Will a robot ever have the human touch?

Bruce Springstein Human Touch

As I wrote in a prior post, I was highly disappointed after being called only a “reasonable geek” in a rather comprehensive (if marginally outdated) Geek Test at InnerGeek. As much as I am a reasonable geek and am thirsty for all new technologies, it is this context within which I write about what I see in the West as a burgeoning trend of humanisation (a follow-up to Bruce Springsteen’s 1992 Human Touch album!).

In the latest of my simple segmentations, I have determined that there were two types of people. There are those that subscribe to new technologies and those that don’t. However, in the those-that-don’t camp, I have my eyes on the far end of the spectrum, on those that reject outright new technologies with an ever growing fervency toward another paradigm. In this group, I see an emphasis on the human factor with a mix of a rejection of the new technologies, nostalgia for the “way it was” as well as an appreciation of the local tastes and habits. People that might simply enjoy sitting in a comfortable chair (as in the one pictured below). It’s why there are over 8 million hits in the Google search for “plain simple.”

Three examples or thoughts that presumably resonate for people in this camp:

Anti Facebook Hatebook1/ Anti-Facebook movement. The email recalcitrants (i.e. those that think emails are a nuisance) and the existence of the hoards of anti-Facebook groups and blogs (eg on Facebook itself, I Hate Facebook, ClickZ, Lonely Schnozz, Hatebook at Blorge…) are probable offshoots of the “I want to remain human” trend. Notwithstanding the issue of privacy and the complications of the professional/private interface, I understand people’s rejection of Facebook as an inhuman interface that devalues the notion of “friend.” Fair point. With tip of hat to Greg for this anti Facebook video using Billy Joel’s “We didn’t start the Fire.”

2/ Nostalgia for the past. There was a recent demonstration (Feb 17 2008) in Paris in favour of the old French Franc and a rejection of the euro (see here on Daily Motion). There is a sense of retroactivity in this call for a return to the currency of yore. Obviously, behind this sentiment, there is also a sense of anti-globalism, much less a sense of anti-Europe–the demonstrators seemed to be blaming the euro on today’s ailing economy in France.

3/ In the face of every stronger globalisation, including the homogenisation of the brand offer and the delocalisation of jobs, there is a need to “find oneself.” In the panoply of media and confusion, people need help in identifying and defining themselves. For getting lost in the surfeit of brands, the overabundance of information and the chase for time, people need to “find” themselves and, I believe, people are only to happy to re-invest in local tastes and traditions.

People are beginning to get fed up with technology all over the place. Our society, it would seem according to some, is dying. The death of privacy (or O’Reilly’s Database Nation) with phones and bluetooth ear plugs everywhere; the death of interaction with portable video and music players (not to say only iPods); the death of depth (Google searches in the place of library research); the death of memory (palm pilots for all your lists of things to do); and, last but not least, the death of freedom with the RIM (if not RIP) Blackberry (or assault with Blackberry as in Naomi Campbell’s case).

Free HugsOf course, one of the more literal results of this “humanisation” trend has been the “FREE HUG” campaign, where in various cities around the world, utter strangers stand in the street to give out free hugs to anyone accepting it.

Another of the trends that is borne of this “human touch” phenomenon includes the desire to have “local stores,” where you can be recognised and tended to by the friendly local shop keeper. I hear more and more people who live in major metropolitan centres complaining – especially in the more expensive locations – about the disappearance of the local trade and the predominance of cold financial institutions and high end retail shops (jewellery, leather goods, etc.). In other words, the character of the neighbourhood is being effaced and replaced by “suits” on the one hand and rich shoppers and/or tourists, on the other. For those living in those “high end” spots, they are having to do their daily convenience shopping further afield.

Real estate prices in metropolitan centres are escalating out of hand. Places that come to mind include the Champs Elysées in Paris, 5th Ave in NYC, the Causeway Bay in Hong Kong or even the main carfree strip in Gstaad. I have read a few articles discussing the overloading on the Champs Elysées of restaurants, car dealerships and apparel stores, and the disappearance of the local commerce (and, good news, potentially the McDonald’s too). Apparel stores currently occupy 39% of the space on the Champs Elysées. This article refers to soaring rents on the Champs.

Another trend is the return of the Cabaret form of entertainment, borne of the 19th century bohemian Montmartre neighbourhood in Paris. A recent TIME magazine article “Come to the Cabaret,” talks about how today’s geopolitical climate has created the right conditions for the revival of the Cabaret genre (see the wikipedia list of Cabarets available in Paris). Just as Internet surfers are more than willing to accept the low-grade quality of films on YouTube (as long as the content is great), it appears that there is a rejection of the super-polished Broadway productions, the post-production immaculate Hollywood films, and the plastic iPod universe. No wonder people are still inclined to go see a musician in concert where error and spontaneity remain possible, even desirable. Independent films will also continue to find their audience, as low budget production has its charm.

Finally, I read about Britain’s recent efforts to define “Britishness.” The International Herald Tribune wrote a front page article on the topic, “Searching for a definition of Britishness: Fine, but “no motto, please.” I view this initiative as a direct corollary of the search for the human touch because the pleasure of the human touch is in re-finding your own humanity and defining thus your identity. The need to define your nationality and/or your identity, is a form of reaction to globalisation. That said, the debate to find a national motto is perhaps the effect of national marketing on steroids. Meanwhile, in a world where nationalism is brewing in more or less virulent manner in various countries (Russia, Germany, Serbia…), I find the search for Britishness as perfectly suitable. Of course, saving the Queen, the British Pound the stiff upper lip, as well as living on an island will all help to reinforce the British you know what (although it clearly doesn’t help the English rugby team these days).

What does all this mean? A few thoughts from a personal marketing point of view:

  • No wonder people are looking for authenticity and transparency (thanks in part to the opportunity that the internet provides). Within the context of a search for humanity sprouts the extra valuation of traits such as generosity.
  • The return of the fountain pen. Write personal notes by hand. Check here for a nifty little touch: Lettres d’amour fragranced pens… putting the romance into handwriting. These pens are being sold at postal offices across France.
  • Create or participate in old-fashioned “Salons” (in the 18th century sense) to discuss and debate face-to-face on topics other than your children’s school, or your work trials and tribulations…
  • Invest in a masseur.
  • Support initiatives that favour local flavour and traditions.
  • Get to know your community when you are creating a company.

And, if you are in the field of new technologies, continue to ramp up the personalization, and invest in creating the experience. One good examples is the Adidas Techno-Palace store in Paris (photo right) where you can simulate running conditions to make the perfectly fitted shoe.

Do you have any other examples of initiatives and projects that support this notion of a return to the human touch?

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