debbie millman

Friday, March 14, 2008

We Create Our Technology. Our Technology Recreates Us.

Client No. 9

It is possible that one could argue that the YouTube era didn’t really begin in February of 2005 (the month the site was launched), or even in 2003 (the year in which William Gibson deftly outlined the basic framework of a similar site in his novel Pattern Recognition). One could make a case that the YouTube era was born on March 3, 1991—way before Netscape or America Online or web standards existed. This is the day that Rodney King was brutally beaten by several Los Angeles policemen and the day that George Holliday, a private citizen who happened to be looking out of his window when the beating occurred, captured the entire episode on videotape. And while some might suggest that YouTube's crowning achievement is the appointment of YOU as Time Magazine's Person of the Year, history may suggest that the defining moment for the toddler brand was the moment the uncensored, unedited cell phone footage of the hanging of Saddam Hussein was posted to the site.

In analyzing the videotape of the Rodney King beating, one could assess it as a serendipitous recording of a tragic event. But when the 35-second film was released to the public, it sent shockwaves and horror throughout the nation. It quickly became a defining moment both in the politics of law enforcement and in domestic race relations. The video was an example of inverse surveillance, and the filming of real-life events by “real people” has quickly become one of the leading indicators of cultural trends. The way in which the general public has utilized the mass availability of information for cultural discourse is now highly measurable. Michael Richard’s racist diatribe, Senator George Allen's racial slurs, Geraldine Ferrarro’s bigoted remarks, the downward spiral of a Miss America contestant, even Rosie O’Donnell’s split screen debate with Elizabeth Hasselbeck on The View are all examples of how the impact of instantaneous access can influence a career or ruin a political campaign in less than a day, often in mere hours. Political blogger Ed Driscoll says it best: "In an era of demassified individual publishing, the safety net that the liberal mass media provided its favorite sons no longer exists.”

We are now living in an age of behavioral transparency. We participate in a culture of speed to market, speed of thought, speed of satiation. We can now shop, watch movies, pay bills, meet a soul mate, hire an escort or have sex online. This lack of personal privacy and mass consumption of information has changed the way we relate, perceive and live. I look around and witness the immersion of our lives and our culture into a fascinating galaxy fueled by technology. And what I see is this: our whole world can be compressed into a singularity of pixels. Winston Churchill once said, “We create our buildings, then our buildings create us,” but I believe that nearly the same thing can be said of technology: We create our technology and our technology recreates us.

Funnily enough, what hasn’t changed in all of this electronic and intellectual advancement is the fact that we are still human. WE are not machines. Though we are the composers, the inventors, the arbiters and the instigators of these new mediums, we have yet to be able to outsmart them. We still react to the information that is provided or uncovered by our inventions. Despite the progressive nature of this innovation, the standards of our humanity remain deeply entrenched, consistent and predictable.

Just a few days ago, New York Governor Eliot Spitzer was another in a long line of sanctimonious politicians that was caught, literally and figuratively, with his pants down, for spending $80,000 with a 22-year-old prostitute named Ashley Alexandra Dupre. We’ve learned a lot about Ashley since the news broke, mostly from her defunct MySpace page and her blog. We also learned that Spitzer was undone by both his lust and a telephone wiretap. Perhaps the public wouldn’t be so outraged if Spitzer hadn’t been so duplicitous. Perhaps his indiscretion and criminal behavior are not the cause of our collective culture shock. Eliot Spitzer was a governor who pretended he was a machine; that he was above the very laws he crusaded. But Eliot Spitzer is only human, like all of us, and ultimately, he got caught in a real-life event. And in doing so, he displayed a profound disregard for the standards set up to organize our lives. Perhaps it is really his hubris that is at the heart of our vehement condemnation.

As we compose our views of reality online and from TV shows, as we weave our myths, hopes and dreams into our profiles on Facebook and Bebo, as we project our fantasies and lusts on MySpace and YouTube, as we tap out our needs and demands into our Blackberry’s and iPhones, as we choose our political and cultural leaders based on savvy public relations and brand campaigns, let’s remember our frailty and strengths and foibles and failings. Let’s remember our humanity. And let’s try and be careful. But if you can’t, please try and ensure that there are no video cameras or cellphones near by.


Blogger Tania Rochelle said...

Oh no! If you can't be careful and ethical--I hope there are cell phones and cameras nearby!

3/18/2008 02:07:00 PM  

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Location: new york city, United States

Debbie Millman has worked in the design business for over 25 years. She is President of the design division at Sterling Brands. She has been there for nearly 15 years and in that time she has worked on the redesign of global brands for Pepsi, Procter & Gamble, Campbell’s, Colgate, Nestle and Hasbro. Prior to Sterling, she was a Senior Vice President at Interbrand and a Marketing Director at Frankfurt Balkind. Debbie is President of the AIGA, the largest professional association for design. She is a contributing editor at Print Magazine, a design writer at and Brand New and Chair of the Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. In 2005, she began hosting the first weekly radio talk show about design on the Internet. The show is titled “Design Matters with Debbie Millman” and it is now featured on In addition to “Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design,” (HOW Books, 2009, she is the author of "How To Think Like A Great Graphic Designer" (Allworth Press, 2007) and “The Essential Principles of Graphic Design” (Rotovision, 2008).

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