The Sci-Fi Pay Phone Fallacy

 

Quick Read: Future predictions could sometimes just be past projections – repurposed to fit the current context. Sometimes that could make for a liberating realisation – especially in current times.  

3.15.20

That’s the name of the latest album by Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino – an American actor, comedian, writer, producer, director, musician, artist and DJ – a polymath in the entertainment business.

What’s unusual about this album?

It has no title except the date of release, 3.15.20; no artwork; and except for 2 songs, none of the 12 tracks has a title. Quoting Sanjoy Narayan on mint:

On Sunday, 15 March, Donald Glover Jr, better known by his stage name Childish Gambino, launched a new website called Donaldgloverpresents.com and released a new album, which streamed on a loop on the site for most of that day. There was no fanfare; no announcements; no publicity.

For an artist as high-profile as Glover, this was an unusual approach….

…Shortly after his new website stopped streaming the album and went blank, Glover’s, or, rather, Gambino’s, new album got more conventionally released on music-streaming services where you can hear it now. It has no title except the date of release, 3.15.20; no artwork; and except for the second and third songs, Algorhythm and Time, none of the 12 tracks has a title. Instead, Gambino has chosen to title his tracks by time codes—the points in time that they come up on the album. For instance, the first track is labelled 0.00; the fourth is 12.38; the fifth 19.10; the sixth 24.19; and so on.

donald-glover-presents
The album initially played on a loop on the site ‘Donald Glover Presents’, accompanied by an unfinished illustration depicting a very modern scene of rioting, fiery chaos and selfie-taking. (Source)

What’s truly unusual about the album, however, is how it mocks at our assumptions and shatters our accumulated biases about his music. Quoting Sanjoy Narayan again:

It’s an astonishingly experimental album on which Gambino is, in parts, a rapper, a soul, funk and R&B guy, and a sonic innovator who composes melodies and harmonies and melds them to make songs that push every boundary…

..It’s a super ambitious album that traverses so many genres and styles that it would require multiple listens to try and list out or even describe. Funk and soul collide with electronic music; modern hip hop gets to mate with elaborate orchestral arrangements; and smart lyrics comment on the state of the world and other serious issues.

Unique juxtapositions, delightful blends, unexpected connections, inventive remixes and surprising twists. That’s always been the recipe for great story telling across formats from stand up comedy and sci-fi thrillers to food and fashion.

It is compelling how consistently it works every single time – get people to default to their baseline expectations and add in an unexpected twist to move the carpet off their feet and presto, you have a winner! In fact an entire movie was made literally off this very premise.

Turns out getting us to default to our baseline world views/expectations is not that hard after all. Simply because we tend to base our assumptions of a likely future basis our previous experiences. In fact, research suggests that humans predict what the future will be like by using their memories.

Imagining the future then becomes a kind of nostalgia. 

This fallacy could sometimes be evident in sci-fi movies.

Let’s take a classic example: the original Blade Runner from 1982.

In the film, Harrison Ford’s character Deckard makes several calls to other characters using a “videophone,” which is essentially a glorified payphone with a VHS-quality video screen glued on top. Incidentally, the film is supposed to take place in a futuristic 2019, but it makes a faulty assumption that human beings will still be using pay phones as their primary form of communication by then.

payphone
Video Pay Phone in Blade Runner (1982), Source

Back to the Future II also prominently featured payphones and fax machines—both of which were prevalent at the time the film was made, but are obsolete today.

Writers even have a name for this – the science fiction pay phone problem. It essentially refers to how we often assume the continuity of our previous experiences, and subsequently bring our accumulated biases with us, when trying to predict the future.

This could perhaps help serve as an instructive reminder to us that even though we can dream up detailed, novel scenes of things yet to come, our imagined futures could sometimes really just be projections of our past.

And nowhere is this reminder more relevant than in the current times when we are inundated with predictions and discourses about what a post Covid future could look like and how it could potentially impact us, our educational institutions, organisations, cultures, traditions, industries, economies and nation states at large.

