Retailing in the Me Age
The future is scary. We have so much to worry about – climate change, terrorism, migration, our diets. It’s a wonder any of us ever sleep at night, and now we have the impact of technology to worry about too. Not long ago, we dreamt that 2016 would bring us jet packs, hover boards and deep space exploration. But now that we’ve arrived, it’s far more Orwellian.
We have to come to terms with the fact that there’s a giant cloud hanging above our heads that knows everything about us. And if that’s not bad enough, we’re regularly being warned we’ll soon be losing our jobs to an army of super-smug robots.
We worry that our children have become addicted to their mobile phones, that their attention spans have plummeted to sub-goldfish levels and their literary skills will not improve beyond the ‘u no wot I meen…obvs!’ school of vernacular. We roll our eyes when we witness a group of teens unable to enjoy just ‘being’, without the grinning selfie-evidence that they were there. We despise our fellow passenger’s loud phone calls home and we worry about the drumming decibels that relentlessly pound our children’s eardrums as the background music to their digital lives.
Walking the streets, we curse behind clenched teeth at the hoards of phone-zombies that blindly career towards us, heads hunched over the screen that controls them (until we too need to check our location or diary appointment.) We even worry about the time we spend worrying rather than just living and we reminisce about a gentler age before mobile phones and computers arrived to consume us.
Mankind’s defining moment
I believe history will prove that the birth of the ‘smartphone’ was a defining moment for mankind, no hyperbole. Right now, because we’re busy living, we see the smartphone as the gentle evolution of the mobile phone, but it’s far more significant than that. We know the human brain can apply itself to only one task at a time, so no matter if information is projected onto our spectacles or directly onto the backs of our eyeballs, from now until eternity we are homo-distracted, forever connected elsewhere. This tiny device has revolutionised not just our behaviour but the way we think about our place on the planet. We have entered a new age of enlightenment: the Me Age.
For 10,000 years or so we struggled to come to terms with our place in the universe. Religions of all flavours attempted to convince us of our importance and promised us the answers in the afterlife. Much use that was. We built structures hundreds of feet high, buildings both religious and secular that stretched to the heavens demanding divine confirmation…but we heard nothing.
Then, one morning back in 2007, we awoke to find our mobile phone had metamorphosed into the universe itself! ‘Smart’ is an understatement; this magical, glowing tablet is all knowing. It knows exactly where we are, our tastes in food, music, film and fashion. It follows our friends, family, finances, our secrets, our hopes and even our dreams. This new god, unlike those that came before, actually answers our questions…and instantly too.
Little wonder then that our children worship him so faithfully, waking in the night to bathe in his glow, checking in at every opportunity with inane selfies that beg for his approval. This is the God that can publish our innermost thought or most trivial snapshot to the entire planet within a few micro-seconds, proving that it wasn’t trivial after all.
At last we’ve received the validation we’ve been praying for all these centuries: we are at the centre of the universe! Everything comes directly to us now. No longer do we need to be told what to think at the altar of church or school, what to buy at the altar of television, what to listen to at the altar of the Top 40. The universe is actually in our hands.
The art of prediction
As I’ve said before, the art of prediction often has a natural negative gravity in that we tend to view change as part of an inevitable slide to oblivion.
The truth is the future gets the people it needs. If we were able to pluck a few poor, unsuspecting souls from the 18th or 19th Centuries and plonk them in 2016, they would be unemployable. In that respect, any desire to return to old-fashioned values is pure folly. Just think, the future president of the United States is currently a spotty teenager, texting friends and posing with a stupid Instagram grin.
My own children were first generation digital natives and like every parent I worried about them endlessly. Once they reached the age of six or so, they barely made it into the garden, or joined us for dinner, preferring instead to play violent computer games and surf hardcore pornography. I’m guessing here, but I’m not a stupid Dad. Thankfully, neither of them have turned into mass murderers – not yet anyway – and both have solid and respectable jobs and social lives.
Surely those born with all knowledge at their fingertips, will, on the whole, be more liberated, empowered and emboldened, no? Is it not exciting that for the first time in history we have a youth that really does have a voice, the influence of which it’s just learning to use? Will they not have a more rounded, nuanced and informed view of life on this planet than, say, the humble farmer tilling the soil?
Technology can be scary and, sure, there are downsides, but it’s clear to me that we are at the beginning of something very big here. Governments, local authorities, social services, healthcare and, of course, retail brands will very shortly lose the excuse to treat us as ‘the public’, as if we don’t matter, as if they don’t know who we are. They will know, we’ll make sure of that. Imagine an age in which no one can snarl dismissively ‘Join the queue here please’, or ‘You’re not in the system’; an age that no longer generalises, pigeonholes or makes assumptions about us without the facts.
The technology is already in place to make this happen. Our magical, glowing tablet already knows who we are and what we get up to and soon it will carry our health and wellbeing status too. It can’t be long before we realise we’re in the middle of the ‘Me’ Age, where we will be, not just customers, but individuals.
I say bring it on!
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