Can you read and write a book at the same time?

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I’m reading a very interesting book by Jeff Jarvis, ‘The Gutenberg Parenthesis’. It’s a fascinating analysis of the world before print, the impact of print and the potential of the internet and AI to take us back closer to the way the world was before print.

In the world we are entering, “Everyone can be connected. One-to-many is replaced by any-to-any and any-to-many”.

Jarvis’ argument (backed up by legions of other scholars) is that print created a linear world in contrast to the more fluid, non-linear, more conversational world before Gutenberg. The tradition of the ancient Greek Philosophers was based on “conversations as a tool of friendship, learning and ultimately democracy”. In the new world the ability to converse dynamically and globally can create amazing new possibilities for the advancement of society although undoubtedly there will be some big bumps along the way.

Anyway, this got me thinking. With AI and its access to everything that is on the internet the very idea of a book can be reinvented as more of a conversation. You can read it whilst also helping to write it. So, I gave it a go using, ironically, Bard AI.

I started the story off and we went backwards and forwards until we had written a completed short story. It is not , I must acknowledge, a very good story but then it took less than 10 minutes.

This is how I started the story off:-

Ronny comes home late from work and walks into his house. There is nothing and nobody there, the house is entirely empty. Not only are his wife and kids nowhere to be seen, there is literally nothing in the house, it was as bare as the day it was built.

I’ll show the ‘to and fro’ at the end but here is the story we came up with. For a bit of fun, I asked Bard to write the completed short story in two different styles, Ian Fleming and Shakespeare.

The Spy Who Saved His Family

Ronny was a brilliant scientist who worked for a government agency. He was also a kind and gentle man, devoted to his family.

One day, Ronny came home from work to find his house empty. His wife and kids were gone, and everything had been taken. The police were unable to find any clues, and they suspected that Ronny’s wife had left him and taken the children with her.

Ronny was devastated. He didn’t know what to do. He started to investigate on his own, and eventually he learned that his family had been kidnapped by terrorists. The terrorists were demanding a ransom of $10 million, and they threatened to kill Ronny’s family if he didn’t pay it.

Ronny didn’t have $10 million, but he knew that he had to do something to save his family. He tracked down the terrorists and confronted them. He told them that he didn’t have the ransom money, but he offered them a trade. He would give them something even more valuable: information.

Ronny told the terrorists about all of the classified information that he had access to. He told them about government secrets, military plans, and everything else he knew. The terrorists were impressed. They agreed to release Ronny’s family in exchange for the information.

Ronny’s family was safe, but they were changed. They had been through a lot, and they would never be the same. Ronny was also changed. He had learned that the world was a dangerous place, and that he could never take anything for granted.

Ronny continued to work for the government, but he was more careful now. He knew that there were people who would do anything to get their hands on the information he had access to. But he was also more determined than ever to protect his family and his country.

The End

The Tragedy of Ronny

Ronny was a man of science, A brilliant mind, a gentle heart. He loved his wife and children well, And they were his life’s true start.

But one day, a tragedy did strike, His family was taken by force. The terrorists demanded a ransom, But Ronny had no such source.

He was distraught, he knew not what to do, He could not bear to lose his loved ones too. But then, an idea came to him, A plan that just might work, if he were keen.

He would give the terrorists what they wanted, But not in the way that they thought. He would give them information, The most valuable information he had.

The terrorists were impressed, They agreed to release his family in exchange. Ronny’s family was safe, But they were changed forever.

Ronny was changed too, He had learned that the world was a dangerous place. But he was also determined, To protect his family and his country, With all of his heart and soul.

The End

As I say, not that great but we are at the beginning of this new technology and new world. Contrary to what most people are predicting, Jarvis maintains that the impact of technology is much slower than we think. He sees us as being right at the beginning of the recreation (re-establishment) of a world that will take pretty much as long as it did for Gutenberg’s printing press to determine (and constrain) the world we are leaving. My perspective is this, we’ve had mobile phones since the early 1980’s. It has taken over 40 years for them to progress from an unwieldy brick-like contraption with very limited reach and functionality to the sleek smart phones we have now. In terms of AI we are right at the beginning, but think where we could be in a decade or two.

