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In the book Zero to One, Peter Thiel notes that a large segment of society has stopped looking for secrets in relation to new technology. People think all the hard problems have been solved, and what remains is either easy to do or a mystery and impossible to know. The book is very insightful in other respects as well. What struck me as an artist who uses very old technology (painting with pigmented oils) is that the mysteries artists discover have nothing to do with technical secrets. Scientists look for the undiscovered technologies. Artists, on the other hand, manifest mysteries with mundane means on everyday walls.

Both are valid, and both can be used to drive commerce. In today’s world where we are drowning in gadgets, it’s time to explore how art can be used to bring forth an alternate and more humane economy.

Technical consumerism is choking our planet. Clearly there is a thirst for progress out there. While a small segment of innovators is looking for discoveries, the rest of the population is looking to compete over the production and consumption of commoditized technologies. We gloat in the benefits of yesterday’s stellar innovations having been made available to us at ever cheaper prices. At the same time our actions are diminishing the biodiversity of life on a finite planet. The producers don’t tell us about this hidden cost. That job is left to the activists who raise awareness and prick our consciences. If we can’t channel this demand elsewhere, we risk being awash in real garbage as we enjoy virtual worlds.

The problem is not with the innovators or activists. The problem is with producers and consumers, who have a tight inter-dependence. Lust for products is generated by the producer’s marketers and advertisers. This message is then internalized and expressed by consumers. Like members of a bizarre cult, after a while we can’t let go of our consumerism because doing so would invalidate our beliefs, practices and past choices. It’s a sick symbiosis, but let’s be clear the problem lies squarely with the consumer addiction that is fueled by the product mythologies. Myths of personal productivity, of connectedness, of sharing images, of fast shopping and shipping, etc.

The key to change is therefore breaking the addiction on the consumer side, possibly by replacing the mythologies and their perceived benefits. We can, for example, have anti-consumerist stories put the old behaviors in a negative light, while at the same time not detracting from the innovators who can provide technologies to overcome our current pollution problems. Technology is not the enemy: the wrong version of consumerism is our collective mad obsession, and to change we need new world view stories.

We can imagine a world where consumers skip a few generations of innovations, much like some developing countries leap frog technical adoption that the West leveraged. This is a multi-facetted problem to solve, but there may be a glimmer of an answer in art, which can play two roles: a) helping to change the mythology of consumerism by providing a vehicle for new desired content, and b) by becoming a new target of consumption.

Why would art become something to lust after by the change-hungry tech crowd? This is just a hunch, but there is a link between consumerism and discovery. Tech junkies are thrilled when we can have the latest the latest technology. Remember when touch screens came out, and what an amazing experience it was to have the physical buttons replaced with screens that can change? Many of us who thirst for progress felt compelled to upgrade. That thirst has not abated, and the tease of ever bigger screens and thinner phones and tablets has us on a consumer craze that is fueling an unprecedented rate of exchange for gadgets.

Today, we don’t look at the phone the way grandma looked at the Maytag washer in the past, i.e. as a reliable machine that would do its job well for many years with little to no maintenance. To sell product, technology companies have convinced us that what counts for ‘doing the job well’ changes every six months, and that therefore our relatively recent purchases need to be upgraded frequently. Heck, recent advertising suggests you can just upgrade for next to nothing, so why not do it, regardless of the state of your old phone. This is not a sustainable mindset; but it is the current madness of the masses.

One of the biggest ironies of social media today is that people have to be focused on a gadget – their computer, phone or tablet – in order to share about themselves with others. There’s an illusion of connectedness that, if we are honest, is strangely not deeply satisfying. This was highlighted recently with Facebook’s mass production of image timelines for a person’s year, as if the machine could determine what defines you in the year by what you post online. We all adopt certain personas online. To have the system provide you with a digest of your online persona for your approval so you can share it with the world is really an inversion. The machine is now defining the person, and consumers obediently share out of a misplace sense of duty to false connectedness.

