The Trouble with Predicting the Future
“There are bits of the literal future right here, right now, if you know how to look for them. Although I can’t tell you how; it’s a non- rational process.” —William Gibson, in Johnston (1999)
How in the world would we predict the future of brands? How would marketing and public relations, with their focus on brand management change if we could predict the future of a world where brands combine with AI and corporate superpowers to become something else?
In this chapter, I use a cultural history perspective to create projective understandings, and I also assume two things. First, that the brand experience is becoming increasing tied into the entertainment experience. And, second, that the entertainment experience is becoming more immerse, more powerful, more responsive, more omnichannel and more digital. Across both of these elements we have notions of brands as archetypal personalities with stories co-existing with notions of brands as identity tools and resources for people’s collective and individual identity creation maintenance and transformation projects.
If we accept this, then we accept that brands have become: (1) popular culture, (2) immersively digital, (3) essential to consumer identity, and (4) archetypal identities in themselves.
The question then becomes ‘Where should we look to project these changes in brands towards the future?’ The use of professional futurists by corporate interests has, as Andrew Ross tracks in Strange Weather (1991), a long history. Many of these professional futurists have been, understandably, science fiction authors.
This chapter looks towards science fiction visions as sources of projective ideas regarding the future of brands. Three books, composing William Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy are used as an idea source. Using them as raw data leads me to other sources and theories. Through this process, part of a much larger research project, I seek to perform future-oriented pattern recognition that can inform our understanding of the trajectory of brands at a macro social and cultural level, one that tells us about concepts in historical trajectory, a form of both research and development prognostication and theory generation.
William Gibson is best known, and highly quoted, for his genre-defining novel, Neuromancer (1984), which coined the term and concept of the information universe called “cyberspace.” This notion also became expanded through the highly conceptual and philosophical Wachowski Brothers film The Matrix (1999), later expanded into a trilogy. In Gibson’s Neuromancer Trilogy future, information astronauts were blasted into cyberspace using various drugs and implements.
The link to classic science fiction is fascinating, in that launching people into interplanetary outer space becomes launching people’s conscious awareness into notional digital computer space. In Neuromancer, we also witness the next major evolution in our planetary species. The complex AI computer
program “Wintermute” slides its expansionary subprograms into the Internet to become a fully conscious self-aware being.
This paper considers another book, centrally, William Gibson’s 1996 novel Idoru. Idoru takes place in “what can now loosely be called the Bridge sequence [trilogy] of Virtual Light, Idoru, and All Tomorrow’s Parties” (Murphy 2003, p. 72). This trilogy takes place in the time between our own time and the much technologically-socially sophisticated, almost magical technology time of Neuromancer. Idoru is thus the second and thus “bridge” novel of this sequence of books written to bridge the time between present and future, and it offers the reader “a subtly complex engagement with the post/human2 tapestry of presence, pattern, simulation, virtuality, and digital/corporeal embodiment” (Murphy 2003)
The book deeply engages with the idea of celebrity as brand, and brand as celebrity. It takes a hard-hitting stance towards the interaction between popular culture, digital devices, and individual shallowness. Global culture is incredibly complex, people are extremely good at producing technologies, and individuals are more stereotypical corporate puppets than actual human beings. The key mantra for this future is “popular culture is the testbed of our futurity”. Everyone lives to be a brand, and every brand is the key to social being.
In our present, we are digitizing everything. Ever heard of the Internet of Things? Google Books? The RFID tagging of everyfuckingthing? In Gibson’s future, the digital has its own important project: to become embodied.
A perfect example of this with Rei Toei. Rei is a virtual creation, an idoru, which is a loose translation of the Japanese word for idol-singer. Toei is described as “a personality-construct, a congeries of software agents, the creation of information-designers, she is akin to what I believe they call a ‘synthespian,’ in Hollywood”(Gibson 1996, p. 21). Gibson does not invent the word or concept here, but borrows this word from others. In fact, synthespians already exist.
dk-96 was the creation of Japanese entertainment software conglomerate HoriPro Inc. In 1996, this project was released as “Kyoko Date.” Dk, or Kyoto Date recorded her own music single, released on CD as Love Communication. The content also included videostream of her walking along major urban streets in Japan and the USA. Kyoko Date even has a biography that bespeaks her heritage as both American and Japanese, born at a US Army Base located close to Tokyo (Gaouette 1998). Kyoto Date is really not a digital creation, but a digital hybrid: her entire look, face and body came from paid but now anonymous human female models whose faces and body language were digitized in a recording process known as Full Motion Capture. Very much like Rei Toei, Kyoto Date inspired a broad male fan following, those who knew a deep and abiding desire for a perfect woman that they were just as likely to have as any of the perfect celebrities.
