Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Tyranny of Marketing

I wrote in an earlier post that all human beings have the same basic needs: air, water, food, warmth, shelter, and other humans. These aren’t the only needs we have of course, and one needs many other things to lead even the most responsible of lives. That doesn’t even cover ‘wants’ which everyone has and aren’t necessarily frivolous.

Some needs, like air, food, and water are obvious, but others not so much. Some needs, even abstract, derived, or advanced needs dictate the terms of their fulfillment, and must be met specifically. Others, even simple needs, such as what to eat can be in any number of ways with no obvious right or wrong way to meet them. This raises the question of how do we know what we need or want?

For most of human history answering this question has been pretty straight forward. There were only so many options available and you picked one based on ease, habit, culture, or personal preference or what-have-you, and that was that. As with so many other things, industrialization and capitalism changed all that.

Industrialism concerned itself with producing goods, and capitalism took over the business of distributing them. It’s no accident that capitalism arose when it did, at the dawn of the Industrial age – industrialism, in the interest of efficiency arranged itself so that it could produce the same item over and over, as quickly as possible, and as cheaply as possible. This worked great up to a point. The factory that made wool socks was able to provide wool socks to people who may never have been able to afford wool socks before, or even better, more than one pair of socks. Eventually though, everyone who wants (and can afford them) wool socks has all the wool socks they need or want, but the factory still has a warehouse full, and has to keep making things and selling them in order to pay off the loans they took to buy their weaving machines and maybe pay their employees.

One of the first solutions floated to this problem was to put the unwanted wool socks onto a boat and ship them off to another place and sell them there, ideally to people who didn’t have wool socks. This wasn’t an adequate solution however, and further action was required so capitalism came up with an answer: Marketing and Advertising.

The underlying principle is a sound one. Maybe there are people out there who don’t know the wonders of wool socks, or don’t know that they should wear clean socks every day. Marketers find out who these people are, what magazines they read, and design creative ways to inform them about the importance of keeping their feet clean and dry.

This doesn’t necessarily violate anyone’s morals, and underlies the basic principles of the market: make a superior product at a reasonable price. New problems start to arise however, when multiple manufacturers making the same product and begin to compete for market share. Continuing our example, all wool socks are essentially the same, a person only needs so many, and the price can only go down so far. Competition is now no longer about manufacturing efficiency or quality but reduced to who has the most effective marketing campaign.

Once people realized that there was money to be made in marketing and advertising, they became industries in their own right. The emergence of mass media was a tremendous boon and has become a mere subsidiary of the advertising and marketing industries. You might think of television, radio, print media (magazines, newspapers, etc.), and to a growing extent, the Web as a means of acquiring information and entertainment, but to the people who control those media they are nothing more than a means of delivering advertisements.

I worked for many years in the Television industry. Viewers think of television as a means of entertainment, and the commercials as an annoyance that has to be tolerated to get to what they want. Broadcasters and networks however are more concerned with the commercials than the shows that interrupt them. I once had a conversation with an irate viewer about an interruption to his favorite show. He kept insisting that he was my customer and had a right to restitution for missing his show. I finally explained to him in blunt terms that he wasn’t our customer, but in fact our product. We sold his eyeballs and ears to the highest bidder.

Television and the other broadcast media aren’t the only ones selling your eyes and ears. Supermarkets sell off their shelf space and floor layouts; municipalities auction off the naming rights to public arenas, movie producers negotiate which products you see actors use on the silver screen; news organizations alter their editorial policy for advertisers and run thinly disguised advertisements as news. And to what end? What’s their objective?

Quite simply to convince you and your family – especially your children – that you absolutely need their product to function and thrive. It’s working too. It wasn’t so long ago that a phone was considered a luxury – now one is considered disadvantaged if every member of their family doesn’t have their own cell phone. Televisions along with cable are considered essential safety equipment now, so that households can ‘stay informed about public safety announcements’. The average American is so inundated with marketing and advertising – essentially from birth - that they no longer have any real idea of what they actually need or where those needs come from, how they’re actually manufactured or why those needs exist.

