simplifying complex decision-making
I recently took on a new job as a market researcher. On my very first day, I was faced with a monumental task that would take all my analytical skills, education, and powers of perception: signing up for employee benefits.
I am no stranger to complexity and jargon; yet, signing up for benefits is one of the most complicated things I have ever done.As a former academic, I am no stranger to complexity and jargon; yet, signing up for benefits is one of the most complicated things I have ever done. It’s hard to believe hundreds of millions of Americans have found themselves in the position of signing up for benefits given how shockingly unwieldy they are.
When I’m contributing to my 401K, what percentage of my bimonthly paycheck is reasonable? 10%? 20%? 50%? Should my contributions be pre-tax? After tax? Should I get a Roth IRA? Which investment plan should I put my money in? I guess that depends on whether I’m planning to retire at 55, 60, 65, or 70, since the portfolios associated with each are employing different risk strategies. Which health insurance plan should I get? Should I get the one that has a $1500 deductible or the one with a $1000 deductible? It’s going to be important because beyond the initial deductible, the percentage of co-pay is going to change between in-network and out-of-network doctors. Should I pick the dental PPO or the HMO? One costs half as much as the other, but there’s a difference between how each takes care of major restorative work, and also if I pick the HMO, it doesn’t pay for dentures, should I need them. Vision care seems awfully expensive given that I may or may not even get new glasses this year. But then, what happens if I need new glasses? They are pricy, what with frames alone costing $150, for reasons that have never been clear to me.
Despite that dense paragraph of choices I just dumped out above, my options are actually fairly limited at this company; at the University of California, where I once worked, there were many, many more options for every piffling detail. I was handed a book that was literally 200 pages long that detailed all the available options in health insurance. Each option had a 2-3 page summary.
We all know that what I’ve just described is crazy. I’m fairly well educated, I have experience reading complex documentation, and I have business acumen that should allow me to make somewhat rational economic decisions based on my own particular set of circumstances. But let’s face it: few people are going to be able to make sense of all this information, especially at a time when one needs to be focusing one’s energies on learning the new work environment. Yet the proliferation of legalese, fine print minutiae, and paperwork across HR desks continues unabated, and most of us have just come to accept it as a nuisance that we deal with but mostly stay ignorant of.
Rather than an opt-out program that forces complex comparisons, I would offer a decision tree, which offers a logical process to eliminate choices.In their pop-lit behavioral economics book Nudge, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein argue that the solution is to create a default “best choice” option for employees that no one actually has to sign up for. Instead of presenting employees with a choice at the beginning, employees have to switch from this option, which is designed to make the most sense for the most people. So even if it’s not the best choice for someone’s particular set of circumstances, they’re also most likely not being completely screwed by it either— something that actually is a risk when someone is presented with choosing from 50 options, where they might make a horrible choice or might put off doing anything altogether.
It sounds good in theory, and the way Thaler and Sunstein present this concept (with the curiously offputting name “Libertarian Paternalism”), it seems like it would prevent a lot of people from making bad decisions. It’s true that it cuts down heavily on cognitive demands, but this is not an ideal setup for a number of reasons:
- It encourages employees to remain ignorant about things that they really should be invested in
- It empowers one person or a group of people within a bureaucracy to make a judgment about what is best for an entire class of people
- It could invite abuse, since the people in charge of creating the default position could have ulterior motives that don’t best serve employees
- What does “best” mean, and what are the metrics used to arrive at a consensus?
Questions like “Would you rather A) spend an extra $500 if you end up in the hospital, or B) pay $250 in advance regardless of whether you go to a hospital” would force you to make tough decisions about what you are willing to compromise, instead of making you compare features.To alleviate some of the problems inherent in this, I would offer another method: a decision tree. This tree would be something an individual or family could go through to arrive at optimal choices based on their own priorities. Obviously, the specifics would be dependent on the distinctions of the plans themselves, but it would offer a logical process to eliminate choices. Further, the abstract details of features will be bypassed in favor of the utilitarian concerns that underlie them.
For example, asking a series of questions like “Would you rather a) spend an extra $500 if and when you end up in the hospital, or would you rather pay $250 in advance regardless of whether you go to a hospital” takes a lot of the cognitive effort out of the selection process because it’s stating the cost-benefit explicitly and is highlighting the essential trade-off. In marketing lingo, this is called a conjoint analysis. The tradeoffs are presented upfront— forcing you to make tough decisions about what you are willing to compromise. Ultimately, this process allows you to decide what is right for you given a portfolio of choices that are otherwise hard to compare. Answer enough ‘trade-off’ questions and you’re bound to find the right plan for you, provided your choices are internally consistent.
At this point, it’s not a process of laboriously comparing— something that humans are not very good at, according to countless studies— but a process of elimination based on objectives and personal philosophy. I hope that the next time I’m saddled with having to sign up for benefits, someone in an insurance company or in HR actually follows through with a program like this.
how we unwittingly opened the flood gates to highly ‘contagious’ risk
Newton’s theory of universal gravitation was founded on nothing that the ancient Greeks didn’t know. The germ theory of disease could have been advanced and confirmed centuries before it was, if someone had made the right connections. It follows that there must be yet undiscovered generalizations that are “overdue” right now. Quite possibly, we have all the necessary facts needed to deduce how to prevent cancer or the location of a tenth planet, but no one is putting them together in the right order. More than that: Maybe we’re missing all sorts of logical conclusions about the world. They could be implicit in everything we see and hear, but might be just a little too complex to grasp.
- William Poundstone, “The Labyrinths of Reason”
|Question: Why did we not see the financial crisis on the horizon beforehand? Why couldn’t steps have been taken to prevent it?|
We live in a complicated world. So complicated, in fact, that few anticipated the financial crisis that crippled the world economy in a span of a few short years. There was nothing stopping us from seeing its impending destruction looming, but yet our most esteemed economists, businesspeople, and politicians all failed to recognize it. Why did we not see this crisis on the horizon beforehand? Why couldn’t steps have been taken to prevent it?
To understand the answers to these questions requires us to first face something unsettling: the arrangement of our financial and economic systems is almost as mysterious, complex, and labyrinthine as any of the natural sciences we study on this planet. In many ways, we have even less capacity for understanding economic systems because natural sciences are governed by processes that are reproducible and testable in laboratory settings, while economics is not well suited to such studies, being governed by irrational and unpredictable human behavior within a changing environment that is continuously impacted by literally billions of other factors at once. We are excellent economic historians, adept at developing post hoc explanations that put it all in perspective after the fact, we are not all that skilled at doing it in advance— which is precisely when we really need it.
There are people who understand small parts of the economic whole very well, but there is no one in a position to single-handedly put it all together at this very moment.There are people who understand small parts of the economic whole very well, but there is no one in a position to single-handedly put it all together at this very moment; each minute portion is sufficiently complex that grasping the entirety would require the instantaneous processing of tremendous amounts of constantly changing information, and a capacity for superhuman absorption of knowledge. We don’t even have computers that can manage the herculean task of collecting and crunching those kinds of numbers at the rate necessary for us to make sense of it in advance.
The Paradox of the Globalized Society and Breakage of the Ecological Feedback System
The overarching complexity that has come to define our economic world is somewhat paradoxical, because we tend to think of the ascent of rapid transit, satellite links, and Internet telephony as forces acting to shrink the globe and increase levels of communication and understanding across political borders. However, in many respects, these same forces heavily obscure the mechanics of the global economy through the sheer multiplicity of interregional and international relationships, corporate partnerships, and business dealings, leading to an impossibly tangled and web-like global supply chain.
Just 50 years ago, an everyday household item in the United States was likely to be made from raw materials, labor, and resources that came entirely from the United States; it is now common for products to be cobbled together using the resources and labor of many different companies housed in many different countries. Aggregated over an exponential rise in the number of consumer goods available in the global marketplace, we can easily see how it has become much more difficult to understand exactly what went into making any particular object: Where did the materials come from? How far were all the parts shipped? Were the materials sustainably produced? How much net pollution was created in the creation of this product? Were there human rights abuses associated with any part of the manufacturing of this product? As intermediary steps are introduced to the process of taking a product from production to consumption, the feedback mechanism between economic action and global consequence becomes increasingly unclear.
The feedback mechanism between economic action and global consequence is becoming increasingly unclear.Case in point: on the outskirts of Delhi, India, there is a tiny, impoverished village called Tila Byehta whose economy revolves around the stripping and processing of e-waste imported from countries like the United States. E-waste consists of discarded computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices which contain highly toxic but expensive and critically important metals that can be reused to make new electronics. While Tila Byehta benefits economically from processing this e-waste, we also know that e-waste is highly carcinogenic, causes permanent neurological and reproductive damage, and has the propensity to contaminate groundwater. But that matters little to the peasant workers in India who are more interested in their next meal than they are about long-term health consequences.
The dominant paradigm in our global supply chain is tantamount to transnational NIMBYism.At a structural level, why is this village halfway across the globe littered with highly toxic waste shipped from the United States? The answer is that America’s social and economic footing on the global stage facilitates the ability to pay others not only to take on the work of manufacturing and production, but also to absorb the costs, whether that is implicitly (as in the environmental costs of mining copper for computer components in Chile or the human rights concerns involved in manufacturing motherboards in China) or explicitly (by making trade deals to ship hazardous waste to India). In other words, the dominant paradigm in our global supply chain is a kind of transnational NIMBYism, where the U.S. consumer can consume all the value while being completely alienated from the social and environmental costs.
It is possible to see through this example how modernity’s creation of rationalized industries has led to consumers being almost entirely shielded from both the production and post-consumer sides of the equation for any given product or service. It has also allowed those controlling the means of production to be able to run factories by proxy, without necessarily having to witness firsthand the extent of the damages they are tacitly responsible for.
The implications of this are profound. In an era of escalating environmental hazard, low-latency feedback mechanisms in which our actions can be immediately seen as being causally-related to undesirable social outcomes are crucial to prevent us from unwittingly entering into dangerous and unsustainable practices.
Imagine that for every consumer good you purchased, you were forced to discard all related waste and packaging into your own home.Here is a thought experiment to illustrate this point: Imagine for a moment that for every consumer good you purchased, you were forced to discard all related waste and packaging into your own home. There is a very good chance that this model would radically change your entire approach to consumption; for all value you consume, you must also accept and absorb the costs in a manner that forces you to recognize the consequences of your choices. It may make life harder in some ways, but it renders it far less likely that you will be ambushed by an unpleasant surprise down the road, since you can see what you’re doing as you’re doing it. Living in the Western Hemisphere, we many not care about e-waste in India at the moment, but the earth is not in homeostasis; it is an interconnected ecosystem where events in one place can have serious downstream impacts elsewhere.
