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Against nostalgia

samburu-17m

“All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned”

Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848)

In a planning department meeting brilliantly timed to coincide with the opening of the agency bar, we contemplated last week the deeper cultural changes that the mediating effects of technology were wreaking. Change was everywhere. And as with any creative act, there was as much destruction as creation. Things were disappearing. Good things were being undermined.  Things were being lost. To mourn or not to mourn. That was the question.

Perhaps it was the the crystal clear blue skies and the crispness of the morning air (so precious at this time of year in our dear Amsterdam), but I realized this weekend that sometimes you have to warn yourself. To administer a good, cold, bracing dose of reality to oneself. Indeed I suspect that the further one’s spring chicken years recede into the dim and very distant past, the more necessary this becomes.

So, I am writing this for myself. Though you are welcome to accompany me on the journey.

But first, a little social theory.

Community’ is one of those vague, fat, messy words, which everyone has a slightly different take on and it is hardly surprising that the body of literature on what exactly constitutes ‘community’ is more than fulsome. And the burgeoning ‘digitization’ of our lives is only fuelling and expanding it.

Fortunately the work of nineteenth century sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies provides us with a way of navigating through all the competing definitions and claims.  In his influential work Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft he distinguished between two modes of human organization and relationship.

Gemeinschaft cannot be willed or examined into existence. It is either embedded and largely tacit, or it is nothing at all.

The distinguishing feature of Gemeinschaft (community) for Tönnies was that it represented a shared understanding:

The special social force and sympathy which keep human beings together as members of society.”

Whether this understanding was anchored in ties of blood, place, or indeed ties of the mind, he saw this shared understanding not as a result of human endeavours, but as the very starting point for togetherness.

Gemeinschaft binds communities together, and provides them with a shared truth, and a common framework for normative patterns of behaviour.

It means that we don’t have to question, or be forced back on our own resources and come up with our own answers and choices.

This framework of stability and certainty that tradition provides has historically given us with our sense of who we are. Identity was a function of the community we belonged to, and our role and position within it.

In contrast Gesellschaft (society), Tönnies argues was a modern phenomenon, and something much more conscious – something that was the product of human will, rather than something more organic and tacit:

The theory of Gesellschaft deals with the artificial construction of an aggregate of human beings which superficially resembles the Gemeinschaft in so far as the individuals peacefully live and dwell together. However, in the Gemeinschaft, they remain essentially united in spite of all their separating factors, whereas in the Gesellschaft they are essentially separated in spite of all the uniting factors.”

Modernity needless to say, unpicks and unwinds Gemeinschaft.

According to UN data, the proportion of the planet’s population that is urban is expected to rise to 61 per cent by 2030.

For the first time in human history the world has more urban residents than rural residents.

The professor of politics Russell Hardin provides some blunt advice on the matter:

Small towns are an anachronism in our times and they should be treated as an anachronism in the work of social theorists, who should no longer argue that our lives are somehow wrong because they are not like those of people in small communities.”

In our ever more urbanized world, our relationships expand in all directions. Urbanisation increases the sheer number and variety of people we come into contact with.

Consider for example how many people the average French peasant would have encountered in a single waking day, with how many his modern Parisian counterpart meets.

And with this expansion in our contacts comes a shift in social relations – from being all encompassing, to being segmented, specific, and task-orientated.

We have friends, close friends, colleagues, acquaintances, colleagues who are friends, family, face-to-face relationships, digitally-connected relationships, relationships with vendors of all kinds, and so on. In contrast to life in pre-modern times, our lives are now characterised by many relationships that are about relatively specific things.

Our lives, interests, activities, personalities and identities are now distributed across disparate networks, and we are now distributed beings. We are not to be found all in one place.

Urbanisation expands our social lives out, horizontally and yet at the same time, it thins them. Our lives are no longer housed within all encompassing closed communities. We begin to live horizontally, not vertically, spreading ourselves across open networks of friends, colleagues, and passing strangers.

At the same time as our horizontal networks are expanding, the physical shape of our lives and interactions are changing too. Our physical connections and presence are shrinking while our virtual ones are expanding.

