What is a Human Experience?

Our latest quarterly, The Human Experience Issue, has hit both virtual and physical newsstands. But what exactly is a human experience? Read on for our take, and don’t forget to subscribe to MISC for the latest insight on design thinking and innovation. 

The titular question reminds us of the old brainteaser: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

There are two classic responses to this. The more Platonically-minded would say the tree always makes a sound when it falls in the forest. We don’t have to be there to hear it; we can imagine the sound of a tree falling in the forest, based on memory of such an event or on the recording of such an event. We know that sound is just vibrating air, and it’s safe to say that air always vibrates in response to a tree falling, or a bear growling, or a cicada singing, whether we are there to hear it or not.

The second answer is a more post-structuralist response: the sound doesn’t occur on its own; it needs a human ear to be heard. Therefore, if there is no human in the forest to hear the tree fall, then there is no sound. This automatically implies that “experience” of anything requires the presence of a human being, which means there is no such thing as an experience that isn’t human.

Animal rights activists – or anyone with a beloved pet – would almost certainly reject this notion because it prioritizes humans and relegates all other species to a lower class of being: an attitude that most would agree has gotten the human race into an awful lot of environmental trouble over the last 200 years of industrialization.

In his article (What is an Experience?), my learned colleague Paul Hartley describes experience in its most basic form, as “the perception of something else” and “ultimately information about what we have perceived.” But does this make it particularly human? Dogs and cats perceive things. Insects perceive things. You could even say that plants perceive things, such as the direction from which the sun is shining. Perception is the most basic of life’s survival tools for all manner of flora and fauna.

In her brief but cogent disquisition on the subject (What is Human?), another of my learned colleagues, Nadine Hare, asserts that to be human is a social construct. Hartley builds on that notion by suggesting that culture affects experience when we start to share it, because “the words, associations, and priorities we attach to the shared experience define how we understand the world we live in.”

Hare rightly points out that this world is increasingly dominated by consumerism, which has distorted what it means to be human by excluding all of the attributes and qualities that “make people people.” Calling us consumers reduces our experiences to mere transactions. It defines human experience within the narrow confines of the purchase funnel and has little interest in anything that isn’t a purchase driver.

Perhaps the field of commerce is where the experiential rubber most emphatically meets the road. Unlike mere perception, commerce is a uniquely human experience. It has mediated, automated, and dominated the human agenda to the point where we are defined by what we buy and little else. Commerce has invaded the non-profit spheres of government, health, and education, imposing its own priorities and principles on these institutions in the expectation that they will behave more like businesses. And even though business still strives to appeal to the so-called masses, it prioritizes the pursuit of individual wealth, and in so doing, not only inhibits the desire for shared experience but unravels the social fabric historically woven by the democratic tradition.

As if in response, that social fabric is being re-woven by our networks. As Hare asserts, “humans both produce technology and are produced through technology.” Experience is shared more now than it ever has been because the experiential platform – i.e., that very human invention called the internet – is in place to facilitate it like never before, and on a global scale.

This sharing capability reintroduces all of those things that “make people people” back into the conversation – whether commercial or political. What “makes people people” is messy, unpredictable, emotional, and complex. Most of what makes us human has no place in the experiential confines of the purchase funnel, and defies any of our attempts to place it there.

The challenge for us as a species is to embrace this new capacity for sharing to keep the agendas of our hegemonic institutions – whether commercial or political – from defining what makes an experience human. A post-consumer business strategy might be one that, as Hare hopes, will “expand our view of people to include the complex and dynamic social, cultural, gendered, spiritual and racialized beings that they are.” Maybe then will our shared human experience truly become, as Hartley asserts, the glue that holds us all together as human beings.

This article appeared in The Human Experience Issue

Photo: Existence 1 by Vincepal

the author

Will Novosedlik

Will Novosedlik is the former Head of Growth Partnerships at Idea Couture. He is currently a strategist and storyteller at large.