Zero Out

We live in an age of noise. Silence is almost extinct. You must create your own.”

Erling Kagge, author of Silence in the Age of Noise

Pings, dings, things. More, constant, newer. Brighter, faster, shoutier.

The world has self-gorged and stuffed itself silly. Our age reeks of excess and anxiety.

Attention is our illness. But the antidotes are arriving. And they’ll change our values, our systems and our consumption.

They are silence. 

And absence.

The world is ready to Zero Out.

The always-on is about to get some time off.

And nothing is going to be our everything.

l. Silence

Modern life is designed to make noise. To demand our attention. We are over-stimulated and over-connected by what we’ve surrounded ourselves with. “Quiet places have been on the road to extinction at a rate that far exceeds the extinction of species,” Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist has warned. Sound is so constant, that we’ve forgotten what silence is. Why we need it. And how to find it.

Silence is a rare commodity in our lives, harder to find than ever. Silence is a new luxury.

“Over the course of history, silence has often been a reaction to the extravagances of the era,” says Jane Brox, author of Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives. 

Where we once viewed silence as repressive—classroom demands to “sit still, be quiet”—we now stand in a time where we urgently need it. Heather Prete, a meditation practitioner, distinguishes this as a “gentle, nondoing ‘Noble Silence’” that brings us closer to ourselves, creating a barrier against our natural tendency to seek more stimulation.

Silence, of course, is nothing new. Retreat and refuge are thousands of years old. The delivery system is just different. From meditation apps, who collectively made $195m from 52m first-time downloaders last year, to vipassana 10-day silent retreats, rammed with tech millionaires like Jack Dorsey, deconditioning their minds.

But while noise is free, silence comes at a price. We now pay a pretty penny for it in a slew of silent cafes, silent Ubers (20–40% premiums for “Quiet Mode” rides) and even silent hair salons. When it comes to silence, money talks.

Silence is becoming institutionalized further still. In South Korea, burned-out workers check themselves into a voluntary “prison.” Relinquishing responsibilities (and phones) for the sake of some peace and quiet.

While in England, in a somewhat softer approach, 1 in 3 young people now say they go to church. But not for Jesus (and definitely not the comfy seat). But for the space it affords them to collect their thoughts. “Space and silence are of the same roots. It’s that expansiveness, that feeling of freedom, being nurtured,” Prete says.

And if it’s not church, then it’s Finland. A quiet country not known for much. Except perhaps functional design. And nudity. Finland is a place where silence is part of the everyday. In kindergarten, children are taught the value of forest walks. In adulthood, they avoid small talk and embrace pauses in conversation. “Silence is gold, talking is silver” goes a Finnish maxim.

But when it came to selling the country as a tourist destination, it hardly felt like a captivating USP. “Come to Finland, where nothing happens.” So, the government commissioned a report to find their country’s selling point. It concluded “…in the future, people will be prepared to pay for the experience of silence.” They’d found their resource, and they had it in acres. The resulting campaign — “Silence, Please” — featured lone figures in the wilderness. It is growing tourism at record levels, year on year.

Noise is also embracing silence to sell. Harley Davidson, historically sold on its roar and “Screw it, let’s ride” mentality is now telling us to “Breathe.” Using a Siri-esque voice as the enemy, it’s repositioning in its latest campaign as a wellness tool. It’s Hogville meets Jade Eggs.

Kyle Chaykra, in his book The Longing For Less posits, “We crave silence because we are disappointed. We are disappointed because man-made noise, language and art have proved themselves fruitless, if not outright oppressive.”

Silence creates time for rediscovery and simplicity. Of ourselves and of life’s pleasures. As Brox says, “Silence is essential to our ability to be human.” Or perhaps in the case of modern life, remain so. And to discover who we are, on our own terms. As Andy Puddicombe, co-founder of Headspace states, it’s within us all, “the silence of a quiet mind.”

We thought of silence as empty. Needing to be filled. But we are realizing it can be enriching. Fulfilling even. And we’re embracing the absence in its wake. 

II. Absence

The moment you breathe…everything stops. Your heart, your lungs, and finally your brain. Everything you feel and wish and want to forget, it all just sinks…I remember the first time it happened to me I got so scared, I wanted to call 911 and be kept alive by machines and apple juice…and then over time, it’s all I wanted. Those two seconds of nothingness.”