We could have fully interactive, non-linear books and films – that anyone could read/watch and write/create at the same time. Print levelled the playing field, it gave Martin Luther the opportunity to challenge the mighty Roman Church in his native German and not Latin, the language of the elite and powerful. Jarvis and many others point out that it was print’s ability to standardise language that created the foundation for nations drawn along different lines. AI can make knowledge, information and reach accessible to all (well almost all) and that too might create a very different looking world.

If you are interested, this is the longer version of the ‘to and fro’ I had with Bard to get to the short Ronny story.

Ronny stood in the doorway, stunned. He couldn’t believe his eyes. His house was empty. All of his belongings were gone. His wife and kids were nowhere to be seen. He felt a wave of panic wash over him. What had happened?

He started to search the house, calling out for his family. But there was no answer. He checked every room, but they were all empty. He even went into the basement and the attic, but they were just as bare.

Ronny didn’t know what to do. He was starting to feel scared. He called the police, but they couldn’t find any clues. They told him that his family had probably been abducted.

Ronny was devastated. He couldn’t imagine his life without his wife and kids. He spent the next few days searching for them, but he never found them. He eventually gave up hope and moved out of the house.

Ronny knew that his work was classified, but he couldn’t help but wonder if it had something to do with his family’s disappearance. He worked for a government agency that dealt with sensitive information, and he often had to travel to dangerous places. He had always been careful, but he knew that there were people who would do anything to get their hands on the information he had access to.

Ronny started to do some digging on his own. He talked to old friends and colleagues, and he even hired a private investigator. But he couldn’t find any concrete evidence to support his suspicions.

One day, Ronny was approached by a man who claimed to know what had happened to his family. The man said that they had been kidnapped by a group of terrorists who were trying to get their hands on information from Ronny’s work.

Ronny didn’t know if he could trust the man, but he didn’t have any other leads. He agreed to meet with the man, and he learned that everything he had suspected was true.

Ronny’s family had been kidnapped by terrorists, and they were being held hostage in a remote location. The terrorists were demanding a ransom of $10 million, and they threatened to kill Ronny’s family if he didn’t pay it.

Ronny didn’t have $10 million, but he knew that he had to do something to save his family. He went to the police, but they refused to help him. They said that he was on his own.

Ronny was desperate. He didn’t know what to do. He thought about giving up, but he knew that he couldn’t do that. He had to save his family.

Ronny decided to take matters into his own hands. He tracked down the terrorists and confronted them. He told them that he didn’t have the ransom money, but he offered them a trade. He would give them something even more valuable: information.

Ronny told the terrorists about all of the classified information that he had access to. He told them about government secrets, military plans, and everything else he knew. The terrorists were impressed. They agreed to release Ronny’s family in exchange for the information.

Ronny’s family was safe, but they were changed. They had been through a lot, and they would never be the same. Ronny was also changed. He had learned that the world was a dangerous place, and that he could never take anything for granted.

Ronny still works for the government, but he is more careful now. He knows that there are people who would do anything to get their hands on the information he has access to. But he is also more determined than ever to protect his family and his country.

Ronny was a kind and gentle man. He was devoted to his family, and he would do anything to protect them. He was also a brilliant scientist, and he had a deep understanding of the world around him.

The terrorists were a group of extremists who were fighting for a radical ideology. They believed that they were justified in using violence to achieve their goals. Their aim was to overthrow the government and establish a new order based on their beliefs.

The terrorists had kidnapped Ronny’s family in order to get their hands on the information he had access to. They knew that he was a valuable asset, and they were hoping that he would be willing to trade information for his family’s safety.

Ronny was faced with a difficult decision. He knew that if he gave the terrorists the information they wanted, he could be putting his country at risk. But he also knew that he had to do whatever it took to save his family.

In the end, Ronny decided to give the terrorists the information they wanted. He knew that it was the only way to ensure his family’s safety. The terrorists were true to their word, and they released Ronny’s family unharmed.

Ronny’s family was safe, but they were changed. They had been through a lot, and they would never be the same. Ronny was also changed. He had learned that the world was a dangerous place, and that he could never take anything for granted.

Ronny tracked down the terrorists using a combination of old-fashioned detective work and cutting-edge technology.

He started by talking to his friends and colleagues, hoping to find someone who had seen something suspicious. He also hired a private investigator to look into the matter.

The private investigator was able to track down the man who had approached Ronny and claimed to know what had happened to his family. The man gave Ronny some information about the terrorists, but he wasn’t able to provide any specific details.

