Talking to Idiots
In ancient Greece an idiot meant someone who did not (or could not) contribute to public life. The words stems from ἴδιος, idios meaning “private”, “one’s own”. It was a dishonorable position of course. Public life meant civilization, government and duty, whilst a private life implying greed and a self-centredness that was unhelpful and unjustifiable.
However, today under the principles of individuality, idiocy is celebrated. One should make their own decisions, focusing effort on their own goals. Geert Hofstede conducted one of the most comprehensive studies on national values, of which Individualism (building your self image around “I” rather than “we”) is a key metric. The higher the score the closer the nation values the trait. The UK unsurprisingly scores 89 out of 100 on Individuality. Only Australia and America scores it higher.
Lone rangers fill our cinema and TV screens as heroes. Indeed La La Land’s romance is built on two narcissists, who sacrifice love to pursue their own dreams. Rarely do archetypal rulers or caregivers take lead roles. Instead our role models are rebels, or explorers who reject the group think mentality of their communities. 60% of Millennials (people aged 20s-30s) do not identify with the term “millennial” compared to the 79% of Boomers that do (Source: Pew Research). They don’t see the similarities of their experience to those of their peers, rather they demand to be seen as individuals.
“We are living in an age of extreme selfishness” claims Rufus Norris, Director of the National Theatre. In researching his new production that tries to understand the Brexit results he notes how “convinced everyone was of the supreme correctness of their own position, and a reluctance to listen to one another” (Source: The Guardian). This is the filter bubble experts are so concerned about.
And this is so sharply adverse to the number one learning of the brilliant Maria Popova, author of the Brain Pickings blog, of over ten years of reading cultural analysis. Her first learning is that we should “allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind. Cultivate that capacity for “negative capability” as Keats defined it. To find peace in uncertainty, to acknowledge doubts and mysteries.” But today’s society that can google at the touch of button, or call out to Alexa, is one where everyone has an answer. We define, not necessarily “the truth”, but “our truths” which is offers comfort in what is a complex, contradicting and confusing global reality.
Culturally the UK spends so much more time alone. Since 1973 the number of single-person households has doubled so that in 2016, around 7.7 million people lived alone in the UK, the majority of them women and with adults aged 25–44 being five times more likely to live alone (Source: ONS 2013). Rather than emoting sympathy, our society champions independence, “standing on your own two feet”. Running your own business, being single at any age, living independently of parents or a partner, raising children as a single parent are no longer exceptional but rather the norm. Thinktank Future Forecast found in 2016 that a third of Brits are comfortable eating alone in a restaurant. Half exercise alone. Two fifths are happy to watch TV and shop alone. The IPA’s latest data for 2016 suggests during a week we spend 5.5 hours a day alone, half an hour more than in 2008.
Being alone brings flexibility, as individuals are less likely to conform to social norms. We not only rent for longer and change jobs more frequently, we rent our doggies, join car schemes, flexible working (70% will do so by 2020 according to Lancaster University research). Young people are increasingly less likely to live close to our families or value marriage, even sex. Instead we build vast network of weak ties and relationships meaning we ultimately come to value our own company more highly.
These alone occasions are often on demand, highly creative and reflective moments. You don’t have to access media on other people’s schedules, rather when it suits you best. Indeed new media celebrates the idiot’s private and unique perspective. VR, Snap glasses, Instagram stories, all demonstrate that an individual’s angle and edited version of an experience which of course would be unlike any other. My reality, is not your reality.
As John Harris, columnist at the Guardian noted at Shift 2017, fewer people read the printed newspaper with a fixed editorial hierarchical structure suggesting an order in how the news should be read. Instead multiple strands of content are positioned democratically, so that readers absorb news in a much more complex and fragmented way.
Programmatic ads are tailed to individuals based on location and moment, indeed as we move to content that can be biologically tailored to you and your personality, each of us is influenced in more nuanced ways.
Why do we crave this independence? It is partly because when you are on your own, you are fully in control. We are less tolerant in being disturbed or disrupted by friends and family. We want to be in control of our moments to socialise and then when to be solitary, and indeed are less concerned about letting people down at the last minute.
This behaviour is fundamentally changing the nature of our consumption. We may not be so centered on keeping up with the Jones’ but are keen to develop variation of self treats. Heineken polled 5,000 21–35 year olds in five countries this year, and found that “self-awareness” and “staying in control” were key reasons to why 75% limit their drinking on a night out. On the other hand, Chinese Single’s Day held on November 11 is a day for modern times. Finally we have an official day in the calendar to treat ourselves. In 2016 sales were at $17.8 billion, compared with $14.3 billion in 2015 blowing other shopping days such as Black Friday out of the water.
As service and media providers we tread the balance of celebrating the freedom and confidence of the idiot but also should challenge it too. To “belong” and to “contribute” are fundamental human desires, and can offer greater happiness than control, which as sociologist Hugh MacCay pointed out in his book What makes us tick control is a human desire we least understand and least fulfil. As Sherry Turkle says in Alone Together,
“People are lonely. The network is seductive. But if we are always on, we may deny ourselves the rewards of solitude.”