“No man is an island” wrote 17th century poet John Donne. And yet, in today’s world where we are positively encouraged to decide on all aspects of our lives, individual islands are exactly what we have become. And this has developed even further, from the personalisation we expected 10 years ago to the individualisation we see today. We take a look at this phenomenon and how technology and nature are fuelling its development.
Individualisation – personalisation 2.0?
Broadly speaking, both personalisation and individualisation involve the provision of an individual and bespoke service for a particular group. The terms crop up mainly in the fields of marketing, healthcare or education and when talking about personalisation, we are referring to the lightest end of that spectrum. If we take marketing as an example, a personalized approach involved addressing each customer by their first name in a marketing email rather than “Dear Sir or Madam”, or remembering to send them a happy birthday email. In social care in the 90s, councils talked of more “personalised” care which essentially meant a care package tailored to a person’s needs. In education, personalisation saw the streaming of children of similar age into sets at school and providing them with education according to their ability.
It wasn’t long before consumers started expecting more. As the quantity of data consumers provided dramatically increased, they didn’t just want companies and healthcare staff to remember their birthdays; they wanted them to predict when and if they were going to fall ill, what TV shows they wanted to watch or where they might like to go on holiday next year. In the information age, consumers simply don’t have the time to wade through all the data points themselves to make a decision: they expect companies to do this for them. Individualisation therefore means compiling a holistic, 360-degree view of each customer.
Individualisation is the natural successor to personalisation in the information and data age, and is increasingly in demand. A one-size-fits-all approach simply does not fit any more.
The individual and the group
The individual has been so important for so long, we forget how it used to be in the “good old days”. Even in supposedly free societies, traditional religions determined what we believed in and how we worshipped. We learned a trade after we left school and this formed the basis of our employment until we retired. We largely followed the example of our parents: on how we voted and where we lived to where we went on holiday.
At some point late during the last century (most commentators point to the 1970s as decisive) we all became individuals, free to make our own choices, choose our own friends, our own clothes, our own furniture, and who we wanted to play with. I am myself and the world around me perceives me as a unique entity. My job, my house, my partner is all part of who I am, my own personal brand, which is why all of it must be chosen with care. More and more we lead single lives and carry that lifestyle into family life. We are still religious and believe in higher beings, and yet less constrained by organized religions and perceptions of God(s). The concept of “my” God is open to my own interpretation.
And yet, in spite of this individualisation, we remain social creatures who enjoy being together and part of a group: modern communities are in fact thriving. Our communities simply look differently than they did previously: frequently online, centred on specific interests such as healthcare, parenting or sports, or a club of loyal users who use a valued service or product.
Downsides of individualisation
Psychologist Martin Seligman highlights the problem with individualism. “In the past quarter-century,” he wrote in his book Learned Optimism, “events occurred that so weakened our commitment to larger entities as to leave us almost naked before the ordinary assaults of life [...] Where can one now turn for identity, for purpose, and for hope? When we need spiritual furniture, we look around and see that all the comfortable leather sofas and stuffed chairs have been removed and all that’s left to sit on is a small, frail folding chair: the self.” Individualisation is indeed often held up as the cause of society’s ills. Many say our focus on ourselves has led to much more inward lives, which in turn has led to greater loneliness, depression and increased number of divorces. At this point however, it is important to differentiate between individualisation and egoism. It’s perfectly possibly to be an individualist and show care, compassion and respect for others, indeed have an outwardly-focused life, as opposed to an egotist who does not.
To answer individualism’s critics - and to the personal dilemma that many of us feel, that individualism is fine but can feel selfish - is to resolutely insist that individualism develops us in the service of something larger than ourselves. There is no point in developing ourselves, except to be useful to other people. True individuals get their kicks from using their talents in a cause in which they believe. We develop ourselves for a higher cause, because that is the route to happiness and meaning.
Technology responds to the age of individualisation
The technology is now here to allow service providers across all sectors to treat their consumers as absolute individuals. Often that technology is based on the most wondrous example of them all, Mother Nature.
We live in the age of big data, and with the advent of artificial intelligence and machine learning, computers can now be programmed to think and behave like the human brain, processing large sets of information, and deciding what is relevant and not. These systems are constantly learning and adding to their intelligence, just like our brains. A great example here is the chatbot which many websites now display as a “virtual assistant” on their website, offering the customer their help. Nowadays in our search for an answer online, rather than clicking through multiple websites to find that information, we simply ask the chatbot and the chatbot wades through the information for us, producing the exact answer we require. It’s the perfect example of individualisation.
Machine learning (or our artificial “human brain”) doesn’t just benefit online information but healthcare too: Companies are making efforts to predict relapse in lung cancer patients, by digitally tracking simple biomarkers such as coughing and chest pain. Using machine learning assisted algorithms, they are catching relapses early and administering preventative treatment so effectively, patients in the program saw life expectancies nearly double, from 9 months to 17.
Technology + Nature = Individualisation
Individualisation has also long been important in the world of hearing implants. As each cochlea is slightly different in shape and varies in length, optimal implants such as those from MED EL, inspired by the human ear, take this into account. All MED-EL cochlea implants’ electrodes are soft and flexible and designed to ensure the individual’s inner ear structure is preserved. They also differ in length, so that every electrode fits perfectly in to the cochlear of the recipient. Moreover, it’s now the individual’s choice whether they wish to hide their external audio processor or to individualise it: Interchangeable covers allow the wearers to - if they wish - make an expressive individual statement.
We see modern individualisation all around us nowadays, taking the personalisation of yesteryear to the next level. Technology and nature have only served to fuel this phenomenon, and will continue to do so as consumers demand ever more bespoke solutions.