Tuesday, March 7, 2023

An Advertising Lesson About AI, from the 13th Century.

There's a great bookstore in Manhattan about a mile from my apartment, called The Corner Bookstore. Though it looks like it might be a front for the Mob, run by Vinnie "Two PhD.s" Luciano, it's a real live bookstore. Not at all like the fronts in my neighborhood which I lovingly call, "the candy stores that sell no candy."

The Corner Bookstore is not vast like the Strand (eighteen miles of books) or specialized like Rizzoli's was (giant artbooks you needed a U-Haul to carry home) but it has three attributes that lead me to put it in the great category

1. It's small. 
Unlike Barnes & Nobel, the Corner Bookstore doesn't have every book. They have a nice, concise selection of books in about five or six areas: Kids, Fiction, Non-fiction, Art and 'Quirky.' (I'll get to quirky in a minute.)

2. The staff actually reads and...
Back when I was in college, Salter's on Broadway between 115th Street and 116th Street was the campus bookstore. The staff was mostly angry-PhD's or even angrier PhD students. 

They'd help you find what you were looking for and insult you--sometimes in Latin--at the same time. At the Corner Bookstore, the staff is well-read without being condescending.

3. There are places to sit and flip pages.
A bookstore should feel like a library, not a Gap.

Now to the quirky bit.

I was in the Corner Bookstore a couple of weeks ago and bought this book, above.

Not only is my ex-partner, the great typographer and art director Sid Tomkins coming to stay with me in April, but I had also just finished reading The Wandering Mind: What Medieval Monks Tell Us About Distraction

I was therefore on a bit of an illuminated manuscript and incunabula jag. I might be the first person ever to have been on such a jag, or at least to put it in those words.

It occurred to me this morning, about twenty minutes before the start of yet another daily marathon, that putting together some thoughts from these two wildly different books might help us understand artificial intelligence and Chat GPT more and fear it a little less. 

The monks and nuns who did the bulk of copying manuscripts onto vellum and/or parchment did a good job doing what they did. But their skills were not unusual. A few more skilled did marginal illustrations to brighten up some of the darkest texts. 

The top of the top did "illuminations" for illuminated manuscripts. These illuminations, literally the bringing of light, were limited to the most important and most valuable books from about the 13th Century to the 16th Century, when movable type displaced copyists.

What occurs to me is that maybe in the 21st century, we could learn some things from the 13th.

A lot of content is fairly mundane, like in Fig. 1. That's the kind of content done by moderately-skilled copyists. Today or tomorrow, that might be done by ChatGPT. 

The kooky, spooky illustration in Fig. 2., might be done by a skilled creative, while the text in Fig. 2, could be done by machine.

By the time you get to Fig. 3, ChatGPT is out of the picture. Such work is rarefied and takes rare skills. NMNA. (No machines need apply.)

It occurs to me while writing this that if you want to bolster your salary or day rate as a creative, or increase your revenue or margin if you're an agency, we might want to bring back the word "Illuminated."

The ad industry and clients have been great and highly productive churning out tonnage. Sometimes it seems we make more ads than there are eyeballs.

But there are some in the industry, by dint of talent, experience or both who can bring illumination to clients.

It's time we cherished the clients and the creatives who can illuminate. Illumination is a skill it often takes a lifetime to cultivate. Illuminators should be well-paid and well-treated. 

They are not machines and they make a big performative difference.

Back in earlier times, we'd call that paecuniam in pecunia.

You know, return on investment.

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