11 Jun David Brooks: Segmented nation looks for solidarity amid IT-powered niches
Madison, Wis. – New York Times columnist David Brooks has chronicled a few revolutions during his career, and he believes American society is in the midst of two fundamental changes – a neuro science and genetics revolution and an information technology revolution that promotes individual power.
The latter revolution, he said, is occurring simultaneously with a yearning for solidarity and fraternity.
Brooks traveled to Madison last week for the annual Brandworks University 2007 put on by Lindsay, Stone, and Briggs. The conference, which focused on the dominance of niches in marketing and society, explored many of the ways society has become segmented.
In an interview with WTN, Brooks said one of the ways in which people are being “niched” is by differences in technology. They have more product choices thanks to technology and, thanks to search engines and other data-generating technology, information can be used to better target them and their demographic sub-groups.
“The other thing that’s happening is that people used to be tied down geographically to a port or a harbor or a factory, and now information-age jobs can be done anywhere there is a highway, basically, and so they can move wherever they want,” he said.
Wireless widens the gap
Brooks does not expect wireless Internet networks, which are being built in communities across Wisconsin and the nation, to narrow the income gap between haves and have-nots. Much depends on the extent to which communities like Milwaukee and Madison achieve digital inclusiveness, but Brooks isn’t optimistic about a positive result.
The most important reason for this fear is simply that educated people are in a better position to take advantage of these opportunities, while uneducated people aren’t. Secondly, educated people tend to raise educated children, and they pass those advantages down to their kids.
There is a third reason for the probable continuation of this cycle – merit-based income. “If you look at salary structures, it used to be that all workers at a certain grade got paid the same,” Brooks said, “but now salary is much more tied to individual performance, and so some people are just shooting up and other people are not.”
Brooks, a sought-after political commentator who has a degree in history from the University of Chicago, has served as a reporter and op-ed editor for the Wall Street Journal, as a senior editor for the Weekly Standard, and as a contributing editor for Newsweek and the Atlantic Monthly. He also is a commentator on National Public Radio and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.
He is the author of two books that have chronicled America’s cultural characteristics: “Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There,” and “On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense.”
His observations for the second book were derived in part from cross-country travels, including a visit to Madison. He had come here for a New York Times magazine story on low unemployment rates, and as a big believer that simply writing down what you see is the fundamental form of research, he observed first hand a great deal of the segmentation that has taken place in the United States.
If Brooks were the chief information officer at a company, and he wanted to make his play for a spot in the executive suite, he would recommend the organization take advantage of these niches in two ways. The first way is to measure everything, a point that was frequently made at Brandworks, and the second is to understand – culturally – where the niches emerge.
“It’s not as if the niches are random,” he said. “They are being produced by cultural forces and psychological forces, and so what the smartest companies do is they go to the psycho-demographic firms or they, from their own personal experience, invent stories so they understand who their client basically is.”
Longing for fraternity
Even amid these cultural enclaves, people still long for a sense of solidarity, and society needs to create bonds amid the segmentation. Case in point is the demographic group that, in Brooks’ forecast, might dominate the 2008 presidential campaign. It’s not the “Angry White Male” that fueled a Republican takeover in 1994 or the “security moms” who propelled George Bush to re-election in 2004, or even the young, unmarried women that some believe will carry Hillary Clinton to the White House.
This is an independent group, not necessarily in the political center but spread throughout the political spectrum. What unites them is a distrust of parties and a desire to see authority structures and central institutions they can trust again.
“I think there is a new group of independents that hasn’t existed in the electorate, and they are the ones that flaked off the Republicans in ’06, but never really congregated to the Democrats. Both parties are very low [in public opinion], and now there is this group floating there which didn’t exist four years ago.”
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