4 provocations from Lazy Book Club #3: Sapiens

In our latest Lazy Book Club, we brought to the table (literally, it was on a pub table) Yuval Harari’s ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’, and discussed its implications for how we see our species as a whole, but also some elements of strategy in particular. Now, granted, this is a huge book, and one hour of debate doesn’t do it proper justice, but still we managed to condense it into four provocations that the next generation of strategists should consider.


Provocation #1: We fear irrelevance, so we created culture instead

Early on in the book, Harari examines how the history of Humankind is broken down by three key transformational eras, the first of which is the Cognitive Revolution – the moment in which we learned to develop language, and subsequently culture and myths. As a testament to the overall poetic tone in the whole book, the author summarises this transformation quite succinctly:

"The Cognitive Revolution is the point when history declared its independence from biology."

Which is another way of saying that, since the dawn of human history, we strived to challenge our own destiny as biologically dependent creatures, and that made us the resilient species that we’ve been ever since. It’s also why in modern age we are trying to go beyond hacking cures for diseases to actually eradicating disease and potentially death, the ultimate independence from biological constraints.

This, on another level, led us to keep challenging what a luxury and a commodity is. In other words, every time we develop something – say, a new agricultural technique or a vaccine for polio – it’s initially seen as a luxury, adopted by a few pioneers or strata of society that have more conditions (financial or otherwise) than the general population.

In one way, this is a huge benefit, but it also comes with its own challenges. This is shown by Harari’s point of view that the Agricultural Revolution (the second big transformational moment) was hugely beneficial for us as a species (e.g. we could store food for longer which helped with population growth) but brought severe consequences to us as individuals (e.g. we spent more time working and less time reaping the benefits than our hunter-gatherer ancestors). The problem is that we tend to overestimate the luxuries that come with a certain new development, and only understand the consequences in hindsight, which makes it hard, if not impossible, to switch back once we do realise that we may have lost something in the process. To quote the author:

"Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted. Then they begin to count on it. Finally they reach a point where they can’t live without it."

A modern example of this might apply to sushi – once seen as an exotic food in the West, now commonplace. An even more obvious one is the iPhone or Android device in your pocket, which 10 years ago would have been seen as something for rich people in Silicon Valley, or lunatics – who wants a keyboard-less phone anyway?


Provocation #2: Uncertainty breeds more uncertainty

The second major point of discussions was a follow up to our species’ need to challenge and break free from biology. Harari argues that, as we strive to transcend those biological limits, and indeed the laws of natural selection, we aim to replace them “them with the laws of intelligent design.”

In other words, we want to reduce the odds and uncertainty that comes with biological constraints (until recently, you couldn’t control if you were born with a certain incurable and deadly disease), but the consequence of that isn’t that we reduce the odds of things going wrong – we just spawn new levels of uncertainty to deal with. The implications of that are potentially huge, ranging from our own individual privacy to a general sense of identity, as the author illustrates:

"Ethicists and legal experts are already wrestling with the thorny issue of privacy as it relates to DNA. Would insurance companies be entitled to ask for our DNA scans and to raise premiums if they discover a genetic tendency to reckless behaviour? (...) Could a company that develops a new creature or a new organ register a patent on its DNA sequences?"

A good example of this is how something as simple and beneficial as developing robotic prosthetic arms for someone reduces their dependence on others to live their life, but also carries unforeseen consequences. If your robot arms fail, how quickly can you fix them? What if it happens right in the middle of a job interview, compromising your chance to get a job because some company screwed up?

On a more daunting level, can we imagine a future in which those very same robotic arms are sold to you as software packages, in which the free version allows you to move them but you need to pay a premium for the ability to make complex movements? Or if we did develop micro-chips that control a certain virus in your blood stream, how far could a company cancel their activity just because you didn’t pay your latest monthly subscription for the service? If you die as a result of that, whose fault is it?

Tackling uncertainty, history has proven, tends to breed even more uncertainty. In this day and age, where everyone wants to disrupt and solve the big problems of life, that pattern seems more and more apparent. To paraphrase that epic scene from Breaking Bad, if we think we know what we want, we should... tread lightly.

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Provocation #3: Categories are a constraint

This is a no brainer for any of you who have read marketing case studies in which a certain product was positioned as something else, or in another category completely, to produce amazing results for the business. But it’s interesting to see that history is full of such similar examples, and Harari makes a (contentious?) point that our very own drive to categorise things is due to the development of writing:

"The most important impact of script on human history is precisely this: it has gradually changed the way humans think and view the world. Free association and holistic thought have given way to compartmentalisation and bureaucracy."

