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The dehumanising strategy of sameness

Opinion

Across the world, corporations are working to provide you with a standardised, regulated and passifying experience. It's time, writes Malcolm King, to fight back, for the sake of our humanity.

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As I boarded the flight from Adelaide to New York, a large poster of a smiling Cathay Pacific flight attendant in her bright red uniform, beamed at me. I’d already seen her picture in the carpark and at the check-in counter.

At John F. Kennedy airport, as I was herded through the duty free – whether I wanted to go there or not – to be greeted by a life-size poster of Johnny Deep looking a bit mad flogging Sauvage by Dior, Cate Blanchett advertising Si perfume and Leonardo Di Caprio hawking Tag Hauer watches. I’d walked past them in Adelaide Airport the day before.

When I got to Times Square, the first giant electronic billboard I saw wasn’t for a Broadway show or live news from CNN or NBC. It was a digital picture of the Cathay Pacific flight attendant. Same smile, same style. The ubiquity of advertising is just one facet of the homogenisation of experience.

The global media carry almost identical stories and arguments about climate change, same sex marriage and unemployment. When I left Australia there was a debate raging about how many refugees the government should let in. I picked up a copy of the Washington Post and there’s Donald Trump wanting to build a wall between Mexico and America, to keep illegal immigrants out.

From my hotel room on West 23rd street near the Chelsea Hotel, I saw joggers running past wearing Nikes and iPhone earphones. Only three days before, I was almost knocked over by two young men, running down King William Street wearing iPhone earphones and sporting Nikes.

There used to be furious debates in Australia about protecting our cultural heritage from becoming Americanised. We’ve traded our history for rap music, iPhones and Facebook. Maybe that’s the price of progress. But something else is happening.

The homogenisation of experience goes much further than airports or commodities. It is a corporate business strategy that aims to ‘routinize’ and pacify the consumer.

If a memory is the accretion of a 1000 sensations bombarding our minds over time, then what remains when the world around us feels like a PowerPoint presentation we’ve seen and heard again and again?

Step in to a McDonald’s and apart from a few trimmings, the burger you had in Hindley Street will be the same as the burger you have on 9th Avenue in New York.

Starbucks has almost 24,000 identical stores in 70 countries, which serves identical coffee in identical cups to hundreds of thousands of people daily.

What’s standardised, homogenised and trotted out as a scripted greeting, is passive and safe. It’s a visual and aural pacifier.

It’s an invitation to conform and it makes one promise: you never need to feel lost again. The world will be as familiar and as routinized as a baby boomer holiday down the Danube.

The truly lived moments involve taking risks. Your hermetically seal, culturally acquired identity (‘I vote Green, work for the public service and like Hilary Mantel novels’), is useless when you’re wandering, utterly lost, down the tiny cobbled lanes of the Gothic Quarter in Barcelona – and enjoying every minute of it.

That delicacy made by a little old lady in her kitchen in Sarajevo might not pass international hygiene checks – and it might not be good for you – but it tastes amazing.

This is real diversity and it nothing to do with the mad workforce strategies of human resource mannequins, which aim to inculcate a rule-bound organisational culture. You might as well take initiative out and shoot it. What is standardised, regulated, timed and accounted for, lies deep in the grey scale of life.

If a memory is the accretion of a 1000 sensations bombarding our minds over time, then what remains when the world around us feels like a PowerPoint presentation we’ve seen and heard again and again?

In Walt Whitman’s great poem, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”, he imagines future generations living in New York:

I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,

Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,

Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd…

Whitman was writing about the human experience and individuals living in a world that was about to explode with new technologies, as American cities reached for the skies. What would he say of a generation who hungered for adventure but settled for a never-ending sameness?

He could not have conceived that brand power and global communication would create a seamless, almost timeless world, where the difference between ideas is measured by how much money a product or service makes.

As I flew back to Adelaide, it struck me that in our large village bound by sea and ranges, we have a moral imperative to reject ‘progress’ which dehumanises us. We are not cardboard cut-outs sitting in corporate cubicles but autonomous, sensate individuals born from wild nature.

Malcolm King, an Adelaide writer, works in generational change and is a regular InDaily columnist.

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