Systemic Risk and the Inevitability of Failure
The movement towards “glocalization” has embraced the idea that we should “think globally, but act locally.” The sentiment is well-intentioned. As consumers, we should be reflecting on how our actions affect our planet outside of our political boundaries and geographic locales, while simultaneously focusing on doing our part within the confines of our immediate surroundings. But as an American, unless you specifically take action to understand what goes into making a computer monitor and what happens after you discard it, there is a good chance that you will never even be exposed to the concept of e-waste, much less that it is a growing problem that is causing serious injury to human populations. Because it is not happening in consumers’ own backyards, it is only advocacy groups and ideologically-minded consumer-activists who are actually going to be thinking of human rights abuses in Chinese factories or e-waste seeping into water in India when they are reflecting on monitors. Everyone else will be thinking about features and prices.
Unfortunately, our system as it is arranged discourages us from having to think about such things since we rarely have to deal with real consequences directly. But even worse, our supply chains are so long, convoluted, and non-transparent that it is virtually impossible to get information even when one wants it. Contrast this with the natural arrangement of traditional societies, where geographical proximity to production and consumption activity intrinsically bestowed upon a society the ability to monitor and adjust behavior to maintain balance with the ecosystem and to ensure the health of the society as a whole.
It is becoming increasingly hard to view consumption-driven failures like the BP Gulf oil spill or the Sendai nuclear crisis as geographically-limited disasters instead of catastrophic game-changers.We should all be concerned about the impacts of our consumption choices because at some level, we all may have to deal some day with the consequences, no matter how invisible they may be in the short term. It becomes increasingly hard to view consumption-driven failures like the BP Gulf oil spill or the Sendai nuclear crisis simply as one-time disasters causing serious but geographically-limited impacts. Once we take into account both natural global ecology and the globalized supply chain, we see that such failures can easily become catastrophic game-changers.
With high levels of interdependency, a failure in one area creates unpredictable effects that ripple throughout unrelated industries, societies, and environments. The BP oil spill, for example, was not just a disaster for BP’s oil drilling and stock price. It impacted the fuel supply chain, which influenced oil markets and increased transportation and heating costs for everyone who buys fuel. The spill ruined the Gulf fishing industry, decimating thousands of jobs. The Gulf Coast’s tourism industry was destroyed, and may be gone for a long time to come. The animals that were killed by the oil were an integral part of the food chain, and thus affected the reproduction of marine life all over the Atlantic. And these are all just the first level of entities affected by this one disaster. Imagine the exponential effects that this might have once we take into account how the aforementioned groups interact with other groups and industries that normally have no direct connection to the Gulf. Most likely, you were somehow affected even if you live nowhere near the Gulf Coast.
Painting Ourselves Out of the Corner
The BP disaster, the nuclear crisis in Japan, and the financial meltdown illuminate how we are rapidly moving into a future where we, as individuals linked into the global supply chain and the global flow of capital, are perpetually exposed to serious systemic risks. Yet, despite the alarming disconnect between consumption patterns and very real threats of global ecological catastrophe, it is difficult to imagine how our civilization might ever revert to a system in which we take steps to mitigate the systemic risk we have introduced through the global value chain. We have come to rely on this chain in every sphere of our lives; we require newer and faster computer components for our economic growth, and thus need the copper that is strip-mined from developing countries; our transportation infrastructure leaves us heavily dependent on foreign fossil fuels; nearly every item that populates our Wal-Marts and Targets is sourced and manufactured many thousands of miles away to maintain affordability; and many of us enjoy eating fruits and vegetables that are completely out of season, something that the global supply chain is happy to provide, to name but a few things.
Trying to put a dollar value on natural processes is a lot like trying to put a dollar value on having your sense of sight; its work is so utterly irreplaceable that to assign a monetary value is almost pointless.Unfortunately, our leaders and indeed most of us tend to be fixated exclusively on growth, profit, and convenience motives rather than balancing them with a hard look at social and environmental costs— especially when these costs tend to be intangible, elusive, and difficult to monetize. How do we put a dollar figure on a systemic problem like the decline of the honeybee population when the role of bees in crop pollination is so central and taken-for-granted that no one in the agriculture industry ever conceived of the possibility that someday they might go away? Trying to put a dollar value on natural processes is a lot like trying to put a dollar value on having your sense of sight; its work is so utterly irreplaceable in the global economy that to assign a monetary value is almost pointless. Currently, the value of natural processes in the U.S., as far as anyone has ventured to estimate, has been ballparked at $33 trillion a year. The entire U.S. GDP is estimated at $14.26 trillion.
It’s only when we look at numbers like that that we can recognize the impossible frailty of the global ecosystem, and how we could all easily be facing an catastrophe of unparalleled proportions should something go wrong.
Unfortunately, the unpleasant reality is that there isn’t a simple solution we can implement without severely scaling back many of the positive changes that have come with globalization and modernity. Some relevant ideas have been discussed that could aid in solving this problem; each has a set of advantages, disadvantages, and headaches in instituting, but all are worth thinking about:
- Stronger incentives for corporations to not outsource labor and manufacturing
- VAT taxes that incorporate social costs into product prices
- Data that quantifies social impacts of products, which consumers can access at point-of-sale
- The “locavore” movement, encouraging consumers to voluntarily limit consumption to products they know are made entirely within a certain geographical proximity
These suggestions are serious ones, but yet they all seem quite inadequate; facile solutions for problems requiring drastic shifts. Regardless, whatever we do, it’s important that we do something, and ensure that we are encouraging politicians, manufacturers, businesspeople, academics, and consumers to develop engaging methods of reuniting the isolated regimes of production, consumption, and post-consumption in our global ecology.
While that process lumbers on with the regrettable torpor we afford only to the critically important issues of our day, it will, in the meantime, become harder and harder to predict when we’ll suddenly realize that we’re in way over our heads. There is, of course, the distinct possibility that we’re already there and we just haven’t put it all together yet.
on conducting market research to better effect behavioral changes in consumers
In an earlier article about bicycling, I mentioned that our cultural narrative about addressing energy problems typically involves a story about technology. Using existing means of solving problems is not usually viewed with much seriousness, or is dismissed entirely. Recall, for instance when President Obama was roundly ridiculed for suggesting that America’s continual search for oil wouldn’t be so pressing if we just kept our cars’ tires inflated.
In the realm of energy, energy policy, and energy politics, efficiency is not a sexy concept. Cool new technology is. Everyone intuitively gets that. Of course, my point here is not to say that technology can’t do amazing things; there’s no question that new technology is revolutionizing plenty of things. However, we also need to take into account that technology is expensive, takes a long time to roll out, and its outcomes simply aren’t keeping pace with the exponential urgency of our problems.
While we wait for our scientists and engineers to crank out viable and affordable solutions, the question turns, then, to whether it is possible in the meantime to make efficiency more attractive. I think the answer is a definite yes. However, there are good reasons why past efforts have not met with much success.
“The failures of achieving efficiency goals can be traced to a lack of attention to anthropological understandings of consumers and how efficiency can fit into consumers’ worldviews.”The failures of marketing in achieving efficiency goals can be traced, in my view, to a lack of attention to sociocultural and anthropological understandings of consumers and how they view the world, and how an implementation of efficiency can fit into this worldview. If I were a policy-maker looking to increase consumer efficiency or encourage participation in energy-saving efforts, here are some starter questions that I would want answered before spending a second crafting a program:
- How do people conceptualize energy in their lives, and what are the narratives they subconsciously tell themselves with regards to energy?
- How do the above views manifest themselves?
- What are consumers’ attitudes and beliefs about energy conservation and technology, if any?
Based on my own readings of literature in energy politics, my discussions with consumers, and the recurring themes I’ve seen highlighted by our media, I have arrived at a few thoughts of my own about consumer narratives about energy, and how those might guide behavior.1
So why (in my view) is technology so attractive while efficiency is not? I think it boils down to:
- Consumer confidence in technology – a cultural belief that technology will unfailingly come through to solve our problems for us
- Desire for magic bullets – a belief that there are (or will be) amazing solutions that don’t require much effort or sacrifice to implement
- Bias against the cheap and familiar – a belief that cheap existing things (e.g. inflating tires, installing weatherstripping) couldn’t possibly be as good as new things (e.g. energy efficient heaters utilizing cutting edge technology) for solving problems— especially complex ones
- Discreteness – technological solutions are typically housed in a single package (e.g. a hybrid car), which makes them more attractive and less cognitively complex concept than ‘efficiency,’ which is by contrast a series of behaviors
- Social visibility – people want to be recognized by others as contributing to a solution ; the visibility of technology generally makes that easier
Much of how we as consumers act has to do with unquestioned cultural beliefs and narratives that guide the way we perceive the world; as a result, attention needs to be focused on understanding those views. Once you can understand consumers’ worldviews, it’s easier to understand what might be important in either changing attitudes or in catering to mentalities; otherwise changing behavior is a rather Sisyphean task. On that point, I hope that those working in the field of energy take the time to push for comprehensive qualitative research to undergird their future programs for creating better energy programs and policy. It’s complex work, no doubt— but I can’t think of many things that are more important.
1 I will, however, caveat that these views are unfortunately not the product of a specific program of research backed by industry funding, which of course is a serious limitation; however, I have a reasonable degree of certainty that these are important, if not central, issues.
on understanding and addressing motives
A few years ago, I was consulting for a well-known company with a large vehicle fleet. Higher-ups were interested in the company’s environmental impact, and wanted to know the best way to reduce their carbon footprint given “X” dollars of investment. They were thinking of maybe of replacing their vehicles with hybrids. My team and I, being the intrepid businesspeople that we were, collected figures, ran some numbers, and came to a solid and convincing conclusion about what they should do.
Standing before company execs, we went through a number of concise charts and calculations demonstrating our work. Then we stated— with some sense of pride for our thoroughly researched and unintuitive conclusion— our genius strategy: on retirement of vehicles, the company should replace its gasoline powered vehicles with diesel powered vehicles.
It was in the moment of silence that followed that I believe we lost them.
Sure, we told them:
- Diesel vehicles are much cheaper than hybrids and one could thus buy many more of them with the same amount of money
- Diesel engines are much cheaper to maintain and replace
- Hybrid batteries have high carbon footprints of their own, and disposal is a serious and largely unconsidered issue
- Diesel fuel is cheaper than gasoline
But ultimately, we sensed that something hadn’t quite translated. There were some questions and some comments by the company’s representatives, but they didn’t look convinced or excited by our presentation. The question of what happened, of course, is blindingly obvious to the onlooker. The company had already made up its mind about its strategy— they were going to get hybrids—, and our proposal simply did not fit into their plan. More to the point, we simply took their words about wanting to reduce environmental impact at face value, without taking careful stock of what their motives might be.
If you look at the business environment with regards to carbon footprints, the United States tends to be fairly hands-off at the moment. Generally there aren’t very many penalties for generating negative externalities as long as your company happens to create jobs and contributes to the economy. That is, no company is going to face government intervention because employees create air pollution while they drive around; the penalty for driving around comes almost exclusively in the form of fuel expenses and maintenance costs of the vehicles. Thus, any potential benefit that comes from reducing carbon footprints comes from these cost savings— and from creating a positive impact in the PR department.
