Contradictions, Inversions, Oddities, and Coincidences
Don't look at what's accelerating; look what isn't. That's where the real change is.
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It’s become popular to call this crisis a great accelerator. True as it may be, I find non-tech, innovation-by-necessity pivots a more fertile analytical soil.
Brands like olive oil producer Brightland pivoted to content, community, and curation with the same ease and care, and with the same mission that it used to sell its olive oil. Aperitif brand Haus promptly put its unique market position (being exempt from alcohol laws) and it’s unique value chain (owning supply and production) to good use, by partnering with hard-hit restaurants to create signature aperitifs and sell them at 100 percent profit for restaurants. Once the hair salon he was working at closed on March 15th, my hairdresser, Marshall Lin, immediately pivoted to creating content and sharing his hair care expertise online. The other day he relaunched his website.
Examples are many, and should be celebrated as fervently as tech-fueled acceleration towards e.g. digital fashion week, e-commerce, online education, remote work, etc. All of these accelerations expose trends that have already been happening; to really learn, look into the unexpected and the different. Show me what’s NOT accelerating and let’s figure out why.
E.g. This heartbreaking innovation is as good as Netflix Party. And now that we are all required to wear face masks in public, what will be our common gestures of meeting when we can’t see each other’s smiles? Smile has been a prominent feature of modern life since the middle ages (strangely enough, it hasn’t been “invented” until then).
Real generosity toward the future lies in giving it all to the present, said Albert Camus. The future is hidden in our present: in what we value, who we gather around and pay attention to, what we support and what we rally against. In 2012 Wired article, futurist Paul Saffo talked of contradictions, inversions, oddities, and coincidences as indicators of the change ahead.
Here are some things that the global pandemic inverted, coincidences that it brought forward, and oddities and contradictions that it exposed:
Contradictions are when two irreconcilable things coexist. In February of 2020, the ordeal of Diamond Princess’ passengers read like a horror story of the “this happens to other people” variety. One would think that, its aftermath would wean not only cruise-lovers but also cruise-curious from setting a foot on a boat again. One would think.
Instead, during late March and April (the peak of the pandemic in the United States) there has been a 40 percent increase in 2021 cruise bookings on CruiseCompete.com compared to its 2019 bookings, reports Business Insider. Additionally, 76 percent of the travelers who canceled a cruise in 2020 chose to take credit towards a future cruise in 2021, compared to 24 percent who opted for a refund.
Consumer behavior changes infinitely less than prophets of all stripes predict right now. While it may take a bit for consumers to go back to their spending habits, brands should trust the muscle memory of spending and don’t expect a radically changed consumer.
Inversions are novel reversals in a trend dynamic. Aspiration is going through an inversion. What was once aspirational - cooking, decorating, cocktail mixing, plant caring, at home exercise - is now commonplace. Scroll down your Instagram feed, and influencers’ photos are the same as ours: we are all at home, baking sourdough bread, arranging flowers, and taking photos in our old outfits in the rooms and hallways. True, some are nicer than others, but the FOMO is gone. The Great Indoors and Domestic Cozy were aspirational as long as they were a matter of choice. Now they are mandatory and real (and not even of the “aspirational realness,” but of the “real realness” quality). Everyone can have them.
In the inversion of aspiration, influencers are caught in crosshairs. If they behave like everyone else, they are everyone else; if they behave differently, they are called out for it. This scrutiny is new: before the pandemic, we were happy to indulge in the (relatively) harmless escapism that influencers provided. As long as we viewed influencers as predominantly commercial tools (no one really makes a mistake of considering these people real), we were happy for them to promote moon juice and poop tea. But the moment they revealed themselves as members of the society, we turned on them: not only because their wide reach spreads their socially irresponsible behavior further, but because without their commercial role, they are the same as us and therefore subject to the same rules.
There’s also a number of inversions in our social rituals, and this may lead to change in the meaning of metaphors. “To give someone a wide berth” signaled steering clear of trouble and/or any social association with a person. Right now, it’s a sign of socially responsible and respectable behavior.
Oddities are out-of-ordinary occurrences that make us search beneath the surface or a trend or pattern. The biggest oddity at the moment is that our social isolation is the expression of social solidarity. Social cohesion is ensured by us staying apart. In all other times of crisis - wars, natural disasters, economic hardships - we are physically in them together. We gather to alleviate the stress of the crisis, to emotionally support each other, to share stories, to help each other, and enforce our social bonds. Not this time. In this crisis, we are together by being apart.
This oddity is also reflected in our new heroes: Dr. Anthony Fauci is petitioned to be named the Sexiest Man Alive; nurses, doctors, drivers, cleaners, postal workers grace covers of mainstream magazines and are profiled in advertising commercials. Communal heroes are in: ordinary people who do their duty and communities who gather to protect their vulnerable. We are looking up to those with knowledge, hard-won experience, honesty, responsibility, and competence.
Coincidences are about simultaneous appearance of distant and unrelated trends or patterns. In his Twitter thread, Venkatesh Rao noted that, in regards to the coronavirus crisis, “Everything sweet and life-affirming in the business response is a feel-good ineffectual favela chic hope punk sideshow theater. Everything substantively driving the main act is grim dark gothic high-tech extractive profiteering by cartoon cultural capitalist ops.” Rao went on to give examples of homemade face masks coinciding with bidding wars over protective equipment among states and hospitals, and photos of exhausted nurses coinciding with private equity firms behind hospitals calculating their bailouts.
These coincidences reveal the Big Split between the social organization and the economic system that underpins it. We are in the rare moment when two opposing forces - solidarity, community, care, visibly coincide with opportunism, free riders, profiteering - within the same structure. Volunteering and individual donations are at their peak; so is medical equipment piracy, and the federal government’s failure to effectively protect small businesses and recently unemployed individuals. The structure cannot support these coincidences, and it will either reorganize itself or break. IMF warned of the expected social unrest around the globe and Bloomberg recently reported on potential social revolutions. It is also likely that taxpayer money will be funneled towards making healthcare systems more robust and social security higher. Brands will have to find a way to deftly convey their simultaneous pro-social and pro-economic stance in their behavior and communication actions. Doing tangible good will have to become as rigorous and measurable goal as the business performance.
In this week’s episode of The Business of Aspiration, I spoke with Aishwarya Iyer, the founder and CEO of Brightland, an olive oil company. We talked about what makes a good collaboration, status signaling in the quarantine, and importance of food for mental health. You can follow Aishwarya here and here, and watch the video below: