Ambition and design redux. Plus propaganda as a better last resort. Number 106.
David Whyte's voice is better than mine. Plus propaganda needs to be re-appropriated, by design.
Ambition, vocation and generosity
In last week’s post, I discussed the concept of ambition and how, as I am getting just a little bit older, its opposite is not sloth — but awareness and being. With the application of meditation, I’ve been able to look at the price of my own ambition more closely in the eye. The act of slowing down, of receding, of even resigning from work altogether, is a form of radical possibility in a system that is hellbent on production and profit at the expense of workers. There are few places where this is more endemic than in the field of design (and adjacent fields like marketing, communications, PR and the wide expanse of tech). We designers are asked to give of ourselves until there is little left to give.
After sending that newsletter, I stumbled on a piece called “Ambition” by poet David White, who I have followed for many years. His take on the concept is similar and more beautifully wrought. He takes aim at ambition by contrasting it with vocation, which is more akin to a life’s calling, where we workers continue to push into the headwinds against the odds, against the oddities and against the options that arise before us.
Ambition takes willpower and constant applications of energy to stay on a perceived bearing; but a serious vocational calling demands a constant attention to the unknown gravitational field that surrounds us and from which we recharge ourselves, as if breathing from the atmosphere of possibility itself. A life's work is not a series of stepping-stones, onto which we calmly place our feet, but more like an ocean crossing where there is no path, only a heading, a direction, in conversation with the elements. Looking back we see the wake we have left as only a brief glimmering trace on the waters.
As a fellow meditator, Whyte knows that one’s vocation is just another appearance and facet of what we call individuation. But he argues that vocation offers us meaning in the face of daunting challenges, especially as we get a little bit older. Whyte is a little bit older than me, in fact, and I respond with great respect to the logic here. Vocation takes you out of mere ambition into a place of generosity, a land where your work become much more than merely production. Vocation is a site of giving. For me, this has taken the form of teaching design over the past few years. And I see this newsletter as a small act of giving, as well.
Whyte finishes his ambitious essay with this:
Perhaps the greatest legacy we can leave from our work is not to instill ambition in others, though this may be the first way we describe its arrival in our life, but the passing on of a sense of sheer privilege, of having found a road, a way to follow, and then having been allowed to walk it, often with others, with all its difficulties and minor triumphs; the underlying primary gift, of having been a full participant in the conversation.
The piece ends with an invitation to conversation. Design can be about many things. But it should start and end with conversation and the sheer generosity that results come from giving and creating something anew.
Listen to David Whyte read his entire eight-minute piece. It’s mesmerizing. Actually, he could read the back of a cereal box and it would be mesmerizing.
Propaganda as a better near-last resort
The idea of propaganda reeks of 20th century totalitarian and authoritarian acts of communication that gave us the horrors of wars, genocide and famine.
Propaganda was first heavily deployed (a word marketers still use on us today) during the First World War to persuade citizens (those in Germany, England, the United States of America and Russia specifically) that war was warranted, and to convince men and money to serve. Poster campaigns, leaflets and other printed matter were distributed throughout cities and towns between 1914 and 1918 to recruit young men to fight in brutal battle, to encourage conservation of home resources, and to raise money for the war effort.
Uncle Sam was resurrected from a past life as a woman (Colombia, who was also a racialized character, a noble savage that converted to Christianity and “civilization”). The finger-pointing Uncle Sam was also copied from England’s own Lord Kitchener, who “wants you” to join the army.
Ultimately, dear old Uncle Sam became a herculean figure who persuasively called the young and able to the war front — thanks to more colour, more flag, and better use of type.
Those early posters of propaganda worked. Citizens gave up their young men and old money to help save their customs and kaisers. World War I gave us poison gas and machine guns and mass atrocities and graves but it also gave us the mechanics of communications that we have to this day.
Propping up propaganda
While we are not actively at war now and we have not needed nationalized propaganda to persuade us to commit to self-sacrificing behaviours since World War II, propaganda is still very much around. In Western industrialized countries, it has been co-opted by mass marketing advertising, social media platforms and both the right and left in campaigns of misinformation and disinformation. Few deploy propaganda better than companies like Facebook, which does the bidding of large countries and multinational corporations to sway voters against their interests and who shift attention from systemic problems like climate change.
Perhaps there is another side to the poster — not the dirty, dusty and glue-filled mess nor the glossy colour version — but the side that helps us unify around a common theme to serve the common good: propaganda that serves not the interest of the very few but the very many.
We can make propaganda better
As we know, one of the reasons that the pandemic continues to outlast the virus is because governments — our government, your government, all governments — failed us. And they failed us not simply because they didn’t move fast enough or work hard enough, which they did sometimes. They failed to tell us what to do well. They failed to provide the clear tools and techniques required to mask us up, keep us safe and, most importantly, explain why the vaccine is our victory.
Sure, there were some localized Instagram ads and a few promoted posts on Twitter. I think I saw a bus banner that said “Together, we will get through this” with a photo of a woman holding her daughter high.
But clearly those communications failed us. If we want to truly end the pandemic — and more importantly — learn from it to tackle the even larger and more critical challenges that face us (e.g. climate and equity), we’ll need something like a propaganda machine that connects everyone, that makes a public mockery of misinformation, and that assures and assuages.
It is hard to beat social media at its own game but if there is one thing government can and should do, it’s to regain — and maybe rename — the trust game.
How will people trust government again, especially if they were fed such miserable propaganda day after day these past 20 months? It’s not going to happen through posters and it’s not going to happen through simple messaging. It will require a deftness and a thoughtfulness on a mass scale that we have not seen before (at least here in North America). It will require information to be more transparent and for the communications campaigns (for vaccines, for energy conservation, for volunteering in community) to be coordinated with something like military precision.
Why do I again bring up the military? The scale of systems change we require in order to solve for challenges around climate will require an equally heavy armamentarium that is coordinated by trustworthy guardians of communications who also understand human behaviour and social change.
What is needed is the mobilization (another military term used by marketers — and NGOs) of thousands of people, including designers, writers, artists and technologists. to work with, for, or on the side of government and other agencies and enterprises to create mass, meaningful and material behavioural change. We only have a decade, or perhaps less, to curtail our consumption of fossil fuels, to dramatically conserve energy, and to build a more just and equitable world. Now is the time for propaganda! It’s time to fund design on a scale we have not seen since World War II! We don’t even need exclamation marks anymore!
What does the need for a propagandistic government (or set of governments) say about a future that increasingly wants to be decentralized? Does the support of the propagation of mass communications to urge behavior modification necessitate propaganda’s historical associate, authoritarianism? How does the blockchain and cryptocurrency, which bend towards decentralized control over communications and commerce, influence a world where we need humane propaganda to urge collective action?
These are questions that make this work complicated, fraught and fertile.
Reading: Starting to re-read John Yates’ The Mind Illuminated. The book is part instruction manual, part scientific inquiry, and part romp through Buddhadharma. Yates passed away in September.