Ah! The PR department. That was the critical element that we had missed. Somewhat naively, we had overlooked that the main intent of the carbon footprint reduction initiative was not the reduction itself, but in looking good for doing it. We had yet to learn that part of marketing is understanding that it’s as much about the story you can tell as it is about the reality. And the bottom line here was that “we care about the environment so we’re going to buy, errrr, smog-spewing diesel trucks” was not as compelling a story as “we care about the environment— that’s why we’re replacing our gas-powered vehicles with green technology hybrids!”
In other words, while doing the right thing is without a doubt a good thing, effective sustainability campaigns will definitely need to place the image factor high on the set of priorities. Something to keep in mind.
the implications of popular song in commerce
“I was one the people who reacted violently the first time I saw the  Nike commercial [using the Beatles song “Revolution”]. I think I was in a hotel room somewhere, and I was jumping up and down! I was real pissed off. Goddamnit, I was mad, you know, because when John Lennon wrote that song, he wasn’t doing it for the money. And to be using it for any corporate thing… it made me angry.”
- John Fogerty, quoted in Rolling Stone, December 10, 1987
“For me and my generation, that song I watched John Lennon creating at the Abbey Road studios was an honest statement about social change, really coming out and revealing how he felt. It was the truth— but now it refers to a running shoe.”
- James Taylor, quoted in Musician, April 1988
“The most difficult question is whether you should use songs for commercials. I haven’t made up my mind… Generally, I don’t like it, particularly with the Beatles stuff. When twenty more years have passed, maybe we’ll move into the realm where it’s okay to do it.”
- Paul McCartney, quoted in Musician, February 1988
“If it’s allowed to happen, every Beatles song ever recorded is going to be advertising women’s underwear and sausages. We’ve got to put a stop to it in order to set a precedent. Otherwise, it’s going to be a free-for-all!”
- George Harrison, quoted in Musician, November 1987
“John [Lennon]‘s songs should not be part of a cult of glorified martyrdom. They should be enjoyed by kids today.”
- Yoko Ono, quoted in ENS, May 14, 19871
You Say You Want a Revolution
The Beatles have always been held apart from their contemporaries. They occupy a special space that confers them godlike status; their greatness is woven into the very fabric of our collective history and aspiration. They embody the pure ideals of peace and love, the hope and promise of a better world. Indeed, they transcend the crass realms of commerce. Which is exactly why they have been so successful in commerce.
Of course, since that highly controversial Nike ad aired in 1986, we’ve seen any number of Beatles songs in commercials, to less and less fanfare. From the use of “Getting Better” in a series Philips flat screen television ads that started in 1998, to the use of “Hello Goodbye” in Target Commercials in 2008, and of course the Apple ads hawking the Beatles’ own music in 2010, the Beatles have had immense success in the commercial sphere.
It’s interesting to note that despite the fact that the Beatles are “special” in the musical canon, the prevalent feelings of distaste that punctuated the initial use of “Revolution” wasn’t reserved for the Beatles. For the longest time, any use of popular song in commercials was polarizing. In the late 90s, Burger King used Modern English’s haunting “Melt with You” to sell a double cheeseburger, and the Gap used Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” to promote a fall fashion line.
You Tell Me that It’s Evolution
When the popular song catalog started being mined for commercials, it seemed like the only people who found these ads charming were people who hadn’t heard the original songs before, and thus weren’t attached to them in any personal way. To everyone else, such ads seemed the height of distaste, the grossest expression of corporate scorched-Earth mentality, where the soundtrack of our lives were being exploited thoughtlessly to get people to buy crap.
Over the past decade, however, there has been a noticeable shift in how the public has perceived these ads. Much credit can be given to Volkswagen’s use of Nick Drake’s and other semi- or genuinely obscure artists like Richard Buckner in their ads. Something was less offensive about the use of these less recognizable songs, especially since many of these songs seemed like songs worth hearing, and the ads seemed to focus on the music as much as the products themselves. The ads came off as a genuine artistic statements about abstract concepts like wonder and marching to one’s own beat, rather than contrived attempts to sell people on things. Notably, the music featured in these ads actually generated sales of not only the vehicles, but also the music; in fact, nearly all the success in Nick Drake experienced in his entire career (granted, mostly posthumous) can be traced almost exclusively to Volkswagen ads.
Bob Dylan’s much-discussed entree into the commercial genre came in 2004, when his music and his person were featured in a Victoria’s Secret ad. If you listened very carefully when Dylan’s grizzled face appeared on the screen next to a scantily clad woman wearing racy lingerie, you could faintly hear the ghost of George Harrison groaning. What was Dylan thinking? Here is a man whose influence in the counterculture was incalculable— definitional, even— and here he is part of the corporate machine, veritably spitting on his legacy and the ideals that gave him his status in the first place! In retrospect, it appears Dylan was more clever than it may have initially seemed.
You Tell Me It’s the Institution
Walter Benjamin argued in his 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction that the endless copying of a work— like the ubiquitous use of Beatles songs or the plastering of Bob Dylan’s visage everywhere— would destroy its unique value, devaluing the market with a flood of replicas. However, in the intervening years since the publication of Benjamin’s work, we have seen that not only did Benjamin misfire— but he was dead wrong. What Dylan correctly understood was that in the postmodern landscape, the ubiquity of a text radically increases the value of an original. Ergo, the more you see images of Bob Dylan and hear reproductions of his music, the greater the brand equity of Bob Dylan, the more you’ll pay to see him in concert, the more valuable his music becomes.
It’s not hard to see where Benjamin went wrong. His assertion stemmed from an economic assessment of the situation (as a text’s supply increases, its value must decrease because it is easier to acquire). However, what he failed to take into account was how a text’s very ubiquity causes it to be woven directly into the fabric of culture, which undergirds a society’s entire system of perception and values. Though Dylan might have made his mark in non-commercial settings in the 1960s and 70s, his appearance in consumer culture cements his relevance to the present.
Likewise, placing Beatles music in advertising, which might in one sense cheapen the music through decontextualization and reappropriation for nakedly commercial interests, also creates yet another avenue for the music to permeate and influence society. The commercials end up breathing new life into the songs simply by virtue of exposing new audiences to them (or re-exposing old audiences), and by removing them from the cutout bins of decades past and situating them as timeless pieces for any era.
Nowadays, the mark of a real hit song is not where it places on the Billboard charts, but in the number of different mediums it can fully permeate, and ultimately, how inescapable it is. A song that has dozens of YouTube videos dedicated to it, is played on the radio, is shown on MTV, is in commercials, is racking up sales on iTunes, and is featured on a video game like Rock Band— well, that’s a hit song that people are probably going to remember.
1 All quotes taken from “Beatlesongs” by William J. Dowlding, 1989.
why building bicycle infrastructure is only a partial solution
PROLOGUE: THE NEED FOR RETHINKING THE CONVERSATION ON ENERGY AND BICYCLE GROWTH
At the recent Energy Hub Conference, held in mid-October in Madison, WI, Skip Laitner, Director of Economic and Social Analysis for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), argued in a keynote address that the vast majority of our nation’s conversation about solving energy problems assume that it’s all about employing amazing new technologies like solar power, hybrid vehicles, wind power, microscopic energy-producing organisms, and the like. Point taken— in fact, just moments before his talk, the audience was subjected to a five-person panel of scientists and businesspeople who took turns promoting their new and wonderful energy technologies, and who tried to convince us that their innovations were going to be key elements in the high growth energy markets that drive the American economy and which will prevent the energy disaster looming on the horizon.
Laitner, however, was skeptical of this viewpoint. He argued, quite convincingly, that we need to wipe clean the slate on which we have written the dominant narratives about energy independence and we need to rethink it from the bottom up. One of his central points was that that we need to seriously think not about creating more energy, but in using what we have more efficiently. In general far too much attention has been paid to looking to the future technologies, and too little has been spent in understanding and addressing, in his words, the “cultural and anthropological” aspects. In short: We have a tendency to think of improvement in terms of technology, not in terms of behavior.
It is in this spirit of rethinking that I write this essay, in the hopes that it can better articulate why bicycling, a practice that in theory could be very instrumental in accelerating energy independence, requires a new approach in promoting its growth. I hope that in examining this issue and proposing marketing strategies, I can do my part to illuminate how the growth of the bicycle market can be not only be hugely profitable, but also culturally valuable to the American populace in a number of salient ways, not least in reducing energy dependence.
UNDERSTANDING THE BICYCLING MARKET AND ITS BARRIERS TO GROWTH
One of the highest product growth markets in the United States from 2000 to 2008 was bicycles.1 Indeed, the number of bicyclists on American streets has grown exponentially, and the prominence of bicycling in the mainstream consciousness has been increasing quite rapidly. Lance Armstrong is now a household name, and his athletic abilities have been held in high regards by Americans, who view him who is reinforcing American excellence on the world stage in competitive games like the Tour de France.
However, the growth of bicycling is starting to plateau; it experienced a rapid rise, but is now butting up against formidable barriers. The bicycle industry and bicycling-related groups are now finding themselves facing a seriously uphill battle in breaking bicycles into the American mainstream.
Three Major Sources of Consumer Resistance to Bicycling
As an avid cyclist myself, I have spent much time considering how advances in bicycle ridership could occur, and I have uncovered three distinct areas that require attention:
- Serious attention to improving bicycle design
- Improved transit infrastructure and bicycling amenities
- Greatly increased focus by bicycle companies on understanding the cultural barriers in bicycle growth, and addressing them in meaningful ways
The first of these issues is one that I have written about before, and which might be of interest. To quickly summarize, it seems apparent to me that most R&D and innovation at bicycle companies go towards efforts like reducing bike weight. While this is certainly something that is of concern to road bicyclists and many others that currently make up the core market of bicycle buyers, this is not a concern for the massive potential market that U.S. bicycle companies seem to be completely oblivious to. There are other, seemingly minor concerns regarding bicycle design that I strongly suspect are at least partially responsible for preventing an explosion in bicycle sales that would exponentially grow the entire bicycle market. While it is critical to understand this argument, it is not the focus of the essay here.
The second of these issues, the lack of bicycle infrastructure, tends to be the one that bicyclists fixate on. There are constant laments from cycling quarters that not enough money is being spent by city, state, and federal governments on improving transit infrastructure for bicycles despite its growing popularity. As a result, cyclists and bicycling advocacy groups have been relentless in pushing new projects like bike paths, bike lanes, and other amenities for cyclists. While I agree that these amenities would be nice, pushing this angle also implicitly argues that bicycling is an alternative form of transport that requires special and additional facilities to accommodate. This is a false assertion, and one that needs to be seriously questioned. Bicycles could easily make use of infrastructure that is already in place, and theoretically, even infrastructure that cars couldn’t use (like sidewalks and narrow alleyways). The United States has already built more than 4 million miles of public roads, almost all of which are currently allocated to cars. However, the ownership of this space by cars is not generally a legal designation so much as a cultural and psychological one, which brings me to the third point, which I think is the one that most seriously needs to be addressed: cultural barriers.
