time colonies, time colonists: next new thing in marketing?

Until his death in 2000, Dennis Severs lived in London’s east-end in a house that had no running water, no electricity, no toilet, no shower, no toaster, no TV, no modern conveniences of any kind.  

Mr. Severs had done his best to take up residence in the 18th century, and he and his butler managed a pretty good job of it.

You could tour Mr. Severs’ house and as a limited version of time travel, it was a lot of fun.  I got a closer to the 18th century, even if I never felt I was moving away very much from the present day.

Historical recreations like the one by Mr. Severs, Colonial Williamsburg and Upper Canada Village give us a vivid sense of difference. When I was at Upper Canada Village, one of the visitors asked one of the staff, "So what’s it like to live without a car?"  The answer, "What’s a car?" gave everyone a nice little shock.  

The question is this: how and how long would we have to live in a historical recreation to begin to to lose touch with the present day in a useful way.  Human beings are wonderfully adaptive. We begin to recalibrate immediately. A couple of hours and we are sliding out of many assumptions and arrangements.  A couple of days, and we are well down the slippery slope and this close to Stockholm syndrome.   

The reason this is useful for marketers is the shock of reentry.  So much of good marketing is "getting our head out of the bucket" and "thinking outside the box" and otherwise relieving ourselves of the assumptions that prevent us from seeing what is "right before our eyes."

As Andy Grove puts it in his very interesting Only the Paranoid Survive: 

“All business operate by some set of unstated rules and sometimes these rules change—often in very significant ways.  Yet there is no flashing sign that heralds these rule changes. […] The trouble was, not only didn’t we realize that the rules had changed—what was worse, we didn’t know what rules we no had to abide by.”

Time travel really helps here.  Spend a couple of days in the 18th century and we would be gifted with sight.  Indeed, a couple of days in the 18th century would be worth its weight in ethnographies, focus groups and brain storms.  Things would just become ever so clear. Grove’s "unstated rules" wouldn’t be unstated anymore.

Hurray for someone.  There must be many people who would like to live in the 18th century or the 7th one for the matter.  I mean, who wants to live in the real world?  Most of us do it out of necessity and under protest.  Or we could take turns staffing the past, on our vacations possibly.  Every so often someone from the present day would come wondering in, clearly unclear on the rules in place.  Patiently, we would ask her "what’s a car?" and ever so gradually the visitor would begin to watch her unstated rules explode like overheated party balloons.  


Artley, Alexandra, and John Martin Robinson. 1985. The New Georgian Handbook. London: Ebury Press.
Grove, Andrew S. 1999. Only the Paranoid Survive: How to Exploit the Crisis Points That Challenge Every Company. Crown Business, location 362 in Kindle format.
Severs, Dennis. 2002. 18 Folgate Street: The Tale of a House in Spitalfields. Chatto & Windus.
Next time:
Time colonies and travel for consumers.
(I am hoping I can pull this off.  At the moment all I have is the new Arcade Fire album on the suburbs and their magnificently interesting website that let’s us go home again.  The album may be hackneyed but this website, Negro, please.
Here’s the Arcade Fire http://thewildernessdowntown.com/
If you have other examples, for crying out loud, let me know.  Press time approaches.  
Thanks to Anne Moscicki for the Arcade Fire reference and to Jenson Bennett for the Andy Grove reference.  

6 thoughts on “time colonies, time colonists: next new thing in marketing?

  1. Pingback: Grant McCracken: Time Colonies, Time Colonists: Next New Thing In Marketing? - PSFK

  2. Pingback: Grant McCracken: Time Colonies, Time Colonists: Next New Thing In Marketing? - PSFK

  3. Alex Mitchell

    “The reason this is useful for marketers is the shock of reentry.”

    The first image that jumped out at me when I read that was the scene at the end of “The Lord of the Flies” when the man shows up on the beach and the boys are jolted back to “reality”.

    You mentioned travel and your article is filled with the idea of “re-awareness” … I’m reminded of a reference in Alain de Botton’s book The Art of Travel when he mentions Xavier de Maistre’s “Voyage autour de ma chambre” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xavier_de_Maistre). It would be an interesting exercise to take a trip around one’s room, or perhaps the room of a friend, to as a way to become “re-aware” of ourselves. We live so much of our lives facing outwards … does the best marketing happen when it forces us to look inward?

  4. CarlenLea

    Not even just time travel — subculture travel. I have way too many conversations with clients and colleagues about whether or not they like something, when the issue is will the audience. It’s really hard for people to put themselves in the skin of someone else.

    There’s an artist, whose name is escaping me, who immerses herself in a subculture for months and then stages photographs that include her. She always seems to fit into the moment perfectly because she has grown to understand who these people are and what they are about. The photos are so true to the culture that they often look like snapshots instead of carefully created tableau.

    It would be amazing if everyone could take a vacation to another subculture and learn what the world looks like through their eyes!

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