As 2018 marks the bicentenary of his birth, Mike Teasdale ponders what Karl Marx would make of today’s consumerism and what he would think of future consumerism driven by digital and AI.
Communists the world over will be celebrating this year, as 2018 sees the bicentenary of the birth of Karl Marx.
What would the man who dedicated his life to thinking about the liberation of the proletariat think of today's consumerism?
Would he regard smartphones as the new opium of the masses? Would he see the tech giants as the new oppressors? And would he have his own YouTube channel, so he could vlog away like a man possessed?
Marx was, by all accounts, a bit of a pompous know-it-all who could start an argument in an empty room, so I can see him happily ranting away on YouTube. His passionately held principle of the inevitability of the fall of capitalism meant that he denounced everything that conflicted with it. Unlike his namesake Groucho, I can't imagine Karl ever saying "Those are my principles. If you don't like them, I have others."
Marx was convinced that revolutions are the locomotives of history, so I think he'd be encouraged by some of the profound changes impacting our lives, but he'd be profoundly depressed by others and at the way much is still unchanged. When he was beavering away in the British Library doing his research, the richest 10% of the population in the richest country in the world owned 90% of its wealth. Today, the richest 10% of the population in the richest country in the world owns 72% of its wealth. Different country, same old inequality.
However, even Marx would have to concede that in the popularity stakes, capitalism has beaten communism hands down. That's because, despite the inequalities it creates, capitalism has been much more successful and efficient at delivering on human needs. Marx may rail at the realisation that the average product costs about 40% more than it would without the money that has been invested in branding it, but it's undeniable that capitalism has liberated more people from poverty than has communism.
But what of the future? Will it continue to do so as it becomes increasingly automated? Algorithms working in smart devices to make choices on our behalf are not only evolving the way we consume but also the way we behave. Twenty-first century consumerism will eventually use AI to commercialise even those things that lie at the very core of what it means to be human, such as relationships, beliefs and happiness.
What will this mean for the brands of tomorrow? Brands will still need to act as simplifiers of choice and as marks of trust and as statements of self-image, but they will need to be built in very different ways.
At the macro level, brands will need to be increasingly aware of their role in society, their purpose. When the world offers a multitude of channels, you need a lodestar to help you navigate.
At the micro level, brands will need to engage with the world differently. Increasingly, they are going to be selling not to irrational humans but to rational AIs. Increasingly, they will need to accept that control is out of their hands because AIs and humans alike will want to co-create brands in the way that works best for them.
And what will this mean for creativity service providers? They will need to evolve the very nature of what they provide. Awareness-seeking creativity will no longer be enough; 21st century creativity service providers will need to create brand experiences that are connected and individualised.
Nothing will be static; everything will be dynamic. Brands, and the creativity required to promote them, will need to pulse in response to what is being said about them. Control will no longer be in the hands of the brand owners.
Would Karl approve of all this? He might like the consumer empowerment brought about by digital, but he'd see AI as a threat to jobs and another way in which the masses are controlled by capital. The man who wrote "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs" was never going to be a fan of AI-based consumerism.
Marx was a dreamer, a humanist. He genuinely believed that humans naturally want to transform the world around them to produce objects for the benefit of all. Unfortunately, AI-based consumerism could become, like Frankenstein's monster, something we construct for our own purposes but that ends up controlling us.
Karl Marx's last words were "Go on, get out! Last words are for fools who haven't said enough!" But maybe he should have channelled his funnier namesake and said "I've had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn't it."
So, Happy New Year! Or is it?