The material abundance we all enjoy was made possible by an industrial economy that focused primarily mass-producing material goods. The philosophy of mass production was based on Henry Ford’s big idea: If you could produce great volumes of a product at a low cost, the market for that product would be virtually unlimited. In the early days his idea held true, but eventually, every market gets saturated and it gets more and more difficult to sell them more stuff. By 1960, 70% of families owned their own homes, 85% had a TV, and 75% had a car.
As markets became saturated with material goods, producers found a new way to apply the principle of mass-production in mass-marketing. With a TV in nearly every house, producers had a direct line to customers. Customers became known as consumers, because their role in the economy was to consume everything that producers could make. Increasingly, this producer-consumer economy developed into a marketing-industrial complex dependent on consumer dissatisfaction and the mass-creation of desire for the next new thing.
New technologies of communication have splintered the channels of mass-communication into tiny fragments. It’s no longer possible for mass-marketers to reach out and touch all of their customers at once. The megaphone is gone. And with the rise of social networks and peer-to-peer communication channels, every customer can have their own megaphone.
To many mass-marketers this feels like a chaotic cacophony of voices, and it’s hard to be heard in the crowd. But to most customers it’s an empowering feeling to have a voice, to be heard. Even if a company ignores your complaint, the world will hear, and if companies don’t respond they will eventually feel the pain, as customers find new places to go to get what they want.
The producer-driven economy is giving way to a new, customer-centered world, where companies will prosper by developing relationships with customers by listening to them, adapting and responding to their wants and needs.
The problem is that the organizations that generated all this wealth were not designed for this. They were not designed to listen, adapt and respond. They were designed to create a ceaseless, one-way flow of material goods and information. Everything about them has been optimized for this one-directional arrow, and product-oriented habits are so deeply embedded in our organizational systems that it will be difficult to root them out.
It’s not only companies that need to change. Our entire society has been optimized for production and consumption. Our school systems are optimized to create good cogs for the corporate machine, not the creative thinkers and problem-solvers we will need in the 21st century. Our government is optimized for corporate customers, spending its money to bail out and protect the old infrastructure instead of investing in the new one. Our suburbs are optimized to increase consumption, with lots of space for products and plenty of nearby places where we can consume more stuff, including lots of fuel along the way.