Ronny then turned to technology. He used his government contacts to access surveillance footage from the area where his family had been kidnapped. He also used facial recognition software to try to identify the terrorists.

After a long and difficult search, Ronny was finally able to track down the terrorists. He confronted them and told them that he knew what they had done. The terrorists were surprised that Ronny had been able to find them, but they eventually agreed to release his family in exchange for classified information.

Yes, some people found out that Ronny had given up secret information to save his family. However, his superiors decided to keep it a secret, as they believed that it would be too damaging to Ronny’s reputation and career if it were made public.

There were no formal consequences for Ronny, as his superiors understood the difficult decision he had made. However, he was placed on probation for a period of time, and he was required to undergo additional security training.

Ronny was grateful that his superiors had kept his secret. He knew that he had made the right decision to give up the information in order to save his family, and he was relieved that he would not be punished for it.

The experience had a profound impact on Ronny. He realized that the world was a dangerous place, and that he could never take his family for granted. He was also more determined than ever to protect his country from harm.

Ronny continued to work for the government, and he eventually rose to a position of high responsibility. He never forgot the sacrifice he had made to save his family, and he always used his position to protect the innocent and uphold the law.

Is it time to be seriously worried about AI?

They say the time to get worried on an airplane is when the crew look scared. So if 1,100 of the top technology leaders and developers publish an open letter warning of the potential risks of AI to the future of the human race and calling for a 6 month moratorium on further AI development, people like Elon Musk and Steve Wozniak (but interestingly not Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg), it surely has to be time to be, at the very least, concerned.

The trigger for this major red flag would appear to be the release of ‘ChatGPT’ by OpenAI, the output of their Artificial Intelligence system, ‘GPT- 4’. Let’s unpack this. OpenAI is a research laboratory funded by the likes of Elon Musk and latterly Bill Gates/Microsoft. OpenAI is a not-for-profit organisation but it has a very much for-profit subsidiary, OpenAI Limited Partnership that commercialises what the lab develops. The launch of ChatGPT took the valuation of OpenAI LTD to over $29 billion. GPT-4 stands for ‘Generative Pre-Trained Transformer, 4th edition’ and it is a ‘multi-model large language model’ which in effect means something very, very intelligent that you can talk to through its chat box, ChatGPT. You can ask it questions and it will reply, like a kind of talking search engine (Google are very worried about it because their version, ‘Bard’, is by all accounts not as good). But ChatGPT can do much more, it can create stuff, letters, essays, stories, poems, it can even write code.

The Open Letter calls for GPT-4 to be the line in the sand, the signal to pause and figure out how this should all be governed, what oversight and guardrails need to be put in place to avoid AI getting out of control and to avoid unintended consequences.

I have been worried about AI for a long time and I have occasionally shared my concerns and what drives them in my blogs and eBooks. I’m not a technology expert by any stretch of the imagination but I do have a very elastic imagination (which in my defense Einstein said was important than knowledge). Imagination is fueled by, to give it the posh word, the zeitgeist. You sniff what is in the air culturally, join the dots and let your imagination do the rest. I can be more specific than that and point to three things, three realizations that joined some dots and got me worried about AI, social media and robotics.

The first realization was that if you see it in the movies (or in the pages of science fiction) it has a habit of coming true – science fiction more often than not becomes non-fiction. If you live long enough you see the widespread adoption of technologies that were wild ideas in old films, TV shows and books – digital photography (‘The Man who fell to Earth’), the iPhone (Star Trek), virtual reality (‘Brainstorm’), ChatGPT (computers like Hal in ‘2001 A space odyssey’ and just about every other deep space film or show). We can’t yet ‘beam me up Scotty’, nor do we have robots that are indistinguishable from humans, robots that can form and reform into any shape  or alien invasions intent on mining the earth so it hasn’t all become reality, yet…..

Nevertheless, it struck me that sci-fi is a kind of forward memory so when I watched movies like ‘Phenomenon’ or ‘Lucy’ it made me think about the possibility of the human brain working at 100% capacity but when I watched ‘The Matrix’, ‘Ex-machina’ or ‘Westworld’ I worried that machines would get there first because, motivated by power and greed, we would facilitate this.

