Cue, Saturation, Blindess The components of a culture of consumption

I’ve been reading a lot about anthropology lately, trying to get a better understanding of the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of the way we live our lives. In my attempt to try to understand what makes us tick as a society I’ve recognised a powerful three-stage process that seems to repeat itself on different levels throughout our history and it’s constantly shaping who we are, like a potter moulding clay.

The Cue is the first moment that an idea is planted within the cultural landscape – like a spark or an epiphany. People responsible for the cue are often heralded as creative or innovative by their peers and colleagues. They are perceived as people with such amazing vision that no one can believe that what they’ve come up with hasn’t been thought of before. The Cue often seems so obvious, but only after it’s presented for the first time. It paves the way for a new wave of creativity as others take the Cue and use it in their own way to create something new.

The idea of the Cue can come in many forms, and some have a greater impact on society than others. In the world of scientific progress (a facet of our culture which we put a lot of importance on as a society), Einstein’s theory of relativity or Isaac Newtown’s laws of motion could be considered “Cues”. In the land of branding or marketing, a facet of our culture which we often view with less importance than scientific discovery, Coca-Cola’s use of Santa Clause in their 1930s advertising campaigns, dressed in Coke’s brand colours of red and white or the introduction of the ‘need’ to use deodorant in the late 19th century is also a Cue.

Naturally, Einstein and Newton’s scientific discoveries seem much more important to humanity than the clothes of a fictitious Christmas character or under-arm sweat regulation products but the scale of this importance may not be quite so different – they simply affect a different part of our lives. Western culture values scientific progress and education more than our visual culture or societal customs. For some reason, the apparent objectivity in science is far easier to comprehend to us – we’re able to identify right from wrong, we’re able to teach these mathematical formulae in a formal classroom environment. Trying to quantify the impact that Santa’s clothes or anti-perspirants have had on our society and environment is a much harder task but it demonstrates a very valuable point. While these 2 examples of scientific discovery and 2 examples of cultural persuasion seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum, it’s clear to see that any Cue can change the way we perceive our world and it can be introduced to us by just a single person with its affect on our society being permanent.

Saturation is the process we seem to adopt of ‘mainstreaming’ or ‘normalising’ a Cue that we feel has potential to impact our culture in a positive way. Many of the things I take for granted today started sometime before I was born – like the colour of Santa’s clothes. In fact, it’s the same for any generation who takes an idea or habit for granted and it’s exactly this idea that makes saturation so difficult to recognise in everyday life.

Last week, I found myself trying to select my next toothbrush from the plethora of choice that the supermarket shelf was offering. I had finally narrowed my choice down to two or three brushes and I caught myself using the ‘tongue-cleaner’ feature of a brush as a deciding factor in trying to narrow my choice down further. At that moment, like a slap in the face, I remembered seeing my first ever advertisement for a toothbrush with a tongue cleaner (about 2 years ago) whilst I was sitting on the couch. I laughed so hard that the milk I was drinking came out of my nose. “Oh. My. Goodness!” I said to myself, “It looks like the ad agencies have finally exhausted every iteration possible for bristle-angles and now it’s time to move on to another part of the mouth. I can’t wait to see the 3-in-1 brush, tongue and cheek masseur in 2015.” It’s ironic that here I was, literally 2-3 years later having an internal dialogue with myself about whether a tongue-cleaner, at no extra cost over the other brushes, would be a good idea. The cue had been planted 2 years ago, and with other toothbrush companies bringing out their own version of it over that time, I had sub-consciously seen enough of it to come to accept it as a normal part of my life. The saturation had progressed to blindness.

The third stage of consumption is the concept of Blindness which could equally be called “acceptance” or “adoption”. It’s the point where our society has become so saturated with the original cue for long enough that it has become the norm. We become used to its presence in our lives, we stop questioning it because it’s so ubiquitous and its immediate impact has not been dramatically negative. If humanity were a river, blindness would be the current or flow – the cue becomes part of our identity and frees up our attention to focus on the next cue.

What the experience of the tongue-cleaner made very clear to me is that no matter how unusual, outrageous or immediately fickle an idea might seem, if it’s repeated for long enough, if we see it often enough and it does not seem to have any short-term negative impacts on health or wellbeing, we’re willing to accept it. We’re willing to give it a go and consider it a ‘progression’ or ‘advancement’ in the way we live our lives. My parents’ generation never had tongue-cleaners. My dad is 58 and only had his first filling last year – no other dental work required. Are we just refining the way we live from generation to generation, the more we discover about our tongue the more we need to do to manage it’s bacteria? Or is it simply just some marketing executive or ad-agency creating the problem and also providing the solution so that an extension can be added to the pool-house before the family comes over for summer?

All jokes aside, I don’t mean any of this to be cynical. I simply find it fascinating. What’s most fascinating about Cue, Saturation and Blindness (CSB) is that we know about it and accept it in certain areas of society. For some reason, when it comes to clothing we seem to accept that fashion will come and go, that style has a short lifespan. Whether it’s jeggings, denim shorts, skinny black jeans, in fact anything from the 80s really – we look back and laugh at ourselves living through the style. We accept that it has changed and we know that it will continue to change. Yet, for some reason we’re sure that we’re not making the same fashion mistakes twice when we make our next purchase of this season’s colours and textures.

What surprises me the most is that in other facets of our culture, we seem to respond differently, particularly in technology and hygiene or medicine. Faster car? Why not. Another exotic fragrance or make-up with oxygen-activated micro minerals? Yes please. New drug to cure a disease? Why do you even ask?! More features in your smart phone? Of course! In these other areas of our society we see each iteration, each cue, as building blocks to a more ‘successful’ one, one that’s moving forward, progressing to a future goal, one that’s becoming quicker, smarter, and healthier; a society that’s improving. We’ve even started using these words to describe today’s products – we have a ‘smart phone’, ‘intelligent lighting’, ‘responsive design’. We do this knowing full well that tomorrow’s smart-phone will be smarter, that intelligent lighting in 10 years’ time will be more intelligent than today and that design can only become more responsive. So what does that really make of today’s devices and technology?

