3_TRENDS_Vol.1: Chris Dancy: Corporatization of Values, Peak Reaction + Techno-Paganism
3_TRENDS is an interview series with the world's leading cultural researchers and thinkers, sharing their favorite overlooked trends.
Chris Dancy (CD) is “the Most Connected Man on Earth,” earning his moniker by utilizing 700 sensors, devices, and apps to track, analyze, and optimize every component of his life. Featured on Showtime’s Dark Net, interviewed by the WSJ, BBC, and Wired, and as the subject of TED talks, Dancy is a keynote speaker and author of Don't Unplug, an examination of living with technology.
MK: Chris, what’s on your mind?
Corporatization of Values
CD: From Product Red from Apple to the rainbow IBM logo during Pride month, corporations have fused their messaging with our values. Gone are the days where fringe groups are front-page news for “family values.” Today, mega brands to the corner market are all fusing their collective value set into their products.
You can’t just purchase a smartphone; you have to buy one with 100% recycled aluminum. No longer is it possible to just have a birthday on Facebook; you have a fundraiser for your favorite charity.
We no longer have individual moralistic systems; today, we have become a consumable mass trend set. Throughout the 2020’s, companies will continue to onboard their support for ideas and programs that governments can’t touch because of their polarizing themes. These shifts create brands that function more like televangelists than mega-capitalist corporations.
MK: This past year I wrote about the evolution of brands as civil servants, “If the electees can’t help, perhaps the mascots can.” But I saw this shift as: brands, feet held to the fire, are becoming substitutes for archaic, unresponsive institutions of change.
But what you bring up is a bit more nuanced, and I think critical. Brands are more than our new electees, but new preachers as you put it, delivering where politics can’t go. Is another driver for the rise of today’s woke, progressive brands that they simply fulfill our own morals and ethics? Are we frictionlessly outsourcing our values via purchases and GoFundMe’s? I’ve always likened branding to religion: manufactured meaning and values, notable characters and widely shared ideologies. So perhaps mascots are also becoming our new priests.
CD: Slowly over the past 15 years, the available reactions to categorize our experiences have been expanded. Simultaneously, the explosive growth in consuming meta-experiences by watching strangers unbox, play or react to media will become the entertainment of the masses.
Driven by the increase in emojis, memes, and reactions, our connected experiences are now more dependent on the expected response than the created content.
This means we are engineering our posts to invoke emotional responses instead of conveying our ideas. As we move toward the future and our suite of available “reactions” on platforms grow, we will see a massive spike in users seeking emotional releases when content creators become mood regulators. Engineered reactions are slowly replacing interactions, leading us to an emotionally connected tipping point I call “Peak Reaction.”
MK: Emotion proxies. The expansion of available reactions on platforms can be argued to be a positive as the distillation of the complexity of emotion into five options is ridiculous. But to your point, when we focus on expanding choices, they then become the primary objective to fulfill — no different than how we’ve optimized our posts for likes. There’s a reversal: the ground (responses to our ideas) becomes the figure (goal). When we’re motivated by the response, we find ourselves with glut of exaggerated reactions, but hungry for actual human interactions. The algorithms don’t help us here either as they also favor the extreme response.
The meta-ness of reaction content has always been eerie to me as we experience the emotion of whatever — Disney ride, new product, gender reveal — through someone else. Older demographics ask, “Why watch someone else play video games when you can just playing yourself?” We know some answers (socialization, education, diversity in perspective, etc.), but it’s a fair question. It’s as if we weigh the extreme reactions of others more than the inconsequential experiences of our own. To navigate us away from this dark peak of reaction culture, there’s a Team Human opportunity to validate our own irrelevance and to celebrate our major minor-stones.
CD: From conspiracy theories to “Witch-tok,” the occult subgenera of TikTok, our ability to find any piece of information, and our corporatized value sets foster a reboot of new-age thinking. Our root values, now subverted by the link economy, vanity metrics, and collapsing institutional trust, create a craving for the unexplainable, esoteric, and occult. Unlike previous new age movements, this one is tied to creating unique and previously unsearchable information.
Today, people will embrace the fringes in a race to the bottom of the random fact file in order to be unquantifiable in their knowledge. “Let me Google that for you” is being replaced by “Let me explain a sensory experience for you.” Enter Techno-Paganism, the movement to replace our current hyper-connected fact factory with a layer of mysticism that satiates where formulaic movie reboots fear to tread.
MK: The study of magic in culture is dear to my heart as I was tasked with presenting its rise in my interview process with Sparks & Honey. What I uncovered was magic plays two roles, which also happen to be in conflict of one another.
Firstly, magic is our explanation for the inexplicable. In such an illusive time of darkness and uncertainty, as a culture, we collectively seek solutions for safety and peace of mind. These solutions include a combination of answers, direction and hope. “Magic” is our last resort to make sense. In my research, I interviewed Mark Lichtenstein, a magician, who simplified it, “Magic is inherently optimistic.” Magic invites camaraderie and wishfulness to a shared, desired resolution.
But conversely, magic is also our questionable mysticism in a culture filled with quantifiable confidence and surveillance. When algorithms know what we want before we do, we crave things that jut don’t make sense. Bewildering experiences are scarce and therefore valuable. Magic embedded within our technology and platforms is a tension, but a space we’re clearly moving towards.
Hi Klein, great thoughts that has sparked some further thoughts..
Made me think about gyms, and the broader fitness wellness wave. Cross-fit has worked so well (I think) because of the highly structured format (workout programs) a small tight group follows and bonds through, like I suppose the army experience is. But then does that take away from the 'magic of self-authored movement?
Do traditional gyms that offer more variety in movement hold value? Just grappling with the meaning of gyms and the space they provide, where if most new fitness services build their religion with prescriptive classes (on Peleton etc), then where does that leave self-authored gym experiences? Is there meaning in that? Suppose is there magic in non-preachers of the fitness wellness world? Suppose Feynman would say yes from a scientist perspective over religion (literally).
Highly enjoyable as always. I wonder if point one begins to change in light of the dual influences of Biden's push back on corporate dominance (by economic means) and the net longterm effects from the Basecamp situation: ie brands being less amenable to proselytizing, for fear of being called out from within, rather than from without.