The New Immaterialism

CPH127 links to a design article on the shift in value between what we experience from service and what we own and experience through objects, which got me to thinking about stuff. If modernism's  totem was materialism -- what we could create, direct and control -- surely postmodernism's founding principle is immaterialism.

Software companies talk at length about software as a service, an experience where people meet information in a vast digital commons, not personal libraries. Adobe, for example, which makes Flash and Acrobat is driving to develop what it calls "the engagement platform," a visual, graphical software client accessible from any screen, anywhere. This Wharton School of Business interview with Adobe CEO Bruce Chizen is rich with detail about that company plans to thrive in an experience economy.

Marketers have gotten the message. We don't use things; we experience things. Uber-marketer Seth Godin talks about relationships as the antidote to chronic consumerist dissatisfaction. I think he's got a point. Happy angry people are pretty rare.   

Some psychotherapists now talk about integrating ways of knowing that reject the expert/client formula and its implied empiricism in favor of something nearer to co-discovery. In this view, people aren't previously whole goods who need repair, but just the opposite. We are relational, sense-making beings needing myth and narrative to be whole. If the high water mark of the modern era saw Nietzsche announce the death of God, then some post-moderns see a little less self -- and a little more other -- as likewise emblematic of an age to come.

There are many examples -- Richard Florida's Creative Class depends not on individual genius, but on interaction. Architects discuss new urbanism, which, not to put too fine a point on it, is another way of saying front porch.

We're thoroughly disabused of the modernist notion that we can create a future built on a materialist foundation, whose experts hand down knowledge. Indeed, much of the history of second half of the last century was spent in rebellion to that idea. "Question authority," anyone? Even science has turned against us. It produces quantum truths at home in our heads but inaccessible to our fingertips. Sub-atomic nature is complex and paradoxical, not mechanical and linear.

Having passed through the rough initial stages of the postmodern era, what's next? What ideas will dominate?

I see a (re)emerging emphasis on relationship. As I said yesterday, the theme is on prominent display TED2006. And in contrast to the penultimate modernist narrative -- history-as-science, this new immaterialism makes people the subject, not the predicate, of history. Thankfully, many, many more hands will be at the wheel.


Technorati tags: modernism, postmodernism, materialism, Seth Godin, Richard Florida, New Urbanism