This cult of technology is dehumanizing producers as well as consumers. With the race to the bottom on price comes the inescapable logic that the production systems and cloud infrastructure should standardize. While the customers should have ‘choice’, the product companies have to streamline, and that means fewer choices for the producers. Deviation from simple, repeatable automation on standard equipment works against the bottom line. People who have to deal with exceptions in the standard process are expensive. So end-to-end processes are being designed to leave the human out of the production as much as possible. Ostensibly this frees key people to focus on strategy and direction. Ultimately, the number of people required for the new roles is much smaller, and layoffs ensue when standard automation is fully realized.

So we have the paradox of choice – increasing the choices to consumers necessarily means reducing choices on production. Get more people to buy more things produced by less and less people. In fact the two forces are linked – standardization on production means that more and more competing companies will end up having different flavors of the same essential product. How does the human benefit from this craziness? We don’t. We get absorbed in the incremental consumerism where we obsess over micro-differences in products and constantly upgrade to get the next version to compare and show off.  Or, if we are on the producer side of things, people experience becoming as fungible as the machines in the cloud data centers that can be swapped out at a moment’s notice. ‘Progress’ has hijacked humanity.

Therefore we have to slow down on the consumerism, and at the same time decouple innovation from that cycle so that scientists can work on unlocking secrets of the universe that will benefit humanity. Art can play a partial role here, I would like to argue, in diverting the consumer thirst for innovation away from the production of commodity gadgets to a discovery of mysteries through art. Not that art is the superhero to save the planet, but there is a dynamic of attention incited by artistic discovery to be valued here. And it’s not technical discovery. Let me explain.

The core of consumerism is a lust for the new. Modern art capitalized on this and accepted formal changes in how art was rendered as innovation, and connoisseurs lapped it up like iPad junkies on a new release. Yet there is another segment of artists who don’t look to formal innovation as the measure of the works. These traditional artists don’t understand the madness of the modern art scene because they view art through a content lens, not a technical one. Perhaps this explains the modern art craze that drives up bidding on dumb empty works: the buyers are seeing art innovation as a kind of technical innovation, and that is valued for its own sake.

Regardless, artists should apply the mastery of old techniques in the services of new images that convey values that are relevant to the day. So it’s not about technology; it’s about content. With art, the technology and content must support each other, as expressive use of the medium is integral to the impact of the work. Formal expression can’t be an end in itself, however, even in the pursuit of ‘sacred’ content. If the expressive execution precludes or overwhelms the users’ ability to connect with the subject matter, we haven’t achieved our ends.

What is this desirable content that will seduce consumers? I can envision two levels: a) a lively community discussion about shared values, and b) the rendering of mystery. Of course, these can be complimentary efforts and one work can even manifest both. The consumer’s role is unpacking the nuances of mysteries rendered in art, mysteries which touch on the shared values being targeted by the community. To achieve this, we have to learn to look, not for features, but for meaning. In a very tangible sense, an artist can render her response to mystery for you to contemplate, to consume, internalize and respond to. The role of producers as advertisers is replaced by the community as advertisers of values, which generates the desire for works. This is a good consumerism that is not an opportunity cost to a viable planetary ecosystem.

How can this work? As I’ve written elsewhere on community mythology, a creative lifecycle or season of embellishment can be chartered by a given town or region for the express purpose fostering the production of art aligned around certain themes.

Care must be taken to value high quality, so we’re not talking about newfangled consumerism of large quantities of low quality works. This raises the question of the market: where will the purchasing power come from if not from the production of technologies. The simple answer lies in reverting back to old models for local economies. Much has been written about this in the Transition and other movements, and I won’t cover that here.

Let’s also keep in mind that mythologies that stick with people generate economy. We have only to look at Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, superhero movies, etc. to know that these shared stories can take a life of their own, with very passionate participants. All this hunger for stories and artifacts is a proven driver of commerce.

Art can help us reclaim our humanity from the sea of technology. As we find our dignity as beings, we will hunger for true connection with others. For the cycle to be complete, art should focus on the shared values the local community holds scared. Only then can we have a deep and meaningful conversation that elevates our existence and frees us from reducing the planet’s resource stock even as we pile up used tablets and phones.

— Roy Zuniga
Dec. 2014
Kirkland, WA

copyright (c) 2014 Roy Zuniga