3_Trends_Vol.5: Florencia Lujani: Private Citizens, Sub vs. Counterculture + Degrowth Economics

Vol.5

3_TRENDS is an interview series with experts who have their ear to culture, identifying the overlooked ripples turning into swells.

Florencia Lujani (FL) is a strategy director based in London, UK. She's been doing brand and creative strategy for over ten years, helping translate the cultural landscape into strategic direction for brands. She also writes Cultural Patterns, a newsletter about brands and culture.

MK: Florencia, what’s on your mind?

Private Citizens: A Dissolving Monoculture

FL: In the past year, common spaces to experience culture disappeared: we rarely ventured out of our neighbourhoods or cities, lost touch with people outside of our immediate circles, and lost access to places of divergent thinking. In the meantime, we experienced a dozen different trends every month, saw Netflix release one new movie per week, celebrities spread vaccine misinformation, and every big pop culture moment ended up losing momentum pretty quickly. We used to mediate reality via mass media but this is not the case anymore. For a client project, I recently did a survey with a statistically representative sample of the UK and results showed that 41% of respondents hadn't read a single newspaper either in print or online in the past 12 months. Personalised realities are dissolving the bigger stories that bind us together.

This leads to a context in which the idea of “The Private Citizen” flourishes, one in which it's not necessary to negotiate across differences, participate in political coalitions, acknowledge systemic inequality, or make sense of how our past connects with our present, because The Private Citizen can change the world on its own.

The success of the next decade can't be only defined by the level of consumer spending, we will need common spaces of culture that can hold us together, and brands can play a role in making that happen.

MK: I believe that as we entered this decade of the ’20s, we stepped out of our traditional monoculture and into something, as you put it, more privatized. It was the spring of 2019 when Avengers: Endgame and the finale of Game of Thrones debuted, the last staples of our collective pop culture — two of the biggest releases the industry witnessed. It only made sense monoculture as we knew it went out with a bang.

The pandemic was our last chance opportunity to sync back up. Instead, it did just the opposite.

There are several drivers as to why we won’t return to the white, hygienic Friends, Seinfeld, Office monoculture we once had. 1. The proliferation of media and streaming platforms (Apple TV+ vs. HBO vs. Netflix) and their gated, original, competitive content incites both overwhelming content-obesity and exclusivity where we just can’t keep up. 2. The loss of appointment-viewing and synchronous experiences — we can consume what we want, when we want, where-ever we want — erodes legacy, communal experiences. 3. Personalized recommendation algorithms, sow content and experiences different than that of our friends and neighbors. 4. The accelerating pace of “What’s Hot,” makes the rise and fall of X truly tiresome. 5. Customized, participatory media, where interactive media or video games eradicates shared outcomes. 6. The growth of the Long Tail, where all are Creators now service something perfectly niche for each of us. 7. Filter bubbles or manufactured realties, reinforced and hard to pop, make the discovery of “outside” POVs and opportunities even rarer.

This said, I still believe popular shared artifacts, stories and media will forever exists — isn’t that culture? — however what rises to the surface will now be more data-informed and manufactured. The algorithms now determine what’s popular.

Kyle Chayka wrote a great long-read in Vox unpacking this evolving monoculture, proposing,

“Today’s form of monoculture is both larger in scale and less human, more mechanically automated, than ever before.”

Chayka continues,

“As we grow more accustomed to the algorithmic monoculture, allowing it to occupy our senses, we might lose our understanding of, or our taste for, anything else. [...] Art is communal. We want to connect with other people over experiences that we share in common. But just as important is being alone, having a unique encounter — not seamlessly recommended or autoplayed — with something that another person created, and then gauging your deepest emotional response.”

Subculture vs. Counterculture

FL: A few weeks ago, a British Vogue article asked, “Has the internet killed subcultures?” The author says that today’s subcultures are no longer the preserve of the countercultural, and goes on to say that subcultures like the gamers, the makeup obsessed, the VSCO girls, etc., aren’t really rebelling to systemic issues like the punks, the goths, and other groups did decades ago. I agree with the article that there was a time when subcultures were synonymous with counterculture and this isn’t the case anymore, but that doesn’t mean counterculture has been killed, you just won’t find it on the trending hashtags of TikTok or Instagram.