As the sci-fi pay phone fallacy reminds us, the future always holds more surprises than we might predict. So instead of stressing about and losing our minds on what a post Covid scenario would pan out to be, sitting back, relaxing and enjoying some Childish Gambino could just be what the doctor ordered for us.

Stay safe. And here’s hoping we all come out of this better, stronger and together. Real Soon.

[Featured Image: Payphone from Back to the Future, digital wallpaper source]

 

Time Travel Democratised

Quick Read: Time travel, branding and public sentiment indices could have a lot in common. To know more, just ask Zlaty Bazant (the Slovak beer) for a test drive to the 1970s. 

Here’s an exercise. Think of any science fiction story. Anything.

Now take a few seconds and reflect on its theme.

Chances are that its theme might not be the future. You would notice that the genre uses the future only as a canvas on which to imprint its real concerns—the present.

The insight: Counterintuitively, time travel stories are often those tales that are most anchored in the present.

Similarly, stories that transport you to the past do so only to provide the necessary distancing effect for the narrative to be able to metaphorically address the most pressing concerns of the here and now – the present.

This has an interesting corollary for brands.

Na zdravie, Slovensko (“Cheers, Slovakia!”)

Central and eastern European countries faced the scourge of communism for most part of the last century. So it’s only natural to expect that the people in these countries would not want to be reminded of those darker times.

Yet, a curious trend seems to be suggesting the contrary in recent times.

Retro is seriously back with a bang.

  • Polish hipsters are lapping up retro furniture of the Jaruzelski era.
  • Lidl stores (the German supermarket chain) in Czech Republic have sales of imitation communist products in their now popular “Retro Week” promotions
  • Even the communist era beers are getting resurrected across the region

(Retro Products at Lidl. Source)

As The Economist article frames it, communist nostalgia is not new, but it does seem to be having a new wave of resurgence. While this makes some sense in Russia, which ruled the empire, it is puzzling to understand its relevance among the central and eastern Europeans whom the Soviets ground under their boots.

And to frame this irony even more acutely, this affection for the socialist era products seems embodied even in the consumer products that are marketed by Western multinationals!

For example, in May this year a Heineken-owned Slovak brewery, Zlaty Bazant, introduced a premium version of its beer based on a 1973 recipe, priced 20% higher than its standard line up. Even its slogan Na zdravie, Slovensko! (“Cheers, Slovakia!”) vaunts its local roots as opposed to typical beer marketing themes that emphasize Europeanness and modernity.

zlaty-bazant
Zlaty Bazant Ad. Source

Yet, this doesn’t necessarily reflect a desire of these people to return to the pre-1989 era. That’s where it becomes a bit complicated (in terms of their relationship with these brands).

The insight here: As Ivan Klima, a Czech novelist, puts it, “nobody is nostalgic for the communist era, but many people are nostalgic for their youth”.

Why?

Most people in the region are believed to be discouraged about the future.

In fact according to the recent Eurobarometer survey, just 30% of Slovaks and 26% of Czechs have a positive view of the European Union. Poland and Hungary are more pro-European, but have elected governments determined to check the power of Brussels. (source)

And these themes of insecurity and pessimism in the current socio political context manifest among the central and eastern Europeans as an inexplicable longing for brands of the bygone communist era. As if returning to these good old things could bring about a sense of security and stability amidst the slipping sands of the current times.

So if a Serb is seen enjoying a 1973 communist era quaff like the Zlaty Bazant, he is perhaps not so much contemplating nationalizing the auto industry as he is struggling with his attempts to reconcile with his current times.

Almost like the fascination with that time travel story to the past that is fueled by the strifes of the current times.

This could have interesting implications on brand building.

Public sentiment index (or their proxies) can perhaps be a lighthouse for brand builders. If the sentiment is low for a prolonged period of time in a market, brand builders there could perhaps do well to dust the grime off legacy brands and shine a light on them.

And may be even charge a premium for the same, as it is after all time travel, only packaged in a little bottle.

(Featured Image: Zlaty Bazant saying “Merry Christmas, Slovakia!”)