Everything but the thing itself
This post is in dialog with Toby Shorin’s Life After Lifestyle, which I highly recommend you go read.
I. The product withdraws
Here’s a vivid memory from the 2000s. I remember staring at a row of VitaminWaters in a convenience store – they were ubiquitous then. Each flavor advertised a mental state – Calm, Revive, Focus, etc. And I thought: This is the future.
My thinking went like this: For however you want to feel, there will be a product for you. Sure, none of VitaminWater’s flavors produce any of the advertised feelings right now. But they are setting the precedent. If we’re already consuming products as if they did anything, then at some point soon the market will produce a winner that actually does the thing well.
This turned out to be almost 100% wrong. Products didn’t evolve to actually deliver on their advertising. Instead, advertising evolved to deliver a whole lifestyle: From LAL:
What does it taste like? How does it make me feel? One doesn’t even know how to answer these questions. The product withdraws, almost completely.
VitaminWater looks like a dinosaur now, not because the product sucked but because the brand sucked. Or more specifically: the brand failed to embody a lifestyle.
II. Perpetual backorder
I am now trying to buy a sofa for my apartment. I am at the age where I Want Things to Last and Be of Quality. So I do a ton of research, read Wirecutter, browse tags on Instagram to see the furniture in real peoples’ apartments. Finally I make my decision and I’m ready to Complete My Purchase from Sixpenny, a D2C brand. Just as I’m about to Pay Now I see in very tiny letters: Estimated delivery: 12-14 weeks.
LAL references the supply chain quite a bit. I don’t know if this is retconning or not – I for one never thought about supply chains in the 2010s. It wasn’t until the toilet paper shortage, and Ever Given, and all this talk about a semiconductor war that I started thinking about supply chains.
Supply chains become visible when there’s a problem. When my sofa isn’t going to come for 14 weeks. Or my Tesla isn’t going to come for 14 months.
In the new cultural economy, the culture is the product. It is composed of practices, ideas, and discourses. Products are auxiliary, supportive, but not the main event. And most importantly, people now opt into these designed cultures with full knowledge and awareness that these cultures might change who they are.
What will supply chain shortages mean for this shift?
III. Bad religions
LAL seems to have a cautiously optimistic take on the future, which I understand to go something like this:
In the Lifestyle era of the 2010s, we learned to formalize and align with a confluence of product, brand, and subculture. Where culture used to be invisible & subliminal, it has become foregrounded. Where product used to be essential, it has now become secondary to culture.
In this new paradigm of “culture fluency,” consumers can be intentional about which cultures they subscribe to &/or invent. With the withdrawal of products, cultural membership can start to look more meaningful, more ritual-laden, more communal. Like religions.
Those religions may initially be hollow/broken/otherwise bad, but the process will help us start asking the right questions: per Toby: “What types of culture is worth creating? What types of people do we want to become?” Changing religions will be as easy as hopping into a new Discord server.
Toby has a tendency to Get it Right, so who am I to disagree. But:
Another memory I have from the 2010s is a whole bunch of startups launching around the “what should we have for dinner” problem. The problem statement would always start the same:
Imagine your group of friends wants to get together for dinner. They’re spread across the Bay Area, they have various dietary restrictions, and they want to find a restaurant that works for everyone. We’ve all been there, right? It’s so hard to figure out where to eat!
The solution would invariably leverage cutting edge web2 tools: geolocation for sure; plugging into an API or two for reviews and menus; clever P2P protocols; maybe even a way to split the check.
And just as invariably, the app would utterly fail to solve the “what should we have for dinner” problem, which turns out to be very hard to solve and most likely not even a thing. Apps that survived - WhatsApp, Beluga, Kik – simply became good messengers. For as much as we say we need tools for coordinating and collectivizing, what we often really want is a new place to bullshit and hang out.
To our modern ears tuned for x-risks, web2 problems are frivolous. Forget going to dinner, we need to figure out how we’re going to liberate all beings, or campaign for nuclear disarmament, or buy the Constitution.
It’s clear that this seriousness, powered by web3, will accomplish some exciting new things. Whether protocols for high-quality coordination work can be uncovered remains to be seen.
The thing I worry most about is that “high-quality” itself will become meaningless, not from any kind of relativism, but from sustained atrophy of our senses:
What does it taste like? How does it make me feel?