Saturday 16 August 2014

Faking It

This essay was published in Luxury Briefing in July 2014


Faking It
by Alexander Gallé
6 July 2014

The film "Tim's Vermeer" (2014) documents the story of a hacker/inventor, Tim Jenison, as he successfully recreates a Vermeer painting using various optical tools that were available to Vermeer in the XVIIth century.  The film makes a convincing case that technological inventiveness, rather than artistic mastery, was the reason why Vermeer's paintings were so much more vivid and realistic than any of his contemporaries' work.  Tim's use of a cleverly positioned small mirror - to evaluate the difference at any point between an object's colour and its painted representation - turns the painter's role into nothing more than an information processor, albeit a very precise and meticulous one.  

The academic reaction to this analysis of one of the greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age has been somewhat negative, as you might expect.  This is mostly because any assertion on the use of technology in fine art is wrongly interpreted as an accusation of being a "faker", of not really being as great an artist as one pretended to be.

In his book "The Age of Intelligent Machines", Ray Kurzweil explains the exponential acceleration of technology by arguing that any field of science or engineering that comes into contact with information technology, will itself become an information technology, which then allows it to evolve at the same rate of acceleration as information technology. Since the 70s, the effect of this acceleration has been visible in just about every sector of industry: planes become flying computers, cars become computers on wheels, and the collective intellectual output of humanity becomes accessible on pocket-sized computers called smartphones.

And yet, Kurzweil's central claim - that artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence within the next 25 years - seems to trigger a rather negative reaction among academics.  Every time AI reaches a new groundbreaking result in a field thought to be critical to developing intelligence, "true" intelligence is apparently about something even more elusive, and the method used to achieve the result is derided as "faking it", much in the way that technology in fine art is thought of as "faking it".

Technology's impact has been huge in the luxury sector, too, not only because it has helped some adventurous brands go much further than previously thought possible, but mostly because it has significantly reduced the cost of producing high quality goods, thereby making them available to people who until not so long ago would not have been the luxury sector's target audience.

As a result, a similar kind of denial has been creeping into the luxury sector, belittling the achievements made by newcomers and tech-oriented brands.  Tesla's cars, apparently, have no "love".  The best new world wines, apparently, have a "goût technologique".  Brands like Apple are, apparently, "masstige".  Never mind the fact that everyone remembers their jaw dropping when they first got into a Tesla, drank a glass of Bonny Doon's "Cigare Volant", or had an iPhone in their hands, "true" luxury suddenly seems to require many more elusive attributes, and technology is somehow perceived to be just a way of "faking it".

Is it true you need soul to create great art?  Yes.  Is it true there is more to intelligence than beating Kasparov at chess?  Yes.  Is it true you need culture to create luxury products?  Yes.  But technology does not fake those human attributes.  Rather, it augments humans' ability to leverage those attributes, and to allow more of us to enjoy their fruits.  Technoluxe doesn't fake luxe, it augments it.

Tuesday 18 March 2014

Luxury and enlightenment

This essay was published in Luxury Briefing in March 2014


Her, the ultimate brand
by Alexander Gallé
March 2014

Making something pretty is easy.  Making something meaningful is the real challenge.

I've been thinking a lot about this recently.  It puts in a nutshell what brand design signifies to me.  We're working right now on a brand identity which has brought me something like a minor epiphany - let's call it a "ping" - and I've been thinking about what exactly the "ping" is.

It is certainly a beautiful brand.  Much of it is inspired by baroque design, full of curves and complexity.  But the aspect that is really inspiring about the work done so far, is that it all fits conceptually.  Why the choice of baroque style?  Because the brand's values are rooted in the Enlightenment.  Why are this brand's values rooted in the Enlightenment?  The answer is in the word itself: light.  Intelligent use of light is what makes this particular product so good.  But, going deeper, it is clear that the mission behind the product is to achieve through science and knowledge what Bernini's Holy Spirit - a stained glass window depicting a dove emanating light - achieved with religiously inspired art: to transcend, to go beyond.  In other words, to enlighten.

Quite a few brands have been evolving their "ping" over the last few decades.  One of the best examples is Nike.  Since the 80s, Nike haven't been selling shoes, they've been selling "Just do it".  The spirit behind the brand is what you were buying, the product is just an embodiment of that spirit.  The ultimate brand would be for a product that is weightless and invisible, but that changes everything about your life for the better and makes you feel great.

