Steve Jobs may have changed the way we use technology but he has also fostered the "I" society. Companies must learn how to harness it if they want to stay relevant
The advertising around Toyota's Aygo is based around it sounding like "I go". Ironically, the campaign launched around the time when Steve Jobs announced his retirement as Apple chief executive. Virtually single-handedly, the man who created the iPod, iPhone and iPad managed to re-brand "I". The fact that two of his devices are said to sell every second of every hour of every day suggests that we are firmly in the "I" society.
Out of the estimated two billion words in circulation, "I" is the 10th most popular (you is 18th and we is 27th, in case you were wondering). Apart from YouTube, there have been no notable successes in capitalising on this pronoun and as for "We", only We Buy Any Car comes to mind.
People my age and older will be quick to condemn the "I" generation on the grounds that they are a bunch of texting and tweeting nerds with no social skills, but that is to miss the point. It may not appeal to the 50-plus crowd, but marketeers know that we increasingly define ourselves by how many people like us on Facebook, how many followers we have on Twitter and how many connections we have on LinkedIn.
Appealing to the "I" has many commercial attractions and is by no means antithetical to Big Society principles. Witness, for example, how Twitter campaigns were used to clean up our streets after the summer riots. The brand "I" offers and delivers instant gratification. But is that a sustainable commercial model over the long term?
There's an African tribal saying that if you want to go fast, go alone but if you want to go far, go together.
The "I" generation is indeed going fast, yet I don't see much evidence as yet that it will go far, or indeed wide. We need to hijack the "I" momentum and make it fit for the long term.
I'm involved in a campaign to save a library close to the house
of an author friend. He and his neighbours have unsuccessfully tried to convince the local council not to axe it and he was put out when I told him that I wasn't surprised – their campaign was based on protecting the home of their fond childhood memories. You can't save something if it is no longer relevant to how we lead our lives today. In the US, Kindle downloads are now outselling printed books and soon the same will happen in the UK.
We need to create the library of the future; a place that embraces
the digital age of reading but manages that process by creating an environment that is attractive and useful on different fronts. Alongside a mass of digital screens should be a community café, possibly a social enterprise hub, maybe even a job centre. Kindle, embracing the "I" generation perfectly, has as its slogan, "A library you can carry".
That's great, but we need to carry the library along the way. Business must mould and manage the inevitability of "I" and temper it with some "We" thinking and make a commercial case for doing so. In the case of the library, we must say to publishers that if you don't want to see book sales plunge you need to be part of that reinvention process. Hire the library for your book launches, bring authors in for readings, promote them through social media and broadcast readings on YouTube.
When required, the "I" generation becomes "We" quickly and effectively. Rioters, looters, far-right and Islamic extremists use the internet more successfully than businesses or public bodies do. It would be awful to say we must learn from them, but we certainly need to understand the processes they adopt and apply them to our operations.
Steve Jobs says that "i" now stands for internet. The philosopher, George Herbert Mead, differentiated between "I" and "Me" by underlining the differences between how I see myself and how others see me. Muhammad Ali's famously short but powerful poem was "Me, We".
But how is the business world supposed to make sense of all this? To start with we need to understand the modus operandi of the "I" generation, and embed it into our own corporate cultures. And once we can talk the right language, we'll be in a greater position to control its tone of voice.
One thing is for sure – "I" is not about isolation. It multiplies itself infinitely in a way that conventional businesses never could.