Feature

Adland dissects Yuval Noah Harari's five threats to creativity

The historian's latest work presents a dystopian vision of our present. Here, we find out what those in the industry make of Harari's predictions of an advertising-free future.

Adland dissects Yuval Noah Harari's five threats to creativity

So you’ve read Sapiens? You’ve all heard what the acclaimed historian Yuval Noah Harari thinks about creativity? In simple terms, he credits all of human history with the power of storytelling. Our ability to construct fictions and persuade thousands, millions of people to believe them and collaborate is the reason we have succeeded.

Safe to assume then that in his new book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, the great storyteller will fashion more ideas of how human creativity will shape the future world? Or maybe not.

The dystopian vision he actually paints, that humanity is building its own redundancy, takes specific aim at our own species: the ad creative. With almost breezy confidence, he predicts that "once algorithms choose and buy things for us, the traditional advertising industry will go bust".

Data giants such as Google, Harari argues, capture our attention in order to harvest immense amounts of data about us, which is worth more than any advertising revenue. 

This data hoard opens a path to a radically different business model in which the first victim will be the advertising industry itself.

"Consider Google," Harari says. "Google wants to reach the point where we can ask it anything and get the best answer in the world.

"What will happen once we can ask Google: ‘Hi Google, based on everything you know about cars and based on everything you know about me (including my needs, my habits, my views on global warming and even my opinion about Middle Eastern politics) – what is the best car for me?’

"If Google can give us a good answer to that, and if we learn by experience to trust Google’s wisdom instead of our own easily manipulated feelings, what could possibly be the use of car advertisements?"

All a bit far-fetched? Then ask yourself how much you trust Google to get you from place A to place B. Compared with 10, even five years ago, we are more likely to ask Google how to get to Leamington Spa than to trust road directions, maps, navigational instincts, even (old-school) satnav. It just works, and we trust Google’s wisdom implicitly.

So what do advertising and marketing experts make of the notion that "once algorithms choose and buy stuff for us" the agency business will "go bust"? And what does this all mean for creativity and the people who make and tell brilliant stories?

We asked five experts to give us their reaction to the following five threats to creativity as suggested by Harari. Here’s what they told us.

1 By not regulating the ownership of data, we risk concentrating all wealth and power in the hands of a small elite

Chris Clarke

People often point to the railroad barons of the 19th century and how regulation tamed them for the better. The internet is different, though. To some extent it is regulated already, in that its architecture is a set of agreements between computers. It’s just badly regulated. Given the fact we’re in a kakistocracy in Britain and the US, I have little faith in government’s ability to regulate the situation well. In any case, technology itself concentrates power in the hands of a small elite; better data regulations won’t fix that.

Bridget Angear

There is a real danger that Google and Facebook become all powerful and, if history tells us anything, it suggests this is not a good thing. This area has so far escaped regulation and it’s probably time to act. The counter argument is that tech tends to disrupt itself (where is Myspace now?) if left to its own devices. But I would still argue that some regulation is required, just as it is in pretty much every other market. 

Charles Vallance

This is true. The use of data requires high-quality, enforceable regulation. Any responsible brand owner will insist upon this. Indeed, I would argue that blue-chip brand owners can be ahead of government in setting the agenda. This is because they can vote with their advertising feet.

Ian Heartfield

Taking ownership of our own personal data is the single most important thing that people who are far smarter than me need to make possible. My hope is that, one day, humanity will realise that Google and the internet are not the same thing; that Google is a brand out to make money, totally legitimately, just like any other brand. That when we’re not paying, we are the product. Maybe one day someone will find a way to make the World Wide Web what Sir Tim wanted it to be. That might make my job harder, but there is the job and then there is life itself.

Jo Arden

Concentrating all data in the hands of the few is terrifying, but the threat to advertising it poses is way down the list of concerns. The bigger threat is to how that concentration can undermine independent thought in politics and society. We are only just beginning to understand the extent to which our data has been used for nefarious means. And while we’re catching up, the small elite is sharing its privilege with people whose aim it is to manipulate and control populations at scale – pitting societies against each other, promoting hatred and fear. I’m more bothered about the potential for that to fuck us all than I am about whether it will be harder to sell stuff.  

Taking ownership of our own personal data is the single most important thing that people who are far smarter than me need to make possible

2 We’re no longer customers, we’re all products of "attention merchants" like Google and Facebook

Chris Clarke

Jaron Lanier first brought this up in his book You Are Not a Gadget. The phrasing misrepresents the argument here – we aren’t customers of Google and Facebook, we are the product, but it doesn’t follow that we aren’t customers elsewhere. 

