While we’re getting ready in the morning, Cathy and I sometimes have NHK, the Japanese TV channel, on in the background.
This morning they had a clip about a small electric railway in a snowy part of Japan.
In the middle of the train was an old-fashioned stove, the conductor heated pieces of squid on it and warmed sake, the passengers could buy these if they wanted.
Cathy, being Chinese, thought it was a really nice way for the conductor to make a little extra money.
He was incentivised to keep the stove going, which kept the passengers warm, plus hot snacks and drinks if they wanted.
But I couldn’t help thinking what would happen in the UK.
For a start, a coal-fired stove wouldn’t be allowed on the railway, Health & Safety would see to that.
Even if they did allow a stove it would have to be powered by eco-friendly means that no one could object to, no fossil-fuels so battery or solar-powered.
That would all be too expensive, so the railway line wouldn’t spend the money.
And in any case, why should the conductor have to sell food to earn extra money, they should be paid more money so they wouldn’t do that.
And even if the food was free, that means it’s included in the price of the ticket, what about the people who don’t want squid, what about vegans?
And what about people who don’t drink sake or any alcohol, why should they pay to fund something they don’t want?
And why should all the food be hot, what about people who want cold drinks?
They only fair way is to offer a large range of drinks and foods so everyone is catered for, obviously the conductor can’t do this while doing his other job, so a trained catering assistant would have to be employed.
Then there would need to be hygienic plates and cups and a sink to wash them in.
Plus someone checking the quality of the foodstuffs, that would need a specialist to monitor purchasing.
All of those things make it far too complicated and expensive to be worth doing.
So, in the name of improvement, a charming little thing like serving hot snacks and warm sake from a comforting stove couldn’t be done in the UK.
And that seems to be what we do with everything.
Start off with a good idea then keep picking away at it until there’s nothing left.
As we normally do, we improve everything to death.
By following a programme of incremental logical steps we end up dull and boring.
The logic hasn’t made life any better, it’s just made it duller.
Naturally to me, this seems a good comparison to the area I’ve spent my life working in.
Advertising started off as a good way for people to get new products noticed and tried.
The best way to do that was to do ads that stood out, something fun.
It worked well because everyone enjoyed it.
But the advertising equivalent of Health & Safety said we mustn’t spend money without knowing it will work, so we need to test everything first.
And then they said we couldn’t do anything without data, telling us what to do.
And then media algorithms said we need to make ads cheaper and run them more often.
And then, as the ads are now dull and boring anyway, we don’t need human beings to write them, we can use AI to make them faster and cheaper.
And in the name of logic, we managed to make advertising as dull and boring as we make everything else.
“Nibbled to death by ducks” is a phrase that’s decades old.
It refers to something being ruined not by a single powerful blow, but by a continuing series of minor objections and fault-finding until it’s unrecognisable.
We take a good idea and destroy it in the name of improvement.