This desire was, in a Lacanian sense, perfect. This was a desire that went on and on, for it could never be fulfilled by any physical woman. They had a longing for a woman who only existed digitally.
According to Lacan, unfulfillable desire is the perfect, most pure, desire. It may well be that these gentlemen were so in love with dk-96 precisely because they knew they could never physically experience her. Perhaps her image play is the strongest play, after all, for them. Or the only play necessary for becoming a fan.
Gibson plays with the notion of unfulfillable desire throughout Idoru, hanging tantalizing hints that all we want is pure want: that celebrity, and especially Rei Toei’s variety, exists as “aggregates of subjective desire”. What does this say about brands, and to brand theorists and managers?
To Gibson there are no doubts about what brand management is at its core, and where brand managers should be focusing their attention. To him brand work is about building in consumer society “an architecture of articulated longing” (Gibson 1996, p. 178). If we need an example closer to North America, we only have to look at Lara Croft (Murphy 2003), or indeed at so many of the now iconic superheroines on display at ComicCons. If you are lustily, deeply, and madly in love with Wonder Woman, Supergirl, or even She-Hulk, then you are set up for the same kind of fantastic desire disappointment.
What would it mean to have a brand become a being we can relate with on a personal, human level? Is a brand already, in some ways, such a thing?
Might we think of the Old Spice Guy as a similarly unattainable, but also perfect performance of manhood, something whose interactive response campaign made it close to an avatar, more like a long interactive advertisement.
Celebrity, in this case of the Old Spice Guy, was directly attached to the brand, yet interactive, and openly available as files on Youtube, to be watched on demand and as shared.
What would it mean to think of the Old Spice guy evolving digitally into a virtual creation like Rei Toie? This could be the future of brands: as AI entities which enact brand personalities and stories in interactive ways, with particular audiences, perhaps even in an on-demand manner with particular individuals.
We have heard much talk, from scholars like Matt Thompson and Marie-Agnes Parmentier, as well as by Susan Fournier, among others, of human branding. Increasingly, the brand is a celebrity person, or a person who becomes a microcelebrity or other celebrity (Marwick and Boyd 2011).
We can see this process of personal branding, human branding, manifesting through the other type of digital transformation. In this case, we learn a branding lessons from a rock and roll figure, much larger than life, a guy who has attained mega-mega startdom in the rock and roll arena with his band Lo Rez. The singer is named Rex, and he is like Mick Jagger but much bigger and longer lasting, more like a modern Elvis. He is the lead-singer of Lo/Rez and an incredibly popular figure in the entertainment and news media and throughout social media.
However, as we learn in Idoru, Rez is a complete personal brand empire unto himself. He commands a huge media, entertainment and fashion licensing empire as well as his motion pictures, videos, and music sales. And yet he is an empty shell of a person, somehow completely hollowed out. He is like a shadow, an alien, a digital cloud of static. He is not traceable or even recognizable as an actual human being. He has no private life at all. He is a licensed image, and in his somewhat inconvenient simultaneous incarnation as an aging human male he must continually alter and surgically change his body to try to match the popular and expected image of himself— a trait of insecure self-treatment that seems the most human thing anyone can do.
In these sections, Gibson is already drawing our attention to the implications of personal and human branding, of taking our personalities and goals and life projects and making brands of them. The inevitability of the project infuses his future vision. Its widespread nature is also apparent. To personally brand is commonplace. Everyone will soon be managing their own brand, themselves, much more carefully and deliberately soon.
The Marriage of the Humanized Brand and the Branded Human
In Idoru, the marriage of humanized brand and branded human is physical, not metaphorical. And therein lies the struggle.
The digital construct Rei Toei appears on Lo Rez’s system and asks him to marry her. Lo Rez is a flesh and blood human who is so famous he has become entirely digital, his every move captured, sold, and shared online. Rei Toei is a digital construct, made to seem human, interacting with people as if she were Turing test real, and then seeking, Pinocchio-like, to become a real girl.
The resolution in some sense of everything in this tension between the natural and the digital is epitomized in the marriage of Rei Toei, the media industry constructed software celebrity, and Rez, the media industry constructed human celebrity. Can the two truly unite in holy matrimony: the computer construct and the aging rock star? A man and a program of a woman?
