Over the summer I had many discussions with people about how new technology has changed their lives—both for the positive and the negative. Many shared how smartphones allow them to multi-task when standing in lines as they respond to email or as they are on hold waiting to speak to customer service. Others spoke of how they have access to information that is up to date on matters of health, taxes and investments without having to go to the local library as was often the case pre-internet. Overall, most were impacted by the way that e-mail allows them to communicate with everyone without having to queue at the post office much less without the need to print out letters on printers. However, many people mentioned that their culture had changed negatively in reaction to new technology: “Everyone is always looking at their mobiles,” said one and another added, “It is almost easier to write someone an SMS while standing next to them.” All, however, felt that technology was not at all linked to culture and that it was something external to culture.
So, I would ask everyone why they thought culture was somehow separate from technology since it seems to me that we can no longer make this bifurcation as technology not only informs culture, but culture is also reactive to new technology. Both culture and new tech change in response to each other. Moreover, culture has always been as much a marketing creation over the past century as it has been an autochthonous element of historical precedent. Can we make the claim that Coca-Cola is not cultural simply because it was originally a marketing creation? How can we claim that chatbots or social media are not cultural simply because they are originally products of technology?
Indeed, scholars like Ashis Nandy of India have been asking these sorts of questions for decades as he has queried the link between science and state reason. Similarly, French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy examines the link between cultural constructions of “catastrophe” and technology. We already know that culture is a product of various forces, so why not can we not accept that perhaps our culture might very well be the end result of engineering in the form of marketing? Certainly, after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, we should not only be firmly aware of this fact but we ought to be more conscious as to how we interact with marketing, not necessarily embracing it full-on nor outright rejecting these messages as entirely suspicious. Perhaps internet marketing is yet another chapter in our cultural trajectory towards being exposed to new ideas and technologies through more direct, if not aggressive, approaches?
Victor Smushkevich, CEO of Los Angeles based internet marketing agency, Smart Street Media, tells me the strategy of marketing his company employs is not about selling a product specifically: “The goal of our brand is not to sell a product or a company, but instead we aim to sell cultural change. In so doing we force the individual user to contemplate their relation to new technology—from how often and when they use technology to how this tech can positively affect their lives.” Smushkevich goes on to tell me that by focussing on web content his company is necessarily adding to the larger cultural discussion which themselves are a part of culture. “You can’t divorce online content from society,” he tells me, “The internet is here to stay and it serves as one vast expanse of information—spanning the range of online, immediate information and news to online graffiti. This is what culture is.”
Just as we have historically framed cultural value within advertising through accolades such as the Clio Awards, we have similarly come to embrace both the Webby Awards and Business Globe Awards for innovations with their respective fields linking business and advertising innovation to our cultural fabric. Why would advertising Man Men-style be any more relevant to culture than the tackiest of pop-up adverts or marketing layouts? Certainly, we are living the moment where the medium is not only the message, but the medium is most definitely a primary cog in our culture.
As marketing is often being deputized to media influencers today bringing the cultural relevance of materials and services towards a digital anonymity of branding, we are living in a material landscape where the individual spokesperson—neither a retired football star nor a supermodel—is flung into social media “stardom” all for representing the alleged “real face” of a brand. Where authenticity used to mean the elusive symbol of power was something that everyone would aspire to be (and hence purchase), today the symbols of desire and power are more often than not the unknown individual who is able to spread the word via blog, photos and social media posts online. These recent trends in new tech and social media reveal a cultural undertow whereby it no longer desirable to represent what people want to become but rather new technology is selling us the image of who we might already be.