The basic premise of my idea is this:
I believe that society is in the throes of a revolution because we are transitioning from passive consumerism to active ownership. After a century of consumption we are starting to come to the realisation that we are more than just consumers – we are owners. It is through this shift in mindset that we are beginning to question and disrupt the current political, social and economic power balances. What we are experiencing is a revolution – slowly and steadily – but one that is systematically disrupting the institutions, traditions and values that have shaped society up until now.
During the 20th century the political, economic and social structures around the world changed. The mechanisms and functions they employed to communicate, control and manipulate have had to adapt to the emergence of the consumer class. To use an existing term they are the 99%. They may not be the 1% who control the wealth in our society but they are the consumers that drive our society. It is through this consumption we have seen the biggest change to mankind since the dawn of history. It has democratised access to advanced technology and information, and heralded the evolution of the passive consumer to the active owner. It is through unprecedented consumption that we have changed the balance of power and shifted society as a whole from passive masses to active individuals. Consumers have been transformed into Owners – an active and participatory class who have the potential to change the world through their choices & consumption.
All previous models of power and economies held the consumer as a passive element, but owners aren’t passive. They are active in the process – choosing refining, customising, tailoring, spending and just as important – walking away. This is a slow burn but we are starting to feel the effects. Marketing has had to adapt and change – from message to manipulation. Manufacturers have had to create and design products worthy of purchase. Companies have to spend millions of dollars on listening to their customers. The amount of time, effort and money spent on consumers clearly illustrates that these are not passive people anymore, otherwise this would be so much easier.
The idea of ownership has been foreign to most humans for millennia. Only the strongest leaders ever owned anything, often taking it to their grave with them. But over the last couple of centuries that has changed. The industrial revolution bought small luxuries to the masses – clothing, foods, washing detergents. This accelerated quickly after WWII when America became the dominant power and bought with it an economic model that relied on increased consumer behaviour. Small luxuries quickly escalated to household appliances and then houses and cars. They now had ownership of more than any of their ancestors could have ever dreamed of. They were transformed people who not only owned the clothes on their back or food in their belly, but the house where they lived and the car that they drove. After more than 50 years of this behaviour it has changed the relationship, not only with the goods themselves, but the people and companies involved in the whole process. We, as a society of consumers, have evolved into owners.
Consuming is not the same as Owning. They start at very different points and have very different levels of personal investment. Consuming a car is not the same as owning one – no one treats their own car the way they drive a rental – at least I hope not! Ownership brings with it an investment of money, time and effort. It requires active participation, because more often the kind of investment is far more involved. You would never passively consume a house because the investment of money, time and effort requires you to be active in the decision-making process – choosing the style, functions, features, location, look and feel – so that you feel rewarded. In the last 20 years the concept of ownership has moved deeper into the everyday. We now want to take ownership of the decisions we make – small and large, from the food we eat, the politicians that represent us through to way we work.
One of the main problems we currently face is the fact that we are immature owners. This creates tension and conflict because while we want ownership, we are yet to learn the lessons about responsibility that come as part of the package. There is great power that comes with ownership. If we decide not to buy, we can destroy an industry – taking those jobs, livelihoods and people with it. If we decided to buy we can create new opportunities and enormous social change. If we attempt to hold people to hostage for incidental features we are gambling on success and failure. Yes, as Uncle Ben said ”with great power comes great responsibility” and at this early stage of the revolution we are struggling with this responsibility. There is give and there is take with ownership and we are yet to learn these realities. In many cases we are bad owners – or at the very least, lazy.
One of the common complaints about society is the sense of entitlement people now seem to have. This is a direct manifestation of the conflict bought on by this change. As consumers we were passive and felt little control or effect on the world around us, but as owners we know that is not the case. We hold the power – and if we don’t think it’s good enough we feel entitled to complain. So we have taken complaining to an entirely new level, so much so that not only do we feel entitled to complain but we feel entitled to change – immediately. But a responsible owner knows that changes can’t just happen. It needs to be feasible and it can take time. The risks and the rewards need to be weighed up, managed and the solution needs to marry these to be successful. Once all that has been done – it might come to pass that the problem you seek to fix might not be worthwhile for the product as a whole or the users as a group.
Responsible owners see the greater good. They understand altruism and they understand the need for reward to outweigh risk. They understand the need for openness and communication. They also understand that in the end someone has to make a decisions – and they might not agree – but that it still has to be done.
When I observe my own behaviour and that of the world around me – this concept of ownership rings true. I long to be active and participate in the world around me, the products I buy and the decisions made by institutions that directly affect me. If I look at the disruption going on around the world it seems to be a manifestation of this desire to participate. We keep setting out to topple the dominating institution or the one that does the least to enable participation. The lack of digital options for music gave rise to Napster which briefly managed to assemble the largest collection of music, ever! The internet staple, the bit torrent, comes as a response to television networks and movie studios failing to develop anything that allows them to participate in deciding what and when to watch. This desire manifests in much more tangible and life affirming ways such as the Arab Spring and the democratic movement in Burma where the will to participate in how the country is run has changed the system that has suppressed this freedom.
So that’s my hypothesis. It probably needs to be fleshed out further but its a starting point and a concept that will play into some of my further posts.
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