This week, I’ve been thinking about the concept of displaced meaning. Anthropologist Grant McCracken uses the term displaced meaning to refer to a cultural mechanism for reconciling the gap between their cherished beliefs and the actual conditions of life that they witness every day. Cultures acknowledge the discrepancy in the here and now, but concoct stories of settings, either in another time or another place, where ideals have been realized. The vast distance of these settings enables belief in the plausibility of the culture’s ideals to be preserved, even as those ideals are not represented in everyday life.
An example of physically displaced meanings is Shangri-La, a place hidden in the nearly impervious Himalayas where the people live in perfect balance. Shangri-La is conveniently placed in a region so inaccessible that no one hearing of it can travel there to contradict these reports.
People also establish sites of displaced meaning at a great distance in time. They create stories of great golden ages in the past, as the Greeks did with Atlantis. Into the future, they predict utopias, such as Disney’s Tomorrowland.
Own culture of technological dysphoria has developed its own future utopia in which to locate our displaced meaning. It is called called The Singularity.
There are various definitions of the Singularity, but it basically boils down to this idea: The Singularity is the moment when artificial intelligence will become so robust that it will begin to expand its own power on its own, at an ever-accelerating pace that we will no longer be able to keep track of.
The Singularity embodies all our culture’s hopes for technology, including some long-lasting predictions about the benefits of innovation that have repeatedly failed to materialize. We are told that with The Singularity, the promise of innovation, thousands of years old, will finally be realized, and technology will solve all our problems. The Singularity, it is said, will end poverty, expand creativity, and even overcome the barrier of human mortality.
Ideas about The Singularity can remain expansive, because The Singularity is a time that is said to be always growing nearer, yet never really seems to get closer. In 1993, Vernor Vinge wrote that, “Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.” It’s just eight years until Vinge’s prediction of The Singularity expires. Ray Kurzweil’s more recent prediction is that The Singularity will arrive – another 30 years from now. As time moves forward, The Singularity remains equally distant. That’s culturally essential, because a utopian future cannot plausibly be waiting for us in just a short amount of time – not when its necessary conditions remain as elusive as ever.
Kurzweil reflects the cultural function of The Singularity as a focus of displaced meaning when he predicts that, after The Singularity arrives, “information technology will ultimately underlie everything of value.” The cultural function of The Singularity isn’t really in the future at all. Its function is to maintain faith in the ability of technology to bring us transcendence of the fundamental sources of human suffering, and to maintain that faith in the present time, when technology seems to have caused as much suffering as it has alleviated.
The equivalent of The Singularity in the field of marketing is Big Data, which, it is continually promised, will soon provide marketers with the ability to set up integrated automated systems of information gathering and marketing execution that not require human management, yet will keep human customers happy. As Big Data fails to measure up to its promised potential, we’re told that it just needs to get a little bit bigger, with just a little bit smarter artificial intelligence. Big Data remains just out of reach, but closer in time than The Singularity, because its displaced meaning is much smaller in scope. The utopia of Big Data is really just a reflection of the timeless fantasy of a certain type of marketer: To develop a system that can make a lot of money without having to go through the profit-draining effort of maintaining a genuine human relationship with customers.
My point isn’t that human beings should stop dreaming about The Singularity, or even that marketers should stop dreaming about their own Big Data utopia. Rather, it’s that we need to recognize that The Singularity and Big Data are models of displaced meaning, pieces of contemporary mythology about the future, as much as they are events that are likely to actually take sometime in the future.
Fantasies such as The Singularity and Big Data serve to keep technically-minded people working hard to achieve their visions, despite daunting challenges in the present. However, as much as fantasies can motivate us, we also need technological innovation and models of marketing that can deal with the here and now.
We need cultural mechanisms that can replace the meaning that we’ve displaced, bringing it back to the present time and place by finding the salience hidden within the familiar objects of our own everyday life. Our culture’s pursuit of increasingly calculating problem-solving technology leaves us lopsided in our development. As much good reason as there is to admire innovation, there is opportunity to admire what we already possess.
We can linger before upgrading an iPhone. We can wait another year before trading in a car. We can hold back from the latest fashion. All around us are the artifacts of the achievements of the past, and the fact that the achievements have already been accomplished does not make them less significant.
There is space within marketing, and within our culture in general, for a strategy to counterbalance innovation. We might call it innarchation – the reintegration of value into the wonders we already possess. There is wonder in every hinge, every toothbrush, every paperback book, every glint of sparkle in the sidewalk.
As much as our culture of consumption yearns for the next new thing, there is a relief we feel in gathering in the old, to hold close once again. There is a special kind of sacred meaning wrapped up within the mundane.