A view from Dave Trott: Garbage in, garbage out
A view from Dave Trott

Garbage in, garbage out

When I first had enough money to put a stereo system together, I asked the expert at the hi-fi shop what I should start with.

Top-end hi-fi was separate components, so presumably you bought the best of everything: an amplifier, a tape deck, a tuner, speakers, a turntable, and connected them all up.

I asked the expert if I should start by buying a really good amp.

He said there was a simple rule: garbage in – garbage out.

So, the two most important parts were the part that produced the sound (the stylus) and the part that delivered the sound (the speakers).

It was great to have a powerful amp, of course, but if the stylus wasn’t the best, you’d just be wasting your money amplifying poor sound.

So he said, spend most of your money on the stylus and the speakers, the bit in the middle is just the delivery system, you can add that later.

Garbage in – garbage out (GIGO) became the mantra for computers, too.

Around 1830, Charles Babbage, known as the inventor of the computer, was demonstrating the principles of what he called his "Analytical Engine".

Babbage entered the numbers and the machine calculated the correct result.

One of the learned members of the audience asked: "But what if you enter the wrong numbers, will you still get the correct result?"

That seems like a pretty stupid question to us.

We can’t imagine a machine which knows we want the answer 8, so when we enter the numbers 3 + 4 it produces the answer 8 and we are pleased.

That makes no sense, we know that a machine works like an amplifier, it can only deal with what’s entered into it.

Technology is like a machine, and like an amplifier it can only deal with what’s entered into it.

This is what we haven’t understood about technology, the guiding principle still is: garbage in – garbage out.

For proof, look at what we do: advertising.

The technology we use is referred to as "viral media", yet how much of the advertising we put into this media actually goes viral?

Pretty much none, because the medium isn’t the message.

But now look at advertising before so-called "viral media", when the job of going viral relied on the idea, not the media.

Look at how much truly viral advertising we remember from that era.

"Vorsprung durch technic", "Just do it", "Got milk?", "Where’s the beef?", "Does what it says on the tin", "Simples", "Don’t forget the fruit gums, Mum", "Tangoed", "Drinka pinta milka day", "Beanz meanz Heinz", "Tell ‘em about the honey, Mummy", "Naughty, but nice". "Every little bit helps", "Refreshes the parts" – we could go on for hours.

This morning, my wife and I had the radio on and they played an old track: David Dundas singing "I pull my blue jeans on, I pull my old blue jeans on".

It reminded us that track was big in the 1970s.

It came from a Tony Scott TV commercial for Brutus jeans.

The song was so popular it was released as a single, but they couldn’t use the brand name, so they changed "I pull Brutus jeans on, I pull my Brutus jeans on" to "I pull my blue jeans on, I pull my old blue jeans on".

That was what people used to aim for, ideas that went viral.

There was no such thing as "viral media", so all the heavy lifting was done by the idea.

But with the advent of so-called "viral media" came the belief that ideas didn’t matter, the media itself would make the ads go viral.

And we can all see how that turned out.

The media does indeed make things go viral, but none of it is advertising: it’s funny animals, and funny babies, and funny car crashes, and funny politicians, and funny people falling over.

That’s what makes people press "retweet" or "share".

The media itself doesn’t make people share or retweet boring advertising just because it’s there.

This always was the fallacy of "viral media".

The media doesn’t do the work any more than the amplifier can make a bad stylus sound good.

The principle is still GIGO: garbage in, garbage out.

The sooner we learn that, the sooner we’ve got a chance of being something other than invisible.

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

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