Our spaces of connections and interactions are increasingly disconnected from any actual physical place.

Giddens calls this phenomenon ‘disembedding’, in other words the extraction of social interactions and relationships from local contexts and their “restructuring across indefinite spans of space-time.”

The forces of modernity that began with Enlightenment have fundamentally changed our position in and relationship with the world.

We have become seekers and inventors of realities, not inhabitants of a certain pre-packaged, preordained reality.

This shift away from a sense of habitation is is perhaps most evident in how people’s notion of spirituality has shifted. A spirituality of ‘dwelling’, according to the sociologist Richard Wuthnow emphasises habitation, in which humans experience the surety and comfort of sharing a sacred space that is created and inhabited by God.

We have moved away from the idea of human beings as participants in some knowable cosmic order to a separation of world and self. Things no longer had a definite place. Least of all ourselves.

As Wuthnow puts it:

A spirituality of seeking emphasises negotiation: individuals search for sacred moments that reinforce their conviction that the divine exists, but these moments are fleeting; rather than knowing the territory, people explore new spiritual vistas.”

It is perhaps not so surprising then, that we yearn for the certainty and fixedness of Gemeinschaft, and that the idyll of the small town and community, where we know each other by name remains a potent dream. “Sometimes you want to go, Where everybody knows your name… You want to be where you can see, Our troubles are all the same” as the theme song for the TV series Cheers went.

And it’s perhaps not so surprising, that we should be so entranced by entertainments such as the TV series Downton Abbey.

As Katie Roiphe notes, writing for Slate magazine,

There is something reassuring about the retrograde class structures in Downton Abbey, something elegant and comforting in their rigidity. Take the camera lingering on a footman ironing a newspaper so that his master’s hands won’t get ink on them… The characters of Downton Abbey may chafe and aspire, but their roles are inescapable, clear; and it is perhaps the inescapability and clarity that is so seductive.”

But – I get to my point at last – things were never as good as we think they once were.

First published in England in 1968, Below Stairs is Margaret Powell’s memoir, recounting her years “in service” (beginning from the age of fifteen) in the 1920s. And it provides a sharp contrast to the genteel, mannered community of Downtown Abbey where everybody has a place, knows what their place is, and loves being in that place.

Here is one dose of reality from Margaret Powell:

One morning, as I was polishing the brass knocker on the front door, the newsboy arrived with the papers. Just then, my employer floated downstairs — so I dutifully handed them over.

In response, Mrs Clydesdale just gave me a long stare, looking at me as if I were something subhuman.

As the moment lengthened, I couldn’t think what was wrong. I had my cap and apron on; I was wearing the correct thick wool stockings; my hair was even scraped  back in the regulation manner.

Then at last she spoke. ‘Langley,’ she said, ‘Never, never on any occasion ever hand anything to me in your bare hands — always use a silver salver.’

Tears started to trickle down my cheeks. So this was what being in service was all about: you were so low that you couldn’t even hand your employer something without it first being placed on a silver salver. I was just 15, I’d recently become a kitchen maid — and I wanted more than anything to run home. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so wretched before or since.”

As for those who yearn for a return to smaller, ‘traditional’ communities, they often forget the twitching net curtains, the whispers and disapproving looks as one queues at the post office and just how claustrophobic such environments can be.

This is the curse (and yes, comfort) that we call nostalgia. It ladles sickly sweet sentimentality over reality, it denies the ugly, the violent, the unfair, the cruel. It sandpapers the past down to  point where it can no longer shock and appall us.

The Harvard Professor of Slavic and Comparative Literatures Svetlana Boym is much preoccupied with the conflict between memory and modernity.

Reminding us that the word “nostalgia” comes from two Greek roots: νόστος, nóstos (“return home”) and ἄλγος, álgos (“longing”), Boym defines it as “A longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed.”

While its emotions are powerful, Boym points out the sheer futility of it:

Nostalgia appears to be a longing for a place but is actually a yearning for a different time—the time of our childhood, the slower rhythms of our dreams. In a broader sense, nostalgia is a rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress. The nostalgic desires to obliterate history and turn it into private or collective mythology, to revisit time as space, refusing to surrender to the irreversibility of time that plagues the human condition.

