Wednesday 20 September 2006

Luxury, Technology and the Long View

Luxury, Technology and the Long View, by Alexander Gallé, was first published in Luxury 
Briefing's 10-year anniversary issue in September 2006.
"In 2001, technology will be so evolved, every house will have a robot to fetch our slippers and make us a gin and tonic as soon as we get home from work".
This is how people talked about the year 2001, back in the 50s, whenever they talked about bright and wonderful futures. For the more hardcore ideas of the time, read Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov.
2001 was still a pretty long way off in the 50s. What's interesting, though, is that we still carried on talking about the year 2001 like the magic year of technology throughout the 60s, 70s, 80s, right until the 90s. As the year 2001 got closer and closer, our vision of the future literally became more and more shortsighted.
The upshot of this is that, since the late 90s, the status of future-guru is given to practically anyone who can imagine what wonderful new toys technology will bring us over the next 3 years. What started as an idealistic and futuristic vision is looking more and more like a walk in the fog.
All this, at a time when what we need more than ever is a long view.
Luxury brands know all about the long view. One of the key market differentiators in luxury is a long heritage: fine X for connoisseurs since YYYY. There is a future for luxury, too: consider Asprey's or Patek Philippe's proposition that you're not buying their products for yourself, but for your descendants.
One cannot help but feel, though, that heritage and descendance are often just trumpcards being brandished to add a few buzzwords to a short-termist marketing plan, or to polish yet another corporate buyout strategy with yet another re-branding plan.
Notre-Dame took more than 600 years to build, some of the pharaohs' temples more than 900. The people who conceived these projects knew they would be long gone before completion. 600 years is more than 20 generations. True, much of what took so long then could be built in 10 years today, but consider what could be achieved if luxury brands' looked a bit further than the average 5-year business plan. Consider the sort of project that a modern luxury brand could 'own' and aim to complete in, say, just one human lifetime.
Why all this philosophising, in a column that is supposed to look at the merits of the latest and greatest luxury websites? Well, Luxury Briefing is 10 years old this month. Coincidence would have it that 10 years ago I designed my first commercial website. Much has evolved. Even the essentials couldn't be squeezed meaningfully into a single page.
However, infinitely more things are going to evolve in the next 10 years. The opening up of resources, technique and information has only just begun. The development of unprecedented quality in all products and services, real and virtual, has only just begun. The impact of an open and transparent way of doing business has only just begun (and there are many more Enron scandals to come, too).
Equally, the idiosyncracies of the interactive medium have only just begun to become part of the fabric. It took a couple of hundred years before the full impact of Gutenberg's invention of the printing press was felt, but it undoubtedly reshaped human thinking at its very core. It took film over 20 years before D.W. Griffiths and Sergei Eisenstein formalised a basic 'film grammar' into the craft of filmic storytelling, and attempted to construct their first features. During much of the first decade of the 20th century, films were quite successful being no longer than the length of a single reel, as producers simply couldn't envisage the attention span of the audience to be any longer than this.
In terms of cultural impact, we are clearly still only at the beginning of the beginning of an all-pervasive technological revolution that will void of relevance much of the luxury sector's current interests and concerns. What if, in only a few decades, upper and lower social classes evolved into completely different species, as the former is genetically engineered and re-engineered, generation after generation, to become smarter than the competition? The cultural meaning of 'luxury' in such a context would be something quite different to what we have in mind today. The income hierarchy alone would be replaced by something new and much more interesting. The definition of 'being special', of being 'one of the elect', would become so radically changed that luxury brands would acquire a completely different mindset and vocabulary to be understood by their customers.
The core idea behind many of today's luxury brands is to some extent a product of post-Gutenberg modernisation which enabled a commoner to put his good name, as a gentleman and craftsman, to the work he did. Many luxury brands are founded on the achievements of individuals who were both businessmen and artists, whose rise to such respectability would have been unthinkable in a feudal system, where a non-nobleman would simply not have been in a position to even contemplate such greatness outside of the religious sphere. The idea of meritocracy lies at the core of many current luxury brands' first steps. Subsequent tides in modernisation have brought into existence different types of luxury brand, which partly explains why Garrard opened in 18th century London, Boucheron in mid-19th century Paris, and Gucci in early-to-mid-20th century Florence.
Therefore, it is likely that the present idea itself of a luxury brand, its raison d'être, could only exist within a window of opportunity that the next couple of waves of technology will render obsolete. On the other hand, it is likely that technological development over the next 10 or 20 years will present luxury brands with the opportunity to acquire a new meaning that they simply haven't had before.
In this field, like in any other evolutionary system, it is not the strongest that will survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.