The second realisation was that the internet was becoming a connected global brain (I’m not claiming to be the only person to have spotted this). On the one hand the internet was becoming the warehouse for every single thing anyone and everyone had ever written throughout history, every single human artefact, and on the other hand the world was increasingly uploading every thought, comment, experience and bit of data with the ability to search and connect all this, therefore we were/are witnessing the creation of the biggest brain imaginable. Not a human brain belonging to one person made up of soft tissues, cells, blood, nerves and neural pathways but a digital brain that combines the brains of every person past and present. The key to unlocking the power of this global digital brain would lie in the intelligence of whoever – or whatever – interrogated it. You need a powerful search engine and the most efficient intelligence using that engine – the human brain is highly efficient in some ways but it is nowhere near as fast as super computers with artificial intelligence. We may (at the moment) be able to ask smarter, more insightful and imaginative questions but at a maximum rate of 1000 per second (one synaptic transmission per millisecond) which is 10 million times slower than a computer. A computer can pose 10 billion questions in one second and process the answers just as fast.

“When someone points at the moon only the fool looks at the finger” Old Chinese Proverb.

Since I first came across this old proverb decades ago it has stuck in my mind. It resurfaced when thinking about social media and sparked my third realization. Like many people I was greatly affected by Netflix’ ‘The Social Dilemma’, so much so I wrote an eBook about it. In that eBook I touch on the idea of unfettered AI possibly being the beginning of the end of life as we know it but the main idea I put forward is that AI powered Social Media is the enemy of the kind of Socratic debate we desperately need to address the world’s challenges. The solutions I put forward are very simple a) we need to create the means for people to own and transact, on their own terms and for their own benefit, their personal data and b) there has to be regulation to force social media to be subscription based and not dependent on advertising – if you don’t pay for the product you are the product. Notwithstanding, my realisation was that if AI were used primarily for commercial purposes by organisations impervious to oversight, governance and, where necessary, regulation then the finger would not be not pointing at the moon, it would be pointing at existential jeopardy. My realisation was that the unintended negative consequences of AI driven Social Media was the canary in the cage and it just fell off its perch.

In times of trouble turn to the BBC (Radio 4 to be precise). In 2021 Stuart Russell delivered the Reith Lectures and his subject was AI and how to get it right. Russell is Professor of Computer Science at Berkeley and an expert in AI. I commend everyone to listen to his series of lectures. It reassured me somewhat but like most people, if you feel worried but powerless you gravitate to any wise person who says it will be, just might be, OK. Having read the Open Letter I have been jolted out of my fragile sense of security.

I am determined to end on something positive but I must first join some more dots that I see. The Transgender debate is toxic, it is nigh on impossible to make any kind of comment or observation without being branded a ‘transphobe’ but I will try nonetheless. Some people have commented that gender fluidity has tended to surface towards the end of a particular civilization or empire and have found examples of this (possibly with selective bias) going back thousands of years. Who knows whether transgender presages the decline and fall of empire but for sure it is not a new cultural phenomenon. I would simply make the obvious observation that if we are heading for a world where AI machines and robots increasingly replace humans then gender is irrelevant, even biological gender aka sex, because biology is irrelevant.

Right now I do not know whether to be more concerned about AI or Geo-Politics or Climate Change or another Pandemic (zoonotic or man-made) – we live in troubling times and for the most part I choose to worry more about whether Steve Borthwick can turn around the England Rugby Team in time to be competitive at the forthcoming World Cup. (If I had time I would explain that sport is honestly something that gives me faith in humanity, it shows that at our best we can embrace diversity and compete while still remaining friends).

But back to Geo-Politics, it is hard to ignore the threat of a global confrontation of ideologies. On the one hand you have China and Russia (and Iran, Saudi Arabia among a few others) who reject democracy in favour of a totalitarian and repressive form of government. Even if the more liberal democratic nations come together to respond responsibly to the challenge of AI can we assume the same will be true of totalitarian states? China has very deliberately amassed the tools to control its society through the control of all their data, they are hardly likely to hold back on the most advanced use of AI to further this aim and enable them to establish global hegemony. Anyone who doubts this just read ‘The Great China Plan’ – they pretty much spell it out. They invented the idea of ‘kow tow’ and they intend to bring it back.

If the west takes a 6 month moratorium, will China and Russia do the same or are we just handing them a lead at the most crucial time?

