I’ve never liked the thought of things in life being predetermined. Probably because my predetermined future wouldn’t be all that amazing. I believe the nature versus nurture argument to be over. We are born as tabula rasa (blank slate) and are the sum of our perceptions and experiences. So how have “you” changed in the last 1000 years?
Is There a Real You?
Your sense of self defines who you are. But how much of you really exists and is there a way to, ideologically, “sum up” a person.
The best explanation I have heard so far is by philosopher Julian Baggini. He describes a model of a person being the sum of their:
Memories, Desires, Beliefs, Knowledge & Sensations
Not only do these things describe the sum total of “you” but they also affect each other.
“What we desire is partly a result of what we believe, and what we remember forms what we know.”
What is interesting is that there is no “extra bit,” that makes you special. You are not a central/static “thing” that has experiences, you are the collection of experiences. You aren’t the same person you were five years ago, you aren’t even the same person you were yesterday.
The Central Illusion
Your family unit may have given you a belief system, at set of values which you may have held since you were very young. The experiences in your life may reaffirm them or denounce them and your perception of future events adjusts accordingly. Knowledge / beliefs / experiences, if held long enough, can come to define part of “you”.
So I am not unique? Quite the contrary. The infinite complexity of "you," ie the culmination of experiences that make up "you" would be impossible to define. Baggini describes that if you were to define what is “you,” you would in fact be creating yourself.
Using this model of “self” I will explain the shift in power and control in regards to information.
Demographics is the study of quantitative factors (age, race, sex etc) within a given population. The information is used for a number of reasons including marketing, investment, policy development.
Demographics is a way to categorize the 5 parts of “you,” and group you with others who are similar. Generally speaking people of the same age, race etc, will share beliefs, knowledge, desires and sometimes memories. This means when given the same choice, are large portion of this group would react in the same way.
To explain this further lets look at medieval England (this also works with ancient Egypt and any other top-down power structure).
Here we have a hierarchy. These models are generally shown to explain power, status and control. But lets look at it in terms of the “self”...and then relate it to control.
In terms of values / beliefs, there were provided top-down from the ruling class. The Church would define right and wrong, which would then be enforced downwards by each subsequent class.
Knowledge was privileged, and generally self contained within each section. The ruling class had vast academic knowledge, farmers and craftsmen knew their trade.
Segregation provided a collective set of memories. If you always lived in a castle that would standardize and normalize that environment. Your “self” would make decisions with this as a baseline. You wouldn't think, “am I going to sleep next to the pigs? ” because it wouldn't have ever entered into your mind.
As for desires, these were limited by the individuals capacity and capability. Kings may desire to invade another country, peasants would desire to eat that night.
This model provides a stable class system that allows a small minority to rule because they could predict how each class would react to their decisions. Sound familiar?
Although a lot of these mechanism are still in play there is one major thing that has changed since that time: the distribution of information. I’ll skip over historical changes - printing press, mass transportation & migration, wired communication, globalization and wireless communication. What we have now is integrated social communication on a global scale, which looks like this:
I would love to relate this to unicellular organisms but I don’t have space. This is actually a visualization of the Internet by the Opte Project.
Information is now transmitted in an Eco-system that is no longer enforced through a class system. Similar to Memetic theory, but on a much larger scale than ever seen before, ideas go through a kind of “natural selection.” If a large enough portion of users agree or share an affinity with an idea they will share it / comment etc. This gives the idea life and the idea becomes self-propagating.
If we once again relate this to our definition of self (that which we experience and perceive defines who we are) then the traditional categories of a demographic become almost redundant. Our experiences are less uniform across say financial income. People with less money can share values with those with more and visa versa.
Many companies are just coming to grips with two way communication with their consumers. This type of information distribution has huge effects on brand perception, corporate accountability, user engagement etc. Companies have even less control over their brands than ever before.
Defining consumers with quantitative information will always have its place (until we all upload our brains to the internet). But recognizing and more importantly understanding this monumental paradigm shift is key to creating and maintaining a successful company. The best brands in the world sell values, not products. Why you do something is just as important as what you do. The people who engage with your company must voluntarily align themselves to your values and in-tern your values will come to partly define them.