

Image by pch.vector on Freepik

Some science fiction is a potpourri of lasers and explosions and aliens popping out, but the better sort asks what if? We’ve been at science fiction for a while, so looking back at older science fiction to see what the creator got right and wrong can be illuminating. Retro Futures help us to measure the distance between where we are and where we thought we’d be.

Along these lines, a recent article on Yahoo! Finance caught my eye. “AI needs a set of rules—for its own good, and for ours” by Emilia David is a reprint from Business Insider that discussed how lawmakers and industry folks all agree that AI needs strong regulations.

We need AI rules because too many weird things have been happening with ChatGPT, the new Bing, and other algorithms. AIs make things up without realizing it (because they haven’t been programmed to understand the difference between fact and fantasy) and then confidently share their “hallucinations” (this is, believe it or not, a technical term) with human users who believe the lies because they seem plausible.

Folks agree that something has to be done, but nobody knows what to do.  (more)

Pundits panicked last week when oddball chats with the new Bing pushed back the frontiers of weirdness, but, asks Center strategic advisor Brad Berens, were those conversations a fair test in the first place?

Last week, columnists and analysts took to their fainting couches (limply dragging their laptops with them) and described surreal and disturbing conversations with Microsoft’s new chat-driven Bing search engine, which is powered by OpenAI’s ChatGPT technology.

On Wednesday, Ben Thompson of the influential Stratechery blog said, “I had the most surprising and mind-blowing computer experience of my life today” chatting with Bing and Bing’s rapidly-spawned alter egos, Sydney and Venom. As Thompson’s session with Bing extended, the A.I.’s responses got weird.

Eventually, and I think this is telling, it was Bing/Sydney/Venom rather than Thompson that backed away from the conversation. (more)

Center director Jeffrey Cole shares a tale of two TV ratings behemoths.

While I was growing up, the two most popular television programs of most years were the Super Bowl in January or February and the Oscars in March or April. By the end of the first quarter of the year, it was all downhill for television ratings.

These were the two shows that amassed enormous and—more importantly—live audiences. Even as VCRs and DVRs came along, you didn’t want to watch the Super Bowl or Oscars later. You had to watch them in the moment, live. Both programs, more than any other, year in and year out, provided fodder for arguments and discussion at the office water cooler the next morning.

The Super Bowl has held up and prospered. The Oscars. . .not so much!

Now, there is only one program that captures the whole nation’s attention at the same time. The Super Bowl is just about the only collective experience the whole country shares.  (more)

What makes people believe nonsense for which there is no evidence?  Center strategic advisor Brad Berens digs in.

As I first wrote a year ago, you can see the elements of persuasion in this simple quadrant (right).

Mostly, people decide with their hearts and then justify with their heads. They’re also more keen to avoid loss than to pursue gain. Knowing where your argument sits on the quadrant can help you to be more persuasive.

This time, I want to flip to the other side and dig into why people abandon their heads altogether to believe nonsense.

I got to this topic by way of an email my friend Robert Moskowitz sent a few days ago about conspiracy theories:

It occurs to me that people who subscribe to conspiracy theories are only partially affirming that their theory is correct. An equal or perhaps larger part of the basis for their belief may be their desire to deny the reality that they don’t like.

Hence, it’s sensible to believe that reptile alien shapeshifters are running our planet because it’s uncomfortable to acknowledge that legitimately elected human leaders are making the decisions that seem so wrong-headed to the conspiracy theory believer.

This idea was so interesting that I asked Robert if he minded me digging into it here, and he kindly said go right ahead.  (more)

After disrupting how people get information, as well as the entire media ecosystem, Google now finds itself about to be disrupted by a new search engine: ChatGPT.  Center director Jeffrey Cole explains.

It was a “Code Red” followed by an urgent call for “all hands on deck,” or at least for the two most important pair of hands.

Twenty-four years ago, two Stanford Computer Science Ph.D. students in a Silicon Valley garage developed a new algorithm that seemed to read the minds of those who posed an inquiry to its new search engine, Google.

That algorithm led to a cascade of disruption, beginning with Microsoft’s business models, then spreading to the advertising industry, newspapers and magazines, encyclopedias, yellow pages, and far more, redistributing tens of billions of dollars.

