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Techno-Utopia

Randian Objectivism and its influence on Silicon Valley’s ‘Californian Ideology’ promised a world in which the machines would watch over us, leaving individuals free to endeavour in their pursuit of happiness. But has technology made life easier, or are our new simplicities delivering us from frustrations with the chaotic and anxiety-inducing world it has created?

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.

– Richard Brautigan

For some time, it has been the prevailing technological narrative: machines make our lives more simple, freeing us of domestic and professional labours in favour of a holistic existence, or one of ‘rational self-interest‘. It was this idea that ledtechnological utopianism, the philosophy on which Silicon Valley was built: computer networks could measure, control and stabilise societies, removing hierarchical political control by becoming a self-managing economic system that liberates the individual to pursue their self design. 

“My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”
– Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

The philosophies of Ayn Rand resonated deeply in post-war America. One list of influential followers reveals in excess of 100 notable figures, from politicians to musicians. In this context consumerism, taken as the ability to pursue individuality through purchases made with newly available disposable income, found its perfect match. Consumption was a tool to further facilitate the pursuit of happiness. So in 2016, where do we find ourselves in relation to these narratives?

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The Guardian has attempted to summarise through “The Last Job on Earth” (pictured above), produced by Moth Collective. It presents a technological utopia – but offers up some dramatic shortcomings. The protagonist has her daily tasks taken care of, from mundane drawing of the curtains to proactive medical checkups. But as she struggles to find purpose in her own productivity, she realises existential anxieties become have become her reality. Technology may have relieved us of certain labours, but where is the self-determined, consumer-led happiness?

Firstly, individualism itself, especially outside of America, is met with scepticism. When asked to decide the importance of freedom vs state intervention for example, respondents especially from Europe are not on script (PEW):

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Europeans go further, suggesting that ‘success’ is often beyond the individual’s control.

And secondly, importantly, consumerism – especially amongst millennials – is not bearing the fruits that were promised. In Creative Bulletin Issue Ten, we considered ‘The Synopticon’ paradigm, revealing that consumers are wary of how they’re marketed to – and increasingly reject it altogether. This offers some explanation to Fast Company, Fortune, Time, The Atlantic, Bloomberg, Wall Street Journal andGoldman Sachs, all of which report that ‘millennials’ aren’t buying things. The ‘buy this and feel better‘ mode of consumerism – and associated marketing that we’ve all been so accustomed to – is hollowing. Put simply, it’s not compatible with populations that don’t feel ‘success’ is in their own hands.

“Fed up with materialism, let down by capitalism, disconnected and discombobulated in their digital lives, consumers are seeking escape from their busy lifestyles and aspiring to a new set of values.”
LS:N

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And what about technology? There are a deep ironies in how the narrative has played out. Technology has freed people to atomise, to become more rational or self determined – but simultaneously it has enlightened all those who engage with it that they’re part of a wider network and are able to act as a single entity,manifesting in colossal ideas like The Sharing Economy, hugely signifiant political shifts seen in Kiev, and The Arab Spring. All the way down to whimsical millennial indulgences like Reddit Giftstechnology has united individuals.

And just as the tech-boom has freed us from so much labour, it has introduced us to a new deluge of complexity, unforeseen and dramatic in its impact. The tech-boom has been framed as an age of simplicity. But just as Charles and Ray Eamesdiscovered through their ‘Powers of Ten’ study and film, however a subject is framed, waves of relative activity and inactivity can be observed (pictured above). This world of simplicity has undoubtedly invited the age of complexity.

What we are left with is a millennial consumer relieved of traditional labours, yet desperate to get escape the new myriad complexity; unable to find sufficient comfort in consumerism, able to unite through technologies, and actively seeking a new set of values.

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Rei Kawakubo‘s fashion house Comme Des Garçons approach to advertising

And will commercial brands be able to respond, even coexist? The answer is certainly – but not on the same basis. The ads (above) take advertising back to its core simplicities: they win attention and concretely associate it with a brand. No headline, no cheesy strap line, no hashtags, QR codes, microsites or drones. This is no different to the way in which A.M. Cassandre promoted transatlantic crossings 80 years ago. Artist-brand relationships such as this touch upon the idea of ‘arts patronage’ as discussed in Creative Bulletin Issue Six. Most importantly, it is simple, anti-stress-inducing and adds to the visual wealth of the environment in which it sits. This method of advertising is respectful of its network, a principal that sits true with our evolved millennial audience – and explains the ongoing ingenuity of Comme des Garçons.

“Comme des Garçons has a history of partnering artists and photographers to create their ads… They simply work with great creative people. This is a successful global brand”
Paul Belford, Creative Review, March 2016

And technological media will need to adapt better than it has done to date. In this pursuit of a new set of values, technology remains central – even if its role is “anti-tech”. The Light Phone (pictured above) for example, is a successful Kickstarter project – already raising double its funding target – that provides a solution for thealways-on to be a little less ‘on’. The phone connects to the existing iPhone, forwarding calls to a much more simple and restricted interface – one that can only accept and make calls. That’s no texts, Facebook and Instagram. Just voice to voice communication. Ideas, not interfaces.

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The need for sublimity extends to as ‘Isolation Hotels’ such as Hotel Endémico.

LS:N believes examples like the above are reflective of a new ‘contemplation culture’ in which consumers value the time to think and consider their actions. Technology has more than ever freed us from traditional labours, but buried us in new complexities. Interruptions are being cut out, completely. Cheap efforts to sell happiness are rejected. New, non fiscal economies exist. And new values are being sought out.

Conclusion: Be quieter, be calmer, stand up for art & creativity.

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