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Congealed Capitalism

it's not about the power laces

more of the same: why can't we make the stuff that matters?

That butterfly inducing, look at your friend and mouth ‘no way’ moment: Marty McFly, sitting in the Delorian, puts on his Nike Air Mag 2015 boots and the shoes do themselves up with a vacuum-like clip and woosh. No laces. No velcro. Just future.

After Back to the Future II came out, young minds pulsed with dreams of power laces and hoverboards and other upgraded accoutrements of cool to come. Today, our former selves, who once pined for that distant nirvana, should be puffed up like proud Michael J Fox robins. We’ve made it. Delivering techno-trinkets and imbuing ravenous vassals with warm fuzzies about the future has arguably become one of our economy’s best honed skills. Commercial spaceflight, phone watches, burrito drones, smart cities. All within reach. Let the good times roll.

But these days the saccharine rewards of our gilded consumer industries are at best just a quick hedonic bump. Because for most people living in advanced economies, it’s backs against the wall time: a never ending trek through a shiny consumer wasteland pocked with the brutal realities of prosperity being peeled back.

Take your pick from an assortment of ugly themes that have taken up permanent residence in advanced nations. Steepling inequality; markets addicted to vaporous Central Bank highs; foodbanks as a fixture; more franken-weather met with less legislation; underemployment becoming the norm and employment creation relegated to the most insecure, transient and soon-to-be-mechanised recesses of what was formerly known as the jobs market. And, like a boomer’s life expectancy, the bucketlist keeps getting longer.And in amongst the gloom, the world’s most valuable company birthed two new iPhones. Of course, the increments in improvement, befitting the product cycle preferred of electronics behemoths, provoked great debate. Digital tertulia throbbed with the gamut of frustrated catcalling at this lack of leap; grown men and women poured out very serious inquiries into demise or delivery in the post-Jobs era; once august titles groaned with wall-to-wall coverage, each linkbaited piece of churnalism snuffing out the embers of a 4th estate that once was; and, oh, how we chortled at the neo-medieval test of stamina of those fools waiting in line for days on end to secure their champagne-coloured excaliber. A familiar script, faultlessly adhered to. Bravi!

But maybe as the distractions of the de rigeur hypefest begin to subside, we should stop, in light of our predicament, and reflect for a little on what just happened. For perhaps the wall of noise at new found shortcomings and legions of acolytes literally sleeping outside of the temples were proxies for something deeper. Were these scrawled protests and supplicant displays of devotion not actually oblique cries for help, scared acolytes asking their oracle why today’s economy, that does assorted trinkets with such dextrous aplomb (trinkets that end up at the back of a desk drawer somewhere), comes up so woefully short at creating the stuff that matters. Now sure, I’m publishing this on an internet connected laptop, not sending it by microtask equerry on a steamer to the guy I bought my server space from in Australia. It all works more than fine and I like it. But maybe the question we shouldn’t be afraid of asking is: why is it that our most storied company, that has more cash to flaunt than an Eaton Square domiciled mini-boligarch at freshers week, has got next to no motivation to tackle the big, hairy, terrifying challenges of our times?

Well, like their peers, they will tell you that they are legally obligated to carry out a job. And unfortunately for you, that doesn’t include tackling the insurmountables. But could they not, in their idiosyncratic fashion that has seen them sweep all before them, slay these 21st century giant evils that are holding us back? Settle down you ingrate, after all we have done for you! Well, precisely. That is the point. Are we seriously saying that those who have done so much, can now offer us so little? And if so, why are they still top of the tree?

Sadly, the stultifying effects of excess coagulation that has become a feature of today’s weirded out capitalism has congealed further progress for our one time heros, robbing them of the creative oxygen that once made them thrive with, and for, us. These days hoards of lobbyists; hyper financialization;  the dogged pursuit of the efficient; liquidation of the good stuff (like, I dunno, craft, happy employees, human beings) for balance sheet bumps; a hygiene-at-most approach to negative impacts at home and in far away lands – and more – have left us primed for a shot at power laces by 2015 if we are lucky (fingers crossed!). But not much else. And because we have become so good at this our economies and us are at a standstill, bystanders to the descent, waiting for our summons. And the only plan, surprise, surprise, is to continue with what we have got. Truly heart stopping stuff.