The British photographer Jimmy Nelson has travelled the world, photographing secluded tribes. The  introduction to his project puts it thus:

The purity of humanity exists. It is there in the mountains, the ice fields, the jungle, along the rivers and in the valleys…. There is a pure beauty in their goals and family ties, their belief in gods and nature, and their will to do the right thing in order to be taken care of when their time comes. Whether in Papua New Guinea or in Kazakhstan, in Ethiopia or in Siberia, tribes are the last resorts of natural authenticity… I wanted to witness their time-honoured traditions, join in their rituals and discover how the rest of the world is threatening to change their way of life forever. Most importantly, I wanted to create an ambitious aesthetic photographic document that would stand the test of time. A body of work that would be an irreplaceable ethnographic record of a fast disappearing world.”

Published under the title Before They Pass Away, Nelson has assembled an extraordinary, visually stunning body of work. And indeed one cannot help but ponder what the bulldozers of modernity are eradicating.

So much so that it is easy to forget that for all their authenticity, these are also lives characterized by ignorance, superstition, and rigidity.

No.  We can never go back.  The past, as Scarlet Johansson’s character says in Spike Jonze’s Her, is a story we tell ourselves. That place and time we yearn to reclaim never existed as we remember it.

So this is what I tell myself.

Time’s arrow travels in one direction only, and lest we fall victim to the incapacitating effects of nostalgia, we must accommodate ourselves to its trajectory.

In its wake we lose things.

But at its edge, new possibilities erupt.

Better to explore new territories, than mourn those that never existed.

***

Sources

Photo: Jimmy Nelson, ‘Before They Pass Away’

Sveltana Boym, ‘Nostalgia

Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity

Russell Hardin, Trust 

Margaret Powell, Below Stairs

Ferdinand Tönnies, Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, World Urbanization Prospects: The 2003 Revision

Robert Wuthnow, After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s

Katie Roiphe, Of Noblemen and Investment Bankers: Why we can’t take our eyes off Downton Abbey’, Slate, January 19th 2012

Want to work for Wieden+Kennedy in Tokyo on Nike?

Here’s what they’re looking for:

  • Someone who has spent their career (4+ years) working in a strong advertising market (e.g. London, NY, Amsterdam etc)
  • Strong creative instincts, and the ability to work comfortably on creative briefs, brand books, as well as research
  • Curiosity and flexibility
  • Ideally has lived or traveled extensively outside their home culture
  • Ideally a strong interest in sport and street culture
  • Interested in moving to Japan for at least 2 years

Here’s why it’s an incredible career opportunity for a mid-level planner

  • Japan is an amazing place to learn.
  • Planning on Nike in Japan is an opportunity to see your work translated into some innovative creative ideas.
  • The person’s prior experience will ensure they’ll be credible and appreciated here by their colleagues and clients.
  • 2020 Olympics will be in Tokyo. Getting some Japan experience (including working on Nike Japan) will be an asset to the person in a few years time.
  • It’s rare to have a job opportunity to work as a planner in Japan without any Japanese language requirement.
  • The person would work alongside a great mid-level Japanese planner who speaks good English and can help the person get to grips with planning in Japan.

Applicants should email Ronny Gallegos ronny.gallegos@wk.com

Reclaiming the innocence of novelty and consumption

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Riding an expressway to nowhere?

Buying into consumerism, the argument goes, fixes us in the present – our purchases and choices are ‘for now’ because there will always be something newer, something more exciting, something more fashionable, something better.

In his examination of our culture of immediacy, Professor Tomlinson (who I really will quote for the last time) has argued that our contemporary consumer culture is characterized by an expectation of what he terms ‘delivery’, rather than of satisfaction.

What I mean by this is that there is probably a widespread disbelief in the capacity of consumer goods to provide ultimate satisfaction; but that there is, none the less, an expectation that the capitalist system will  – and should- continue to deliver the goods… We expect consumer goods to be functional or novel or amusing; to be stylish, fashionable of good value and of good quality; we increasingly expect them to provide the ‘lifestyle semiotic’ function that marketing strategies so intensely focus upon. We expect warranties and after sale service. But in the vast majority of cases these expectations stop short of a conviction that they will, in any profound sense, satisfy our deepest desires. This is not however an obstacle to continued consumption, particularly since it is combined with the happy expectation that something new is always on the way and so it is not necessary – nor does it do – to invest too much into the thing of the moment.”