I said I would end on something positive, and it is this. As Social Apes we are only meant to be able to live in small groups of 100 or fewer. At the start of the first millennium the world population was about 100 million. The biggest city was Alexandria with about 1 million (similar to Rome 200 years later) but the few other cities that existed were much smaller than that, less than 100 thousand, most people lived in villages. By 1100 the world population was somewhere between 300 and 400 million and cities had not grown in size or number. In the 1940’s the world population had exploded to over 2 billion, today it is 7.9 billion, there are over 500 cities with more than a million people and 31 megacities with 10 million or so. Fewer than half of us live in rural villages, most of live in cities. How is this possible – technology.

Technology, including AI, perhaps especially AI, has the power to solve more problems than it creates. If we look at the some of the most troubling and intractable problems we face – climate change, health, food & water poverty –  it might be that only with the power of AI can we hope to address them. As the Open Letter ends:-

“Humanity can enjoy a flourishing future with AI. Having succeeded in creating powerful AI systems, we can now enjoy an “AI summer” in which we reap the rewards, engineer these systems for the clear benefit of all, and give society a chance to adapt.”

As for China, history shows repressive societies always fail. Forget Orwell’s ‘1984’ and its depressing ending where Winston Smith accepts his death in service of ‘The Party’ while selling everyone out. Read Karl Popper’s “Open society and its enemies’ written at the end of World War II – liberal democracies will always win (eventually) because they champion peaceful progress and that is what most of want and, ironically, will fight for.

In China there is no doubt the driving force behind AI is to control people, suppress government opposition (as we saw in Hong Kong) to support totalitarianism. In the West the driving force is commercial and in a democracy that can be controlled. It does however require international collaboration to create effective regulation and accountability.

While writing this post I had BBC Radio 4 on in the background and this very subject was being debated, the Open Letter and its ramifications. The conclusion was that it was welcome and timely and that it should and would engage democratic debate. Here’s hoping – at least some of the airplane’s crew look calm.

Edited version of the Open Letter

Pause Giant AI Experiments: An Open Letter

Advanced AI could represent a profound change in the history of life on Earth, and should be planned for and managed with commensurate care and resources. Unfortunately, this level of planning and management is not happening, even though recent months have seen AI labs locked in an out-of-control race to develop and deploy ever more powerful digital minds that no one – not even their creators – can understand, predict, or reliably control…….

………We call on all AI labs to immediately pause for at least 6 months the training of AI systems more powerful than GPT-4.

Contemporary AI systems are now becoming human-competitive at general tasks,[3] and we must ask ourselves: Should we let machines flood our information channels with propaganda and untruth? Should we automate away all the jobs, including the fulfilling ones? Should we develop nonhuman minds that might eventually outnumber, outsmart, obsolete and replace us? Should we risk loss of control of our civilization? Such decisions must not be delegated to unelected tech leaders. Powerful AI systems should be developed only once we are confident that their effects will be positive and their risks will be manageable……

………..Therefore, we call on all AI labs to immediately pause for at least 6 months the training of AI systems more powerful than GPT-4. This pause should be public and verifiable, and include all key actors. If such a pause cannot be enacted quickly, governments should step in and institute a moratorium.

AI labs and independent experts should use this pause to jointly develop and implement a set of shared safety protocols for advanced AI design and development that are rigorously audited and overseen by independent outside experts. These protocols should ensure that systems adhering to them are safe beyond a reasonable doubt. This does not mean a pause on AI development in general, merely a stepping back from the dangerous race to ever-larger unpredictable black-box models with emergent capabilities.

AI research and development should be refocused on making today’s powerful, state-of-the-art systems more accurate, safe, interpretable, transparent, robust, aligned, trustworthy, and loyal.

In parallel, AI developers must work with policymakers to dramatically accelerate development of robust AI governance systems. These should at a minimum include: new and capable regulatory authorities dedicated to AI; oversight and tracking of highly capable AI systems and large pools of computational capability; provenance and watermarking systems to help distinguish real from synthetic and to track model leaks; a robust auditing and certification ecosystem; liability for AI-caused harm; robust public funding for technical AI safety research; and well-resourced institutions for coping with the dramatic economic and political disruptions (especially to democracy) that AI will cause.

Humanity can enjoy a flourishing future with AI. Having succeeded in creating powerful AI systems, we can now enjoy an “AI summer” in which we reap the rewards, engineer these systems for the clear benefit of all, and give society a chance to adapt. Society has hit pause on other technologies with potentially catastrophic effects on society.  We can do so here. Let’s enjoy a long AI summer, not rush unprepared into a fall.

