The latest economic downturn is giving us plenty of business losers, as well as a few winners. It’s the winners that have been catching my eye recently. McDonalds is doing well. Hersheys too. Netflix and Nintendo. Hamburgers, chocolate, movies, and video games. Things we consume, that we experience – not manufactured goods, not services, but activities that mix goods and services together in ways that promote demand, a desire to return and do or have or experience it again.
Let’s take a more mixed example. Mattel the toy company. Its popular 99 cent Hot Wheel toy cars weren’t so popular last year. But American Girl, dolls built around an experience and an identity, is doing well. John Sherry, the anthropologist who heads up Notre Dame’s Marketing department, recently wrote, “The staging ground for the brand’s performance and enactment, American Girl Place, has become a commercial Mecca, a secular pilgrimage site to which female believers throng.”
In my recent piece on what one day at Kotaku the gaming site shows us about our modern world, I wrote:
On this particular day, January 12th, a range of pieces captured why the video game phenomenon has so much to tell us about our modern obsessions, from sex to shopping, drugs to drinking. These eight stories show us the powerful convergence of people looking for fun and industries looking for profit. From pleasure to despair, this convergence is the story of our post-modern lives. It’s not commodities anymore, it’s activities.
We are seeing the emergence of a new type of economy amidst a new type of globalization, and it’s going to produce its own winners and losers, both on the economic side and on the people side.
Want to know how the world is changing? Just look at this Coke avatar ad from the Super Bowl, where the online world meets the iconic brand. It gives us a walk through a modern urban life and ends with romantic tension. Coke is right there in the middle of our enjoyments and our desires, and its enhanced sweetness and pitch-perfect iconic value part-and-parcel of how we live now.
Last April in Cellphones Save the World, I wrote the following:
To basically summarize everything, our world is going to see a transformation through the convergence of four factors: people-driven processes, change for the rest of us, human-centered science, and emerging methods. All four of these are age-old, but now, reformed and resurgent, they will help shape our world in years to come. Welcome to the new globalization. It lurks behind the bright lights, big city view peddled in academia and media alike.
People want, or come to want, these sorts of “basic” activities – eating, entertainment, communication, ritual involvement. Technology engages us and we use it to engage each other. Humans live their lives through activities, not just manufactured goods or the services provisioned by doctors and governments. And companies are figuring out new methods to keep us eating, searching for information, playing and all the rest.
Google is a good example to end on. One of its most recent endeavors is Google Books, providing us with pages and pages locked away in libraries. Here’s how Daniel Clancy, one of the chief engineers of Google Book Search, recently put it: “Our core business is about search and discovery, and search and discovery improves with more content.”
In driving demand for our own “need” for search and discovery, what is Google’s plan? “Eben Moglen, a law professor at Columbia and a free-culture advocate, puts it this way: if the fight over digitization of books is like horse-and-buggy makers against car manufacturers, Google wants to be the road.”
McDonalds supersizes us, American Girl is a secular pilgrimage, Coke is fused into our urban walkabout, and Google is the road for search and discovery. The new roads aren’t about getting us from place to place. They are about getting us from experience to experience, activity to activity.
These companies want us to do this strange mix of their and our thing. It’s not about “the freedom of the road,” even if most of us are just driving to work. It’s about shaping our search and discovery, our way of eating, our way of playing. And they do that through the inroads they make into our lives. Engagement equals success. Their surplus value derives from their ability to shape the way we live, not just taking and selling what we produce.
They do it well. I use Google Scholar all the time. I like Coke, enough that its acidity eats at my teeth. I play video games, even though I know I’m not “producing” the knowledge that makes me valuable to my university.
Google isn’t making us stupid or smart. It’s giving us what we want, a supersized sweet secular search engine.
In that mix brain pathways, our paths through life, and overall ways of life get wrapped up in one. Like Nicholas Carr, we might critique it. I’d prefer that we figure out other ways to make creative roads than what profit-driven companies and policy-driven governments try to set down for us. That is an act of imagination. Our own search and discovery.