Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (wake up, the voice calls us)

Digital services that are too easy and tailored liquidate difference; the constant flow of products liquidates our cycles. A provocation to rethink our rythms, the way we build products and the way we consume them. This is NOT a piece about filter bubbles (oh, please!). It goes well beyond that.

Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (wake up, the voice calls us)

I wrote not too long ago about how the lack of frictions in the way we consume products and services, brought about by such inventions as the subscription model, might not be too good in some respects regarding how we enjoy the product in question. I want to expand a bit in parallel, overlapping territories to that idea.

This is a short article about making things that matter in a way that matters. This is a piece against the constant flow of everything, or at least in favour of reflecting about the constant flow of everything. It comes from a series of thoughts that crossed my mind in both recent and what now seem to be ancient times. A little over two years ago (the pleistocene more or less, in digital terms) I thought that Gmail text prediction would contribute to the normalization of expression (which to me is a pretty bad thing to occur). Some weeks ago I was just observing nature passing by on the road (not driving) and thought that nature has cycles of pause, whereas the modern, global market has no pause. Three years ago I started forming the idea that the use of data analytics and machine learning to customize digital products to the users tastes and habits ("customer knowledge", in corporate speak) contained a balance that would be delicate to achieve: removing unnecessary steps or improving the usability of things is surely a good thing to do, but removing all meaningful friction is another way of normalization, paradoxically, since personalization should be quite the contrary; a normalization of products to one self: products different to each other when compared among themselves with each product as the reference point, e.g., your Spotify experience is different to mine, but products that all look the same when using the person as the reference point. E.g., the music that I like and the movies that I like and the food that I like are flattened into digital experiences that all look and feel too much the same when they are too tailored for me. All those thoughts came together with a trigger: Johann Sebastian Bach.

Yesterday I listened to one of his cantatas, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140. Did a little research on it, found that he wrote it for a special occasion. It's a magnificent piece where the mathematics of his composition yield the purest, deepest, strongest emotions. If anyone needs an example of emotion stemming from a very rational  intervention, look no further. More on the cantata later, but first let me use this excuse to place a performance of the cantata here for you to enjoy, if you wish (for some reason I can't make the video work in mobile, look for it in this Youtube link if the embed is not working)

Es hermosa. I suggest that you listen at least for the first movement (the first seven, almost eight minutes).

On to the things that this cantata triggered. Too much personalization goes against the natural and healthy development of the person. The lack of cycles of pause goes against the natural and healthy development of the person, a company, society. This is a chaotic article, apologies for that. Maybe it's some friction to shake up our minds a bit. Or me being lazy or unable to coordinate all thoughts accordingly, who knows. Let's go.

We need difficulty

We as mammals need to confront conflict and frictions to allow for proper brain development. In the case of humans, an excessive personalization of our environment, i.e., making things too easy for us is akin to the "old friends" hypothesis in medicine, which is not proven (it's an hypothesis) but has some interesting findings and experiments around it. In a nutshell: if you are not exposed to a varied microbial world in your early years, your immune system may not develop and mature properly and might turn against you in the form of certain autoimmune diseases. There are many resources online about this, I found this article well researched and also clear about this being just an hypothesis and stating that we still don't understand this question well. Your mind is tuned to the same thing. Brains developed to become able to deal with a rich variety of scenarios. It is precisely that which is responsible for the success of the human race in the evolutionary road. Lack of variability might then lead to mental health problems, or to not being able to develop fully. Lack of exposure in your early years to a rich, varied environment, to varied stimuli, has detrimental effects in your adult brain. Also, varied intellectual activity in older age helps prevent diseases like Alzheimer's (there's a variety of research articles on the topic, I didn't find one that would summarize the state of the art regarding the knowledge we have on this, but you can search around for many an opinion and research results on this matter). Similarly, there are many research articles written on how learning to play an instrument or learning a new language does modify your brain structure in an advanced age, and does help prevent cognitive deterioration. While the contrary is not proven and does not necessarily hold true, I will posit that the lack of friction, or too much comfort in general, is probably not good for your brain.

There is less friction for you and me with the continuous production of mass market products, all equal, all in a constant wheel of consumption. One can see this as a way of normalization. The rate of production makes it difficult to create differentiated products, and we observe a tendency to creating similar things for everyone. While mass production has brought many advantages (better quality products for the masses, with the respective ripple effects in each industry), it creates also a space for the liquidation of the difference.

In the same space lie certain business models that I wrote about in other post, such as subscription models. While they may give access to, precisely, a greater variety with a contained cost (for the consumer), they normalize the consumption of goods, in essence pushing different activities into the same category: mass consumption. Subscription services somehow flatten the rich-dimensional space of "things to do today", commoditizing the process of decision, which is one of the frictions our minds need, into a false debate (should I listen to music, should I watch a show? Because the activity is Spotify or Netflix, rather than listening to some band in particular or watching a given show - the services will tell you what to do once you've opened the app). One can see it much more evident in digital services, since the analog-digital barrier shows extremely small variance (so far it's mostly a screen or a projection with some way to navigate / choose things), thus creating the message for you and me that things are pretty much interchangeable. I can be working on my laptop, then change from writing a document to choosing music to reading the news to watch a movie to see what my friends are up to without looking away from the screen. This normalizes the physical variety that human minds are used to, and presents us with the notion that the different activities that you can do within that screen are probably very similar. Of course you know that after your work email, the browsing you do to buy a pair of sneakers is a different activity. But it takes place in the same physical-mental space for you, since you are still sitting down at the laptop (in the physical world, you'd go out of the office, on to the street, on to some type of transportation, and go to some physical shops to see if you fancy what they've got).

Difference is the only thing that makes up this world. We are children of the difference. The whole universe is built on difference.

It's not just in the digital world

This interchangeability of activities is what we see also in physical products, when they are commoditized in extreme. Those are the flat-pack realities that Fabien Girardin and associates from Near Future Laboratories, among others, have been talking about for years now (I first read about this in their material). It would make a nice thesis project to download over the years images of flat rentals and sales, and analyze the furniture and its evolution. While I do understand that standard products create convenience and increase overall quality, I see the wolf's teeth in letting go of our ability to think. Moreover, there is an even more dangerous effect that comes from excessive normalization, which is overshadowing difference and sending the message that difference is something we can ignore. But it is precisely the contrary. Difference is the only thing that makes up this world. We are children of the difference. The whole universe is built on difference. If all the chemical elements were identical, there would be no water, no fire, no earth. No biology. Take that concept and build from there towards any place you want.

almost a normalized grid. But reality is obstinate: differences appear that grow over time and space. Artwork by the author.

This might be a valid framework to analyze... any activity you deal with. In corporations, for example, we see a strong trend towards personalization of products. Which creates differences in the product because it will be different for every person. But it makes all products too comfortable for a given person. As a thought experiment, let's take this to the extreme. All the products and services that I use know what I like, are shaped to my taste, are all exactly how I expect them to be. I eat only things I like, I always get the perfect fit in my clothes. I only see images that I like. The whole world around me fits like a tailored suit. I would become mad pretty soon. Disgusted. Because the lack of frictions & difference would result in an overdose of myself. If you only want heaven, hell is what you will get. You will get hell if your heaven doesn't leave room for unexpected imperfections, unwanted elements that will knock you off that perfect position. It may have happened to you to scroll through a social network feed that is too perfectly fit to your liking. E.g., an Instagram feed filled with art you like, places you like, wonderful photographs that remind you that the world is beautiful, lavish beaches, shiny homes, perfect chairs, the best trousers to tour the world, the shoes you should buy. Don't you feel like the world is going to end right there and then? Or that it should end at least.

The other extreme is probably not a good scenario either. It is where we have lived, as a species, most of our existence. Fighting constantly for resources, dealing with conflict at every step of our lives, not finding comfort is pretty hard and perhaps not a wise direction to go to. But there has to exist a proper middle ground that lets the individual develop and grow as a human being and the collective develop and grow as a society. And this requires everyone to grow out of their difficulties, not creating technology to just make up reality in every aspect.

Creating difference has to work at all scales. Companies that keep creating and selling products all year round, for example, might consider to create seasons. Not seasons filled with products for that season (fast fashion comes to mind), but rather understanding that life itself unwraps through cycles. Nature in our planet has evolved taking into account that the Earth orbits the Sun, that there are tides because we have a Moon, which all creates hot periods, cold periods, wet periods, dry periods. Crops grow and the land rests later. While this all may sound very naïve, perhaps the individuals and the society also have cycles that need to be understood, to be taken into account by all human activity in order to respect them. Maybe there is a time of the year where corporations should stop all marketing. Maybe there is a time of the year where you cannot buy this or that product. It only grows in Spring. It blooms by late May, you can buy it during June and July. The rest of the time the company spends time to improve, to heal, to nurture relationships. Call me a daydreamer, and I know that there are fixed and recurring costs, that people need to get a regular salary, etc. Or wait, why do we get a regular salary? We do because we came up with that model and all is now tuned to a monthly or weekly rhythm. Is there any other tempo to the symphony of mankind?

Er... what?

Perhaps not a single word that I've written makes sense now. The truth is that I wrote this article because, like I said, I listened yesterday to Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140, by Johann Sebastian Bach. This piece always moves me profoundly, and if I really stop to listen to it and let it penetrate the shields I carry to navigate life, I will invariably shed some tears and feel a deep connection to the piece, an emotion that I hope everyone else can feel with something in their lives. Bach composed it for the 27th Sunday after Trinity, a circumstance that is rare and happens only when Easter is early. He chose to compose a special piece for this occasion. While an untrained ear like mine might say that all cantatas sound more or less the same, I must admit that this one does have something special to it, as I have tried to convey. Bach was very prolific, churning out pieces at an amazing pace. Still, he was able to distinguish the pieces that required a special treatment, such as this one, with an aura that I find hard to describe.

Bach had the advantage of being an artist. That is, not being bound by contraints of productivity (although, actually, he was - and managed still to produce an amazing body of work, pioneering in so many ways). Art lets humans go yonder, without any further imposition but to express what the artist wants to express, to build what technically or aesthetically or both is the best that the artist can achieve. If companies would have cycles of pause, perhaps they could approach products and services in the same way. Let's build the best we can, not just what the market wants. Let's build the products we believe make sense, even if they are hard to understand at first. If they are useful, they will find their way with just a little part of current marketing budgets. Nobody wanted Impressionism. Nobody asked for Cubism. Jazz was not on the cards. Pop-rock was an abomination. But all those things happened, and all those things brought about much joy to people all around the globe.

You can all go now in peace

Going back to Bach and how he composed this very special piece, I wonder if we all try to do the same. Overly influenced by normalization and its fraternal twin the über-personalization, we live our lives producing a standard and consuming a standard. We produce a standard that we believe everyone else will like, and consume a standard of the things we know we like. However, the human race has advanced thanks to the misfits, those who chose to create difference, to pursue it, to realize it.  Those open to see what else is there. Bach tells us in the title of this cantata: wake up, the voice is calling us. Make that whichever voice works for you as a relevant call.