FORGET COVID. THIS IS THE KILLER VIRUS.

I was wrong. I thought that the crescendo of hysteria that’s been festering like a planet sized boil in the wake of Trump and Brexit would dissipate once a serious crisis came along. It’s like we’d been massaging a giant zit with lard everyday, kneading around it, aggravating it and daring it to erupt. Our hysteria strayed well beyond the political, of course. Fuelled by the inexorable voltage of social media, the tribes both left and right, grew angrier, louder and scarier every day. By the end of 2019 our communal frenzy had infected our views on gender, race, biology and science itself, trampling across the muddy terrain of truth, then straying further, deeper and dirtier into culture’s slippery mire.

Even Hollywood, our superstar storytellers, seemed to have lost the will to live, offering us little more than yet another regurgitated superhero that we know won’t really come to our rescue.

Then bang, Covid19 arrived. In an odd sort of way, the timing felt right. We knew we were due a dose of punishment for all our sinful excess. Greta had made that clear enough. And it’s a brand spanking new decade after all, the perfect time for a spot of self flagellation. As Spring 2020 broke, tiny green shoots of sanity could be spotted peeping above the gently warming soil. We were all in this together they said, and so we clapped, banged saucepans and awaited our leader’s daily sermon like a family huddled around the wireless during the blitz. Sadly, it’s clear now that what we were enjoying was nothing but the short, harmonious chime you hear when the system reboots. 

Lockdown made matters worse. Much worse. Egged on by social media’s relentless needling we took to the streets, raised our fists, smashed a few shop windows, looted a few sneakers and toppled a couple of guano-fied statues. Summer 2020 became an orgy of outrage. We blamed our police for brutality in countries thousands of miles away, blamed the government for doing too much…and too little, too late and too soon, blamed our race and gender, but best of all we blamed our own history for bringing us here in the first place.

And so, here we are in autumn 2020 and as the days darken and the trees turn shades of Trump, it’s clear that the script for the Twenties has been written. We’ve supped on a sickly cocktail of guilt, fear and anger, topped off with a neat, narcissistic slug of entitlement, and it’s left us wary as to where our ship is heading and doubtful as to whether there’s a ship at all.

Please don’t listen to those that tell you this madness will evaporate after the election for the leader of the free world. On the contrary, we can expect months of viscous legal wrangling and prolonged civil unrest to help ring in this decade of uncertainty. The ’twas-ever-thus’ brigade are wrong.  Powered by the vitriol of mobile we will endeavour to exacerbate every tiny irritant we can sift from the grains of our existence to cultivate into another calamity. We won’t find peace because we’re simply not ready for it yet. In short, a wave of mass masochism has infected the West. 

This is the real killer virus. 

Thanks for reading. Now please follow me on Twitter @retailfuturist for more devastating insights into where we’re all heading…

  Howard Saunders   Oct 07, 2020   Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

THE RISE OF THE MINI TYRANTS

We all know the type. Dress a man in a hi-vis vest, armed with a clipboard and a biro, and you’ve just built yourself a mini tyrant. You’ve licensed a tiny authoritarian to impose the rules verbatim, as he sees fit, no matter the context or circumstances. It’s worrying how humans slip into this mode with such ease.

One of the most famous psychological experiments of all time proves the point. You remember. The Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971 divided students into two groups: the guards and the prisoners. The guinea pigs embraced their roles so enthusiastically that after just twenty four hours (of a two week experiment) prisoners were forced to sleep naked on concrete floors and defecate into a communal bucket. On the second day (ffs!) the ‘guards’ volunteered to help attack the barricading ‘prisoners’ with fire extinguishers. Experts reckoned that a third of the ‘guards’ exhibited genuine sadistic tendencies. The two week long experiment was halted after six days.

Or take the equally famous Milgram Experiment where randomly selected subjects willingly administered 450 volt shocks to invisible, loudly squealing victims. Nice work.

So, were these experiments artificially skewed by an unfortunate selection of innate sadists? Were these people plucked from the streets inherently wicked? Probably not. The only realistic conclusion is that there is a mini tyrant in many, if not all, of us.

This pandemic has created the perfect petri dish in which tyrants can flourish. Both Karens and Kevins have been beckoned out from behind their twitching curtains onto the streets to help us lesser mortals toe the line. Finally, they have their moment. They can instruct us to wait behind the yellow line, order us to sanitise appropriately and force us to adjust our masks in accordance with regulations. Karen and Kevin are in charge now, and don’t you forget it. They control who comes in and out, and if you dare engage in any eye-rollery, expect to be turned away sharpish.

This pandemic is not a joke. Millions are dying you cynical, heartless bastard. They are only doing their job, you understand. All is explained at the top of their imaginary license, which reads “for the greater good”. Those key words that unlock so much needless cruelty.

