A NEW WORLD CREATIVE AGENCY CHALLENGING BRANDS TO GO FURTHER
We live in an age of uncertainty. The constant flow of commodities, technologies and even ideas that make up our global markets has snowballed, over time, creating a mammoth, multi-directional discourse in which our collective experience of change is fortified by a collective feeling of chaos and anxiety.
This, in essence, is PERMA-FLUX.
The impact of PERMA-FLUX is significant. So significant, it’s forced an evolution in how we understand the world. We question our realities. Then we question our feelings towards our particular realities. Then we question whether our feelings towards our realities corresponds with everyone else’s questions about their own individual realities — individual realities which at some point, presumably, come together to form a reality that we experience collectively.
As uncertainty increases, it becomes more difficult to predict the future. No wonder, then, that our current era can feel so short-sighted, extending scarcely a week or two into the past and future at any time.
The faster time moves, the harder it is to locate yourself within the current moment. 24-hour cable news and ‘always-on’ digital media have turned the present moment into something that engulfs us. Constantly. Over and over.
This type of change – ongoing, non-linear and exponential – completely disrupts the structures that informed and helped to create 20th century society. And how we adapt to them will, in turn, determine our ability to prosper as individuals and as communities in the 21st.
Human interconnectivity, in tandem with the global market exchange of commodities, technologies and ideas has created a new reality in which previously localised systems such as economics, politics and even music transcend from local and national schemas to the global – the Universal reality.
Amidst this gradual homogenisation, we each maintain elements of distinctive mental programming that we share with others in society. Though these distinctions have historically manifested along lines such as race, nation, ethnicity, gender and sexual identity, the advent of the Internet and digital culture has facilitated the creation of infinite new ‘cultural realities’.
The core of the apple, Individual reality comprises those subconscious specificities that structure our reactions to cultural and universal reality. As each current enacts its push-and-pull on our lives, their impact is registered in changes to our individual realities.
In recent years, cultural and universal reality has been allowed to thrive at the expense of the stability of individual reality. Yet understanding our individual realities and how they interact with one another is crucial to determining our collective future.
First, however, we have to accept that many of the feelings we experience as were traverse these three dimensions may never be fully known or understood, nor separated from the observer or individual. In a complex and ambiguous reality, our long-term success rests on our ability to navigate PERMA-FLUX with patience, creativity, and empathy.
Pre-Internet, the structure of these realities and their influence was easier to map out. We lived in a world (universal reality) full of clearly-defined commodities and industries to trade with and through. Our home nation created the framework (cultural reality) for living through politics and local cultural forces. And for the most part, our feelings (individual reality) had little recourse to enact change upon the former two.
Our universal reality comprises a world which is, by most measures, dying, and a global economy that now includes data, derivatives, algorithms, and countless other opaque digital products that are constantly bought and sold, bought and sold, each time vanishing back into the economic ether.
Cultural realities have shifted, though not entirely, onto the digital plane, where we are now constantly creating new communities based on the media we consume, the stores we shop in, the mailing lists we receive in our inboxes, even the subreddits we subscribe to and the celebrities who have blocked us on Twitter.
Furthermore, political unrest across huge segments of the globe means that the notion of cultural reality in a purely geological sense is questionable (what’s the cultural reality of Raqqa, Syria, for example?) and even if such a question could be meaningfully answered, for how long will that answer be accurate before the forces of individual and universal reality throw it once more into uncertainty?
Individual reality, meanwhile, has arguably risen to prominence, but typically in lacklustre and oft-troubling ways; collated into charts and graphs so fast-fashion brands can sell you algorithmically-designed t-shirts on Facebook, or translated into data so that your dislike of baked beans can be leveraged to sway your vote in an upcoming election.
What does this mean? In short, it’s a double-edged sword. We exist across digital and physical spheres, and we exist differently within each of these spheres. New technologies and systems are susceptible to, even explicitly designed for, our newly-empowered individual realities. The Internet has radically altered our realities beyond our capacity to fully understand them, and the question of whether this will create utopia or tyranny depends on how quickly we come to terms with this fact.
