Remember the film WALL-E?
I seem to remember it better and better every day now.
The film painted a dystopian picture of a future Earth, inundated with garbage; and a small colony of obese humans confined to their loungers as they were plied continuously with food, drink and entertainment.
But the film was really about a robot. A robot we all fell in love with. An AI with emotions who falls in love with another robot. The film was really their love story.
Doesn’t sound so implausible anymore. Does it?
As we enter the twilight years of the industrial age, this story and the picture it paints of humanity becomes ever more real.
At its zenith, the Industrial Age was about glorious mass production. Millions were lifted from poverty as the ravages of the world wars were put behind us.
The world modernised and more and more people could access the fruits of mass production and the economies of scale.
National and individual identities were built around what one could create or ‘produce’.
But then, things started to go wrong.
The engines of production could not be turned off or even slowed down.
On the contrary, the idea of ‘more’ or ‘mass’ became the lynchpin of the entire industrial imagination.
Production had to grow. Because profit had to grow. So that production could grow.
To support this growth, we have spent a century producing not just the goods that humanity needed, but also producing new needs, to which the ever-growing mountain of goods could be assigned.
And that’s not all. Our obsession with the new has meant that we no longer measure the life cycle of an object in terms of its ability to be useful. We measure its life cycle by its ability to give us joy or satisfaction.
Boredom in ancient times was a state of lethargy and an outcome of inaction. Today, it is an outcome of disinterest or indifference.
Nowadays, we don’t “do” when we are bored. We “buy” or “consume”.
Which brings us back to where we find ourselves today.
Huge mountains of things we don’t want anymore, or never really needed. And nowhere to put them. The ability to buy, at the touch of a button. The ability to buy, even when we don’t have the money.
Even money is now invisible or digital.
And underlying it all, is this idea that we must always strive for more if we are to survive and progress.
We used to be human ‘beings’.
I would argue that ‘being’ is an act simply, of existence. A state of greater balance and harmony with the world we live in.
We are now ‘consumers’. This describes a state of taking, only. Not a state of giving back.
In these last years of the industrial age, personal identity is built not so much around what one can create or produce. It is instead increasingly built around what one can access and consume.
The pervasiveness of the Selfie across the world is the most powerful case in point.
The selfie immortalises an act of consumption. It creates personality and identity capital by expressing proof of access and consumption. “Been there, done that, ate that, felt that”. The list goes on.
More fascinatingly, the selfie tells a much darker story.
In every selfie, one can see a great dysfunction of the industrial era.
In it, we see an unwanted consequence of extreme individualism: Narcissism.
To understand this a little better, one needs to go back to the origins of the Industrial age.
The Industrial revolution can trace its roots to technological advancements made possible by the Renaissance in Christian Europe.
The birth of Protestantism in Christianity ushered in the age of Enlightenment. It also saw the rise of the idea of the ‘self’.
Simply put, by working hard and being the best that one could be – one could seek redemption for oneself. Redemption was no longer mediated through the Catholic Church. The individual became the master of his or her own destiny.
Thus, the age of industry was built around the idea of an individual’s work ethic and his pursuit of self-improvement and progress.
Man took control of himself.
As industry evolved into mass production it nurtured and championed the ideal of individualism. The idea of the self was fertile ground, on which new needs could be seeded.
The factory system and Protestantism brought with them a reduced sense of community. The nuclear family unit grew more prevalent. It created space for privacy and individual self-expression.
Thus, over the course of the industrial age, the ideal of individualism has driven aspirations of privacy, personal liberty, self-discovery, self-actualisation and self-expression. Values that most of us hold dear, and have built our lives and imaginations around.
Much of the progress of the modern world, may be attributed to these values.
But as we near the end of this age, many of the unwanted side effects of individualism, are hard to ignore.
Caught up in a storm of our own needs and desires, our ‘selves’ have become the centre of our lives.
Even when we have children, ‘we’ live through them.
Selfishness is necessary, even aspirational.
Personal space and ‘boundaries’ are concepts of our age.
And as we get more and more immersed in ourselves, the world becomes a lonelier place.
Never has the planet had so many people crowding its continents. And yet, never have its people been lonelier.
The majority of the world’s brands address the individual consumer.
Self-confidence and self-improvement today come from self-directed actions.
Social media is less about connection and much more about self-expression.
Others feature in our lives more as an audience than as partners.
Devices mediate even the most intimate social interactions.
At some point, everything in the world became (or is about to become) about ‘me’.
Today, our ‘thoroughly pre-occupied-with-ourselves’ minds, stand at the edge of a new age.
The industrial age is giving way to the age of Information and Artificial Intelligence. Technologies such as Augmented Reality have the potential to exponentially enhance our immersion in our selves.
We run the risk of being lost in ourselves forever.
So where does all this leave us?
Our world faces the very real prospect of environmental and social ruin. And as the world burns, people find themselves unable to break out of self-obsessive cycles of consumption.
We are at a crucial moment in history. Brands have a critical choice to make.
We can continue to fuel this unhealthy individualistic cycle and risk the collapse of our social fabric.
Or, we can begin to bring consumers back to the state of ‘human being’.
Brands of the future must champion selflessness and start to idealise a more ‘other’ directed identity.
Brands can create more collaborative and collective aspirations. We must encourage a deeper sense of empathy for people.
People need goals that balance the needs of the self with the needs of other people, other species and the environment.
A brand that finds a higher purpose - which frees people from their intense self-involvement – is a brand that will create a sustainable future for itself and humanity.
(The author is partner, Quantum Consumer Solutions)
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