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Feynman on Soap Advertisements

In his Lectures on Computation, at the very end of the chapter on Coding and Communication Theory, Richard Feynman writes:
Such developments will transform the future. Movies will be cleaned up, too -- optical fibers, for example, are now giving us overcapacity. The soap ad will appear with absolute clarity. It seems that the technological world progresses, but real humanistic culture slides in the mud!
Ads work because people like them; people voluntarily choose to respond to ads by buying the product, or increasing their opinion of the quality of the company or product. Being anti-ads is being anti-humans; it's thinking that people with a different approach to life are dumb and wrong, and declaring their values to be mud. Maybe they are mistaken, but Feynman hasn't given any argument that they are, nor has Feynman made any attempt to help or enlighten them. He's just insulting them harshly.

I do think people are sometimes insufficiently skeptical of claims made in ads. Perhaps often. But that's bad reason to trash those people. Who cares about their choice of soap brands? It's not important. There are much more important issues to worry about, like whether they use soap to violently wash out their child's mouth, or not. Let's not compare people to mud unless they do something seriously bad.

Further, the assertion that we are sliding into the mud claims human culture is getting worse. In other words, Feynman claims that people used to evaluate companies and products better, but now, due to advertising, they have gotten dumber. Feynman gives no explanation of how advertising cripples judgement.

Feynman is saying that, in some "humanistic" sense, primitive cultures with no achievements to speak of were better than modern culture with its spaceships, skyscrapers, science, and also moral achievements like giving women the vote, reducing prejudices, and creating unprecedented law and order and peace. I think that's out of character for Feynman and I'm unaware of him saying this anywhere else. Instead he, for example, understood the extreme gullibility of primitive cultures that formed cargo cults. Not only in the case of cargo cults, but also in general, people in the past were far more gullible, not less. One can't be really gullible and still achieve all the things we've achieved. One reason is that, as Feynman says, science is what we've learned about how to avoid fooling ourselves; not fooling yourself is a big part of not being gullible.

Elliot Temple on July 5, 2009

Messages (1)


I'm working my way through this book right now, and I found the phrase so shocking that I typed it into google immediately and found this blog entry.

I have seen Feynman express contempt for philosophy, which makes sense since most modern philosophy is skeptical of reality and cynical of man. It seems like this philosophical climate wore on him and caused him some confusion.

Still, a great man and a great book.

L Boyer at 9:31 PM on August 3, 2011 | #2134 | reply | quote

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