In this context, I think subcultures have been replaced by cyberculture: groups that own online spaces, where specific language develops, rituals take place, and new power structures create different relationships between members. Subcultures today are more about finding people with the same values and interests rather than rebelling against the status quo. 

But counterculture isn't dead, and it could never be dead.

It’s in the triumph of the Black Lives Matter movement that led to a white police officer being held accountable for killing a Black man for the first time in Minnesota state history. It’s in Afrofuturism and Solar Punk imagining a more inclusive future where we haven’t destroyed the environment. It's in alternative cultural economies (to borrow a term from Manuel Castells), where people choose to join producer and consumer cooperatives over buying from large corporations.

Counterculture is happening on the fringes of the tech monopoly.

MK: I was a bystander in a debate last week where one side protested we stop using “subculture” as its prefix infers inferiority. Perhaps continuing to use the term “subculture” will soon be an act of counterculturalism. Heh.

To your points, I agree with each and every word. There’s an important distinction between sub- and counter-, and Caroline Busta for Document, exemplifies it best,

6ix9ine is subcultural, but he isn’t countercultural. Someone like Edward Snowden, by comparison, isn’t subcultural but may be the closest we get to a countercultural figure in the postdigital age.”

While 6ix9ine may rebel against social codes such as not snitching,

“To be truly countercultural today, in a time of tech hegemony, one has to, above all, betray the platform...”

Further, there’s another worthwhile distinction — that between counterculture’s components: Identity & Ideology. In other words, Identity = aesthetics signifying in- and out groups, ie. community vs. Ideology = an agenda for rejection, ie. purpose.

I think we struggle to recognize counterculture today because Identity is so detached from today’s cultural rejections. What do vegans, Amazon union organizers, Bitcoin buyers, or gun control advocates look like? They don’t seek to stand out with bright mohawks. And further, their efforts are conducted online where Identity is left to a measly, static profile picture.

Lastly, when we consider sub- or counter-, I propose, it’s harder today to feel like an other when all have a welcoming “home” easily found online in The Long Tail, and secondly when there’s no longer even a traditional, mainstream monoculture to rebel against. In other words, punks or goths were once truly others, social outcasts. But now that there are established, organized spaces for any- and everyone, from Dark Academia fans to Furries, and from Pastel Goths to Cripplepunks, feeling like an outcast is more difficult thanks to homes like Tumblr, TikTok or Subreddits.

Degrowth Economics

FL: On the subject of countercultures, I don’t think there’s anything more countercultural today than the school of thought of degrowth economics. This is a topic I’m very interested in because it challenges the meta-narrative that wellbeing and prosperity are only possible with economic growth. Degrowth has emerged in the context of the climate crisis because research shows that maintaining today's rate of economic growth requires a degree of violence on our Earth that would result in an ecological system breakdown within the next 100 years. As a strategist working with businesses, every brief has some kind of growth target attached to it, so this has huge implications.

I believe growing businesses in the 21st century can’t be done at the expense of destroying people’s wellbeing and the planet. It’s why I wrote a series of articles on this topic in my newsletter.

The question driving economic activity needs to change.

From:

“How much financial value can we extract from this?”

To:

“What many other benefits for society can we generate in the way we design this business?”

We need to start designing businesses for permanence, not performance, aligned with the social and ecological impact of the next 100 years.

MK: The meta-narrative you’ve alluded to has evidently and successfully brainwashed nearly all in business to believe: “Big = Good.” It’s what happens when we incentive CEO's by 3 months windows (quarterly earnings), rather than their longitudinal ripples on society. Today’s overwhelming business objective is akin to cancer — growth for growth sake, at all costs, indifferent to humanistic or environmental consequences. Author, entrepreneur and teacher, Seth Godin shares a similar Rushkoffian perspective.

“Nothing grows to infinity. Certainly no project or business or idea. And saying, ‘as many as possible,’ implies a series of trade-offs that you're probably not actually interested in making.”

Godin continues,

“What if getting bigger isn't the point? What if you merely got better?”

We have to get past the idea that scale is best. It doesn’t work for every concept. How about quality and service are also worthwhile considerations? “Growth Hack” — vom.

Faced with ecological and financial breakdown, if there was ever a time for the upstart, the little one, it’s now. Full circle, optimistically, the neighborly and niche continue to thrive as a counterculture movement.

Who would have thought that wellbeing would one day be punk?

Meditating in a public park: Hard-fucking-core.