The recent increases in bicycling have rather unexpectedly hit a sensitive cultural nerve for something that might appear from the sidelines as an innocuous hobby. This is because bicycling is a phenomenon that touches heavily on a number of issues that are central to American culture, identity, and outlook, and like many of the other highly controversial issues on our collective table, is creeping rather nastily into the messy purview of the culture wars. In this article, we will examine many of the issues surrounding the controversies and cultural warfare that has erupted somewhat unexpectedly from bicycling, while situating the conversation in a socio-historic context. My hope is that understanding the resistance to bicycling from the mainstream can help bicycling manufacturers and advocacy groups reposition cycling to be a more attractive pursuit to the mainstream consumer than it traditionally has been.
RECURRING THEMES IN OUR CULTURAL DIALOGUE ABOUT BICYCLES
With the socio-cultural context of American streets as a backdrop, it is interesting to note that there has been a massive increase in interest in bicycles over the past decade. The reasons for this are not entirely clear, but it likely has a lot to do with young people being more environmentally-conscious than their parents, economic woes forcing people to adopt cheaper forms of transport, our culture’s increasing focus on ‘authentic’ lifestyle choices as being more status-conferring than traditional wealth-oriented consumption patterns, and the internet’s help in fomenting communities. It doesn’t hurt that city planners have been spending more time thinking about how cities can better reflect the needs of people through initiatives that encourage civic pride.
As a result of this, there has been a great increase in bike-related stories in news outlets. In recent years, I’ve lost track of the number of articles about bicycling public policy, government proposals about allocations of money to bicycling projects, details of bicycling accidents, opinion articles about bicycle culture, advocates raising the merits of bicycling, and other bike-related coverage that I’ve come across without even looking for them. Clearly, something is happening in the public consciousness with regards to bicycling. I’ve noticed that many of these stories—and the comments made about them on sites that allow user comments— involve explicit or unstated tensions, pitting bikers against other members of the community. The following are themes that I’ve collected, and which I think it is extremely important for bicycle advocates and bike manufacturers to take note of and to address in a serious and focused manner if we are to look at cultural barriers.
- Biking as a rejection of modern society and the societal expectations of 21th century citizenship
In the summer of 2010, an article appeared in the online version of a Madison, WI newspaper describing current Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood’s desire to spend more money on transportation infrastructure that meets the needs of all consumers, not just ones that have typically benefited in the past. Translation: there are a lot of bikers (and walkers) out there, and we can further encourage biking (and walking) with improved infrastructure; while this might negatively impact motorized vehicle traffic, we need to think about the needs of society as a whole. I’ve read many news stories like this, and invariably, the comments sections are littered with comments by warring parties bemoaning either a) the hitherto under-recognized needs of individuals who do not want to use or do not have access to motorized vehicles, or b) the need for individuals falling in column ‘a’ to grow up and get with the times. One comment I read stated, with some degree of hostility, that “bicycles are an 18th century form of transport.” The implication being, of course, that people who use them are living in the past, and are refusing to come to grips with the advent of newer, better, faster, and more modern technologies. By choosing this mode of transport, it is suggested, these anachronistic contrarians are clogging our roads and hindering America’s technological, economic, and social progress.
- Biking as an obstructionist takeover of a space assigned to cars
Critical Mass is an organization that promotes bicycling and bicycling culture. As an organization that is prominent in major cities like San Francisco, they do a great job of getting bikers together for what amounts to organized protests. Once every few weeks, for example, they like to get hundreds of bikers together to take over heavily-trafficked main streets during particularly inconvenient times— like rush hour on Friday afternoons. By thrusting themselves into this public space while preventing the regular flow of motorized vehicular traffic, they essentially force motorists to take note of bicycling as a movement. Unfortunately, the tactics involved in this act basically amount to some rudimentary form of cultural terrorism. Even more unfortunately, like most forms of terrorism, it’s built on the frustrations of people who realize that getting their message across in non-confrontational ways is a fruitless endeavor, which is why they feel forced to do it in this way. To their credit, Critical Mass does bring biking to the forefront of the minds of people who otherwise don’t care— but ironically, their approach does little to create sympathy towards their cause, and does much to create antagonism. What besuited businessman stuck in bicycle-created gridlock on a Friday afternoon is going to think good thoughts about bicycles?
It’s not just Critical Mass members that face the wrath of angry motorists. For a society in which patience is not a commonly-held virtue, and for which instances of road rage are in rapid ascent, it does not surprise me that the sight of a bicyclist is inherently rage-inducing for many motorists. A bicyclist on a road probably fires the same neurons as a sluggish driver who waits too long when the light is green. As a result, bicyclists are often viewed by motorists as individuals who are obstructionists in a space that is designated for cars. They get in the way and prevent the smooth flow of traffic at the speeds motorists like. Few people like driving at 15mph, and the venom against cyclists ties into the combined frustration of traffic, low patience for delays, and perceived invasion of space by outsiders who aren’t playing by the rules set by society. Interestingly, in most states, bicycles are given equal status as cars, at least on urban streets and state highways. Usually bicycles are not allowed on freeways, presumably for safety reasons. Yet, stories of bicyclists facing harassment and marginalization on the streets are quite common. In high school, a classmate of mine bragged about chucking a bottle of urine on a bicyclist on a rural road; behavior like this may not be condemned by the public as much as a similar story about an assault on a pedestrian because the bicyclist is perceived as someone challenging a largely unquestioned notions about who owns street space.
- Biking as an explicit challenge to a cultural status quo
If you get to talking to people about food (everyone’s favorite topic!), one thing you’ll find very quickly is that many otherwise sensible people ridicule vegetarianism. On its surface, it’s hard to argue against it as a personal choice. Even if you think animals don’t have feelings and that they are here for human benefit, it really has little impact on anyone else if someone chooses not to eat meat. But once you look a little deeper into it, it’s clear that the attitude against vegetarianism has less to do with the lifestyle or personal choice, and more to do with meat-eaters perceiving vegetarians as making some moralistic statement about consumption, a statement that gives moral superiority to vegetarians over omnivores. The discomfort of feeling looked down upon, or perhaps even morally outdone is enough to make many meat-eaters dismissive of vegetarians, and by proxy, vegetarianism as a whole. Many vegetarians I’ve met claim that they don’t express hostility, condescension, or moral superiority towards their meat-eating brethren, but still feel as if others dump that baggage on them anyway. Having been a vegetarian myself for 3 years in my mid-20s, I understand the feeling. Because the overwhelming majority of people are omnivorous and our collective diet is so meat heavy, it’s hard to convey to others that your consumption habit is not necessarily a political statement but a personal choice; it so defies the dominant culture that it is bound to be viewed as a rejection of mainstream society, and as some kind of battle cry— even if it isn’t.
Bicyclists seem to fall into that same category of a marginalized group whose consumption habits defy mainstream cultural expectations. The United States has an extremely dominant car culture, so it’s hard for people who are heavily embedded in it to see the motives of the people who either reject car culture or who embrace bicycle culture. On its face, cycling has the appearance of a political movement because of its phenomenal growth, and because of the view of the car as the dominant mode of transport in this country. As a generally center-right nation, we have a fairly strong aversion to the idea of messing with the status quo, and we tend not to look favorably upon those who attempt this (at least outside of the business realm). Aside from the rose-colored glasses through which we view historical figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., we usually view people who challenge the status quo outside of a business context as either naive idealists, Che Guevara-style revolutionary wannabes, or meddlesome gadflies. Bicyclists seem to be tarred with all three of these dubious and unflattering epithets.
- Biking as a flagship cause of liberal politics or a means of forwarding a liberal takeover of public space
Bicycling as a cause has come to be strongly associated with liberal politics in a way that simply rankles many conservatives irrationally, regardless of any objective social, environmental, or health benefits increased biking might provide our society. There is little doubt that due to certain historical and demographic realities (e.g. that many adults took up bicycling during their time in college), much of the public sees the interest in promoting biking as a preoccupation of a certain class of liberal elite— well-educated trust-funders who come from privilege and have a disdain for the white working class, the Protestant work ethic, and conservative values. It also doesn’t help that bicycling is associated with those elitist, socialist Europeans, whose entire continent many parochially-minded Americans apparently view with broad disdain for being effete, weak, and pretentious.
In fact, with these ideas in mind, many anti-biking factions genuinely view the pro-biking movement as a maneuver by a cancerous cell of socialists to hijack public resources for their nefarious political agendas and “special interest” needs— a theme that has repeatedly come up in opinion articles, responses, and conservative talk shows. This is regardless of the fact that legally speaking, motor vehicles are generally not privileged over bicycles, and that infrastructural changes would uniformly benefit all citizens (of course, whether or not you see these changes as benefits or a wasteful diversion of resources is a different matter entirely).2
- Biking as expression of anarchy, lawlessness, and the flouting of society’s values and social norms
One of the most commonly expressed frustrations motorists have with bicyclists is their apparent disinclination to follow the rules of the road. Watching as bicyclists blow through stop signs; ignore traffic lights; ride alternately on sidewalks, roads and lawns; cutting across several lanes of traffic; and riding the wrong way on one-way streets, many motorists see bicyclists as representing an element of lawlessness, anarchy, and a lack of common courtesy.
Bicyclists often don’t have good excuses for their lack of adherence for the laws. Observing from the sidelines, it is possible that this is a by-product of our car-friendly infrastructure coupled with American attitudes about non-motorized traffic on streets. In short, bicyclists don’t feel welcome on streets because they are car space, and they don’t feel welcome on sidewalks because they are pedestrian space. As a marginalized group, bicyclists feel as if they don’t belong anywhere, and are thus compelled to adopt a somewhat Machiavellian attitude that sidesteps following traffic laws. The unspoken question is: why follow traffic laws if you aren’t also being actively protected by them? Bicyclists also defend their actions by arguing that the potential for injury or damage that stems from ignoring traffic rules largely apply only to the cyclists themselves, not to others; that is, a car can inflict massive damage on human life, property, animals, and things that have nothing to do with the driver of the car, but a cyclist is mainly just going to be injured himself if he breaks the laws. Of course, this isn’t entirely true; cyclists can certainly hurt others, but—without defending lawlessness—it is true that the likelihood of a serious incident generally are much smaller.
What is interesting in observing this tensions, however, is that law-violating bicyclists seem to be expressing certain elements of the same frustrations that motorists have; namely, that they are impatient with the lack of movement on highways and arteries, and tired of having to deal with traffic slow-downs and obstructions. But unlike motorists, whose impotent rage at being stuck in traffic needs to be grounded, bicyclists can actually bypass the traffic and ignore the elements that cause the slow-downs. Of course, most drivers would likely do the same if they could get away with it, but the unwieldiness of cars, the potential for damage, and legal repercussions prevent it— while the agility of the bike actively facilitates it. Unfortunately, the overwhelming proclivity of bicyclists to take advantage of this fact only makes motorists more angry; the idea that some people on the road seem to view themselves as not being subject to the same laws as everyone else, and are able to easily benefit from breaking those laws (rarely with consequence) is often deeply upsetting and rage-inducing for motorists.