Over the years, numerous theories and models have been formulated in attempts to classify human emotions. The current model of interest, the ‘Wheel of Emotions’ developed by Robert Plutchik in the 1980s, comprises 8 primary emotions arranged in a wheel, surrounded by a further 16 secondary and tertiary emotions; for example, the primary emotion of rage is followed by anger, and then annoyance. As the wheel branches off, the relationship between each emotion can be visualised. Plutchik then breaks down a wide array of human feelings into neighboring ‘petals’ on his wheel of emotions. Love, for example, is identified as a combination of joy and trust, while shame is made from fear and disgust.
PERMA-FLUX requires us to understand the power of emotions and their impact on our realities. Through our work tracking and dissecting consumer shifts and cultural connections, new, opposing emotions have arisen that we believe are having a lasting impact on society. Building on Plutchik’s wheel, these ‘new’ oppositional emotions are a consequence of the post-Internet world; a clear distinction from previous theories and thinking. Our model evolves the theory of opposites, surfacing conflicting emotions that now co-exist.
In a post-truth world, we are increasingly sceptical of new information, and there is an increasing demand for more transparent and ethical practices. Facebook is working harder than ever to convince us to trust them with our private data, but only because they’ve spent so many years betraying that trust. Our desire to live harmoniously with the digital powerhouses with whom we are sharing evermore personal information and feelings is met with near-continuous betrayal. And still, we don’t leave.
Clickbait media is now the name of the game. Every article you read, every news broadcast you watch, whether from Fox News, MSNBC or the BBC, has been crafted to elicit an emotional response. They reveal how passionate we are about a subject, which is always a lot, because the messaging tells us that we should be. We expend huge amounts of energy trying to stay plugged in and passionate, becoming overloaded with information and burnt out with the bludgeoning of daily affairs.
Such a predictably chaotic and chaotically predictable approach to the news media production could only ever lead to one thing for its consumers – burnout, followed by apathy. Every news story is a bombshell, same as the day before, and the day before, and the day before.
Consumer culture tells us that we are naturally drawn towards people and commodities that represent an ‘ideal’, but as ‘perfection’ becomes more accessible, the more we are forced to question the truth in reality.
Crisp, airbrushed images of cell phones and chicken sandwiches sell us ideals that could never be matched by their real-life counterparts. Pore-perfect renderings of digital ‘supermodels’ thrust us into the uncanny valley. When our vision and our intuition fail to align, our interest is led down a path to contempt. After all, the first iPhone changed the entire world, but that latest one looks pretty disappointing, doesn’t it?
We know we have less than two decades to radically change our consumption to reverse climate change. But we live in a world where social currency is traded on the brands you buy, the clothes you wear, and exclusivity. Our desire for the scarcity that creates desirable commodities could leave us with a society defined by scarcity of food, water, energy and land. The pursuit of gratification leads to, and is often already coupled with, the guilt of the consequences of that same pursuit. We want out of the game so we can save the planet, but saving the planet might leave us shut out of the game.
The way that our environment shapes our behaviour often extends beyond our ability to perceive it. What has become clear is that everything we do and believe is formed by the technologies we build and use. Combined with the communication breakthroughs of the late-twentieth century, the message is clear: When you alter the flow of information through society, you alter the society itself.
The digital revolution shattered existing models for the exchange of knowledge and information. Where the previous cost for acquiring knowledge encompassed books, library visits, higher-education costs and more, the rise of the Internet and affordable digital technology means the barrier to entry is significantly lower than even 10 years ago. Where factual disputes were once settled by academics and those party to particular channels of information, now they’re decided by citations from Google and Wikipedia, a web of references with no beginning or end, by the people, for the people.
What this represents is a transition from information scarcity to information abundance. Mainstream media, a structure which held, and continues to hold, immense influence over communities, is transforming on many fronts from a passive delivery and consumption system to a non-stop, hyperlinked, interactive broadcast of reactive (and often reactionary) news.