Google became so defensive about the devastation its new search methods wreaked across the economic landscape that they adopted as its corporate motto: don’t be evil. All this devastation was not personal or directed at any one place: it was simply collateral damage along the path to progress.

Anyone believing in karma will be smiling now that Google itself is in the bullseye of disruption.  (more)

42 years ago, a murder mystery predicted digital twins and deepfakes.  Center strategic advisor Brad Berens asks: what did this howlingly bad movie get right and wrong?

Writing science fiction is a what if? exercise that tells us a lot about the moment when the writer first posed the question. Looking at where those predictions went awry can help us to understand where we are today and also where we’re headed.

In the 1940s, thinking about the spread of totalitarianism, George Orwell asked himself “what if this all goes horribly wrong?” and wrote 1984. In the 1960s, thinking that things were improving, Gene Roddenberry asked himself, “what if this all goes terrifically right?” and created Star Trek. In the 1980s, Margaret Atwood asked herself, “what if Roe v. Wade isn’t as settled as we think?” and wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, which proved disturbingly prescient.

At a smaller, tech-focused scale, Michael Crichton’s 1981 movie Looker asked, “what if we could create completely accurate digital copies of people and then use those copies instead of the originals?” Today, we call those technologies digital twins (usually this refers to products, not people) and deepfakes (this has a malicious connotation with things like revenge porn).

Nobody should watch this terrible movie. You don’t have to take my word for its epic badness. Just watch the trailer  (more)

The country’s largest ecommerce company ended a program that donated 0.5% of eligible purchases to charities customers selected. Center strategic advisor Brad Berens says this might have surprising negative consequences for Amazon’s brand.

This week, Amazon announced that it was ending its “AmazonSmile” program that enabled customers to support charities with most purchases. The program will end on February 20th.

I hope Amazon changes its mind both because it’s the right thing to do and also because it would be better for Amazon’s brand.

What happened

Amazon’s stated reason for ending Smile is that the program didn’t have the impact the company wanted. Despite funneling roughly half a billion dollars to charities since the program launched in 2013, Amazon said:

“After almost a decade, the program has not grown to create the impact that we had originally hoped,” the company said. “With so many eligible organizations—more than 1 million globally—our ability to have an impact was often spread too thin.”

The average donation to charities was less than $230, Amazon said.

Amazon will continue to invest in areas where it can “make meaningful change,” such as assisting with natural disaster relief, affordable housing initiatives and community assistance programs, the company said.

The timing and optics are odd.  (more)

As generative AI makes first-pass creation faster and easier, Center strategic advisor Brad Berens says an unintended consequence is that humans may become less able to make great things.

Let me start by stipulating that generative AI (ChatGPT, DALL-E) will change how we do what we do, taking the heavy lifting off much human endeavor. This will be true whether it’s creating a PowerPoint presentation, finding an image to illustrate your point, writing the first draft of a memo, coming up with an initial radiological diagnosis, designing a new building, or just about anything else we can imagine that isn’t purely hands on (like scrambling eggs). (Dig into my last few columns for details.)

But where does this leave craft?

Any human endeavor starts with innocent ignorance of your quality, moves through grim “oh dear lord no” self-consciousness about the dejecting low quality of what you’re making, settles into journeyman’s “ah, I’m starting to get it now,” and then, if you’re lucky, arrives at mastery. It isn’t just true of art: it’s true for anything humans do. You don’t get to make the good stuff without making a whole lot of crap along the way.  (more)

Center strategic advisor Brad Berens describes what this week’s Consumer Electronics Show has to do with the death of cursive writing in American schools, how to break down the elements of disruption, and more.

I spent the week leading tours of the automotive hall at CES with my friends at StoryTech. (My favorite exhibit was the quietly transformative What3Words.)

As we explored new Electric Vehicles (EVs), charging technologies, autonomous vehicles, and more, I found myself thinking again and again about Thomas Kuhn’s notion of paradigm shifts in his classic book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

A paradigm shift occurs when there’s enough disconfirming data to make you discard the mental model you’ve been using. In the 1400s, Copernicus realized that the Earth-centered model of astronomy he was taught didn’t make sense given the sun-centered data he uncovered, which led to better understanding of the world. Einstein realized that Newtonian physics didn’t fully account for energy, which led to nuclear power.