In one place in the novel, science fiction guru Gibson speaks through rock god Rez’s guru voice of “new modes of being” and “the alchemical marriage” (Gibson 1996, p. 229). This allusion to alchemy invokes his higher referents for the union, what mystical psychologist Carl Jung called the Mysterium Coniunctionis, the sacred marriage or union of opposites. This mystical union of digital humans and human digitality is a perfect metaphor for our current evolution: we meet in the nether grounds of the numinously technological attention market and marry our images, our self-creating brand images which are co-created by and co-creating us.
What is the link between the digital world, and the world of physical human beings? The key is held in what we currently call 3D printing, but which is really a set of technologies still to be more fully defined and named. Nanotechnology is involved, a nano-assembler that is the future, military grade, highly top secret and in limited supply nano version of the 3D printer, which can create matter from digital instructions.
In the resolution, Rei does indeed become human and physical, manifesting through nanotechnology into a real, live body. However, she does it in a way that displays that, although she is now materialized, she is clearly not human. For she arrives in many places at once, exact and perfect digital duplicates. From being zero, suddenly there is not just one being, as with humans, but many Rei Toeis.
Now, as many, is she more attainable? And less desirable? Or, because her humanity still eludes her, is she even more desirable? Desire for the unattainable is at the very heart of contemporary consumer culture, and thus it is at the very heart of brands— their unspoken, almost never realized and, ultimately, paradoxical secret (Shakar 2001; Brown et al. 2003).
When a brand assumes human form, it enables a paradox of desire: it can become both more desirable and more attainable. Its attainability, if limited to the digital world of screens, still places it as out of reach as a Hollywood star. But the brand becomes much more intimate, much more complex, if it is also a product or a service, a place, an idea, or a human brand.
Brands and the craving for our lost gods
Archetypes are everywhere. Can we see the Jolly Green Giant as an archetypal and folkloric figure, as Sullenberger (1974) does? Wrapped in leaves, giant and green, he is clearly as fertility figure of the kind mythologically identified by James Frazer in The Golden Bough (1922). The giant is an ancient European harvest figure, long established and associated with the color green, the garland, the wrapping in leaves, the way he paternalistically presides over the bountiful crop. And as Sullenberger (1974, p. 55) clearly explains, the campaign works. It worked in 1974. It was already an established, if formulaic, economic success, a standout of early brand building in the competitive world of food marketing. And it is still working today. The brand remains a viable brand. The Giant is still quite limited in his repertoire, still not very active or interactive. He ho ho hoes on cue at the end of the commercial. His mere presence is almost his story. But ho ho, he does have mythological potential.
In service, think of figures like Ronald McDonald and his retinue, and Chuck E. Cheese in the United States, which truly pioneered and continues, along with Japan, to pioneer such branding experiments. Experiments in which brands become simultaneously, human, mythological and commercial. They become ways to enact great human themes on the level of marketplace decisions and purchases.
As Grant Morrison explains in Supergods, “we live in the stories we tell ourselves. In a secular, scientific rational culture lacking in any convincing spiritual leadership, superhero stories speak loudly and boldly to our greatest fears, deepest longings, and highest aspirations. They’re not afraid to be hopeful, not embarrassed to be optimistic, and utterly fearless in the dark.” (Morrison 2011, xvii).
Hopeful and powerful, yet enacted at the level of the marketplace rather than explicitly at a mystical level of religious or spiritual elevation, brands offer us opportunities for certain kinds of super-heroic transformation at a cost. Plastic surgery, adventure travel, a new car: all offer certain kinds of identity transformation, available for a price.
What happens when we marry such potential to interactive AI agents, who take over as the voice of brands, similar to the emerging voice of brands that is required when social media accounts are managed, such as for personified food service brands like Taco Bell or Wendy’s. Such is the modern Marketplace. Such are the promises of Brands.
The following is some speculative historical theorization, drawn from Idoru and Gibson’s Bridge trilogy.
There is currently emerging a meta-convergence of five already major social and media convergences:
- communicative media,
- the internet of things,
- the maker movement
- collective intelligence
- and artificial intelligence
As a result of these convergences, we can no longer think of brands as linked to products, to consumer markets, or to even to exchanges of matter. The net effect of these technological convergences has been to unlink brands from matter entirely. Brands are no longer products, of course this has been the case for a long time, ever since the first brand extension was discovered, back in Paleolithic times, perhaps.
