“Let’s Perform a Thought Experiment – Something Exotic, With Time Travel and Lasers.”

June 16, 2009

book spent.jpg
I’m reading a fascinating new book by Geoffry Miller called Spent: Sex Evolution and Consumer Behavior (Viking, 2009). The main thrust of the book is to apply evolutionary psychology (a sort of What Would a Cave Person Do or WWCPD view of the world) to the consumer choices and their consequences that create the world we live in. I’m interested and appalled and can’t really tell which I feel more. He points out that Marketing, the power behind the throne in this worldview is not a fancy type of advertizing but rather a bona fide scientific revolution. In the business world this all began in middle of the century and “came with that wonderful sense of inevitability that accompanies all scientific revolutions. That a company should produce what people desire, instead of trying to convince people to buy what the company happens to make, was a radical idea that seems obvious only in retrospect.” But the principals of Marketing have been around much longer than they have been applied to business. He identifies democracy in the political realm and the protestant reformation in religion as marketing oriented concepts which redirected a top down producer focused system into consumer friendly people power arrangements.
The above mentioned thought experiment is from the preface of the book which asks us to imagine going back in time to explain our current way of living to our Cro-Magnon ancestors and see if “the prospect of ever-greater prosperity, leisure, and knowledge motivate them to invent agriculture, animal husbandry, walled towns, money, social classes and conspicuous consumption?” In the Q and A, Caveman Gerard (this is prehistoric France, after all) asks if this money stuff will allow him to buy 20 wives, greater intelligence, longer life, advanced personal weaponry to defeat his rivals, the undying loyalty of his love or at least more tolerable personalities for her mother and sisters. You have to answer: no, no, no, no, no and no. His mate Giselle is interested in “a handsome, high-status charming lover who wil never ignore me, beat me or leave me,” better childcare, the respect of her teenage children or a mammoth carcass that never rots and you have to disappoint her as well. Finally when Juliette, Cro-Magnon Matriarch asks what it takes to get all this supposedly great stuff anyway and you answer “All you have to do is sit in classrooms every day for sixteen years to learn counter intuitive skills, and then work and commute fifty hours a week for forty years in a tedious job for amoral corporations, far away from relatives and friends, without any decent child care, sense of community, political empowerment or contact with nature. Oh and you’ll have to take special medicines to avoid suicidal despair and to avoid having more than two children.” Then they kick you out of the campfire circle.
The most fascinating thing to note at this stage of the book (I’m only on page 45, btw) is that all this marketing doesn’t seem to lead to materialism. Because the focus is on brand identification and the power of association, or as he puts it, “a narcissistic pseudospiritualism based on subjective pleasure, social status, romance and lifestyle, as a product’s mental associations become more important than its actual physical qualities.” These associations, then, with their brand specific characteristics, are all that a company can use to get you to pick their product as opposed to any other. His example is bottled water which I consider to be so much of a case in point that I won’t bother to go into it. The end to which all this marketing appears to lead, then, isn’t a house groaning under the weight of mountains of stuff but a sort of Neil Stephenson future in which we detach from reality and move into self created alternate realities formed the better to identify ourselves with the appropriate associative characteristics.
All of which is by way of saying that now that I’m done with Michael Crichton I’m needing to read Snow Crash again.

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