As another Black Friday arrives, it might be useful to observe a trend that’s going to shape some future Black Fridays. The glory of ownership is over. That’s right, I said it. You might think that’s overblown, but just look around you. The cornerstone of the culture of ownership – the house – is failing to capture the imagination of a new generation of people. By ‘generation’, I don’t mean an age group – I mean there’s a cultural shift. It’s not just the people that have lost their houses, or can’t get a loan, or are skiddish about the market. The suburbs are being abandoned (Wall Street Journal, Oct. 9, 2010); the cities are being repopulated with a new emphasis on city amenities over strip malls, and on pedestrian culture and access to arts. At the same time, there’s a trend toward living smaller, with just the minimum needed, that’s helping fuel a small but growing market for Smart Cars, electric cars, and other space-saving and non-bloated devices and lifestyle choices.
Some of that is concern for the environment, social justice, political justice on the heels of resource wars. It’s some of the same force driving interest in organic, fair trade, free range, etc. But it’s not a drop in the bucket ‘political position’ – it’s a force shifting our culture the way the pressure of water shapes rock, irrevocably. Personal downsizing, the antithesis of the decadence of the 1980s, where ownership equalled status – then it was the boom box, now it’s the ipod. Even a few years ago, it was the “desktop replacement” laptop with the biggest possible heft, so you could brag about how many inches (of display) you have, now it’s the netbook and the ipad. Want a Hum-V now? You’re considered a clown case, even with gas at 60% of what it was during the last invasion. Only guys with a deficit of depth opt for mere size by getting a Hummer.
In short, number of possessions, size and specs, isn’t defining the person’s achievement, competence in the adult world, or personal or societal value anymore. What you own doesn’t make you worldly, anymore – it makes you corporate, processed – it makes you owned. The distance between the “successful” and those who presumably aren’t, is narrowing. Some dolts still want the biggest plasma screen TV, but increasingly even yuppies are buying Dunkin over Starbucks. You can’t tell these people apart, anymore, and have no idea what they make in annual income – a guy wearing Old Navy could be a twenty-something millionaire who started a successful web2.0 business, and the guy with the Escalade and the gold teeth could be a jobless idiot who lives with his mom.
One of the interesting items in the news this week is that Darth Vader’s costume went up for auction on Thursday, for a measely quarter of a million dollars, and no one even bid on it. They weren’t having it. That’s unheard of. Go back 10 years and, not just because Star Wars was a bit newer then, and that thing would have sold in moments, and for a lot more than that. And it’s not “the economy”. Let’s not be self-absorbed with just one element of our experience and nearsighted. There’s still plenty of money, folks. No, it’s because (partly) in a world where I scan instead of file, and I carry my computer in my pants pocket, display cases full of memorabilia that fill up a sprawling pad and anchor me to a slow-lane lifestyle apart from the accelerating pace of innovation we now experience, just don’t fit. And at some price point, the high end stuff is just crap – might as well be the lowest grade stuff. Tell me, isn’t a $1000 comic book you can sell worth more than a $250,000 item that you can’t sell at all. Ask the people trying to sell 3600 square foot homes in the suburbs.
The simplistic and superficial point I’m making, just as a hook, is that Black Friday’s days are numbered. We don’t see it now, if we’re enamoured of the superstition that what has been is what will be. That’s all a lot of people can see, you know. If you’d asked some folks in 1993, there’d be no practical use for e-mail. We’ll all just meet face to face, set up some folding chairs, and make punch. But there’s more to this than just the death of Blockbuster and (eventually) Barnes & Noble and other sellers of ethereal content for the soul as furniture-like objects (we don’t need those objects anymore, we’re digital – what’s a CD? why do I need a book? Just sell me the wire. Wait, no I want wireless. I want satellite, bluetooth. I want no ties to the earth. Those physical artifacts are just icons of something that exists, fundamentally, in my senses and in my mind. Why treat it like furniture?