Rue, Euphoria

Gen Z are searching for nothingness. Described as the most anxious generation yet, they are self-prescribing with “Xanny” and CBD. Sedating themselves into a #JOMO, not #FOMO life. Where once youth sought stimulation, today they want to feel nothing.

The unnamed protagonist in Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation decides to take enough drugs to sleep for a year. “If I kept going, I thought, I’d disappear completely, then reappear in some new form. This was my hope. This was the dream.” It darkly reflects a wider desire we feel. To just take a break. To press reset. To find something transformational in our absence.

Billie Eilish provides the soundtrack to nothingness. Pop-music adverse to the sugary highs of the past. Yet neither the Nirvana lows of heroin chic. It’s therapy pop expressing the fetishization of absence. She’s withdrawn herself from the societal expectation of the female-pop appearance, sound and lyrics. She steers clear of oversaturating us with herself, and that absence clearly appeals.

And within that abstention we find a kindred spirit—Greta Thunberg. The force of nature, trying to save said nature, with her efficiency of words, with her action and with her abstinence. Both women represent a desire for control in an out-of-control world. 

Abstinence is in on the rise. Gen Z are shirking meat, alcohol, sex. And even stimulation, in its entirety. Dopamine fasting is the latest wellness trend, emanating from Silicon Valley. By reducing dopamine in the brain, partakers believe they can “reset” themselves to be more effective and appreciate the simpler things. Dr. Cameron Sepah, who oversees the fasting of CEOs and VCs, believes it is the “antidote to our overstimulated age.” Perhaps there’s encouragement in the irony of simple pleasures being propagated from within Silicon Valley.

While we wait for that abstention to filter into our technology, youth through their restraint are already transforming our and their world. Through zero waste, veganism, nonownership and climate change. Through their search for nothingness this generation may even save the world. Bold perhaps. But after generations of binge, the purge is coming. And it’s starting with our things.

“Super Renters” is a movement of young people who choose to own as little as possible. Minimizing their present life, rather than investing in an uncertain future. Culturally, we’ve been constantly shifting from an ownership to an experience model with disruptive businesses emerging to save us money, reduce stuff and respect the planet. While simultaneously running us over with their rent-a-scooters.

Jennifer Hyman, CEO of Rent the Runway, is one of the pioneers of the growing non-ownership industry. She believes “we used to display wealth via what we purchased…the recession accelerated it but I think there’s a value that’s been placed on being smart about how you spend your money that has coincided with the sharing economy.” Owning less but better, is the new cultural cachet. And sometimes it’s even made of waste.

Our desire is growing to not only own less, but to reuse our waste—changing the idea of what “nothing” is. In Dahod, India, in the city’s bid to become plastic free, you can now pay with plastic rubbish. In fashion, “The R Collective” upcycles luxury-textile waste to create new luxury items. “The reality is that the world has enough clothes, and we don’t need to make or buy any more,” says British founder Christina Dean. “But fashion is not rational; it pulls and provokes…we took the realistic and pragmatic view that consumers will continue shopping for clothes and that ‘new’ fashion production is here to stay.”

The shift is not just aesthetic but linguistic also. The language of zero is entirely embraced. Zero parabens. Zero pesticides. Zero alcohol. Zero carbon. Zero waste. These zero brands are defining themselves by absence.

The clean beauty industry has capitalized on seeing absence as radical or revolutionary. Framing loss as a benefit. Purity as potency. The ultimate example of this is RAW, a single ingredient product line from Parisian start-up Typology. Semiotician Chris Arning relates the association between the number zero with a cultural craving for a reset. “Zero is both a fullness and an emptiness. I do see zero as a yearning for a reset and a redo — but in the meantime it provides a nice buzzword to sell something.”

Author Jenny Odell believes we can move beyond buzzwords. She describes “doing nothing” as an act of political resistance to the Attention Economy. She urges us to shift away from a capitalist perception of time and self. Away from the financial incentives of corporations that keep us in a state of anxiety, envy and distraction. Rather than constant self-improvement, upgrading and optimization, she challenges us to live a life with the ultimate goal of doing nothing. Celebrating the economic pointlessness of a task.

Nothing is harder to do than nothing. In a world where our value is determined by our productivity, where we submit even our leisure for numerical evaluation via likes, time becomes an economic resource that we can no longer justify spending on “nothing.

Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy

In the Netherlands, they embrace pointlessness. They call it “niksen.” Its literal meaning — “to do nothing.” Pottering around. Enjoying music. Watching birds. Anything, as long as there’s no end goal. Niksen has recently been adopted globally. A codification of nothingness, and a potential antidote to the idea of growth or achievement.

We also find the activation of nothingness in something we all do. Sleep is now an industry, using self-optimization to sell us mattresses, apps and the dulcet tones of Matthew McConaughey. Pokemon is even expanding into “deadtime” with a game that rewards you for sleeping. The human need for inactivity is being monetized and repositioned as a wellness tool, in one paradoxical swoop. Capitalism crept into our eight hours of downtime, exploiting our need for self-optimization, even as we drool into our pillows. 

The tension is clear. Absence is being embraced. We’re culturally reappraising the idea of doing nothing. As expected, industries and systems are being created to support that need. But the commoditization has the potential to be become yet another form of competition for our attention. Entering a self-perpetuating cycle where we are riddled with anxiety that we should be doing nothing—because the system is telling us to. The meditation app that sends you five push notifications a day, reminding you to meditate. The homebody who spends their weekend Marie Kondo-ing their things. “Our competition isn’t other brands — it’s sleep. And we’re winning”, stated Netflix CEO Reed Hastings.

The true value of nothingness is when it is practiced without purpose. And in opposition to the attention economy. That is when we become free.

III. So why is this happening?

We’re burned out. Our overstuffed lives have left us feeling disconnected from ourselves. In an overcrowded, overstimulated and overworked world, we experience a constant cycle of micro-satiations that leave us never satisfied. But we’re hitting the pause button and seeking a reset on our lives.

We can do anything now. We all have all these superhuman devices, but we’re not feeling very full at all.

Amber Case, anthropologist

The house is on fire. Post-truth. The end of democracy. Climate emergency. The world is in crisis mode and there is urgency for radical action and change to our way of life. Throughout history, people have sought out new structures and belief systems in uncertain times. The old ways are unsustainable. And there’s no going back.

There is no plan B! Don’t burn our future. The house is on fire!

Protest banner, Global Climate Strike for Future, March 2019

We’re self-connecting. In the past we’ve looked externally for escapism, expression and validation. But as we seek refuge from this outside world, we’re turning inwards. Oversharing and overfriending has left us culturally craving deeper, more personal relationships. We’re self-partnering, single householding, remote working and solo traveling. We’re nurturing our own self-connection. And solitude is becoming social.

We’ve all had our 15 minutes of fame. Now it’s time for our 15 minutes of anonymity.

Akiko Busch, ‘How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency’

IV. What are the opportunities? Four key implications for business

01\ End of the Attention Economy

Brands and advertisers, who have built their business models on the Attention Economy, from Netflix to Facebook ads, need to pivot to an “Inattentive Economy.”

New industries will be born to de-stimulate the mind and body. Helping us do less. Convenience and wellness will converge. Mental health will enter entertainment spaces. 

Start-up apps, established platforms and smartphone brands will continue to nudge people from social media habits to healthier activities or simply embracing nothingness. 

Financial wellness will boom. Money, the biggest cause of stress cross-generationally, will become easier to organize. Giving us less to think, and worry, about through nudge economics (influencing people to make choices in their best interest). Price comparison site Moneysupermarket recently launched its “Get Money Calm” campaign telling us they let “you save a lot by doing very little.” The bank Monzo enables you to block gambling transactions from your account. 

“Zero Out is mental self-defense,” says Arning. “Pollution used to be physical work. Now it’s decluttering our minds. It’s a whole new industry.”

Brands should ask, how can they be shorter, quieter, rentable, even invisible? Going forward, brands with the lowest impact on our minds and the planet will win. 

02\ Absence Marketing

Brands hate to be ignored. Rather than fear an inevitable absence, what if they encouraged and celebrated moments of non-consumption in their customers’ lives? 

Done meaningfully, this has proven to be successful. Orange, a telecoms brand, produced an award-winning spot telling us “Good things happen when you switch off.” Patagonia’s print ad asked consumers not to buy their products unless necessary. And British Airways told the UK “Don’t Fly” in order to support home advantage at the London 2012 Olympics. Humility and awareness as a brand is endearing to customers. And disruptive among a barrage of attention-seekers.   