Jordan Peterson and the Ancient Greeks

Acclaimed, and controversial, academic Jordan Peterson has founded his own university, Ralston, with two campuses, one in Savannah, Georgia USA, and the other on Samos, a Greek island, home to the Goddess Hera, the philosopher Epicurus, the astronomer Aristarchus and the great mathematician Pythagoras. I suspect JP might also have a holiday home there.

The ambition behind this new humanities-focused university is the creation of a new unifying ethos (that is to say ‘character’ based on a coherent set of values) achieved by reconnecting with the Ancient Greek philosophers. Students are required to learn Classic Greek in order to study directly from the original texts of Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius et al.

I really like the sound of this. Indeed, if I was 40 years younger I’d be applying to enroll. There are sadly two problems with this wishful thinking. Firstly, 4O years ago I would have had no interest in philosophy, ancient Greek or otherwise, and having given up even Latin as soon as I could in my not-so-classical education the idea of having to learn Greek would too big a hill to climb. My interest in philosophy, Greek philosophy in particular, has grown slowly over the years as career gave way to time on my hands. If only we could live our lives backwards, starting with a lot more wisdom and some financial freedom and growing towards the youthful energy to make best use of both. Secondly, admission to Ralston is very limited and very meritocratic. I am not smart enough to get in I fear.

So I will just commend the opportunity to attend what sounds like a really interesting new, yet in terms of ethos, ancient University to those who are both younger and smarter than me.

I do admire Jordon Peterson and I am sure the personal one-on-one sessions students get with him will be a major draw card. Like the ancient Greek philosophers, he is trying to make sense of the world, to debate and  think his way through to a better vision for humanity. In the process he challenges intellectually weak thinking at either end of the political spectrum although it is the left who he seems most to antagonise. He walks head up, back straight (something he commends in ‘12 Rules for Life’) into the trans and feminist debates armed with the most irritating of weapons, well-researched facts and well-structured argument. Misogyny is only one of over 20 factors that explain the pay gap between men and women and by far the least important. There does appear to be a pattern of questioning gender when civilisations collapse as was the case with Greeks and Romans. Transgender and the right to self-identify is more of a decadent (my word) social contagion than a justified assertion of human rights by a significant and repressed minority (as was the case for homosexuals). He may or may not be right about the latter but he is entitled to air his opinions and his opinions are always worth listening to.

Yes, I’d love to be a student of his if I could go back in time but not so much Socrates. Challenging philosophical thinking might attract some very negative press and social media these days, as JP has discovered, but back in the day it got Socrates and some of his followers killed.

Falling in love with Bose – again

When it comes to ‘marketing and brands” I have a split personality. As a logophile (fascinated by the meaning of words) I must explain that the definition of personality is “individual differences in characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving”

One side of my marketing personality i.e. pattern of thinking, the dominant side in recent years, has been to think a lot about the fundamentals of brand adoption and brand commitment since this has been at the heart of my work on Deliberate Marketing, or ‘D-Marketing’ for short. My contention is that a great deal of physical waste and most of the wasted marketing spend, still roughly half of all spend, is due to there being no explicit agreement on what makes people buy things and keep buying them. There are lots of theories and models but very few businesses consciously identify through rigorous discussion which they agree on. If you don’t really understand why people buy/keep buying then how can you efficiently invest in marketing? There may never be a perfect and complete understanding but if you are not curious you never progress. So my message has been ‘Be deliberate, have a hypothesis, continually learn and improve”. This will save money and save the planet. If you want the full version or the fun version of this argument see the links in the last post.

The other side of my personality ito my pattern of thinking, pops up every now and again triggered by a personal experience of either falling in or out of love with a brand. From time to time it feels to me that I’m witnessing in myself something similar to the Hadron Colllider, a collision of brand protons that creates a reaction, either positive or negative. I blogged about one years ago (you can find it in ‘Big Fat Marketing Tweets’, the one about falling in love with BF Goodrich off-road tires having known nothing about tires or off-roading). This week I had another real time change of heart about a brand, in this case falling back in love with it, and again it was down to a particular collision of events and stimulus.