- Biking as an effete/unmasculine/pretentious pursuit
People already are annoyed with bikers for various reasons already described, but there’s also something about groups of people wearing skin-tight spandex that doesn’t quite translate to mainstream sensibilities. There’s also something convincingly cult-like and laughable about a bunch of identically dressed people parading around town together in a way that completely defies even the lowest-brow fashion sense. Maybe that’s why so many dismissive comments about road bikers revolve around their distinctive and decidedly eye-soreish garb. It’s hard for me to personally defend the bike clothing as fashion, because it’s obviously meant to be functional (the spandex wicks away moisture to prevent chafing). Nevertheless, the fact that this clothing is such a massive departure from the clothing that the general population chooses to wear is interpreted by motorists as reflecting a certain spacey, cultlike cluelessness. Such “fashion” statements (even if unintentional) tend to engender dismissiveness from outside observers.
EXAMINING CAUSES OF CONSUMER RESISTANCE
Without a doubt, over the past decade, there has been a rapid ascent in DIY culture that has privileged simplicity, customization, authenticity, and other crucial characteristics of consumer goods; these qualities are ones that make bicycles an attractive, cheap, and fashionable mode of transportation amongst members of certain demographics and psychographics. However, there is much resistance to widespread bicycle movements in areas outside of progressive hubs like Portland, Oregon; Davis, California; Boulder, Colorado; and Madison, Wisconsin. As I have already mentioned, some of the problem is infrastructural in nature (though truthfully, the U.S. has some 4 million miles of paved road, almost all of which is dedicated to motor vehicle traffic— an allotment that could be reapportioned given public support), and some of the problem is due to what I consider antiquated bicycle design; but a large part of the problem is cultural. As a society that has been heavily indoctrinated into car culture, we simply have a strong aversion to this alternative transport mode for reasons that aren’t easily addressed. For non-cyclists to begin adopting bicycling as a primary form of transport currently requires certain psychological adjustments that, depending on the person, range from minor to massive. The following are the specific barriers that are expressed through consumer resistance, and which play on the ideas mentioned above. For many, the idea of using a bicycle as a legitimate form of transport:
- Violates certain deeply engrained cultural beliefs about transport propriety
Namely, that the road is for cars and motorized vehicles only
- Requires many potential cyclists to re-evaluate their sense of identity
Am I the type of person who would be a bicyclist? Remember that to people who are not used to doing it, riding on main streets is somewhat of a renegade concept and may require them to view themselves as people who challenge status quo, which many are not comfortable with. Also, because many of the strongest advocates of bicycling currently are young people, people who have reached middle age might feel demographically excluded from participation
- Creates discomfort with political or group associations
Even if one follows road rules, if one belongs to a group of people that is widely considered the spoiled children of urban anarchy, it could be problematic for those who walk on the side of law and order, and value being associated with that image. To make things worse bicycling is now so closely associated with liberal politics, people who feel uncomfortable possibly being identified as such, or uncomfortable associating with those whose alleged political views are antithetical to their own may find biking problematic to their image.
- Highlights safety issues
Again, the cultural assumption—and the obvious corporeal reality— that roads are car space factors heavily into the unwillingness of broader segments of people to adopt bicycling as some component of their portfolio of transportation options.
This reality became quite apparent to me in Madison, WI, where there is an annual (sometimes semi-annual) event called Ride the Drive in which large segments of major streets in the city are closed off to car traffic. In 2010, 50,000 people came out to bike around the city that day (to give you an idea of the magnitude of this event, Madison is a city of approximately 200,000). I took the opportunity to speak to participants at this year’s Ride the Drive event, and many confessed that although they own bicycles, they don’t use them as much as they’d like because they simply don’t feel comfortable with all those cars around, especially when many drivers are distracted with phones or aren’t looking out for cyclists.
CREATING MARKETING STRATEGIES TO COMBAT CULTURAL RESISTANCE AND TO GROW THE BICYCLING MARKET
Clearly, there are many barriers to the growth of bicycling, and many different ways that growth can be facilitated. Here, I describe how a successful approach to popularizing bicycles— in addition to manufacturing better bicycles and improving city infrastructure— must adopt marketing strategies that encompass holistic views of the cultural elements of bicycling, and the behavioral inhibitions that face many potential and current bicycle consumers. What follows here is not meant to be an exhaustive exploration of marketing strategy, but rather a brief sampling of the types of avenues that should be explored by bicycle manufacturers, bike advocacy organizations, and bicycle consumers.
- Legitimation of Bicycling by Respected Government/Non-partisan/Apolitical Agencies
Because the American cultural assumption is that cars are street space and that if you aren’t in a car, you should stay out of the street, many people are inculcated from childhood to believe that as bicyclists, they shouldn’t be on the streets. For this reason, it is important to average citizens that biking activities be legitimated by politically-neutral government agencies; the go-ahead from these groups government agencies is reassurance and encouragement that it is okay to be on the streets, even if you are not in a car. Some city governments advocate cycling once or twice a year with “bike to work weeks,” which give people who don’t bike much a green light to do it. More work of this nature and more frequent such events are absolutely necessary to convey the understanding that bicycles do belong on city streets, and that respectable organizations think so.
- Converting Advocacy from a Political Movement to an Apolitical Business or Social Organization
One of the best ways to grow the bicycle market is not by focusing on how to market bicycles per se, but rather, to focus on developing bicycle communities. The ones currently in existence revolve largely around bicycle advocacy through political processes. These have been organically-generated movements that arose from the fact that bicyclists have traditionally been somewhat disenfranchised on public streets, and these organizations served to raise awareness of bicycle issues, a cause near and dear to their members. However, at this stage, it is no longer beneficial for these groups to move in this fashion; indeed, I propose that their work might actually be harming their cause rather than helping it. Like with PETA, the explicitly confrontational tones that surround organizations like Critical Mass do not generate sympathy for the bicycling cause; instead, they contribute an unpleasant sense of haranguing the public, which preaches mostly to the choir, and may even eliminate goodwill from people who might otherwise be sympathetic. I propose that bicyclists and bicycling companies should create regular (i.e. daily) bicycling events that not only invite the general public to join, but place leadership roles in the hands of eager volunteers. Such events might be long rides around town, or perhaps organized rides from residential areas to business parks during the morning commute. The importance of the social element cannot be understated; it is legitimating, it is gives an opportunity to meet others, it conveys the sense that one is being left out of something interesting if one doesn’t join, and it can help create a sense of inclusion that doesn’t favor only certain types of people (e.g. age, political persuasion, gender, etc). Clearly, some thought should be put into how this goal can be achieved but there is no doubt that something needs to happen somehow on this front. I personally would propose some kind of social networking website that links bicyclists regionally, a one-stop site that combines maps, routes, group cycling events, group commuting times, etc. Done properly and with the simultaneous backing of all the major bicycle companies, this can eliminate a number of cultural barriers like safety issues, social issues, political fears, etc. Importantly, connections between people who can make things happen— even in the absence of bike corporation money— can be made, which could change everything.
- Promoting Local Races / Group Biking Experiences
Just as professional sports like the NBA and the NFL have been instrumental in turning the tides against racism, and television programming about gays and lesbians have been instrumental in changing Americans’ attitudes about homosexuality, establishing periodic regional bike races and group biking experiences would help greatly in exposing citizens to biking as a legitimate sport and bicycles as a non-threatening and perhaps even endearing presence. Targeting high school students for participation in such races might be a particularly good avenue because it involves young people (who eventually go on to continue the activities they enjoy throughout their lives) and it gets their parents and neighbors excited too. Moreover, America has a longstanding tradition of pitting various regional high schools against each other, and this is one more avenue for it to happen. Demonstrating the excitement and athletic prowess involved in racing, bike races could also be interesting periodic festival-style events in any town, especially if coupled with other festivities. Bicycling companies, working with various food and beverage companies, should go to extraordinary lengths to promote these types of races across the country, first starting in medium to large-sized metropolitan areas. In general, the more exposure and familiarity the general public gets to bicycling events, the more likely they are to accept bicycling as a normal and admirable pastime. Indeed, another angle that is worth thinking about is the deliberate playing-up of the turbulent lives of specific cyclists, to ensure that they join the ranks of celebrity gossip fodder (think: Brett Favre, Shaq, Tony Hawk, Venus and Serena Williams).
- Cultural Rebranding through Aesthetic Appeals
Unfortunately, many Americans tend to think of bicycling—unlike, say, football— as a sport that attracts wimps and pretentious arty types. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Thirty years ago, video games were almost the exclusive purview of the dorkiest kids in high school, but now we find that all kinds of people play video games. To present bicycling as a pursuit that could involve anyone— even non-dweebs— is important. One possible inroad into this could come in the form of the visual aesthetic of bicycles and clothing. Currently, neither have much in the way of ego-expressive qualities built into their aesthetics. You can glance at a car and instantly have an idea of what kind of person would drive it. Very often, you can have a look at someone’s wardrobe and quickly understand with a good degree of confidence how that person views him/herself. The same should be true with bicycles and bicycle clothing, to ensure that all feel welcome, and a set of options can be procured that are consistent with one’s self-image. Vehicles are a big part of identity in the United States, and work should be done to explore whether expanding the aesthetic dimensions of bikes and clothing can make the pursuit of cycling more appealing to those it currently has no appeal for.
- Transcending Political Barriers through Economic, Health, and Civic Benefits
The following do not address specific cultural barriers, but can be pushed as part of a larger outreach campaign. These elements can serve as ways to offset negatively viewed aspects of bicycling with clearly messaged benefits.
For many people, moral arguments about the merits of bicycling have little weight. For example, individuals who were not persuaded by environmental arguments to drive less were persuaded in the late to thousands to drive less because of rapidly rising fuel costs. Ultimately it is very difficult to make the sorts of moral arguments that bicyclists like to make to those who do not subscribe to the politics or the political views that are central to the rationale that many within the movement subscribe to. It is often easier to convince someone who is not philosophically aligned to engage via another route that more directly affects their personal concerns (which is what a good marketer should always do).
In a suffering economic climate in which unemployment is high, disposable income is decreasing, and there is a generally high level of instability, the argument for bicycles as a primary form of transport can be made more salient through explicit demonstrations of cost-effectiveness. Cars and car maintenance costs are very high, and through proper messaging, arguments can be made that bicycles provide a more effective use of money in transport. Ivan Illich’s 1974 book “Energy and Equity” suggests that the average American spends several hundred extra hours a year working just to own and maintain a car, time that could be spent in other ways (there are obvious complications involved in employing this calculation in a practical setting, but it is interesting nonetheless). It should be noted that economic incentivization may not be effective as a singular strategy; it should be employed in tandem with other methods of promotion.
