Always outnumbered. Generally overdresssed.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Don't Panic

I was a very wakeful child. This along with my propensity for arson, lying, my bone collection and the habit of introducing myself to strangers using an assumed name, caused my parents some concern.

To treat my insomnia they'd leave a tape recorder playing The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy in my room at night. Tape recorders in those days would turn over automatically, ad infinitum. This was when I was 5 or 6.

Having listened to it several thousand times I can sort of re-read it now, mentally, at leisure. I imagine if I was mountaineering and fell down an ice chasm I would hear it in my head as I died.

And that would be annoying for me, because it’s a fairly geeky book, full of set-up gags and people with names like 'Zaphod Beeblebrox', 'Slarty Bartfast' and 'Ford Prefect'. It does have some wonderful ideas in it though.

One of the best ideas in it is that a race of superbeings (in fact, mice) create a computer called Deep Thought, in order to answer the question of the meaning of life. The computer goes to work. Thousands of years later it emerges from its deliberation to announce, to the great-great-great-great-great grandchildren of its original programmers, that it has arrived at an answer to the question of the meaning of life.

The answer, it says, is 42.

The silence is broken by a veritable fusillade of forehead slapping as the scientists realise the error their hapless ancestors have made. In their utterly results-orientated scientific way they'd failed to ask Deep Thought something really important. Namely, what the question that the answer to question of the meaning of life answered was.

Chastened, they begin, with Deep Thought’s help, to design a new computer. This computer is called The Earth.

The assumption then, is that the planet we inhabit is a massive organic computer designed to generate questions and not answers, with human beings and other lifeforms in place of electric currents and microchips.

I've always really liked this idea, so when I saw the news last week that scientists have developed a bacterial computer that uses DNA to answer complex questions at astonishing speed it got me thinking.

I like advertising, I like working in advertising, but I sometimes I find it overwhelmingly futile.

So we advertise things, so companies can sell things, so an economy can keep running at an unnaturally high speed, so we can sell more things, money can circulate and everyone can have the things that we sell that constitute the modern idea of comfort and happiness, which is in fact a fiction that we've created to sell more things.

(I'm sure even doctors get a similar species of feeling sometimes. 'I keep making people better but they all get sick and die in the end', but where as if you saw a doctor at the bar looking all haggard and introspective and saying he was engaged in a pointless activity you might be inclined to clap him on the shoulder and say, 'what you do is a good thing and a fundamental service to humanity', if you saw an adman doing the same thing you might look him in the eye and say, 'yes, yes, this is the chance you've been waiting for to do that TEFL course and move to Chad. Do it now, today, here's the money, please go.')

So I've got sort of attached to the idea that futility is in fact the point of advertising. That if it is not meant to waste money it is an absurdly badly designed industry, where as, if the purpose of it is to waste money, to some more mysterious end, then it does its job beautifully. I've written about this here and here, if you're interested.

Writing on advertising has also made me realise that there are distinct creative trends that supersede one another in much the same way they do in art and science. In Scientology they would call these different ways of doing things technologies:

The importance of application in Scientology comes from the fact that L. Ron Hubbard developed as part of the religion an actual technology that enables one to use his discoveries to better oneself and others. Technology means the methods of application of the principles of something, as opposed to mere knowledge of the thing itself.

(from the Scientology website)

The conclusion (which is starting to feel a bit manic) that I'm coming to, is that perhaps advertising does not support industry, but that industry supports advertising.

Advertising is art powered by capitalism.
All art is religious art.
Advertising is a religious activity.

UPDATE: In weird bit of random synchronicity it turns out Pan MacMillan are reissuing The Hitchhiker's Guide books with fancy new sticker covers, causing Bomber! Magazine to k-nick the title of this post. Almost but not quite infinitely improbable, as Douglas Adams might have written.


gareth said...

how is all art religious?

Gordon Comstock said...

If it has a practical purpose it is religious art, advertising, or propaganda.

If it's not one of those things its purpose is mysterious.

Religious people might say that any human activity done in the pursuit of beauty is done for the glorification of God.

Yeah, ok, it's a bit of a fudge.

worm said...

damn fine post

In the kingdom of the blind, the one eyed man is king

Anonymous said...

Reminds me a bit of this...

Anonymous said...

Why bring Scientology into it?!

Gordon Comstock said...

Because I like that use of the word 'technology' and I was sort of thinking of making this the first in a series of posts about advertising 'technologies'.

Also I reckon if you mention scientology you hear more from mentalist commentators like your good self.

EJR said...

"We've turned consumption into a necessity, and how we define ourselves."

EJR said...

"Advertising is an instrument for construction of people's everyday reality, so we could use the same media to construct a cultural paradigm in which conspicuous consumption is despised," he says. "We've got to make people ashamed to be seen as a 'future eater'."

something to be busying yourself with