Welcome to New World Same Humans, a weekly newsletter on trends, technology, and society by David Mattin.
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This newsletter is underpinned by a model of historical change. In short: new technologies collide with universal, and fundamentally stable, human needs. The results are emergent behaviours, attitudes, and modes of life.
The human needs I’m talking about are foundational; think security, convenience, and social connection. But when it comes to our shared future inside modernity, there’s one need that it always pays to remember: status.
All this came to mind this week. News arrived that Jeff Bezos is stepping down as CEO of Amazon, in part to focus on his space startup Blue Origin. The competition between Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX is set to intensify, and it’s hard not to see, in all this, a particular kind of supercharged, Billionaire vs Billionaire status race. Bezos and Musk both want to be the 21st-century titan remembered for securing our off-Earth existence. There can be only one.
All this might sound cynical. But I don’t mean to accuse Bezos or Musk of superficiality. The impulse towards status is about far more than simple showing off, or naked self-advancement – though they are real human impulses, too. Rather, it’s rooted deep in our shared nature, and is at heart about the need to be seen, to be recognised, by the collective. Hegel believed that this kind of recognition plays a vital role in the process via which each of us constitutes our sense of self; that none of us can really be a person at all without the recognition of others.
Most of us aren’t about to send a rocket into space. But we’re all, in our own ways, questing for status. What’s more, inside advanced consumerism that quest can explain much behaviour that seems strange, chaotic, or even self-defeating.
In the 2020s, emerging technologies will unlock new ways to serve this deep human need. As it always has, the status race will mutate, taking forms that are new and – from our vantage point now – strange.
If we want a glimpse of our shared future, we should seek to understand these changes. So this week, reflections on the past, present, and future of the eternal human quest for status.
Status behaviours are a human universal, with their origins deep in our evolutionary past. Eurasian burial sites over 30,000 years old indicate that Paleolithic hunter gatherers lived inside layered status hierarchies. In 21st-century advanced consumerism, though, our status behaviours have evolved in ways those ancestors could never have imagined. Where are we now?
🔺 Beyond Maslow
How can we conceptualise status seeking inside advanced consumerism? Outside academia, US psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is still influential. According to Maslow’s famous pyramid, people turn to self-actualization – which includes status seeking – only once their material needs are met. Today, few psychologists have time for Maslow; his model makes a certain kind of intuitive sense, but the truth is that it never matched what we see in the world. People don’t wait until their material needs are met and only then address higher order needs; medieval peasants who lived with the threat of starvation sought transcendence via their religious belief just as fervently as rich 21st-century transhumanists do via theirs. Behaviours founded in higher-order needs, including status, are strange, complex, and always present: woven through the fabric of human life.
🎭 The Status Extravaganza
But collective affluence does change the ways in which the status impulse manifests. First, status and consumption become intertwined. The Maslow explanation: we lucky, rich consumers have climbed the ladder of human needs all the way to the top. But really, the primacy of status seeking in modern consumerism is more to do with the way we’ve perfected the manufacture of everyday objects, commoditising everything from cars, to shoes, to phones. Once consumers know that any version of a product they choose will be highly functional, they’re free to pick on the basis of higher-order concerns such ethics, aesthetics, or status. In 2021, the consumer society has become an orgiastic pageant of status accrual and display, in which a billion and more sovereign individuals use purchasing decisions to construct and livestream their own story of selfhood. This is who I am; this is what makes me special.
😇 The Status Race Dematerialises
The second big status shift inside advanced consumerism is one away from physical products and towards experiences and personal virtues. Sure, big houses, sports cars, and fancy trainers continue to be a status play. But as the collective becomes more affluent, and more people gain access to these things, their status power wanes. In an attempt to differentiate themselves from their peers, consumers shift their attention towards unique experiences, or ever-more baroque forms of self-actualisation. See the Silicon Valley billionaires who are all: I rise each morning at 5am and walk barefoot in the snow, just like the Stoics of ancient Greece. Social media has amplified this shift by transforming personal experience into a highly shareable digital currency. Scroll Instagram, and you’re looking at one of history’s great testaments to the human impulse towards status.