We’ve grown accustomed to a certain level of tyranny in our daily lives. The receptionist at the local council offices, the occasional post office worker and not forgetting the legions that work in airport security. But in a funny sort of way, these traditional MTs represent a kind of charming throwback from simpler times. A hangover from the days of Arthur Scargill, or Peter Sellers in ‘I’m Alright Jack’. The low level hum of authoritarianism was not only limited and manageable, but actually rather reassuring. Today however, with the promise of Covid Marshalls and governments encouraging neighbours to snitch on children’s birthday parties, it’s clear a torrent of totalitarians are about to be unleashed on us. And perhaps most concerning of all, they’ll be at the frontline of retail and hospitality.

It was only a year ago that the hospitality sector was threatened with the prospect of robots taking all their jobs. Now that we’ve seen those off, the last thing we need is humans emulating them.

Have a nice day.

Thanks for reading. Now please follow me on Twitter @retailfuturist for more devastating insights into where we’re all heading…

  Howard Saunders   Sep 16, 2020   Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

TRUMAN SHOW

Oh shot, shot shot! Flicking hell. Ever noticed how desperately hard Apple’s predictive text works to stop you swearing? Of course you have. No matter how many times you adjust the o to an i, it will never learn that you simply want to write shit. We all know what’s happening but we just tut silently as we change the o for the fourth time.

Yes, this is the world’s richest, most influential company telling you you shouldn’t say shit. Apple knows best and simply wants to adjust your oikish language in keeping with its own, much holier, principles. And it’s not just swearing. Try writing the word urinate, for example. Apple would much prefer you replace it with ruination, for some reason, while goddamn offers us goddaughter or goddess. Apple has become a Victorian prude. If this isn’t Apple playing God, then God knows what is!

Now try Googling images of ‘knife crime’. Despite London’s knife crime epidemic, overwhelmingly an urban, male, black on black problem, you will need to scan past forty plus images before you find a black hand brandishing a knife. There are dozens of white hands, gloved hands, conveniently silhouetted hands, everything apart from the stereotype…a stereotype that just happens to be this crime’s most accurate representation. We know why this is, too. It’s Google re-educating us, attempting to eliminate a stereotype, sacrificing truth for the greater good, of course. And it’s not a universal distortion as Google will adjust its algorithms to offer you different images in different countries. Googling knife crime in Japan, for example, presents us with a fully indigenous line up. Google is curating reality, nation by nation. 

This has echoes of the scene in the Truman Show where our hero catches a glimpse of the reality behind the scenes. Swiftly, just like Apple and Google, the bit part actors rally around to reassure and distract him in order to pull the narrative back on track. Phew. 

At one level social media has undoubtedly opened up our worlds, allowing us to exchange images and ideas instantly with friends and family right across the planet. Just seventy odd years ago a lonely soldier would clutch a crumpled black and white photograph of his lover close to his heart, flattening and kissing it before sleep. Today we thumb-swipe past a hundred videos of people we barely know dancing embarrassingly in their gardens. Portals directly into other’s lives have never been so open, and yet, paradoxically, our individual worlds are closing in. 

As a bit of a motorcycle enthusiast I find myself inundated daily with adverts for anything and everything remotely associated with bikes and biking: accessories, jewellery adorned with skulls (bikers love skeletons apparently) and even merchandise that has yet to be made, (see ridiculous bot designed T shirt below) in fact, anything the algorithms believe will whet my appetite. I find it not just tiresome but cringesome. Algorithms have boxed me in. My universe has shrunk to the size of a suffocating and vacuous echo-chamber. The digital platforms that do their utmost to avoid reinforcing stereotypes have turned me, and you, into exactly that: a stereotype. 

It gets worse. 

Those cheeky little algorithms are ganging up against us. Each platform, each brand, is rating you as a consumer: how consistent you are, how often you return things, how much you complain, how much you’re prepared to pay for specific products, how punctual you are, how loyal, how long you dwell on images of certain products and how often you ‘like’ them. Tinder, for example, knows precisely where you sit on the scale of eligibility and exactly the sort of partners you’re looking for, of course. But it also knows what time of the month you’re most likely to be looking. Yes folks, Tinder knows when you’re horny. 

As each of these platforms and brands exchange data to enhance their profile on us, we are each being ranked in exactly the same way as the Chinese social credit system: our behaviour is being judged, and nudged.

Like Truman we all enjoy the level of comfort that comes from living in a protected bubble, the routine of grabbing a newspaper from the cheery news vendor every morning. It’s reassuring to be surrounded by like minded people with a similar world view. But it’s when we discover the vendor is fake, a bit part actor in our specific narrative, that we get angry. Ignorance, of course, can be bliss. As Truman’s wife Meryl explains to camera, ‘his is a noble life, a truly blessed life’. Controlled, protected and utterly fake, but blessed.

