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The Next Frontier in Advertising

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Technologies are coming that will open new windows into our natures and brains. - Jaron Lanier

Jaron Lanier is many things - technologist, computer scientist, composer, author and virtual reality pioneer (he coined the term). He is also the author of the must-read book, You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto. And he's thought deeply about the social impact of technology, the philosophy of consciousness and information, the future of humanism … and, of course, the role of advertising in our lives.

In the last decade, he argues, Silicon Valley has defined advertising downwards to be a form of gatekeeping; a paid link is called an ad. According to Lanier, advertising as a mere allocator of information does not fulfill its destiny to romanticize human productivity. Yes, advertising can be annoying, but it is an inherent annoyance of the human condition during times of innovation. It's also about to be changed radically by fascinating new technologies.

We talked to Lanier this week and asked him to give us a glimpse of some of the new frontiers of advertising – and a preview of what he'll be covering at our upcoming SAY Create event in Napa (Sept. 18 – 21).

You have a unique perspective on ads … what is advertising to you?

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I view advertising as being this romanticizing element that helps us appreciate, understand and enjoy how remarkable it is that we've been able to do so much, and learn so much. I view it as really vital, even though sometimes it can be really annoying. The interesting thing about advertising is that the things that annoy us sometimes about it are really human. It's us looking at ourselves - and like all human endeavors it's imperfect. Advertising is the edge of what people know how to do and of human experience and it explains the latest ways progress has changed us to ourselves. For me, that definition of advertising is really interesting and is profoundly different from the latest Silicon Valley definition of advertising – where you have people pay for who they can be connected to - which is essentially a gating function.

What innovations are you seeing that excite you?

All kinds of technologies are coming that will open new windows into our natures and brains and that will impact communication – and in particular advertising. One example is the science of avatars. The human brain has the capacity to control avatars – the brain anticipates creatures we might evolve into and is touching on parts of the brain not touched before. It's like a new continent. We're exploring territory not explored before with new kinds of expression. The Kinect from Microsoft is the first technology to measure what we're doing when we turn into an avatar. [Ed note: Lanier is a consultant to Microsoft on Kinect.] One experiment we did with an oral hygiene product turned your body into a bristle of a toothbrush. Whether or not that was a good idea remains to be seen – but it was a profound shift from watching into doing. In education we did these experiments - kids that become a triangle molecule are more interested in the subject than just reading about it. Being the object is more powerful than being in the center of the action. This is the next frontier.

So where should advertisers and marketers be looking next?

Advertisers and marketers should be looking to bring new experiences to different parts of the brain. It's a more profound idea than just dropping a billboard into a video game. Advertisers are not thinking radically enough – they look for technology to lead instead of trying the neuroscience approach and thinking about what parts of the brain haven't been activated before. These new experiences bring new capabilities to the brain. I hate to mention Kinect again, but I think of it as a pristine example of the opportunities for the future of advertising – letting people use their cognitive faculties in new ways, the body connected to the mind in a new way. There are a whole series of technologies like this coming that will bring new kinds of experiences and new kinds of communication to which advertising should look to for the future.

You've said you're an optimist – where are we headed?

We have a generation of really smart, savvy people growing up who have a great future in this country and internationally – we've done a better job than we acknowledge. The future is bright. There are some huge problems – right now things suck and they won't stop sucking immediately. But the very idea of advertising is correlative to a strong middle class. Brand advertising is a middle class phenomenon ... upper class branding is more marketing. Building and growing the middle class … this is part of my mission as a technologist. [Hear more about Lanier's thoughts on this at]

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