A view from Dave Trott: Algorithms can't do context
A view from Dave Trott

Algorithms can't do context

When I graduated art school, I worked on a tramp steamer.

After a couple of weeks at sea, we stopped in Buenos Aires to unload farm equipment and load coffee.

As the most junior deckhand, I was given the night watch.

I got chatting to a group of Argentine dock workers – well, not chatting because I spoke no Spanish and they spoke little English.

But they were very friendly and we gathered round a bonfire in a big oil drum, warming our hands on a freezing cold night.

One of them took out something like a small teapot, except it had no handle.

He filled it with some leaves, then he poured sugar on top, then he poured boiling water over it and put the lid on.

We passed it round one by one, taking turns sipping the hot drink through the spout.

I never tasted anything so good – when it was empty, he poured more leaves on top, then more sugar and water, and we did it again.

They told me it was called yerba-maté, I thought I’d always drink it from then on.

But when the ship got back to New York, and I left it, I tried yerba-maté again and it didn’t taste special at all.

I’ve often had that experience.

For instance, years back I was in Dublin, I was looking for a non-touristy pub.

I found a quiet one that was nearly empty, old wooden walls, sawdust on the floor.

The Guinnesses were lined up behind the bar, half-poured, waiting to be topped up.

As I drank mine, I studied the old black and white photographs on the walls, of the siege at the Post Office in 1916, just two blocks away – the sense of history was immense.

To say the Guinness was the best I ever tasted would be an understatement.

I spent the evening in that pub and resolved never to drink anything but Guinness again.

But when I got back to London, Guinness just tasted like any ordinary pint.

As I say, it’s a phenomenon I often find.

Once I took away the docks, and the bonfire in the oil drum, and the camaraderie of the Argentine dock workers, the yerba-maté lost 50% of its taste.

Once I took away the sawdust floor of the ancient Dublin pub, and the black and white photographs, and the history, the Guinness lost half its taste.

Because they’d lost their context, and half the taste is the context.

As the philosopher George Berkeley said: “Esse est percipi” – to exist, is to be perceived.

Or as Buddha said: “All there is, is mind.”

When you taste something, the tongue is the main experience but it’s not the entire experience.

Half the experience is the physical object, half is everything around it.

Doctors will tell you that a large part of any treatment is in the mind, which is why placebos often work so well.

That’s why, in our terms, it’s stupid to let algorithms alone decide the media.

All algorithms can tell you is how many eyeballs are in front of your ad – they can’t tell you how the media affects the ad.

Years ago, our head of media planning, Julian Neuberger, told me that he could buy the same eyeballs more efficiently in the News of the World than The Sunday Times.

But where would a consumer durable, a watch or a car say, look like it’s worth more: where are people more likely to spend time reading about it, which reflects better on the brand?

An algorithm can’t tell you that.

Because algorithms don’t understand anything except numbers.

Dave Trott is the author of The Power of Ignorance, Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three

Topics