I heard Shingy speak yesterday.
If you don't know (lucky!), Shingy is AOL's "digital prophet," a bullshit title that Shingy—aka David Shing—himself acknowledges is bullshit, but is also very effective in making us all talk about Shingy. His actual job, as he describes it, is to think about "the etherealness of why." I think his job is basically just to go to conferences and be Shingy.
Shingy is famous, mainly for his job title and his hair. (I refuse to discuss Shingy's hair, because he is a human logo and I am not a robot.) Gawker was obsessed with him. The Daily Beast called him "AOL's Goblin King." Crosscut wonders if he's a con man.
I bet Shingy loves it.
Shingy gave one of the keynote addresses yesterday, opening the Seattle Interactive Conference, a two-day tech symposium that features a range of talks, many, many of which, like Shingy's, concern the way companies are using technology to sell you shit. Others, though, are about using tech for more noble purposes, like building community and preserving neighborhoods. Wyking Garrett is speaking today about how he's using digital to build community in a gentrifying Central District. James Keblas of City Inspired will talk about the history of Seattle music and the city's changing cultural identity. These will likely be good, important talks about the future of this city. But it's hard to imagine they'll offer the flash of Shingy.
His keynote speech was called "Innovation Is Out, Invention Is In," and it was 45 minutes of words. Definitely words. Words like "articulated experience" and "empathetic advertising" and "media overload." And there were emoji, because, Shingy says, "we need more emoji":
Shingy's presence is manic. He talks so quickly and throws up so many product images, commercials and emoji equations that you don't have time to think about anything he is actually saying, or even if he is saying anything.
A sample from of my notes:
The experience of listening to Shingy can be disorienting. You think for a moment that he's on to something. He shows a picture of a person with VR goggles on, taking a selfie with a stick while a drone hovers and records the proceedings. You laugh. What an idiot. That's a disconnected person, Shingy says, and you think the same.
Then, suddenly, Shingy is talking about how to connect with that disconnected person inside the reality they have created for themselves. Inside the goggles. Just when you think you agree with Shingy about how the future is just a big nightmare, it turns out he's thrilled about all the ways there will be to sell things to people who have detached from reality.
You're afraid of the goggles. Shingy sees an opportunity. Here's a scary passage about the future inside that headset that seems to be representative of what's in store for us:
What I think is amazing is this. If you and I go see a film, what happens in that two hours of story...we have a linear story. So if you laugh at a scene and I cry at a scene, nothing can change. However, as soon as you put those goggles on, man, you are disconnected from humanity and now we're our own directors. So those of you who produce content, guess what? You're going to be able to choose your own endings. You're going to be able to understand the emotions of what happens inside these goggles. There are startups working on finding out how we can build in emotions inside the goggles. So if you laugh at a scene and I cry at a scene we can manifest and change that content. How cool is that?"
So the future, if I understand what Shingy is saying—and I may not—is an entirely self-centered entertainment experience. The "content" changes according to you, the viewer, and how you react to what you see. It becomes exactly what it thinks you want it to become. Neat, I guess? But that's not connection. Engaging with art is, in part, about surrendering to how another human being sees the world. Maybe you'll laugh, maybe you'll cry, but you don't get a say in how it goes. You just have to deal with it.
Content doesn't make any such demands. Content is just what marketers think you want. Content can be diverting, but it can never be truly meaningful. The same way pandering can flatter you, but it can never feel like love.
That's just a sample. Shingy said a lot more, I think. And I learned about an iPhone stun gun and a dress that changes according to the person looking at it. I also learned that Shingy is generous with his time, will gladly divulge his hair brand of hair product—American Crew—and picks up litter off the conference hall floor. Shingy is nice.
The thing is, I don't think Shingy is wrong about the future. Brands will seek to mediate our life experiences more and more until we have until permanently blurred the line between what is advertising and what is life. It's already happening. You're soaking in it. It's exactly why Shingy exists. He is human content.
Which is exactly why he and I differ on whether it's a good thing.