The Language of Identity: Part 1 – Got Your Number

I am not a number. I am a free man.

I am not a number. I am a free man.

I was chatting to a friend recently on LinkedIn messenger, who had written a thoughtful article about how happy hormones keep us addicted to the instant gratification of social media. Particularly likes, followers, retweets, and other digital affirmations that flush our brains with oxytocin, that at once makes us feel good, inflates our egos, and reduces our attention span.

I’ve heard a few people talking about the way oxytocin rewards and reinforces our online behaviour before — it’s the same physiological response that we experience when we treat ourselves to a naughty snack, or do a bit of retail therapy with our credit cards. It makes us feel good.

For a moment.

While I was on LinkedIn, the platform also informed me that my profile had been viewed 84 times this week, my recent post had been viewed just 150 times, and it showed me a helpful graph revealing that the number of people giving me attention had dropped over the past seven days.

My immediate response was one of urgency — how can I get that number of views back up again? What if the number of people looking at my profile drops to zero? Will I no longer be relevant? Will my opinion count for nothing? Will I drop out of living memory? Will I, for all intents and purposes, cease to exist? That number — my number — could not be allowed to drop any further — my very existence depended on it.

Indeed our existence is defined by numbers. From the moment we’re born we start to collect them. It’s easier for the government to know us by a reference number than a name, so we are allotted a National Insurance Number (in America it’s a Social Security Number). Once upon a time our name was our label and it was all we needed — William Johnson was William, John’s Son. But now we are numbers punched on a card, fed into a computing machine, and filed away in some fusty old archive, like at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

When we go to school we are sorted and filtered by our grades, as dictated by a system, as devised by analysts in an office in a city far, far, away. And the number of numbers that we carry around with us grows as we move up through school, as we take part in more tests and more exams that will define us, and what happens to us, for years to come. As we generate more numbers they start to influence our lives. What ability group we are put into, how much help we are given, whether we are suitable for the good colleges or the bad colleges. By the time we leave school, these numbers no longer simply reflect our level of ability but have started to shape it, and have already made a huge impact on what we are capable of, what we will become capable of, on the opportunities that life will offer us — and thus our future success and quality of life. And more importantly, the way we perceive ourselves and the way we are perceived.

These numbers, which we began generating the moment we were born, follow us around forever. At the age of 45 your suitability for a job is still determined by a test you took thirty years earlier, when you were much more interested in finding out about the opposite sex than about whether you would be able to get a mortgage in three decades time.

But by now we have been well profiled. We have numbers for everything — our spending habits, what we look at online, whether or not we have claimed benefits, our driving ability, what books we’ve bought on Amazon, how we voted at the last election, who we associate with, whether we are a national security risk, where we went on holiday last year. If you were to look through Jeff Bezos’ eyes, people would appear as human-shaped jumbles of numbers. Just like in The Matrix.

A language of numbers is used to identify us, and algorithms try to predict our next move. As we are part of demographic A, we are most likely to purchase product B. Often this is true and predictable. Stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason, and yes I am a man on the wrong side of forty, in two minds about cargo pants, torn between buying a practical car or something a bit sporty to reaffirm those last vestiges of youth that I’m desperate to hold on to.

Don’t get me wrong. Numbers are hugely important in tackling crime, in combatting disease, in running businesses, in building cars, in sending probes into space. They keep our cities functioning, they make our laptops work, and keep the supermarkets stocked with food. But everywhere I turn I find that I’m using numbers myself, to optimise, improve, justify, and streamline myself. And to affirm and validate myself.

Google Analytics diagnoses my website’s state of health and, whether or not particular pages are underperforming. If they’re not performing as well as they should, perhaps I could tweak the title a little bit, or make the sentences shorter, or use fewer long words. Similarly, I can see which of my social sites are performing the best, what content attracts the most clicks, views, and likes, and what doesn’t. Instagram seems to be providing a lot of click-throughs today, whereas Twitter — not so much. Facebook? Forget about it. But tomorrow that might be different, and thanks to real time analytics I can choose to constantly change my strategy for each platform, tweak, adjust, post at different times of the day or week, include a picture, put more of ‘me’ in it. Like a mechanic I can spend my time constantly tuning, tweaking, optimising, analysing.

When I self-published a book recently, I was introduced to the world of book marketing and a whole new universe of metrics opened up before me. Amazon provides analytical tools to see how it’s selling, there are keyword tools to show which titles and descriptions work best, which categories are less crowded, which search terms are most popular. And then there are the forums that I can spam with links to my book — some of which are better than others. Everything can be put into a spreadsheet, scored, ranked. And if the analytics show that something isn’t working as well as it should, I can change it, rewrite it, improve it, make it work better.

These days being a creative means keeping one eye on the art, and another on SEO, a third on keyword density, and the last one on target demographic performance marketing CTR ROI.

Everywhere we go, we are provided with numbers that tell us where we’re winning or losing, where we can improve or where we’re just not good enough. The weighing scales at the gym, the misleading BMI that your GP still measures despite being decades out of date (bodybuilders hate it), your earning potential, your followers on Instagram, your sense of self-worth.

Just another thousand followers and I can be an influencer. Who doesn’t dream of being an influencer? Just another hundred likes and brands will start sending me free stuff. Just another thousand clicks and I get to keep my job. Just another million views and the client has made their money back. Just another billion subscribers and I become as important as Zozeebo.

The problem with the numbers, vital as they are in a progressive society, is that we become to them. We get so hooked on the oxytocin hit that dilates our pupils when our LinkedIn views go up, or when we get more likes, or when our weight goes down, or when Taylor Swift likes our tweet, that we fail to see that we’ve missed a vital point. These numbers, which we’re initially there to help us, as tools to improve, to refine, to increase the quality of our offering, are now starting to control us. Rather than working for us, we are working for them. The numbers are telling us what to do. They are calling the shots.

