Monday, September 8, 2008

Desperate Commercialization

As I continue to make my way through Philip K. Dick's stories, a few of those stories presented what could be construed as a warning message against the crass commercialization that we see in our lives - made all the more interesting by the fact that they were written about 50 years ago. It appears that the pace over the last half century has not slowed down in moving us towards becoming completely inundated with advertisements for garbage.

In Sales Pitch, Ed, the weary commuter, makes his way home across the solar system while being attacked on every side by advertisements. Once his spaceship makes it home he is approached by sales robots roaming the sidewalks. Nowhere is safe, as the indefatigable fasrad robot enters their home and commences to demonstrate its abilities until such time as Ed agrees to buy him. This drives Ed over the edge, and as he tries to escape to another planet that runs at a much-slower 20th century pace, the fasrad stows aboard and continues to give his sales pitch. Ed all but destroys his ship, pushing the rockets faster than his craft could handle and opening the throttle all the way when the fasrad goes in the back to check on the rockets. As the crippled ship with Ed pinned under the debris starts its 2 day approach before a spectacular fiery descent over the rural planet he wished to visit, he relished the silence he would enjoy the last few hours of his life. The half-destroyed fasrad then makes its way towards a captive Ed to continue its sales pitch and ruin any chance of a peaceful end for Ed.

photo by Lorri Auer

In Foster, You're Dead, marketers have sold everything they could possibly sell, and change their sales tactics to sell shelters and other devices to save people's lives in case of a supposedly imminent attack. As soon as Mike's dad gives in to his constant pestering for a new shelter, the next big thing comes out and his dad has to return the shelter to the store because Christmas season sales at the family store are low due to everyone buying the new protection devices to hit the market.

These stories are a sad commentary on our society, as everything we see or do is sponsored by some company or another. All video that is shot must be scrubbed of any intellectual property references, lest anyone accidentally get free advertising or that it be construed that a passing glimpse of a logo on a t-shirt constitutes endorsement of the video production by the company whose logo was recorded. It will be interesting to watch Google over the next 10 years (they were incorporated 10 years ago yesterday) to see how their business model possibly changes. They have built their current empire on the back of targeted advertising, but perhaps as their products become more ingrained in society, they will be able to phase out advertising as their primary revenue source in favor of charging service fees to use their products. What is worse - paying for a product or receiving it free with advertising? For years, we received TV free in exchange for ads, and now we pay hundreds of dollars a month in cable and satellite subscription fees and we still have to watch the ads, unless we're willing to pay extra for a time shifting device like TiVo which lets us skip through the ads that aren't smart enough to trick it.

In Pay for the Printer, we find a society that has been decimated by nuclear war and rebuilds with the help of the Biltongs, a race of creatures that can make copies of objects brought to them. After 150 years go by, humans have been dependent on the Biltongs to print everything for them that they need and have lost all ability to build anything. The Biltongs begin to wear out and people realize that they can't build things without tools, but they can't build tools, because they don't have tools. Society has to start anew, learning to build rudimentary devices, with the few leftover pre-war devices and objects as goals to work towards.

On Michael Pollan's NYTimes blog, he posted the question Why Bother? That is, what difference will one person make in the climate change war? If I change my light bulbs, bike to work, eat locally grown food, and turn down the thermostat in my house, will I really make a difference? He places the blame for this predicament we find ourselves in on specialization. We do our job, our one little piece of the assembly line, and by focusing on our specific job, we don't think about all the costs that come into play. We blog about how we need to save the environment, while composing our eloquently loquacious posts on computers powered by coal-fired plants. We don't see those coal-fired plants, because that's someone else's job, so we forget they exist, except to the extent that we need to blog about them so we can get rid of them.

Stephen Dubner points out on the Freakonomics blog that being a locavore is inefficient, however. So specialization helps us all be more efficient but reduces our individual skills to the point that no one person can survive by him or herself. With so many of our manufacturing jobs being outsourced to China, with or without us paying attention to the fact, we are suddenly taken by surprise that lax quality control and cost cutting measures have resulted in many of the toys we give to our children being produced with large amounts of cancer-causing lead in them. Oops. Yet the Wal-Mart parking lot remains full.

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