I'm reading Steven Johnson's new book The Ghost Map for Gareth's book club, and remembered that I've been meaning to write something on a great article Johnson wrote in the New York Times Magazine a couple of months ago called "The Long Zoom." I've been thinking about it a lot, and referencing it ever since.
The bulk of the article is a profile and interview with the famous video game designer Will Wright (creator of SimCity and The Sims) about his new game Spore, but what interested me most was how Johnson frames the piece with a fascinating observation.
"Most eras have distinct “ways of seeing” that end up defining the period in retrospect: the fixed perspective of Renaissance art, the scattered collages of Cubism, the rapid-fire cuts introduced by MTV and the channel-surfing of the 80’s. Our own defining view is what you might call the long zoom: the satellites tracking in on license-plate numbers in the spy movies; the Google maps in which a few clicks take you from a view of an entire region to the roof of your house; the opening shot in “Fight Club” that pulls out from Edward Norton’s synapses all the way to his quivering face as he stares into the muzzle of a revolver."
So it looks, for example, like this:
Once I started looking for the long zoom, I began seeing it everywhere - the special effects shots on TV shows like CSI or House where you travel from inside someone's blood vessels through their organs and out to the autopsy table; the long pullback shots in Spielberg films from tight in on a character's face out to a reveal of them standing in a bustling crowd; the camera panning out at a sports event from a player to the whole stadium from the Goodyear blimp. At Leo Burnett we've recently even used this effect in some ads for the juice drink Five Alive - zooming into a character's brain to see what happened when they drank the product.
In the article, Johnson talks at length about how Wright's new game Spore may be the best example of the long zoom, because it compresses the entirety of evolution into one game, making you navigate from being a microbe swimming in primordial ooze to forming a creature, then a tribe, then a city, a civilization, a planet, and finally a galaxy. In typical Will Wright fashion, it sounds immersive and addictive.
But other than being a popular device right now, why is this act of zooming out from the granular close up to the wide context shot, or vice versa, defining of our era? Johnson explains further:
"...this is not just a way of seeing but also a way of thinking: moving conceptually from the scale of DNA
to the scale of personality all the way up to social movements and politics — and back again. It is, by any measure, a difficult way of thinking, in part because our brains did not evolve tools to perceive or intuitively understand the scales of microbes or galaxies."
Now this is a really big thought: the long zoom helps us see how things at different scales, from the littlest things to the biggest, are interconnected. This is actually a theme in a lot of Johnson's writing, including the Ghost Map. He talks at length in that book about the idea of consilience, being able to join things from different classes of knowledge together. This idea of seeing relationships across different scales is an immensely useful and important idea.
A lot of postmodernist thinking is about the idea that the meaning of things is inherent in their context. Now, as digital technology interconnects everyone and everything and floods us with data, that idea has become very real. Seeing the context of what something is connected to has become an important way to judge things. Many of the different internet media spaces reflect this in various ways. Which other blogs link to your blog, how many friends you have on MySpace, your eBay history, what groups you belong to on flickr, how many Diggs a website has: these are all examples of how connections have come to signify importance.
But more specifically, what the long zoom visually demonstrates is what you could call the verticality of interconnectedness - not just connections between peers or similar things, but the connections between things at different scales, between the small and the huge. Scale can seem to impose its own limits - it's easy to assume that small things should have small effects, big things should have big effects. But the long zoom helps us see that small things can have big effects. This idea is can be seen almost everywhere today. It is central to chaos theory and the butterfly effect. It also informs fractal geometry. It is part of our understanding of ecosystems and global warming, of bacteria and DNA and genomes. It appears in advice about managing diet and health. It explains how a brief video clip can affect an election, or a rumour can damage a company's reputation. It explains how some initial miscalculations in invading Iraq can have led to disaster, or how small terrorist cells can take on huge nations and armies. When everything is connected, little things can have big effects.
This way of thinking is all fairly new: until very recently a person's world-view was constrained by what they could perceive with their senses, and to their immediate surroundings. People had no conception of microbes or galaxies, nor of what was happening across the country or around the world, let alone how anything was connected. In the article, Johnson quotes Brian Eno (who seems, all of a sudden, to be everywhere again) talking about how this has changed:
“One of the things that’s obviously been happening for the past 100 or 200 years,” Eno told me, “is that the range of our experience has greatly expanded: we can see much smaller things and much bigger things than we ever could before. But we can also start thinking about much longer futures and much deeper pasts as well. That really makes a big difference to us as humans, because on the one hand it makes us realize that we’re very powerful in that we’re able to comprehend and see all of this universe. But it also makes us seem so much less significant. We’re a tiny blip on a tiny radar screen. I think this is a feeling that people are trying to come to terms with, the feeling of where do we fit in all of this.”
Eno hints at some big underlying currents of social attitudes and feelings that I think we need to examine and understand. But beyond that, what I like most about the long zoom is I see some useful applications in it for framing the changing world of brands and communication.
I think the long zoom can be an important metaphor for how we think about brands. Russell and others have talked about the tyranny of the big idea - the tendency in business to assume that all problems require "big solutions" and "big ideas." And Seth Godin's new book, titled "Small is the new big," is also about the power of being small. The long zoom and the interconnectedness of everything gives us another way of talking about this issue: that seeing subtle chains of causal connections can help us understand how small, seemingly unrelated things can build up to big effects.
Because of that, the long zoom is also an interesting metaphor for the skills needed for successful brand stewards today. In a world where everything communicates, and everything creates data, we need to understand how it all fits together, and how different choices might play out. We need to be able to see connections between things at different scales. We need to be able to see how small choices in things like packaging design, in targetting, or in the production details of an ad might relate to each other and what effects they might have on a brand. We need to be able to zoom from a discussion on casting specifications or ingredients out to the level of brand architecture or a long-term plan. The ability to see across different scales is a necessary skill to manage today's brands.
And the long zoom can also guide us in the kinds of experiences we create around our brands. For many brands, we need to create things that work at both the overall broad level for the casual observer, and at a level of deep granular complexity for the loyal user and die-hard fan who will spend a lot of time looking and playing with it.
I see a natural fit here with the idea of transmedia planning. When we use different media vehicles to deliver different parts of a brand's story, one way to look at it is they could deliver on different scales to satisfy different levels of engagement with the brand, from the very broad and wide scale - suiting the cursory glance - to the very detailed and personal scale - providing fodder for brand fans to talk about with others, encouraging conversations.
Fractal image via DaVinci Productions