So like Truman we face a stark choice: we can stay in the safety of our own controlled and constructed mini universe, happy in the comfort of our curated reality, or break free into the dangerous, dirty, complex and contradictory real world. 

It’s up to you.

Thanks for reading. Now follow me on Twitter @retailfuturist for more devastating insights into where we’re heading…

  Howard Saunders   Aug 17, 2020   Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

IT’S 2021. MEET HOMO-TREPIDATIOUS

The bounce back was not very bouncy. There were exceptions, of course. Like the queues at McDonald’s in July last year. A nation of fast food addicts certainly needed its fix. They stood in line for a good forty minutes, grinning and giggling like over excited seven year olds. Happy meals indeed.

There’s definitely a new civility in the air. We’re less frustrated about delays, less hurried and certainly more polite when we finally get our hands on our goods. Many welcome this new civility as long overdue, but the truth is it is born entirely from fear. Like badly berated schoolchildren we obey instruction without question, keep our toes tucked tidily behind the yellow line, and jump the instant the man in the fluorescent jacket raises his arm.

And look what’s happened to pubs. Pub culture was the very foundation of British society. It’s where workers and bosses, landowners and farmer’s hands laughed together across the froth of their beer, untethered by status or social hierarchy. Sadly, the bustling, beery, raucous chorus that was our local boozer has been well and truly throttled by hazard tapes, warning signs and perspex screens. Not dead exactly, just lifeless. Orderly lines of locals supping ale at a safe distance is not a pub, and never will be.

Orderly, civilised and respectful it may look, but that’s because we’ve been scared witless (or shitless, if you prefer). We’ve had the fear of God drummed into us and we’ve chanted the weekly mantras, bashed our saucepans and everything. We may pass each other and exchange polite greetings but we’re both thinking ‘He’s probably got it. Christ, she looks poorly’. Oh yes, the script for the Twenties has been written: Homo Trepidatious is born.

Now come with me to London Town. (We’re travelling by drone, of course, so hold on tight.)  We are hovering directly over Oxford Circus, above what was once the mighty TopShop. It’s June 2021 and there are very few people milling around. The red buses scurry past pretending nothing has changed, but they ferry a scanty cargo. The Portland stone bears its scars of the amputated logotype like a bitter trophy of better days. Much better days. Nike Town is open and good old Uncle John Lewis is still there to welcome us, albeit in mask and visor, but most of his neighbours have moved out. Tezenis and Microsoft were the first to break the circle. Those shops that steadfastly remain unshuttered do so, it seems, in the hope that those better days will return. They may have a long wait. 

As we swish our way down Regent Street it’s much the same story. Most of the passers-by are local office workers (You can tell by their pace). There are a handful of visitors and even a few sightseers, but there’s not much for them to see today. It’s very clear just how many tourists used to visit London. Brooks Brothers, Desigual, Reiss, All Saints, Ted Baker and Levi’s all gave up on their flagships last year. Hamley’s is frozen into a kind of hibernation waiting for good news. Apple, Burberry and Mappin & Webb are hanging in there, thankfully.

Curving into Piccadilly Circus, the brazen billboards dance poignantly to their dwindling crowd, for they know no better. Whirring left into Shaftesbury Avenue, past rows of homeless tents the damage is obvious. None of the theatres survived, though one or two have been cuckooed for private events. Even the famously irritating Trafalgar Square pigeons are somewhat sparse, presumably having abandoned The Smoke for fatter pickings.

But hardest hit of all is Soho. This is where I lived and worked in my twenties and thirties. It’s where I grew up, where I learnt how exhilarating the world of design and retail can be. Such heady, happy, hard working days. That’s where my old agency was in Soho Square. It now lies hollow and soulless. The entire city is riddled with vacant office space. Like a watery-eyed Ebeneezer, I can picture the hip young guys and girls pouring down the steps at lunchtime to sit in the sun for half an hour. And there’s one of my favourite bars, now shuttered in clothes of iron and chipboard. The deli’s barely recognisable with its white-washed windows, but that’s where I could be found at least three times a week, back in the day. So many of the restaurants I loved have closed, and all but a handful of sandwich bars remain to feed the lunchtime workers. A little over a year ago this place was buzzing with what felt like a billion bars boasting of a nightlife that would see you right through to your Pret breakfast. Surprisingly, some of the more robust brands have vanished too: Wahaca, Barrafina and Princi to name a few. Even Pizza Express pretty much disappeared overnight. It’s sad to think that here on Wardour Street is where it started its journey fifty six years ago. Only a couple of private drinking clubs act as vanguard to keep the Soho spirit alive. Just. It feels like we’ve returned to the 1940s.

