Monday, September 28, 2009

We the Cattle

It used to be that the study of man’s foibles was the province of philosophers and religious theorists. By and large, those people wanted to understand us to improve our lot, whether on earth or in heaven. Now, we are the constant subjects of randomized double blind experiments with control groups. Of surveys. Or marketing data collection. And sociologists and behavioral economists are delving deep into the psychology of our behavior, but not out of concern for our souls, or even for the general state of mankind. They want to know what we do and why so they can tell professionals of all kinds how to deal with us. Manipulate us. Gain our support. Con us into buying stuff we shouldn’t, whether it’s political nonsense like death panels or physical garbage-to-be like huge entertainment devices.

I’ve recently been reading a book on public administration, which is a fancy term for the nuts and bolts of government. Because I have led my life on the creative, artistic side, I was surprised to learn just how codified and studied are all the behaviors that go into the running of our systems, whether public or private. And right along with that is the constant study of we the people, since we are either the clients or the customers of such organizations. It’s not enough that every bit of our buying habits that can be pulled from store discount/loyalty programs is marketed in hopes of piercing the truth of our grocery buying habits. It’s that today there is a specialty within economics that is all about every aspect of our behavior.

This idea can give you the creeps. Malcolm Gladwell has made the study of people and their snap judgments into a bestselling book, Blink, which is fascinating reading. He tries to come off like a scientist, and technically perhaps he is. But he undertook all those studies for commercial clients who wanted to sell us stuff.

Which leads me back to the real life of people who act without any self-consciousness that they are following a herd mentality—other than that they want to be fashionable, which is to be in the herd, after all. To be like the others. These people begin to ache to own iPhones and plasma TVs and blu-ray because well-educated marketers have used all their behavioral data to shape the hype. Which then enmeshes us in an ever-escalating series of created (rather than innate) desires, most of which are for ephemeral crap. The televisions of yesterday, which still operate, cannot even be given away today—despite the fact that anyone with cable can hook them up easily and receive all the channels with no problems. Why? Because thousands, if not millions of us have decided to “upgrade” our televisions. Without marketing, we wouldn’t be thinking this at all. We are treated as cattle to be herded first this way and then that. And without deliberate marketing, no one would be wasting a moment on mythical death panels, either. Someone is selling and deliberately pushing our emotional buttons to make us buy.

And the kicker in all this is that we, the cattle, get blamed for following what others have pushed upon us. The media says we spend too much, that it’s our fault that we buy too much. We listen and believe too much, too. Yet at the same time, the lingering recession is our fault because we’re spending too little. And we don’t listen and retrain ourselves into employees-to-be of towering technical skills. (Talk about satori!) Forget the fact that people aren’t spending because they don’t have jobs and don’t have money. Or that they can be very highly skilled professionals, but still be undercut by talent elsewhere on the globe because of the financial rate of exchange. After years of criticism because we as a nation don’t save, our savings rate has gone up dramatically. But we still get the tsk-tsks. Spend, cattle, spend. And tell me exactly why you buy, so I can pitch something new (and unnecessary) to you with deadly accuracy. And blame you in almost the same breath.

I don’t want to carry this cattle analogy to extremes, but herding people is a frightening concept. Yet, every day, some interest or other is trying to do exactly that.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Craigslist Junkie

A month or so ago, we bought an expensive mattress and springs. Today on Craigslist, in the Free section, I have so far counted listings for three queen mattress sets, one twin set and one twin springs, and one unspecified set that is probably a full size. That’s a lot of free mattresses on a weekday, and the night is young.

The homemade pictures look okay. Out of five mattress sets, probably at least one is quite acceptable and has substantial life left in it. And these are just the free ones. Over in the Household section, somebody wants $750 for a king size mattress only. I don’t think he’ll get it, but you never know. Somebody else is selling a twin mattress, springs, and frame for $60. Now that’s more like it. Another person is selling a twin mattress only, for $25. The deals keep on coming.

Yes, I have become a Craigslist junkie. This is my latest Internet addiction, and it’s totally free. I check to see what people are selling and giving away. Luckily for me, I live so far from where all this personal retail activity is taking place that it is not practical for me to rush out and get one of these deals. Gas costs too much. But I can see what fun it would be to be a young man out to furnish a new apartment cheap with his buddies: All they need is a truck or van, some rope and old blankets, and their healthy young backs. They can totally get everything free. There are so many free couches and recliners that no self-respecting young person should even consider buying one. Free TVs. Free bedding. Free dishes and kitchen implements. Free everything. Makes me want to hop in the car and start collecting things.

There even are dirt cheap recycled wedding gifts floating around, in case one is invited to events. “Unopened, in original box” is a common theme in the descriptions. From the photos, it looks as if Mikasa, Lennox, and other well-known manufacturers are creating these items—overdone vases, serving bowls, large decorative platters, and more hideous stuff—just for the wedding gift crowd. Which apparently does not like them. So why buy one on Craigslist? Because they are decorative, they are giftlike, and you can get them at a fraction of retail. Just be careful to know the true retail price (after sales events and discounts) of these items. It often is substantially less than what the Craigslister claims. Also, a lot of glassware is described as crystal on Craigslist. Dream on, ignorant ones.

The real crystal and objects d’art in the Antiques and Collectibles sections do tempt me, and their prices are often substantial, though fair. But then I remember that I have nowhere to put anything new—first, I’d have to buy one of those handsome china cabinets that are also on the list. There’s a time in life for acquiring, and a time for reducing the load. Right now I am edging into the second period. The serious one, not mere de-cluttering but giving away or selling or otherwise getting rid of high-quality belongings. Downsizing for real. I’m not quite there yet. Meanwhile, I get a lot of fun out of seeing everyone else either at the beginning or at the end of the same cycle. The Recycle of Life, if you will.