One important and misunderstood thing about paradigm shifts is that you can only see them in the rear-view mirror once your thinking has already changed.  (more)

Many thinkers end each year with a cluster of predictions for the next year. Center strategic advisor Brad Berens has just one—and it’s more of a prayer than a prediction—about trust.

The pressing question of our age isn’t new. The Marx Brothers asked it in Duck Soup (1933): “who ya gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”

In a recent Los Angeles Times article (thanks, Dad, for sharing it), movie director Scott Mann talked about seamless AI-powered film editing that can replace F-bombs with “freaking” or translate dialog into another language without awkward out-of-sync lips. “You can’t tell what’s real and what’s not,” Mann said, “which is the whole thing.” In that same article, computer science professor Robert Wahl observed, “We can no longer fully trust what we see.”

Both Mann and Wahl get things backwards: we’ve never been able to tell what’s real, and we’ve always trusted what we see. We are especially credulous with new technologies. We saw it with social media in the 2016 election cycle (e.g., Cambridge Analytica) and we’re seeing it now with AI   (more)

Elon Musk’s right-wing posts on his Twitter platform have plummeted the stock at Tesla, the public company where Musk is CEO. Center strategic advisor Brad Berens discusses this with two thought leaders: Lana McGilvray of Purpose and Peter Horan of Horan MediaTech Advisors.

This column is a bit unusual. Instead of just me sharing my thoughts, you’ll get a ranging conversation I had with two friends and advisors: Lana McGilvray, founder/CEO of Purpose Worldwide, and Peter Horan, founder at Horan MediaTech Advisors.

Background: On Tuesday, December 13, Peter shared this article from Inside EVs about recent research from YouGov and Morning Consult, each arguing that Tesla is now partisan because CEO Elon Musk also owns Twitter and has been posting right-wing content. As a result, Tesla is becoming less popular with liberals at the same time that it’s becoming more popular with conservatives. That article was sparked by this earlier Wall Street Journal article on Tesla and partisanship. A subsequent WSJ article reveals that Tesla’s investors are concerned about both Musk’s split focus between Tesla and Twitter and also the plummeting value of Tesla’s market cap.

Peter’s question concerned when brands like Tesla started to become politically partisan, which we kicked around via text. Early in our back and forth, I invited Lana to join the conversation, whereupon we all pivoted into an asynchronous conversation in a Google Doc.

I’ve lightly edited and reorganized the results into this interview. — BB  (more)

Most dystopian fantasies concern monsters we can see conquering us. But with new technologies, asks Center strategic advisor Brad Berens, will we even know if we’ve been conquered?

You can tell a lot about a culture by its dystopias: its fantasies of fear. When you have dueling fantasies, you can tell even more by what they agree on and what they miss.

Our most common dystopias are still analog: an enemy takes over, and we fight or we don’t, but everybody knows who the good guys and bad guys are. The classic example of this is George Orwell’s 1984 (it came out in 1949), which shows how a regime takes over both the world and the minds of its citizens through constant surveillance: “Big Brother is Watching You.” Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is similar, but in Atwood’s Gilead a male regime enslaves women.

On the surface, it looks like the technological versions of these dystopias are digital, but they’re still analog: in The Terminator movies (starting in 1984), Skynet is a machine regime seeking to eradicate humans. In The Matrix movies (starting in 1999), the machine regime uses humans as Duracell batteries to power their VR world. In both, there is still a clear dichotomy: good guys versus bad guys.

The real digital dystopia happens when you don’t know you’ve been conquered and you don’t know that any alternatives to captivity exist.  (more)

The new Netflix series about the daughter from The Addams Family going to a Hogwarts-style high school doesn’t ignore the earlier versions of the story: it embraces them — which, says Center strategic advisor Brad Berens, is part of why it succeeds.

One difference between artificial intelligence and the human kind (at least for now) is that AI is amazing at pattern recognition while humans are terrific at pattern forging.

We can’t help ourselves. We use analogies to understand the world around us, asking of any new experience, “OK, what is this like?” and then using a rapid compare-and-contrast to figure out how the new thing is similar to but also distinct from the old thing. It’s not just inside our heads where this sort of forging happens: businesses can channel that pattern forging energy for their customers or (with entertainment) audiences.

