Conspicuous communication

19 Dec 2013  |  Simon Pont 
Conspicuous communication

Trainspotting and Fight Club helped define consumerism in the 90s, but the rise of digital has changed the world in huge ways since - so how do we define ourselves in today? SMG's Simon Pont investigates.

Tyler Durden. Renton. Remember those guys? One looked a lot like Brad Pitt, the other like Ewan McGregor. Two charismatic anti-heroes of the 90s: poets, philosophers - one a pugilist, the other a heroin addict - and both occupants of society's fringe.

Irvine Welsh's Renton advised us (with thick irony) to "choose life" by choosing a career, washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and "a fucking big television."

Chuck Palahniuk's Durden was more direct. "You are not your job, you're not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You're not the contents of your wallet. You are not your fucking khakis."

Different accents, different flavours of candour - though neither wearing khakis - Durden and Renton shared the same world view, the same derision of a capitalist age greased by feverish, never-satiated consumerism.

In the decade before everything went digital and everyone became connected, Fight Club and Trainspotting were time-capsule reflections of young angry men who weren't apathetic, but articulate, and planned on beating the system their own way. Because if sucking on the marrow of life amounted to no more than browsing IKEA catalogues illuminated by the flicker of a super-sized TV screen, then chasing a few dragons and letting off a truck load of Semtex maybe seemed like a border-line medicinal way of letting off steam.

But if Durden and Renton were commenting on their moment of time, what of today? In a world which has since gone digital - assuming we're still not our fucking khakis - how do we define ourselves and just how are we choosing life?

Conspicuous consumption and happy housewives

To define our Now, it's worth first appreciating that shown a suitable time-tunnel, Tyler Durden would have gleefully hunted down and beaten the shit out of Don Draper. Durden would have reversed that Semtex-laden van right into Sterling Cooper's reception.

Because Durden's 90s angst was a long-shadow reaction to 'Conspicuous Consumption', that overt and defining socio-economic signature of the 50s and 60s. In particular, think retro-cool images of glossy brochure lifestyles, of 'happy housewives' being bought 'the latest modern appliances' so their stay-home would remain a happy one, where everyone flew Pan Am, and life was in primary colours and swaggered to a lounge bar beat. That was the world, at least, once the Mad Men-glam had been applied.

Of course, not everyone had it so good and got the same lounge bar backing track. There was arguably as much post-War austerity as prosperity in many corners of the Western hemisphere, and it wasn't the real life Sterling Coopers of that time who were the root cause.

But the underlying point is, Conspicuous Consumption emerged as the very conspicuous post-War trend, as born of economic necessity, and where (culturally) purchase and possession decoupled from vulgarity.

Buying, owning, possessing: back then, as today, it remains ad-fuelled and feverishly encouraged - seen as crucial to a well-greased manufacturing base, from which economic health is much diagnosed. The cogs must keep turning. So long as everyone keeps buying, everything will be ok. Money circulates, confidence stays high, people keep their jobs making more stuff. All of it - a very simple equation. Consumerism works so long as everyone continues consuming.

Today, the laws of consumerism broadly hold the same sway as they did back in the 50s and 60s, when the likes of Vance Packard first coined and chronicled it. So too today, economic health still requires that people buy, and buy with frequency; that they buy often and happily so. And the social settings are still dialled to 'buying' as something that is wholly desirable and approved of.

Overt trappings, the cars, the goods both white and brown and luxury - these still carry serious social status and standing. As Renton observed with mockery, our stuff defines us, reflects our tastes, how much we can afford, how successful we must be, who we are.

Only, what has changed, and what continues to change, is that our relationship and reliance on 'things' is less than it formerly was. Our stuff has been demoted. The things we own no longer stand as the only yard sticks of achievement. They're not the same gestures of self-expression. Technology has changed our relationship with materialism. We're not quite so dependent on our 'physical things' because we're now Logging On and Signing In.

Conspicuous communication

We've moved from Conspicuous Consumption to Conspicuous Communication. We live in the 'Age of the Share'.

While we haven't abandoned our material wants, while we still find 'owning & buying' khakis and cars a short-buzz narcotic to which we still need frequent fix (and to which social status and standing may be derived), the 'goods' are no longer the only data points that build the picture. Self-definition is no longer just the suit or watch we wear, or the places we choose and can afford to holiday.

It's hard not to say that we're becoming slaves to content, that beast with a bottomless stomach. It's hard not to suggest that having a voice and 'followers' gives us the illusion of celebrity."

Today, more than ever before, we are defining ourselves (and everyone else) by what we 'share'.

Society now holds 'sharing' in the highest esteem. "Thanks for sharing" has gone from eye-rolling Valley Girl-speak sarcasm and become amongst the highest forms of sincere flattery.