When one voices these facts, the most typical response is that it’s the fault of parents. Certainly there is some blame there, but the parents themselves are also victims. Make no mistake about it. Marketing is a science and an industry. Very smart people spend their working lives figuring out new and creative ways to get to people and invade their mental space. Even if you throw your television away, rip the radio out of your car, never open a magazine or newspaper, they will still find ways to reach you. That’s what they do.

Capitalists will argue that advertisement is free speech, protected by the First Amendment. Don’t get me wrong, I like free speech. Railing against the marketing and advertising industries would seem to fly in the face of that. Maybe it does, and I certainly don’t know the answer to this problem, but it is undeniably a problem I would argue, and to a certain extent the government agrees, that advertising is a product produced by an industry, and thus subject to the laws and regulations any other product must face. The sad truth however, is that the government is in the collective pocket of industry, and is unlikely to intervene in any way that will interrupt the flow of profits to political donors.

That last statement might seem cynical until you think about it for a while. A good example is that you are essentially legally obligated to send your children to school. Schools, in the interest of funding however, allow corporations to donate in exchange for the companies being allowed to advertise to students. The school sports stadium is ringed with commercial bill boards. There is no escape (although there are some rules they have to follow).

Marketers have co-opted every aspect of our society – our culture, our clothing, our entertainment, what we eat and drink, where we go, and what we do when we get there. They do it without our permission and frequently with the implied force of government behind them. That my friends, is tyranny.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Monkeying with my diet

As I travel down the path to Luddism and liberation, I've come to the opinion that this means to be a locavore, consuming primarily foods produced in my local area. This is problematic on several levels: As someone who has traveled the world, lived all over the place, and finally settled in a place and climate very different from the one of my origins, I've developed a taste for exotic foods, including staples that aren't available from local sources. Foremost among these is rice. I eat tons of rice, I can eat it as the foundation of any and every meal. Unfortunately, rice doesn't grow (that I know of) in the Northern Shenandoah Valley.

For the mean time, at least, I'm eating rice anyway. What I did decide to change though was to cut down on my meat consumption. Basically what I decided was this: Until I could regularly acquire locally produced meat, I would give up meat for lunch and dinner and eat all the rice and vegetables I want. I've been at it for a little over a month now and in spite of the fact that I've been chowing down on white rice, I've actually lost weight. My pants fit again!

Other than consuming 2/3 less meat than normal, the only other change I've made is to completely give up Coke. I didn't drink that much anyway - less than one can per day on average.

Liberation Through Luddism

Last week I ranted, so this week I’m going to rave. From the beginning, as I made my plans for what I wanted to do with this blog, it was my intention that for every post I ranted about what was wrong with the world and society and technology and whatever else ticks me off, I would offer at least one counter-post that offered a solution, a correction, or a course of action. Over the next several weeks I plan to alternate between themes of ‘Tyranny of ‘X’’ and ‘Liberation through ‘Y’’.

I’ve taken the label of Luddite, but as I indicated in an earlier post, I’m not truly a Luddite. What I actually am is a radical who questions the role of technology in our lives, and puts forth the proposition that the goal that all humans ought to be working for is a better life for us, our children, grandchildren, and so on down the line. If technology facilitates this, then we should use technology. Unfortunately, most of the time technology, most of the time, is nothing more than a wedge used by political and industrial forces to exploit and weaken humans, reducing them to cogs in a machine to further their own ends. My end goal is not a world free of technology, but instead a world full of free, fulfilled human beings living in harmony with themselves and the greater and all-inclusive world.

Luddism is a means to that end. I’m agnostic as to whether or not a single person can change the world, but I’m a firm believer that that a single person can change their life. I also believe that any single person can influence the lives of others through their own good example, and that if enough individuals change their lives of their own free world, eventually the rest of the world will notice.

So how does one achieve liberation through Luddism?

First, by realizing that the only true wealth in this world is the means of production, and by taking the necessary steps to acquire those means. In other words, become a producer rather than simply a consumer of wealth, and own what you produce. When net consumption is unavoidable, consume wisely – buy quality goods that can be repaired or re-used. Recycle, reuse, or re-purpose everything possible.

To become a producer, even in a limited way, is just about the most subversive and effective form of protest one can make about the state of the modern world. Where most people start down the road of home production is gardening – a tomato plant and maybe a few herbs to start. Even if you don’t take the additional step of learning to preserve your produce, the tomatoes you produce instead of buying for your summer salads or a pot of marinara represent economic transactions that did not take place.