The delightful new Netflix show Wednesday, starring Jenna Ortega as Wednesday Addams, is a master class in this sort of channeling. It elegantly deploys references to 85 years’ worth of other versions of The Addams Family stories, as well as references to other horror and teen supernatural television (Sabrina the Teenaged Witch, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and movies (Harry Potter, Twilight).

For the viewer who recognizes these references, there’s an extra level of cognition that sparks, amplifying the overall experience.  (more)

As CNN and FOX News pivot in the face of turbulent times, four other cable news organizations are waiting to grab big audiences: One may disappear, one is waiting to be noticed, one is happy where it is, and one faces a big opportunity. Center Director Jeffrey Cole explains.

In the forty-year history of 24/7 cable news networks, the ground is shifting like never before.

At the two biggest news networks, CNN and FOX News, there is profound change that may disorient and confound their audiences, forcing them to the left or right.

CNN, under strict budget cutbacks from its new owner, is forsaking its slightly left position and racing toward the middle. For the first time, it is fact-checking President Biden.

FOX News (and all the Murdoch properties), which built its programming over the past six years around Donald Trump, has abandoned the former President and embraced Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. The day after Trump recently announced his third presidential bid, Murdoch’s New York Post covered the story with a small banner across the bottom of page one: “Florida Man Makes Announcement (p.26).” Ouch!

While these two channels, which I discussed at length in my last column, make up more than 50% of the audience for around-the-clock news, there are four other players. At least two stand to benefit, perhaps significantly, from the makeovers at the two behemoths.  (more)

After a surprise-filled mid-term election, CNN is moving to the right and FOX News is moving away from Trump. What’s going on? What about the other channels? Center Director Jeffrey Cole digs into big changes in cable news.

What a roller coaster!

Last week began with us expecting, as history shows almost always happens, the party in power to lose a large number of seats in the midterm elections. The only question—in an overused metaphor—was whether it would be a red wave or a red tsunami. Even worse was the fear that democracy would unravel as “don’t confuse me with the facts” election deniers and ignorant candidates won their elections.

The week finished on a different note. Although troubled by inflation and crime, Americans could see past these transitory issues and voted to protect our constitutional democracy. As a nation we might not know much about civics, but we can discern a real threat when it is upon us.

The ground has shifted in our politics as the Republican party debates its future direction. At the same time, the Democrats are mulling over whether to retire their leader: a surprisingly successful President who is also now the oldest man ever to occupy the White House. If re-elected, at the end of his second term Joe Biden would smash the record by eight years.

It is not just the ground under the political parties that has shifted.  (more)

As media continues to fragment in the face of changes in legislation and technology, where will new big audiences come from? Center strategic advisor Brad Berens explores.

Recently I explored how changes in legislation and technology are signaling the end of cheap digital scale for media. (Don’t worry: you don’t have to read that issue to understand this one.)

If I’m right that digital scale will only get less massive and more expensive, then where will people go to find new big audiences to spread the word about whatever they’re selling?

In other words, where are the frontiers of scale?

One recent frontier of scale is Retail Media, which you experience every time you go to a retail website (like Walgreen’s, Best Buy, or Target) and see ads while you’re shopping… not just ads for things that the retailer sells but also ads for other things like movies and cars. Advertisers love retail media because retailers know a lot about their customers and can match ads to customer interest (we hope in a non-creepy way).

App stores, like the one you use to download or buy new apps on your smartphone, make up another frontier of scale because the stores have massive and identifiable audiences, just like retailers. Already, app developers pay to promote their apps in app stores, but I suspect that over time we’ll see non-app, non-digital products advertising in app stores. This is a big opportunity for the 2024 election cycle.  (more)

A call from your burglar alarm company turns out to be something else entirely. Center strategic advisor Brad Berens explains what you can do to protect yourself from clever criminals.

One of the most popular things I’ve ever written is “Beware the Words with Friends Scammers” about how predators were targeting lonely older women who played this online equivalent of Scrabble.

Here’s another scam to watch out for: the “Middle of the Night” call.

We were having dinner with my parents when my Dad mentioned an odd call from their burglar alarm company that day. The phone rang at 2:00am, and when Dad picked it up the person on the other end, talking quickly, said that she was calling from the alarm company about a medical emergency.

No, we’re fine, Dad said.

The caller then asked for the address, which Dad provided. “No, that’s not the right address,” the caller said. “We’re calling about another address” (a mile or so away). Then, the caller asked for the alarm abort code, which Dad provided. The caller then apologized for the mistake and ended the call.

