Digital technology has enabled a world where everything can – and probably will – be personalised. It’s a departure from the 20th-century mass society. We’ve entered the age of personalisation. There is a lot of value in products, services, and experiences that are tailored exactly to our personal preferences. The downside is that we’re no longer living in a single, shared reality. Instead, our reality is subject to personalisation as well.
We’re living in Parallelwelten of our own making. That was the theme of our 2019 edition of NEXT Conference, the last of the pre-Covid age, and the title of a book we published the same year. A mere two years and a pandemic later, the trends we discussed back then have only accelerated. Every experience that went digital over the course of the last 18 months has at least some degree of personalisation. The post-Covid age will be more personalised, not less.
20th-century mass society was the result of industrial-scale, mass production, mass marketing, mass communication and mass media. That way, workers could afford more and more of the stuff they produced, thus fueling demand and creating economies of scale. To make things cheap, they needed to be more or less identical. A car could be any colour, so long as it was black, to paraphrase Henry Ford.
Over time, more choice became possible, leading us to the brink of our age of personalisation. Only digital technology, algorithms and, of course, the amount of data it comes with pushed us over the edge. David Mattin has spelt out the consequences of this shift. Spoiler:
“The next filter bubble is a reality filter bubble.”
Atomisation and social isolation
Virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and their siblings, as well as the emerging metaverse, will move the issue on by leaps and bounds. This may sound dramatic, but the first question is: Where is the problem in this? Sure, 20th-century mass institutions, including democracy, are under pressure. Presumably, we should democratise the digital world, and it’s time for tech regulation.
But there’s another issue that Timandra Harkness will talk about at this month’s Limited Edition of our NEXT Conference: the atomisation and social isolation of individuals, despite their digital connections. The age of personalisation will further exacerbate this issue. Once we live in our own world, our own version of reality, how can we connect to others?
Join us in September!
On September 24, 2021 NEXT invites you to the first conference in two years: The NEXT Conference Limited Edition! Let’s take a look into the future: How will new technologies, markets and people’s behaviour evolve in the post-pandemic era? Our digital festival will be celebrated via livestream from Hamburg’s Schmidts Tivoli theatre on the world-famous Reeperbahn – with keynotes, discussions and music.
Now, atomisation and social isolation have been motifs of sociological analysis since the early days of sociology itself. It is a feature of modernity to liberate individuals from traditional bonds. Inevitably, this comes at the risk of atomisation and isolation. Since the 1980s, sociologists like Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens have introduced the concept of reflexive modernity, i.e. modernisation that is applied to modernity itself.
By the time every traditional bond is eliminated, new bonds have formed. That’s because to exist, every society needs a certain amount of social coherence. The progress of modernisation then goes on to eliminate even these bonds, to the detriment of existing modern societies. So how can those modern societies maintain the social coherence they need?
Networks of communication
At this point, systems theory comes to our rescue. It views societies as autopoietic systems: systems that reproduce themselves. Now, does this mean nothing can go wrong? Of course not. Individuals can still be atomised and isolated, despite all the efforts towards a more inclusive society. But societies, as social systems, are networks of communication between people, and this leads to some amount of coherence and social integration.
Work, for example, is an important mode of integration. In Germany, the employment rate is only slightly below its all-time high. In our Covid-times, however, work has been virtualised, with workers isolated in their remote work set-ups. Work at home, or work anywhere, is more personalised than work at the office. Liberated from the bonds of commuting, workers now find themselves home alone. But this situation creates new demand for communication, both virtual and physical. It’s an opportunity.
Communities have an inherent tendency towards a hybrid manifestation of themselves. There’s almost always a desire to meet in person, at least from time to time, if you’re digitally connected. And there’s a need to communicate virtually whenever you can’t meet personally. Virtual communities fuel in-person meetings, and vice versa. The pandemic has tilted the balance in favour of virtual gatherings, but we can expect the pendulum to swing back in the years ahead.
Communities in the age of personalisation
In the age of personalisation, these communities will be more personalised as well, and they already are. The internet is a powerful tool to find like-minded people and connect to them. Technologies and platforms like VR/AR or the metaverse will only facilitate this. We are constructing and expressing our virtual identities, which are then feeding back into physical space and time.
It will be interesting to watch how all these different communities connect and interact. Demoratic elections, like the one we’ll have in Germany this month, are powerful tools of political integration. The last federal election in 2017 saw a voter turnout of 76.2%, which is quite high for 21st-century standards. The parliament mirrors the diversity of the German society, which makes it hard to find the majority of votes needed to elect the Chancellor and form a government.
However, we can be sure that eventually a majority will be forged, the successor of Angela Merkel will be elected, and a new government installed. It might take some months as it did after the 2017 election. But even in the age of personalisation, a parliament can’t be fully accommodating to individual taste.