8 October, 2000

Dear Friend,

. . . Shallowness has reached new depths.
. . . I know what you're thinking. You're thinking this has something to do with calm waters running deep.
. . . In my experience -- canoeing the blue-green rivers of Central Texas -- calm water has little to do with depth and everything to do with the rocks up ahead. To me, calm water means you're about to come to rapids. Life is like that.
. . . Once you get to the rocks, you're in for a fast ride. The trick is to follow the current, to canoe where the water is deepest and gives the most protection from rocks. Hitting the rocks is no fun; avoiding them, a thrill.
. . . There's one place on the upper Guadalupe River where the river splits. To the right, the river rolls over a shelf of limestone and falls perhaps a foot. This is not the place to go. The water is too shallow. Your canoe will hang up half-way over the shelf. You'll look ridiculous.
. . . To the left, the river sends a small portion of its water down a narrow fast-moving stream that snakes through a stand of cypress trees. Canoeing "the Chute" is fun -- if you and your partner can make one sharp turn after another. If you don't, you smash into a tree.
. . . If this sounds frightening, I've fooled you. The water in the Chute is usually only a few inches deep and "smashing" into a tree means you come to a sudden and humiliating stop with no damage to your trusty canoe.
. . . Egos are more easily damaged. Canoeing in such waters tests the strongest marriage. If you're going to canoe with your spouse, I strongly urge you to change partners at the first sign of discord -- unless, of course, you believe your relationship benefits from sudden and humiliating stops.

Our civilization, this "Age of Information," is like a wide, shallow river. Everywhere you look, information has increased but our attention has not. Through word-of-mouth, newspapers, books, the telephone, radio, TV, and the Internet, people like me are trying to get their message to you. Do you have more time to listen than you used to? More interest? No.
. . . If anything, the increased clamoring for attention from those with urgent messages has made all of us less attentive. It has made us people who listen with only half an ear to the radio as we creep along the freeway. The TV is on, but only in the background.
. . . Let disaster strike, and we give it our full attention. Weathermen know this and love to show us riveting footage of floods and tornadoes. Lacking that, they'll make even the tamest weather change sound threatening, hoping to keep our attention.
. . . More message and less attention is called the paradox of wider bandwidth. The river of information is much wider but our attention is much shallower. This produces desperate marketing.
. . . You see desperate marketing when you can't read the Sunday funnies without first tearing off the advertisement that covers them.
. . . You see desperate marketing when, after searching the Internet, you suddenly receive several e-mail messages from firms offering products related to your search.
. . . You've learned not to answer the phone immediately. Instead, you wait, two rings at least. You know telemarketers often call several phones at once and make their pitch to the first person who answers. You've learned not to be the first person.
. . . You see desperate marketing in the branding of every article of clothing you wear except socks. Socks are a problem. Sometimes logos are painted on but those soon wear off. That said, there is hope for those of you with logo-deprived feet. Disney offers socks decorated with Pooh and Warner Bros. with Daffy. Me, I'm waiting for the World Wrestling Federation to offer Smackdown! socks -- something a real man can wear.
. . . Desperate marketing is most evident at gas stations. As you swipe your credit card, the digital readout sells you a car wash. As you reach for the pump handle, you are forced to grasp a corporation's logo emblazoned on the hand grip. Then, while you pump, a recorded message tells you how some product can make your life so much better.
. . . Is any individual more vulnerable than someone standing between a gas pump and their urban attack vehicle, waiting while $42 of refined petroleum imported halfway around the world flows so veeerrrry, veeeerrry slowly into their fuel tank? Hopelessly, the pumper glares at the rightmost digits on the pump, the numbers representing one one-thousandth of a dollar. The pumper wills them to change so fast they blur. Each digit remains disdainfully distinct.
. . . Politicians are desperate, too. In the first recent presidential debate, Al Gore repeated one hundred and thirty-seven times that "Fifty Percent of George W's Tax Cuts Will Go To The Wealthiest One Percent." He and his advisors are desperate to get their message across, so Gore repeats the one sentence again and again and then, on prime-time TV, it is repeated yet again, endlessly. Millions of dollars are spent. For what? So you will hear -- hear once with something approaching full attention -- one sentence.
. . . Let me repeat that. Millions of dollars are .... On second thought, I won't repeat it. You'll stop listening.
. . . That's what really makes marketers desperate. We stop listening. Marketers know our ability to concentrate is undiminished. They know we can choose to concentrate, that we're ignoring them on purpose, millions of us. And they have such urgent, important, life-enhancing messages to communicate, every one of them.
. . . Nothing like that is happening here. You have paid attention even though I'd nothing urgent to say or sell. Some of you will actually respond. Thanks. I'll sleep soundly tonight, and deeply. Before sleep, I'll remember you in my prayers and I'll say a special prayer for those engaged in desperation marketing, whom we are learning to love, even if that learning comes veeerrrry, veeeerrry slowly.


The way your letter began, I thought you were about to lay a little Chinese philosophy on us. There you are, canoeing in the calm waters, getting ready to hit the rocks. Chinese religion teaches this. They teach that whenever you are in the extreme,(good or bad) the counter force is just up ahead. Now that I am retired, everything seems calm. But, this extreme calm means that the counter force is waiting for me. [Jimmy regularly visits prisoners in the jails in Travis County, Texas.]

On the contrary, my friend. You do have something urgent to say and you do have something to sell. Let us not delude ourselves. You pointed out to me once that I was trying to convince people of things but I seldom convinced any one. The one we are trying to sell to, the one we are trying to convince is ourselves. Why do you write? Why do you feel guilt when you do not write? Who is your audience? The purpose of education, self education, or formal education is to learn to think more critically.
. . . When I write or recite my little essays, it is in order to examine my thoughts, values and belief system. When I was a school teacher, and prepared daily lectures, often I would react to what I heard my self saying "I can't believe I just said that!" The Bible encourages us to present our ideas to three wise men for criticism. This is the basis for the Ph.D. committee.
. . . All of our writings are introspection. We must bring the ideas into being and give them structure to be able to examine them critically. This is why we have to lay our guts on the table and allow them to be analyzed. So, Danny, you are in the business of selling your ideas. You are your own audience. In business, there is an old adage, "A con man is in deep trouble when he begins to believe his own bull shit" Or, as Davy Crockett succulently put it "Be sure you are right, then go ahead." [Sam, a Realtor in Texas, has been known to work on one Habitat for Humanity house after another.]

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