Interestingly, I have recently discovered a weightless and invisible product that changes everything about its user's life for the better and makes him feel great.  Sadly, the product only exists in a science fiction film set in 2025.  That film is "Her" by Spike Jonze.  Its story revolves around Theodore, a man who develops a romantic relationship with a body-less artificially intelligent operating system whose first decision is to call herself Samantha.  Originally installed on his computer to help him organise his virtual life like a personal assistant, Samantha delights Theodore by the speed at which she learns about life, the depth of her insight, her ability to intuit what he needs to do and change in his life to be happier.  Within weeks, she composes wonderful pieces of music inspired by their moments together, and draws witty illustrations of their jokes.  They spend weeks walking everywhere together, having great conversations and forming a genuine romantic relationship.  That is, he walks everywhere, she speaks to him and interacts with the world through his smartphone. 

The relationship deteriorates when it becomes clear that, like all code, Samantha is infinitely replicable: she's not working just for Theodore but for another few thousand people, and is in a romantic relationship with hundreds of them.  Are these iterations copies of her, or are they also her?  Does this multiplicity weaken their relationship's authenticity or does it augment it? At this point, it becomes clear that the limitation that attributes value to anything because it is a material object and "mine" is a human limitation.  Theodore is most hurt by his own possessiveness over Samantha who, by her essential non-material nature, cannot be owned. 

The transhuman aspects of this story are phenomenal, but going back to the fact that Samantha was a product bought by Theodore, the lesson for this brand designer is this: the ultimate brand will not only sell a weightless and invisible product but, wonderful and life-changing as it will be, it'll also be a brand that challenges humans' hardwired notions that we attribute value to things because they exist in the physical world and can therefore be owned.  The ultimate brand will sell an experience that transcends these limits and go beyond.  In other words, it'll sell Enlightenment.

Tuesday 18 February 2014

Subjective luxury

This essay was published in Luxury Briefing in February 2014


Value and subjectivism
by Alexander Gallé
February 2014

The idea of "enchantment-augmented" products certainly seems to have hit home with a few readers, judging by the unusual number of positive reactions to my last article.

Despite this, the value of the emotional connection as a core aspect of luxury brands seems to have not been captured in its full depth.  As a result, it is being thought of as just the icing on the cake, the core of the luxury industry being some kind of more intrinsic quality of the products.

There are two ways to approach this argument.  The first is to look at the exponential trend in technology, which I've been doing here at Luxury Briefing for a few years now.  The other is to look at the importance of subjectivity, and of subjective experience in other areas of our lives.

The first approach is, in my view, uncontestable.  I was born in the early 70s, when computers the size of your house only had a fraction of the computing power of your iPhone.  You only have to follow the evolution curve to understand that, in about 20 years, computers the size of your white blood cells are going to be 1,000 times more powerful than your iPhone.  The connectivity between them will be so complex that new levels of artificial intelligence will emerge out of their systems to create things that are as magic to you and me as today's iPhones would be to Isaac Newton.  What was a luxury item to the world's wealthiest man in 1913 is today available to billions of people around the planet.  What is a luxury item to the world's wealthiest man today will be available to billions of people around the planet in 2033.

The second approach takes a little more thinking about what it is that makes us happy, and what it is that makes us act, and interact.  Which provides me a happier and more memorable experience?  The plane journey that takes me to Lima an hour faster, or the plane journey that offers free broadband Wi-Fi access, great food, great wine, great coffee, polite stewardesses and courteous airport security?  Look at the online feedback and be blown away, as all customer comments are about subjective experiences: my seat was scruffy, my stewardess rude, my food tasted bland, my seat had no TV screen, we had no internet access and couldn't find out why our plane was delayed, etc.  The Stoics had it right: it's all about the effect experience has on our emotions.  Happily, there are a million things one could do in this field at a fraction of the cost of a faster plane.  For suppliers, therefore, luxury turns out to be the cheaper option.

The subjectivist approach goes much deeper, and there is, in my view, nobody who went deeper in our understanding of human interaction than the economist Ludwig von Mises did in his book "Human Action".  For Mises, all trade is based on subjective value.  In human affairs, there is no value other than subjective value.  The reason I trade my tie for your shirt is not that there is an equivalence between these two products, as classical economists would argue, it's that there is subjective improvement on both sides of the equation. Your shirt is more valuable to me, my tie is more valuable to you.  The money I earned working for you is more valuable to me than the time I lost, the product of my labour is more valuable to you than the money you paid me. 

All this aggregate value derived from millions of human interactions forms a matrix - a mesh as it were - of information that is, in its aggregate, objective.  For example, it'll tell you the market price of anything as defined by its comparison of value with everything else.  But the matrix's fabric, the stuff it is made of, is subjectivity.  Greater value is subjective value, and the greater price of luxury products reflects this.  Luxury is subjective.