As the obesity crisis reaches epic proportions, and while demands on American workers put a premium on time, many Americans find it increasingly difficult to find time to exercise. The use of the bicycle as a primary form of transport combines the economic benefits and health benefits in one package, and depending on the distance one has to travel for work and the geographic density, could actually save time. Bicycles can and should be aggressively promoted by bicycle companies as alternatives to gyms, ones that can be seamlessly integrated into one’s work day; instead of spending more time locked in a building, biking gives a person the opportunity to experience the outdoors during a time when he/she would be otherwise trapped in a car. Bicycle companies would be wise to band together and promote this message through advertising on television, magazines, contests, and channels that involve health-conscious consumers. This message would be much more powerful in conjunction with a social networking website that can quickly convert the message from well-intentioned thought to action.
Promoting Economic Revitalization and the Reclaiming of Civic Space
What became stunningly vivid to me during the aforementioned Ride the Drive events, where cars are banished from major streets, is the realization that cars take up an immense amount of real estate in a city—not just in terms of the literal space of the 2-4 lane city streets that cars dominate, but the more subtle psychic space of residents. The knowledge that cars are around forces us to be vigilant at all times when we’re anywhere near a street. There are giant metal behemoths whizzing by at 25-90 miles an hour wherever we go. In shopping areas, we have wait for traffic to pass or we have to go to a crosswalk before we can cross a street to go to a shop. We have to breathe the polluted air and listen to the constant noise of humming motors and honking horns.
Conveying the idea that cars have been instrumental in the decline of public space, the suggestion must be offered that increased use of non-motorized traffic would have the effect of promoting community and the reclaiming of space that was once dominated by motor vehicle traffic. With enough reduction in motor vehicle traffic, or an eventual massive overhaul of the apportionment of street space, it could even be argued that giving children the space to play in front of their own homes will reduce instances of delinquency and other unwholesome activities that detract from city life.
Most importantly, however, work should be done to asses the economic benefits of creating shopping areas in which only minimal traffic is present. There are only a handful of areas in the country like this. In Madison, WI, this area is 6 blocks long and does not allow motor vehicle traffic except for the occasional bus or police car. It is a very lively area filled with people and bicycles, and an area that is much more pleasant and conducive to spending long periods of time than similar areas that cater to cars. If cities can reliably create areas that produce economic benefits through this means, this can be a powerful signal for other cities to also build them and encourage non-motor vehicle traffic. Studies from urban planning should be compiled to understand the impact of pedestrian malls on economic climates.
In addition to legitimating government organizations, it is important to involve organizations like the American Lung Association, groups who aren’t easily categorized into politicized “special interest” groups. The ALA in particular is one that should be greatly concerned about air quality issues; the pollutants stemming from cars have had a far greater deleterious effect on Americans than cigarettes. Other organizations like MADD, the American Heart Association, and Noise-Free America might be interested in collaboration too.
The reason for getting these organizations involved is because social pressures can be very strong incentives for shifts in consumer behavior. For example, cigarette smoking was quite common until organizations like the ALA got involved and created a heavy stigma on smoking. Since then, smoking rates have dropped dramatically, and I’m inclined to think it had less to do with health benefits (especially since obesity rates have gone up) and more to do with these organizations essentially making smokers feel like bad people. The same has happened to some degree to SUV drivers, who increasingly feel some level of shame for being alone in a 6000lb. vehicles on the freeway. It’s not necessarily a pretty strategy, but increased effort in making bicycling feel like a civic responsibility that bestows upon cyclists a “warm glow” of respectability, and which simultaneously tars drivers with a negative stigma might be what it takes to grow the bicycle market. Medical organizations in particular seem like good agents of non-politicized stigma creation.
For cultural reasons, promoting the adoption of bicycles is not going to be an easy sell. Cultural attitudes are notoriously hard to overcome and are ingrained in entire thought patterns. Nevertheless, there are many reasons to believe that overcoming the hurdles can happen through a careful understanding of the cultural barriers and taking active steps towards addressing those barriers through effective marketing strategy. It will take some money, but a lot of work, planning, and relationship-building at the agency and aggregate level.
The above strategies are only a few ways to address the central issues. More effort should be put in my bicycle manufacturers and bike advocacy organizations in crafting strategies that take into account the cultural forms of resistance I have elucidated above. For reasons I have described, they are just as important (maybe more) as pushing for better dedicated bicycle infrastructure.
Do you have good ideas on how to address the cultural barriers to bicycle growth? Any important cultural barriers I have missed? Please let me know in the comments.
1 National Bicycle Dealers Association. “U.S. Bicycle Market Overview,” 2008.
2 The comparison of this particular theme is one that reminds me strongly of the origins of America’s attitude towards its drug policy. I’ve spent a fair amount of time reading up on the economic aspects of American’s longstanding (and largely failed) war on narcotics, largely because understanding how this war has been executed vividly demonstrates how ineffective demonstrations of brute strength are against all known economic and marketing theory. Yet, it’s hard for anyone who has spent any time reading about this topic to walk away without the feeling that generalizations about the politics of drug users had a major impact on how policy has played out. The use of drugs during the 60s and 70s was associated with liberals, hippies, intellectuals, and minority groups. All their talking about revolution and social upheaval was not an association that, say, the Nixon administration was eager to be bedfellows with— regardless of what objective studies said about these drugs. I strongly suspect that in a similar way bicycles are maligned in an unwarranted fashion by those on the conservative end of the political spectrum.
a brief look at the ripple effects caused by the car in the American economy, culture, and society
Socio-Cultural and Socio-Historic View of American Streets, and the Decline of Streets as Social Space
Many academic takes on the decline of community in American society suggest that that the moment it all started to go awry was when television entered the scene. It was the advent of television, it is argued, that caused people to never leave their homes and to instead sit alone on their couches, bathing themselves in the glowing blue light of the “idiot box.” More recently, an author named Stan Cox seriously points the blame for the decline in American society to the invention of air conditioning (it seems like a stretch, but Cox makes some good arguments).
I think there is some merit to both of these arguments. But much of the blame, in my view, is the advent of the car. It’s obvious to anyone who has spent any time in the United States that it is a nation that is firmly entrenched in car culture. Cars heavily integrate into the American psyche, and have come to serve as a central metaphor for a lot of things about the way we view ourselves. Cars are viewed as symbols of independence, convenience, status, freedom, class, and success; beyond this, the car has come to be equated with these things.
But it’s not really the car itself that is problematic, but the way in which the car transformed the landscape of our roads and neighborhoods. The reasons for this are not entirely accidental, but are due to a number of historical factors that involve the way this nation was built up. In the United States, most of our streets were built after the invention of the car, unlike many places in Europe and Asia, where the streets existed long before cars were introduced. As a result, American roads were built specifically for car traffic, and with the needs of car traffic in mind.
Travel to places like India, and you will immediately see that people have an entirely different relationship to the road than people in the United States. In India, the road is a place for walking, doing business, hanging out, playing soccer, and selling vegetables. Dogs, cats, and cows walk around in the streets like they own the place. American streets were once like that, as this fascinating clip of Market Street in San Francisco, from 1906, suggests:
Since 1906, cars have commandeered streets, and as such, you will never see people trying to cross Market Street on foot now (except on designated crosswalks), and you would never see bicyclists riding in such a carefree manner. That’s because over time, due to the simple law of the jungle that might is right compounded with the early 1900s understanding that people in cars were clearly more important than people who traveled on foot, people quickly became attuned to the idea that streets are car spaces. This an attitude that as Americans, we all carry with us. We feel uncomfortable walking in the street. As bikers, we feel like second-class citizens who are only borrowing space and who should get out of the way as soon as a car comes near us. Heaven forbid that we allow children to play in the street with their friends—in fact, one of the very first lessons we teach children is about looking both ways before crossing a street. The message that has been written on our cultural frame—the operating system that undergirds our brains— is that streets are places for cars. Cars rule this space. If you are not in a car, you do not belong there.
Unlike many other parts of the world, large sections of the United States were built up after the advent of the automobile. More importantly, companies like Ford and General Motors were instrumental in much of the national and regional dialogue about how city planning should occur. Posing the argument that the design of American cities should revolve around the demands of the car, car companies suggested that catering to the car would ensure that Americans could bask in the fruits of economic prosperity. As a result, our nation became dependent on the car for transport around its towns. It was a rather uphill battle, for example, to get from one’s suburban home to the grocery store or the hardware store, which due to a new vision of urban planning, made these places miles away instead of being around the corner. It doesn’t require much imagination to think about the broader impacts of this historical decision:
- Marginalization of people and non-motorized vehicles on streets
- A high level of dependence by US populace on motor vehicles for everyday needs— a perennial problem for the poor and unemployed, since they need a car to get a job and need a job to get a car
- Increased fossil fuel consumption, which has led to higher levels of air pollution, greater traffic on streets, and almost certainly greater levels of global political instability due to oil dependencies
- Encouragement of sedentary lifestyles
There are many, many other side effects borne from the American car culture, but what is interesting is how completely our attitudes about the car have integrated into our views of what our daily life looks like, and how it should be. Think about this: there are a significant number of people in the US who do not step foot outside of a building on a typical day even though they travel around town. The car has become such an integral part of our lives that not having one can have severe consequences on one’s well-being, whether that involves practical issues like getting to work or going to the grocery store, or whether that means psychological issues like self-esteem, self-worth, and being able to maintain social circles.
Another worrying side effect of this privileging of cars is the fact that communities and neighborhoods do not have public spaces. For example, think about your own neighborhood. If you wanted to have spontaneous chit-chat with your neighbors, where would you do this? If your children want to play with others, how can they do this without going either formal mechanisms like asking someone to play, or without stepping into someone’s else’s yard? In India, people and children hang out literally in the middle of the street in front of people’s houses. It’s an open and neutral space that isn’t on anyone’s property (think of the alleyway that Hank and his friends use on the TV show King of the Hill). No one owns it, and it’s no one’s home turf. The neutrality makes a difference; there’s a difference between hanging out at Bill’s house and hanging out in a neutral area in front of Bill’s house. There’s simply no place for this kind of impromptu and neutral-space interaction here in the U.S.
