We have—my apologies to the late George Carlin—a lot of stuff. The great successes of the industrial revolution, the service economy, and the continuing dominance of western civilization in areas of innovation, production, and scale, have been to create societies simply dripping with abundance. Across the board, we are drowning in commodities—from foodstuffs to kitchen appliances, from television shows to tractors. We have so much stuff, in fact, that our landfills are overflowing, the oceans (and I’ve seen this more than once while transiting the Pacific on Navy warships) contain vast floating continents of trash, and we throw out an estimated 1.3 billion tons of fresh produce each year. Even the poorest among us, the homeless and destitute, routinely possess cell phones.
This abundance, this giant ticking bomb, is the result of steadfast belief in the growth economy, hyper-efficient economies of scale, and the seduction of nearly every one of us into the role of dedicated—one might say blindly addicted—consumer. But there is a flipside to the consumerism that has continued to drive innovation and the ease and comfort it has brought to our lives: ultimately, our willingness to be indoctrinated and manipulated, to be seduced and persuaded by marketing Jedis that we have a need for almost anything, is wracked with the consequences of exploitation.
It also creates a moral bind. The ease and convenience of cell phones—and many other products—trumps any meaningful concerns about how the minerals for those devices are mined—often by forced child labor—or the scarcity of the resources needed to make millions of phones, and the preservation of those resources for later generations. It is much more important that we have our cell phones right now, and anyway, screw the 9 year old kid in the Congo basin digging by hand with an AK barrel in his back—he should have a better government if he doesn’t want that to happen to him. I’ve heard that defense of the indefensible, or related defenses, made more than once—by otherwise moral and reliable people who are willing to reject outright the consideration of these and similar conundrums when the questions challenge their natural rights to abundance. And no one is more ferocious than a sad, lonely, consumerist American faced with the suggestion that his insistence on immediate gratification as a natural right—the just fruits of American hegemony—also makes him a hypocrite.
It is not my purpose here to argue that advancements in technology, medicine, and other key areas of life are always bad things. To my mind, they merely are, time will ultimately judge if they were wise. Time will sort out whether or not sacrificing the sustainable legacy of small farms to the industrialized behemoths of agribusiness conglomerates was ultimately a smart move. One doesn’t think so, but there are plenty of mouths to feed. And certainly we all enjoy the notion that if we were to develop a toothache we can go see a dentist, rather than sit in a tipi during the Moon of the Cracking Trees, chewing on wang leather and listening to the incantations of a medicine man for distraction from the pain.
So it isn’t the moral questions I’m trying to resolve. Certainly I’m trying to highlight moral aspects of our consumerism, but I don’t have a claim to righteousness and I’m not pushing one on you. Rather, I would rather focus on the much more personal questions of individual and community need, considered in the broader perspective, with one eye on designing a life around wanting, and therefore needing, less stuff, and the other eye on learning ways to persuade those whose only—and it is trained from birth—response to abundance is to angrily demand more, more, and even more.
The film actor Paul Newman—and I don’t normally turn to actors for great wisdom—while speaking to the New York Times in 1990, had this poignant thing to say about our consumerist addictions: “We’re a throw-away society, aren’t we? We throw away everything. We never even try to fix things – we throw them away, we destroy things – appliances that break, old buildings because they’re old, we throw away relationships that aren’t exactly what we thought they’d be, we throw away wives, husbands, marriages.”
We have so much, we are so virtually surrounded by the abundance of our success, and yet we are among the least satisfied, ardently unhappy, and in some ways spiritually destitute people on the planet. Since 1957, the median income of Americans has risen some 85%, while the average assessment of our own happiness has decreased by 5%. That’s no accident.
There are two axioms—there are undoubtedly more, but this is a start—to bear in mind when celebrating the successes of our growth economy and innovation in our time, both of them offered by Wendell Berry in his masterwork: The Gift of Good Land. First: “…manufacturers profit most from increases of scale, not community stability.” Second: “No new machine is ever introduced that will help the existing community to survive.”
The models of modern farming—and farming is always a good place to start because eating well is the bedrock of health and happiness—are designed to disrupt and eliminate small farmers, or at least have as their ultimate consequence the annihilation of small farmers—a vision we cling to—this nation of small farmers—even as it increasingly passes into mythology.