I have been loyal to Bose headphones for more than 30 years. It was through Bose that I discovered ‘noise-cancelling’ and at a time when I was starting to do a lot of long-haul travel it transformed my life. I could block out the world and relax. I think I am now on my fourth set of headphones having upgraded a few times as new features came along. My one criticism is that the lovely soft ear pads degrade over time especially if, like me, you have a sweaty head. The first time I took them back to the store in Regents Street to see if they could be refurbished I was told about their trade-in scheme. For not that much money I could swop my old headphones for a brand new pair with the latest features – brilliant and ahead of its time in terms of recycling (the old headphones were refurbished and resold apparently). I did this twice ending up with my current pair which offer brilliant sound, very decent battery life and are wireless. I’ve had them a few years but last week as I came off a flight my ears were covered in a kind of black dandruff, the ear pads had finally started to disintegrate. So I decided to go the Bose shop – in Cape Town – and see if I could get them repaired but knowing I might get tempted to trade up.

A lot has happened in headphones since I bought my first pair of Bose. Back then they were super expensive compared to anything else available but if you could afford them, and I could, they were the best. There were really only two ways they got used, either listening to music at home if you wanted the purest sound without disturbing anyone else or being disturbed by anyone else, or else for in-flight entertainment (my first pair had all the attachments, I’ve kept them, that allow you to plug into the socket on any aircraft when watching  a movie or listening to your own stuff on your i-pod/phone).

Now headphones are much more integrated into everyday life both work and play. People want to be connected to their music, pod casts, games, TV and social media anywhere anytime. Whether in the office or WFH headphones are an essential tool. There are now lots to choose from, from in-ear like air pods to over-ear like my own  ‘Quiet Comfort’ Bose pair (I can only use the bigger over-ear headphones, hate things in my ear) and noise cancelling is common place across all the brands.

Since I bought my last pair of Bose, probably 6 or 7 years ago now, two other things have changed for me and I think most people. Firstly I never buy anything important without checking the reviews on-line and secondly I feel more guilty if I make unnecessary purchases and don’t try to recycle (I said more guilty, not paralyzingly guilty, I still like buying things). Thinking I would get offered the chance to spend a bit more money and upgrade I thought I better check the reviews of the latest Bose headphones. Were they worth it, were there better alternatives? If there were then I’d treat myself knowing that I could recycle my old headphones.

The quickest of searches unearthed two very relevant pieces of information. Firstly, Sony had some new headphones that were getting better reviews than the latest Bose set. Sony were ‘more expensive but worth it if you can afford it’ was the general consensus, you have my interest. Was now the time to switch brands and end a 30 year-long love affair? Secondly Apple had bought Bose and were planning to merge them with Beats. Beats were the headphones American rapper Dr. Dre backed, he made a fortune when they were acquired by Apple for $3 billion in 2014. With the exception of some Eminem, I loathe rap music, in my view the ‘c’ is obviously silent. Headphones by rappers for rap are not for me. They could be the best, most durable and cheapest headphones in the world and I would not put them on my head let alone buy them. Sony make better headphones and Bose have sold out to Beats of all brands. Was it even worth going down to the Bose shop?

How differently this story might have ended had I chosen to stop there and buy on-line but I have recently had a few really bad experiences buying on-line and it was easy enough to go to the Bose shop and see if they could replace the ear pads and better still, check out the latest Bose headphones for myself. I like shops, especially specialist shops. I like talking to the kind of experts you get at a dedicated brand flagship store. Thank goodness I did and thank goodness Paul, the manager who had persuaded me it was worth trading up to my last pair of Bose, was still there. What did I learn from Paul?

  • The story of Apple buying Bose is b*******s, a false internet trope to put it more politely. MIT (the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology) have a significant stake in the business which they use to fund leading edge research into acoustics technology and the business is proudly private and independent.
  • Bose were, and thanks to their MIT connection still are, the pioneers in noise-cancelling and many other areas of acoustics.
  • The latest headphones are better only in the sense that they have been optimized for both work and play. Bose offered the equivalent to the latest Sony product with, for example, more than one setting for noise cancelling and slightly longer recharge intervals.  For how I use headphones my set were still as good as any.
  • Bose have tried hard to find better material for the ear pads but can’t. More durable means less comfortable so they have accepted that they need to be replaced every few years and offer a replacement set at a reasonable price. Swopping them over takes just a few minutes and could be done while I waited.
  • They no longer offer the upgrade policy, but I guess they don’t need to if the headphones can be refurbished while you wait and your last pair are still excellent.

