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Getting Real in the 21st Century

by Jay Walljasper - 22 October 2008

The chief project of humanity has long been fulfilling basic material necessities: clean water, food, warmth, clothing, healing, transportation and livelihood. In the face of such immense needs, no one was too particular about how these things got accomplished. Housing for 100 families was a good thing, even if it meant a drab cinder-block tower without an ounce of charm.

But with widespread affluence in Western societies over recent decades and pockets of prosperity elsewhere, new considerations have arisen in how we look at the world. Looking beyond mere survival, people of all classes are now showing an interest in the qualities of products and services they use in their daily lives. For many, this translates into an obsession with designer labels and other forms of conspicuous consumption. But for others, it fuels a new interest in authenticity.

Raised with easy access to consumer goods and mass media culture, a growing number of people value goods and experiences that offer something they feel is unique and meaningful. This includes timeless customs, handmade products, adventure or eco-travel, traditional crafts, and other items that passionately express the character of a place, historical period or special person.

Ironically this often means well-off urban people embracing the culture of poor, rural or Third World people just as those people are ready to leave it behind in the hopes of becoming part of modern consumer society.

John Naisbitt, author of the influential 1980s bestseller Megatrends, was one of the first to identify this phenomenon, which he termed “high-tech/high-touch”. The classical example is buying an antique oak desk on which to use your cutting-edge laptop computer, seeking a balance between the promise of the future and the comfort of the past.

While at first this seems a trifling aesthetic concern, the implications of this shift in taste and sensibilities are enormous. Futurists Paul and Sherry Ruth Anderson identify the search for authenticity as one of the key indicators of Cultural Creatives, a burgeoning sector of the population who they believe will bring enormous changes to all aspects of Western society. In their book, The Cultural Creative: How 50 Million People are Changing the World, they write, “The people in this new subculture prefer to learn new information and to get involved in ways that feel most authentic to them. Almost always, this preference involves direct personal experience.”

This yearning for a direct and meaningful experience with the world fuels many of the most hopeful social trends happening today: the growing, interest in local, organic foods and sustainable agriculture; a continuing commitment to protect the environment, especially places in their own communities; the urge to reinvigorate rundown neighborhoods and lift people out of poverty through hands-on projects rather than bureaucratic administration; the rise of people-to-people international projects, where folks of different cultures meet and often do work together; a passion for preserving distinct and diverse cultures; the growing distrust of experts and rising interest in participatory models of social organizations.

This new emphasis on authenticity in many forms represents a welcome advancement from the Industrial Age ethos that the ends justify the means and that bigger is always better. It’s an unmistakable sign of progress holding great potential for our future.