The Mobile Phone & Independence

It’s fairly well-known by now that mobile communication has changed our lives dramatically – adoption that is reaching levels of 1 mobile phone per person int he world (Mobile is Taking Over The World), with developing countries out-pacing developed countries. And the smart phone and its apps along with text messaging and Facebook has changed every aspect of our lives: how we stay in touch, who we stay in touch with, how we shop, how we consume information, what information we have access to. Everything is at your finger tip in real time. Even how revolutions unravel have changed with Facebook and Twitter as has been evident in the Middle East in recent years.

But an interesting question is, has the mobile phone not just changed how we do so many things, but also how we think of ourselves. Has it added an independent spirit to our mindset. As this story in Forbes The Redefinition of the Entrepreneur highlights, the Millenials have a different mindset about careers and work environments that focuses on independence. According to the story by 2020 40% of the US workforce will be freelancers (I actually prefer the term Independent over Freelancer, as it’s more accurate and not based in mid-evil history).

In a way the mobile phone has allowed us to cut the umbilical cord to many things. The consumer and the employee now control many aspects of their lives, they are no longer constrained by environmental space / time / access constraints. And this has changed our expectations and our attitude as a society, has turned the entire society into a more independent set of people, with huge implications on many of our traditional structures from work place, consumption, communication, politics.

Sameness Vs. Happiness

As the world has become global and flat, much of our daily machine drives us towards Sameness. Yet unfortunately, it’s not the path to Happiness.

The Demand for Sameness

It’s so much easier if everyone just fits in a neat little box that stacks well. It’s predictable. It doesn’t require thought. It doesn’t require justification. It can be repeated countless times.

The companies we work for much prefer that we all fit into a nicely graphed career path. You graduate from college, you start an entry level position. Every 18 months you advance to the next level. Eventually you get senior positions and you advance every 3-4 years. You get pay raises. You stay with the company. You avoid any behavior against company policy or discrimination. They can count on you being there to ship the next release of the product as well or better than you shipped the last one. If you behave the same as every other one of the 10,000 career oriented co-workers at your company everyone makes loads of money, has low stress, and and smiles on the company bio page.

The retailers we buy from much prefer that you buy the national brands, because they know when you walk in the store you will know what to look for, you will know what the food tastes like, and you will not hesitate to buy loads and loads of things, even if they’re not the most healthy for you. And retailers who sell through huge quantities of the same product have significant negotiation power with the manufacturers since they can move huge amounts of product quantities. And the farmers that raise the GMO produce and raise the hormon treated cattle don’t have to lose sleep over the latest harvest risk.

The airlines much prefer you fly through their hub, even if it’s almost twice as far as the crow flies, because they can put more people on that plane, fly a bigger plane, with every seat full, which has more crew on the ground if something goes wrong.

The software company much prefers that you buy the n-th version of their computer operating system rather than a tablet, because they have long sunk all the R&D cost into that operating system that is now a cash cow. Who knows if a tablet will be around 2 years from now, or if it’s a different device all together. Maybe it won’t be touch, but some other gesture to manipulate input. If we all just staid with the same mouse and keyboard, we wouldn’t have to change so many applications, and retrain thousands of programmers and ui designers.

The manufacturers that sell their wares through the retailers, much prefer that you buy the same product they’ve already sold to millions of others just like you. That means they can amortize their R&D investment over many more units improving margins. And large production runs yield economies of scale as things are easier to automate and off-shore to cheaper labor markets.

McDonald’s banks on putting a restaurant on every highway stop and into every strip mall, because they know if they can provide the same reliable customer experience, you’re more likely to eat there then the local diner you know nothing about. McDonald’s has perfected the sameness of food. As Starbucks has perfected the sameness of coffee drinking.

The politicians that shape our daily lives much prefer that we think like everyone else in their district, because that means they can attract more votes with the same message, and more votes means getting elected. Politicians prefer to sell no-child-left-behind testing rather than reforming the people who we put in charge of our education system accountable for doing their job.