I’m sure I’ve cheered you all up with this news from the future, but it’s time to head home now. I don’t like to stay out too long these days. London isn’t what it used to be for sure, but as Joni once sang “you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”

Finally, I must say a very, very big thank you to the highly talented Jan Enkelmann for his stunning Lockdown London images. Thank you Jan.

Now please join me on Twitter @retailfuturist for retail rants, predictions and wry observations

  Howard Saunders   Jun 01, 2020   Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

ROBOT WARS 2020

Like the closing sequence in a 1950s cheesy sci-fi movie, the robots have been defeated. As the music fades the mechanical invaders retreat over the hill into the sunset, carefully leaving open the opportunity of a ‘return’ sequel in a couple of years.

It seems like ancient history now, though actually only a few months ago, that the mighty McKinsey warned of an impending battle that would see the robots destroy up to 800 million jobs worldwide. In fact, it wasn’t so much a warning as they made it pretty damn clear we’d already lost and any retaliation was futile. Funny how fear of the robots has evaporated now that Covid 19 has arrived bringing with it vastly more devastating unemployment numbers right across the planet. 

Oh how the press love to crank up the fear machine with their daily doses of bite sized doom to spice up our cornflakes. There’s nothing new about this. Take a look at these Der Spiegel front covers over the years. It’s almost as if, god forbid, when the economy looks reasonably stable the robots rise up to threaten our fleeting state of complacency.

Looking back barely a couple of months, it seems we’d become rather hysterical. The Youtube videos of rogue robot dogs or metallic humanoids battling to the death their own crazed creators, it all fed directly into the Frankenstein narrative that clearly sits deep within our DNA. (Even if most of the videos were CGI fakes) Yes, humans have long understood they’ll be the architects of their own demise.

Or consider the robot bricklayer. A genuine multi-million dollar prototype of a cross between a forklift truck and a skittle machine from a fifties bowling alley. Watch it build a wall (badly) as it trundles along (perfectly even rails) whilst carefully being monitored (refilled and cleaned up after) by its non-robot workmate. Genius.

For over a decade, happy supermarket shoppers were warned to watch out for the robot shelf stackers. These ingenious mechanical tikes would manage stock control together with impeccable merchandising skills, all without a whinge or the faintest hint of a tea break. As we look forward to the prospect of unemployment levels of possibly 20% and above, how will we judge a retailer willing to invest millions in machines designed to steal jobs from the poor?

Perhaps (he says hopefully) our techno-hysteria will dissipate now we have a genuine unemployment crisis to worry about. It seems this microbial wake up call has endowed us with a refreshing clarity. Instead of being swept along by life’s relentless momentum, the lockdown has given us a planet-wide pause for thought: time to reevaluate our lives and what we want from them. Maybe we realise the future is ours to steer, instead of something that simply happens to us in the rush of routine.

So, good news, on the hill ahead the robots are retreating. Slightly clumsily, on wheels and tank track thingies, but they are definitely retreating. But, this is no time for celebration. Life post Covid 19 shows all the signs of a much more sinister invasion.

The advent of ‘contact tracing’ technology from Apple, Google and even our own NHSX ushers in an era of super-surveillance. Governments across the planet are developing systems that analyse data from smartphone apps to identify and locate patterns of infection in order to manage where and when we can move about. Helpful, of course, but this technology is a gateway drug to much deeper, Orwellian levels of social control, and we must tread carefully with our eyes wide open.

The Indian government’s compulsory Aarogya Setu app, for example, has emulated the shamelessly authoritarian Chinese model within just a few weeks. The AS app comes pre-installed on new smartphones and means, in effect, you need official approval to access your workplace, public transport and even the local park.

Contact tracing tech maybe a wolf in sheep’s clothing but dictatorial levels of authoritarianism couldn’t happen here, surely? I’m not convinced. Within minutes of the announcement of our lockdown regulations in the UK, the curtain twitchers and tut-tutters were on the phone to the police snitching on double dog walkers and unauthorised family picnickers. Both Youtube and Facebook have banned ‘scientifically unsubstantiated’ posts on Covid 19, which basically means anything not officially approved by the WHO. Oh yes, our soil is fertile for ever more state control.

The 75th anniversary of VE Day is a beautifully timed reminder that freedom should never be taken for granted. “Download our app to stay safe, access advice and services, use public transport safely and clock in at work so we can help keep you virus free! “ 

Failure to do so, however, will see you alienated, excluded, economically impotent and a social pariah. You choose.

Thanks for reading. Now please follow me @retailfuturist for rants and observations

  Howard Saunders   May 12, 2020   Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More