The lack of available space makes the conditions for getting to know your neighbors and for socializing with them hard. Occasionally, some neighborhoods have a block party. This involves someone from the neighborhood calling the city and asking them to block off the street to car traffic. Invariably, this creates a pretty lively space. As a thought experiment, just close your eyes and imagine for a moment what your street would look like if it was permanently blocked off from car traffic. Do you believe people would spend more time outside if it was?
how the cultural battle of consumers vs. companies is flaring in the marketplace and where it might take us as a society
How the Old Consumer Segmentation Model is Becoming Obsolete
Our society has come to view the marketplace through the lens of a war narrative, where consumers are locked in an epic struggle against producers. Proctor and Gamble, one of the biggest companies in the world, spent $8.6 billion in advertising in Q4 2010. This, as you might notice, is a lot of money. It’s easy to see this sort of expenditure as confirmation of the fact that as a society, we are constantly being inundated with advertising and someone’s always trying to get us to buy something. However, this massive number should also illustrate a more important point that maybe isn’t as obvious, and which culturally, we aren’t attuned to recognizing: advertising doesn’t really work. Perhaps more accurately, advertising as we’ve known it is a ridiculously clumsy tool that requires inordinate amounts of spending for a small level of effectiveness.
Think about the traditional forms of (non-internet) advertising. Companies pay millions of dollars to put on a 30 second ad during a television show— effectively broadcasting their ad to everyone who might be watching it. Or they have a full page ad placed somewhere in a magazine or newspaper. These are not very precise methods of reaching people. They might be able to target certain segments of people by carefully selecting the TV program (ex. viewers of Star Trek, for example, are likely to be very different consumers than viewers of ESPN SportsCenter) or by being selective about the magazine to advertise in (ex. readers of BusinessWeek are likely to be pretty different than readers of Martha Stewart Living), but there’s no doubt that these techniques are crude methods of gaining attention. It has been said, quite accurately, that effective advertising is the art of reaching the right person, at the right place, at the right time, with the right message. The chances of traditional forms of advertising hitting the mark on all of these levels is quite small.
Of course, the reason advertising was always like this was because of clear structural limitations; the options for advertising were few, and effective targeting was not easy given the limitation of options. Companies advertised in this ineffective way because they had to.
Consumer Resistance to the New Information Paradigm
The barriers I described, however, are quickly melting away, and it’s creating what I see as a spectacular and fascinating clash of consumers’ cultural values and those of businesses. Here’s an example:
For some time now, Hulu, the popular internet media site that allows consumers to watch many television programs online, has allowed viewers to choose from a list of advertising that they want to punctuate the programs they choose to watch. More recently, they started to just show ads with a simple question in the upper-righthand corner asking whether the ads shown are relevant or not. Supposedly, as viewers feed the system with more and more information about what kind of ads they think are relevant, the system becomes more and more adept at giving individuals ads that matter to them; that is, it creates an individualized profile for each viewer.
I have found that as I get talking to people about marketing efforts like this, many consumers are extremely uncomfortable with the idea of receiving highly targeted ads. They are even more disturbed by the idea of feeding companies information that might make ads more targeted to them as individuals. Though clearly our media institutions are set up in a way that anyone who spends any time navigating them will definitely see ads in some form or another, many viewer are mortified by the idea of giving away enough information that they might receive relevant ads.
This is an interesting, somewhat curious observation. Again: People apparently would rather see a random smattering of ads than a bunch of specifically targeted ads that address personal interests. Why would anyone rather see things they aren’t interested in than things they are interested in? On the surface, this sentiment defies all logic. It’s only once you understand the fundamental narrative that underlies consumers’ cultural understandings of the marketplace, that this attitude begins to make sense.
The Conflict at the Heart of the New Information Paradigm
Our society has come to implicitly view the marketplace as a sort of warzone. Consumers view themselves locked, via social contract, in an epic conflict against producers. The perception is that companies will do everything in their power to ensnare, enslave, and take advantage of consumers through their business tactics (marketing, data mining, targeted advertising, attacks on privacy, etc), while consumers dutifully resist these machinations, and employ their own tactics in retaliation. In other words, there are two sides, diametrically opposite in mission; companies try to take advantage of consumers, and consumers in turn try to take advantage of companies. But it’s not that simple. Complicating the situation is that while this portrait of dueling archnemeses is going on, consumers and producers are also deeply dependent on one another. In fact, each side could not survive without the other, which means both sides have to limit their aggression and, in effect, make peace in some way.
So here we are, entrenched in a struggle that mirrors an abusive love-hate relationship. Consumers want the television programming, but they don’t want to give the enemy “ammunition” by telling them whether the ads they show are relevant or not. This is in spite of the fact that, rationally speaking, consumers really have nothing to lose (and most likely something to gain) by having more relevant ads.
Many people openly voice concern and outrage about targeted advertising. Google faced a lot of heat when their AdWords system (by far their most profitable enterprise, and the one that keeps their business afloat) was released. This system simply displayed targeted ads based on what users looked up on the Google search engine, and what words appeared in the text of the emails they were looking at in their GMail accounts. This process collected absolutely no information about users as individuals, yet the outcry was sizable.
To the naysayers, the self-described rationale is that It’s about the loss of privacy. It’s about the encroachment of commerce into every sphere of society. It’s about the desanctification and cheapening of life by turning it all into a story about consumerism. It’s about how corporations, through advertising, create of societal anxieties and pervasive feelings of inadequacy.
I do not entirely discount these fears as overblown or paranoid fantasies. These are very real and very legitimate concerns. It is not hard to see how the encroachment of commerce has, in the past, scarred the physical landscape of many formerly beautiful spaces through the addition of strip malls, chain restaurants, and giant illuminated billboards; it’s no stretch to think that the psychological landscape could be tainted in a similar fashion through invasions of privacy, the cluttering of the information environment, and the subtle integration of commerce into every activity known to man.
The perception is that companies will do everything in their power to ensnare, enslave, and take advantage of consumers through business tactics while consumers resist, and employ their own tactics in retaliation.In the past, it was easy to cordon ourselves off from marketing messages; for example, you couldn’t receive an ad if you weren’t watching TV. But as technology changes, we find companies like Foursquare ramping up, using our cell phones to determine our current locations and targeting us for couponing and other forms of marketing that capitalize on the sorts of dynamic information that TV and magazines simply cannot make use of. Our entire lives then become transformed into a marketing landscape, a sort of augmented reality in which specific information about us and our environments are mined, processed, and returned to us in the form of new layers of information and messages that follow us everywhere we go. If you subscribe to the mainstream view of the consumer marketplace that I described above, this sounds like a very disturbing, Orwellian vision of the future.
However, that’s only one side of the equation. It’s also important, though many deliberately avoid considering it, to acknowledge how consumers’ voluntary offering of information to marketers could actually benefit those same consumers. Wouldn’t it be nice, for example, if you were thinking of buying something, and you’d get a coupon for $20 off right before you bought it? This is just one example, but it’s exactly what a lot of marketers want to do: send you a customized message exactly when you might want it. On one hand, it’s got all the “big brother” overtones of constant monitoring, but on the other, it seems like legitimate value is being conveyed in this process. As a consumer, you’ve been given a special deal on something you were thinking of doing anyway, and you still have the option to ignore the message and move on with your life; no one is forcing you to do or buy anything. So what’s wrong with this?
Well, if you think back to the nature of this consumer struggle against corporations, the resistance makes more sense. Consumers have been culturally trained to believe that when producers offer discounts and deals, which on the surface appear to be helpful and valuable, it is actually a case of producers gladly forfeiting the battle in order to win a larger war. Here’s an example of how this perception plays out in real life.
All the major grocery store chains offer loyalty cards. Loyalty cards typically offer consumers discounts on various products from week to week. All you have to do is present your card and you’ll save a lot of money. It seems like a no-brainer to carry a loyalty card then. But many people simply will not use them because it violates a sense of propriety with regards to consumers’ own roles in the consumer-producer struggle. Using a loyalty card would be tantamount to handing power over to the grocery store; to use the loyalty card is tacit acceptance that one is willing to sell out the greater cause (consumer rights in the face of corporate hegemony) for some small discount. It is offering information to be data mined, and licensing a company to use the very same data to later exploit the consumer— and indeed all consumers again and again in the future.
Another part of this that can’t be overlooked is the cultural attitude we have towards the twin concepts of materialism and consumerism. These words lack a clear definition in the public consciousness, but it’s quite clear that no one wants to be viewed as representing those ideas, nor does anyone want to be viewed (even by themselves) as possibly promoting those values in any way. Talk to people about targeted ads and inevitably the concern comes up that people need to be protected from themselves. Yes, it’s true that advertising doesn’t force anyone to buy anything, but people (other people, never the person you’re talking to, mind you) are unduly influenced by advertising, and will consume recklessly. This is highly detrimental to our society and must be prevented. Better not to feed people with targeted ads that may lower their sales resistance.
Wouldn’t it be nice if you were thinking of buying something, and you’d get a coupon for $20 off right before you bought it? For these reasons, highly targeted ads are viewed as dangerous exercises that threaten to undermine the very foundations of a civil society, turning it into an uncentered, amoral sphere controlled by corporations. How well founded these fears are is anyone’s guess. However, my own opinion is that as a society, we have perennial fears about corporations and concerns about how they accumulate and wield power; the form that these fears take is constantly in flux, but at its root, the fears are always the same: the very nature of society is at stake. Historically speaking though, one thing is certain: new technology is almost always met with serious concerns about its impacts on society. Introductions of any new system in which consumer information is collected and used is always decried as taking things too far. As information becomes increasingly easy to collect, transfer, and utilize, these fears too escalate in proportion. But what also seems to happen is that these systems don’t really go away; instead, after the initial furor dies down, we eventually as a society become comfortable with them as a constant presence, and we get used to having them around. They become integrated into consumer culture, and people begin to view them as institutions and even as valuable pieces of social currency, even if they don’t necessarily come out and say it or even think about them consciously in that way.
But by then, consumers are looking at new corporate inventions and thinking about how the implications are going to destroy society.
according to Jeremy Rifkin, we’re on the verge of a massive revolution
There’s a fascinating interview with writer Jeremy Rifkin over at the New Scientist website. In it, he lays out why he thinks there is going to a be a massive shift in human consciousness as a result of new forms of information accessibility combining with the human ability for expressing empathy. This revolution, in his estimation, will solve the energy and environmental problems our world is facing. Borrowing from evolutionary biology, philosophy, marketing, and many other fields, Rifkin sees hope in the current turmoil where others don’t.
