Emerging Australian Ideal #2: Wabi Sabi

July 17, 2014

Questioning the Future of Creativity

Exploring The Second Cultural Ideal: Wabi Sabi

The second of our Australian cultural ideals is the culmination of a few different societal shifts. 


Shift 1:  Imperfection rules.

We noted last year in our work around women how the idea of showing your flaws, being imperfect and not apologising, or laughing at this, but embracing it in full totality was being shown through media and social circles as a new version of success. This certainly taps into the Grit Mentality that Sam wrote about last week, the idea of being strong enough to face your own personal failures with good grace, and even a little pride. The power in imperfection goes deeper than challenging the norm however, it creates a deeper sense of intimacy, which ladders into the second shift.


Shift 2: Man vs Machine

At the same time, we see a rising debate around the idea of authentic production – do we choose the perfect world of machine and computing, with low error rates, speed, efficacy and a perfect result every time.  Or do we choose the hand-crafted, designed and individual item.  Flaws in this context are viewed as character, something unique, and therefore different to everyone else.  Whereas a flaw in a machine produced item is perceived as a ‘factory fault’, something wrong in the production line. 

Wabi Sabi is the combination of these two worlds.  We value and find beauty in the flawed, because this reminds us things can be unique, and connects us to the

humanness’ of production, rather than an alienating, potentially scary robotic world. 


A thought experiment:

Imagine you walk into a coffee shop.  You have a choice.  You can pay $1.50 for a latte that comes out of a machine, or $3.50 for one made by a Barista.  Which would you rather?

Our current value system, especially around food tells us to choose the more expensive, because it will be ‘better quality’.  It will taste better, look better and whilst be largely similar to everyone else’s served that day, there is the chance it could differ slightly.  We are willing to take that risk, it might be better, it might be slightly worse, but it's an acceptable level of error to most of us.  We believe we’ve chosen the authentic, the crafted, the experience.  We believe it is better quality.

We take this for granted as the current zeitgeist.  We value the human over the machine. 

However if we look back at history this wasn’t always the case.  Think about it, in the 1950s, machines were seen as the newest way to do things, the optimal way we could live.  From the food processor to washing machines, all of a sudden chores and labour we did not want to do were mechanised.  Think about the invention of computing, thousands of menial chores are instantly available at the touch of a button.  Technology can do things perfectly, so we spend our time elsewhere.  Is it inconceivable that in 2, 5, 10 years time we’ll be able to 3D-print the perfect latte, that far exceeds anything that a barista (no matter how bearded) can make? 

If this happens, will this change our value system?  Will we flip back to believing that machine and computer are the superior quality, whereas human-made becomes a cheap, unreliable option?  It might seem inconceivable now, especially in relation to food, but this belief has been there in every decade since the 1950s. How do you feel about driverless cars? Does the music you love get produced by people, or machines (and would you know the difference)?  


The Creator Archetype

This can potentially break-down one of the greatest archetypes ever known to man, The Creator.  Since day one we’ve believed in the power to create to make, and that power does not disappear.  Traditionally, we passed that power to a God, or gods, they were who had the capacity to create – they made, re-moulded and built.  Then, as civilisation developed we created social stratas who created; artists, sculpters, poets, architects, designers.  A ‘creative class’ if you will.  It's now widely argued that the next stage is increased robotisation of jobs and labour as we currently know it, leading to a democratisation of creativity.  Anyone can design, make, create.  Certainly we see this in food, in crafts, in homeware already.  3D printing will only expand the already prevalent trend (and eventually, we know it might extend beyond ‘developed economies’). 

But what next?  The pattern of history would suggest that we mechanise what we no longer wish to do, anything laborious or hard, and move onto something ‘more creative’.  We are, after all, the single organism on earth that has evolved a brain that feeds on creating/making and reconstructing the world around us in such seismic ways.  What might it mean for how we view ‘The Creator’ if machines and computers continue to develop to ‘pick-up’ the creation of things for us?


3 Potential Ways the Creator Archetype can develop:

1) Creation becomes about programming

Creation works within a set of predefined boundaries for the mass.  In our own homes we can customise colour, elements, material for all range of consumables.  The elite, the new creative class, are those who invent the technology that allows us to do this.  We maintain a hierarchy and creative class, except this time permission to be a ‘creative’ hinges on an ability to interpret an idea into code.  Or hey, even build a new code.   


2) Creation lives on the fringes – art reasserts itself

As creation becomes increasingly technologised, there will always be those who play within the rules and those that break them.  As we increasingly subsume the value of creativity into an entrepreneurial and capitalist mindset, there will always be those who live on the fringes (by choice or not) who think, build and create in a different way.  Who refuse to ‘play the game’.  New forms and expressions of art become the truly sought after and valued elements of society.


3) Creation becomes our only purpose

Marc Andreessen recently explored the idea of an entire society devoted only to philosophy, art, culture and sciences (let's leave aside the fact that if we were all devoted solely to philosophy someone would eventually question why we were, and then endeavour to no doubt change it…).  In his utopian future state, creation becomes our sole reason for being.  Straight to the top of the Maslow hierarchy for us, no need to worry about food, rent, bills, everything is taken care of by robots.  Arguably the human condition is always about progress, so how long this would really ever work for is debatable, but it is not inconceivable, particularly once we consider the role AI could play.  Maybe day-in, day-out we all plug in and create whatever we want, plugging out only for the mundane things like, hey eating or something, although on that note, why not go the whole hog and just have an automated drip fitted? 

Whichever way the idea of creativity develops one thing is for sure, we haven’t yet seen all the consequences of the technology which we continue to develop.  Until we do, there will be a little piece of all of us craving something ‘real’ – flawed, imperfect and just for us.  Wabi Sabi in action.


What this might mean for brands

There is a decision for many brands to make about whether to ‘be the creator’, or to empower their customers/consumers to ‘be the creator’.  As we become ever focused on our ability to ‘be creative’, rather than just repeat/work, this question will become increasingly important for brands to answer. 

As for what Wabi Sabi means to brands, we believe there is, and will be a growing openness to flaws, imperfection and being challenged.  There are several ways to handle this, and narratives that brands can create to tap into this… but we won’t give them all away here, you’ll have to have a good old fashioned (human) conversation with us for that ;-)



Sarah