And so for example, we increasingly treat cell phones as a disposable item, with Americans changing their cell phones every 21.7 months, the British every 22.4 months, and Koreans every 26.9 months.

And yet it it is a pursuit gets us nowhere.

For buying into consumerism condemns us to the futility of the ‘hedonic treadmill’. Whatever we do (i.e. buy), our happiness is a relatively constant state. Regardless of how good things get and what we acquire, we’ll always be about the same level of happy.

The enemy of satisfaction

Many lay burden of responsibility for this on the shoulders of consumerism, capitalism, its rapacious corporations, and its partners in need-generation, the advertising-media complex.

We can bemoan the constant promises, the conjuring up of alluring dreams and illusion of happiness, the constant invitation to make real the unlived lives advertising presents us with, the incessant fueling of dissatisfaction with what we already have. We can point out that capitalism doesn’t actually want a satisfied consumer.

Here’s the writer and critic Judith Williamson:

Ads… Show you a symbol of yourself aimed to attract your desire; they suggest that you can become the person in the picture before you. But this merging with an ‘objectified’ image of yourself is impossible; the desire for it is simply channelling of the desire… They ensnare us in a quest for the impossible.”

Here’s the author George Monboit writing for the Guardian:

Invention is the mother of necessity. To keep their markets growing, companies must keep persuading us that we have unmet needs. In other words, they must encourage us to become dissatisfied with what we have. To be sexy, beautiful, happy, relaxed, we must buy their products. They shove us on to the hedonic treadmill, on which we must run ever faster to escape a growing sense of inadequacy…  Advertising encourages us to compare ourselves with those we perceive to be better off. It persuades us to trash our happiness and trash the biosphere to answer a craving it exists to perpetuate.”

This is Paul Hawken in his book The Ecology of Commerce:

Advertising… deceives young and old alike into making purchases that are inappropriate, unnecessary, or wasteful  feeding a level of consummation that is responsible for overshooting biological carrying capacity.”

And here’s the novelist and surveyor of contemporary culture, Douglas Rushkoff making the same argument:

Of course, the consumer must never be allowed to reach his goal, for then consumption would cease. The consumer must never feel completely at home in his present, or he will stop striving toward a more full satisfied future. Since consumption makes up about half of all economic activity in America, a happy consumer would spell disaster fashion must change, and products must be upgraded and updated. In order for the economy to grow, this must keep happening faster.”

You get the picture.

It’s an old line of argument.

The hero of Swift’s Robinson Crusoe published in 1719, remarks:

It put me to reflecting, how little repining there would be among mankind, at any condition of life, if people would rather compare their condition with those that are worse, in order to be thankful, than be always comparing them with those which are better, to assist their murmurings and complainings.”

Of course it would be foolish to deny that capitalism and its helpers are willing accomplices in feeding (and yes, from time to to time distorting) our dissatisfactions and our chasing of hopes.

But as the sociologist Professor Tomlinson has noted, we should recover what he dubs the “innocence” of our desire for novelty.

The case for making the case

Making this case it matters for we are as an industry, fairly poor at making a case for what we do to the those beyond the confines of marketingland.

Moreover, the perception that advertising is populated by a bunch of manipulative  scheisters is hardly our best bet for winning in the battle to acquire talent. Google makes the world navigable, searchable, accessible, knowledgeable and connected. We make people buy shit they don’t need and probably never wanted.

And it leads to the kind of “can advertising be a force for good hand?” hand-ringing that is tantamount to an admission that – up until now – it has indeed been a force for if not downright evil, then at least all manner of other undesirable outcomes.

The case in brief

While our appetite for the new might indeed as Rushkoff puts it, be “immensely convenient to the system demands of capitalism”, our desires are first and foremost a function of human nature, rather than the result of the dark machinations of corporations.

We are born novelty-seekers. And if we take issue with that, then we take issue with being human.

