12/13/2012 06:03 pm ET Updated Feb 12, 2013

What's Next for an Imperfect World?


The quest for perfection has come so far that it's now taken for granted, especially in new media. Digital imaging software slims silhouettes and erases skin blemishes. Digital recording technology corrects a singer's wobbly pitch and fills out a weak voice, making anybody sound like a star. Cosmetic procedures straighten teeth and noses, reshape ears, firm up sagging folds, remove unsightly hair and sculpt chests to order. Botox injections smooth out lines and wrinkles. Nail extensions enhance humble hands. And on and on.

It used to be only celebrities and older wealthy people in rich countries who wanted cosmetic surgery. Now it's mainstream, and the patients are getting younger -- and it's not just in the United States. In India, teens reportedly want the perfect look before the first day of college. And China has become the world's third-biggest market for plastic surgery after the U.S. and Brazil, while South Korea might be moving up in the ranks.

Meanwhile, computer-generated images (CGI) now look perfectly real, just more so. CGI and live action are blended so seamlessly in movies that it's hard to tell what's got DNA and what's a silicon-based life form. Artificial and real have gradually synced up: The perfectly smooth, enhanced look of CGI has become the prevailing hyperrealistic style of many leading TV shows.

This pursuit of perfection was fulfilled in the unforgettable opening of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Thousands of finely honed young bodies gave flawlessly coordinated displays of physical skill. A cute little girl with a weak voice lip-synced "Ode to the Motherland," while a not-as-cute little girl with a strong voice was actually singing it out of sight. "[W]e have a perfect voice, and a perfect image and representation," said the ceremony's general musical designer, Chen Qigang. The whole event was meticulously planned and executed -- and was a perfectly magnificent spectacle.

Four years later, a different yearning was expressed. The opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics included a sequence of sick children bouncing on hospital beds, comedian Rowan Atkinson cheating in a running race and a solo by a choir boy who was born with his left arm missing below the elbow. The whole thing was quirky, often bewildering and occasionally bordering on chaotic.

The difference between the two events wasn't just a matter of resources or national self-images. Nor was it because the London director, Danny Boyle, acknowledged, "[Y]ou can't get bigger than Beijing." It was because London sought to reflect a big shift in attitudes toward perfection and imperfection.

South African runner Oscar Pistorius couldn't have been a better poster boy. The double below-the-knee amputee ("The Blade Runner") became the first athlete to compete in the Olympics and the Paralympics; he has sponsorship deals with BT, Oakley and Thierry Mugler, among others; he's on style magazine covers everywhere; and he's regularly described as sexy. There are plenty of other amazing athletes who look great and are perfectly formed from head to toe, but Pistorius' combination of physical impairment and physical prowess makes him far more interesting than if he were just straight-out physically perfect.

Now that anybody can produce technically perfect, beautiful images with digital photography, we're seeing a countercurrent of interest in producing images that are not perfect but grainy, backlit, overexposed, blurred -- anything that suggests a human touch. The smartphone app Hipstamatic boasts that "digital photography never looked so analog," and Instagram, snapped up by Facebook for $1 billion, goes for the Polaroid look. The message? Working toward perfection is just an option, not an obligation. (And everything old is new again.) The alternative is not necessarily accepting a decline into slackerdom; it can be looking more creatively at apparent imperfections.

For people who are unsure of themselves, striving for perfection might seem like the answer to achieving lasting confidence: getting that bigger/smaller bust, cooler car, next-generation gadget and so on. But it can become a self-defeating spiral into anxiety and depression or go badly wrong (see Jocelyn Wildenstein or Michael Jackson).

Even successful Botox procedures might have unintended consequences: Numerous studies over the years have found that people who have had Botox injections have an impaired ability to read the emotions of others and feel emotions fully themselves.

British cultural entrepreneur Stephen Bayley looks deeper into the appeal of imperfection in Ugly: The Aesthetics of Everything. He makes the point in The Independent that talking about beauty is "boring," discussing ugliness makes things "interesting."

He might also have said the same thing about body decoration, a hallmark of the millennial generation; it's not always beautiful by conventional standards, but it is interesting and it is personal. Many young people especially are having their bodies decorated with tattoos and adorned with piercings, even though the majority make sure their tattoos can be hidden under clothing.

There's no doubting the insatiable appetite for upgrading, for moving things a little closer to whatever people regard as perfection: bigger, brighter, better. But as the London Olympics hinted at, there's also a different appetite growing. If the relentless yang is for a better version of everything, then the yin is for more different versions, more interesting versions, more authentic versions, more personal versions.

This is the fifth in a series of 14 posts expanding on Salzman's forecasts for 2013 in her annual trends report, a program of global communications group Havas Worldwide. This year's book, What's Next? What to Expect in 2013, was published on 12/12/12 and is available at Salzman is CEO of Havas PR North America and an internationally respected trendspotter.