Consuming the future

Tom James @ 07-08-2009

nature_chainsVia New Scientist, scientists at the Ecological Society of America confirm my Agent Smithesque suspicions on the cause of our ongoing environmental crisis:

More specifically, all we’re doing is what all other creatures have ever done to survive, expanding into whatever territory is available and using up whatever resources are available, just like a bacterial culture growing in a Petri dish till all the nutrients are used up. What happens then, of course, is that the bugs then die in a sea of their own waste.

Making all this worse is the development of consumerism, which encourages even greater consumption of resources than would be the case if every new human being consumed as much as they have done historically, the NS article comments on the development of this trait:

According to Rees, the change took place after the second world war in the US, when factories previously producing weapons lay idle, and soldiers were returning with no jobs to go to.

American economists and the government of the day decided to revive economic activity by creating a culture in which people were encouraged to accumulate and show off material wealth, to the point where it defined their status in society and their self-image.

In today’s world, such rhetoric seems beyond belief. Yet the consumer spree carries on regardless, and few of us are aware that we’re still willing slaves to a completely artificial injunction to consume, and to define ourselves by what we consume.

British philosopher John Gray (not the American self-help guru of the same name) has argued something similar in his book Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and other Animals, in which he lays out a thoroughly pessimistic critique of the notion of human exceptionalism, and his prediction of the imminent failure of environmentalist policies.

I don’t agree entirely with Gray on the inevitability of collapse and decay, but I certainly concur with James Martin‘s view that the 21st century will have to mark a change from focussing on limitless growth to sustainable growth (if such a thing is truly possible), as a precursor to a steady state economy.

The article raises another interesting point:

In an ideal world, it would be a counter-advertising campaign to make conspicuous consumption shameful.

“Advertising is an instrument for construction of people’s everyday reality, so we could use the same media to construct a cultural paradigm in which conspicuous consumption is despised,” he says. “We’ve got to make people ashamed to be seen as a ‘future eater’.”

I’m against moralistic ‘holier-than-thou’ criticisms of consumerism, but as “consumerism” as a concept has come about by the deliberate decisions of business people and marketers (and policymakers) seeking to promote ever greater economics growth and consumption, might it not be time to have a similar drive towards sustainability?

[image from Peter from Wellington on flickr]

Neuromarketing – time for the revenge of the consumer?

Paul Raven @ 26-06-2009

showroom signRegular readers will be aware that technological marketing is one of my perennial topics here at Futurismic; it never ceases to amaze me how far companies will go to find new ways of selling us stuff more effectively. Neurological research is the cutting edge of the field these days, with Honda kitting out test customers with clothing that reports on their physiological status as they’re given the latest pitch in a gussied-up showroom:

Honda found the results so persuasive that it is remodelling showrooms and retraining staff to tailor pitches according to a potential buyer’s state of mind. “The hypothesis is that if you get the [sales] experience right, you may not need that price promotion to sell a product,” explains Ian Armstrong, manager of customer communications for Honda UK. “Conventional research only gets you so far because it’s rationalisation after the event, and most decision-making is done subconsciously. We set out to measure physical changes people cannot consciously control.”

Honda is not alone in believing brain science can boost the bottom line. A growing number of businesses say that traditional ways of understanding consumers – direct questioning, observing our behaviour – don’t explain why we buy one product over another. And they are turning to neuroscience for the answers.

All well and good for Honda, I guess – though I’d be immensely amused if at the end of it all it was discovered that purchasing choices are largely sub-rational and random. For now, though,  I’m inclined to see the sales floor as the battleground of an arms race. After all, the technologies Honda are using are comparatively lo-fi, the sort of thing that a smart independent researcher could knock up on a budget. So maybe consumer advocacy groups will start their own counter-research programs, offering tactics and training to enable shoppers to spot when they’re being manipulated by environmental factors or neurolinguistic programming techniques, and ways of turning the tables on the salesmen. Knowledge is power, right? [image by mrflip]

Of course it’ll be a while before grass-roots research can match the sort of data that fMRI scans can gather, but if there’s one up-side to the economic slump it’s that people already seem to be thinking far more carefully about what they buy; all the crafty persuasion techniques in the world won’t do you any good in an empty showroom, after all. And just to go all the way with the blue-sky thinking, perhaps we’ll eventually end up in a world where manufacturers realise the best way to sell us something is to have a robust and functional product that people actually need…

… hey, a guy can dream big on a Friday, can’t he?

John Maynard Keynes’ post-capitalist vision

Tom James @ 25-11-2008

With the recent economic troubles many commentators have brought up the economic ideas of John Maynard Keynes with regard to fiscal stimulus to avert or ameliorate the effects of a recession.

One of the most interesting comments I’ve read talks about Keynes’ attitude to capitalism in general, from John Nalsh in The Times, is a reference to an essay entitled Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren in which he predicted:

The strenuous purposeful money-makers may carry all of us along with them into the lap of economic abundance. But it will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.

This is a brilliant point. Keynes is basically saying that capitalism is necessary to create wealth – but it is not the be all and end all of human existence. Consuming and speculating is a means to an end.

The aim of capitalism is in the long run to make capitalism irrelevant. Once everyone on the planet has a high standard of living then we can all get on with other things.

[essay available here, via The Times][image from Jacob Bøtter on flickr]

American lifestyle must change, says neuroscientist

Tom James @ 21-10-2008

According to neuroscientist Peter Whybrow, head honcho of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Behavior at UCLA the concept of the American DreamTM is a “biological impossibility.” From the Wired article:

“We’ve been taught, especially in America, that happiness will be at the end of some sort of material road, where we have lots and lots of things that we want,” said Whybrow

Our built-in dopamine-reward system makes instant gratification highly desirable, and the future difficult to balance with the present. This worked fine on the savanna, said Whybrow, but not the suburbs: We gorge on fatty foods and use credit cards to buy luxuries we can’t actually afford. And then, overworked, underslept and overdrawn, we find ourselves anxious and depressed.

This seems to be related to the newly-emerging discipline of behavioural economics, as pioneered by Richard Thaler and others. Here is a good introduction to behavioural economics on

Behavioural economics seem to reflect the fact that economists are coming round to the intuitively obvious idea that human beings really are not super-intelligent, near-psychopathic, wholly self-interested beings like homo economicus.

[image from Orin Optiglot on flickr]

Every day, in every way, things get better and better

Tom James @ 27-08-2008

stuffIt is nice when someone points out the obvious fact that for most people, most stuff (i.e. consumer durables) is pretty good nowadays – at least compared with equivalent stuff from a long time ago. Whole Earth Catalog creator Stewart Brand discusses this is the 2008 World Question “What have I changed my mind about?” – he now believes that good old stuff sucks:

Well, I bought a sequence of wooden sailboats. Their gaff rigs couldn’t sail to windward. Their leaky wood hulls and decks were a maintenance nightmare. I learned that the fiberglass hulls we’d all sneered at were superior in every way to wood.

Remodeling an old farmhouse two years ago and replacing its sash windows, I discovered the current state of window technology. A standard Andersen window, factory-made exactly to the dimensions you want, has superb insulation qualities; superb hinges, crank, and lock; a flick-in, flick-out screen; and it looks great. The same goes for the new kinds of doors, kitchen cabinetry, and even furniture feet that are available — all drastically improved.

(New stuff is mostly crap too, of course. But the best new stuff is invariably better than the best old stuff.)

[via the Sachs Report][image from poagao on flickr]

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