Aside from this point scoring however, there is another consequence of this natural impulse.

It leads to good (and great) things.

Wired for novelty

The human mind does not have unlimited capacity and bandwidth. We must be efficient. We must filter and choose, if we are to function, survive and prosper successfully.

And in the name of both efficiency and survival, we’re adapted to place that spotlight of attention on the new and novel. We are built to focus our finite mental resources on new sights, sounds, thoughts and feelings and to filter out the rest.  After all, potential threats and new resources are much more likely to be novel than familiar. Survival prospects are are not good for an animal that is not suspicious of novelty. As the professor of social psychology Jonathan Haidt has put it, it is change that contains new information, not steady states.

However, there is also survival value for the initial caution to fade if the stimulus is actually proves to be non-threatening.  ‘Exposure effect’ occurs, the Polish psychologist Robert Zajonc argues, because nothing life-threatening follows the  repeated exposure of a stimulus.

With time and repetition then, this stimulus eventually becomes a safety signal – as the tale of fox and the lion from Æsop’s Fables of Ancient Greece beautifully illustrates:

A fox who had never yet seen a lion, when he fell in with him for the first time in the forest was so frightened that he was near dying with fear. On his meeting with him for the second time, he was still much alarmed, but not to the same extent as at first. On seeing him the third time, he so increased in boldness that he went up to him and commenced a familiar conversation with him.”

Indeed this arousal by and adaptation to novelty is so essential to any species’ survival that infants less than a day old will stare at a new image for about forty-one seconds, then tune it out when repeated exposures render it familiar.

This phenomenon is in part, simply a property of neurons. Nerve cells respond excitedly to new stimuli but gradually fire less as the stimulus becomes familiar.

Even the most exciting and novel of stimulus with repetition eventually becomes part of life’s wallpaper of familiarity.

The author, poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman vividly captures how the new and exciting eventually becomes submerged within that taken for granted world:

Novelty will always rivet one’s attention. There is that unique moment where one confronts something new and astonishment begins. Whatever it is, it looms brightly, its edges sharp, its details ravishing… It is a form of revelation, a new sensory litany. But the second time one sees it, the mind says, Oh, that again, another wing walker, another moon landing. And soon, when it’s become commonplace, the brain begins slurring the details, recognising it too quickly, by just a  few of its features, it doesn’t have to bother scrutinising  it. Then it is lost to astonishment, no longer an extraordinary instance but a generalised piece of the landscape.”

Our most intimate of relationships are not immune to this novelty wear-out.

The males of most mammalian species have a definite urge towards seeking variety in their in sexual partners. In the laboratory this has been called the ‘Coolidge Effect’.

If a male rat is introduced to a female rat in a cage, a remarkably high copulation rate will be observed at first. Then, progressively, the male will tire of that particular female and, even thought there is no apparent change in her receptivity, he eventually reaches a point where he has little apparent libido. However, if the original female is then removed and a fresh one supplied, the male is immediately restored to his former vigour and enthusiasm.

The ethologist Frank Beach is credited with giving the phenomenon the name in 1955, after one of his students suggested the term at a psychology conference. He attributed the name to an an old joke about President Calvin Coolidge.

The President and Mrs. Coolidge were being shown separately around an experimental government farm.

When the President’s wife came to the chicken yard she noticed that a rooster was mating very frequently. She asked the attendant how often that happened and was told, “Dozens of times each day.” Mrs. Coolidge said, “Tell that to the President when he comes by.” Upon being told, President asked, “Same hen every time?” The reply was, “Oh, no, Mr. President, a different hen every time.” To which the President responded : “Tell that to Mrs. Coolidge.”

The virtue of novelty-chasing

Our chasing of the new, our appetite of the novel, our hunger for new distractions and sensations, our dissatisfaction with the present, and with the familiar is fundamental to progress and improvement.

As the historian Fernand Braudel has put it:

Can it have been merely by coincidence that the future was to belong to societies fickle enough to care about changing the colors, materials and shapes of costume, as well as the social order and the map of the world – societies, which were ready to break with their traditions? There is a connection.”

Dissatisfaction with the dark gave us the lightbulb.