So with our ability to record our thoughts, practices and culture, he argues, we also reduced our ability for free association of ideas. A practical way of looking at this from a planning point of view might be how sometimes we can explain an idea better with pictures than with words, or how a written brief can sometimes be too tight, too constrained and therefore not that useful or ambitious for creatives to solve. Categories can be bad constraints.

On the other hand, the author compares that those very constraints might be what drives us to produce truly novel ways to progress, as shown by the way music (for example, jazz) is written:

"Just as when two clashing musical notes played together force a piece of music forward, so discord in our thoughts, ideas and values compel us to think, re-evaluate and criticise. Consistency is the playground of dull minds."

And if consistency is the playground of dull minds, this is a potent way of re-considering a very planner-y obsession of being right and on point all the time. First off, it’s highly unlikely that we’ll be able to do that. And secondly, maybe the world is just too complex for us to be supposed to anyway. If we want to take a cue from the scientific world, Harari summarises it quite nicely:

"The Scientific Revolution has not been a revolution of knowledge. It has been above all a revolution of ignorance. The great discovery that launched the Scientific Revolution was the discovery that humans do not know the answers to their most important questions."

On a more practical level, this challenging of categorisation and not adhering to our competitors’ ‘consistency’ (say, following the same type of messaging for example) is shown by Uber and breakfast cereals. Uber, when it first came up, was seen as a new cab company, but indeed it’s always been more of a transportation company, of which cabs were but a sub-set (who knows if Uber starts lobbying for road construction jobs one day?).

A more classic example comes from how cereal came to be seen as the breakfast option of choice. To quote a piece of the full story in The Atlantic:

"What is less commonly mentioned is the origin of this ode to breakfast: a 1944 marketing campaign launched by General Foods, the manufacturer of Grape Nuts, to sell more cereal."

If this sounds confusing, or even paradoxical, that might be the point. Harari argues time and time again that no significant development in history is fully consistent with a certain definition – most important things aren’t 100% bad nor 100% good, and assuming so can be a naive way of looking at the world. Probably a good word of advice next time we get a really sh1t brief on the table? Or at the very least it gives us the perfect excuse to do more pre-mortems in any ideas we have from now on, as a true test of their validity.

Speaking of testing the validity of things...


Provocation #4: ‘Does it work’ beats ‘is it true’

The final point we discussed was even more directly applicable to planning and strategy. What’s the true test of something, like an insight or creative proposition? Is it that it’s true, or is it that it works in, say, inspiring the creatives to do something outrageously good? The answer, according to Harari when talking about scientists, lies in the latter option:

"Scientists usually assume that no theory is 100 per cent correct. Consequently, truth is a poor test for knowledge. The real test is utility. A theory that enables us to do new things constitutes knowledge."

This shines a light on the importance of truth in the context of the news but also brands. Specifically, the discussion focused a lot on how the ease of access to information might facilitate people’s access to a worldview, but equally it means that we tend to question our own worldviews less because we take things at face value. It’s true for 1 minute explainers on international policy in 2017, and it was true in propaganda pamphlets in 1917’s Russia.

Explaining complex things in overly simplified ways can carry various dangers, and as planners whose job is to be ‘makers of meaning’ it’s more important than ever that we are at least aware of them when going about our daily lifes. Especially if you work in political advertising, with filter bubbles being all the rage these days. ;)

As a final word of consolation (or maybe motivation is the best word), we discussed Harari’s point of view on the importance of resilience for our species and culture in general. His example came from the Roman Empire and how they dealt with defeat:

"The Ancient Romans were used to being defeated. Like the rulers of most of history’s great empires, they could lose battle after battle but still win the war. An empire that cannot sustain a blow and remain standing is not really an empire."

This importance of resilience and being able to turn defeat into iteration is seen in a great advertising example – Wieden+Kennedy’s ‘Just Do It’ work for Nike in the 80s, which, believe it or not, took about 8 years to come to life after W+K won the account (for more on this story, check out Cultural Strategy, another amazing book). It’s a great example of a campaign that many people revere, and which arguably spawned one of the most potent brand ideas of our time, but it’s equally an example of how multiple defeats and iterations are often at the core of the most resilient ideas.

It took Nike and W+K 8 years of tinkering and tweaking until ‘Just Do It’ became obvious – who’s to say the idea you just believe is right doesn’t need to go through the same process before it sees the light of day? If there’s one lesson that history can teach us, this might be it. A hard lesson indeed, but a crucial one nonetheless.

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