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The Death of Advertising

Autoplay video ads are popping up all over the internet. Facebook will be putting them in your feed soon (yet another reason to vacate Facebook for any serious purpose) But don’t take this as a sign of behemoth advertising dominating the internet. It’s the last gasp of a dying industry.

The real money in advertising isn’t in selling products, but in selling brands. Mass production and automation mean that, with the exception of only a very few items, most products are available very cheaply. If you need a pair of decent running shoes you can get them for around a fifth of the price of fashion statement Nikes. And the same is true across our weirdly out of whack consumer culture.

To keep the appearance of scarcity and hence value in their essentially valueless products, corporations employ branding. The Nike brand attaches sublime and transcendent value to crappy running shoes. Buy Nike and you aren’t just buying shoes, you’re buying an identity in the better world of the consumer culture. Buy a Breitling watch and you’re rubbing off just a little bit of World War 2 fighter pilot glory on your sad ass mid-level sales executive life.

Advertising exists as an industry only because of branding. It’s the talented creatives in advertising agencies – and one must concede the immense creative talented wasted in the flogging of consumer goods to the easily lead – who create the fantasies that establish brands in our imagination. Which is the only place they exist. And for five decades or so advertising has flourished on the back of the most powerful fantasy fulfilment device in human history.

The television is a spectacularly good platform for brand advertising. The vast glowing screen literally puts the viewer in to a state of semi-hypnosis, very similar to starring in to a flickering fire. In this suggestive state they (you) sit for hours watching channels of programming to induce specific emotional states – excitement, happiness, pathos and the like. “Interruption Advertising” can be inserted in to your mind at a time you’re must likely to be influenced. So, if that advertisement tells you young men are only attractive to young women if sprayed in Axe body spray, you’re likely to believe them and go buy some. Sex, fear, power and status are powerful components of advertising, but it’s the platform of television that carries them in to your subconscious dream state.

The internet is a shit platform for brand advertising. We look at it on tiny screens while doing other things, many of them also on those tiny screens. When we look at a big screen, we now usually have a tiny screen as well. Once audiences segue to the internet, they move to a medium where their attention may well never be singularly focused on one thing again. Worse yet for advertisers and their clients, the internet is a GREAT platform for product advertising. If I want a pair of running shoes I can find the ideal ones for my needs at the lowest price with a few google searches. And worse again, because the internet throws people in to extended social networks, it tends to keep people busy. The gaping void of need that brands cater to gets filled up with other things.

Advertisers and the brands they work for are getting desperate. That is the key message to take from the autoplay adds now populating websites. They are trying harder and harder to apply “Interruption Advertising” on the internet, and it simply isn’t working. The contest for your attention is being won by crazy cat videos, circular political arguments and checking your friend’s status updates. No one has time for brands any more, and the brands are starting to panic.

When brands eventually pull out of this model of advertising, which will happen much sooner than most expect, a large portion of the internet and the bulk of the advertising industry will implode. The legacy media brands are clinging on to reduced revenue streams from brand advertising, and you can expect many of the old TV networks and newspapers to snuff it when the internet advertising bubble bursts. And the effects of that bubble popping could reach very far indeed.

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Take Off : 4 steps to going nomad

Before I made the jump to living and working as a digital nomad, I had been thinking about the idea for 18 months. As is so often the case in my life, I didn’t realise I was actually planning and preparing to go nomad, but on an unconscious level that’s exactly what I was doing. In retrospect I can see the steps I was taking that meant, when in early 2013 I made the decision to hit the road, I was ready to go just a few months later. I think these four basic steps are likely common among most digital nomads, in varying amounts.

Save Money – Even if everything works as planned in your transition to digital nomadism, getting to that point will mean front loading many of life’s expenses in to the period before you set off. Flights, insurance, immunisation, equipment and numerous other expenses will mount up before you start travelling. And almost certainly, your plans won’t work out. New ones will appear, and better ones. But you’ll always be glad of a financial buffer. Most nomads have at least 3 months living expenses saved, many a year or more.

Location Location Location – The most common early failure for many digital nomads is travelling to too many locations in too short a time. Travel is both exciting and time consuming. These are not good qualities for productivity. Slow travel is the key to combining work and interesting locations. Three months is a good period of time to stay in one location, enough time to complete some solid work and replenish your finances before heading off again. But which location? Low cost combined with high standard of living are the key metrics for digital nomad locations. Chiang Mai scores very highly in both, and now has the bonus of a bustling nomad community. But there are many other options.

Have A Business Plan – What are you travelling to these locations to do? As a writer I can take my work anywhere. My primary project is to finish work on my novel. Secondarily I’m continuing a range of freelance writing and journalism that in the short term is covering my living and travel expenses. I also have two other non-writing projects I want to complete in the next year. Many nomads are bootstrapping apps or business ideas which a year or two of living in a much cheaper location is facilitating. Whether your ambitions are business centred or more creative, a clear plan can help to keep you focussed while many things are changing around you.