The rewards aren’t immediate, of course. It takes a good two months from seedling to picking your first tomato, but there are definite rewards, both in the short term and the long term: the most obvious is that the tomatoes you pick the day they’re ready to eat taste so much better than the ones you buy from the store. There’s also an innate satisfaction that comes from eating food you produced yourself. You’ll also learn something in the process if you’ve never grown vegetables before – there are other creatures that like to eat tomatoes and tomato plants – you’ll have to learn what to do about them; you have to tend the plants, which while not onerous tends to be forgotten about occasionally. Weather has an affect too, and no longer is just a circumstance you have to dress according to. But this is real human life. The weather and bugs are part of real life, and learning to deal with them brings one back to the first economy.

Food is important enough that I’m going to give it a full posting (at least one and probably several) but it isn’t the only way to become a producer, nor do you have to confine yourself to the first economy of raw goods. There are numerous ways to become a second economy producer, some require expensive tools, materials, and/or years of expertise, but there are plenty that don’t. One good example is thread craft: for less than 20 bucks, you can buy a set of needles or hooks, a ball of yarn or thread, an instruction manual, and a book of patterns that are everything you need to get started knitting or crocheting. With a single dedicated afternoon of following along with the book, or with someone who already knows how, you can actually begin producing finished goods.. Eventually, by sticking with it, you can produce high quality items useful to yourself and potentially others.

The second way one can achieve liberation through Luddism is, whenever possible, buy directly from the producer. In fact, not only should one buy directly from the producer, but should do their best to build up a personal relationship, even a friendship with them. This helps to ensure that they keep producing, helps ensure that you get the quality you want, and can lead to unexpected opportunities for both of you.

No matter how efficient, skilled, or resource-laden you are, it’s unlikely that it’s possible, and not even necessarily desirable, that you can produce everything you yours need. All of us live in communities, even if they’re sparse ones. Establishing relationships with your neighbors, especially the producing ones, is a form of security. The stronger the ties that bind us to each other, the less likely we are to be at each other’s throats and even casual friendships can mitigate the possibility of conflicts.

Yet another way of achieving liberation through Luddism is through the use of tools. The astute reader may have noticed by now, that one of the few things I actually encourage people to buy are tools. Tools are an investment, as is learning to use them effectively. Tools and the skills needed to use them represent the means of production and thus are the cornerstone to true wealth.

It’s true that all tools don’t have to be bought, and learning to make your own tools, or make tools for others is a kind of meta-wealth. Still, the largest obstacle modern humans face is a chicken and egg type scenario of not knowing how to get started, and the purchase of basic tools helps to solve that riddle.

Anyone who’s ever taken a shop class remembers being told over and over to use the right tool for the job. There’s certainly an argument to be made for that position, but to a Luddite, the right tool for a job is the tool available that can get the job done. I’ll admit that I have a fixation on tools. Some I make for myself, but the majority of the tools I have and certainly all of the most important ones, I bought.

Maybe the most important thing that Luddism has to offer in the quest for liberation is that it’s built on the premise of learning to use what you have to accomplish what you need to do. Luddism is a philosophy of accomplishment and problem-solving. It means producing wealth, self-reliance, making do and creating solutions with the means at hand. There’s a learning curve for those of raised on convenience, and weaned on technology, but the results are worth it. Casting off the shackles of dependence and the ability to meet ones own needs are the very definition of Liberation.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Tyranny of Money

It is said that money makes the world go round. A quick empirical observation would make this seem so incredibly obvious that it doesn’t bear thinking about. I’ve been thinking about it anyway. Money makes the world go round now, but did it always? Historically, that answer is no, although you have to go back a ways to find a time when it didn’t. That isn’t the point though. The point is that there was a time where humans existed without money, and someone had to invent it.

If there was a time when there was no such thing as money, and humans were capable existing without it, could there then be a future time when humans – either through choice, circumstance, or necessity – exist without money again? Conceivably, this answer is yes. The real question isn’t whether or not it’s possible, but whether or not it’s desirable. It’s not a matter of ‘could?’ but ‘should?’

