June 23, 2006

Maurice Saatchi, cognitive neuroscientist

All the hippest conservatives these days are getting into cognitive neuroscience. A couple of weeks ago, David Brooks was telling us about the male amygdala and its need for special reading material. Yesterday, I learned from Maurice Saatchi that

[S]ocial scientists divide the world between digital natives and digital immigrants. Anyone over 25 is a digital immigrant. He or she has had to learn the digital language. The digital native learnt it like you learnt your mother tongue, effortlessly as you grew up. The digital immigrant struggles and forever has a thick, debilitating accent.

The latest affliction, according to neuroscience - and this was the death knell - is that the digital native's brain is physically different as a result of the digital input it received growing up. It has rewired itself. It responds faster. It sifts out. It recalls less.

That death knell was tolling for advertising, as announced in a speech ("The strange death of modern advertising") that Lord Saatchi gave at the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival. Unfortunately, I wasn't in Cannes to hear it -- from what Francesca Newland tells us, this sounds like a very enlightening conference:

Chief executives passed out on the pavement in front of the Gutter Bar, Traktor party revellers being sprayed with Champagne to keep them cool, DDB's entire London creative department squashed on to an inflatable banana while racing around the Med.

Cannes seems to be the last remaining outlet for the outrageous behaviour that has helped shape the ad business over the decades. For one week in 52 Cannes enables adland to pay tribute to its eccentric roots.

Alas, my own exposure to generous stretches of Lord Saatchi's speech was on the BBC Newshour yesterday morning around 9:20. He was beaming from my kitchen radio as I worked on my small contribution to an NIH grant application, checked my email and took a couple of notes for this post. Anyhow, Maurice is impressed by the rewired brains of digital natives:

This, apparently, is what makes it possible for a modern teenager, in the 30 seconds of a normal television commercial, to take a telephone call, send a text, receive a photograph, play a game, download a music track, read a magazine and watch commercials at x6 speed. They call it "CPA": continuous partial attention.

And the logical terminus of this need for speed has been revealed to him: an effective message must be reduced to a single word.

Can you precisely describe, in one word, the particular value, the characteristic, the emotion, you are trying to make your own?

If it runs to a sentence, you have a problem. A paragraph? Sell your shares.

Geoff Pullum was way out in front on this one: "Snugglebunny is mine" (4/18/2004). Except that Geoff wanted to claim "the verb snuggle and all derivatives thereof (e.g. snugglebunny); the adjective parsimonious; the preposition of; and the nouns crump, ether, parsley, helicopter, oligarchy, and rhodium". According to Lord Saatchi, this is lexical polytheism and it will never do:

In the beginning was the Word . . .. . . and the Word was God.
Two words is not God. It is two gods, and two gods are one too many.
Each brand can only own one word. Each word can only be owned by one brand. Take great care before you pick your word. It is going to be the god of your brand.

Curiously, Lord Saatchi brands his "new business model for marketing, appropriate for the digital age", using three words:

In this model, companies compete for global ownership of one word in the public mind.

This is "one word equity".

On the other hand, some digital native working for him has figured out that you can (must!) leave out all the spaces to claim your internet domain: onewordequity.com. I guess this makes it three but also one, sort of like... No, let's turn away from this lite-weight blasphemy -- and the onewordequity site, one of the worst-designed user experiences I've ever encountered on the web -- and get back to that neuroscience.

The idea that our brains are re-wired by our media experiences goes back at least to Marshall McLuhan, whose contemporary apostle, Camille Paglia, told us a couple of years ago that "[i]nterest in and patience with long, complex books and poems have alarmingly diminished not only among college students but college faculty in the U.S.", because "the new generation, raised on TV and the personal computer but deprived of a solid primary education, has become unmoored from the mother ship of culture", and lacks "the most basic introduction to structure and chronology". Paglia has proposed that we should show these kids slides of great paintings, and get them to read great poems, and why not? There isn't any substantive evidence for her views of the malady, its cause, or the efficacy of the cure; but more art and poetry in education is surely all to the good, as long as no one takes the justificatory verbiage too seriously.

Saatchi is embracing the alleged trend towards attentional fragmentation, not fighting it. But I bet that his pop neuroscience is just as bogus as McLuhan's was. It's hard to tell, though, because he doesn't really tell us what it is: he appeals to the authority of science without getting particular enough for us to check who his authorities are, and whether and how their work supports his ideas. (The only real clue that he gives us is the phrase "continuous partial attention", which seems to have been coined by Linda Stone, who is a software executive, not a neuroscientist.)

It's not fair to ask for footnotes in an inspirational speech on the beach (and on the BBC, which continues to maintain its reputation for credulity in the face of pseudoscience). The trouble is, Saatchi has already stretched his gospel of monotheistic lexicography to a three-word slogan and a thousand-word speech. So I doubt that we can expect an explanatory essay like those we've gotten from David Brooks and Camille Paglia. I'm sure that Lord Saatchi's speech helped the ad executives at Cannes get back in touch with their inner eccentrics. It remains to be seen whether his concept of onewordequity will work out better than the 2005 Tory election campaign did.

[ Some Language Log posts on related topics:

"Balm in Gilead" (4/16/2004)
"O tempora, o mores" (4/16/2004)
"Generational changes: decline or progress?" (4/20/2004)
"Mais ou sont les flamewars d'antan?" (4/21/2004)
"Attention deficit" (4/22/2004)
"In principle, yes" (4/24/2004)
"A field guide to grammar" (8/6/2005)
"Quit email, get smarter?" (4/23/2005)
A tale of two media (4/30/2005)
Never mind (5/03/2005)
News flash: the effect of politics, athletics and sex on IQ (5/03/2005)
"An apology" (9/25/2005)

And Ann Althouse has a great liveblogging of a Camille Paglia book signing: "Try to survive a tornado with a post-structuralist." (4/27/2005). ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 23, 2006 06:41 AM