Dissatisfaction with the horse gave us the car.

Dissatisfaction is an engine of progress. And progressed we have.

In his book The Rational Optimist Matt Ridley Rational Optimist reminds us that the vast majority of us are much better fed, much better sheltered, much better entertained, much better protected against disease and much more likely to live to old age than our ancestors have ever been.

Never mind what’s happened over the last thousand years.

According to Ridley, in 2005 compared with 1955, the average human being earned nearly three times as much money (corrected for inflation), ate one-third more calories of food, buried one-third as many of her children and could expect to live one-third longer. She was less likely to die as a result of war, murder, childbirth, accidents, tornadoes, flooding, famine, whooping cough, tuberculosis, malaria, diphtheria, typhus, typhoid, measles, smallpox, scurvy or polio. She was less likely, at any given age, to get cancer, heart disease, or stroke. She was more likely to own a telephone, a flush toilet, a refrigerator, and a bicycle.

The English poet and cultural critic Matthew Arnold understood the relationship between progress and restlessness.

His  Culture and Anarchy was written in the wake of the Second Reform Act of 1867, which extended the voting franchise (hitherto limited to only twenty percent of males) to all male householders of England and Wales.

Much preoccupied with the notion of human growth, the quest for human perfection, and the common good, Arnold believed that human perfection was to be achieved through:

The ever-increasing efficacy and in the general harmonious expansion of those gifts of thought and feeling, which make the peculiar dignity, wealth, and happiness of human nature… not a having a resting, but a growing and a becoming, is the character of perfection as culture conceives it.” 

For him, if society was to perfect itself therefore, it had to commit itself to never being at rest. Progress was just that. Constant forward movement. Restlessness, not resting.

While for Arnold, the achievement of human perfection demanded constant movement, for Joseph Campbell movement and dynamism were simply humanity’s unavoidable fate and condition now that the old constraints of tradition no longer exerted their hold:

Growth, as long as it lasts, will be the measure of the life of the modern Western man, and of the world with all its promise that he has brought and is still bringing into being: which is to say, a world of change, new thoughts, new things, new magnitudes, and continuing transformation, not of petrifaction, rigidity, and some canonized found ‘truth’.”

Arnold and Campbell remind us that while our natural fascination with novelty can lead to creating and consuming stuff that’s trivial, trashy, worthless, polluting and toxic, it can also lead to some very great things indeed.

Neither dumb nor duped

Writing of the very obvious technological development we have all witnessed in our lives, Kevin Kelly argues that:

Perhaps more than any other signal, this constant surge daily persuades us that things improve… We buy the new over the old. Given the choice between an old-fashioned tool and a new one, most people  – in the past as well as now – would grab the newer one… If the new is not really better, and we keep reaching for it, then we are consistently duped or consistently dumb. The more likely reason we seek the new is that new things do get better. And of course there are more things to choose from.” 

We seek novelty not because we’re dumb.

Or duped.

But because we are human.

And because we want better.

Is that really so bad?

Dear consumer

Your desire for novelty is innate. It is not an invention of dastardly advertisers.

Assume, therefore, your share of responsibility for the consequences (both good and bad) of your choices.

Dear marketer

Of course enable consumers to make better, more informed choices, adopt sustainable business practices, reward and enable moderation, and mitigate some of the excesses of consumerism.

But at the same time, recognize that seeking to stifle growth and the pursuit of novelty (or indeed to demonize it) is to pick a fight with human nature.

****

Sources

Diane Ackerman, A Natural History Of The Senses

Fernand Braudel, Capitalism and Material Life, 1400 – 1800

Dewsbury, Donald A. ‘Frank A. Beach, Master Teacher,’ Portraits of Pioneers in Psychology, Volume 4, p269-281.

Elaine Hatfield and G. William Walste, A New Look at Love

Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability

Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants

Recon Analytics, International Comparisons: The Handset Replacement Cycle, 23 June 2011

Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist

Douglas Rushkoff, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now

John Tomlinson, The Culture Of Speed: The Coming Of Immediacy

Judith Williamson, Decoding Advertisements: Ideology And Meaning In Advertising