Bridget Angear

This is a great headline, but it overstates the issue. Even though Google and Facebook are "free" to use, they still have to earn our time and attention, or their business models unravel. Of course they sell our attention, but they each produce a compelling service that earns that attention in the first place. And everyone is free to leave at any point (despite the utility lock-ins). The Cambridge Analytica exposé resulted in people leaving Facebook, no longer willing to be a customer because, for them, the negatives outweighed the benefits. 

Charles Vallance

I don’t think this is so true. If Google and Facebook pursue a strategy of "productising" users, their "monetisation of attention" will become a race to the bottom. No-one likes being stalked. It is worth noting that Facebook [shares] are 25% cheaper and Google’s 15% cheaper than three months ago. Buy? Hold? Sell?

Ian Heartfield

We are the guinea-pig generation – all of us. We are just beginning to learn and understand how we are being sold to. We learned to skip the ad break, we’ll learn how not to be the product. We all want to be treated as customers, discerning ones at that. We want to feel that we have a choice, that we have control. Right now, we might be at the mercy of search engine and social-media giants, but we’ll learn how to navigate them soon enough.  

Jo Arden

I take an optimistic view of people and I think we are some significant way away from submitting completely to the will of Google and Facebook. The vast majority of decisions are still made at point of purchase (online or in bricks and mortar). They are triggered by countless factors, only some of which originate from an algorithm. It is a relatively new and contributing force in how we choose what to buy or buy into, but the value of real experience, in the real world, still plays the bigger part. To follow a logic that says there are tools that can make better decisions for us, and so we will use them, is fundamentally flawed. Humans delight in confoundingly irrational views, and in changing them the next day – I believe (and hope) that uniquely human condition will be impossible to change.

3 The transfer of authority from humans to algorithms will include the authority to choose and buy things

Chris Clarke

We have never had this authority. We do things because of other people, or sometimes because ads have convinced us, unconsciously, that other people we identify with are doing them. However, the algorithm tightens the loop, and there is, in the current design of digital choice-making, an increasing likelihood we will do things because it’s the sort of thing we do. It’s self-reflexive. Add to this the exponential increase in options and information generally, and we become more superstitious, less adventurous. The irony is that the internet gives us access to any point of view; the bit that is so terrifying is that we fall back on what we know. Algorithms accelerate this. 

Bridget Angear

I’d give this one a partial yes. True, in part, but not for everyone or for everything. Try this as a thought experiment – is anyone likely to ever say "Alexa, buy me a smartphone" without specifying that they want an iPhone X, or something else? Brands can always elevate above choice architects if built properly. So, some people for many things, many people for some things, will delegate authority to algorithms. But it’s highly unlikely that this will ever be many people buying many things in this way. That would require an extraordinary change in levels of trust. It’s a view of the world driven by people who spend their lives surrounded by tech people, who don’t really like human beings and try to engineer humanity out of every interaction. This is not most people!

Charles Vallance

This is true, in so far as it goes. But I don’t think it will go that far because, in most cases, we won’t transfer authority to choose and buy things to algorithms. Even when we do, for example in the case of recommendation engines, we will reserve the right to overrule the recommendations and thus the algorithm.

Ian Heartfield

It may well do when it comes to day-to-day items, the weekly shop and the like, but I can’t see a time when we will let a machine spend £1,000 on our behalf. Maybe the algorithm will narrow down my choices for me, based on my learned preferences, but I can’t see it making the final decision. Don’t quote me on that, though. The algorithm may be intuitive, but it cannot be challenging. And human beings want to be challenged. The algorithm will hold a mirror up to me, but I don’t necessarily want to look at myself. I want to look behind the mirror, to look outside the walls and explore a world that I don’t know, to be inspired by something I’ve never seen before. An algorithm can’t do that. 

Jo Arden

Unquestionably there will be certain products that lend themselves to being chosen by an algorithm, but not all products and not entirely. Insurance was the first category to embrace automated decision-making – aggregators gave us the chance to input our own data to an algorithm and be served a result. They transformed the category. But the power of brand stalled its entire automation. Some brands opted out of aggregators and strengthened their appeal in doing so; others invest more heavily in brand-building, because marketers know that, when presented with a top-10 best-fit providers, about 90% of us opt for the first one we have heard of – even if that happens to be number five on the list. Brands give us comfort and reassurance, they are part of how we see ourselves and want others to see us too. Product and brand are inadvisably linked. Some consumers will happily give over decisions to Google about products they don’t have a major view on – but it’ll be a minority, we carry too much in-built knowledge to completely turn our back on it. How many of us go with what Alexa suggests is the best recipe for cottage pie over the one our mums taught us? 