There are seductive reasons to make a Super Bowl halftime commercial purporting to celebrate the American family farm, complete with a moving voiceover from Paul Harvey, but in the end the commercial, like most commercials, is a well-dressed and sentimental lie selling pickups to people who live in the suburbs. In farming, as elsewhere, the introduction of new machines, or technologies, exploits us by carefully creating and nurturing reliance and dependence upon the products as the price of ease and convenience—and an easier sale is almost never made. Berry cites the example of the Amish farms:
“Surely our nation would be healthier if it contained several million such farms. And yet Amish farms have received virtually no attention from students of agriculture—the reason being, I think, that these farms are more profitable to the farmers than to those corporations whose livelihood has been the ruin of farmers. They consume small quantities of chemicals and commercial fertilizers; they use simple machines that last as long as machines ought to last; they use virtually no petroleum; they do not look upon indebtedness as a desirable temporary condition, much less a desirable permanent one; they grow their own sustenance.
“But take, say, fifteen eighty-acre Amish farms and join them together in the ownership of an ‘agribusinessman,’ who will get rid of the livestock, take out the fences, buy the large machinery necessary to farm on a big scale, and plant all twelve hundred acres in corn or corn and beans. Health will decline in everything from the soil to the community…This farmer-as-‘agribusinessman’ will be a life-long extravagant consumer of everything he needs, from fuel to fertilizer, from credit to extension courses in ‘stress management’. He will be a good citizen of the economy. But whether he knows it or not, and sooner or later he will know it, this economy proposes to ruin him, as it has ruined millions of others, and sell him out to a bigger ‘agribusinessman’ who wants to ‘handle’ 2400 acres and help the economy even more.”
What is true about all of this in farming is also true in virtually every other aspect of our consumer economy. Who doesn’t yearn for a doctor who makes house calls, and isn’t enslaved to the corporate medicine and insurance rackets?
We suffer, and I think it is an acquired illness, from terminal shortsightedness in how we choose to live on, and nurture the things of, this planet. That illness leads directly to the now obvious symptoms of a diseased culture: mass shootings, rotting public schools, endless overseas wars and entanglements, disingenuous politics, endless racial strife, inveterate poverty and homelessness, ecological madness—and it even presents in less obvious ways, as in our approach to maintenance of the national debt.
Yet, we go on assuming—or at least behaving as if we believe it—that the producers of each new innovation and whizbang gizmo have only the best intentions in mind. That fallacy is the greatest con of all time. New products, such as the 1k dollar iPhone, are “rolled out” with planned pageantry and presented to the consumer—who is ultimately convinced that he must have it, whatever the price—like the consecration of a saint meant for us to worship. In some cases, the subsequent product worship results in riots—dozens of people actually fighting over the newest flat screen television in aisle 5—which we can see each year around Thanksgiving during the Black Friday phenomenon. And yet we ride away on these waves of innovation with precious little concentration on, and study of, either their immediate or downstream consequences.
In The Conundrum of Consumption Alan Thein Durning wrote: “Thus many of us in the consumer society have a sense that our world of plenty is somehow hollow—that, hoodwinked by a consumerist culture, we have been fruitlessly attempting to satisfy with material things what are essentially social, psychological, and spiritual needs.”
Facebook, which I use, and have written critically about elsewhere, is one of the finer examples of our hollowed-out, hoodwinked modern life. Not long ago I was condemned by an Angry Reader, for a newspaper column I wrote about the finer dangers of Facebook. This gentleman, who was probably well intentioned, called the piece a “Rant against connectivity.” It most certainly was, with good reason, and I will let one of the founders of Facebook illustrate why. Sean Parker, the founding President of Facebook, recently gave this eye-opening interview into Facebook’s intentional design. The emphasis is mine:
“When Facebook was getting going, I had these people who would come up to me and they would say, ‘I’m not on social media.’ And I would say, ‘OK. You know, you will be.’ And then they would say, ‘No, no, no. I value my real-life interactions. I value the moment. I value presence. I value intimacy.’ And I would say, … ‘We’ll get you eventually.’”
“I don’t know if I really understood the consequences of what I was saying, because [of] the unintended consequences of a network when it grows to a billion or 2 billion people and … it literally changes your relationship with society, with each other … It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”
“The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them, … was all about: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’”
“And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you … more likes and comments.”
“It’s a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”
“The inventors, creators — it’s me, it’s Mark [Zuckerberg], it’s Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it’s all of these people — understood this consciously. And we did it anyway.”