As social media networks continue to be the only ‘tool’ with which we can engage this new paradigm, the landscape of the networks prevails; content is shared and consumed dependent upon each user’s groups, subscriptions and alignments. The transient nature of each platform, with content flying past at breakneck speed, lends itself to the rinse-and-repeat nature of 24-hour news cycles. We’ve lost perspective, becoming more shaped by the nature of the media than the content itself.
The creation, dispersal and globalisation of new digital economies has had a greater impact in 30 years than the Industrial Revolution, a process that took almost a century. This rapid, disruptive change is one of the origins of increasing complexity, unpredictability and chaos.
If iron, coal and steam were the fuel of the Industrial Revolution, the fuel of the digital revolution is data. The plurality of tech and digital media companies’ profitability comes from their ability to algorithmically organise the wealth of data they collect about us into information that can be used to sell us commodities. For many of these companies, the creation of perfect consumer subjects is the explicit end goal.
In the globalised economy, the city has superseded the nation in importance in international trade, immigration and cultural exchange. Globalisation and the homogenisation it brings with it has not entirely obliterated geography so much as it has reformed cities as the vital centres of influence structures.
Furthermore, it could be said that many cities share more in common with one another than they do with their nation-states. They share the same systems, host the same events, have the same artistic institutions, offer the same services commodities, and in turn create the same lifestyles. Residents from completely different places now live in the same cultural realities as urban, ‘urbanised’ subjects.
In October 2018, the UN IPCC released a landmark report stating urgent and unprecedented changes are needed over the next 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe. The severity of changing weather patterns and increasing natural disasters has created a new term, ‘solastalgia’, describing the mental, existential distress or feeling of loss caused by environmental changes that affect our environment. Witnessing the direct effects of climate change has created within us a ticking time-bomb of anxiety.
At the whirlpool’s edge, the water appears to move pretty slowly. As you move toward the centre, however, the current gets much faster, and more chaotic. Similarly, the acceleration of change affects us all, wherever we are. Though those of us who live in urban centres might experience PERMA-FLUX with more intensity, those currents are present in rural and suburban communities also. And though they might appear to move more slowly, they’re still moving toward the centre.
In 2019, anyone over the age of 18 has experienced PERMA-FLUX. In many ways, it’s a concept that was defined by the events of 18 years ago. September 11th, 2001 was, in many ways, the event that marked the beginning of the new era, a time when information necessarily had to be in flux, where the enemy could be in one country today, another tomorrow, maybe even living next door to you. Smartphones, fibre-optic cable, cloud storage and the Internet of Things only amplified this cultural shift.
Now, in the aftermath of numerous significant historical and political milestones, we’re beginning to question whether what we’re told is the truth, and if not, whether we, the people, could find that truth, and if not, whether such a thing as truth exists at all. But we also understand that our engagements with the world as individuals affect us as collectives, and vice-versa. We have a shared understanding of the power of emotions and media, how the latter has sought to manipulate the former, and how we might begin to overcome that stranglehold.
If we are to continue to thrive whilst living in PERMA-FLUX, we must reassert and re-establish our control whilst accepting and embracing our lack of the very same. Go with the PERMA-FLUX. Lean into it. In an increasingly porous reality, your emotions might be the only North Star we have, so learn to use them as a guide. Emotional intelligence is the most valuable skill for the future. By acknowledging this, we can start to have a conversation about how we can use it to shape our future.
Awakening to PERMA-FLUX is like Morpheus’ little red pill in The Matrix. Once you’ve seen it, you can’t un-see it. You can, however, seek to understand what creates and contributes to PERMA-FLUX, so that you may begin to reassert control over your individual, cultural and universal realities.
The term PERMA-FLUX was chosen with much consideration. Aside from the obvious interpretation of ‘Perma’ alluding to permanence, it’s also an acronym used by pioneer of positive psychology Martin Seligman, standing for P o sitive Emotion, En gagement, R elationships, M eaning and Ac complishments). Under Seligman’s theory of well-being, these building blocks drive many modern day professional practices.
‘Flux’ then provides the anti-thesis to the humanistic ‘Perma’, a fitting notion given the dualistic and oppositional nature of current events.
This project is a theory. This theory is a project. It lives in PERMA-FLUX.