So where to next? Well perhaps a good place to start would be at home. For, as with most of the new disposable consumer staples (which includes stuff we ingest), electro-devices dark sides’ are laquered with all but the thinnest of veneers of responsibility. From  minerals sourcing that contributes to conflict and/or serious environmental degradation, neo-dickensian labour practices, perfectly legal and compliant tax setups, to warranty voiding, hands-off edicts on repair and share buyback schemes that all but admit defeat, it is a humiliating but familiar charge sheet for such hallowed greats to be tarnished with. But this, my friends, is the competitive edge of the 21st century! The thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way. And, just maybe, in getting to grips with some of these miserable blind spots, these one-time titans can uncover new ways of doing things that help them to jettison their torpor-inducing legacies and reclaim their relevance.

A while back I had a go at proposing that Apple should do an elBulli: follow in the footsteps of the creative whirlwind that is Ferran Àdria and shut up shop at the top of their game, never sell another phone and do something mind bendingly-stupendous with all the intangible greatness that they have accrued over the years. I’ve also talked about a setting up a roving happiness footprint hub – a one-off blitz of global brainpower that unites the world around designing the bads out of the sad stuff we are surrounded with and ramming it to the gills with goods before moving on to the next misery filled trinket. These micro-ideas were just basic provocations. But out there, disruptors and upsetters, connected to a new heart of a human economy that isn’t backed up with failed stents and other corporatist detritus, have been working on the next story IRL.

restart_log_trans

The Restart Project, a repair community, are challenging the orthodoxy of electronics obsolescence by empowering people to break into their hermetically sealed stuff and actually take ownership of it by fixing it, hacking and modding it (as they will shortly be doing at MozFest), extending it’s life and saving it from  the e-waste pyre. Their network of repairers help you pick up the skills you need to change your relationship with your stuff, challenging the disposable hyperconsumption as default culture that we seem to have fallen for.

fairphone logo trans

Fairphone is a smartphone that is taking on the misery footprint of the device in everyone’s pocket with an honesty and élan that is non-existent in the humdrum drudgery of mobile phone land. The inspiring story of the Fairphone journey and the clear demand for a less miserable product (15782 handsets sold and counting) are surely a bellwether of things to come. It makes you wonder why everything isn’t made  this way. Seriously, why not?

logo_neg@2

Provenance is an open data platform designed to harnesses technology to help stuff made with love, care and principles turn the tables on anonymous, unthinking consumption and it’s dark underbelly. The platform gives products unique ids – digital footprints – that hold a compressed amount of information about where it is from and how it was made. The enhanced transparency supports creators with stories to tell, helping them get their message out there while at the same time making us stop to consider why information might be withheld.

Now these 3 may not be about to single handledly fix the big hairy terrifying challenges on their own. But, they are part of a human economy that is coalescing around the sclerotic death throes of a type of consumption that is wholly unfit for purpose in the 21st century. And they are creating a new story for us to believe in.
And when joined by the many others out there taking on other industries with similar sparkle, alternatives begin to proliferate en masse and a renewed economy does emerge that shows up the lack of dynamism, the surfeit of cruelty and the power laces panis e circenses we’ve been duped with for too long. Far from this being a fringe activity, this change of direction is reshaping the world. For as claims on a good life are increasing, do you really think that people in even more institutionally deficient countries than your own are going to put up with more immiserating stuff and it’s prosperity blocking systems, built to extract? Or, do they, like you, want to be given access to tools to create an enduring type of prosperity and use new found economic dynamism to build just, empowering and strong societies?  It is not hard to join the dots.

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