A SLOG (short blog) on technology

Today we are fascinated by the dizzying pace of change. The Internet is the new Industrial Revolution. Wired is as influential as The Economist. Brands like Uber, Facebook, Ocado, Tinder, dominate our lives. Brilliantly innovative technology companies with cars, cat videos, groceries and casual sex attached. What we once read as niche, inky, badly spelled, loss-making newspapers are now 100m reader-strong (still loss-making) global media platforms. The new iPhone is celebrated with more excitement and media coverage than a groundbreaking new drug that will save millions (or, I suspect, the Second Coming). Cannes is as much a tech event as a creative awards showcase.

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Yes we live at an exciting time, and we are very clever.

But get this. In just three short years, 1895 to 1897, three groundbreaking discoveries occurred. X-rays, radioactivity and the electron. The second winning the first Nobel Prize for a woman, Marie Curie. Three years.

So be excited about the post-Internet technology revolution. But read history as well. We are not as clever as we think. We are not yet “The Supermen”.

Social customer service

In all the excitement about Twitter – a gift to gobby Mancunians everywhere – over its short life to date, some marketeers quickly cottoned on to its potential for enhancing or even replacing existing customer service infrastructure. Why have expensive human beings sitting around just waiting for calls and drinking the firm’s terrible coffee, or customers forced to listen to shit jazz while they wait half an hour as some bit of AI tells them they are sorry about the wait, you are a deeply valued customer etc, then connects you to a bad line in outer Mongolia and they hang up on you, when you could manage it more instantaneously and engagingly (and cheaply) via Twitter.

Bit like…..why have all that messy democracy and the expense of a bunch of suits on private jets and big shouty White House press conferences when you can have some old bigot on a toilet with a smartphone.

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Indeed, the theory is sound. Twitter is absolutely my favourite SoMe platform, I spend so much time on it my assistant Kylie has threatened to break my arm and I was thinking of auditioning to be a judge on The Voice (love that show, bloody love it. Max to win.) Twitter could have a good run at being the 8th Wonder of the World. It is democratic, intelligent, fast, versatile, marvellous.

On the other hand it is used by most of the worst racist, sexist, homophobic, semi -literate, unpleasant, ranty, bigoted, stupid, broadcast-mode (on an engagement platform!), self obsessed, authoritarian wankers in the world. They use cars and phones and toilet paper also. We should blame cars and phones and toilet paper????

As my (clearly disappointed ☹️) first girlfriend once said, it ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it. To paraphrase, it’s not your number of characters that matter, it’s what you say with them.

People say things on Twitter,  Facebook and other platforms they would never – apart from the worst of the racist, sexist, etc etc twats on Twitter (“TATs”) – say face to face or even down the phone. AI is no substitute for empathy.

This week I have directly addressed, in politest Byrne-speak, four major brands as a customer – a major transport organisation, a world class media brand, a major high street brand and one of many runners up in the The UK’s Crappiest Train Operator awards. Not one has tweeted, messaged back. That is not engagement. You may think your customer is demanding, fickle, maybe a bit bolshy, but you don’t ignore them on one of the world’s most public and democratic platforms.

With Twitter brands can engage with fans, customers, detractors, potential customers, where they are and right now. Yet so many just use it as another one way blah blah marketing platform, and overlook that it can help to make your brand human, it can engage and inform, in an instant. Sometimes they do get it but download it to some poor intern not yet steeped in the science of great customer service and experience.

So frankly I was pissed off. I get more engagement with my mum on Twitter than with a train company I spend fucking thousands of pounds a year on.

I was mildly ranting about this with my friend Kate in the office. She had a different story. She was walking past a building site and the builders, wittingly or unwittingly, covered her in cement dust. She was pretty pissed, as this is one stylish, smart and strong woman. She yelled at them. She reached for her Twitter Machine ready to blast the buggers into Kingdom Come.

But then she did something less fashionable but more effective. She called the building company. She talked to a person. They had a civil conversation and the customer service guy followed up with an email apologising again and promising an investigation into what could have been a serious accident.

