I’ve heard from many different places, even from good friends whose opinion i hold very highly, that there is nothing you can do against the Market™. Since we all hold that label, “designers”, the talk usually goes on with saying designers are inescapably bound to make things that stimulate the buying drive, and not only we can’t fight the market, we also are bound to reinforce it.
My problem is: I believe in something that does not fit with that picture. I don’t really have proof, but whenever I ask for proof of the contrary — that the Market™ is inevitable — all I get is: “it is so obvious that it doesn’t need proof, it is all around you to see”. So I felt like sharing this belief I have.
Here it is: I do believe that something that is not a part of me is unable to make me want something that I didn’t want before.
Not only I do believe that, I have a pretty good explanation (albeit not tested) about all the phenomena that people use as example of the infinite reach of the market.
It is pretty obvious that sometimes we get fooled by advertising. That’s not what I believe doesn’t happen. For example, when I saw McD´s new cherry-flavoured sundae, even though I have diminished a lot my sugar intake, and barely eat candy, and furthermore i was sure the thing would top all the artificiality measures, i saw the advertising and then i bought the sundae. Then again, i liked it. And though i really liked it, i have not taken another. I did satisfy my curiosity, but as i am not as happy about sugar, it stayed like that.
So, yes, the advertising changed my behaviour, but did it make me a consumerist? Did it make me feeble minded? Did it diminish my temptation-resistance? Did it alter my lifestyle in such a way to make me more dependant on bought-goods? I do not think so!
Throughout my life, i have witnessed few people being changed by things and a lot of people being changed by other people. For an example, take your prototypical “Gas-Mary” (in Brazilian slang, the girl who will always hang up with the guys who have cars). At first it seems like the perfect counter-example to my theory, but upon closer inspection i have always found that those girls where already shallow and prejudiced before they started dating and therefore before they had a relationship with the car itself. It was not the car that made her easy game for the “playboys” (the guys who show off, and again, this is Brazilian slang). Her parents, childhood friends and close acquaintances imparted upon her those feeble values. The object itself had a very small power over the girl.
Obviously, it is very difficult to know for certain what is the influence of each component of peoples’ lives, but in all the small-scale examples it seems that the power of the thing is small. The fat boy and the cake: It is not the cake that makes the boy gluttonous. The bully and the muscle showing clothes: It is not the clothes that make the boy. Or even in the other direction — the virgin and the chastity belt: Even if the belt can stop her having sex, it can’t stop her wanting it.
Now this all seems easy. A thing might not turn someone’s head, it seems, but i shouldn’t be able to argue that the environment full of tempting things leaves me as much a consumerist as i was before, no more, no less. Everybody seems to agree that a consumption-filled environment will unavoidably make consumerists of everyone living in it.
Well, i admit that might be the case, but i see it as an hypothesis, one that should be tested, not something that is obvious. The problem is: This is an extremely difficult hypothesis to test. Anything that includes “environment” in it’s description is inherently difficult to isolate, and with human beings culture always enhances complexity to a point where simple relations become difficult to find.
So, maybe the market environment makes us consumerists, maybe not. The fact that, on a naïve analysis, isolated things change our behaviour but not our values should lead us to believe that the more “natural” case should be that the environment does not make us more consumerists. Both options are conceivable, both are uncertain, neither therefore deserves our blind faith. But, if we were really forced to chose, I guess «consumerist environment does not make consumerist person» would be the default.
When I get to this point of the argument, opponents usually point out that, in the last few decades, our culture has become more and more filled with advertising and the people have become more and more materialistic. They think i cannot deny this one fact. But i definitely do deny that the only possible cause for this development is the inevitability of the market.
For the record, i do not think people are becoming only more consumerist. What i think is that contemporary culture is going through massive changes, and that one amongst many tendencies is the rise of consumerism. So, inside the complicated dynamic process that is contemporary culture, what are other possible explanations for materialism besides the simple straightforward supposedly irresistible influence of things upon people’s values?
As it turns out, there are plenty of explanations. One that I find particularly interesting is that there is an ideology of the inevitableness of the market, invented and disseminated by intellectuals that see themselves as championing a market-free culture. This ideology would diminish the power of forms of social control like shunning and public reproach to overtly materialistic behaviour, which would in turn make the ideas that created the ideology seem, in retrospect, obvious. The very analysis that points to the influence of the market as a source of social change would enhance this influence. As a side-effect, this analysis would hide it’s own errors.
So, yes, what I am saying here is that the power of the market on our world is more of self-fulfilled prophecy. I am not sure of it, but I think it is a reasonable avenue of inquiry. An idea worth checking out. Contrary to consumerism doom-sayers that put forth their ideas as obvious and simple truth. I simply cannot take those issues as simple — though i will grant that they are important and urgent!