Increasingly what I purchase is just media – I think even food, drink, clothes, and other consumables will not long from now be regarded in a way much more like the way we have come to regard the digital “media” of songs, movies, and TV. We will get them by UPS from amazon.com instead of pushing a cart around a store. The thing that makes us think of them as heavy objects, closer to possessions, instead of light objects, closer to access to a song, is the brick and mortar storefront attached to them, and pushing them out on a wire dolly to a car – all heavily involved production activities, almost as if were making the items instead of just using them. Those days are gone – we’re not hunter-gatherers anymore, nor an agrarian society – we’re a digital one – you just have to look ahead. In the news, amazon.com made a big splash because they now sell diapers and soap – the two fundamental non-food staples of grocery shopping life. You’re almost out of them, so you point and click, and day after tomorrow you’ve got diapers on your porch. It’s over, folks. We’ll handle things more lightly, because they’ll pass through our hands the way video selections will on AppleTV or GoogleTV or our DVR. Possession will be instantaneous, like a wireless download, and will lose its glamour.
Cars too, if cars survive (if you live in a red state – a car state – you won’t believe this, perhaps, but I think the future is empty car lots – it’ll be a while, but it’s coming). Cars and clothes are becoming less and less life-defining features, just as swingers with giant stereo speakers that fill the living room, representing that you have a good job and can host a good date, have been replaced by joggers with earbuds. Cars, clothes, and other one-time status symbols are evolving into just personal preferences – again, more like digital media. We don’t need to submit them to others for approval. Even my digital delivery devices won’t get me laid. They’re just links to the world of creativity and expression, the world of the soul, almost the way prayers were for mediaeval nuns. No one will ask me how many gigs my ipod has – they might ask me what I’m listening to, or what I’ve read on my kindle – the brain and the senses are once again taking over. I won’t shop at Saks 5th Avenue to show off, I’ll shop at amazon.com and you’ll never know what I’m buying, what I paid, and I won’t bother to tell you – it just won’t matter. If you want to know me, you’ll have to know me, and you’ll know me through my mind.
And with the rise of China, it won’t matter what name is on my digital photo frame (are you still using albums?) – the brand just doesn’t matter as much as what I get out of it – my memories (again, the stuff of the senses, not of specifications). It’s all made in China, anyway – brand names don’t make them better – read the reviews – the big names get returned just as often. At some point, too, stuff is just good enough – Levis, Duncan Donuts Coffee – the days of nostalgia where I need some glamorous person’s name in my clothes are going the way of the monogram. Once stuff is mass produced at a reasonably effective level of quality, at a rapid enough pace with change (that part is key), for the lifestyle of a people who will hold it lightly, it becomes no more than what it is – it loses almost religious significance and becomes transient. Where are your last four cell phones? How much do you value them now, and how much do they tell the world about your contribution to society? There are more people now, more bright people contributing at a high level and doing so in an accelerating way. So, the old way of sticking with a person’s ancient achievement long enough for their label to be inside my clothes is just too slow for us now. We want to know what ideas you have come up with, not who made the movement of your watch. Brain power, cleverness, creativity – soul – that’s the new status. Not just having those things – we all do – but doing something new and interesting with them. That’s the new sexy, the new affluence – an affluence of brainpower. And with that, there’s a sense of ‘yeah, but what have you done for me lately?’ Objects as objects just can’t compete with that.
Here’s a really radical idea. At the rapidly accelerating pace at which we’re going through cell phones and other possessions, and with the rise of the subscription based model of software as a service instead of as a downloadable, installable, maintenance-needing, product, and other media as a service like movies on Netflix, that I subscribe to see, instead of rent or own as DVDs, why can’t other kinds of possessions be “subscribed” to, temporarily as a service? Why do I have to ‘own’ them at all, in the old-fashioned way? The West Coast of the US is dotted with clothing exchanges (Buffalo Exchange, notably) – we have one here called Nearly New on Western. The idea is that you bring your clothes when you’ve worn them enough, but they’re not worn out (they specialize in lightly worn high value clothing), sell it, buy different clothes, wear them, bring them back when you’re tired of them or they don’t fit your lifestyle anymore, and keep doing this circular, green, recycling type process. Possessions become a service. Essentially, you’re subscribing to your clothes. It’s not that far fetched – we rent a table saw when we need it for a project – we subscribe to a lawn service just as readily as buying a lawn mower. The line between service and product is blurring, because the idea of products as objects, as furniture, is blurring in favor of possessions as merely access to something for the time that I need it. Isn’t it a more economical solution in some cases to lease a car than buy one?