The number on Caller ID was the number of the alarm company.

Dad went back to sleep. Remember: this was at 2:00am, when most people are groggy rather than suspicious.

When I heard this story, something about it had a wrong shape: as a practitioner and researcher I’ve done a lot of work on phishing schemes and other scams; plus, I personally get dozens of scam texts a week with increasingly creative angles of approach. I’d never heard of a burglar alarm company calling about a medical emergency, and it sounded like Dad had given more information than he’d received.  (more)

It’s fine to look for answers, but often you don’t find them. Instead, says Center strategic advisor Brad Berens, if you’re lucky, you wind up with better questions. WITDO is one of them.

One of my first corporate gigs was as the digital editor at EarthLink, an early dial-up Internet Service Provider (ISP). We scrutinized every move that AOL and Microsoft made. They were our closest competitors selling identical dial-up products. AOL was the biggest; when AOL raised prices so did Microsoft and EarthLink. It was an apples-to-apples world, and we were all selling apples.

We kinda/sorta saw broadband coming (DSL and Cable), but we thought our members would value their email addresses and the EarthLink software package enough to stick around and buy their broadband through us. This did not happen. Broadband was selling customers a five-course gourmet meal while we were still selling… apples.

We no longer live in a world where apples to apples comparisons make sense much of the time. The problem is that business thinkers love to overfocus and break problems down to fruit on fruit comparisons even though doing so misses crucial context.

One powerful way to dodge this problem is to get in the habit of asking different questions, questions that change the context of your endeavor and let you focus on the things that matter rather than the things that happen to be in front of you. This is the difference between focusing on what’s urgent versus what’s important, a.k.a. the Eisenhower Matrix.

Here are three of my favorite change-the-conversation questions (more):

More important than who owns Twitter is whether anybody can create a massive new social networking service. Also, asks Center strategic advisor Brad Berens, what would a non-profit version of Twitter—let’s call it Quack—look like?

As I wrote last time, I’m taking a break from the endless hand-wringing around Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter. The more interesting question is whether anybody can do anything to prop up any massively-scaled social networking service in an age of ever-increasing fragmentation?

In other words, is this the end of cheap scale?

By “cheap scale” I really mean cheap digital scale where a service can quickly and profitably reach billions of people (users, audience members, customers, consumers) using hardware that people already own (smartphones, tablets, computers) and bandwidth that they already buy.  (more)

The funeral business can prey on a family’s darkest moments, but the internet has begun to change this. Center founder Jeffrey Cole explains.

Disruption even finds you in death.

Ben Franklin’s quip that “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes” aside, if ever there was an industry that would seem immune to disruptive change, it would be the funeral business.

Yet, the funeral industry is experiencing a tidal wave of disruption that it does not like one bit. As usual, it is the customer rather than the established business who has the most to gain.

Many, not all, but many, mortuaries take advantage of grief-stricken families in their time of need.

When a loved one dies—particularly if that death was unexpected—the family is in no frame of mind to make considered financial decisions. This is the moment when the funeral business pounces, framing an expensive series of decisions—how much they spend on the casket, the burial plot, the funeral—as a reflection of how much they loved the family member who just died.

For many families, a funeral is the third most expensive financial transaction they will ever make after buying a house or a car. But we do not approach funeral expenditures the same way. It would seem ghoulish or inappropriate to visit five funeral homes (as we might visit car dealers), get prices, and then negotiate with the first by saying, “another funeral home said they could do it for less.”

At least funeral directors (we hope) do not try to close a deal by asking, “what would it take to get your loved one into a casket today?”  (more)

Nothing crazy has happened in the hours since the world’s wealthiest individual took control of the world’s oddest social media company, says Center strategic advisor Brad Berens, and nothing crazy is likely to happen.

