(Photo: Fight Club, 1999. Studios: Regency Enterprises and 20th Century Fox)
Tyler Durden. Renton. Remember those guys? One looked a lot like Brad Pitt, the other like Ewan McGregor. Two charismatic anti-heroes of the 90's: poets, philosophers, one a pugilist, the other a heroin addict, and both occupants of society's fringe.
Irvine Welsh's Renton advised us (with thick irony) to "choose life" by choosing a career, washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and "a fucking big television."
Chuck Palahniuk's Durden was more direct. "You are not your job, you're not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You're not the contents of your wallet. You are not your fucking khakis."
Different accents, different flavours of candour, but Durden and Renton shared the same derision of a capitalist age greased by feverish, never-satiated consumerism.
In the decade before everything went digital and everyone became connected, Fight Club and Trainspotting were time-capsule reflections of young angry men who weren't apathetic but articulate and planned on beating the system their way. Because if sucking on the marrow of life amounted to no more than browsing IKEA catalogues illuminated by the flicker of a super-sized TV screen, then chasing a few dragons and letting off a truck load of Semtex maybe seemed like a border-line medicinal way of letting off steam.
Of course, Durden's 90's angst was a long-shadow reaction to 'Conspicuous Consumption', that overt and defining socio-economic signature of the 50's and 60s. Think retro-cool images of glossy brochure lifestyles, of "happy housewives" being bought "the latest modern appliances" so their stay-home would remain a happy one, where everyone flew Pan Am, and life was in primary colours and swaggered to a lounge bar beat. That was the world, at least, once the Mad Men-glam had been applied.
"Buying, owning, possessing": back then, as today, it remains crucial to a well-greased manufacturing base, from which economic health is diagnosed. So long as everyone keeps buying, everything will be ok.
Only... what continues to change is our relationship and reliance on "things". It is less than it once was. Our stuff has been demoted. The things we own no longer stand as the only yard sticks of achievement. Self-definition is less so the suit or watch we wear, or the places we choose and can afford to holiday. Technology has changed our relationship with materialism.
We've moved from Conspicuous Consumption... to 'Conspicuous Communication'. We live in the 'Age of the Share'.
Society now holds "sharing" in the highest esteem. "Thanks for sharing" has gone from eye-rolling Valley Girl-speak sarcasm and figure amongst the highest forms of sincere flattery.
Our online social standing falls and rises daily by the quality and quantity of the information we push and peddle. The links, lists, top 5 principles for this, the 3 things highly effective people do before they eat their shreddies. The sound-bites and headlines are the pounds, dollars and nuggets of our social currency, so feeding our on-the-quarter-hour Scooby snacking.
We have all become the One and the Many. All of us: conspicuously communicating. Everyone: creating, commenting, searching out, sharing, craving... "great content".
If Monopoly was invented today, the winner would not come down to who has three hotels on Pall Mall, but who has built the largest Twitter following, generated the greatest number of "friends" and likes, and created the largest subscription-based Multichannel network. You land on my YouTube brand channel, and it's Game Over for you.
It's hard not to judge these times a little darkly: to suggest we're becoming slaves to content, that beast with a bottomless stomach. It's hard not to suggest that having "followers" gives us the illusion of celebrity, and that all those tweets and posts and "shares" are feeding that other insatiable beast we're hostage to, the fame monster.
But every coin has two sides. An old friend of mine Faris Yakob recently described himself as "a techno-meliorist" He believes "things usually get better, thanks to technology." I'd like to believe the same, and unlike Renton, but like Faris, I choose to look positively on our digital life and what it's encouraging. In the spirit of the times, allow me to share 4 positives:
1. Voice: Technology has given everyone a voice. Technology has given us all independent low-cost means. Even if it's just at the level of logging a "like", self-expression is an expression of our need to be individuals; our need to feel free.
2. Talent outs: Curators have never been held in higher regard. People are turning themselves into one-man Reuters news feeds and on-the-money Zeitgeist barometers. Nobody wants to be a nobody, and now everyone has invitation to ripple the Zeitgeist, to tweet until they trend, to not only have a voice but to potentially be heard.
3. "Sharing" breeds generosity: Hard-wired into Conspicuous Communication is a revived cultural onus on paying it forward. Sharing is good, is by its nature inclusive, generous, caring.
4. Belonging: consider the very interconnectedness of it all, the way you can watch a twitter trend and it's like watching a murmuration of starlings - "in form and moving express and admirable" - with more than a murmur on its collective mind. And you can not only watch but be part of those murmurings, can belong to the trend.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that part of the beauty of literature is that "You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you're not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong." Social media is mimicking the beauty of literature.
We're fast becoming the sum total of our shares, in this 'Age of the Share'. We are the people we follow and the people who follow us. We are that which we post and blog. We are that which we retweet and like.
Choose life. Choose to 'Like'. Choose Wordpress or Typepad or Blogger or Tumblr. Choose Twitter. Choose your followers, high speed internet and a damn sexy-looking tablet in a choice of vibrant colours.
Welcome to the Digital State.