Our online social standing falls and rises daily by the quality and quantity of the information we push and peddle. The links, the lists, the top 5 principles for this and the 3 things highly effective people do before they eat their shreddies. The lists and sound-bites and headline ideas are the pounds, dollars and nuggets of our social currency, so feeding our on-the-quarter-hour Scooby snacking.

Technology has changed the nature and flow of information. 'Information' has undergone a revolution and devolution. 'Information' has gone social; non-hierarchical; informal; assumed the scale of one. 'Up-to-the-minute' is most likely through your twitter feed than Sky News or the BBC World service. 'Texting' has asserted global scale, become tweeting, reflecting how the yesteryear brand-to-consumer model has mutated - because our online social interactions and sharing has become one-to-many.

We have all become the One and the Many. All of us: conspicuously communicating. Everyone: creating, commenting, searching out, sharing, craving... 'great content'.

If Monopoly was invented today, the winner would not come down to who has three hotels on Pall Mall, but instead who has built the largest Twitter following, generated the greatest number of 'friends' and likes, and created the largest subscription-based Multichannel network. You land on my YouTube brand channel, and it's Game Over for you.

And of course, it's hard not to judge these times a little darkly. It's hard not to say that we're becoming slaves to content, that beast with a bottomless stomach. It's hard not to suggest that having a voice and 'followers' gives us the illusion of celebrity, and that all those tweets and posts and 'shares' are in fact feeding that other insatiable beast we're held hostage to, the fame monster.

But every coin has two sides and every judgement should be a balanced one. And old friend of mine, Faris Yakob, recently described himself as 'a techno-meliorist'. He believes "things usually get better, thanks to technology."

I'd like to believe the same, and unlike Renton, but like Faris, I choose to look positively on this digital life of ours and what it's encouraging. In the spirit of the times, here are four very good reasons:

1. Voice: Technology has given everyone a voice. Technology has given us all independent low-cost means. This is a wonderful thing, because almost everyone wants to have a voice. Even if it's just at the level of logging a 'like', self-expression is an expression of our need to be individuals and our need to feel free.

2. Talent outs: Curators have never been held in higher regard. People are turning themselves into one-man Reuters news feeds and on-the-money Zeitgeist barometers. There's real skill in it, and it's an appreciated and valued skill, as reflected in the followers many generate. Nobody wants to be a nobody, and now everyone has invitation to ripple the Zeitgeist, to tweet until they trend, to not only have a voice but to potentially be heard.

3. 'Sharing' breeds generosity and inclusivity: Hard-wired into Conspicuous Communication is a revived cultural onus on paying it forward. Sharing is good; it is by its nature inclusive, generous and caring.

4. Belonging: And then there's the very interconnectedness of it all, the way you can watch a twitter trend and it's like watching a murmuration of starlings - "in form and moving express and admirable" - with more than a murmur on its collective mind. And you can not only watch but be part of those murmurings. You can be and belong to the trend.

Earlier this year, I sat in front of my TV and watched Andy Murray win Wimbledon, while tweeting and following the tweets of Caitlin Moran and Irvine Welsh. And I'll be honest, the multi-screen experience 'added'. Reading what Moran and Welsh said was fun and funny and in some small way made my Murray moment 'more', and made me feel more a part of that bigger moment.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that part of the beauty of literature is that "You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you're not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong."

Social media is not replacing but certainly mimicking the beauty of literature.

6-degrees of separation

I find it fascinating the way Milgram's 6-degrees of separation has exploded, imploded, become something else, a permanently morphing 3D lacework of light points, the kind of thing you see in sci-fi movies, with each of us our own Sun, a galaxy of contacts and connections orbiting, near and far, each in their own ellipse.

I find it compelling that by simply following @kevinbacon everyone can be one degree separated from the man himself. I won't hazard a guess at how Kevin Bacon feels about that.

But I'd safely suggest Tyler Durden would be less than thrilled to hear that, by degree, we still try and part-define through the medium of our khakis; that we still like spending; still enjoy buying, and that today's Sterling Cooper's are still doing all they can to encourage us.

Only, we need our materialism, per se, just that little bit. And we need our mobile devices oh-so-much more. And even if we are to indulge Tyler Durden and Renton for a moment and assume we are neither defined by our fucking khakis or our fucking big televisions - it is clear that we're fast becoming the sum total of our shares, in this 'Age of the Share'. We are the people we follow and the people who follow us. We are that which we post and blog. We are that which we retweet and like.

Choose life. Choose to 'Like'. Choose Wordpress or Typepad or Blogger or Tumblr. Choose Twitter. Choose your followers, high speed internet and a damn sexy-looking tablet in a choice of vibrant colours.

Welcome to the Digital State.


Simon is a British writer and commentator. He is chief strategy officer at Starcom MediaVest Group and an EACA Effies judge. Find out more here.

@SimonPont

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