In the first part of this series of two posts I explained how the decisions we make, particularly purchasing decisions, have been highly subconsciously influenced. And because this takes place beneath our level of awareness, we wrongly believe in more rational reasons as the cause. In this concluding part I'm going to offer an example of one of the ways in which this can be implemented through apparently-altruistic organisations whose actual purpose is to drive revenue.
I also suggest watching this short video of Noam Chomsky discussing how corporations and governments have been using crowd-influencing techniques.
Meanwhile, Back in the Marketplace
Until fairly recently hardware and software occupied different marketplaces. You bought hardware from one vendor and then went to another for software (one notable exception being Apple). And consider also our online services: iTunes, Netflix, Amazon. The vertical and horizontal integration that I explained in part 1 means that there is becoming a single, unified marketplace which spans work and leisure, tasks and entertainment, arranging meetings and booking holidays. And large corporations are integrating these in order to build profiles of the users, and these profiles offer the corporations data which generates them revenue. [Remember that if you're not paying, then you're not the customer; you're the commodity.]
This vertical and horizontal integration doesn't just exist in software, it's increasingly present in hardware and this is where the communication technology market is dramatically changing: you pay a company to use their device, and then you continue to pay money to them or a contractually-linked company for their consumables. And it's this aspect of our lives which three companies are fighting to dominate.
Microsoft have a problem at the moment: Comparatively few people are buying computers with their Windows 8 operating system installed. For years - decades, almost - people bought Windows computers for a combination of a variety of reasons: because of familiarity, the proliferance of available software, because almost no-one was using an alternative. But in 2007 Apple brought about a paradigm shift when they launched the iPhone with its reliance on third party apps, and then three years later consolidated their new position with the launch of the iPad. People now buy computing devices for simpler, cheaper, and more disposable apps rather than fully-fledged desktop applications. It seems that the only need for fully-fledged desktop applications now is in the workplace (although Google are trying to change this). And as a consequence this means that less consumers outside of the workplace are buying Windows-installed computers.
Many people are also buying devices from Apple because they simply want to be seen as someone who uses Apple's devices. Outside of the clothing industry there is perhaps no other manufacturer whose customers are not only happy to be seen with the company name or logo in their hands, but in some cases overtly advertising that they are a willing user, like Apple. I'll avoid discussing whether this is right or wrong (disclaimer: I'm composing this blog post on an Apple device) but what I want to get across is that for many people this was a purchasing decision based not upon the usability of the software, the ease of use of the hardware, nor any technical concerns such as screen resolution, battery longevity, etc. but rather was based upon an unconscious influence; they bought the device because of the way it made them feel to be considered as a member of this set.
Further reward comes if others can see that they are now part of this set.
Consider also that many people use Windows in their day-to-day work. For most people this means an enterprise-level software environment where updates are few and far between, where old versions of Internet Explorer are enforced and where the hardware hasn't been updated for several years. And this frequently results in poor user experience. The impression that the worker gets when they sit at their desk each morning is that the dust-clogged black box from Dell which creaks and groans when it attempts to get out of bed and run Windows XP for them is a poor one.
The result is both a pull effect from Apple and a push effect from Windows.
I feel compelled to add that this is an unfair comparison. Apple's devices are expensive because they have high-end components; black boxes from Dell which can be found on innumerable desks across the globe tend to have low-end components. For several technical reasons Apple simply don't exist in the enterprise-level workplace, whereas these same reasons form Microsoft's undeniable core strength. Furthermore, Microsoft are not responsible for the often outdated hardware that many workers use at their desks.
Until Microsoft launched the Surface in 2012 they had never been a hardware vendor (they had branded peripherals such as keyboards, but not the central device). Their business model has always left this to third party manufacturers such as Acer, Asus, Samsung, Sony, Toshiba, HP, et al. In fact, there are a plethora of manufacturers all competing for a share of the Windows-installed hardware market. However, since the rise of the iDevice it appears that their strategy has become a 'race to the bottom', where all the manufacturers are competing for the lower end of the market based on the belief that consumers make their purchases based on a rational weighing-up of cost versus price. I think this is a fundamental misunderstanding of consumers.
The Engineering of Consent
The acknowledged master of understanding - and influencing - consumer rationale was Edward Bernays. Like a real-life Oscar Zoroaster, Bernays hid behind a one-way mirror and pulled the strings behind campaigns as diverse as US presidential elections, a Central American coup d'etat, fashion and the tobacco industry. He also quite literally wrote the book on which all modern public relations campaigns are built upon. As far back as 1928, in Propaganda, Bernays described the reasons that he understood were behind a man's purchase of a new car. [I have added italics for emphasis.]
Men are rarely aware of the real reasons which motivate their action. A man may believe that he buys a motor car because, after careful study of the technical features of all makes on the market, he has concluded that this is the best. He is almost certainly fooling himself. He bought it, perhaps, because a friend whose financial acumen he respects bought one last week; or because his neighbors believed he was not able to afford a car of that class; or because its colors are those of his college fraternity.
It is chiefly the psychologists of the school of Freud who have pointed out that many of man's thoughts and actions are compensatory substitutes for desires which [he] has been obliged to suppress. A thing may be desired not for its intrinsic worth or usefulness, but because he has unconsciously come to see in it a symbol of something else, the desire for which he is ashamed to admit to himself. A man buying a car may think he wants it for purposes of locomotion. ... He may really want it because it is a symbol of social position, an evidence of his success in business, or a means of pleasing his wife.