To answer the question of ‘should?’ we first have to ask ourselves what to we get out of each side of the deal. This is a complicated question, and volumes have been written to explain what money is, how it works, how to use it, and what it does for us. Even if you’ve read these volumes, the matter isn’t solved – there’s still the matter of faith – what you believe money is and does. There are several schools of thought, and devotees of all of them, some of whom hold to their ideas with an almost religious fervor. I don’t want to get into that discussion, at least not at this point, so I’m going to give a working, as agnostic as possible, definition and use that for the purposes of this discussion: Money is a tool used to facilitate the transfer of wealth.

I happen to be an adherent of E.F. Schumacher’s as modified by John Michael Greer when it comes to what wealth is. In a nutshell, there are three categories of wealth:

Category One – raw resources, renewable or otherwise, derived or extracted from the earth. This category includes ores, minerals, water, plants, animals, etc.

Category Two – finished goods. This category consists of those things of category one to which human labor is applied as well as those things made up of one or more category two goods. Money, as a commodity is part of this category.

Category Three – This category is a meta-category, and consists only of money that is produced through the manipulation of money. Banking and finance are in this category.

Most ordinary people live the bulk of their lives in the first two categories and only occasionally brush against the third when we take a mortgage on a house, get student loans, or buy a car. We live our lives as a cog in the wheel of some production or service machine, for which we receive money and use that money to buy the real things that are necessary for life. We might save a little and shop around for interest or yield, maybe even a little bit, but for the most part, the third category is apparently invisible.

At least it used to be. In the last couple years, this third economy has come to dominate the news and have a real impact on the lives of many ordinary people as they lose their jobs, homes, and savings. Misbehavior on the part of investment bankers and no small amount of just plain criminality have thrown a bucket of cold water in our collective faces and shown us that the third economy is a major presence in all of our lives and quite possibly the single greatest threat to our well-being.

Money as a commodity is a useful technology. This is the best possible argument that the gold-bugs have going for them. It provides a standard measure by which the relative value of goods can be measured, making it easier to trade disparate goods and services, convert perishable or ephemeral goods to something that can be saved for a rainy day, and deal with issues of surplus, but make no mistake – Money is a form of technology, and like every technology is only as good as it’s benefits to us as individuals and groups are.

That answers the question of the benefits of money, but what about the bad side? What are the detractions from this technology? Like any other technology, it has the tendency to ‘run away’ from the sound limits that necessitated its invention and develop a logic of its own with the net effect of becoming a crutch (I’ll be discussing more of these technological crutches in future posts) to the point that societies become dependent and the ability to survive without it is impaired.

I can’t state this plainly enough. Life is possible without money. Humans need air, water, food, warmth, shelter, and other humans. Everything else is a want or a fiction. It is societies, institutions, and to some extent cultures that need the abstractions of money and so forth, not the humans who are the component parts. To be sure though, collapsing societies are usually detrimental to individual health.

The most insidious evil of industrialization is that it has increasingly moved people away from the first and second economies where humans naturally occur and placed them in the third economy. This may seem to a counter-intuitive statement at first, since the obvious aim of industry seems to be to produce second economy goods, but when you think about it for a while it begins to make sense. Moving people to the third economy makes them dependent on money, which in turn makes them dependent on the financial industry.

Why does this create dependence? In simplest terms, it did so because money got between the common man and the production of wealth. Originally, the common man produced some or all of his own subsistence directly and traded the surplus for money. Increasingly, and exponentially with the coming of industrialization, the primary activity of the common man became the trading of labor for money, then in turn trading money for subsistence in the form of first economy goods. Gradually this has evolved into what we have in the present day where the common man trades labor for money and then trades that money for mostly second economy goods. We’re told this is progress.

In this world, first economy goods are seen as near worthless. Give your modern American a live pig and a bushel of raw wheat and tell them to make supper and they can neither produce pork chops or a loaf of bread. Most wouldn’t even know where to start. Increasingly, if you gave them a raw pork chop and a bag of flour, they still wouldn’t know where to start. We, as modern humans can no longer feed ourselves without the intervention of technology, which we must have money to acquire, and this is how money and those who control it have become tyrants.