As a consequence, brands have become unbound from material substrates in exactly the same way that thought unbinds minds from brains.
What are the two brand trends that Gibson is relating to us through Idoru? First, brands are changing into and inhabiting human beings through evolving information software and AI. Second, human beings are digitally extending and reinventing themselves into higher order constructs of
strategically managed personal brands, social brands, which have semi-autonomous ‘agentic’ elements of individual power and influence.
In the future, Brands may be governed by AIs. They may become sophisticated, responsive, intelligent personalities, tied to products, services, places, notions, and people.
Not only might brands become personalities, but they would also become sites, nodes, of data processing and intelligence gathering. A brands would not only be a transmitting, processing, and thinking-deciding personality-imbued intelligence itself, but it would also serve, in archival fashion, as a vast space of play, information, and decision-making for popular society itself, the next evolution of popular culture.
This particular reading of William Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy reveals five interstitial areas, five key convergences in the worlds of mass mediated communications and information technologies. Because these alterations change matter into mind, and mind into spectacle, they elevate brand personalities to AI celebrities. To enfold human imagination, these AI forms will be assistants in the hero stories and mythic tales that we write for oursel(o)ves, that we use to structure our tales, the tales we tell others of our self-love, that we wish others to share, the tales we love to use to sacralize our consumption and everything else we do every day in our everyday life. With Love for Humanity and Selfish Desire for our own gratification combined. That is the essence of Man and
Brand relations–teasey satisfaction and dependability, vs excitement and promises of the new.
The Interdependence of Digital Man and Living Brands:
Are people inevitably invested into being/becoming also brands, and brands also investing into being/becoming people?
To what extent are they or were they ever independent? Many people already are, and many more will be brands. And many brands will be people. We talk about anthropomorphized brands,
brands such as Mr. Clean, or the Blendtec guy, or the Old Spice Guy. But will brands one day have the potential and power to court us? To manifest in our information systems? To alter to our likes and dislikes, learning how to make us love them more and more, simultaneously fulfilling and stoking our desires? To begin dreaming, generating new images, taking actions such as manifesting to someone and proposing marriage?
What Gibson suggests to us is brand are transforming into unique, higher- dimensional constructs—a medial middle ground, a digital interstices in which human beings can evolve into code, and code beings can evolve into something more human, a convergence built upon other convergences.
Using personal branding concepts and personal technological devices, smartphones,
apps, laptops, movie screen, computer screens, video channels like YouTube,
microcelebrity fan payment plans, and digital television, people will increasingly become empowered to transcend their limitations and become part of the technocapitalistic money-and-status- machine sold by media industries. Even Google will promote your personal brand for micropayments.
Our Story: My Story and Yours
Our Bigger Story: Digital Brands Becoming Human Bodies/ Digital Bodies Becoming Human Brands
Using the most sophisticated science and intelligence and technological reality creation tools ever available, we are creating all sorts of social informational experiments. The central novel form these narratives increasingly take is that of the collective dream, visible clearly through science fiction, comic books, and in self-help psychology.
Beneath it all, Hero Myths abound. This is the collective dream, a narrative heart. This is Our Story, a story of good and evil which clearly beats beneath stories like The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones as well as Virtual Light, Idoru, and All Tomorrow’s Parties—the three books of the Bridge Trilogy.
Casting the Bridge Trilogy as one would a set of casting stones, I see a human future where brands are at least as real as the people who use them, and human-brand “relationships” draw us to a new digital reality where we meet in between, in the realm of the human brand where brands become human and humans become brands.
In this burgeoning reality, each of us will also be a brand manager who manages the value, capital resources, narrative flow, and public image of our own personal brand, or even a stable of other brands, owned by people and corporations of various sorts and stripes.
Ordinary people may be less so, but extraordinary ones, people like you and me, will be candidates for courtship and proposals by large corporations. When we blog and have impressive Klout scores, and social media influence, we are really somebody. We are other people’s heroes.
In some sense, this digital future might be good, and also a bit wrong. Yet it may turn out that having our biological and social fantasies professionally managed, edited, and played back to us endlessly in story form will turn out to be all that we will ever need.
The Quests for an Authentic Digital Culture
To be a person today is to be part of a Collective Human Effort to understand ourself and outselves. Figure out who your really are, what really matters to you. Choose sides. It’s time to reclaim your self from the state.
I call this search the Quest for Natural Culture.
