Brands have an uneasy relationship with technology. On the surface, tech is the future. It’s the story you tell if you want to be seen as someone who gets it. Robin Givhan from the Washington Post reporting on Chanel’s Spring/Summer 2017 collection, pointed to how our sudden obsession for all things tech is picked up and magnified by brands.

“Tech is currently the story. So Lagerfeld makes that connection. He gives his customers the sense that they are in on the fashion and technology conversation. That they are forward-looking.”

But in the same rush to be seen as modern and cutting-edge, many brands espouse simplistic, rah-rah-rah narratives about technology. It’s easy to support a one-sided rhetoric of the technological sublime. But tech is incredibly complex, and can’t be bucketed into black and white use cases based on what’s perceived as socially or commercially acceptable.

While the tide of popular opinion pushes us towards a polemic view of technology — positive and negative — it’s the people who build and use tech to change the status quo who understand what it’s really about: reach and influence. And they use that reach to achieve objectives that range from overthrowing governments with protest and calling out exploitative institutions, to streaming videos of themselves playing videogames and maintaining peer-to-peer networks for content sharing.

Tech-assisted rebel meets mainstream. Illustration by Gauri Kumar.
Tech-assisted rebel meets mainstream. Illustration by Gauri Kumar.

In parallel, technology is the amplifier that takes the story of the modern brand and its spirit of dissent, and disseminates it to a global audience who identify with the narrative and buy into its culture. Tech-assisted rebel meets mainstream is the new black.

The Tension Between Subversion and Scale

Justin Kan studied physics and psychology at Yale. In 2005, he and his team built justin.tv in an attempt to recreate something like The Truman Show in real life. He pictured it as a Big brother-style site which ‘life-cast’ the four founders — they would carry the camera around all day and never turn it off. It was also a self-described bad idea.

The premise didn’t receive traction, but it did reach people. And they began asking if they could stream their own videos instead, and Justin found a niche that was hitherto unexplored: video game streaming. People found it technically complex to set up cameras to stream live play, so the team behind justin.tv built an alternate platform called Twitch, hired a video game streamer and the rest is nerd history.

Twitch now has over 2.1 million broadcasters and a 100 million unique visitors every month. Kan and his team stumbled onto a highly scalable business by tapping into the deviation-integration dynamic.

In the fashion world, several game changers began by leveraging subversion to find a niche and then taking it to the world by integrating it with business. Most notable of them all is the punk movement started by Vivienne Westwood. Malcolm McLaren, the manager of the Sex Pistols, helped Vivienne open the boutique SEX and the subculture proliferated with artists like Patti Smith and Siouxsie Sioux adopting it. At the time, it was the popularity of punk in artistic circles which brought it the reach that ultimately made it mainstream.

But technology and social media have accelerated this process, spinning rapidly off from how ideas like punk and Twitch grew. What took years for punk to establish can be done fairly quickly today if you tap into the right networks, but these networks come at a price. Social media influencer Logan Paul in conversation with CBS News, recently said:

“I think anyone on the internet with eyeballs at this time and place is a bargain. Because it’s so new, no one really knows what they’re worth.”

Social media influencers are the new face of monetized rebellion. We talked to Tiffany Arntson who founded the research division at The Future Laboratory, and created Rogue Matters to break boundaries and provoke new discourses across culture, commerce and communication. She believes that both human-centricity and deviation is important for influencers to gain a foothold today.

“People are always more interested in people than brands; it’s logical influencers have become integral to help businesses close the gap with their audience. Even more so when there’s some deviation from the familiar. Whether we like them or not, we trust individuals more than businesses or computers. And trust is essential to take people into new territory.”

But while Twitch pivoted for purely strategic reasons, the entrance of punk into the mainstream was not viewed placidly by the subcultures who originally adopted it.

Mass commercialization often compromises on ethics and authenticity. And now, the proliferation of technology into fashion and lifestyle is viewed just as warily. Will couture houses lose their identity if they start an eCommerce store or a shoppable website? Is it aligned with a healthy lifestyle brand to encourage people to get on social media?

This is where the balancing act begins.

Balancing Growth and Ideals

New York Times fashion editor Vanessa Friedman recently mentioned in a Glossy podcast, that when it comes to fashion, the customer can’t be king. In an industry that is subjective and relies on the arbiters of fashion to lead the way, it can be counter-productive to put the customer in the middle of every decision made.

But personal choice does come into the picture when you look at it from the customer end of the spectrum. Fashion today trickles down from the leaders of fashion, trickles up through emerging street trends and trickles across segments with mass market fashion. This mix allows for a healthy amount of personal choice for a large segment of customers. They can pick and choose what they want, within the varied choices they’re presented with. The commercialization of fashion is inevitable and necessary, and consumers are evolving with the times.

The recent launch of Vogue Arabia is a reflection of this. Young women with a disposable income who support modest fashion want to make a statement with their consumption. They want the same quality of branding as other scions of fashion, and modernism that aligns with their values.

Subcultures don’t need to adhere to the mainstream that is thrust on them indiscriminately. With technology, it is possible to hold on to individual and group ideals, while integrating into the larger picture in ways that align with those ideals. But for brands, it’s important to note that subcultures are not only a great place to look for ideas, but they’re also necessary for a diverse economic ecosystem.

Steve Mizrach, the cultural anthropologist, said it best:

“People who are interested in transgressing against the constraints people suffer under in post-industrial society shouldn’t seek to reverse or halt technology: rather they should put it to a new, unwanted, unexpected, ironic use. The Machine need not crush spirituality, vitality, spontaneity — but in order to do so, like the Terminator, we need to get a hold of it and reprogram it. Along the way it might even get to understand our point of view.”

No, the machine need not crush subversion. In fact, it can’t. Because machines look to us to understand behaviour and intent. And our differences are what make us worth learning about.

With no subversive ideas, the world will be far less interesting and human. For brands who want to make an emotional connect, it’s time to start using machines to encourage those differences and cater to what makes us human, rather than smoothing out the rough edges.

Disclaimer: Mind Over Matter is an editorial series. The featured opinions in this article are not an endorsement of Vue.ai or Mad Street Den.

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