So What’s The Big Idea?

January 31, 2013

How do you define a “Big Idea”?  It means different things to different people, but in the world of PR, Big Ideas are ones with resonance.  We’re not looking to cannonball into the water and create a massive, if fleeting, splash. Instead, we choose the smoothest polished stone and drop it neatly into the water, generating a ripple effect that quietly builds and pervades to the horizon.

But how to choose the stone?  Where do you even begin to look?  How will you know when you see it?  If you look to some of the most resonant “Big Ideas,” you’ll see that they share a common thread. In different but deeply profound ways, they all reflect on a critical element of what it means to be human.

Go out to your driveway and look at your car.  Two headlights, wide set above a front grill panel that spans the width of the vehicle. It’s familiar.  You’ve seen this design on this car, and on every other car you’ve ever owned. And it’s not an accident. Cars are designed to be an abstract representation of the human face: two eyes, a mouth, a windshield expanse of forehead. They’ve looked this way since Henry Ford rolled his first Model-T off the line in Detroit.  A few attempts to alter this design have been cataclysmic failures – people simply do not accept them as aesthetically pleasing or reliable.

But why?  What Henry Ford knew inherently, and what so many studies and experiments have since proved, is that people view cars as an extension of themselves: face forward, eyes wide open, recognizing and responding to surroundings with swiftness and agility.  We are comforted by these similarities.  They resonate.

When IBM created Watson, they too sought out to create a machine that bore a unique set of human characteristics, and the ongoing fascination with Watson – which has, among other things, truly been a PR machine for IBM – is rooted in this humanness. Like humans, Watson is capable of contextual learning.  It can make quantum inferential leaps, see connections, understand nuances, read between the lines.  Puns are not lost on it.  It can play Jeopardy.  In it, we see a machine created in our own intellectual image.

Like Watson, Ericsson’s Connected Tree bears some intrinsically human qualities – mirroring our socially triggered emotional responses using Twitter as a medium. When someone walks away, it expresses loneliness. When someone approaches, it is hopeful and happy. When it is overwhelmed by a crowd, it expresses a desire to scale back the socialization. Touch the tree, and it speaks directly to you via SMS text. Unlike Watson, Connected Tree is not finessing complex context. It is conveying primal responses to social interactions.  Where Watson has IQ, Connected Tree has EQ.

One could posit the argument that all of these big ideas underscore our narcissism: we are vain creatures forever seeking a new pool reflecting our own image.  There is another way to see it, however, and it boils down to the emotional, biological underpinnings of procreation.  As humans, we are biologically and socially conditioned to want children – humans created of our own flesh and blood and DNA in our own image.  But ask someone if they would ever consent to be cloned, and the near universal reaction is horror.  Or consider the Uncanny Valley – the theory posited by Masahiro Mori that the closer artificial humanity gets to real life, the more unsettling it becomes.

At the end of the day, we want to create things that extend our horizons, not things that perfectly mirror our own image.  Watson and Connected Tree and so many other Big Ideas do just that. They take a part of what makes us human and extend it, enliven it, re-imagine it.  In that, we see a future – ripples extending all the way to the horizon.



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