Humanising the High Street


I’m thinking about this a lot.

When we moved to Guildford eighteen months ago, I would find myself gobsmacked at the zombie-ness of the Saturday shoppers – wandering the town centre looking for something, anything to fill the hole in the soul. Bloody Surrey! Bloody boomers with their early retirement and 10x property value increases.

Over time I’ve come to see it differently. It’s not the people’s fault, it’s never the people’s fault. The High Street is a machine. Of course it’s not actually a machine but it’s the “shop window” if you like for the machine, for capitalism-as-usual. And we’ve come to treat the machine as all-knowing and all-powerful as if it were the only way to be.

Douglas Rushkoff calls it “the unchallenged, underlying operating system” for our economy. It’s unchallenged because for most people it’s the only way they can imagine to organise society. Well we just have to feed the machines because they give us so much prosperity and Christmas decorations in September. I really recommend Rushkoff’s Team Human podcast by the way, it’s reflected and amplified a lot of my thinking about this stuff since I ran #workshop34 in Sittingbourne and got a feel for just how embedded machine thinking is in the High Street, a place where we really should be connecting with each other as people, if we’re going to do it anywhere.

So I’m now looking at how to shift my thinking about our town further and find useful things to do here. And I think it’s worth first digging into how this operating system works, for real, here and now. Analyse the machine in order to be able to subvert it, hack it, make it work better for us, without them sending the terminators out to get us.

The first thing is that so much is hidden – how do all these shops stay open despite the fact that they don’t seem to sell all that much and they have massive rents and business rates to pay – what gives? And what humanising hacks exist already? I suppose busking is one of them, creating a human experience on the side of the street, in front of an empty shop, without swearing fealty to the man. But interesting then how that’s becoming mechanised, a recognised part of the young musician’s apprenticeship, a way to get instagram followers and sell more stuff online.

Anyway, that’s where I’m at. If you want me, I’ll be outside Burger King, staring in to space and thinking deep thoughts.