News & Politics

The Real Thing Is Getting So Hard to Find

High-powered technology can manipulate reality and disseminate falsehoods on a scale never before seen.
Victoria Beckham, also known to the world as Posh of the Spice Girls, was giving a performance for fans in Birmingham, England, and accidentally dropped the microphone. Her voice, however, continued ringing out of the speakers as if by magic. But it wasn't magic; Posh was lip-synching to a pre-recorded track. As if that weren't insincere enough, the lip ring she wore also turned out to be fake. Posh hadn't really pierced herself like so many of her young fans... she just wanted them to think so.

It's difficult to know what's real anymore. Politicians deceive us. Corporations cover up misdeeds with frothy PR. Photoshop makes it simple to fake photographs. Breast implants and facelifts are as common as Band-Aids.

This is nothing new. The pages of history are filled with stories of fraud going back at least as far as the Trojan Horse. The difference today is that high-powered technology can manipulate reality and disseminate falsehoods on a scale never before seen.

In response to this onslaught, it's easy to become cynical about almost everything. Yet rather than throwing up our hands and accepting a world that feels faux, many of us are rolling up our sleeves to maintain what's honest in our lives. American social scientist Paul Ray calls this as a historic social development. "Authenticity is so much in demand today," he declares.

Ray became fascinated by the subject through his research on "cultural creatives"--a sizable segment of the population he has identified who share common values about the environment, social justice, creative expression and personal growth. After extensive interviews with numbers of them, Ray uncovered another trait cultural creatives hold in common: a drive for authenticity. This means living in a way that "your inner self matches your outer self," he says.

Veteran British journalist and trend spotter David Boyle also sees the emergence of a new social sensibility based upon "a determined rejection of the fake, the virtual, the spun and the mass-produced.

"There is an obsession on all levels about what is real and what is fake," he notes in a recent interview. "At its core it is a search for what's still human in business, in politics, in culture and in our own lives."

Boyle sees our growing yearning for authenticity as a factor in the recent boom of organic and local food, holistic medicine and socially responsible business. He also points to the worldwide success of the raw Detroit blues-rock duo The White Stripes, the resurgence of public poetry in the UK and the popularity of vintage fabrics from fashion designer Stella McCartney as precursors of a coming "authenticity revolution."

In his book Authenticity: Brands, Fakes, Spin and the Lust for Real Life, Boyle describes nine kinds of values that inspire us to seek out what's genuine in the world: ethical, natural, honest, simple, unspun, sustainable, beautiful, rooted and human.

You see people everywhere making choices that once would have seemed surprising. Forgoing a fancy holiday to embark on an eco-travel adventure or a volunteer vacation helping out in a poor community. Skipping the mall in favor of funky furnishings and fashions from thrift stores or handicraft shops. Deciding against a new house on the edge of town to take part in revitalizing an older neighbourhood. Tuning out powerful entertainment conglomerates in order to discover avant-garde, locally made or exotic artistic alternatives. Steering clear of the high-flying corporate track for a lower-paying career with more satisfaction.

"People feel contradictions more sharply than a generation ago," Boyle explains. "They are less willing to work for a company they dislike, or invest their pensions there, or buy their products. Businesses know this, but it's hard for a company to actually be authentic when it is big, globalized and virtual."

As hard as it may be, embracing authenticity represents the wisest, brightest future for business, according to Neil Crofts--a former British publishing executive, race-car driver and corporate-strategy specialist who founded the Authentic Business website.

The key to authentic business, and an authentic life, in Crofts' view, is knowing that some things matter more than money. "If you are doing something you believe in passionately and it fits with your talents, you will always do it better and you will attract the support of others," he asserts. "You will not only make more money, you'll be happier."

Crofts sees Patagonia, the outdoor clothing and gear company, as a prime example. "Their customers are hardly customers; they're more like fans." He also singles out two rising British firms that graphically illustrate the rewards of authentic business -- Yeo Valley Organic yogurt and Cafédirect coffee.

Yeo Valley ranks fourth among UK yogurt producers with six percent of the market and spends 700,000 pounds ($1.3 million U.S. or a million euros) a year on marketing, according to Crofts. Muller, the top-selling British brand, meanwhile controls 36 percent of the market and spends 40 million pounds ($79 million U.S. or 59 million euros) on marketing. "That's almost 60 times as much money to sell six times as much yogurt," Crofts calculates, noting that Yeo Valley's good reputation and organic ingredients sell themselves.

Cafédirect -- which sells fair-trade coffee -- was seeking new investment recently and raised 5 million pounds ($8.8 million U.S. or 7.3 million euros) in just five weeks, all of it from their customers. Every one of these new shareholders, Crofts notes, signed a statement endorsing the company's social principles and half of them agreed to forgo any dividends in the short run. Imagine what great opportunities that kind of financial arrangement offers a growing business.

"Who said business has to be ruthless and competitive and corrupt?" Crofts asks. "Business exists to serve the needs of society. And this is not some kind of new message. It is part of the perennial philosophy of humanity. Look at Buddha. Look at Christ."

While the principles of authenticity are enduring, the concept itself is rather new. In researching a coming book on the subject, Paul Ray could trace the idea back no further than the 17th century. He credits Enlightenment mathematician and philosopher René Descartes with coining the term. Much later it was taken up by existentialist philosophers in France and Beat generation poets in the U.S., eventually being introduced into mainstream culture thanks to the social movements of the 1960s. "It first went public with the women's movement, which emphasized the need for authenticity in relationships and with the slogan 'the personal is political.' But it's easily traced back to the civil-rights movement, where they called it, 'walking your talk.'"

Some of the big debates of our era look different when viewed through the lens of authenticity. The controversy over gay rights and same-sex marriage, for instance, is not simply a moral debate but a question about whether a person should acknowledge or repress authentic feelings from within. The resurgent movements for human rights, global justice and ecological restoration are all inspired by people no longer willing to hide their feelings about what's going on in the world.

"After making its mark on psychology and the social movements, authenticity is now hitting business. The one place it hasn't hit yet is mainstream politics," Ray notes. "In fact, one reason why Al Gore and John Kerry lost [in U.S. presidential elections] is that people didn't perceive them as authentic." Ray, Crofts, and Boyle, in fact, all mention Al Gore's recent transformation. Now that he's speaking out boldly on global warming and other issues, Ray observes, "he comes across as convincingly authentic after seeming so inauthentic in his campaign."

"Humanity's continuing evolution," is how Ray explains the rising interest in authenticity throughout the modern world. "You have people now who want to keep developing through their whole lives. For most people through history the idea that you keep growing emotionally through your whole life was not known, except for maybe the upper classes. Authenticity is showing up now because we are ready for it."

Neil Crofts sees this growing quest for authenticity as a new form of spiritual expression. "There is a huge spiritual vacuum going on in our society, a crisis of meaning." This leads some people to throw themselves headfirst into consumerism. Others seek clarity and comfort in fundamentalism -- which gropes for a sense of authenticity by holding up the Bible, Koran or other all-encompassing philosophy as the supreme truth.

"But true authenticity is not based on dogma," Crofts says, " it's based on what's meaningful to you. It's based on our intuition. We know when we are doing the wrong thing. That's what guides us on our authentic journey."
Jay Walljasper is the executive editor of Ode Magazine.