The persistence of ghosts in the machine

Youthography partner Mike Farrell argues for the role of the collective voice in the cultivation of digital movements.

You remember Jaron Lanier right? He’s the dreadlocked cyber guru, artist and computer scientist from the dawn of Wired magazine and the digital mediasphere as we know it, who coined the term “virtual reality” and saw the internet as a language created for and by today’s youth.
Well, now, some 13-and-a-bit-years deeper into our internet-saturated world, it seems Mr. Lanier is not liking what’s happened to the world of collective answers and infinite possibilities. Indeed, he’s downright disenchanted and feels that our essential humanity is being downgraded to make way for collectively easier ways of connecting, computing, assessing, creating and so on.
The first sentence of his first book, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, released earlier this year, says it all: “It’s early in the twenty-first century, and that means these words will mostly be read by nonpersons – automatons or numb mobs composed of people who are no longer acting as individuals.” This provocative take on net culture continues on the theme of Lanier’s 2006 groundbreaking and highly controversial essay on what he termed “digital Maoism.”
The once wizard king of all things web and net is now seeing the hell that ubiquity hath wrought. His main concern is Web 2.0’s ongoing belief in online collectivism and the “wisdom of the crowd.” He argues that design (or ratification) by committee often does not result in the best product, and that the new collective ethos, embodied in everything from Wikipedia to American Idol to Google searches and Facebook – diminishes the importance and uniqueness of the individual voice and that the “hive mind” (his term) can easily lead to mob rule and a gradual lowering of the common denominator.
This is an informed, hardcore and thought-provoking assessment to be sure. However, it presents but one side of today’s changing digital culture. A look at the past decade’s major youth cultural trends indicates that the “collective voice” Lanier believes has been whittling down our essential humanity has also been informing important movements designed to embrace or restore this same humanity.
We see clues everywhere: the resurgent interest in folk music and the primacy of live performance, the demystification of celebrity and the linked rise of the “common man celebrity” via YouTube, the greening of everything, the trendiness of farmer’s markets and youth’s rising direct involvement in causes and charities all speak to a contemporary youth culture that is searching for something real, something visceral amidst this new sea of constant mass connection and lightening fast access.
So what are we to make of this enigmatic relationship between the digital body and the analog soul?
For starters, how about not confusing the media with core values? Just because youth spend the majority of their media time online doesn’t make them soulless robots intent upon the procurement of experiences without meaning.
Over the past few years the procurement of real experiences – now diligently documented and transferred almost instantaneously to social networking communities – has become perhaps the most dominant commodity of modern youth culture. That’s why it’s impossible to turn around in our industry without bumping into a marcom strategy that’s based on “authenticity”; the futuristic metal sheen that is associated with any new, modern tech (from electricity to radio to TV, to spaceships and beyond) is once again peeling away to reveal something more corporeal and we – as an industry, as a society – are responding.
Real connections and stories that speak to transcendent core human truths are becoming an identifier of our times.
There is no doubt that increased cultural presence and power is now more in the hands of modern citizen-consumers than ever before; smartphones and iPads stand as perfect metaphors for their expectations – “what I want, when I want, how I want.” But this ability to access more info more quickly and to connect with more people has not diminished the timeless human need to develop and nurture deep connections.
Despite a wild increase in the number and variety of friends that a mainstream North American teen can and does have now, when asked about their inner circle of closest friends the number seldom goes higher than five – a figure that has transcended the centuries.
The medium has changed, creating significant cultural shifts, but not at the expense of the core values and needs that continue to bind us together as ghosts in the machine.

Mike Farrell is partner, co-CEO and chief strategic officer of Youthography. He can be reached at mike@youthography.com.