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Students and tech gazillionaires alike are tuning out and checking out.
By Paul A. Laudicina
I don’t want to get too nostalgic for earlier Golden Ages that never really existed, but we used to have much more of a common culture than we have today.
In part, this was due to a limited number of choices (I can recall growing up with just three television channels!), forcing everybody to watch the same evening newscasts and read Time or Life (or the equivalent in other countries). Similarly, without the technological enablement (and imperilment) that we face today, the pace of life was slower and people had the time to engage in more face-to-face contact, and to participate in local city and community institutions. While there were clear drawbacks to the less technologically advanced life, an important consequence of limited options meant that people had to engage with and accommodate neighbors and fellow citizens who had other personal interests and different political and religious views.
Today, by contrast, you can completely tune out of your local reality, and absorb yourself in one or two narrow interests you pursue exclusively by way of your broadband connection and the security of your private cocoon. Sophisticated marketers are increasingly adept at using social-networking tools to segment small groups into extreme versions of Edmund Burke’s little platoons—but without the broader societal connectivity that he postulated. Burke wrote in 1790, “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections.”
In a certain sense, the modem process of psychographic segmentation is a natural extension of this idea. In psychographic segmentation, data on groups is taken beyond the standard measures of demographics, geography, or income, to encompass characteristics such as lifestyle, personality, social class, and AIO to understand potential influences on purchasing behavior. More recently, companies have developed psychographic algorithms that can be used by companies with significant amounts of data and powerful processors to predict and encourage buying decisions, as Google does by displaying advertisements of potentially attractive products based on your Internet surfing history.
While it’s very convenient to have Google constantly suggest to you products that are related to your recent purchases, or news topics that are somehow linked to your last few searches, there is also something strikingly limiting in this constant narrowing of circles. An even newer development is to have products pushed to you that have been purchased or highly rated by friends or role models in your social network, encouraging you and your associates to purchase goods that appeal to you and your peers reinforced by receipt of the same news and opinions.
Isn’t it rather ironic that, in the development of social networking, a technology originally designed to increase personal connectivity and broaden experiences and inputs, could ultimately end up reducing both? The problem is not the technology itself, or the ability to reach broader groups, but that the application has been to increase connections, often at the expense of relationships. A friend on Facebook or a connection on LinkedIn can be a net positive, and I’m not advocating against either, but these transactional links are too often viewed as substitutes for real relationships based on shared experience and mutual values.
I remember hearing Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg in Davos assert that social networking opens up new possibilities for those reaching beyond their normal constrained personal networks to engage their electronic friends of friends, in Facebook parlance. She recounted, for example, how couples who have been unable to adopt a child through normal channels report having had their dreams fulfilled by extending their reach to a larger, electronically enabled group of friends who share enough interest and affinity to help. Picture the headline: “Friends of Friends Helped Us Adopt Our Child.”
But again, for many people, the accumulation of connections bears little resemblance to the development of true relationships. And this is in no way limited to the personal realm—in fact, businesses may be greater offenders. One has only to look at the cultural evolution within investment bank Goldman Sachs during its period of breakneck growth. An institution once known for its collegial team culture and overriding emphasis on long-term client relationships has been criticized as an increasingly transaction-minded firm. As the world came to know from Greg Smith’s now-famous New York Times op-ed “Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs,” some employees derisively called their clients “muppets.”
On that note, sometimes an opulent new headquarters signals a shift in corporate culture, or even a peak: Goldman, which was previously content to base itself in an unexceptional precast concrete office tower in lower Manhattan’s Broad Street for decades, moved, in 2009, to a purpose-built new head office designed by star architects Pei Cobb Freed. According to architectural critic Paul Goldberger, it’s a sleek, forty-three-story ‘‘understated palazzo.” Whether it will ultimately be seen as an iconic headquarters symbolizing the strength and creativity of the firm that built it, or as a white elephant conceived and planned during the tail end of the 2000s boom, we’ll have to wait and see. Also, Facebook has officially settled into its headquarters campus in Menlo Park, Calif., with the address of 1 Hacker Way. It’s also worth taking a look at, if only to catch a whiff of Silicon Valley success circa 2012.