The internet gives us access to any point of view; the bit that is so terrifying is that we fall back on what we know

4 Google and Facebook are more interested in the data they harvest than the revenue they generate from ads

Chris Clarke

Sorry, but this is obviously bollocks. Both are hugely commercial. Google is an ad-sales business that funds a tech company. The data they harvest powers the ads. The two are one and the same. 

Bridget Angear

I can’t get my head around this one. Without ads, neither Google nor Facebook has a business at all (because that’s what the data is for). Now, that may be true if you have an extremely narrow and old-fashioned view of what an "ad" is, but Google and Facebook are the advertising industry. Amazon is different. But what’s Amazon’s fastest-growing revenue stream at the moment? Advertising. 

Charles Vallance

This is probably true but, to some extent, is a circular argument. The data Google and Facebook harvest helps them serve and price the revenue they generate from ads. So it is difficult to disentangle them.

Ian Heartfield

I don’t think anyone would argue against that, but ad revenue must still be a thing, too. As with ad agencies, there isn’t one way to go about business any more. Google, Facebook and the like will have their digital fingers in many a pie. And, as Jeff Bezos says, everyone is asking what is going to change in the next 10 years; few are asking what isn’t. I’m pretty sure ad revenue will continue to be a thing for some time. 

Jo Arden

Data supports their hard-nosed bid for that revenue, and advertising is a significant part of that. Advertising comes in many forms – from ads to search. I think they are as interested in that as in the many other ways they generate revenue.

5 If we learn by experience to trust Google’s wisdom instead of our own easily manipulated feelings, what’s the use of ads?

Chris Clarke

When we search from inside our filter bubbles, "the wisdom of Google" is more like a mirror reflecting our desires about the world back to us than an all-seeing machine intelligence deciding what’s best for us. Ads that can cut through our narcissism and connect us to other humans will break through. They’ll need to stand out, be relevant and recognisably true and human to work. As we learn the value of our attention and get better at spending it like a currency, we’ll want more for it. Marketing may have to be more generous. The line between product and ad will have to become more blurred as marketers discover they have to provide utility or joy to reach us.

Bridget Angear

I disagree with his basic premise that Google, Facebook and Amazon will change humanity and human nature. Yes, they influence large elements of our lives. Yes, they will do so even more. Yes, this will change brands and the ad industry. But change fundamentally who we are and what drives us? I don’t think so. We are curious creatures driven by all kinds of needs and desires that one piece of tech alone will never satisfy. We need to think about how humanity and tech will interact, and what humanity will do to tech, not just the other way around.

Charles Vallance

Hypothetically, this is true, but it is also misleading. It is based on the misconception that our feelings are "easily manipulated". They aren’t. And they are far less corruptible than our data (see threat one). So we will continue to trust our instincts, as we always have. No amount of ads or data in a free society will manipulate us or overrule the System 1 thought-processes that really drive our decision-making.

Ian Heartfield

The ads Harari is referring to will be of no use to anyone. They are of no use to anyone right now 99% of ads are ill thought-through, patronising, crass and pointless – nothing more than expensive wallpaper to skip through on catch-up. But there are other ads: the 1%, the ones that move you. The ones that present an argument or a point of view you had never thought of before. The ones that make you laugh out loud or cry. The ones that make you say: "What the fuck was that?" These ads have and will always have a use. We just probably won’t call them ads, and you almost definitely won’t see them in an ad break.

Jo Arden

The answer is in the question – decisions are rarely logical. Our feelings are easily manipulated, not just by ads, but by the world around us, other people, our mood, the weather. While, clearly, the sophistication of algorithms will increase, I don’t believe Google will be able to dissuade a hungry man from a Double Whopper. Good advertising is part of culture. Fact-based needs, such as finding directions, lends itself to mental-outsourcing; being moved to buy or do something will still need the crafting of narrative at which advertising is unbeatable. The two work together, Google can identify the right time or place to put information in front of someone, but it still needs to be packaged beautifully – that’s where we come in.

Ninety-nine per cent of ads are ill thought-through, patronising, crass and pointless – nothing more than expensive wallpaper

The experts

Chris Clarke

The creative partner at Group of Humans has 20 years’ experience of working for big brands globally. He is the former CCO of DigitasLBi. 

Bridget Angear

Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO’s chief strategy officer is a Fellow of the IPA and co-author of Revolt, a book about how to create movements.

Charles Vallance

VCCP’s co-founder is a brand strategist. He has worked with brands including O2, Hiscox, easyJet, Canon, Cadbury, Domino’s and Nationwide.

Ian Heartfield

Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s chief creative officer has produced award-winning work for The Observer, the BBC and Guinness among others.

Jo Arden

MullenLowe’s chief strategy officer is a specialist in behaviour change, brand strategy and integrated communications planning.