Thursday, July 14, 2011

Meaningful inconvenience (31 Dec 2008)

Instant gratification, as we all have learned, is readily available on the internet. If I wanted to and had some ethical flexibility, I could check out PopMatters' list of top albums for the year, do a little creative searching involving the word torrent and have all the ones that piqued my interest. The same goes for games, films, books, basically anything culturally current. It is the apotheosis in the society-wide trend toward convenience. We get what we want with minimal fuss and as little human interaction as possible. The triumphs of in the midst of the worst retailing season in modern history also demonstrate how online convenience has conquered America.

But is the ensuing hegemony of online retail merely setting up a backlash? Will we rebound into a yearning for more complex and challenging shopping missions? Will we miss the so-called experience economy? Let me once more go to the bottomless well of insight that is Albert Hirschman's Shifting Involvements. In discussing how disappointment with consumerism might lead to a widespread embrace of public involvement, Hirschman points out that part of the appeal of civic life is that it makes for "a confusion between striving and attaining" that allows the process of involvement to provide as much pleasure as actually achieving the ends one strives for. The process becomes part of the pleasure, if not the better part of it, augmenting the pleasure achieved from the ostensible goal of the process. Therefore the "free-rider problem" -- in which people wait for other people to do the work of public action -- to a degree vanishes. "To elect a free ride under the circumstances would be equivalent to declining a delicious meal and to swallow a satiation-producing pill that is not even particularly effective." Free riders get none of the pleasure of effort for its own sake, which becomes more and more appealing the more commercial interests try to make our acquisitive life effortless, and the more we are stung by the disappointments of mere things. They never satisfy for long, they lose their novelty, they fail to deliver their full promise, they cease to reflect who we are, etc. Public action, as action, expresses our being in a different way, as something that's not merely curatorial. And in public action, the pleasures from the process and the goal compound rather than alternate, as they often do in the classical economists' analysis of consumption, in which we exchange hard-earned money for goods that then provide pleasure. Hirschman points out that under the ordinary conditions of exchange, "the separation of the whole process into means and ends, or costs and benefits, occurs almost spontaneously" -- separating out the pleasure of the process of striving from the pleasure of attainment. This seems to be a perfect description of the instantaneous, near friction-free gratification of online shopping.

But don't we want shopping to be more like public action, and have the process of seeking our holy-grail goods be a substantial part of the pleasure itself? Thanks to digitization, anyone can have lots of media-based stuff, which for me anyway has long been the only stuff that mattered. (I haven't grown up into the world of home furnishings yet.) So the pleasures of mere possession are threatened, as are the pleasures of use -- when you have 49 days worth of music to listen to, it becomes hard to know where to start -- it even becomes a positive source of anxiety. Acquiring the next album seems relatively simple and possibly more pleasurable by comparison.

Hirschman evokes the pilgrimage to describe a sort of private consumption that thrives on difficulty, that becomes more meaningful the more trouble they cause: "The discomforts suffered and perils confronted during the trip were part and parcel of the total 'liminal' experience sought by the pilgrim." The next wave of retail may make a more explicit attempt to incorporate this kind of arduousness into it, meaningful inconveniences that during pilgrimages can take on symbolic significance. In other words, shopping may customarily incorporate the difficulty level that hardcore collectors already make their raison d'etre -- the sort of people who fly to Japan to get a pair of limited-edition sneakers at a boutique whose very existence is a closely guarded secret. Perhaps all the stores of the future will be secret boutiques. (Ugh. I sound like a futurist all of a sudden.)

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