cupcakes and robots: Wednesday at We Media

I’m in Miami this week for the We Media conference, which brings together “leaders and ideas shaping media, business, communication, technology, education and participation in the connected society.”

Among yesterday’s events, which included a video presentation by David Plouffe and a brainstorming session on the future of business, media, education, philanthropy and government (in under two hours, no less), my favorite was something called “Decoding the Culture.”

Led by marketing strategist John Fischer, along with founder David Liu and Darryl Perkins of the Hip Hop Caucus, Decoding the Culture started with Coca-Cola and cleaning products and ended with teledildonics.

Maybe I should explain.

Fischer’s job is to make generalizations about culture — to look at human desires (like concern for the health of one’s family) and connect them to trends (like the growing interest in organic food), then predict what comes next. After the most beautifully simple slide presentation I’ve ever seen, Fischer encouraged the participants to flip through a stack of old magazines and rip out anything we found that seemed portentous (I should add that he warned us ahead of time that culture-decoding “takes practice”). He asked that we tag each image with a post-it note describing its significance and then paste them all together in a giant collage that would eventually help us complete the statement:

Because [blank] is happening today,
[blank] will happen tomorrow.

My group’s generalization started with a slew of ads emphasizing individual choice and ultra-personalization: coffee pods that come in 40 flavors! Mini cupcakes so you can put together your very own combination of half a dozen flavors! A portable digital photo printer that lets you express your Epsonality©!

And then Nathan James of the Media & Democracy Coalition found this Svedka ad:

That’s right. It’s a hypersexualized female robot handing you a cocktail.

This led us to a discussion of objectification, during which we wondered if robots are allowed to be gendered, whether female robots were the greatest dehumanization of women or whether, by focusing desire on inanimate objects, they represent the highest freedom. Regardless, we agreed that the robot was clearly designed to appeal to a specific desire, and the fact that it was built piece by piece means it is the perfect customization of that desire. Will personalized sexbots be the way that the current waves of individual expression and technology ultimately meet?

Because customized cupcakes are happening today, robot marriages will happen in the future.

I’m not sure if that’s exactly the takeaway Fischer was hoping for, but I think the exercise is still useful. For example: technology use is both increasing and diversifying in Uganda — more people are using more and more services and applications in more and more ways. What does this trend indicate for the future of, say, politics in East Africa? What are the implications for entrepreneurs, for web developers, for ICT companies? I’m not as good at culture forecasting as Fischer (um, clearly), but I kind of wish someone would send me a copy of African Woman so I can keep the creative collage juices flowing.

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