09.03.2017

The medium is the market

The very definition of “market” took on an abstract, imaginary quality. It became nearly indistinguishable from virtual reality.

A few nights ago I had the great pleasure of watching my colleague Simon Cazelais, President of Bleublancrouge Montreal, get on stage at the Marketing Hall of Legends gala, and accept the award for “Marketer on the Rise” for 2017. He’s on the rise and on the vanguard of a new generation of young Canadian business leaders who exemplify excellence in marketing and a gift for understanding and invention. Simon has an innate understanding of what moves new generations of people through an ever-increasing array of channels and tools that to older generations may seem bewildering. To the likes of Simon, this is a playground.

Another speaker that evening who caught my attention was Arkadi Kuhlmann, former CEO of ING Direct, one of the most amazing case studies in banking innovation of the last few decades. In his elegant acceptance speech Mr. Kuhlmann made reference to Marshall McLuhan’s immortal phrase, “The medium is the message.” This was in reference to his innovative use of new mediums for both communications and the act of banking itself.

At the podium, he took his iPhone out of his breast pocket, and said, “This is an amazing device, and it has created a whole world. And into this digital world my identity is really an avatar of me. But my avatar is so much smarter, kinder and more well-rounded than I am,” he joked.

It got me thinking about how the definition of the market has fundamentally changed so dramatically. Originally, our ancestors grew crops and livestock, or made useful items like pottery or blankets—congregating at the market to barter or sell these items for currency. The market was literally a market. It could be called a bazaar or a souk or a marché, but a market is a market.

And then stores emerged, and the age of the proprietor began. You went to the baker for your bread, the tailor for your shirts. Malls and department stores arrived, which created a new kind of market.

Catalogues then emerged, which allowed us to browse hundreds or thousands of items, and then order them by mail or phone—in order to have the items we chose sent to us by mail. It was the invention of the airplane and the jet engine that truly allowed this industry to blossom, so that each week millions of people could receive merchandise without leaving their home.

The very definition of “market” took on an abstract, imaginary quality. It became nearly indistinguishable from virtual reality.

But with the invention of the internet and the smartphone, a much more profound transformation took place, not only in terms of logistics, supply chain and marketing, but in terms of the fundamental psychology of business. The very definition of “market” took on an abstract, imaginary quality. It became nearly indistinguishable from virtual reality. Or the dual realities of The Matrix. The entire market is now contained inside your phone. When Mr. Kuhlmann took his iPhone out of his pocket, he was showing us the portal to a universe.

What does that do to the human psyche? We are in the midst of finding out, and the truths will unfold for decades to come. The strange sense of power and omniscience, for example, that comes with knowing the entire global market is in your pocket. You can peruse endless items and order them as you walk down the street or lie in bed. You can interact with literally everyone you know simultaneously, as though you were hooking into a big neural network of minds (which you are). You can manage entire fortunes, equities of every kind, with two thumbs tapping on a magical little screen.

Marshall McLuhan may have anticipated the internet three decades before its arrival, but could he have anticipated how the human mind would change as a result of it?

The medium is the market. Marshall McLuhan may have anticipated the internet three decades before its arrival, but could he have anticipated how the human mind would change as a result of it? And what would he think of our smartphones and how they’ve become extensions of our central nervous systems, as many psychologists have come to believe?

Would he regard it with horror and trepidation, as he observed millions of us hunched over in coffee shops, like miniature digital gods addicted to our little black mirrors? Or would he, like my colleague Simon, see it as an endless playground for human creativity and business?

—W.