The appearance of experience

In his brilliant book Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman recounts a thought experiment in which he offers people the chance to jet off on their dream holiday.

They’ll have the time of their lives, he says, but immediately afterwards their camera will be destroyed, their memory will be wiped clean and their skin drained of its healthy, sun-kissed lustre. It’ll be like they never left.

So would they still like to go? Most, reports Kahneman, wouldn’t bother. Apparently, the experience alone – without some sort of proof, token or memory – just isn’t worth it.

Which perhaps makes it surprising that the luxury industry – among many others – is facing increasing demand to expand beyond extravagant products and services, and into unique, five-star experiences.

So what gives? Has the human brain suddenly taken a quantum leap forward in evolution? Alas, no. But our technology has. And, between them, smartphones and social media are completely transforming the way we – for want of a better phrase – experience our experiences.

10 years ago, an exquisite experience – for the sake of consistency, let’s say a luxury holiday – was all well and good. But you couldn’t share it, flaunt it or weave it into the fabric of your public persona as you can now. Once the tan had faded, you’d literally have nothing to show for it.

Today, that’s all changed. On the catwalks of Facebook and the galleries of Instagram, people can wear their experiences like designer labels and display them like works of art. Experiences have become our social currency.

Today, a discerning cocktail selection or a majestic (and painstakingly filtered) sunset view is as much a symbol of taste and status as diamonds or couture ever were or will be. And they’re more exclusive than the rarest of products because they occupy only a single, fleeting moment in time – gone in an instant and never to be recaptured in quite the same way by anyone ever again.

Now we really can have our gateau and eat it too. And isn’t that what luxury is all about?