Is Technology an Important Cultural Beacon?
These days, traveling, especially business traveling, has become a sort of anthropological adventure and I am not just talking about the charm of air travel. I include all forms of public transport. And one of the few benefits of being on the move is the opportunity to observe new patterns of consumer behavior.
So recently, in my travels, I have begun to focus in on the technology devices that people carry with them and display for all to see. The early days of personal devices included Sony Walkmans and those clunky first cell phones but in the last 5-10 years we have seen an extraordinary acceleration in the number and type of devices that we take along with us. And keeping with the anthropological theme, a number of distinctive tribes are beginning to emerge:
- we have the “white wire brigade” who are devoted to both Apple and the iPod. Generally they seem a happy cool-looking bunch, tapping away to their music and relatively oblivious to the world around them
- we also have what I call the “twidlers” who appear to be on some sort of critical mission with their smartphone. The disappointment for me is that whenever I catch a glimpse of their screen, they are usually playing a harmless card game of solitaire
- then we have the “self talkers”. A tribe of irritating and brash businessmen (and they are only men) wired from bluetooth ear-to-cell-phone-carrying-belt who seem hell bent on sharing every conversation they are having with everyone in the immediate vicinity
- and of course let’s not forget the “temporary deaf”, another group of (mostly) males who have somewhere down the line assumed that noise-cancelling headphones are the fashion statement of the decade…sadly, they are not
- and then there are what I call the “facaders”, a female tribe who spend a great deal of their social life on the phone. And why not? It’s efficient and it effectively ring-fences them from admiring looks from bystanders
- And there are many other sub groups, the intellectual ereaders, the tablet tappers and the finger-frenzied. And don’t forget the “chucklers”, that group that burst out laughing as they catch up on their Hulu backlog
So yes of course we still evaluate other humans by their features, their accessories and their style and thanks to Polo, we still even assess them by the size of the logos they wear. But now, we increasingly assess the identity of those around us by the devices that we carry and display. Sleek silver iPods say something; flamboyant pink smartphone cases say something else.
I also sense that devices are becoming more and more like a modern day fashion accessory and just like fashion, heaven forbid that we are seen with last years device. I have witnessed three examples of this recently:
- Until April, Kindle carriers were pretty cool, reading away quietly and efficiently with their new grey toy. But with the arrival of this seasons latest, the iPad, suddenly, the Kindle just looked like history – a condition which has been called “Kindle-shame”
- Until three years ago, it was mainly a case of a phone was a phone was a phone. It just didn’t matter that much. But then came touch-screen and within months, those old Nokia’s and Motorola’s began to visibly suffer from what some call the “clamshell cringe”
- Only the other day, on the New York subway, a well-dressed middle aged gentleman got out Sony Discman – you could see the unforgiving looks and hear the collective groans from his fellow travelers as he became the latest victim of “discman derision”
Looking to the future, I can only see devices becoming more and more important as cultural and personal beacons. And as the device manufacturers are building more and more style and aesthetics and individuality into their products, we can expect the comparisons with fashion to get stronger and stronger. And in the process, we should expect the leading fashion brands to be partnering with the manufacturers of devices in the hope that their industry can enjoy some of those Apple-type earnings numbers that were released earlier this week.