Build Your Networks – You’re leaving behind many things to go nomad, not least friends and family. But the age of social media means you can stay in contact. My Facebook account is dedicated to close friends and family, and Twitter is also becoming very useful for close relationships. But these are also great tools for building new networks. For two months before heading to Chiang Mai I had open searches in Twitter for the city and related terms. By the time I got here I already knew dozens of people on the ground and have had fun getting to meet them in person. And of course, whatever business you’re building while travelling, set aside time and effort to get to know the network of people already involved in that area.

There’s a lot more to say about the different kinds of digital nomads, and the different kinds of businesses they are building, but I’ll keep those for future posts.

Your Government vs. Your Tech Provider

We might be facing the most largest tectonic shift in the power structures in the modern era since World War One finally ended the old empires of Europe. But this isn’t a conflict between the interests of nation states. It’s a power struggle over you, and the question of to who you owe your primary loyalty as a citizen. And it’s playing out between your government and your tech provider.

The NSAs invasive surveillance techniques may, on the surface, seem like a national security story. And in one regard it is. But the real national security threat is not terrorism. The real power struggle here is between the established power of the nation state, and the emerging powers of what we might begin to call the “technological state”.

Today Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, LinkedIn, Twitter and AOL made a major counterstrike in this conflict by backing radical legislation to reign in the powers of the NSA. This marks a transition point. For at least the last two years the tech giants have conceded to government demands for their cooperation in surveillance. Now these companies are testing whether, in the ultimate measure, their power is greater than the NSAs. At least to determine who can access their user’s data. To have taken this step, they must already believe they are likely to win.

The history of human politics shows us forming ever larger political groupings. From family cluster to tribe. From tribe to kingdom. From kingdom to empire. From empire to nation state. From nation state to super national identities – the United States of American, the European Union, the Association of South East Asian States. But there is every reason to suppose that digital information technology will allow the next stage of this political evolution to transcend geographic boundaries. The technological state will not exist on any map of the planet. Instead it’s border are much more like to be plotted by shared economic interests and political ideals.

Today Google provides your information (search) and your communication (email). Tomorrow it could easily provide your transportation (self-driving cars) and your currency (bitcoin or some variation of the same). These are all major functions of government, quickly being filtered away to tech companies, for the simple reason that these organisations are structurally specialised to develop the needed technology. It makes perfect sense that these competing power structures begin to test one another’s boundaries. The NSA story is simply among the earliest and most high profile examples.

This isn’t to say your government is going away. But it is almost certain to cede large parts of its powers to the emerging technological states. Will you one day have a Google passport? Will you be a citizen of Apple? Some might argue you already are. Perhaps the more important question is, which of these powers should you support? If your ultimate interest is in individual freedom, it seems at this time that the self-interest of the tech giants is more likely to provide the future you need. If your concern is more socially focussed, to the greater good of the community, the rhetoric of governments is a stronger siren call. But realistically, it’s only by keeping such great powers balanced against one another that most people will remain free and society will retain its cohesion. At the moment it seems government has accrued a little too much power, but no doubt sooner rather than later the tech giants will need radically reigning in. But not today.

Writing and the attention economy

As a writer you are asking for the most valuable commodity your readers have. Time. Each of us gets a finite portion. No sum of money can buy us any more. And the demands on it are ever greater.

The novel evolved at a period in history when the constituency of its readers had much more time to waste. Karl Marx would dub them the ‘bourgeoisie’, the section of society who owned the means of production, so profited vastly from industry in the 18th and 19th centuries. The middle and upper classes had time on their hands and little to do with it. The novel became one of the most popular ways of being idle.

The bourgeoisie no longer exists in quite the same way, and it and the proletariat both have innumerable ways of occupying whatever free time is left from work. Yes, there are dozens of forms of entertainment. Films, music, games, sports. But there are also more and more ways for people to invest their time in improving themselves. Is your book really going to compete with the vast range of information available to me for free on Wikipedia? Or the infinite social networks accessible through Facebook and Twitter?

Information of all kinds is becoming a post-scarce resource. While the time it takes to absorb information becomes scarcer and scarcer. And yet many writers still behave as though their product was scarce and the time of readers unlimited. Writing two novels, four novellas and ten short stories a year is great productivity. But completely counter-productive in an attention economy. Because if I read one story by you and its any less than excellent, I’m very unlikely to read another. Your first novel is very important to you, but as a commodity in the attention economy its almost certainly worth less than the value of my time to read it. Which is why the vast majority of material written and published every day on the internet disappears without a trace.

The philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal once wrote, “I did not have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.” As a writer working in the attention economy you should take Pascal’s remark as the first rule of your professional life. Take the time to write a short letter to the world. Churning out fiction can give you the comforting illusion of progress. No doubt you’ll find one market or other to publish it. But think about the writing you really love and value enough to come back to again and again. How long do the best authors take to create their work? Why should you aim to be anything less than the best? Every word you write is asking for the gift of the reader’s time. Make sure it’s worth it.

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500th Post – Are blogs good for writers?

Well. This is my 500th blog post.

HHUUUURRRRAAAAHHHHHHHHH!!!!!

Coincidentally, it’s also effectively four years since I started blogging. I opened my blog in April 2006, but did not really start using it fully until August that year, when I moved from Blogger to WordPress. Looking back at my first post, it was quite clear I had no idea what to do with a blog. Book reviews coming soon. How insightful!

I began blogging because I wanted a focus for my writing. In 2006 I was starting to gather short fiction publications, and was taking the idea of writing more seriously. After a short conversation with M. John Harrison at the 2006 Eastercon, I decided I wanted to review and write critically about genre fiction. A blog, I thought, would be a good platform for both. And all things considered I think it was a good call.

Blogging often comes under fire, especially for fiction writers, as a distraction and a waste of time. At an average of 500 words per post, my 500 posts to date equals 250,000 words. Or 2 novels and a short story collection. Or 1 fantasy blockbuster. Or 1/10th of a Neal Stephenson tome. Surely I could have written those instead? Perhaps. They say it takes 1,000,000 to complete a writers apprenticeship. All told, including fiction (most of which will never see the light of day), professional and academic writing and now this blog, I’m probably getting close to that. So those 500 posts served at least one purpose, and I very much doubt I would have banged out the next Lord of the Rings instead if I had not started the blog at all.

But as a 500th post celebration, I’d like to share some thoughts on what blogging has helped me achieve as a fiction writer.

A Focus and a Record of Progress – At last years World Fantasy Convention, Ann Vandermeer gave a group of us Clarionauts an informal pep talk about the writing life. Writing, she said, is a long career. Things you do and learn in your twenties can still be paying dividends in your fifties and sixties or beyond. Everything you do as a writer is one more step on the path (I paraphrase, but this was the sense of Ann’s wisdom). I truly agree with this sentiment. I have been writing with serious intent for seven years, with the standard lifetime of generalised ‘I Wanna Be A Writer’ ambition before that. But beginning to blog was an undeniable catalyst for my development as a writer. Writing is easy to lose sight of, amidst the chaos of real life. But just the act of regularly updating a blog can be enough to bring you back to your goal. And it provides somewhere to reflect on your progress towards that goal. You could reflect in a private journal of course, but the public nature of a blog makes the reflection more focussed. You can, as I have done, set writing goals which you then utterly fail to achieve (three NaNoWriMo’s and two novel drafts to date…) but even those can play a part. And it’s a permanent record of what you have achieved. and in my case at least, it has contributed to progress. I’m certain I would not have had the experience to blog for The Guardian, or the focus to get to Clarion in 2008, without starting this blog first.

Research - there is a lot to learn about writing. Books to read. Genres to study. Techniques to acquire. History to get familiar with. In speculative fiction alone, there is more material than you might hope to cover in an under-graduate degree. Add in general literary theory and criticism, and keeping up outside the genre, and the task of really learning the field is no little thing. I’ve used my blog as a repository for a lot of my learning. Each new post represents an aspect of learning, and ideas that have come up as I’ve been studying various areas of SF. Again, the public nature of a blog gives it an edge over a private journal in this regard. You don’t really understand something until you have written it down coherently enough for someone else to understand.

Community – but the most valuable aspect of this blog has been the extended community of writers and others, mostly in the SF community, that it has connected me with. Something I think it’s important to make clear is that a blog is not a promotional tool. Most of the people both blogs and social networks connect you with are not ‘fans’ (for lack of a less cringeworthy term), but peers. Other writers of similar experience, and a few of much more experience. Social networks, primarily Facebook and Twitter, are also valuable for connecting with your community as a writer. But a blog makes a good base to work from. Whilst it may sound sentimental, when I chat with people on Twitter it feels like having a conversation in the street. But discussing things here on the blog feels like inviting people into my home.

Focus, Research, Community. Three genuine benefits of keeping a blog as a fiction writer that I have found invaluable. I’d like to know the opinions of others on this topic of course, positive or negative.

Where next for my blog? I have the serious intention of being able to look at this blog when I’m sixty, and read back through 10,000 or so posts, at an entire career in writing (and possibly some non-writing related occurrences!). I think that would be quite something. But, I’m also intending to put the blog on hold for periods to give undivided attention to fiction writing when it is required. But until that time, I’ll continue to enjoy sharing these posts with whoever wants to read them.

Goodnight all.