Review: Technology and Behaviour – June 5 2010

We’ve regressed to the nineteenth century. We live longer, travel easier and connect further than we ever have before. But we struggle with the effects of our technological revolution. On environment. On old ways of working. On society. The new world we live in is scary and weird and cool and exhilarating.

And we want people to explain it to us.

Explaining changing world of consumption was the theme of this first session.

And though the digital world was a theme of the event, each of the three presenters also had real world books to sell us.

Mike Walsh

Mike Walsh was sarcastic, superior, informed and slick. He felt a bit more like a cool hunter of old. Many of the stops of his tour were new to me: Han Han, the biggest Chinese blogger, and ‘group buying‘ – either mob capitalism or a new kind of co-op. But other things, like the Kogi BBQ Taco truck have been in the mainstream press for a while now. And while it was very Mexican to get the audience laughing at scary things like lightning kidnapping, it didn’t inspire me with a sense that he was up with the trends on the ground. It felt more like he was a good, and voracious reader.

Chris Ying, from publisher McSweeney’s, started with the idea that McSweeney’s had no idea how online things work. They claim to have only now hired a good web engineer. But they’d found despite their own meagre online presence, online communities grew up around their books all the same. “There’s no reason to try to force a digital aspect. It [the internet] is part of our everyday lives.” He went on to say that “Ever since print began, print has been dying.” New technology is just a new set of tools for an old set of problems. For Ying, the shifts in the publishing world aren’t seismic. They’re just shifts.

Rachel Botsman

Rachel Botsman‘s world was shifting most of all. Her thesis is that the world is shifting from hyper-consumption to ‘collaborative consumption’. “We don’t want stuff,” one of her slides read “But the need or experience it fulfils.” She refers things like GoGet shared cars and the iTunes store‘s contents as examples.

Her ideas are interesting, but many of the services she cites depend on a critical mass of people, tech literacy and a cash flow that lets you use these objects from week-to-week, rather than making the occasional big investment. They also leave you in a very vulnerable position if the services fold. At least until they achieve a critical mass. Some of the services – freecycle, most obviously – are perfect for a low-income family. But how do you arrange, for example, that enough share-cars are placed that they’re in walking distance for all the residents of a low density suburb?

Change happens at many levels. Perhaps collaborative consumption is one of those levels. But I suspect that it turn out to only be a feature of the future, rather than a pathway to it.

Of the three visions of the near-future (which is to say, the present) I preferred Ying’s. His version of the world is accessible. And it’s a world that is open to everybody: make something good, whatever the tools. The rest is commentary.

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