At least as revealed in this interview, very little, if any, thought was given to the downstream consequences. The product was made, marketed, and eagerly consumed by billions of users as the next great thing. It also became, in many ways, a replacement for the usual requirement of thinking before speaking, and even the briefest tour of the Facebook landscape reveals a populace steeped in gloom, conspiracy, meme-think, bubble-gum politics, and the utterly inane behavior of endlessly gyrating pop stars. In many cases it is similar to being detained in a kind of uber-sentimental nightmare—a bad jokes, stupid thoughts, and greeting-card ante-chamber to hell.
The most intelligent thing I’ve heard said about Facebook came at a machine-gun shoot in Arizona, from a freelance writer and editor who was also there covering the event. “Facebook,” he said, “Should only ever be a one-way conversation.” And he meant, if he was being honest, that he only uses Facebook to market his writing and business.
For many of us, these quotes from Mr. Parker are not revelations—we’ve suspected as much for some time—but they are admissions of a deliberate strategy aimed at mind control, which should probably be terrifying. It is mortifying that American consumers would line up, willingly and with unrestrained enthusiasm, to indulge in the ease and convenience of a product designed, intentionally, to control their minds.
This is exceptionally true because we don’t, and will never, know to what ends the platform is ultimately being used, or by whom, as demonstrated by Russian use of Facebook memes and marketing strategies in an attempt to influence our last presidential election. And it is controlled minds, either by consumerism, religious fundamentalism, or unquestioned belief in the immortal virtues of a growth economy, that are so difficult, and will perhaps eventually prove impossible, to persuade that the voices they hear are actually screams coming up from the bottom of the well.
Jerry Mander (yes, his real name) wrote in The Walling of Awareness that “What we see, hear, touch, taste, smell, feel and understand about the world has been processed for us. Our experiences of the world can no longer be called direct, or primary. They are secondary, mediated experiences.” Nowhere is the secondary, mediated experience more apparent than in the world of Facebook, and according to Mr. Parker, it is entirely deliberate.
We have options, and most of them are personal. No single person among us is likely to persuade some 400 million Americans and those billions more across the globe that our addiction to consumerism is ultimately dangerous and counter-productive to independence of thought and action. It becomes something more of a personal commitment. What’s required is a concerted effort to fill in the hollow places we know exist because we can see and feel them, to address the planned obsolescence of our goods—and even our own lives—by making more careful and deliberate choices—by exercising options anchored firmly in family and local community, and to steadfastly refuse to be harried into a political corner by irrelevant party platforms, and the zealots who defend them. The once admirable American political system has devolved into a marketing and consumerist free-for-all, utterly devoid of meaning, a kind of freak show capable only of trotting out the worst possible candidates for public office.
Alice Walker wrote, in her poem We Alone:
“We alone can devalue gold
by not caring
if it falls or rises
in the marketplace.
Wherever there is gold
there is a chain, you know,
and if your chain
so much the worse
We can avoid the explosion of the abundance bomb in our lives by changing out, consciously and conscientiously, those things on which we place value. And it is a big, powerful, bomb. The people who built it, and defend it, have much to lose if it is ever fully defused, but we have everything to gain by climbing down into the crater and getting to work with a screwdriver and wire cutters. We win if we go down there next to the beast with our tools, like the Indian sapper Kip from Ondaatje’s excellent novel The English Patient, and set out to deliberately disarm the pernicious and empty insistence on blind consumerism and models of a growth economy that ultimately destroy exactly what they are pretending to preserve and enhance. Jim Dodge, in Living by Life, had this to say:
“We spend more time posturing than we do getting it on. In short, American culture has become increasingly gutless and barren in our lifetimes, and the political system little more than a cover for an economics that ravages the planet and its people for the financial gain of very few. It seems almost a social obligation to explore alternatives. Our much heralded standard of living hasn’t done much for the quality of our daily lives; the glut of commodities, endlessly hurled at us out of the vast commodity spectacle, is just more shit on the windshield…Our only claim to dignity is trying our best to do what we think is right, to put some heart in it, some soul, flower and root. We’re going to fall on our asses a lot, founder on our pettiness and covetousness and sloth, but at least there is the effort, and that’s surely better than being just another quivering piece of the national cultural jello.”
The effort against becoming a wiggling bowl of jello, like most efforts of enduring value, start at home. They start with an insistence on remaining, wherever possible, independent in our thoughts, and in our hearts, which ultimately allows us to remain independent in our actions. Independence remains the most powerful tool at our disposal. The cluster bombs of commodity dependence, mental and physical slavery to consumerism, and the cultural sociopathologies that result from it all, have fallen all around us, but if we care enough, and spend the time to identify them, we can chart a course that runs deliberately, happily, and safely, right through the middle of them all.