2015 / 25 September

The Newton’s Cradle of communications

Newton’s Third Law states that “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”. My favourite illustration of this is Newton’s Cradle, as it neatly demonstrates conservation of momentum and energy. Over the past few weeks, I have watched with interest as this principle seems to be playing out in the American media and to a lesser extent, our own.

Take the story of Ahmed Mohamed. A very smart, industrious and creative fourteen year old from Texas who was arrested for bringing a homemade clock to school. Why? Depends who you believe, but racial profiling seems to have played a major part in it. I asked a few of my American friends who shrugged it off with a simple “eh, Texas…” Location aside, there is simply no legitimate excuse for what happened. Ahmed said to the media: “I felt like I was a criminal, I felt like I was a terrorist. I felt like all the names I was called.” He added: “In middle school I was called a terrorist, called a bomb maker, just because of my race.”

If we plot this on the spectrum of political and social viewpoints, the school’s reaction was decidedly on the right. Applying Newton’s Third Law, there should have been an equal reaction on the left of our spectrum. And true to Newton, such a reaction has come to light, with invitations to Ahmed from The White House, Facebook, Box and a whole bunch of tech products from Microsoft.

From a personal viewpoint, I am immensely happy that there has been a public response to Ahmed’s treatment, and that it has been one of encouragement, acceptance and support. The reality is however, a response that strong to a kid making a clock only materialised in order to balance the heavily right leaning original position. A kid should not receive so many accolades for simply making a clock — the act should be supported of course, but not to such an extent.

Will there be a lasting effect from this? I doubt it will change a thing. It will become a blip on the media radar, and will fall into the incredibly large category of ‘that thing that happened once’. Because the extremities don’t (and shouldn’t) last. They are reactive and reactionary. And in principle, that’s ok because it’s in the middle ground that common sense prevails. While the outer most balls on Newton’s Cradle swing wildly back and forth, it is the middle one that remains stable and mostly unmoving.

Yet you apply this theory to a person like Donald Trump and it totally breaks down. Maybe it is the exception that proves the rule. The reactions are there: the media scrutiny is heavy, the blogs and commentators are up in arms that Trump is allowed to say these things. But all this achieves is in giving Trump more air time. And instead of restoring the balance, it continues to push things in the opposite direction. In fact, the more media time people give Trump, the larger his fan base grows. It is baffling and illogical and I can only hold out hope that someone will realise it’s just a real life, American version of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. We’re all being punked.

What is making him so successful? The term I have heard very frequently, and from many different parties is ‘tribe’. Find your tribe. Discover where you belong. It’s an interesting notion and one that I subscribe to (in principle) as I still struggle to understand what my purpose is and why I’m here. The idea being that when you find something that sparks your inner being, you realise you belong. Applying this to Trump, one understands that by making his outlandish statements and holding true to them, he sparks the id within us. He elicits that which most cannot say. But people believe it. They buy into it and they amplify it even more. Because it’s the outside balls on the cradle that travel the farthest. And when the media gives him attention on the other side of the spectrum, it continues to legitimise his existence. Collectively, we are all contributing.

And to me, this is where the problem lies. The solutions to the problems we’ve created for ourselves are usually not on the outer. It’s somewhere in the middle, maybe just left of centre. The centre moves a little back and forth as it’s impacted by the forces around it but it remains the most stable. Unfortunately, our industry is rife with the outer. Every headline is the most this, or the worst that, or this will change your life. And ultimately what we say and see is none of those things. It may be interesting or provocative or frustrating, but nothing will ever be the one-and-only for everyone.

Solutions don’t lie in the outer because for all of those you manage to inspire or engage, you also seemingly enrage or disenchant the opposite. It’s difficult to motivate someone if you’ve skipped all the steps required to bring them on the journey. You can’t start at 11 because people are comfortable at 5 or 6. The middle ground is the most interesting to explore because it’s required to absorb the forces around it. Thus, it should be the most powerful because it contains the energy of both sides. I am a big believer in the notion that those with the right message should be cognisant of the middle and how to slowly move it to their side of the story. But when someone acts with force against you, the natural reaction is to restore the balance. This can cause long term harm as usually being reactive is less effective and quickly alienates those you’re trying to convert.

The irony here is that my view is unlikely to ruffle any feathers or make a real difference because it calls for more calm within our industry. And clicks and comments don’t come through calm. Instead, I hope to absorb the impacts of both sides and hope that order restores itself somewhere in the middle, or maybe just a little to the left.

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