Incidentally, Rifkin’s vision of changing human behavior runs completely contrary to that of Steven Levitt (of Superfreakanomics fame), who as I stated in a previous entry is stuck in neutral with his “solve problems created by technology with more technology” rut.
autonomy and the implications of purpose through purchase
Our Endless Search
We have moved far from the sort of ‘subsistence’ mental existence that our prehistoric ancestors may have experienced. To make a simple example, as a society, we’re tending to spend less time and energy thinking about where our next meal is coming from and more time worrying about whether we’re ‘accomplishing’ things and whether we are ‘optimizing’ our life experiences. I realize that this may seem like an odd point on my part; wouldn’t anyone rather worry about something relatively frivolous like their status than the fear of starvation? After all, the benefits and penalties are at extreme odds with each other. If you’re worrying about your status and your goal is to make more money than the guy next door, the worst that will happen if you fail is that you feel bad about yourself. If you’re worrying about whether you’re going to be able to eat and you fail at your goal, the worst that could happen is that you actually die of starvation. In this context, most rationalists would probably say that if you had the choice, it’s clearly better to have your fundamentals neatly secured and spend your energy focused on the non-fundamentals— the stuff that’s higher up on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.1
However, there may be other dimensions of this choice whose repercussions perhaps aren’t so obvious, and perhaps touch on the very central tenets of life fulfillment, happiness, and transcendence. If you spend all your daily energies and time on searching for food, water, and shelter, these tasks will form the basis for meaning and fulfillment in your life; for example, note that ancient mythologies revolve around things like weather and harvests, while modern mythologies revolve around things like entertainers and populist worlds attained through consumer goods (for example, the keys to the Wild West lay in a pack of Marlboro cigarettes). If your daily energies and time are spent on building your company’s profits so you can have a nicer car or go on vacation or enjoy recreational activities, then these external fruits will form the basis of your goals and your meanings in life. The question is, which of these will ultimately prove more psychologically rewarding and meaningful in the long run?
The Supply Chain of Uncertainty
It is interesting to note that if your life is defined by the search for food and your reward is the food you find in your search, there is a relatively small chain between your actions and the consequences of your actions. The act (i.e. the search) leads directly to the outcome variable (i.e. food). This inherently implies a simplicity and control in daily life activities, and a greater attachment of meaning to fewer things. As the chain between your acts and the outcome variables becomes more convoluted and unclear, there becomes increased complexity in daily existence, and a more uncertain relationship between effort and results. What does this mean? At the very least, it almost certainly introduces a longer lag time between action and outcome, which means you have to spend more time and effort thinking about and preparing for the future. It also means that you are more likely to be reliant on others (as producers and consumers) to relay desired outcomes to you, since your actions do not directly lead to the outcomes (working in an office for 40 hours a week does not magically produce money that appears on your desk; your work goes into some action that leads to some other action and another, which eventually leads to your company getting paid by someone, and then a portion of that money is given to you). The chain is much longer, more uncertain, there are more things that could go wrong, and less of a direct causal relationship between action and outcome.
This has a lot of implications. If you are searching for food, the amount of time you spend searching will most likely be directly proportional to the amount of food you find. If you are working in an office, the amount of work you do may or may not be directly proportional to your pay; some secretaries do as much or more work than the head executive, but get paid way less. You might work 100 hours weeks to find that you are going to be promoted to a higher paying job— or, as many people are currently finding out, you may do the same only to find that your company is doing very poorly and you’re going to get laid off. You have little direct control over how your actions will manifest in an outcome; the ultimate goals of modern work situations are not typically the direct result of actions, but rather the result of multiple concurrent and mutually dependent processes.
The nature of the uncertainty is different because of the different number of linkages in the chain. The search for food has one link: the search for food leads to food. A job, on the other hand, has many links, and each link has many horizontal and vertical links associated with it, which amounts to a mess of related events of varying causation (e.g. single causation, multiple causation, conjunctural causation, mediated causation, and probabilistic causation). In other words, the relationship between the input and the output is much more complex, and depends on a lot more factors (each of which depends on a lot of other factors). This chain of events is inherently less predictable, and the actions you take have little direct relation to the goals you reach towards.
You might counter at this point that surely there’s a generally positive correlation between how hard you work and how well you are rewarded. Maybe, but note that this is not an unmediated chain of events. There are many linkages that depend on the successful occurrence of other events for the desired outcome of wealth to come to you after a lifetime of hard work. Wealthy people have a habit of saying that their hard work got them where they are, and it is perhaps true that if you looked at data regarding this, you would find some correlation between levels of effort and wealth among an already selectively chosen group (an example of the problematic survivorship bias). But looking over the entire population, it would also not be hard to find people who worked hard their whole lives and got nowhere due to, for example, always working for horrible companies, personal problems, and just bad luck. How would this exact same situation differ amongst individuals searching for food? Logically, it would be very hard to argue that with individuals starting in similar circumstances, the guy who spent less time searching for food over a longer period would end up in better circumstances. I would suggest that this is because the greater the number of linkages in the chain between action and ultimate goal, the less predictable or certain the outcome of the action; therefore, in a situation in which the action leads directly to the goal, the individual who works harder at that action is in greater control of the outcome.
Another point to consider: there are a lot of people involved in these longer chains, which means you (as an actor within the chain) have to spend much more energy considering what others think about you, because you have to engender their trust and respect to enhance the probability of your goals being met; this means you have to be more cognizant of social and power structures for your survival. Such concerns create a fertile soil for existential angst borne from the constant need for validation from others. I would also argue that it creates a disincentive to focus on securing only your fundamentals in favor of procuring such things as status and comfort since there is a greater importance placed on your position in a social structure— in network theory terms, one’s centrality. The stronger and more connections one has, the more central an individual is. The more connections you have with others who are central, the more power you have over the whole network and people in it. Network centrality means that you control resources and people; people look to you for instruction and they listen to you if you are central. Rupert Murdoch and Warren Buffet, for example, have high centrality. They can get things done because they know other powerful and central people in networks. They also have a lot of money, which also means power (money and centrality correlate heavily), even among people outside of their networks. I, on the other hand, have very low network centrality. I know no powerful people and have little control over important resources.
Reaching for Predictability
For better or for worse, people who are looking only for their next meal don’t have time (or need) to worry about such things as their network centrality. They just don’t want to die of starvation. And though they need to think about that, they don’t have an immediate need to think about how others in the network might think of them (though in the long run, they may want to consider that they may be able to leverage network connections for future security). Of course, people with near unlimited financial resources also don’t need to consider what others think of them either— unless a mass exodus of network connections could lead to that financial reservoir being unceremoniously drained. Then they do. But for the average person, we have to think about this a lot, because what others think about us dictates our network centrality. The more central we are, the easier it is for us to achieve the goals we seek, and the higher the likelihood that actions we take will actually achieve the goals we want them to— because, again, the long chain between action and outcome involves a lot of people, and if the people in this chain know that you’re trying to get something done and you’re a central figure, they’ll work harder to make it happen (because they themselves are trying to raise their network centrality, and repeatedly following the orders of someone who is more central than them is a good way of doing that). Therefore network centrality grants an individual control, because doing something and knowing it will have a certain effect is the very definition of control, and being able to command the obeisance of others is tantamount to being able to shorten the chain of events.
The entire world is built on our ability to get to this point of predictability and “no surprises” as often and as reliably as we possibly can. It is this foundation-level quality that we work constantly for and which we sell to others. Without this unyielding human desire to gain control, the world as we know it would cease turning. We earn money to gain control of our environment because we believe that having the money will buy us security. People hire us for jobs because they believe our skills can confer control onto their businesses. Pharmacies sell us medications to give us control over our health. Construction workers build roads to give us control over our transport. Television gives us control over our boredom. We pay deeply (at times in financial terms, at other times in other ways) to gain that control, and there is little that surrounds us, either physical, institutional, or conceptual, that did not arise in some way to present us in some way with the promise of control.
In my view, materialism is a by-product of the angst produced by a lack of control. Things can provide us a sense of stability. Things, we think, don’t go away or betray us. They ground us. When we feel insecure, we can cling to them and they will not abandon us. We feel secure in our homes, with our things. When we have jobs, we aren’t filled with fear about losing things we’re accustomed to, like our lifestyles. But it is not just this “negative” quality of materialism that is fueled by this apparent dark side of humanity. Altruism, too, is a response to the lack of control in the world, and an effort to counter it (see related: Just-world hypothesis).
The Marketing of Predictabilty
Marketers know well that we are on a constant hunt to quell our existential anxieties; but it is not with malice that they do this, for they, as humans, are subject to it as well (they have their own existential anxieties to quell). They know intuitively that the search for meaning, purpose, and belonging is a universal human experience. And they know well, implicitly, that our society is on a search for transcendence— not through inward searching or contemplation as perhaps the people of the distant past have (and by virtue of the non-industrial nature of their societies, were forced to), but through material goods.
Without putting a judgment on it, it is hard to deny that our world increasingly looks to consumables to act as existential salves, if not vehicles to transcendence and meaning. It is a matter of conditioning; our economic and cultural systems increasingly push us in this direction (for example, the common definition of success has little to do with personal fulfillment and everything to do with financial and/or social capital, a definition that nearly everyone has blindly embossed on their roadmap to personal success). Our cultural values tell us that the houses we buy give us our sense of security and well-being. Our cars and vacations transport us to places we think will offer us moments of joy and escape. Our televisions and media will confer us with the sorts of meaning and realities that we cannot find alone. For better or for worse, our modern search for transcendence is one littered with consumer purchase and consumer desire; part of this is because of the increased availability of consumer goods. The other side of it is that there has been a mainstream psychological shift towards it as a by-product of industrialization and economic growth. More than being a deliberate shift of societal priorities, it is the result of a rapid change in technology, expansion in marketing communications, and an across-the-board raising of the bar of what constitutes the bare necessities of existence in the modern world.
I think most people walk towards this consumer salvation without the slightest conscious awareness of their fundamental underlying purposes; for many, this constant search for new things is simply a lifestyle that they were born into and have integrated into their psyches as the result of a process of reproduction of societal values— a concept referred to by Bourdieu as habitus. For these people, the search for the latest-and-the-greatest and for personal comfort is all there is, because in a climate where this ideology is the norm, they have never been challenged to think otherwise.
As with anything, there are good aspects and bad aspects of this. On the plus side, this mentality opens us to a breadth of experiences, and a wider mindset that can facilitate a deeper array of thoughts and understandings about our world. Because of the advent of advanced economic systems, complex experiences can be bought and sold, and there’s a wide range of experiences available to modern societies that we might not otherwise have been privy to. You wouldn’t expect, for example, tribal peoples of Papua New Guinea to pack their bags, board a plane, and vacation in the Virgin Islands, nor would you expect Australian Aborigines to go out on a Sunday evening to sip on a Tom Yum Gai soup at a Thai restaurant.
The Larger Perspective of Consumer Society and Meaning
Certainly such experiences as the ones mentioned above can be and often are valuable both in the developmental sense and in the sense that it opens our eyes to new opportunities and ways of thinking. As members of advanced societies, we are privy to such benefits, and we tend to think of them as normal experiences that are not all that remarkable or out-of-reach. In fact, we expect, within reason, to be able to purchase pretty much any experience we want provided we have the money for it, and usually there’s someone willing to make the exchange with us to make it happen. Knowing this, our brains develop the not unrealistic notion that we can externally procure any experience we may want to have; thus, we may be simultaneously, and unwittingly, developing an increasing reliance on salable external phenomena to confer meaning and substance onto our lives.
The question remains, however: can there be fulfillment in this? Is fulfillment in purchase any different than fulfillment in being a hunter-gatherer? This is a question that deserves serious inquiry.
1 A model that I find flawed in certain respects, but one that is instructive for the purposes of this discussion