In 2021 inhabitants of the Global North live inside an all-encompassing system of technoconsumerism. Behaviours inside that system are often fuelled by the impulse towards status. So one powerful question: how are status behaviours set to evolve in the decades ahead? Three dimensions:
🧬 An Upgrade is Available
Affluence and social media sent consumers on a status-fuelled quest to be more: smarter, faster, healthier, more cultured. The next evolution? In the decades ahead they’ll turn to new technologies from the life sciences to supercharge that quest. Want to be smarter? Wakefulness drug Modafinil produces measurable improvements in fluid intelligence. Meanwhile, new genetic technologies, including CRISPR gene editing, raise the spectre of genetic upgrades: in 2018 Chinese scientist Professor He Jiankui claimed to have created the world’s first gene-edited babies (he was later jailed for this work). These technologies present the risk of a new and highly divisive status race. Liberal democracies may outlaw these techniques, but can they outlaw ‘upgrade tourism’? The endgame here? A species divided between upgraded humans and the rest. Oh, and the end endgame? Status as immortality, via biological or technological interventions that allow an elite cadre of people to live forever.
🏃 Rush to the Exit
To live inside 21st-century consumerism is to be enmeshed in structures – energy sources, supply chains, manufacturing processes – that are damaging the planet and other people. For many, that’s a source of rising unease. What’s more, among some that unease has become a badge of enlightenment. The ultimate luxury in the decades ahead, then? For some it will be about finding the door marked Exit. That is, finding a way out of the labyrinth that is advanced consumerism and the moral compromises that come along with it. As with all status stories, this is a new twist on an old tale: think 1960s hippies dropping out to raise goats on a commune. In the 2020s, we’ll see new forms of search for the Exit. The Silicon Valley coder who pursues FIRE and then builds her own log cabin. The Oxbridge graduate who eschews the corporate world for life as an independent creator. The startup founder who creates a communally owned decentralised network instead of a corporation. They’re all searching for a form of Exit, and for a revised vision what high status can be.
💥 The Final Status Frontier
A huge shift is underway when it comes to the underlying context here. Virtual worlds – think video games, AR, VR – are transcending their origins as spaces in which people seek information or entertainment, and becoming domains of meaningful human experience. During the pandemic, we saw millions seek social connection inside the Nintendo video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Brands were quick to see the opportunity; fashion label Marc Jacobs, for example, created virtual outfits for Animal Crossing avatars. In that is a glimpse of the huge story that lies ahead: virtual worlds will become new spaces of consumer behaviour, and that means new spaces of status seeking. As virtual worlds become more immersive and compelling – and become accessible to billions – the evolution of status inside metaversal worlds will be one of the great consumer stories of the 21st-century. Unbounded by any material constraints, we’ll see consumers develop new forms of status accrual and display that we can’t yet even imagine.
To infinity and beyond
Thanks for reading this week.
The 21st-century status race will continue to evolve around us in the years ahead. It’s the stuff this newsletter was made for: an age-old human story in collision with a hyper-technological world. I only wish I could travel forwards to 2121 and see how it has all played out.
In the absence of time travel, though, New World Same Humans will be watching every step of the way, for as long as humanly possible.
And right now, there’s one thing you can do to help our collective project: share!
Remember, our community becomes more useful to each of us as it becomes larger and more diverse. So if you know someone – a friend, relative, or colleague – who’d make a great addition, why not forward this email and encourage them to sign up? Or share New World Same Humans across your social networks with a note on what makes it valuable.
Remember, reading NWSH is the ultimate status play. I’ll be back on Wednesday. Until then, be well,
David Mattin is the founder of the Strategy and Futures Research Unit. He sits on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Consumption.