May be it’s because I was in London last week for the Cognizant Community Europe conference. But my mind is on the intensity of British rock music.
In the late sixties and early seventies, The Who was a band at the absolute peak of its powers. They were coming off the heels of the seminal rock opera Tommy, a starring role at Woodstock (with guitarist Pete Townshend famously stating: “We hated it”), the release of Live at Leeds (the godfather of all heavy metal albums), and finally turning amps to 11 with the release of Who’s Next in 1971. In short, they were pre-eminent; concerts by The Who were being described as "leading to a kind of rock nirvana that most bands can only dream about".
They were also LOUD, notoriously certifiably holding forth as the “Loudest Band in the World”, according to the Guinness Book of World Records spot. That is... until they were usurped by a band called Manowar in 1984. I repeat...Manowar.
There's a huge difference between being awesomely, transformatively “loud” when you’re The Who of the early 1970s being, well, Manowar. The difference is the honing of craft. Craft that makes a profound connection with people, leaving them wanting more of the experience.
The Who’s march to the top began by playing clubs all over London for years, starting with cover after cover of rhythm and blues, which they called "Maximum R&B". The results of all those little gigs showed, as did the stylistic nuances that refined the experience; they were tight-knit, both as a group, and with their audience. For fans, it wasn't about the power of volume; it was the power and craft of the experience, authentic and live – and leaving you wanting more.
Compare that with today's most successful digital experience initiatives. The best of them exhibit a kind “maximum SMAC" approach. That is, it’s not about the bombast of the technology alone. It’s about reinventing work, experiences, connections, feelings, and – yes transformative beauty – based on the interaction of very real people that use the technology to connect. And realizing it’s not a “once and done”, but honing and refining, A/B testing, iteratively based on subtle connections made and nuances over time.
To reiterate, it’s all about the experience, not the technology. I REPEAT: Experience, not technology. When we interact with services such as Pandora, Netflix, Google, iTunes, LinkedIn and Facebook, we integrate our experiences and information across devices, time, and place. For example, when we visit iTunes, our defined tastes in music, literature and movies — combined with our geographic location, basic demographics, reading interests, social network connections and the devices we are using — presents an opportunity to align our experience with a portfolio of who we are, even beyond our music preferences. When that data is applied to the power of big data through sophisticated algorithms, the results can be stunning.
Bringing things back to the Who momentarily, consider the power of data in a song like Baba O’Riley. The basic chord structure is three notes, same as any rock song since the beginning of time. But Townshend overlaid a synthesizer loop across the whole piece – a loop that was dictated by stats derived from the vital signs and personality life of his Indian spiritual master, Meher Baba, which would then generate music based on that data. (Stay with me: really going down a rabbit hole, this is the same chord structure as Taylor Swift’s recent “Welcome to New York”; coincidence, given her stunning success? I digress... And this is about London, not New York... Unless you want to visit our Collaboratory space in midtown Manhattan...)
But what about those that apply Maximum SMAC with no soul? Take the United terminal at Newark airport – virtually all of the eateries have installed automated, iPad-intensive ordering technologies to automate the experience “at the touch of a button!” While it’s laudable to try to make wait times at airports “less miserable”, it’s disconcerting to have a video camera in your face, watching your every move when all you want is a decent dinner and a draft beer before your flight. Call me paranoid, but I resorted to shredding pieces of my paper napkin and then positioning the shred over the camera lens to block its HAL-like gaze. Only to have the human “helper” (we used to call them “waiters”) come by and conveniently knock the shred off. Three times. The food that came was OK, but I also noticed the prices were double what you expect. And what’s more, we’ve now got this in San Francisco.
Is it possible that, despite the initial “this-is-new-so-it-must-be-cool” factor, experiences like Newark are the “Manowar” of digital? All SMAC and no soul? Like all artistic endeavors, sustaining the cool – beyond the merely new – is the trick. For every beautiful Amazon moment, there are things like Second Life (whatever happened to THAT?). For their part, The Who went from the top of the mountain in the early seventies to the tragic deaths of their bass player John Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon (whose previously “endearingly eccentric” antics – like falling off a drum stool, or driving his Rolls-Royce into a swimming pool – finally caught up with him). Or having musical tastes shift into the snarl of punk and the ennui of disco. Or the “breakup” of the band (“Who’s Last”) by 1982 Or the re-emergence of "Maximum R&B Pete”, tinnitus-deafened, forced to play acoustic guitar behind a protective plexiglass shield on the “comeback tour” of 1989. As is always the case with new things, time will tell... But I’ll bet you could find 10X more used Manowar CDs in a dusty, gritty “Free!” bin than you’d ever find of The Who. But wait – what’s a CD?.