I have checked all this out. The Apple rumours are indeed fake news that started with an April Fool Tweet from an Apple employee. The founder of Bose, Dr. Amar Bose, donated some of his shares to MIT of which he is an alumnus. And having listened to the new, top-of-the-range Bose headphones I could tell no difference to the set I have which they still sell alongside the newer more expensive model. I’m fairly sure it would be the same with the Sony equivalent. So, I paid a fraction of the price of a new set of headphones and walked out with my old headphones looking, feeling and sounding as good as ever. I felt really good about this, I’d saved myself a lot of money and done the responsible thing. I also felt a lot warmer and better informed about the Bose brand. I’d fallen in love all over again on the basis of new information:-

  • Bose were driven by the passion and expertise of a founder, Dr. Amar Bose.
  • They work and innovate with the best people, MIT.
  • They strive to be the best not the biggest or most profitable.
  • They are proud of their products and only too happy to restore them rather than just try to sell you a new pair.

What’s not to love? And by the way check out their sunglasses with inbuilt speakers, brilliant sound, audible only to the wearer and yet you can remain aware of what is going on around you. Bought a pair of those too.

What learnings do I take from this? What has been re-affirmed in my mind?

1. The combination of Macro/micro marketing insight is imporant. Learn from looking at a market, examining the data driven models, the top-down analysis but also learn from personal experience.

2. Love/delight/positive emotion are the key driver for some brands. I did not want to buy Sony, I love Bose, I was looking for positive affirmation of my brand choice, a reason to stay with them.

3. Because, alongside the emotional connection, it is what you do that counts, not what you say or project. The products are brilliant, the service first class, the repair/refurbish/re-use ahead of its time.

Making people aware of waste is the goal, that will change behaviour. I am informed about, and now sensitized to, the issue of excessive waste and unnecessary purchases. A few years back I would have looked for every excuse to buy some new headphones I did not really need and not thought twice about it. Now I am responsive to doing the responsible thing, if it’s made this easy.

On-line shopping is potentially very bad for society. There are some occasions and some purchases when on-line ordering makes sense, for example if you know precisely what you want or cannot get to a store. But on-line research and peer group reviews cannot be totally relied on, the ability to just click and buy, thereby missing out proper consideration and first hand research, is what creates the very wasteful ‘reverse supply chain’ where one in three products get returned and often scrapped.

Much as I love Bose there are some lessons for them. Firstly their range architecture is not great in terms of how they position each product. It’s fine if you are talking to a knowledgeable Bose person like Paul but just looking at the names and features does not help you navigate their range as well as they could.

The Apple buying Bose rumour was very high and prominent on the list of search results – they need to fix that.

Bose is one of the few brands that I allow to have and use my email address – so use it, communicate some of the useful information I only found out once in-store. For example, scotch the Apple rumour, let me know about the replacement ear pad kit.

Finally, I’m not sure Bose have nailed their over-arching positioning. I think it’s something around “The art and science of getting much more from less” but what do I know?

One-eyed Dan – Doing more with less

The D-Marketing eBook is now live and can be downloaded here in ebooks. I warn you, it’s over 90 pages long and important as the topic is – saving the planet by reducing waste and wasted marketing – it’s a chunky read with my usual clunky writing style. There is an ‘In a nutshell’ section and in fact all the sections can be accessed directly from the index page so the reader can skip any bits they want and get straight to what takes their fancy. But still, 92 pages, it’s a lot especially since I have always been of the view that far more business books are bought (or downloaded) than are ever read.

This was praying on my mind so I thought about the ‘business books’ that have been widely read, books like ‘The One-minute manager’ or ‘Who moved my cheese’. They are short, light with a bit of a story that makes you think. Then I thought about the most read books in the world – children’s books. I lost count of the number times I read the marvellous ‘Cops and Robbers’ by Janet and Allen Ahlberg to my kids (and lately to my grandson). Honestly I still know most of it off by heart.

Bingo I thought, I’ll write a short story that comes across as a kid’s book but which is in fact the summary of the arguments for D-Marketing. And so I did – you can find it in “Books” – just click the “Buy on amazon” and you can download it for free.

It’s the story of One-eyed Dan who saw more with less (get it?) and it breezes along in just over 20- pages including some illustrations. Enjoy, you’re welcome. Go change the world.