We want to know what we believe.
We want to care.
We need to need.
We desire to desire.
What we are really looking for is authentic sources of desire. Finding our Authentic Selves through our desire for people, states, experiences, and things.
Living conciously means living aware of the relationships we have with ourselves and with one another as well as our relationship to what we find to be the World around us. Each of us is on a collective Quest to find an understanding of our own individual relationship to Nature, and also to Culture.
Human relationship consumption is, at its core, the source of all other consumption, and motivating all of this is our collective modern quest for a sense of who we are in this moment: authentic trust in each other is the only thing that got us this far. And this is no time to stop.
That distinct element, a shared culture, is that one thing that keeps us feeling understood. Just as a shared community keeps us feeling safe, which we should never take for granted. Culture is the difference that differentiates. It is the difference that is entirely and eternally the same across all of us, every one.
Consider that our times are times in which digital technology is necessary to be cool and social. Digital technology is required to be a productive worker and a good consumer. A member of society. Technology itself has become not only indispensible but natural. Speaking of tech values in relation to national culture, speaking for the robophilic techno-embracers of Japanese culture, Idoru’s brilliant creator Kuwayama explains in Gibson’s book:
“We [the Japanese people] have never developed a sinister view of technology, Mr. Laney. It is an aspect of the natural, of oneness. Through our efforts, oneness perfects itself.” (Gibson 1996, p. 314).
And Gibson seems accurate in this depiction of Japan’s relation, certainly, with robots.
Certainly since industrialization began in the UK, we have not seen rise of technology based capitalism spread as quickly or as successfully as it has today, through so-today’s age of “high” technology, which combines entertainment, information, communications, and social systems. This is the natural form and language of our global civilization, a still-developing, contested, conflicted, complex network of competing and coordinating interests and influences.
Conveyed within them all is an age of amazing images, amazing selves, and amazing personal brand self-images. It is from within this deeply cultural sphere that Gibson chooses to immerse us in images of brand images become human, and human’s images becoming brands.
We can next us netnography to contemplate the future of brands in technocapitalism and technoculture.
Science fiction is an Einsteinean thought experiment. Science fiction images first. NWe can seek to do more than this. We can prognosticate them as actualizations of entertainment and media futures. The actionable insight flavor comes from a cultural
The population ecology of science fiction ideas elevates some of the best predictions. Science fiction is the testbed of brand futurity. This chapter and its method have assumed that science fiction books can help us adapt to and shape our understanding of brands.
In that future, human beings increasingly extend their personal brands into digital spaces, and corporate brands simultaneously seek to manifest their influence in human social worlds. The two meet in the realm of digital branding and human brands, converging in four separate technology developments and accelerating the interweaving of corporate and organizational influence with ordinary human social life. It is a world we already see in development. It is a reality that could be greatly changed by the emergence of AI brand entities, brands that think, relate, and speak back.
Brands that we genuinely know, and that truly know us. Could this truly be the post- human future of brands?
Think about this last, if you dare. “If the realm of imagination and fantasy is subjectively no less real than that of the material and physical, then we can easily appreciate why cyber-life and its digital subjectivities seems to stimulate and offer opportunities for the expression of both sexual and violent desires. As Freud notes, the “uncanny” [not the valley, not yet] occurs where the accepted structure of a [human] world is violated, “when the boundary between [robot] fantasy and [social] reality is blurred” (Freud 2003: 150), and so to challenge the “accepted structure of the world,” which clearly has no adequate narrative for either contemporary violence or the sexual, the realm of cyberspace becomes a particularly fruitful context in which to blur such boundaries and perhaps stimulate better intellectual understanding.
In Lacan’s (1982) formulation, desire is not a relation to an object but a relation to a lack (manque), and desire appears as a social construct because it is always constituted in a dialectical relationship. Re-theorizing desire therefore requires not so much the unpacking of Lacanian analysis of late-capitalist subjectivity, as incorporating a better appreciation of how desire may be constructed in other cultural worlds, including those of cyberspace. In this way the notions of Deleuze and Guattari (1983) about the nature of desire as being productive rather than imaginary (“not theater but a factory”) and about the “desiring-machines” which we become as a result of these productive and socially situated desires, seem more appropriate to the interpretation of changing subjectivities and the elaboration of desire evident in on-line worlds.” (Whitehead 2009, Post-Human Anthropology, pp. 2-3). And the road to desire seems to lead directly through, or perhaps to, the post-human brand.
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