A bunch of things—some nutty and some not—happened once Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter closed on Thursday:

  • Musk fired the CEO and a bunch of other executives.
  • Musk walked into Twitter HQ carrying a sink and tweeted a video of it with the caption “let that sink in.”
  • Late night hosts dunked on this mild dad joke in ways that were way less funny than the not-terribly-funny dad joke itself. (BTW, if I’d made that joke, my kids’ eyes would have rolled so hard you would have thought somebody was playing Ping Pong.)
  • Musk, the free speech absolutist, tweeted a letter to advertisers in which he said that he would absolutely moderate content on Twitter. This is because advertising is currently Twitter’s sole source of revenue.
  • Advertisers and media agencies adopted a wait-and-see attitude, except for General Motors which paused its advertising… in part, perhaps, because Musk owns Tesla, a rival car company.
  • Musk also followed Facebook’s lead and formed a “content moderation council” that would make the tough decisions about who to kick off the platform. “No major content decisions or account reinstatements will happen before that council convenes,” he said in a tweet.
  • He did this because hate speech exploded across Twitter right after the deal closed.
  • I saw a tweet allegedly from the 45th president saying, “I’m back! Thanks, Elon!” But it was obviously from a newly created account from somebody else. Twitter deactivated the account. But the folks I was with when this happened didn’t know to look at the Twitter username and almost freaked out.
  • A bunch of pundits and people I follow on social media wrung their hands, deactivated their accounts, and acted as if it we had reached the end of days.

We can still measure how long Musk has been in control of Twitter in hours. It’s way too soon to fret about what is going to happen.  (more)

As Center strategic advisor Brad Berens explains, Max Fisher’s new book The Chaos Machine shows the downside of what happens when companies pursue growth at all costs.

In her 1963 book about the trial of Adolph Eichmann, one of the chief architects of the Nazi murder of six million Jews during the Second World War, Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe Eichmann’s failure to see the consequences of his actions because he was just doing his job.

I’m always hesitant to compare any group to the Nazis except for the Neo-Nazis who embrace the label. However, as I finished reading Max Fisher’s excellent new book, The Chaos Machine: The Inside Story of How Social Media Rewired Our Minds and Our World, Arendt’s phrase about the banality of evil kept coming to mind.

To be clear, I am not comparing Facebook, Instagram, Snap, TikTok, Twitter and YouTube to the Third Reich. But I am comparing the indifference of those companies to how their pursuit of profits has destroyed lives to the indifference of Eichmann in Jerusalem.

Fisher is a talented reporter for The New York Times. For years, he has been on the ground chasing the stories that make up the book’s main argument: social media companies use sophisticated software (algorithms) that deliberately provoke extreme emotional reactions in users. The algorithms do this by putting agitating content in front of users even though that content is often misinformation or disinformation. More agitated users spend more time on social media and spread the lies, which means that the social media companies can sell more ads and make more money.

Facts move slower than lies, so corrections or comments or warnings to think first and share later don’t do any good.

What are the consequences that the social media companies ignore?  (more)

Two recent developments in the world of comic books have lessons for all businesses in the age of digital transformation.  Center strategic advisor Brad Berens explains.

From the “Big Story You Haven’t Noticed” department: this month, two things happened in the world of comic books that combine to make a huge inflection point. My friend Peter Horan calls this sort of thing a “meteor strike” where “the expected only wounds you; the unexpected kills you.”

First, GlobalComix and Ox Eye Media announced a new joint venture: an on-demand comics printing service called GC Press:

GlobalComix has announced it will partner with Source Point Press parent company Ox Eye Media starting in 2023 to form GC Press, an on-demand comics printing service. This will be the first of its kind in the comics industry, allowing readers to purchase any comic in physical form (regardless of retail availability) and have it shipped directly to them, anywhere in the world.

Readers can’t buy Print-On-Demand (POD) issues of big publisher characters like Spider-Man, Batman, or Hellboy comics via GC Press (although I am amused by “The Scintillating Spider-Squirrel,” which seems more homage than parody). Instead, this is a niche service that enables niche writers to monetize their work via POD.

Second, the already ridiculously named DC Universe Infinite digital comics service got an even more ludicrous name for its new top level subscription: DC Universe Infinite Ultra. (What’s next? DC Universe Infinite Super Bat Ultra Plus?) For $99.99 per year, readers get digital access to DC comics one month after they hit comic book shops and the bookstores and newsstands that still carry comics. Prior to this, for $74.99 per year readers got digital access to DC comics from six months ago.

So what’s the problem? Why do these two things make a meteor strike?  (more)

Center director Jeffrey Cole explores transformation of the media for the keynote address at the leadership meeting of the Interactive Advertising Bureau.

View the video here.