Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Renaissance of Smell

Immerse yourself in a pot of hot enfleurage so we can bottle your essence forever, just like this murder victim from the movie Perfume.

Trends come and go, we know that. The rate of change, however, is a topic worthy of discussion. People used to say that fashion revolves on a twenty year cycle – wait til the 90’s and bellbottoms are cool again. You know what hasn’t been in fashion for a while though? Smell.

I’m looking at a great piece by Smell Futurist Olivia Jezler about the coming wave of olfactory experience headed our way. It was written a year ago, but since we’re going to examine very long timescales here, her piece is still relevant. This is a slow wave.

Looking Back – The Loss of a Sense
Unlike bellbottoms and banjos, smell is not a cultural artifact; it is a medium for transmission. And as such, it’s been around forever. Longer even than the comb-over! And it used to be so important to us. It told us what was ok to eat, who was ok to mate with, and when to take out the garbage. And then, one day, tricolor vision and bipedal height advantage come along, and BAM – no more smells.

Seeing in color makes eyes the most high-fidelity info channel ever, and the height advantage from walking on two legs both expands that field of polychromatic vision and takes our noses off the ground, making them way less useful. Vision wins, and olfaction bites the dust. We spend the next half a million years looking at flowers and listening to crinkly sounds but not a single smell. Sure there’s food and taste, but we have very completely convinced ourselves that most of what we taste is taste and not smell, although it is in fact the other way around.

(Also dogs – I don’t hear many people saying this, but I think human coevolution with dogs, who can smell really well, made us not have to smell as well. Animal cognition expert Alexandra Horowitz might be able to weigh-in on this.)

There was a brief moment around the late 1700’s when smells took the spotlight again, causing the French Revolution and subsequently pouring the foundation for our modern public hygiene infrastructure, not a big deal. And that’s it. No more smells, anywhere.

Looking Forward – The Experience Economy
And then, all of the sudden, we enter the new millennium and it becomes apparent that smell has returned. One day we wake up and flowers smell floral, and perfume bottles no longer spray odorless distilled water (but fatal nerve agents, not funny). Things will get way crazier, according to Jezler’s insights.

“The Renaissance of Smell“
-Bernardo Fleming, Head of the Olfactive Design Studio at International Flavors & Fragrances

Jezler points out what has happened to cause this disturbance in our datasphere – people are now willing to pay more for experiences than for things. I call this dematerialization, but she goes on to describe the cycle of consumerism upon us. She describes how brands today put lots of money behind the creation of experiences that cannot be ‘consumed’ unless you’re there for real.

I think she would have to explain to me why it is that brands want their consumers to go somewhere and do something together. Something about memetic transmission and social networks I guess. Or how about exclusivity? I’ll bet that’s it. You’re just jealous because you’re only hearing about this now, after it’s already been transmitted by someone cooler than you, and that makes you want it more.

An experience economy needs to use all the senses, and this has put more attention on the low hanging fruit, the most unexplored on the market – smell.

And although you can partially consume last night’s pop-up event via this morning’s newsfeed, you can never get the whole thing, because you will never smell it if you’re not there. And that’s because the event last night was augmented by a group of olfactory magicians on the team. From the smell on the seatbelts in the cab on the way over, to the scent on the ticket they gave you at the door, that event was designed as a fully immersive olfactory experience, whether you realized it or not.

Talk about Joel Beckerman and sonic branding – it’s more powerful than Pavlov. (Just kidding it’s the same.) You hear a jingle over and over until it brands a band of your auditory cortex. You’ve been primed.

Scent branding works too, although we pay attention to it less. Whether we notice or not, the brands notice; take a look at Play-Doh exercising their intellectual property rights to be a specifically-scented product. But I am digressing from the point. The Renaissance of Smell rides not just the wave of the experience economy, but also of the palette-forward generation behind the wheel.

“…Smell has been put back on the map through a myriad of factors, and three reasons I believe in particular: Our desire for experience, academic progress, and the rise of the gourmet palette.”
-Olivia Jezler, Owner of The Future of Smell, Fragrance Innovation Consultant

Consumers of today know way more about their biscuits than their grandparents did. Just look at what’s written above a café counter today vs thirty years ago. (It used to just say “Coffee.”)

Just Coffee

This sophistication extends far beyond coffee, and it gives consumers the talent, the exposure and the lexicon to appreciate the gustatory satisfaction of complex aroma.

Looking For Reinforcements – Academia Adds Potency
I saved the “academics” part of Jezler’s premonition for last. The experience economy, of which the gourmet movement is a part, is not the only thing fanning a more fragrant datasphere towards our sensory apparatus. Jezler uses the Academics tag to group together all the new technologies and concepts that have augmented and extended our understanding of this most primitive of senses, from digital noses to hormonal engineering.

Unfortunately, I’m a real pessimist about anything even slightly resembling an electronic nose, or the digital transmission of odorous molecules. However, when I hear somebody (the MIT Media Lab) say that estrogen is a “biotechnical civil disobedience, seeking to subvert dominant biopolitical agents of hormonal management, knowledge production, and anthropogenic toxicity,” I can’t help but get pretty excited. (They’re connecting the profusion of environmental estrogen due to excess petrochemical use, or ‘xenoestrogen,’  to an increasing hormonal malleability, or ‘queering’ of our society, in case you’re wondering.) 

There are plenty of legitimate attempts at bringing our noses to the technocratic party, but I don’t see these going beyond fiction for quite some time. In fact, I should say that it is the main reason why it is such an intriguing subject for a fictional future.

But in the end, it doesn’t matter if it’s fact or fiction (especially in today’s world where Big Data has made the truth way harder to faithfully articulate). After all, science fiction gives us the imagination that we need to create the future.

Despite the threat of our world becoming a cold, body-less, virtual space that is a network of quantum repeaters in low earth orbit, Jezler sees us re-engaging with all of our senses. Chances are it will be a bit of both. In the meantime, it makes good business sense to consider the low-hanging fruit of the experience economy. Whether you’re designing the next delivery bot, or writing a proposal for research funding, don’t forget that people care about their sense of smell. It’s what makes an experience authentic, and authenticity will always be in style. 

Image source: A still from the movie Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Image source: Old coffeshop menu

SMELL: How our insatiable desire for experience is giving rise to sensory perception and the renaissance of smell
Olivia Jezler - Medium, 2017

The Future of Smell

Odors and Urban Planning
Limbic Signal, 2017

Kate Maclean’s Sensory Maps

Hasbro trademarks Play-doh’s scent: Sweet, slightly musky
AP News, May 2018

Imagineering Institute’s Digital Smell Interface

MIT Media Lab’s Design Fiction Group on Open Source Estrogen and Hormone Microperformance

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