Where the numbers were initially there to help us get better, they’re actually making us worse. According to the numbers, the ideal human would be Marvin the paranoid android from Hitchhiker’s’ Guide to the Galaxy. And if we’re not careful, that’s what we’ll become.

The numbers are feeding our anxieties. We’re not good enough, not performing enough, not hitting our KPIs, not selling enough units, not ticking enough boxes, not reaching out to our finely tuned target demographics. Something’s not right. Let’s go over the numbers one more time.

What our numerical overlords — and us — seem to have forgotten, is that we’re not robots, we’re not algorithms. We are humans. And as humans we have access to something that can’t be quantified, and is a lot more powerful. Sure, ticking the boxes and doing everything by the numbers can be effective, and we mustn’t forget the usefulness that they offer us. But similarly we mustn’t let them cheapen the human experience. Our endeavours must not become defined by numbers, because we have a lot more to offer that cannot be counted or measured.

Take the 2010 commercial that beat you round the ears until you couldn’t forget what they were advertising — it was super successful, but it is to advertising what the paparazzi are to photography. Unless it was some profound absurdist Dadaist comment on the state of advertising, it was created by the numbers and succeeded only because of the numbers. It is what a computer would create if you told it to make a television commercial.

The effectiveness of this commercial lies in it’s lack of beauty. It is impactful, like being punched in the face.

But we’re humans, and we’re better than that. We can achieve, and we should always strive for, more. Guinness anyone?

Also impactful. But in a different way.

The CD — and now MP3s — provide us with music that is more perfect than when it was recorded, and each performance is as perfect as the last. Yet vinyl, with its scratches and crackles, it’s distortions and it’s gradual degradation, is selling better than it ever did. People clamber over each other to buy books — actual physical books that you can smell and hold — about hygge (pronounced ‘hue-gah, as if you didn’t already know) and wellness. There’s a mindfulness revolution going on. People are embracing their humanity, they want to feel again, and not just be profiled, put into groups, judged by their numbers — they had enough of that in school. They want something that resonates with them, that they can connect with, that makes their eyes light up. Something that lights their fire.

The world of advertising is full of people who started off as artists, but ended up crunching numbers. How many times do we have to see the same old tropes before the ad agencies realise that they’ve run out of numbers and we’re literally not buying it any more. How many more coughs and sneezes represented as fluffy blue monsters? How many more seventies-style moustaches? How many more talking dogs?

Occasionally something amazing really does come along. Like the John Lewis Christmas advertisement. People talk about it. It gets attention. Creates a buzz. It’s art.

The magic happens in the shadows.

And next year we wait in anticipation to see what they will do this time. And yes, it’s still good. But it’s not quite as good. And ten years later it’s just a tick-box exercise, trying to return the same numbers as that first ground-breaking year. And everyone’s stood around scratching their heads wondering why it’s not driving sales, why nobody’s talking about it. Where’s the buzz? Where’s the ROI? Why are people so pissed off that our desperation for the ‘feels’ has driven us to use the horrors of war to flog a few bars of chocolate?

War is Over if You Want to ‘Live Well For Less’ — Happy Christmas from Sainsbury’s

And meanwhile people are still kinda laughing at that talking dog. Only the dog’s mouth no longer syncs with the words it’s saying, and it’s starting to look a bit mangey and a bit bitey. Foaming at the mouth.

But the numbers, man. The numbers. They told us to do it.

So here’s an idea. How about we forget about the numbers just for a minute? Instead of being defined by the numbers, instead of doing what they tell us to do, let’s take a break from them and feel something instead.

Instead of going to the gym and weighing ourselves, and figuring out how many calories we’re burning off, let’s do it for fun. Let’s leave the Fitbit at home and enjoy what it feels like to run instead of what it feels like to measure. Just for one day, let’s forget our quantified selves, and just be ourselves.

Instead of going to work and doing everything by the book, following the same process tree we always follow, let’s be a little bit out there. Let’s be brave and have ideas. Let’s explore the left field and see what that feels like. Let’s enthusiastically engage with our work, and see where it can take us.

Let’s create art. Real, genuine art. And let’s feel good about it while we’re making it (just not in a like-fuelled oxytocin kinda way). And if we can’t think of our own art, rather than stealing what that student or amateur filmmaker made, lets pay them to do it instead. Let’s identify ourselves by our creativity, by our ability to feel and be human, and inspire others to be creative too. Let’s feel it running through our veins, nourishing our souls, and if we happen to sell a few cans of Sprite in the process then, bingo. But if we don’t, nobody gets sacked, because, you know… it’s art. We can just make some more.

Let’s turn everything we do into an artform and be artful in how we do it. Rather than being identified by the holes on our punch card, let’s be identified by the origami swan that we made out of it. Rather than being identified by our KPIs, let’s be identified by the smile we put on people’s faces, the lives we’ve enriched, the statements we’ve made, how we helped people when they had no-one else to turn to. Let’s be passionate and compassionate, and bring the best to everything we do. Let’s make every day our masterpiece and share it with everyone else.

When the way we communicate with others is dictated by numbers, by our keyword density, by resolution, by Google rank, by bounce rates and KPI, we are not really communicating at all. Instead we are being defined by the numbers and letting them do the talking for us. We are speaking in ones and zeros, and our identities are made up of them. But when we speak from our hearts, from our sense of purpose as humans, about the things that light our fire, that get our blood pumping, then we connect with more humans in a more human way. And we become more human in the process.

But maybe, just maybe, the best way to communicate isn’t to talk at all. Maybe we should try listening instead. Maybe that’s where the real art lives.

This is the first part of a three-part essay. Click here to read part two, and click here to read part three.