Good customer service. Good engagement. Person to person.

So while I enjoy a good old twitter rant about my duffo train company, and get loads of retweets from Twitter accounts just set up to lampoon and digitally flay them alive, truth is it is all heat and noise. The buggers aren’t listening and don’t feel they have to.

So, Twitter can be a great customer engagement tool. But if a brand just isn’t listening, if the Twitter account was the idea of the Chairman’s clever grandson Rupert and a SoMe token gesture, it just makes bad customer experience even worse.

 

Life, love, loss, death and movies

Despite once having tried to earn a crust reviewing gigs, plays and movies, I don’t write much about movies. These days the telly has writing like those two greats, the first respective episodes of The Sopranos and The Affair, so less need for movies. But Arrival impressed me so much I am still chewing it over. The best stories do that. They resonate and reverberate. An instantly  forgotten story, a confection once tasted soon mentally discarded,  is a poor story.

I say best story. It wasn’t the best film. After a brilliant opening scene that could have fronted any genre of movie – five minutes of brilliant writing which is a mini movie in itself – it developed into an intelligent but occasionally hackneyed movie: a hundred and twenty years on from the publication of War of the Worlds by HG Wells, aliens are still being served up as things with tentacles that you might find in the chiller cabinet of a sushi restaurant.

Arrival

Arrival

But that opening five minutes of love and loss! As an aspirant writer I had to acknowledge that a couple of Hollywood scriptwriters achieved a better written, more condensed and compelling story than I might write in a lifetime.

Arrival is not a sci-fi movie. It’s a reflection on life – and communication – told against the backdrop of alien contact. The best in the genre are – 2001; A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, ET, all were about life and death and people stuff, not face ripping baddy aliens with ray guns  or Cold War paranoia. (I wonder if in Trump’s America we will see a resurgence of that 1950′s space age cowboy movie?Cue Independence Day 3, 4, 5…)  As a non American, I thought Arrival was the best film on the current American psyche (walls, communication and miscommunication, let’s kick those goddam aliens out of town etc) since American Beauty.

In the early seventies three artistic events shaped my early teens: David Bowie/Ziggy Stardust, and the films 2001 and A Clockwork Orange – two directed by that most artistically visual of directors Stanley Kubrick, and one heavily influenced by both films.
In my little world I can draw a straight line from 2001 in the late sixties to Arrival in 2017, via Close Encounters and, yes, ET.

2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey

They are similar in that they use extra terrestrials as a cypher but they are really about human existence, behaviour, loves, hopes, fears and death, existentialism and evolution (or not in our human case. With Trump, Putin, Syria, ISIS, global warming, famine, North Korea, the almost fashionable misogyny we see in the media and all around us, how does evolution look to you right now?)

They differ in that 2001 starts from the bleak Cold War perspective that we have fucked it all up and now it’s time for the Supermen to take over ( cue numerous Bowie songs from the earliest albums onwards). Close Encounters is also about the banality of life without hope, but the possibility of a better life, maybe even life after death. ET kinda the same but with cuddly toy merchandise potential. Arrival is a reflection on love, loss and resurrection, on communication and connection vs miscommunication. All focus on the bigger better hopeful world beyond our hum drum, sadness soaked existence and meaningless human interchanges (the aliens talk in light, music, circles in these movies, the humans exchange bland bollocks and threats).

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Another similarity is powerful symbolism and visual imagery – a black monolith, a brooding mountain, in Arrival, black hovering ellipses – but that’s a whole other essay!

There will be better films – Moonlight and Hidden Figures I am particularly looking forward to – this year but from the perspective of not just our relations with each other, but life, the universe and (the meaning of ) everything, Arrival will stay with me for a long while just as 2001 has done (I can list out almost every frame let alone scene) across a lifetime.

These days more than ever, at least since impending nuclear oblivion haunted the fifties through to the eighties, popular culture as well as higher art can show us there is more to human existence than just surviving the next bucket of shit waiting around the corner. Not bad for two hours in the dark with a big Coke and a bag of popcorn.