In the history of mankind there have been numerous turning points and entries into new epochs and ages. Often the transitions were creeping, were not perceived as such and were only recognized as a new era in retrospect.
That's exactly what's happening right now. We are about to enter a new age: that of collective individualism.
But what is this Collective Individualism? Let's start slowly and from the beginning.
A key element for understanding this nurturing epoch is Behavioral Capitalism, the new form of capitalism that has made human behavior a factor of production.
It makes little sense, however, to deal only with behavioral capitalism, because it stands in a context and is only a part of the new era. The mechanisms of Behavioral Capitalism are a product of technological progress, but can only unfold their full effect through the development of the so-called stimulus society. So another new term? It's easy to explain. The Irritant Society defines itself as follows:
"An Irritant Society is generally understood to be an association of individuals who are exposed to stimuli which influence a strong frequency, which are usually artificially generated, and who have difficulty or are unable to resist these stimuli, or in some cases do not wish to resist them. “
What may sound complicated at first sight, simply describes a social development since the end of the Second World War, which is increasingly confronted with stimuli, which are understood to be a stimulus that triggers or changes behaviour through the influence on a sensory organ.
Put simply, a person who lived in the USA or West Germany in the 1950s was exposed to much less stimuli from entertainment, politics, business or simply advertising than a person in the 21st century. What was there then? The paper? They got laid aside. Turn off the radio. Television? Was not yet established and at best offered a programme on a few channels for hours at a time. Movies were seen in the cinemas and they were usually slow cut and not too hectic. Advertising on the streets? Well, she kept within limits, and at home, you were hardly bothered. We don't even want to talk about politics.
This should change fundamentally in the following decades. The influence of stimuli increased, whereby the development of new marketing concepts, which combined with scientific concepts such as behaviorism, played a central role. They have all applied: the economy, society and politics.
But it would be too easy to speak of a simple stimulus bombing, because people got used to the stimuli very quickly and demanded them. Television prevailed. The beautiful new world of consumption and advertising - nobody had to break in, because they were opened with joy.
It was a mutually enriching symbiosis and by no means a pure manipulation. The supply would not have had such success without demand, although it can also be argued that from birth on the stimuli had their effect and that another life was difficult to imagine. At this point, however, there is room for discussion.
Whatever conclusion you may come to at the end, it remains a truth that the irritant society developed and intensified more and more.
Today the stimuli are always present for many in everyday life, be it in the environment or just on the display of the smartphone, sometimes even desired and even the most abstinent would probably have their difficulties with the silence of the 50s, because they have long since been transformed into new people.
We call this new human Homo stimulus. Knowing and understanding him is another key to understanding a new time.
Without this homo stimuli, behavioral capitalism would not work, just think of how our 50's man would feel and behave in a world with so many stimuli, although stimulus society and Behavioral Capitalism are influential and partly conditioned developments.
In combination, these two processes have ushered in the age of collective individualism. But how is this defined?
"Collective Individualism is understood as an individualism in which the individual is embedded in such a way that individual self-development can take place within a framework that is not or hardly visible. “
That, too, sounds a lot more complicated than it is. Let us think of the cycle of behavioral capitalism, which skims the behavior of the homo stimulus and thus tries to find out its needs, to satisfy them and to forecast them for the future. The homo stimulus is thus embedded piece by piece in its own individualized world.
Let's take the popular example of a person who lives in a rented flat in any city and has no social contacts other than work. With the help of the new technologies he accesses search engines and social media from home. Let's say he's interested in skiing. He researches it and more and more suggests friends, groups, products and news around this topic in the algorithms. The homo stimulus set a stimulus for the machine and it returned varied ones after it had analysed them. He clicks on them, gets to know like-minded people, procures the equipment he needs and, shortly afterwards, skis for the first time in reality. We know these and similar stories.
Every click and every reaction animates the algorithm to run further relevant contributions. The homo stimuli react and everything becomes deeper and deeper. A vortex and a cycle are created. The homo stimulus is embedded, dives, in our example, into the world of skiing and is happy and satisfied with it. He lives in the age of collective individualism, in which the needs of the individual are determined individually through behavioral skimming and stimulation, and, according to collective rules, which the individual, however, does not or hardly notice, are satisfied. The stimulus society and behavioral capitalism made it possible.
This sentence also dissolves the apparent contradiction in the concept of collective individualism. Yes, it is about maximum satisfaction of the individual's needs. Yes, perhaps even a unique world arises in which the individual is the king and yet all this happens according to rules and in the same way for everyone. The borders blur and are no longer seen.
The signs of collective individualism can therefore already be seen, although we are certainly only at the beginning of a technological development.
But where could all this lead? That's easy to answer. The age of collective individualism should lead to total individualization if development is not hampered by milieu struggles and distribution issues. However, these two factors will continue to play a major role and postpone total individualization to some point in the future. However, this does not change anything at the epoch transition and it would be a big mistake to consider the process of embedding as either complete or "non-existent". That would be thinking in extremes. It is quite possible to lead several lives at the same time. Hybrid lives, where many needs are met in embedding, and a life outside will go hand in hand. How many people do you know who go to work on a regular basis and the rest of their lives are determined by the integration of the smartphone? That can't happen to them? Maybe, but epochs are somewhat longer and the next birth cohort will know nothing else. For the moment, however, it may be true that some milieus dive deeper, some less, but no one can completely escape the new technologies.
Another fatal mistake would be to regard embedding as exclusively socially isolating. It is quite possible that the importance of people will diminish as many needs can also be met by machines, but on the one hand this would not be perceived as such and on the other hand embedding can also contribute to bringing together people with similar interests who would otherwise never have found each other.
We will therefore not experience pure collective individualism during our lifetime, but which theoretical construct already existed in reality in its pure form? The reality is, to say it a little - and very freely interpreted - with Plato, always a blurred copy of the ideal. Therefore, as long as human needs cannot yet be fully met within personal embedding, an incomplete collective individualism is to be assumed.
A complete embedding can only succeed if all needs within this can be met. This cannot happen as long as there are still milieu struggles, because they inhibit total individualization. Even if these were ended, it remains questionable whether all humans will experience a (global) perfect collective individualism, for it would presuppose the end of distribution problems.
In the future, however, few will be able to avoid an imperfect one, and presumably at some point, due to the advancing technological development, they will no longer want to avoid it.
One more reason to talk extensively about Collective Individualism and its components, behavioral capitalism and the irritant society. The new age has already begun. It is up to us to shape this as well.
This article was first published by Andreas Herteux, with the support of the Erich von Werner Society, on his blog and in the opinion magazine "Der Freitag". The following publications, among others, served as sources:
Further publications in different languages are planned.