If there were one phrase to describe the current mood, and one on the lips of many people, it might be "because we can". These three words, far from being simple, have something to say about the power of technology in our lives, because it enables us to do far more things than before, as well as allowing us to do familiar things in new ways. "Because we can" also says something about our opportunities versus our responsibilities and our personal freedoms versus restrictions.
For marketers, "because we can" evokes a very different kind of customer from before. This customer has the potential to make as many different choices as she likes, take on different identities depending on the circumstances, and balance her opportunities and responsibilities. But she will respond negatively to any marketers who bombard her with ads, call her during dinner, or plaster her world with posters, just "because they can".
A philosophical introduction
It was Descartes who made the famous insight, "I think therefore I am", and recent advances in neuroscience suggest that we do see the world as our minds want us to see it, which means that everyone creates the world according to their own mental hypotheses. What they think about the world is what is true for them, based on their hypotheses and they can only change how they perceive life by changing their underlying hypotheses (1).
There is also much evidence to suggest that a person takes on many different identities through what he or she chooses to do at any one time. This suggests a different hypothesis: "I do therefore I am", and there are two streams in philosophy that support the idea that we are what we do. One is philosophical behaviourism (which claims we are nothing more than what we do and there is no mind behind our actions) and the other is a version of Sartre's existentialism. Sartre says a person's identity evolves out of their actions. We are not, in his terms, born heroes or cowards but become so through the actions that we perform: "In life, a man commits himself, draws his own portrait, and there is nothing but that portrait" (2).
The ability to do many things
The influence of technology now enables us to do many things that were previously considered impossible, or were not even within the grasp of our minds. This includes international travel, the Internet, mobile phones, computers, and even simple, domestic machines. Each of these technologies has infiltrated our lives and made it possible for us to do much, simply because we can. In taking on a wider variety of actions, we also take on more identities. The international traveller can take on the identity of the global businessperson or multicultural holidaymaker, the Internet enables us to take on many created and anonymous identities, domestic machinery helps to free us from identities based on housework.
However, just because we take on these identities as it suits us may not mean that we are fundamentally changed underneath. Or does it? People still have the same needs and drives as they always did. If evolutionary psychology has any truth in it, then we are still driven by the urge to continue the species by whatever means, and men and women perceive each other in those terms. It says that the technological shifts in our environment are far too recent to have made any fundamental changes in the human psyche (3). This begs the question whether we really are what we do, or whether these shifting identities are simply like masks waiting for an occasion.
It used to be claimed that different forms of technology, such as whitegoods, computers, cars, and cellphones, would help to make our lives easier. However, for most of us, technology and ease are not necessarily related. Far from making life easier, each technology has served to make life a little more complex. Whether for good or ill, technology has provided us with a myriad of choices about how to live life.
Rather than always replace previous ways of doing things, technology simply offers more ways to do things, and we are left with a bewildering range of technologies for every purpose. Even the basic landline telephone has been loaded up with so many features that the average user …