Homebuyers think the market will only go up, and they fear being left out from buying a McMansion and earning loads of equity if they just bought at the same time everyone else is buying. And the big builders can turn a much bigger profit if they build entire sub divisions with just 2-3 floor plans rather than letting everyone figure out their personalized home. Yet, 2-3 floor plan sub divisions look like the ‘projects’ of the post-war generation, just with more manicured lawns, and all houses being painted in ‘earth tones’ to meet HOA standards.

The school super-intended prefers to operate under a zero-tolerance policy against anything other than the perfect student. Because zero tolerance allows them to apply the same punishment to anyone who strays from the centerline without having to think critically, apply common sense, or defend their decision against someone who disagrees. They can blame it on the wisdom of the crowd rather than the benefit of the individual.

Sameness makes it easy to target us for people that want to advertise to us. Advertising thrives on scale, which means it has to target the masses, which means there have to be common threads among the mass members, which means they have to be the same on some dimension. The more same we are, the easier it is to advertise to us, the easier it is to sell to us.

If someone steps out of line, changes the way we do things, they way you pay for your software, discontinues your favorite flavor or app, people get angry. They demand sameness forever, because now their routine has been disrupted, they are required to make decisions, they may have to re-evaluate decisions they’ve made in the past. Sameness avoids change, and most people don’t do well with change.

People have fairy tale weddings, because they think if they get married the same way they saw everyone on TV and in the magazine getting married, surely they will live happily ever after. But if someone strays from the path, they speed dial the divorce lawyer, because now someone strayed from the path they were supposed to be on, dared to throw a wrench in the plan whether it was justified, ignorant, or in betrayal of the sameness they pretended to embrace during courtship. Aren’t all marriages to be the same happy storyline until death do us part?

As teenagers and even young adults, we are surrounded with things we want and haven’t had yet. We want to fit in, and want what others have. We think the best way of getting it, is by being like we think they were as that surely means we would get it too.

The Happiness of Different

Sadly though, none of this sameness really leads to happiness. Yes, it means we can afford more things, because they are cheaper. And we’re less risky to get sick from a poor restaurant experience, or end up getting laid off because we didn’t strive for the next promotion in the same old job.

But with all that sameness, we never feel like we accomplished anything, there’s anything about us as an individual. Looking at history, the people we admire are the ones who had courage, who had the audacity to try something nobody had thought of before, who created a captivating piece of music or art, who dared to be different. Meaning we admire the people who opposed sameness.

People talk about you because you did something they didn’t do (good or bad), they don’t talk about you because you did the same thing they did 10min earlier.

Creative consultants tell you to find your unique voice. Magazines publish editorials that are edgy and fresh, not the same story they’ve seen last month. Luxury designers and retailers still understand that luxury identifies with scarcity, with something that not everyone has. They go to great lengths to control access either directly, or indirectly through economic filters. Inventors chase ideas that solve problems that haven’t been cracked yet. Successful investors chase promising stocks and opportunities before everyone else jumps on the bandwagon.

Technology innovation of the recent past has made everyone a photographer, author, publisher, journalist, film maker, you name it. Now the challenge is what you do with it? The same as what the select few did before it became broadly available? Or the same what the other 1 billion people that now can do it too? That wouldn’t be remarkable. But doing something fresh and unique can be very cool.

As I get older, and after having chased many things others have done, I find that sameness is very bland and does not lead to happiness. But doing what is important to me, getting off the train of sameness has been a good source of positive energy. Ignoring the drum roll of advertising, news, and sales pitches, and often purposefully buying down, buying anti-trend, doing something different. I’m happy to stand out of the crowd nowadays. Purple shoes? Why not as long as they fit my style sensibility.

Happiness is inversely proportional to scale and ability to automate. Happiness is your unique path through life.

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