I predict new rental arrangements, for example. On the Korean model, you pay a very large down payment on an apartment, allowing the owner to draw interest from the bank on the funds while they’re held in trust, and you pay only nominal rent to cover the cost of upkeep. It won’t work for everyone, but it takes the pressure off of getting by month to month in a job market that’s evolving so fast that obsolescence in your first career is virtually guaranteed, and puts it on saving an investment stake in your temporary housing. I can rent a house full of furniture. Why, ultimately, do I need to bear all of the burden of ownership of everything? An old evangelical song called 49 lawn mowers asks a legitimate sociological question – why on a block of houses is there an average of more than one mower per house, when the most they are only used by one homeowner an average of 45min/week (3hrs/month). The investment is terrible, given that the lifespan of most is around 2-3 years. Why not a central community shed, where you check out a lawn mower that someone has maintenanced and made ready, and put it back when you’re done? It’s just culture. Only culture keeps that from happening. It does happen in other places – just not in the US. But that’s exactly why I choose apartment life – I don’t want to have to treat a garage full of saws and mowers and equipment as additional members of my household that I have to spend time with and take to the hospital. I want that time back, and that expense.
I believe, though I realize this is looking much farther ahead than would make people comfortable, that while we don’t know what exactly it will look like, we will see a lessening of the form of ownership that was conceived of in the late Middle Ages and no longer is relevant except as a well-preserved legal fiction. Just look at the piles of cell phones in thrift stores in your area – they’re like rings in a tree trunk – 2yrs old, 4yrs old, 6yrs old. My pile of phones all work fine, but none of them are any longer supported by their carriers who keep upgrading their networks to support our demand for more bandwidth and digital deliver.
So the real question in all of this is, in a culture where what you own, and its size and specs, the pedigree of where you bought it, how much you paid, what other man’s name is on it, and how much space it fills doesn’t define you – in fact, obsessing about such things would make you seem like a shmuck who wears wide lapels and heavy gold chains – when meaning doesn’t come from external objects, which are now just vehicles for stimulation of the senses and the interaction of the creative and intellectual centers of the mind with others, what does define you as a successful person, and where does meaning come from? If even money itself, not just because the bottom fell out of the financial industry, not just because we learned to live cheaply for a while and understood it was possible, but because this was going to happen anyway – if even money itself isn’t all that important in determining status and personal worth, because none of the stuff it buys does, and we all get our coffee at Dunkin Donuts, and we all have cable and smartphones now so the distance is smaller, what’s left?
I think the new success, the new status, the new meaning will come from the mind, and from cleverness and creativity, from the same force that creates interesting media itself, but also creates innovative companies, and inspiring systems of interaction – whether charities and social entrepreneurship, or technologies and new kinds of lifestyle choices, achievement is reeled back in from the store and the label and re-installed in the locus of the senses, where it was originally conceived. It is, if you will, the soul that will once again gain preeminence as the center and source of meaning, both societally and personally. We will judge you by what you create, think of, make, and do, not by how loud your car speakers are or whether your system (of whatever kind) has 128-bits or 64 channels of performance or 3 tons of hauling power, or whatever. My life fits in a backpack. I’m an early adopter, but the mid-term adopters are coming right behind me.
This bodes ill, very ill, I think, for the market for sprawling houses, but it’ll be a while before we realize it’s not going to recover in quite the same way it was. Again, if you’re in a red-state, car-state, 3600 square foot home is normal state, the way of thinking that’s predicated on those things is so ingrained in the culture that those areas will catch up last. But even at a decade behind, they will get there. “I’ll never drive an imported car” is just a 30 year old statement against the future, and just take a look around you. I’m surprised at how many speak not of if the economy will recover, but when. Heraclitus had something to say about that – by the time you step back in the water, the pace of change has made it a different river. I don’t think the economy will recover, or the housing market, or the financial industry, or anything else. The way forward is not recovery, which is recidivist, backward thinking – the way forward is forward, into the new.
The world is downsizing, moving to the cities, digitizing their lives, going paperless, pollution-less, impact-less, and footprint-less – not finding meaning in super-sizing, suburbanizing, impacting, owning, and hoarding. The hoarding days are over for Black Fridays to come, not immediately but inexorably, however big this one proves to be. Big or small, the local news will tell you it’s “because of the economy” and won’t talk about the long-term cultural shift that’s occurring. Life in a digital economy (I’m speaking of economy as culture now) cannot be defined by the ownership of two cars, two kids, two retirement funds, a cat and a dog, a house and a spouse. Sounds like something from Dr. Seuss, doesn’t it? The shift will remain subtle at first, to some. It will seem slow, because a lot of us who don’t stick our necks up above the herd always find that things have suddenly happened, or have sneaked up on us and caught us by surprise. What are you surprised about that you never thought would ‘take off’? But it was already in flight when we thought that.
Looking at the future is an evolutionary activity – it is stretching the neck above the ambling, sprawling, cultural mass that will become extinct, beyond the canopy of past tradition, straining to gaze at the razor-sharp line of what’s coming. But it’s already in motion – the future is always like that – it was never not moving toward us. These changes are coming even while people are saying things like (mid 1990s) “I’ll never use e-mail” and (late 1990s) “I don’t think our company needs a web site” and (mid 2000s) “I don’t think my company will ever use Twitter”. Don’t get me wrong – I’m no prophet, and I bury my head, or get it clouded, just like lots of people. I’m simply saying that, as it comes faster and faster, as continual acceleration of change – not just change itself – becomes the context, the one skill that is necessary is accelerated adaptability, and the one advantage is prescience. Looking is the first step to seeing, so we have to look.
Personally, I’m excited at the notion that value is derived not from what a person has managed to buy, even if the debt amassed behind it is foolish (spurning debt is another force joining in the push away from the old system of pricing human beings as our parents did). Value isn’t these placebos, these icons of worth, these false symbols of value – instead, it’s value itself – not the pale, surrogate representation but the substance – visible in what one creates, thinks of, and contributes to the world – that, to me is wonderful, beautiful, and hopeful.
I think this shopping holiday or, at least, what it represents, is doomed, but meanwhile it’ll be fascinating to watch. I’ll pick up a couple of things I already need to buy on Black Friday, but partly I’m going out from curiosity to look at how people move, which reveals how they think, and what they are thinking about – their attitudes. I will walk into the store and look left at the people buying the biggest TV they can find an excuse to install, and stainless steel everything, which is more the notion of clean than clean – in fact it’s ugly as hell 5-minutes after you get it home, with all the fingerprints – changing out appliances just because of a freaking color difference – I hate it. And I’ll look right at the people focusing on the games and media delivery devices, turning up their noses at the DVDs (they’re right – why is anyone buying them anymore, when there’s Netflix – soon they won’t be), because they are part of what’s coming. The furniture nation and the digital nation – I’ll watch them both, and try to see with whom the future lies (yes, I know there are hybrids). And then I’ll get my doodads that I didn’t have to camp out for.
Those guys that tune out, by the way, and spend their lives in games, constant music and movies, and endless stimulation are just human receptors – feeders. And, while they are part of what’s coming, they aren’t the high point of it and don’t represent it, truly. The very same cultural force that allows someone to just own almost nothing (except the digital syringe) and keep shooting their senses with consumable media, like hitting the button on a morphine drip, is also the force that frees up some minds stifled by a culture predicated on ownership and false association of person with objects, to become phenomenal creators, builders, and contributors. Incidentally, I love that Marx didn’t have it right (owning the means of production) and neither did his detractors (ownership is the foundation of society) – e.g the Austrians. The anarchists were closer (ownership doesn’t matter). Take that, you right and left wingers! But, in other words, you’re free now, since your life isn’t your stuff, to be either a lazy, bloating, feeder or an amazing, dynamic creator. And what’s neat, is that obfuscating what you are with massive possessions won’t work anymore – we can see when someone builds something – when they add value to a society, and change it, and extend it in an evolutionary way – and when they don’t. You can’t conceal it anymore by simply plunking down a credit card and putting on a Cartier. It won’t matter. That’s no different than spending life on mom’s sofa. It’s a different form of the same thing, another way of copping out on meaning. Welcome to a world of unadorned meaning, of naked value – a world of the soul; I hope you’re prepared. We don’t keep Thanksgiving in my household, but have a great Black Friday. I’m enjoying the wonderful show of it all.