Propaganda was Bernays' manifesto. In it he explains where his ideas came from, he enumerates the tenets of his philosophy, and also offers examples of his practice. In one of these examples he informs us how he helped the bacon industry increase its turnover. In another example Bernays describes how he increased the desirability of a large real estate development, Jackson Heights. First there was a publicised benefit performance for the victims of an earthquake in Japan "under the auspices of Mrs. Astor and others". Then "when the post office was opened, the public relations counsel [i.e., Bernays himself] attempted to use it as a focus for national interest and discovered that its opening fell coincident with a date important in the annals of the American Postal Service. This was then made the basis of the opening." And as for the apartments themselves - after all, that's what people thought they were being sold - "a competition was held among interior decorators for the best furnished apartment in Jackson Heights. An important committee of judges decided. This competition drew the approval of well-known authorities, as well as the interest of millions, who were made cognizant of it through newspaper and magazine and other publicity, with the effect of building up definitely the prestige of the development."
The pattern is clear: find the source of influence and frame your interest as their interest. Bernays had this down pat from the outset. After graduating from Cornell in 1913 his first career was as a journalist, editing two medical magazines: the Medical Review of Reviews and the Diatetic and Hygienic Gazette. While editor of the Medical Review of Reviews he published an article by a doctor commending a play called Damaged Goods as a welcome campaign against the way in which the issue of syphilis was not being dealt with in the public eye, where it needed to be. When Bernays later found out that Damaged Goods was due to begin a run in New York he wrote to the producer and offered his services.
What Bernays then did was to establish the Medical Review of Reviews' Sociological Fund Committee whose objective was to increase public awareness of venereal disease. In support he was able to ask the leading lights of New York's philanthropic society to lend their support and backing: "Dr. Simon Fexner of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research... Rev. John Haynes Holmes of New York's Unitarian Church... John D. Rockefeller, Jr. ... Mrs. Rose Paster Stokes, a social worker... Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt..." amongst others. Bernays realised that being seen as a subscriber to this crowd or set would induce others of a similar social standing to join in support. And when the inaugural project of the Sociological Fund turned out to be a play about the social issues surrounding syphilis, called Damaged Goods, well that just worked out fine for Bernays.
Instead of negative publicity due to the subject matter in a more conservative era, Damaged Goods received not only enthusiastic press coverage, but was also seen to prompt spin-off discussions.
Bernays had turned the social issue surrounding the play 180° from that experienced in openings in other cities, as well as by plays tackling sexual degeneracy which had opened in New York in the recent past. And he had managed to do this by ring-fencing a crowd of people who had an interest in the well-being and care of those suffering from venereal disease, and who were both socially influential. He managed to garner their support due to the former reason, and he was able to extend their usefulness due to the latter reason.
So when a large corporation like Microsoft starts to lose market share, or wants to change consumers' perception of them, what should they do? Find the source of influence and frame Microsoft's interest as their interest.
Behind the Code-behind
Let's assume that Edward Bernays is still alive. Let's fantasise that Microsoft have consulted Bernays and asked what they can do to make people stop buying devices that run apps and make them see the value in full-fledged applications instead? Bernay's advice, of course, would be to determine the people who create the reasons that make consumers buy Windows computers. In an era when consumers are opting for hand-held devices running apps, Microsoft's target should be those who develop for the Windows platform. Have these people left the platform and moved to Apple's development environment? Perhaps. But the real danger for Microsoft is that the next generation of developers grow into the Apple rather than the Windows development environment, then Windows would become the neutron star of operating systems: devoid of life after all activity has evaporated.
There's a campaign currently gathering momentum whose goal is to encourage young people to learn how to develop software. While I wholeheartedly endorse the claims that it makes about developing the young mind to think outside the box and to realise that they can put ideas into practice, I couldn't help but wonder who initiated this drive and for what ultimate goal.
Here is the video.
The video and the parent campaign is Code.Org. On their website they state that their goal is
Code.org is a non-profit devoted to the vision that every student in every school should have the opportunity to learn how to code. We believe computer programming should be part of the core curriculum in education, alongside other science and math courses such as biology, chemistry and algebra.
A noble quest, I don't doubt. So who's funding this? We've already seen that modern campaigns are almost never as altruistic as they claim to be; there's almost always an economic motivation On their About page they offer the following:
Code.org is a public 501c3, with support from the general public. The primary initial donors are founders Ali Partovi and Hadi Partovi, but we've been overwhelmed by small and large acts of generosity from individuals and companies alike who all agree with our vision. We would like to extend a special thanks to the entire cast of our short film, and also to Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter for their generous help in promoting the film, each in their own very unique way.
"Special thanks to... Microsoft, Google and Amazon"? Well there's two of three corporations that I earmarked at the start of this blog post for dominating horizontal and vertical integration; Facebook and Twitter are two other media giants who are dependent upon third party developers endorsing their services. As for Amazon, while many still see them as an online retailer, which offers horizontal integration (remember that Amazon not only offer products for sale both new and used - through third party sellers - products, they also sell music, stream video, and run the largest cloud hosting and backup service on the internet), with the launch of the Kindle range of devices they're making a concerted effort to offer vertical integration. Do Amazon need third-party developers to take up their services? They absolutely do.
Take a look at the Advisory Board listing as well as the Team listing on Code.Org's About page: as well as counting some people from the academic world, the board also contains some very senior people who either work for or previously worked for Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Twitter. Even the founderhas a financial interest in Facebook.
Is Code.org an altruistic charity whose purpose is to encourage young people to think outside the box, to instil an engineering frame of mind and drive them into creating? Yes it is. But I think people should also be aware of why Code.org's financial backers need to drive people into a career of software development.