Deborah Morrison is the chambers distinguished professor of advertising at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication. Recently, she wrote a piece for Co.Create in which she calls on advertising people to transcend the consumption cycle and train the full might of their creative firepower on what she calls the great and wicked issues of our day. You know the ones: Global warming. Hunger. Energy. Gun violence. Mass extinctions. Overpopulation.
As I write this, Dr. Morrison and nine advertising students are in Alaska studying climate change. They’re learning how to find the stories in the science—stories that most of us would never see, and not because they aren’t compelling. On the contrary, they’re beyond compelling, the stuff of nightmares without end. The stories are there all right, but they’re mute and colorless and shapeless, entombed beneath a mountain range of data. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Data can do many things. It can prove theorems, send rockets to the stars and cure diseases of every stripe. What it can’t do is light a fire under the collective ass of society. Data can’t do that, but stories and ideas can.
Humans have been telling stories for thousands of years, sharing them orally even before the invention of writing. In one way or another, much of people’s lives are spent telling stories—often about other people. In her paper “Gossip in Evolutionary Perspective,” evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar found stories’ direct relevance to humans: Social topics—especially gossip—account for 65 percent of all human conversations in public places.
Stories can be a way for humans to feel that we have control over the world. They allow people to see patterns where there is chaos, meaning where there is randomness. Humans are inclined to see narratives where there are none because it can afford meaning to our lives—a form of existential problem-solving. In a 1944 study conducted by Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel at Smith College, 34 college students were shown a short film in which two triangles and a circle moved across the screen and a rectangle remained stationary on one side of the screen. When asked what they saw, 33 of the 34 students anthropomorphized the shapes and created a narrative: The circle was “worried,” the “little triangle” was an “innocent young thing,” the big triangle was “blinded by rage and frustration.” Only one student recorded that all he saw were geometric shapes on a screen.
Downloading a high-definition movie takes about seven seconds in Seoul, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Zurich, Bucharest and Paris, and people pay as little as $30 a month for that connection. In Los Angeles, New York and Washington, downloading the same movie takes 1.4 minutes for people with the fastest Internet available, and they pay $300 a month for the privilege, according to The Cost of Connectivity, a report published Thursday by the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute.
The report compares Internet access in big American cities with access in Europe and Asia. Some surprising smaller American cities — Chattanooga, Tenn.; Kansas City (in both Kansas and Missouri); Lafayette, La.; and Bristol, Va. — tied for speed with the biggest cities abroad. In each, the high-speed Internet provider is not one of the big cable or phone companies that provide Internet to most of the United States, but a city-run network or start-up service.
The reason the United States lags many countries in both speed and affordability, according to people who study the issue, has nothing to do with technology. Instead, it is an economic policy problem — the lack of competition in the broadband industry.
Many of my international friends frequently make note of how much I pay for subpar broadband, and then they tell me about their access and how inexpensive it is. So much of technological advancement is dependent on access to the internet and yet, despite millions of smart devices being sold every year in the US, we still have to accept questionable practices in broadband delivery.