Since I’ve put this idea to paper, I see it everywhere. My local supermarket has upwards of 34 different shower gel products. Let me repeat that, 34! As each brand tries to carve out a place in the market for itself we come to accept that fragrances (and I use that term loosely) like “Refreshing Ocean Fresh”, “Foamburst Moisture Delight” and “Coconut and Tiare flower” are valid, attractive and necessary (yes, they are real fragrances). What’s even more interesting to me is that if we were to take away the “Foamburst Moisture Delight” one there is no doubt, for at least 15 minutes of someone’s life, there will be confusion and disappointment that they are forced to change their habit and buy an unfamiliar alternative. Is it just me or does no one else notice this ridiculous and unnecessary microcosm of soap-free wash products that we’ve convinced ourselves that we need?

Before you go ahead and judge me, I am aware that it’s easy to err on the side of negative criticism when it comes to capitalism and consumption. I use the example above because I think it’s relevant for pointing out how the laws of CSB can be applied to something as trivial as body wash. It happens to us gradually and providing it doesn’t have a negative impact on health, we’re happy to go with it. The health argument is of course the number one influence on whether a cue eventually becomes a part of our everyday lives. The irony is, our impatience as a society means that sometimes we make the mistake of saturating and becoming blind to a cue before the health implications manifest themselves.

Digital technology is the prime example for demonstrating how big an effect CSB can have on the way we live. The proliferation of mobile phones, just one segment of digital technology, has literally transformed the way we think, the way we share and the way we communicate with one another. The impact it has had upon us when compared to shower gel is much more substantial and most agree that the positives outweigh the negatives… so far. Is this just because the potential health risks simply haven’t been identified and/or confirmed yet? Is the speed of communication and sharing a valid trade-off for the potential harms that long-term mobile phone use could have? How do we decide as a culture where that line is? If it were proved that phones had a detrimental effect to health and wellbeing would society backflip and find an alternative? How long would it take for us to shift the momentum? I wish I had the answers and equally, I hope I never have to.

Inevitably I’ve tried to ask myself – Is CSB a good or a bad thing? Can it even be one or the other? It’s unlikely we’ll ever have the capacity to know. On one side of the argument, the hypothesis for why the human species has been so successful in reproducing and thriving within our environment is its willingness to adapt and the speed at which it can do so in order to survive. It’s also the basis of evolution theory and natural selection. Does this mean that other cultures that are more resistant to adaptation will be lost? For some time it’s been common knowledge in Australia that our indigenous societies have been dying a slow death, its stories and values are dying as generation do the same. Is this cultural evolution theory at work?

It begs the question, is the assumption we currently have of using a biological metric, “greater population = greater success” to judge the ‘progress’ of humanity as relevant to cultural evolution as it is to natural selection?  As the global population nears 7 billion it seems that we’re starting to question it ourselves on a much larger-scale. How can we sustain this growth as a species? Is it time to keep tabs on how much we’re consuming? We’re being urged to think more holistically about our place in the earth’s ecosystem; learning to live with it rather than live on it. Indigenous people the world over share a commonality of respect for their environment and land. There is not a sense of domination and rule in these cultural systems, but a sense of harmony and shared responsibility. The CSB model of growth that underpins our western cultural values seems to emphasise the values of capitalism and ownership rather than the values that have sustained our indigenous people over centuries. For years these indigenous people have lived without such a dramatic impact on the natural world compared to modern western society, even without the tools and techniques we live with today.

Could it be that the rolling snowball of western culture is reaching a critical mass? At what point does it stop being a snowball of progress and become an avalanche? Will western culture simply become too obese to continue moving forward? Will it die early of a heart-attack from an over-indulgence of what was thought to be good for you but turned out to be bad? Like lead in make-up, mercury in top-hats or large quantities of offal and claret before bed.

Being aware of western society’s natural tendancy towards a CSB consumption model can be helpful in providing a frame of reference that will allow us to think creatively like we never have before. I’m certainly not saying we shouldn’t innovate and that we shouldn’t create new cues but the lesson to learn from our own short history is that if we invent something, and give it broad exposure which leads to widespread adoption it is inevitable that it will become part of who we are, it will define our species and the way we live our lives. Perhaps we need to think deeper and harder before we release a cue and saturate ourselves with it so that the base of our ‘progress’ is built from stone and not from sand. We should be asking ourselves, “What will the impact of a new novel idea be if it is a globally accepted norm?” before it becomes one. Being aware of this means we can then ask short-term questions like “Do we really another shower gel?” and answer them with a more holistic approach to addressing the environmental impact of 7 billion people washing litres of shower gel down a drain and in to the ocean per day.

Obviously I’m using extreme examples here and I don’t mean to be cynical nor the preacher of doom and gloom. In fact, like most designers, I’m finding inspiration and motivation from the problem. The values of capitalism are, in some sense, fundamentals of the western culture. These have evolved over countless generations and as such, they prevent a sharp shift in the way our world works; at least within my lifetime. What CSB shows me is that designers are at the coal-face of cues and saturation and we’re working with an audience who, throughout history, has been responsive to change. Along with perhaps science practitioners, we have the potential to change the way we live and work more so than any other profession humans have invented so far. Even with baby steps, we have the ability and the means to help define ourselves as a respectable and sustainable species and we have the added advantage of knowing that it can happen more quickly in western society than any other culture in the world.

 

 

Leave a comment