To stay relevant in the midst of the purge, brands must stand for something beyond their product. Be it a long term-decline, like Big Soda or an intermittent fast, as we see in skin care. “Anti-consumers” might reveal new culture, potential fanbases or product innovation. Consider the flourishing industry of alternative period products transforming women’s health, or sober millennials who still need a refreshment, a place to party and a little (clean) euphoria. Industries need to reinvent themselves in response — abstention culture is bigger than brand loyalty. 

03\ Sell Silence

Noise is free, but silence sells. Quiet brands can position themselves as wellness tools, unlocking a premium new benefit. For others, can you cancel the noise? Or create a “quiet mode” for your product?

And silence isn’t just sound. Turning down the volume on branding, excess packaging or chaotic UX works too. Selfridges partnered with Headspace on a “No Noise” initiative during a busy sale period, including a “quiet shop” featuring de-branded famous goods as collectible items. They also resurrected its “Silence Room,” originally created by its founder in 1909. 

Handbag start-up ‘Silent Goods’ sells itself on being anti-label, its lifetime warranty, and basic packaging—brown paper, with tape that reads “it’s inside that counts.” Muji, short for “Mujirushi Ryōhin” or “brandless quality goods” reign supreme among silent brands. Their use of absence communicates discernment, transparency and sustainability. 

Louder products can survive this quiet revolution by making their noise matter. Toyota created a sound that enhances plant growth. Start-up IRIS improves sound quality while simultaneously activating the brain of users in a positive manner. Their mission to help us “listen well” provides wise advice for other brands to follow.

04\ Think For Yourself

Silence and absence create the mental and physical space to see the bigger picture. To think for ourselves and escape our self-induced echo chambers. In a tribalized, algorithmic world, this is something people crave. And brands can help break the system.

The BBC Sounds app pitches itself as the “public service algorithm.” Nudging users to discover content outside of their norm, rather than more of the same. The anti-algorithm is a powerful positioning in today’s world of Amazon monopolies and polarized cultures. Creating safe spaces for solitude, directionless reflection and perspective is something other brands and workplaces can champion.

Consuming more of what we know is a creativity killer. “We are squeezing out the possibility of the new. Nothingness is a channel for creativity,” says Josh Cohen, psychoanalyst author of Not Working: Why We Have To Stop. He references how great artists such as Warhol, Beckett and Keats would sleep, be idle and try to forget everything they knew, in order to welcome the new. Keats called this “negative capability.” He talked of the artistic beauty we can achieve when we are “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubt without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

V. Remaining Human

I like to think (right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.
I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.

Richard Brautigan, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

As industry automated, our leisure rose. And for the last 50 years, we steadily crammed that freedom full. Our every waking moment is now accounted for —automated reminders, reminding us to have our fill. Eat. Sleep. Consume. Repeat. But bingeing beyond our capacity, has burnt us out. 

Cohen says, “We have been defined so increasingly narrowly by what we do rather than by what we are….that we are literally losing a dimension of ourselves.” But through silence and absence, we are finding even in a loud, crowded world, space and time do exist. And we may have to regress in order to progress. Get back to basics, to humanity, to nature in order to rediscover ourselves. 

Industry and brands may help us get there. But we are starting to help ourselves. To help ourselves remain human. And what we’re discovering is that silence and absence are within us. We just need to embrace it, and Zero Out. 

— By Sarah Rabia, With Cecelia Girr and Paddy Fraser.

Special Report on Zero Out brought to you by Backslash

Sarah Rabia, Cecelia Girr

Linda Hosmer Spain, Pat McGuinness, Jason Lauckner, Chay Lee

Dana Fors, Alexander Landau, Christian Stein

Additional Contributors

Corinne Bolink — TBWA\Noboko
Georgia Garrett — TBWA\Chiat\Day LA
Harry Taylor — TBWA\Auckland
Huseyin Dogan — TBWA\Istanbul
Jan Scholz — Heimat Berlin
Jeroen Van Hove — 180 Kingsday
Karen Falk — TBWA\Chiat\Day LA
Katie Melkonian — 180 Kingsday
Mårten Sandstrom — Heimat Berlin
Marusa Hrovat — Luna\TBWA
Ville Ruokonen — TBWA\Helsinki