Dirk Knemeyer

The unbounded self

The unbounded self, December 12, 2004

A short comment contextualizing the prediction could go right here

We are in the midst of a major trend to co-creation and ubiquitous participation. This is evident in so many ways. For example, consider reality television. For much of its history, television was the ultimate escapist fantasy: people watched professional actors and performers create artificial and often idealized worlds. In retrospect, the programs were compelling for their time in the best case and embarrassingly stupid in the worst. But beyond uniformly improving the quality, television has evolved into a participant medium. We don’t just watch, we perform and compete. Any one of us can try out for “Survivor” or “The Bachelor” or “The Apprentice.” Rather than being an unattainable fantasy world, television is now the domain of us all. We are competing against other non-professionals. And people are watching! Rather than escaping into unreal worlds like “The Munsters” “Petticoat Junction” or “MacGyver”, we are watching people rather like us competing in slightly real, slightly warped games and contests. The boundary between performer and spectator have blurred, if not almost disappeared altogether. We have become part of the game.

Now, this should be no great surprise to cultural scholars who got enough clues from people like Derrida, Jameson, and Foucault to see this coming. But in a business sense, we should have taken initiative on this more quickly. Sure, broad brushstrokes in the areas of one-to-one marketing – preceding the mainstreaming of the web – and applying participation and co-creation to games and design, have already been happening. But it still seems like we’re way behind. I mean, why are we so surprised to see professional athletes and spectators physically attacking each other? Traditional boundaries are a thing of the past. Going back about half a century, this began at a much more macro level, as lines between gender and races weakened, migrating into other domains. People are not tolerant to boundaries, particularly those that are more symbolic. They want to exert their will and influence. They want to participate. They do not discern boundaries that exist only through respect or tradition or expectation. This is happening in many parallel ways: the basketball incident, reality television, the position of U.S. president having less respect than at almost any point in the country’s history, increasingly lax broadcast guidelines for indecency, the rapid increase in popularity of video games…all are signifiers of something larger.

More than the foundation for an interesting philosophical and cultural analysis, it provides the signpost for how we approach our customers/market/users/participants/: people want to participate. They don’t want to read or to watch or otherwise be passive. They want to exert their will, add their voice to the chorus, see their influence. Interaction truly is interaction, in the most literal and engaged way, not just a word that speaks to the fact some sort of passive action is being taken. But why? The secret to business success in a consumer context will be tapping into this active yearning that is often below the surface. It is understanding the root needs and desires that continue to accelerate the erasure of lines between spectator and performer, between imaginary entertainment and “reality” entertainment, between respectful observation and self-motivated participation. Leveraging this is less about replicating it in a literal and linear way (“How do we give our customers the most possible involvement and engagement?”) and more about innovating new ways to maximize the root needs and desires (“These trends exist for specific sociological and psychological reasons, and we can find a new way into those through…”)