Art & Commerce: That’s So Next Year

With more companies, brands, products, messages, media outlets, content purveyors and platforms out there than ever before, people are locked in constant decision-making mode. What’s worthy of my time? What exactly should I pay attention to? And what should I buy into?

As trendspotters, it’s our job to make sense of the chaos, to connect seemingly disconnected details and put them into context, all with an eye toward what it means for the future. Our job is also about recognizing patterns from the past that are emerging in new but eerily predictable ways.

It’s in that spirit that we channel the tech sector circa 1999, pre-dot-com crash. Once again, established companies, venture capitalists, angel investors and hedge funds are backing upstarts that have aggregated audiences but little else in terms of monetary assets or sizable revenues. Case in point: Microsoft paying $240 million for a mere 1.6 percent stake in Facebook. With a grim outlook for the wider American economy—driven by the weak dollar and the subprime mortgage debacle—the tech market will experience a serious reality check.

As for Facebook, the tech-bubble poster child is taking steps to monetize eyeballs. Part of its recently unveiled ad plan to broadcast its members’ consumption behavior involves amplifying what we call the “personal CPM.” Thanks to interactive technologies, consumers can forge wide networks of kindred spirits and virtual friends, which means that personal recommendations are no longer limited by physical constraints. As more people participate, these networks will come to rival traditional media-born advertising in terms of influence and develop the equivalent of a personal CPM rate card. After all, word of mouth is the most powerful form of brand advocacy.

In this world of two to three degrees of digital separation, conspicuous living is at an all-time high, with people clamoring to show and tell all, no matter how personal. This radical transparency marks the new generation gap, a divide between those who relish privacy and those who feel they have nothing to hide. Having grown up with celebrity culture, reality TV, the Internet and anti-terrorism security, younger generations take lack of privacy for granted. Unlike their wary elders, they have few qualms about opening up their lives. You can be sure that this has driven the new boomer obsession with the millennial generation.

Not only are we sharing ourselves, we’re also sharing our property more than ever. Fractional ownership is moving beyond the shared planes of the jet-setting elite. The masses are sharing everything from art to cars to designer handbags, and as technology for pooling demand and resources becomes increasingly sophisticated, this model of cooperative consumption will be applied to an even wider range of categories.

While technology is flattening the world—allowing us instant access to anyone or anything, anywhere, anytime—it is also leading the paradoxical shift from global to local. Cell phones, cheap online advertising and location-based technologies have made it a lot easier for people to meet their needs locally. And with global companies no longer holding a monopoly on mass communication, more people are looking to conduct commerce locally, especially as an ever-growing number of global brands are slapped onto products made somewhere else and sold everywhere. The more ubiquitous these commodities become, the more incentive there is to seek out and savor what’s distinctly local.

Technology, a common thread here, is also helping aging populations live longer than ever before. Pills and procedures (often non-invasive) are allowing more people to live with chronic ailments and survive surgeries that have historically killed patients at a younger age. And in many cases, these patients are able to sustain a fairly comfortable quality of life.

Medical science is increasingly able to help prevent disease altogether. Doctors are using advanced technologies, notably genetic testing, to determine whether patients have a propensity for specific illnesses and recommending sometimes radical preventative measures to those at high risk. And drug companies are developing more vaccines or new approaches that can eradicate or diminish the likelihood of disease.

As life spans increase, will it be smarter to marry young or focus on building a career and friendships first? What about kids? A person in his or her early 50s may well have no children, be a first-time parent, a grandparent, a stepparent and the parent of toddlers, all at the same time. It’s safe to say that age is no longer a demographic predictor. The possible permutations of age, gender, marital status, family composition, work status and health will become too complex for easy demographic pigeonholing to be useful.

A crucial shift affecting demography is the rising power of women. Women are starting to get a fairer share of opportunities, power and money. They’re taking greater control over their own fertility. And they’re challenging the privileges that have made it a man’s world. Consider what’s happening on the political stage: In recent years, Argentina, Chile, South Korea, Liberia, Mozambique and Finland elected women as heads of state for the first time. And in 2008, Hillary Clinton stands a chance of achieving the same feat in this country. It won’t stop being a man’s world overnight, but women will increasingly be shaping the world according to their needs.

No forecast would be complete without citing the next big shift relating to the environment. Look for blue to replace green as environmentalism’s color du jour. Climate change has quickly become the driver of environmentalism 2.0, and people worldwide understand that climate is all about the seas and the sky. And blue (denoting water) is becoming as big an issue as green (forests). The era of apparently limitless clean water supplies is coming to an end around the world, due largely to pollution. Water management and conservation will rise up the agendas of governments and corporations around the world—water just might become the next oil. Although there are some alternatives to oil, there’s no alternative to water.

In 2008, look for the premiumization of a number of things once deemed commodities, starting with water. This applies as well to personal opinions, local goods and real business plans. Technology will continue to drive unprecedented change (giving new meaning to “transparent,” enabling sharing like never before and making medical miracles), as will demography, with patterns becoming increasingly fragmented. In other words, the near future promises to be ever more complex.