The New Emperor
I really enjoy Tim Wu's writing for the New York Times and his article about Bitcoin this morning hit home for me in a powerful way. If you want to understand part of the motivation for this entry, have a run through his piece first. If not, I'll give you the quick summary: while acknowledging the likely possibility that Bitcoin is itself a giant bubble and/or pyramid scheme, Wu points out that part of the crypto-currency's popularity stems from the fact that many people today trust code and technology more than fellow humans. Given the current state of the American government and the financial meltdown of 2008, it's not hard to understand why. You can read more about that theory by clicking the above link.
This past week has been an eye-opener for me in terms of feeling my age. Not because I'm gray-haired and wrinkled (I'm not!!), or tired and worn down by life, but because I simply don't understand the basis for some of today's pop culture enthusiasm. It's one thing to hear a Taylor Swift song and feel out of the loop in terms of modernity, but it's an entirely different feeling when your own industry or similar retail environments feel completely foreign. It's one of panic, almost; it's almost as if there's a giant ruse going on around you and everyone's in on it except for you. When it comes to consumable entertainment—meaning booze, food, legalized marijuana, you name it—I've always felt like I had a solid understanding of where the various markets were headed, but in the case of the currently-evolving young generation I'm finding myself more and more puzzled by what motivates it.
I read the same old articles about how fashion is dying because young kids today just want activewear, or how fine jewelry sales are down because American millennials don't care about diamonds. They stay at AirBnB rentals instead of hotels. They spend all their money on experiences rather than things and that new focus is changing the way the luxury goods market works (hence why all of that business is now going overseas). The idea of shunning possessions in exchange for life experiences isn't new; it makes complete sense to me. In fact, it's a philosophy I think about all the time. However, when the experience that I'm trading my possessions for ends up falling way short in terms of quality, then I get confused. Why would I want to devolve my life into something less enjoyable? You might sit down at a modern Bay Area bar today and order an expensive glass of craft whiskey, one that sells itself on the modern specs (grain-to-glass, local barley, organic, etc), but ends up tasting like shit. Or you might dine at an expensive restaurant that specializes in all sorts of exotic and time-consuming preparation, but ultimately leaves you unsatisfied both literally and figuratively. Then you start to see the same pattern everywhere and you freak the fuck out. You say to yourself: there's no way this can keep on going. At some point, a successful business has to deliver quality in order to continue operating, right?
As the clock keeps ticking and the world keeps heading in a direction that seems completely counterintuitive to you, you start wondering if maybe you're the one who doesn't get it, not the other way around. We know that fashion changes, tastes evolve, and styles continue to be invented. However, does quality evolve? Does craftsmanship? I mean....something either works or it doesn't, right? It either tastes good, or it doesn't. It either delivers quality or it doesn't. It's either made well or it isn't. It's either what you expected or it's not. As my colleague said to me this morning, however, as we discussed this topic: "When everyone around you is in on it, quality can become mere perception. Humanity ends up leading us astray. If a wine or a restaurant has a high consumer rating, then it must be good, right?"
That leads me back to the article by Tim Wu, who writes: "What gives the Bitcoin bubble significance is that, like ’90s tech, it is part of something much larger than itself. More and more we are losing faith in humans and depending instead on machines. The transformation is more obvious outside of finance. We trust in computers to fly airplanes, help surgeons cut into our bodies and simplify daily tasks, like finding our way home. In this respect, finance is actually behind: Where we no longer feel we can trust people, we let computer code take over."
Now I'm really panicking.